1 Tahrcountry Musings

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Photovoltaic cells inspired by flowers

Scientists of KIT (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) and ZSW (Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg) have increased the efficiency of solar cells by replicating the structure of rose petals. They reproduced the epidermal cells of rose petals that have particularly good antireflection properties and integrated the transparent replicas into an organic solar cell. This has resulted in broad absorption spectrum and a high incidence angle tolerance. These properties are particularly pronounced in rose petals. In order to exactly replicate the structure of these epidermal cells over a larger area, the scientists transferred it to a mold made of polydimethylsiloxane, a silicon-based polymer, pressed the resulting negative structure into optical glue which was finally left to cure under UV light. The scientists then integrated the transparent replica of the rose petal epidermis into an organic solar cell.


Details appear in the latest issue of journal Advanced Optical Materials 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

More systematic use of genome-wide DNA for the detection of cryptic species needed

Scientists from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) have made a discovery that could throw out of kilter the significance of traditional criteria used for species classification.
The scientists were able to uncover an unusual case of cryptic speciation in the Streak-eared Bulbul [Pycnonotus blanfordi], a bird widespread throughout South-east Asian countries. Cryptic speciation produces closely related sister species that are very similar in appearance It is only genetic and/or bioacoustics inquiries that reveal species-level differences. Traditionally, the bird identification depended on shape and plumage color to classify bird species. Vocalizations have also been recently added.
After careful examination, two described subspecies of Streak-eared Bulbul [Pycnonotus blanfordi] resident in Myanmar [P. b. blanfordi] and Thailand/Indochina [P. b. conradi]  the scientists discovered that they exhibit deep genome-wide differentiation indicating they are two separate species. They identified a surprising genetic divergence dating back as far as the early Pleistocene. The researchers advocate more systematic use of genome-wide DNA for the detection of cryptic species.


Details appear in the latest issue of journal, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Good bacteria: The key to coral reef survival

 Dr. Tracy Ainsworth from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University who led a comprehensive research on coral reefs says good bacteria could be the key to keeping coral healthy.
DR Tracy adds "Healthy corals interact with complex communities of beneficial microbes or 'good bacteria’. It is very likely that these microorganisms play a pivotal role in the capacity of coral to recover from bouts of bleaching caused by rising temperatures."
Says co-author Dr. Ruth Gates from Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawai'"Facilitating coral survival and promoting coral recovery are growing areas of research for coral reef scientists. To do this we need to explore and understand the bacteria that help keep corals and coral reefs healthy. We know that lasting changes to the community of beneficial bacteria affects important aspects of the function of host organisms such as humans or corals, including their ability to withstand further stress. Corals rely on good bacteria but crucially we don't yet understand these microbes well enough to know how they influence coral survival."

Details have been published in the latest issue of journal Science.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Turning most commonly used synthetic plastic in to fuel

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine and the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (SIOC) in China have devised a way to turn millions of tons of plastic garbage into liquid fuel.
The researchers figured out how to break down the strong bonds of polyethylene, the most common commercially available form of plastic. Current approaches are cumbersome. They include using caustic chemicals known as radicals or heating the material to more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit to break down the chemical bonds of the polymers.
The researchers degraded plastics in a milder and more efficient manner through a process known as cross-alkane metathesis. The icing on the cake is that substances needed for the new method are byproducts of oil refining.


Details appear in the latest issue of journal Science Advances.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

First recorded extinction of a mammal in the world thought to due to human-induced climate change.

Research led by Ian Gynther from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, in partnership with the University of Queensland has come to the conclusion that human-caused climate change appears to have driven Australia’s Great Barrier Reef’s only endemic mammal species Bramble Cay Melomys (Melomys rubicola) in to oblivion.  Bramble Cay melomys is only found on Bramble Cay, a small (4-6 ha) vegetated coral cay in the far northeast of the Torres Strait. Bramble Cay is a small vegetated sand cay surrounded by a relatively small coral reef and is comparatively isolated from other reefs in the Torres Strait. Bramble Cay melomys is a nocturnal rodent that shelters mostly in burrows and under logs and debris. There is no published information of life history of this species. It had the most isolated and restricted range of any Australian mammal.
The survey team laid 150 traps on the island for six nights. They could not find a single individual. The researchers concluded the “root cause” of the extinction was sea-level rise. As a result of rising seas, the island was inundated on multiple occasions, killing the animals and also destroying their habitat. 97% of the habitat was lost in just 10 years. Vegetation cover declined from 2.2ha in 2004 to just 0.065ha in 2014. Natural causes were compounded by the impacts from anthropogenic climate change-driven sea-level rise. Around the Torres Strait, sea level appears to have risen at almost twice the global average rate between 1993 and 2014. The researchers say melomys was driven to extinction due “solely (or primarily) to anthropogenic climate change”.


Citation: Department of the Environment (2016). Melomys rubicola in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

World Wildlife Crime Report

I just read the world wildlife crime report prepared by UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), with data provided by partner organizations under the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), including the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the World Customs Organization (WCO).
One of the main messages the new report aims to convey is that wildlife and forest crime is not limited to certain countries or regions, but is a truly global phenomenon. The report represents the first global assessment of its kind. Through in-depth analysis of trade sectors, markets and representative case studies, the World Wildlife Crime Report sheds light on seven specific areas which best illustrate the scale of wildlife and forest crime: seafood; pets, zoos and breeding; food, medicine and tonics; art, décor and jewellery; cosmetics and perfume; fashion; and furniture. The report looks to provide an insight into the crime and the great lengths to which traffickers go to exploit loopholes in the international controls. By doing so, several significant gaps in this area are highlighted, including informational, legislative and operational factors which, if addressed, could dramatically reduce the negative impact trafficking is having on wildlife.
UNODC Executive Director, Yury Fedotov, says "The desperate plight of iconic species at the hands of poachers has deservedly captured the world's attention and none too soon. Animals like the tiger, feared and revered throughout human history, are now hanging on by a thread, their dwindling numbers spread across a range of states that are struggling to protect them. African elephants and rhinos are under constant pressure. But the threat of wildlife crime does not stop with these majestic animals. One of the critical messages to emerge from this research is that wildlife and forest crime is not limited to certain countries or regions. It is not a trade involving exotic goods from foreign lands being shipped to faraway markets".
This is what CITES Secretary-General, John E. Scanlon says "This comprehensive global report is rooted in the best data and case studies available, is backed by in-depth analysis, and demonstrates a heightened sense of rigor in the way in which we report on wildlife crime. Future reports will benefit from more and better data, with CITES Parties to submit annual illegal trade reports starting in 2017. Hundreds of additional species of animals and plants, including 250 tree species, are being considered for global protection under CITES at its 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties - to be held in Johannesburg later this year. The World Wildlife Crime Report shows the extensive involvement of transnational organized criminal groups in these highly destructive crimes and the pervasive impact of corruption, demonstrating that combating wildlife crime warrants even greater attention and resources at all levels. We sincerely thank the Executive Director and staff of UNODC for leading this tremendous effort, together with our other ICCWC partners, INTERPOL, the World Bank and the World Customs Organization"

Read the full report HERE

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The significant role played by grandmas in Asian elephant groups

Mirkka Lahdenperä, Khyne U. Mar and Virpi Lummaa, researchers from University of Turku in Finland have come to the conclusion that to ensure the survival of the calves and breeding success for their daughters, the grandmothers plays a significant role in Asian elephants.
Asian elephants have a lifespan of up to 80 years and live in highly social family groups containing many generations of females and their calves.   During the last few generations, the number of Asian elephants has dropped by half and only 38,500-52,500 elephants currently remain in the wild.   The research group studied the unique records maintained for a century on Asian elephants used in timber extraction in Myanmar.
Dr. Mirkka Lahdenperä, the lead author of the study has this to say We found that calves of young elephant mothers under 20 years of age had eight times lower mortality risk if the grandmother resided in the same location compared to calves whose grandmother was not present,"
Resident grandmothers also decreased their daughters' inter-birth intervals by one year. This has the effect of having more grandcalves. Grandmothers with own recent calves were as beneficial to their daughter's calves as grandmothers who had already stopped reproducing.
Professor Virpi Lummaa adds "Grandmothers may be particularly important for the reproductive success of their inexperienced adult daughters. Older daughters, on the other hand, would have already gained enough experience in calf rearing to succeed without the help of their mother," 
Calf mortality is very high in zoos, as up to 50% of the calves die during their first years. In addition, problems with reproduction are common.
Professor Lummaa suggests "Experienced grandmothers might be in a pivotal role in increasing the survival prospects of calves as well as female birth rates in zoos. Conservationists and captive population managers could potentially boost the elephant population by simply starting to keep the grandmothers with their offspring, similarly as would be the case in the wild in elephant families," 

Details appear in the latest issue of journal Scientific Reports


Friday, June 10, 2016

Stunning aerial view of the rarely seen Bryde's whale captured by drone


This magnificent view of the rarely seen Bryde's whale was captured by a team of researchers from the Auckland University of Technology. A female and her calf are seen swimming off the coast of New Zealand, feeding on krill, plankton and small fish. 
Bryde's whales are critically endangered in New Zealand and are listed as "data deficient" by the IUCN. Bryde’s whale is named after Johan Bryde, who helped construct the first South African whaling factory in the early 1900s.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The words pristine-landscape is a misnomer now

Oxford researchers say Pristine' landscapes simply do not exist anywhere in the world today. An exhaustive review of archaeological data by them from the last 30 years provides details of how the world's landscapes have been shaped by repeated human activity over many thousands of years. The researchers identify four major phases when humans shaped the world around them with broad effects on natural ecosystems: global human expansion during the Late Pleistocene; the Neolithic spread of agriculture; the era of humans colonising islands; and the emergence of early urbanised societies and trade.
The researchers draw on new datasets using ancient DNA, stable isotopes, and microfossils, as well as the application of new statistical and computational methods to arrive at their conclusions. They affirm that we need to be more pragmatic in our conservation efforts rather than aiming for impossible 'natural' states.
Lead author Dr Nicole Boivin, from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, and Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, says: 'Archaeological evidence is critical to identifying and understanding the deep history of human effects. If we want to improve our understanding of how we manage our environment and conserve species today, maybe we have to shift our perspective, by thinking more about how we safeguard clean air and fresh water for future generations and rather less about returning planet Earth to its original condition.'

Details appear in the latest issue of journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)



Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The ultimate water collection toolkit of a moss

Researchers Zhao Pan, William G. Pitt, Yuanming Zhang, Nan Wu, Ye Tao and Tadd T. Truscott from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Utah State University have discovered that moss Syntrichia caninervis has the ultimate water collection toolkit. The moss uses its leaves in ingeneous ways to collect moisture. 
The researchers show that the unique multiscale structures of the hair of moss are equipped to collect and transport water in four modes: nucleation of water droplets and films on the leaf hair from humid atmospheres; collection of fog droplets on leaf hairs; collection of splash water from raindrops; and transportation of the acquired water to the leaf itself. Fluid nucleation is accomplished in nanostructures, whereas fog droplets are gathered in areas where a high density of small barbs are present and then quickly transported to the leaf at the base of the hair. Their observations reveal nature's optimization of water collection by coupling relevant multiscale physical plant structures with multiscale sources of water.
The key to the plant's success is its small leaf hair point, or awn. These 0.5-2 mm-long hair-like structures at the tip of each leaf function like a Swiss Army knife in their ability to collect water from a variety of size scales. Whether the plant gets buckets of rain or only the occasional passing fog, the awn of S. caninervis can exploit any available water resource using four specialized tools.
Each awn is covered in nano- and micro-scale grooves where water vapor will readily condense. The grooves are just the right size and shape to condense water molecules directly from moist air and to catch microscopic fog droplets. At a larger scale, each awn also features elongated barbs that serve as collection depots where condensed or collected water forms small droplets. When large enough, the droplets move along the length of the awn toward the leaf -- sometimes at impressive speeds.
This process of water collection, droplet formation, and rapid transportation to the leaf is a critical function of the awns required to keep this moss alive. S. caninervis is unique because its leaf surfaces must be wet for photosynthesis to occur, and its root-like structures (rhizoids) do not collect water from the soil.
The researchers add "There are several exciting angles to this research. For example, there are processes in industry where we need to extract moisture from a humid environment. It might be possible to create a man-made version of the nano- and micro-scale grooves we see in the awns and use that in a manufacturing setting."
Another attraction is the plant's remarkable anti-splash properties. For several years researchers have been exploring methods to reduce splashing in multiple settings, including the common urinal. The concept is no trivial topic for the Splash Lab team. They've demonstrated that urinal splash-back is a legitimate concern when it comes to public hygiene and facility maintenance costs. The way clusters of S. caninervis harness water droplets inspired a newly designed urinal splash pad being developed by Truscott's Team.

Details of the research appears in the latest issue of journal Nature Plants

Monday, June 06, 2016

Nature apps - The potential is not fully exploited

Nature apps have the power to harness cloud computing, social networking, and crowdsourcing. I believe we have not fully leveraged the potential of Nature apps for conservation. Jepson and Ladle, the authors of the paper Nature apps: Waiting for the revolution say they have the potential to transform how humans interact with nature, cause a step change in the quantity and resolution of biodiversity data, democratize access to environmental knowledge, and reinvigorate ways of enjoying nature.  They conducted an automated search of the Google Play Store using 96 nature-related terms. This returned data on 36304 apps, of which 6301 were nature-themed. They found that few of these fully exploit the full range of capabilities inherent in the technology and/or have successfully captured the public imagination. The researchers emphasize that such breakthroughs will only be achieved by increasing the frequency and quality of collaboration between environmental scientists, information engineers, computer scientists, and interested public. My own experience with the Nilgiri tahr app that I developed, fully subscribe to the views of the researchers.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Avian scavenger crisis - The urgent need to look in to the trophic cascades, and loss of critical ecosystem functions

The avian scavenger crisis: Looming extinctions, trophic cascades, and loss of critical ecosystem functions
Evan R. Buechley and Çağan H. Şekercioğlu
Biological Conservation
Volume 198, June 2016, Pages 220–228


Vultures are the most threatened group of birds, many of the species on the precipice of extinction.  Of the 22 vulture species, nine are critically endangered, three are endangered, four are near threatened, and six are least concern. Diet specialization and taxonomy are leading extinction risk predictors. Dietary toxins are main threat for 59% of all avian scavengers, 88% of vultures. Vulture declines is  expected to cause trophic cascades and disease outbreaks. Currently, 73% of vulture species are extinction-prone (near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered and extinct) and 77% have declining populations. Against this backdrop only 13% of avian facultative scavenger species are extinction-prone and 70% have stable or increasing populations. As vultures decline, populations of many facultative scavengers are growing. This causes trophic cascades from increased predation, competition, and invasion. Vultures' highly specialized digestive systems efficiently eradicate diseases when consuming carrion, whereas facultative scavengers are more susceptible to contract and transmit diseases among themselves and to humans. The researchers urge immediate action, particularly by regulating lethal dietary toxins, to prevent the extinction of vultures and loss of respective ecosystem services.