1 Tahrcountry Musings: May 2009

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Whales - Good News from USA

Ships entering Boston harbor has been a constant threat to North Atlantic Right Whales. Risk of collisions between large ships and whales was always a looming threat. More than half of the world's North Atlantic right whales are known to be in Boston area during the spring Environmentalists have been clamouring for action for some time now. Slow moving North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whales in the world.

From June 1, ships of more than 300 gross tons will be asked to avoid an area in the Great South Channel from April to July. Ships from southern side and entering Boston Harbour will follow a different path. This is the time whales face the highest chance of being struck by ships. The channel is a key feeding area for the North Atlantic right whale. The International Maritime Organization has adopted both of these changes. The new move is expected to bring down expected reduction in ship strikes by74%. On an average 3,500 ships move through the Boston shipping lanes every year.

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is one of three right whale species belonging to the genus Eubalaena. They migrate between feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine and wintering and calving areas in Georgia and Florida. Adult right whales measure 11–17 m in length and weigh up to 63,500 kg. The body of the whale is very dark grey or black, occasionally with some white patches on the belly. Females are larger than males. Forty percent of a right whale's body weight is blubber. Females give birth to their first calf at an average age of 9-10 The total population of North Atlantic right whales is thought to be around 400 only.Gestation lasts approximately 1 year. It is believed that right whales live at least 50 years.

There are two other species of right whale, Eubalaena australis, which lives in the southern hemisphere and Eubalaena japonica, the North Pacific right whale.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reproduction cycle of the Spanish Lynx Defined from Faeces

Researcher Teresa Abáigar Ancín, of the Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas (EEZA - CSIC) arid areas experiment station has succeeded in defining reproduction cycle of the Spanish Lynx (Lynx pardinus) from its faeces. She used an analysis of the sexual hormones concentration- estrogen, progesterone and testosterone- in the feces of the animal to arrive at her conclusions.

The present assumption that reproduction season is between January and February is not based on any scientific report. It depends on scanty field data. The new research unraveled the fact that the estrogen concentration levels in the feces of female lynxes are very low when they are sexually inactive. At the beginning of the female reproduction season there is a definite increase in the concentration of estrogen. It increases up to five times. This allows scientists to accurately determine the exact moment of ovulation.

The ovaries are the organs that produce the hormones progesterone and estrogen. Testosterone is produced by the testicles. These hormones go from the reproductive organs to the bloodstream and then to the digestive system, from where they are expelled outside the body. Once the pregnancy ends, or if there is no pregnancy, the production of estrogen hormones goes back to low levels until the next reproduction cycle. Thus an accurate picture of reproduction cycle is easily generated.

The research also helped the scientists to determine the end of the puberty in Iberian Lynx. The concentration levels were very low until they reached 22 months. From that age onwards, the presence of this hormone increases enormously until it touches the hormonal cycle of an adult lynx.

The results of the research will come in handy for the field management as well as captive breeding of Lynx. The spinoff is expected to benefit other carnivores also.


Andalucía Innova (2009, May 26). Spanish Lynx Reproduction Cycle Determined By Analysis Of Their Feces. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 27,

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Birds that Use Tools

Birds fashioning tools and using them to meet specific needs may sound something straight out of fiction for children .But it is true. Researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London have found that Rooks, a member of the crow family, are capable of using and making tools. The research was carried out at the University of Cambridge by Christopher Bird, a PhD student, and his supervisor, Dr. Nathan Emery from Queen Mary University of London.

Rooks do not use tools in the wild state. But amazingly in captivity they quickly learn this trick and were a step ahead of habitual tools users such as chimpanzees. When the correct tool was placed out of reach, they went for another tool to get it.

In a fascinating experiment the rooks quickly learnd to drop a stone to smash a platform and get a piece of food. They very easily mastered the right size and shape of stone needed for the purpose without any training or prodding.
In another test, the rooks were able to use a hook tool to get food out of a tube. The birds even managed to bend a straight piece of wire to make it reach the food.

The scientists presume that that rooks' ability to use tools and fashion them for specific purposes may be a by-product of a sophisticated form of physical intelligence rather than tool use having evolved as an adaptive specialization.
The results are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Online May 25, 2009)

Plants as Building Blocks for Plastics and Fuels

In a path breaking research, chemists have successfully converted cellulose directly into a building block for plastics and fuels, called HMF (5-hydroxymethylfurfural). The new research breakthrough bypasses the sugar-forming step and goes straight from cellulose to HMF.

The research was led by chemist Z. Conrad Zhang from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. A combination of copper chloride and chromium chloride under 120 degrees Celsius broke down the cellulose without creating the usual unwanted byproducts. This is ten times faster than the use of acid for breaking down cellulose and works at much lower temperatures.

The new technology converted about 57 percent of the sugar content in the cellulose feedstock to HMF through a single process. The team recovered more than 90% of the HMF formed. The final product from the process was an amazingly 96% pure.

Metal chlorides and ionic liquid could be reused a number of times without losing their effectiveness. This mean the cost of production of HMF will come down. Fuel and plastic from plants is not science fiction any more. It is right here at our doorstep. A few tweaks are of course needed before the process goes commercial.

Need oriented research like this can help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Journal Reference:
Y. Su, H.M. Brown, X. Huang, X.-d. Zhou, J.E. Amonette, Z.C. Zhang. Single-Step Conversion of Cellulose to 5-Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), a Versatile Platform Chemical. Applied Catalysis A: General, Online 9 April 2009 DOI: 10.1016/j.apcata.2009.04.002

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Top 10 New Species Described in 2008

The International Institute for Species Exploration and an international committee of taxonomists have released the list of top 10 new species described in 2008. The international committee of experts was chaired by Janine N. Caira of the University of Connecticut.

The annual top 10 new species announcement and issuance of the SOS report (The State of Observed Species report) commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Carolus Linnaeus, who was responsible for the modern system of plant and animal names and classifications. An estimated 1.8 million species have been described since Linnaeus started his path breaking work. The estimate of species (I would like to call it guestimate) is between 2 million and 100 million species on Earth. Most scientists peg it closer to 10 million.

Here is a List of the Top Ten Species

1) A tiny seahorse (Hippocampus satomiae ) with a standard length of 13.8 millimeters and an approximate height of 11.5 millimeters
2) A genus of palm (Tahina spectablilis ) with fewer than 100 individuals found only in a small area of northwestern Madagascar.
3) A caffeine-free coffee from Cameroon (Coffea charrieriana )
4) An extremophile bacteria that was discovered in hairspray by Japanese scientists (Microbacterium hatanonis )
5) World's longest insect with a body length of 36.6 centimeters and overall length of 56.7 centimeters (Phobaeticus chain)
6) World's smallest snake, the Barbados Threadsnake ( Leptotyphlops carlae ) 104 millimeters in length.
7) The ghost slug (Selenochlamys ysbryda )
8) A snail (Opisthostoma vermiculum ) found in Malaysia
9) A beautiful species of damselfish (Chromis abyssus )
10) A fossilized specimen ( Materpiscis attenboroughi ) , the oldest known vertebrate to be viviparous.

The study reminds us just how incomplete our knowledge of Earth's species is.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Video by Kazakhstan Animal Rescue and Education Centre

Alejandro Medina from the organization Kazakhstan Animal Rescue and Education has sent me this good video on cruelty to pets made by them. Alejandro Medina says it is targeted at "irresponsible" owners of pets.This was originally made in Russian. Have a look at it here

The humble flour beetle is about to play a major role in the management of endangered species.

Huge impacts sometimes come from humble unexpected sources. What scientists have achieved with the flour beetle (Tribolium castaneum) recently is a case in point. Scientists have been working with various organisms in their pursuit to get to the roots of genetic erosion and consequent extinction. They have now and zeroed in on the flour beetle as the perfect tool to work with. Flour beetle will be the model in a major new study of University of East Anglia, seeking answers to the consequences of inbreeding.
When the gene pool is reduced it brings about inbreeding between relatives. This entails losses in genetic variability and is a causative factor for the decline of many species around the world. The project will determine how much new variability must be re-introduced to genetically rescue an inbred population. This is bound to give a huge boost to the working resources of managers of conservation and captive breeding projects. They are indeed a delighted lot.

The project will experimentally evaluate which specific reproductive traits are affected by inbreeding. The full-fledged study is slated to run a course of three year. Deleterious effects of inbreeding are a priority in conservation initiatives set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Conservationists around the world are eagerly looking forward to the data generated from this unique project. Thumbs up for the humble flour beetle.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Good News - World's Largest Leatherback Turtle Population Discovered

Here is some good news about Leatherback Turtles. A team of international Scientists have discovered the world’s largest population of nesting leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), on the beaches of Gabon in West Africa. The research was led by the University of Exeter working in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Others who chipped in include University of Florence, IUCN-France, PROTOMAC (Gabon), CNDIO-Gabon, IBONGA-ACPE (Gabon), Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (Gabon), Gabon Environnment, Aventures Sans Frontières (Gabon) and WWF-Gabon. The estimated population is between 15,730 and 41,373 female turtles.

Leatherbacks conservation gathered momentum around the world after populations in the Indo-Pacific crashed by more than 90 percent in the 1980s and 1990s. The leatherback turtle has survived for more than a hundred million years, but is now facing extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed leatherback turtles as critically endangered.

The population of leatherback turtles around the globe have been placed around 43,000 nesting females. The new discovery in Gabon may give a boost to that estimation.

The Gabon study indicated that that around 79 percent of the nesting occurs within National Parks and other protected areas which is a good sign. Gabon had created a network of National Parks in 2002 which has gone a long way in giving protection to Leatherbacks.

The details of the research are published in the May issue of Biological Conservation

Fact Sheet Leatherback
As a major jellyfish predator, the leatherback turtle provides natural control of jellyfish populations. Jellyfish can feed on fish larvae and reduce population growth of commercially important fish. Thus leatherback turtles play a very important role in nature’s scheme of things.

Leatherbacks are the most widely distributed marine turtles, and are found in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans.

The leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle, reaching up to nearly two metres and weighing around 540kg

Leatherbacks are sexually mature at about 10 years or age and may live to be 40 years old.

Leatherback is the deepest diving turtle. The deepest recorded dive is 1.2 kilometres
Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback does not have a hard shell

The incubation period of Leatherback is around 60 days. The sex of leatherbacks is determined by the temperature of eggs during incubation. Temperatures above 29 degrees centigrade will result in female hatchlings.

Instead of teeth the Leatherback turtle has points on the tomium of its upper lip.

Leatherback has backwards spines in its throat to help it swallow food.

Leatherbacks are also the fastest reptiles on record. They have been recorded to cross 35Km per hour.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Penguin Kidnaps Chick of Mortal Enemy

I was fascinated to read in the journal Polar Biology, about this kidnapping of the chick of its mortal enemy by a Penguin.

An adult penguin was observed to kidnap a skua chick on Marion Island, in the sub-Antarctic. Penguins have been observed in the past to raise chicks of other species, but it was the first time that scientists observed Penguins trying to raise the young of its natural predator. Mature skuas go after penguins, preying on their chicks. Occasionally it grabs adults also. Chris Oosthuizen and Nico de Bruyn of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, spotted the unusual behavior while en route to Goodhope Bay on Marion Island.

One Skua repeatedly went after the Penguin trying to win back the chick. But the Penguin successfully defended the attempt. This continued till a human observer stepped in and returned the chick to its real parents.

This kind of kidnapping usually occurs when a parent fails to correctly identify their offspring, owing to the loss of nests or because they can't resist the calls of chicks. But, usually, the behaviour and diet of adopting and adopted species are analogous. Scientists think that an increased level of the hormone prolactin, known as the "parenting hormone" is responsible for the behavior. The hormone usually helps maintain the bond between chicks and adults when they're away foraging.

Amazing are the ways of Mother Nature. We have only probed the tip of the iceberg

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Book Recommendation- He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia

He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia is a definitive, authorized biography of Jim Lovelock, the iconic figure in British science, best known for his Gaia theory. The book throws light on the varied aspects of the life of this multifaceted personality. The throwback to earlier years is wonderful, inspiring and gripping. I was fascinated to read about the trials and tribulations he had to undergo. In the early days for some time he supported his family by selling his own blood. As Lovelock approaches his ninetieth birthday this book is indeed a fitting tribute. I recommend the book unreservedly.

Format : Hardback
ISBN: 9781846140167
Size : 235 x 159mm
Pages : 356 £20.00
Published : 26 Feb 2009
Publisher : Allen Lane

A paperback is also in the offing
Format : Paperback
ISBN: 9780141031613
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 356
Published : 01 Oct 2009 £9.99
Publisher : Penguin

Sunday, May 10, 2009

V World Conference on Mountain Ungulates – Photography Contest on Mountain Ungulates

To mark the V World Conference on Mountain Ungulates, to be held from 10-14 November 2009 at the Palacio de Exposiciones y Congresos de Granada (Granada Exhibition and Conference Centre), as part of the activities scheduled to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the declaration of Sierra Nevada as a Natural Reserve and 10 years as a National Park a Photographic Contest on Mountain Ungulates has been organised, sponsored by Nikon. Anybody can enter the contest; registration is free and the entry form is available at the conference website

The photographs entered must reflect some aspect of biology and ecology of the different species of mountain ungulates and must be accompanied by a brief explanatory text.

There are three prizes for the best photographs.
1st prize: Nikon D60 + AF-S DX 18-55mm + AF-S DX 55-200mm + bag for the SLR + tripod. The winning photograph will be shown on the front cover of the journal of acts.
2nd prize: Nikon D40 + AF-S DX 18-55mm + binoculars + bag for the SLR + tripod.
3rd prize: Nikon D40 + AF-S DX 18-55mm + bag for the SLR + tripod.

Deadline for sending photographs is until 8 p.m. on 15 September 2009.


1.OrganiserRegional Ministry of the Environment of the Junta de Andalucía

Participation in this contest is open to any natural person. Registration is free, simply by filling in a form on this web page. Participation in the contest entails full acceptance of the rules.

3.Photographic theme: The photographs must represent some aspect of biology and ecology of the different mountain ungulate species together with a brief explanatory text (around 50 words) for each photograph.

Ethical code: To ensure more efficient preservation of nature, an ethical code must be followed that ensures and enhances photographers' relationship with nature. No irregular action that contravenes the protectionist spirit that governs all human contact with nature is permitted. Further information is available at: www.aefona.org.

4.Sending photographs: Participants must fill in the form and attached the photographs and send these to the following e-mail address (one form for each photograph): concursofoto@vworldconferenceungulates.org
Photographs that are received without including all of the details requested will not be allowed to take part in the contest.
Only digital photographs will be accepted. They must be sent in JPG format and be of a minimum pixel size of 1500 x 2000, horizontally or vertically, of a maximum size of between 500 KBytes and 6 MBytes and with a recommended resolution of 300dpi.
The photographs must be sent in colour and only basic adjustments to the photographs, such as levels, contrast, will be accepted. The photographs cannot have a border or a frame. The photographs sent must be unpublished and cannot have won prizes in other contests or have been used commercially for journalistic, advertising or any other purpose.

5.Deadline The deadline for sending photographs is until 8 p.m. on 15 September 2009.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Sunning Chameleons- What are they really up to?

The myriad ways in which nature works never ceases to amaze me. I was reading the other day, a paper by Dr Kristopher Karsten and associates from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, about the behaviour of lizards basking in the sun. The paper fascinated me with its depth of observations.

Till now it was assumed that the lizards bask in the sun to thermoregulate their body temperature. But latest research by Karsten and associates has added a new dimension to what seemingly is a lazy action by the lizards. Dr Karsten discovered that the main function of sun basking by lizards is to acquire vitamin D from sunlight.

To test the assumption that chameleons alter their sunning behavior based on dietary vitamin D intake, Dr Karsten observed the behavioral pattern of two different groups of chameleons. One was fed crickets dusted with a vitamin D powder. The other group was fed on regular crickets and thus had low vitamin D content. The chameleons were then placed in individual outdoor enclosures that offered open area for direct sun, and a tree to offer filtered sun. The animals were free to move between sunny, UV-rich areas and shaded low-UV areas. Chameleons fed on low vitamin D diet readily compensated lack of Vitamin D by increasing their exposure to the sun’s UV rays. According to Dr Kristen “The chameleons were as effective as mathematically possible by our methods at regulating toward optimal UV exposure for their vitamin D profile,”

Scientists have not been able to find out the exact mechanism that enables the lizards to sense their internal vitamin D levels. Dr Karsten thinks there may be a brain receptor sensitive to the vitamin d levels which triggers the behavior of sun basking. Getting to know the intricacies of why lizards do what they do will certainly help people who manages animals in captivity.

Details of the research appears in the May/June issue of journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology