1 Tahrcountry Musings: August 2008

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Why flies are so hard to swat? Caltech scientists unravel the mystery.

I have been at times flabbergasted by the alacrity with which the flies avoid the swat. If you have tried to swat flies you know how difficult it is to get a proper swat that delivers. You must have wondered why flies are so hard to swat. Here is the answer for that. Scientists of Caltech in US have come up with an explanation for the riddle. Using high-resolution, high-speed digital imaging of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) Professor Michael Dickinson and graduate student Gwyneth Card of Caltech (California Institute of Technology) have unravelled the secret to a fly's evasive maneuvering. Long before the fly leaps, its tiny brain calculates the location of the impending threat and comes up with an escape plan. It places its legs in an optimal position to hop out in the opposite direction. All of this takes place in less than100 milliseconds after the fly first spots the swatter. The rapidity with which the fly's brain processes sensory information into an appropriate motor response is incredible. This means that the fly must integrate visual information from its eyes with mechanosensory information from its legs at an amazing speed. Here is a piece of advice from the researchers. Dickinson says "It is best not to swat at the fly's starting position, but rather to aim a bit forward of that to anticipate where the fly is going to jump when it first sees your swatter,” The study has been published in the journal Current Biology dated August 28.

Friday, August 29, 2008

From poachers to protectors: IUCN honours young Rwandan conservationist

It has become a routine to hear news about depredation of nature from developing countries. Any news that runs counter to this trend is welcome relief. Here is a whiff of fresh air from Africa brought in by the dedicated effort of a young conservationist. Edwin Sabuhoro, 35, from Rwanda has been selected as the winner of the 2008 Young Conservationist Award, by the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas and the International Ranger Federation. The award is bestowed for outstanding achievements by young people in protected areas.
Rwanda was resigned to a bleak future for Gorillas with the poachers ruling the roost in forest areas. One of the main contributing factors for poaching was poverty. To wean away poachers from their nefarious activities Edwin developed incentives for local people by founding the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, a community-based tourism initiative. Proceeds from tourism have acted as an incentive for communities to protect gorillas and develop small-scale businesses. Living standards have showna marked improvement.The project is 100% of owned by Local people. Tourist arrivals have been shooting up as news about the community initiative in conservation is spreading abroad. Conservationists around the world are delighted with this effort from a young conservationist to protect nature. Edwin Sabuhoro will be presented with the award at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona this October. To cap the honour Edwin has been be invited to become a member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas and its Young Professionals Working Group.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Earth's magnetic fields and animal behavior

Mysteries of nature are a source of constant wonder for me. Here is something that shows that our behavior is influenced by heavenly bodies. Dr Sabine Begall, from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany using Google earth map has come to the firm conclusion that earth’s magnetic fields have profound influence on animal’s behavior. Cattle and Wild deer tend to align their bodies in a north-south direction. In Africa and South America, the cattle were shifted slightly to a more north-eastern-south-western direction. The researchers recorded the body positions of 2,974 wild deer in 277 locations across the Czech Republic and 8,510 grazing and resting cattle in 308 pasture plains across the globe before coming to firm conclusions. The details appear in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Surprise - Magpies recognise their own reflections

I have seen Magpies preening before my motorbike mirror and pecking at their images several times. I had never given it any serious thought. Today I was surprised to read in the journal Plos Biology that the latest research indicates the ability of Magpies to recognize themselves in the mirror. Till recently only humans were thought to have this ability. Then came chimps and orangutans. and a host of other mammals. The research was led by German psychologist Dr Helmut Prior, from the Goethe University in Frankfurt. The researchers placed yellow and red stickers on the birds in positions where they could only be seen in a mirror. The magpies focused on the marks and tried to reach the stickers with their beaks and claws. On a number of occasions they succeeded in scratching the stickers’ off. This put an end to their mark-orientated behavior. When no mirror was present, the birds took no notice of the coloured marks. The scientist say magpies are capable of understanding that a mirror image belongs to their own body. If you are keen to read the entire paper click here

Monday, August 18, 2008

Environmental pollutant has sex-skewing effect

I was reading this paper “A cohort study of in utero polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) exposures in relation to secondary sex ratio” in BioMed Central's open access journal Environmental Health, and it disturbed me. The article clearly depicts that women exposed to high levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls – a group of banned environmental pollutants) are less likely to have male children. PCBs are persistent organic pollutants identified worldwide as human blood and breast milk contaminants. Irva Hertz-Picciotto, the lead author of the study says "The women most exposed to PCBs were 33% less likely to give birth to male children than the women least exposed". Even though PCBs were banned in the 1970s it is believed that they find their way in developing and underdeveloped countries. Chemicals with a similar structure to PCBs, such as the flame-retardants PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), are still widely used in plastic casings and foam products.People consuming fish from contaminated lakes and those who live near former manufacturing facilities face high risk. The risk is not restricted to human beings alone. Wildlife also face a threat of equal magnitude.
Environmental Health 2008, 7:37 (15 July 2008)
If you want to read the full article click here

Sunday, August 17, 2008

BlogCamp Kerala a runaway success

The first ever blog camp held in Kerala on 16th in a house boat cruising along the placid backwaters of Alappuzha, was a smashing success. The attendees got a chance to get to know the fellow bloggers from across the country. The presence of Guillaume Marceau from Quebec, Canada gave the proceedings an international flavor. The lively discussion centered on the future of blogging with the experts chipping in with their dose of distilled wisdom. For the budding bloggers it was a dream come true. The typical Kerala style non vegetarian lunch tickled the palate. The breathtaking scenery added that extra punch to the lunch. Full marks to the organizers of the conference. I eagerly look forward to the second edition of the meet next year.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Red Alert – African elephants facing uncertain future

According to a new paper by Dr Samuel Wasser and associates, which has appeared in August Issue of Conservation Biology the elephants in Africa are being slaughtered at an unprecedented rate. If things go at this rate Elephants in wild state in Africa will be wiped out by 2020. What a shame!!
The death rate from poaching throughout Africa is about 8 percent a year. This is higher than the 7.4 percent annual death rate that led to the international ivory trade ban nearly 20 years ago. The poaching death rate in the late 1980s was based on a population that numbered more than 1 million. Today’s population is less than 470,000. The ban is not in force today.
Dr Wasser says "The elephants keep habitats open so other species that depend on such ecosystems can use them. Without elephants, there will be major habitat changes, with negative effects on the many species"
The major threat comes from growing markets in China and Japan, where ivory is in demand for carvings and signature stamps called hankos. Surprisingly Unites States is fast emerging as a major consumer of ivory where it is used to make knife handles and gun grips.
According to Dr Wasser public support stopped the illegal ivory trade back in 1989 and we need to do it again to save the species. Guys wake up and do your mite to save the African elephants. Use your blog posts to pressurize US, China and Japan to stop this senseless massacre of the elephants.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

US decision on wildlife draws flak from conservationists

Environmentalists world wide hold the view that the Bush administration is not a green administration. Moves like going for oil in Alaska threatening the wildlife of the area have been very severely opposed by conservationists. The administration is now planning a back door method to by pass some of the imbroglios that have been created. Till now all decisions had to be endorsed by independent scientists. The administration has decided to give this practice a short shrift. The environmentalists have condemned the move by Bush administration to do away with the practice of consulting independent scientists before decisions are taken about projects such as highways, dams or mines that might harm endangered animals and plants. Federal agencies have been given full powers to decide for themselves. The administration is not required to consult with Congress before approving the changes. Environmentalists apprehend that political appointees will do irreparable damage to the ecosystem if this practice is not nipped in the bud itself.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

USA – California Condor reintroduction programme running in to rough weather

The reintroduction of California Condors is one of the most ambitious reintroduction programme attempted in USA. The project is running in to rough weather after initial success. The culprit behind the decline is lead. The birds ingest the lead while feeding on wild pigs and other animals killed by hunters. According to scientists commissioned by American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), removing the poisonous metal from bullets and shotgun pellets is the only way to save the highly endangered California Condor.
Condors are the largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere. Condors belong to the family Cathartidae, and are closely related to Eagles. There are two monotypic c genuses. The Andeann Condor (Vultur gryphus) and California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). The California Condor inhabits only the Grand Canyon area and western coastal mountains of California and northern Baja California. The California Condor is one of the world's rarest bird species. They usually live up to 50 years, and mate for life. California Condors finds a place in many Native American cultures. The condor is a scavenger and eats large amounts of carrion. Condor numbers started declining in the 19th century due to poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat destruction. When the population came down to 22 birds conservation plan was put in place by the United States government that led to the capture of all the remaining wild condors in 1987. These 22 birds were bred at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. The numbers rose through captive breeding and from 1991 condors, have been reintroduced into the wild. The project is the most expensive species conservation project ever undertaken in the United States. As on May 2008, there were 332 condors known to be living, including 152 in the wild.
The scientific community is working overtime to overcome the setback and put the project on an even keel
For more information on California Condor click here

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The power of blogging in Conservation – An African Ranger shows the way

Masai Mara is one Kenya’s best known wildlife reserves. People used to throng the park to have a glimpse of its magnificent wildlife. But continuing violence after the election changed all that. Tourists stopped coming to Masai Mara. Mara Conservancy a not-for-profit organization which manages the North-Western part of the Masai Mara Game Reserve, on behalf of the Trans-Mara County Council was in dire straights. Conservation of the Mara Triangle was completely dependent upon tourism revenue. There was no money to pay the salaries of the protection staff and poaching was taking a heavy toll of the animals. It was at this juncture that Mr Joseph Kimojino, a Ranger in the park hit up on the ides of starting a blog and let the whole world know about what is happening. Till last November he had never used a computer. A determined Kimojino was not willing to be deterred. He learned the ropes of using a computer and grappled with nuances of internet. He started his blog in January with the help of Wildlifedirect, a British-registered charity set up by Richard Leakey, Kenya's leading paleontologist and the former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. ( http://maratriangle.wildlifedirect.org). It struck an immediate chord of empathy. Surfers who saw the frenetic appeal from Kimojino started chipping in with help. He is receiving 100s of hits a day.
Harnessing the soaring popularity of blogging and social networking sites is indeed a great way to spread the message of conservation. Oxford university researchers Alison Ashlin and Richard Ladle in an article in science magazine says “blogs provide a communication platform of incredible power and they should be used to engage the public, even to the extent of including blogging as part of a researcher's job specification."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Good news about Western lowland Gorillas

A census of critically endangered western lowland gorillas by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has come up with good news for conservationists. The census found 125,000 of the apes in two adjacent areas in the northern part of the Republic of Congo covering 47,000 sq km. A total of 73,000 came from the Ntokou-Pikounda region and another 52,000 from the Ndoki-Likouala area. Even though 1980s census had estimated a population of about 100,000 hunting and the ebola virus was thought to have slashed the population by half. So this is indeed good news. Gorillas build nests each night from leaves and branches for sleeping. Western lowland gorillas are one of four recognized gorilla sub-species. The others are mountain gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas, and Cross River gorillas. For more information about western lowland gorillas click here

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Orangutans facing uncertain future

The adorable Orangutans (Pongo spp.) are facing an uncertain future. According to new findings published this month by Great Ape Trust of Iowa scientist Dr. Serge Wich and associates in Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation, Orangutan populations have fallen sharply on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The revised estimates put the number of Sumatran orangutans (P. abelii) around 6,600 in 2004. This is lower than previous estimates of 7,501. "It is clear that the Sumatran orangutan is in rapid decline and unless extraordinary efforts are made soon, it could become the first great ape species to go extinct," Wich et al. wrote. The authors blamed logging and the expansion of oil palm plantations for the drop. The 2004 estimate of about 54,000 Bornean orangutans (P. pygmaeus) is probably also higher than the actual number today as there has been a 10 percent orangutan habitat loss in the Indonesian part of Borneo during that period. 75 percent of all orangutans live outside of national parks, which have been severely degraded by illegal logging, mining, and encroachment by palm oil plantations. So the the future conservation efforts will need to be focused beyond the boundaries of protected areas. The authors have made some sweeping recommendations for future conservation initiatives.

Wich et al. (2008). Distribution and conservation status of the orangutan (Pongo spp.) on Borneo and Sumatra: How many remain?. Oryx
Click here for more details about orangutans from Wikipedia

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Bloggers camp Kerala

The first bloggers camp on a houseboat will be held on 16th August at Alappuzha in Kerala. The brain behind the meet is Kenny Jacob, a software engineer from Trivandrum. Tourism department of Kerala will be the main sponsor of the meet For details click here

Extinction threat for mankind’s closest relatives

50 percent of man’s close relatives (monkeys, apes and other primates) are in danger of extinction according to a report of IUCN issued at the 22nd International Primatological Society Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland. The comprehensive list covers world’s 634 kinds of primates. The report is part of an examination of the state of the world’s mammals to be released at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona in October. In Asia, more than 70 percent of primates are classified on the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. Habitat destruction is the major threat to primates. Other threats include the hunting of primates for food and an illegal wildlife trade.
For a list of the assessments of all primate species and subspecies as they will appear on the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (www.iucnredlist.org) in October, please visit the website of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group (www.primate-sg.org)

Sunday, August 03, 2008

5th World Congress on Mounatin Ungulates - 1st announcement full text

The Caprinae are a Subfamily that mainly consist of wild sheep and goats. This group of mammals has a very high economical and biological value. From a zoological point of view they achieve their adaptive peak in mountainous environments and are part of the diverse MAMMAL FAUNA in various ecosystems. From an economical point of view they are considered very appealing in sport hunting, as a resource for medicine and safari wildlife photography.
Mostly found in mountainous areas, they are also present in steppes. Their natural geographic distribution covers the 3 continents of the Northern Hemisphere as well as some tropical forests, deserts, Alpine and Artic tundra of over 70 countries.
Over 71% of the members of this group which are found in the previously mentioned regions are exposed to a variety of risks (loss of habitat, diseases from domestic livestock, genetic isolation and tourism). Considering their whole population, 8% are listed as being critically endangered, 23% as endangered, 40% vulnerable, 28% are of less concern while there is not enough data concerning the remaining 1%.
The main reason for such a wide distribution of the previously mentioned figures lies within the general lack of information there is concerning the members of this group. In order to gather all the available information there is about these species, several international conferences have been organised. The first one was held in Camerino (Italy) in 1989 and it is where the groundwork was set, by the UICN, for developing a World Capreine Action Plan. The second conference was held in 1997, in San Vicente d'Aosta (Italy), and it is when all the information concerning this mammal group was put together. The third and fourth conferences, 2002 in Zaragoza (Spain) and 2006 in Munar (India), both focused on relevant aspects concerning the biology and ecology of these species as well as conservation and management proposals.
The fifth World Conference of Mountain Ungulates will be held in Andalusia during autumn 2009. Andalusia is a Spanish region which accounts for more than 50% of the wild goat species in the world. The Andalusian Government had banked on its conservation and organised the first and second European International Capra Genus Congress in 1992 and 2007 and has implemented ambitious management programmes for the Andalusian Wild Goat populations.
We believe it is a great opportunity in confronting the impact global change has on the Mountain Ungulate population and on ecosystems which are highly sensitive to climate change conditions, all of which are responsibility of man.
The commitment between the Andalusian Environmental Administration and the UICN has been very positive, supporting the organisation of this Fifth World meeting. This Congress aims to encourage participants to share and put in common scientific and technical advances which have been achieved in the conservation and management of Mountain Ungulates. It will allow for an update on all the information concerning taxonomic, demographic and health management programmes and methods (capture, tracking, etc.)
This event will take place in Granada, a cosmopolitan city with a fascinating cultural and artistic heritage. It is a landmark famous for it's Arab, Jewish and Christian legacy.
In order to contribute to the existing knowledge on Mountain Ungulates, Granada will share it's historical legacy contextualising it within the Mountains of Sierra Nevada. Sierra Nevada was declared Natural Park 20 years ago and has also been a National Park for the past 10 years.
This Congress will account for five working sessions, four of which will take place at the "Palacio de Congresos de Granada" and a fifth which will be carried out in Sierra Nevada.
The programme will mainly consist in oral presentations, posters and workshops. Some key topics and subjects to be dealt are: Abundant Estimation Methods, Capture and Tracking Methods, Healthcare situation, Genetics, Reproduction, Phisiology, Conservation.
Working sessions:
•Population management: population estimation, capture methods, tracking, etc.
•Healthcare status: parasites, contagious diseases, epidemiology, treatments, etc.
•Conservation, management and hunting promotion: management experiences, etc.
•Biology and Ecology: Taxonomy, reproduction, physiology, genetics, etc.
•Global change and Caprine Populations
•Density estimations
•Caprines and the CIC
•New Diseases emerging from changes on a global scale
•Caprine Management Strategy in Protected Areas

Provisional Timetable

First week of July'08 1st Circular and website publication: information on conference objective, call for symposium proposal, information about price, date, place, etc.
First week of November ‘08 2nd Circular: Draft program, opening period to registration, communications, symposium proposal, workshop or communications and posters. Rest of the information.
30/03/09 Ending of symposium and workshop proposals
30/06/09 Communication and posters presentations and Registration for the Scientific Committee’s analysis
30/08/09 Ending of communications and posters approval deadline.
11/09/09 Program's ultimate publication
10 -14 November 2009 V World Conference of Mountain Ungulates