Happy birthday to me. It was my twenty-third birthday this week, and apart from taking one more inexorable step towards the inevitable abyss, I received an astonishing cake from my mum.
Not astonishing in the true sense of the word. I wasn’t turned to stone or anything. But I was in shock and awe of her cake making abilities.
Obviously not in the military sense. I wasn’t as shocked or as much in awe as I would have been if I’d been present at the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for instance, but suffice to say I was surprised.
Not least because she had pretended she hadn’t had time to make me a cake. The gravity of which cannot be appreciated until I’ve explained that every year of my life thus far, she’s prided herself on her cake making abilities. My friends even write their cake requests on her calendar months in advance of their birthdays to avoid disappointment. So when, after the crushing heartbreak of the misinformation that she’d neglected to make me a cake, she pulled out an iced bunny, I was happier than when the French peasants heard Marie Antoinette’s cries of “let them eat cake”.
Except of course that line is apocryphally misattributed to Antoinette.
Regardless, mum made me a bunny-shaped cake, and it made my birthday.
So now, in the style of this post, i.e. hyperbole followed by unnecessary follow up statement for clarification, I’ve over-egged the pudding. As in, I’ve built the cake up alot, but now can’t follow through, as it were. The picture I’ve got of the cake is too big for the blog. It won’t let me upload it.
If you’d like to see it, you’ll have to follow this link. Trust me its worth it.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would look like if an anal completist and a delusional superstar joined forces to copy some famous (and some not so famous) images, then “Chumpy and Josh Copying Things” is the website for you.
I realise that the target audience for such a website is no-one. But then as the word ‘utopia’ has the twin meaning of ‘no place’ and ‘every place’, perhaps in fact “Chumpy and Josh Copying Things” appeals to both no-one and everyone?
Then again, perhaps not.
Regardless, you should still look at the website here, to see us copy: ET, Simon and Garfunkel, Busted and Outkast.
Were the extinct “hobbits” of Indonesia a separate species of human, or merely modern humans with a form of cretinism?
Short in stature but not controversy, the so-called “hobbits” of the Indonesian island of Flores have caused frenzied debate since their discovery in 1993. In total, the remains of nine individuals have been unearthed, all notable for having small bodies and small brains. An adult hobbit would have stood at around four foot – the height of an average seven year-old human child, or seven pint glasses stacked atop one another, or about nine stacked hedgehogs. The hobbit’s unique features resulted in it being ascribed to a new species of human: Homo floresiensis, making them our evolutionary cousins. Much like the neanderthals, the hobbits share a common ancestor with modern humans, however at some point in history became isolated, and took a different evolutionary path to that of our own.
A reconstruction of Homo floresiensis. They could have at least given it a smile. Source: Wikipedia.
Or so some believe. However an alternative school of thought is of the opinion that hobbits are in fact not distinct from us, and are instead just a few individuals afflicted with a form of endemic cretinism, from a population of humans that were probably mostly unaffected by the condition. It is perhaps surprising just how recently the hobbits inhabited Flores, and as such, for how much time they shared the earth with modern humans. It is thought extinction occurred as recently as 12,000 years ago, making them the longest living non-modern human species, outliving the neanderthals, and potentially overlapping with modern humans for nearly 200,000 years.
Research published in the Journal of Human Evolution recently, goes some way towards putting the debate to rest however. Hobbit fossils were compared with modern humans with iodine deficiency disorders (cretinism), with the finding that many features characteristic of cretinism were not present in hobbits. There was no indication that the hobbits had stunted growth or development in their teeth, jaw or skull. Also contrary to previous pronouncements, it was found that the hobbit’s bodily proportions and build were in fact distinct from that of modern humans.
The inspiration for Homo floresiensis' nickname. Source: lotrlovers.blogspot.co.uk
As for the overlap with modern humans, hobbits may have lived at the same time as our species but there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that humans lived on the island at the same time as these particular hobbit individuals. Claiming that they were members of a modern human population is therefore, as far as we know, as fictitious as me claiming that these hobbits enjoyed smoking pipe-weed, eating six meals a day, and had a particular penchant for gold rings and unexpected adventures.
The history of science is rife with polemics such as the hobbit debate. The alluring fantastical image of a dwarf species of human, inhabiting a remote island separate from the rest of humanity, means that it is likely that the embers of this particular clash will be stoked by public interest. It won’t be long before a rebuttal comes from the opposing academics, but for now it would seem the hobbit has survived an attack on its species status – whether Homo floresiensis will survive semantically as a species more successfully than it did evolutionarily, remains to be seen.
Last year saw an encouraging decline in the number of illegally poisoned birds of prey recorded in Scotland, but the resident stunted red kite population isn’t necessarily out of the woods just yet.
Red kites have become a conservation success story in some parts of the UK.
Red kites were a ubiquitous feature of the medieval British countryside, however ye olde red kites were driven to near extinction at the hands of humans. For most of the last two centuries red kites eked out an existence as a vanishingly small population in Wales. Their fate has since improved due to an initiative launched in 1989 to re-establish the red kite across the UK, and after reintroduction efforts in southern England and northern Scotland, the project has been largely heralded as a conservation success story.
Illegal poisoning is stunting the growth rate of Scottish red kites. Source: RSPB
There is however some disparity in success between the English and Scottish reintroduction sites in terms of population growth rates. The red kite population originating from the Chilterns boomed and has since dispersed across much of the south of England, whereas the population of kites released at Ross in northern Scotland, has soared to less dizzying heights.
Researchers from the RSPB announced in 2010 that illegal killing is the proverbial mud in which the Scottish red kites are stuck. Accidental or intentional poisoning is to blame for the reduced population growth rates in Scotland compared with their English counterparts. It would seem persecutory attitudes towards the red kite are far from extinguished.
A recent report from the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime in Scotland (PAW) however does provide some respite for persecuted raptors, as the figures for 2011 show a marked decline in the recorded number of poisoned birds of prey. This comes as welcome news after 2010 saw a peak in poisoning incidences.
Don’t rush out and high-five your local red kite just yet, as whilst poisoning cases were down, levels of nest destruction, shooting and illegal trapping have remained unchanged. Also the emphasis here is on ‘recorded’ numbers of poisoning, there is no way of knowing if these figures truly reflect the situation de facto.
Optimistically the report could signal the beginning of a downward trend in red kite persecution in Scotland, and with upcoming new laws making landowners liable for persecution by their gamekeepers, this downward trend is conceivable. Encouraging statistics and tighter laws are all very well, however they may represent a poisoned chalice, as it’s likely that the underlying tensions and negative attitudes towards red kites felt by some will persist. Unless addressed, this problem could continue to poison Scottish red kites for years to come.
The contagious devil facial tumour disease threatens the Tasmanian devil with extinction, but salvation may have arrived now that the disease’s genome has been sequenced.
As its name suggests, devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) causes grotesque bulbous facial growths, usually leading to death within three to five months of contraction. It is thought that the tumours jump between individuals during confrontations over food or during mating. Both are often highly charged and involve biting, giving the tumours a point of entry to other individuals and a mode of dispersal throughout the population.
The disease is a recent phenomenon sparked by spontaneous genetic mutation, enabling the tumours unusually to survive beyond the lifetime of the original sufferer. New research has revealed the progenitor to be female, and although her clonal tumour has diverged genetically, she has effectively become immortal, however at the potential cost of the whole species. So severe is the impact of DFTD on the Tasmanian devil population, it has had an almost genocidal effect on numbers. Since 1996 it is estimated that the population has decreased by as much 90% in some areas.
It is hoped the newly sequenced transmissible cancer genome will hint at a way of stemming the tide of tumours and save the Tasmanian devil from extinction, possibly through the identification of potential genetic targets for intervention and the development of a vaccine.
The facial tumours eventually prevent the Tasmanian devils from eating. Source: Wikipedia
At least five mass extinctions have occurred in the Earth’s history and it has been suggested that we are currently in a sixth, human-induced extinction event. It is therefore bittersweet but by no means savoury that a species should be threatened, and indeed has been reclassified on the IUCN’s Red list to ‘endangered’, not because of any human influence but by spontaneous natural causes.
Cynics with a devil may care attitude could argue that we should focus conservation attention on species threatened by our own hand and let ‘nature take its course’ with the rest. The Tasmanian devil has very little chance of adapting to such a quick spreading threat – evolution cannot operate within such a short timeframe. Extinction is likely to occur in the next thirty years without our intervention, and if we possess the potential power to develop a vaccine as a result of the sequenced genome, should we not take our conservation opportunities where we can? To do nothing now would be akin to arriving first on the scene at a road traffic accident, and continuing along our way.
Unnecessary self-righteous rant aside, the transmissible quality of the tumours makes DFTD one of two known naturally occurring contagious cancers, the other being the sexually transmitted canine transmissible venereal tumour (CTVT) afflicting dogs. However whereas dogs can combat the disease with their immune system, the Tasmanian devil has a lower genetic diversity reducing its ability to produce the immune response required to overcome the disease.
A healthy Tasmanian devil. Source: seerpress.com
Perhaps unnervingly, researchers at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge where the genome was sequenced, found that a “high level of genomic instability has not been required for the cancer to become transmissible.” In other words it did not take a great deal of genetic rewiring for the cancer to become contagious. At the risk of scare-mongering, there is no reason why similar changes couldn’t occur in human cancers, or any other species for that matter. This coupled with the fact that humans, like Tasmanian devils, have relatively low genetic diversity, and so may also be unable to produce the required immune response to combat the cancer, is particularly troubling. As of yet, no known naturally occurring contagious human cancer exists, but there have been rare reports of accidental cancer transmission between humans through certain surgical procedures, so it is by no means impossible.
The emphasis here though is on the word ‘rare’, and a benefit of sequencing the DFTD genome in addition to conservation purposes, is the light that will be shed on the biology of cancer transmission between individuals.
The Tasmanian devil is the world’s largest marsupial carnivore and is only found in the wild within Tasmania. Apart from the obvious conservation arguments advocating an urgent need to save this important species, it would be depressing to think that the animal on which a favourite childhood cartoon character for many, is based, has gone extinct in our lifetime. At least now we know why Taz was always so inarticulate and indignant.
Russian scientists have successfully reached Lake Vostok, an Antarctic body of water that has remained hidden beneath 2.3 miles of ice for around 15 million years, ahead of American and British teams each attempting to reach lakes of their own.
We tend to think of our planet as being relatively well explored, with the obvious exception of the ocean floors, however there are still places yet to be tarnished by humans – Vostok is one such location. Excitement surrounding what the under-ice lake might contain is reminiscent of a bygone era of scientific endeavour. One that was characterised more by a spirit of adventure, than the contemporary ever-increasing need for research to be justified by its potential practical applications for mankind, almost invariably with an economic incentive.
Lake Vostok drilling base camp. Source: www.guardian.co.uk
It is very likely that any life found in the clandestine lake will have been isolated from the rest of existence for many millions of years, and could provide a revealing glimpse at the evolution of life on earth. There is the possibility that Antarctica’s many subglacial lakes are in fact connected, but as long as gene flow, i.e. interbreeding, has been prevented with the outside world, the organisms that are found could seem very alien to us indeed.
This is all providing life is actually present in the lake, and it is worth stating that in all likelihood, in contrast to our visions of macroscopic prehistoric aquatic beasts, the life that is found will probably be of a very simple, microscopic nature. Nevertheless their presence or absence will add to our knowledge of the limits of life on earth and further elucidate the biology of so-called ‘extremophiles’, organisms that are adapted to physically or geochemically extreme environments.
The location of Lake Vostok within Antarctica. Source: Wikipedia.
Whilst it is true that the Russians ‘beat’ both American and British teams to the watery prize, the titular reference to 1960s nuclear tension is unashamed tenuous sensationalism. That said, rivalries and healthy competition can famously spur on scientific progress, the discovery of the structure of DNA being a prime example. Despite losing the dubious ‘race’ to reach a subglacial lake, the Americans at Lake Whillans and the British at Lake Ellsworth, are using more advanced hot water ‘drills’ compared with the adapted ice-core equipment used by Russian scientists.
Unfortunately work for all teams is entering an imminent hiatus due to the harsh Antarctic winter and will not be commenced again until summer (Christmas 2012). Samples will then finally be taken from Lake Vostok and the scientific rewards reaped. Until then all we can do is anticipate the outcome of what could easily be something from a Jules Vern novel, or better yet, The Thing. It can be used as an excuse to get the public excited about science as, pending manned missions to Mars, this expedition could be the closest thing our generation has to a moon landing.
Late last year, the environment secretary Caroline Spellman announced that badger culling would go ahead in 2012 in an effort to combat bovine tuberculosis (TB). Now that the locations of pilot culls have been named, the scheme is suddenly becoming a reality, but is the cull justified and will it be effective?
Badgers are one of Britain’s most enigmatic mammals due to their nocturnal nature, and are usually only seen either wombling across a road late at night or more likely, as road-kill. Traffic will be the least of the worries of badgers in parts of Gloucestershire and Somerset however, as these are the areas in which pilot culls will be implemented. Culling badgers is not a new phenomenon, with extermination efforts taking place on and off throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, and although the emphasis here is on ‘pilot’, there is the potential for more widespread action across the rest of the UK.
The cull is objectionable for two key reasons. On a deontological level, the cull represents humanity’s tendency for species-chauvinism. Environmental, and admittedly conservation, issues are often driven by the logic that humans are more important than, and have the authority to remove other species should they pose a threat. Which would be valid and defensible if the species in question was threatening human lives, for instance I’m sure less people would be opposed to eradicating the species of mosquito that carries malaria. The threat badgers pose however, is only to our cows, a non-essential element of human life, despite what some might claim, and so the organised killing of them for our benefit is unjustified.
The badger - one of Britain’s most enigmatic mammals. Source: bbc.com
Unfortunately in itself, this moral argument does not stand, as by the same reasoning I should be advocating vegetarianism – which I am not. A more convincing argument comes in the form of the scientific justification for the cull, or lack thereof, in that there is evidence that a cull may actually increase the spread of bovine TB rather than stem it. Amongst others this view is supported by Rosie Woodroffe, a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London, and her research. It was found that although a cull may marginally reduce the incidence of cattle TB in the focal area, badgers are likely to disperse as result of the disruption, and the areas in the vicinity could suffer an increased incidence of TB as a result.
Despite these anti-cull arguments, it is presumably still favoured by the Government because of the potential short term reduction in bovine tuberculosis a cull could bring. It is easy to see the appeal when it is estimated that roughly one billion pounds of the taxpayer’s money could be spent over the next ten years tackling the problem.
This would hold if it wasn’t for the method of cull chosen. To decrease the incidence of TB in cattle by a notable amount, an efficient method such as gassing must be used. Not, as the government has seen fit, the ‘farmers and their guns’ technique. Whilst this may serve to appease angry farmers with a grudge against badgers, I doubt the random shooting of badgers will actually have a significant impact on a population.
A preferred alternative to culling is vaccination, a method which has had some success in captive badgers. Studies are currently underway into its applicability in wild populations. This however is of no consolation to the badgers who will be culled in the coming year or the animal groups that are opposed to the cull. The only saving grace is that with any luck badgers will avoid being shot by exploiting a trait of theirs that the powers that be seem to have overlooked. Surely shooting nocturnal badgers in the dark is hardly going to yield fantastic results. The deaths of any that are unlucky enough to meet a gun-slinging farmer in the coming nights can be put down to little more than myopic mustelid murder.
A recent flurry of articles expounding the effects of the current mild winter on the natural world serves to remind us of the consequences of climate change, but do these examples contain any scientific meaning, or are they merely interesting, if foreboding, anecdotal tidbits?
Spring flowers such as hazel catkins, snowdrops, and daffodils, traditionally expected in late January or early February, have been seen across the UK from as early as Christmas Day. Hedgehogs and other hibernating mammals such as bats have been active in defiance of their normal winter tactics, whilst red admiral butterflies have been taking advantage of the almost balmy climate. Even the birds and the bees are following suit by living up to their eponymous phrase earlier than in previous years, with robins singing, wood pigeons rearing young, and buff-tailed bumblebees managing to emerge uncharacteristically early.
Hedgehogs have been active recently in defiance of their normal winter tactics. Source: http://www.doeni.gov.uk
Keeping records of such phenological events is entrenched in British tradition. Records of the first cuckoo of spring or the first leafing dates of trees have been kept for hundreds of years. Data such as this can prove useful in providing evidence for the effects of anthropogenic climate change on individual species or groups. For instance it has been shown that since 1939 UK birds such as the wren, have been steadily breeding earlier. Countless examples of phenological advances such as this can be found across a diverse range of organisms, but can they advance our understanding of the deeper biological implications of climate change on ecosystems?
When taken in isolation, the answer is not really. A 2005 paper by Dutch scientists Visser and Both acknowledged the fact that on its own, evidence of phenological advances could illustrate contrasting climate change impacts. Positive if the advances were evidence of adaptation to climate change, or negative if that species was becoming increasingly out of synchronisation with its environment. The latter cannot be known unless data also exists for other important species with which it interacts, for instance we cannot know if an advance in flowering date is beneficial or detrimental to a given plant unless we know whether or not its insect pollinator has also advanced. The point is a ‘yardstick’ by which to judge the potential impact of a phenological shift on a species is needed.
Whilst this may seem obvious, more cryptically it has also been shown that the use of these ‘firsts’ is fundamentally a poor indicator on which to judge the effects of climate change on a species. Granted, the ‘first’ cuckoo of spring has been getting earlier and earlier, but this data alone tells us nothing about what the rest of the population is doing. It would be much more informative, according to Jean-Pierre Moussus and colleagues, to use the mean date of a phenological event to analyse and predict the effects of climate change on a population.
Unfortunately phenological data for many individuals in a population is a rare luxury, let alone equivalent data for the species with which they interact. Many researchers however, unlike some species to climate change, are adapting to this way of thinking and are designing experimental systems accordingly, with the aim of painting a more complete picture of the impacts of climate change.