1 Tahrcountry Musings: June 2010

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New Study - Asian Elephants Living in a Combination of Fragmented Forests and agricultural Landscapes

I just read a paper titled “Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) habitat use and ranging in fragmented rainforest and plantations in the Anamalai Hills, India, authored by Kumar, M. A., Mudappa, D. and Raman in Tropical Conservation Science.
The study says Asian elephants living in a mix of fragmented forests and agricultural landscapes still depend heavily on natural landscapes—rivers and forests—for survival. Forest fragments and riparian vegetation play important roles in the ecology of elephants.  Conserving these patches and protecting them from further degradation is crucial for conservation of elephants as they are highly dependent on natural vegetation despite its patchy and clumped distribution.
The elephants spend lot of time near rivers and forest fragments. In an area covered with coffee, tea and eucalyptus the elephants avoided tea as far as possible. Time spent in tea plantations was mainly for nighttime crossing of the landscape. Grass growth in plantations of coffee and Eucalyptus appeared to provide cover and fodder for elephants. The concentration of elephants along a major riparian system in the center of the landscape emphasized the role of water and food availability in habitat use during the dry season
The authors say logging should be prohibited within 20 meters of rivers, to ensure elephants room to forage. The study recommends promoting coffee and Eucalyptus over tea plantations. Coffee has the advantage of having lot of shade trees.
The authors conclude that Protection of rainforest fragments, secondary vegetation along rivers, and regulated and sequential felling (instead of clear-felling) of Eucalyptus along elephant movement routes will help retain forage, cover, and passage routes of elephant herds and may reduce direct human-elephant encounters in such fragmented landscapes

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Whither Carbon Sequestration?

The latest issue of journal, Nature Geoscience has an excellent paper on pros and cons of underground Carbon sequestration.
European Union plans to invest billions of Euros within the next ten years to develop carbon capture and storage. The idea is to extract CO2 from power plants and other combustion sites and store it underground.
A pertinent question that has been raised against the back drop of underground storage is what are the long-term consequences of leakage?
Professor Gary Shaffer from Niels Bohr Institute has made long term model projections for a number of sequestration/leakage scenarios. The results show that leakage of the stored CO2 may bring about atmosphere warming, sea level rise, oxygen depletion, acidification and increased CO2 concentrations in the ocean.
Geological storage may be effective only if we can ensure CO2 leakage of 1 % or less per thousand years. Carbon in light form will always seek its way out.  CO2sequestration should not be used as an excuse for continued high fossil fuel emissions. The wise course would be to limit CO2 emissions in our time so that it does not become a burden for future society.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Distance affects the Survival Rates of Rare Species in Tropical Forests

Here is a fascinating piece of information from the tropical forests. Seedlings of rare species do better when they grow farther from members of their own species. The finding is the result of research done by Liza Comita, an ecologist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California.
When Seedlings were planted at varying distances from an adult tree, the more distant ones are more likely to survive. Comita looked at 30,000 seedlings of 180 tree species in a 50-hectare, long-term plot on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. Komita found that seedlings were more likely to survive if they were farther away from adults or other seedlings of the same species. 

Seedlings of common species did not seem to be affected when they are close together. This could be the reason why they are more common. The hypothesis is that the farther a seedling is from members of its own species, the better its chance of avoiding enemies like viruses, leaf-eating insects. Further experiments are on to find out whether common species are more resistant to diseases and insects.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Plant that was Brought Back from Oblivion

Since the 1950s Anogramma ascensionis fern found in Ascension Island in the South Atlantic was presumed extinct by the scientists.
Here is something that will warm the cockles of the heart of the conservation enthusiasts. Scientists attached to the London's Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have rediscovered the fern and rescued it. The discovery was made on a mountainside in the harsh volcanic landscape of the island. The excited scientists got pieces of the ferns back to Kew so that more plants could be grown in the safety and sterility of their lab. 

The spores of ferns are vulnerable to drying and contamination, and the team had just 24 hours to transfer the spores to Kew. The samples were flown to a military airport in the UK, from where it was raced to Kew.

The plant started growing in the lab of Kew and the scientists are justifiably elated.  They have now succeeded in growing 60 new plants in culture. A plant has been saved from the brink of total extinction.

The long term plan is to restore Anogramma to its former wild habitats in Ascension Island

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Why Are Tropical Forests Biologically Rich?

The question why are tropical forests biologically rich is a question posed by many people. Smithsonian researchers have come up with an answer to this puzzle.
According to the researchers one explanation for the maintenance of the diversity of tropical trees is that adult trees harbor pests and diseases that harm seedlings of their own species more than they do seedlings of other species. The study showed that underground organisms are the key to species diversity and patterns of tree-species relative abundance.
Dr Mangan the lead researcher planted seedlings of five species under adults of each species in the forest. In a greenhouse experiment he grew seedlings of each species in soil collected around the base of each of the other species. Dr Mangan and colleagues found that the ability of seedlings of a species to survive when grown in soil from the same species predicted how common or rare they are as adults. Plant interactions with soil biota alone are powerful and specific enough to explain why multiple species co-exist.
Neutral Theory of Biodiversity, which is premised on the idea that all species are the same, has been turned on its head by the new research
Details of the study is published in the journal, Nature

Friday, June 25, 2010

This week's Widlife Images from the Guardian

Have a look at this week's wildlife images from the Guardian. Click here

A Conservation Initiative Worthy of Emulation

When a species thought to be extinct in an area returns there is cheer in the conservation community. This time the good news comes from Britain. The conservation community has much to cheer in the return of small blue, Britain’s tiniest butterfly species in Hertfordshire.
The small blue had not been seen in Hertfordshire for eight years.   Four years ago a major restoration project was started.  Herts and   Middlesex Wildlife Trust have been working hard at the reserve to remove scrub vegetation and encourage plants needed by butterflies, particularly kidney vetch preferred by small blue.
A survey earlier this month found several individuals at Albury Nowers, a nature reserve near Tring managed by the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust. Good weather also caee as a blessing for the conservation initative.
Tahr country salutes Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust for the wonderful work they have done

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chimpanzees kill Their Rivals to Acquire Land

The latest issue of journal Current Biology has a very interesting paper titled “Lethal intergroup aggression leads to territorial expansion in wild chimpanzees
 The paper give details about the first evidence that Chimpanzees kill their rivals to acquire land.
John Mitani a primatologist from the University of Michigan, David P. Watts from Department of Anthropology, Yale University, and   Sylvia J. Amsler from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Arkansas, have observed that the Ngogo chimpanzee troop in Uganda's Kibale National Park engaged in 18 lethal attacks led by Ngogo males on another, smaller group of chimps of    Kahama community between 1999 and 2009. In 2009 after the culmination of the bloody war the victors seized the territory held by the vanquished.
The scientists say this internecine fight resembles lethal intergroup raiding in humans. The prominent hypothesis suggests that chimpanzees attack neighbors to expand their territories and to gain access to more food. Females with abundant food supply tend to have more offspring. Territorial gains could also bring in females from neighbouring troops, offering more mating opportunities to the males.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Birdsong Learning is Very Similar to The Way That Children Learn How to Speak

Sleep- learning by birds…..? Does it sound like Science fiction? Read on what scientists at Utrecht University have discovered.
 The researchers, M. H. Gobes, M. A. Zandbergen, and J. J. Bolhuis at Utrecht have found that that when zebra finches learn their songs from their father early in life, their brain remains active during sleep. The research has also established that birdsong learning is very similar to the way that our children learn how to speak.
This discovery will increase our understanding of the role of sleep in the formation of memory.
In children different brain regions are involved in learning speaking or singing. The new research has established that in zebra finches also this happens. This makes songbirds a good animal model to study the role of sleep in human speech acquisition.
Details of the study appear in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Experts Bemoan Decline in UK's Scientific Study of Insects

I read a few minutes back a very interesting article on insects in “The Independent”. The article bemoans the decline in the UK's scientific study of Insects. It has portents in other places also.
As The Independent mentions insects are among the planet's smallest creatures, yet they have the power to change the world. It is our ally pollinating our crops, and also our greatest enemy, spreading disease and killing millions. 75 per cent of described animal species are insects and they help run all the ecosystems.
Britain used to be world leader in entomology. There is a palpable downswing in the interest shown in the subject. Scientists are warning that Britain's pool of expertise is draining away, making Britain vulnerable to new dangerous insect pests. The Royal Entomological Society warns that this spells a substantial threat to Britain’s ecosystems, food security and health.
Experts blame the school system for not capitalizing on children's early interest in bugs. This holds good everywhere.
What Independent mentions mirrors in other countries also. Lot of money is spent on research on mammals. But very little money goes in to research on insects. With global warming posing a continuous threat it is the need of the hour to pay more attention to insects that play a vital role in running our ecosystems.

Monday, June 21, 2010

BBC Guide to Whales

Have a look at this wonderful guide to whales from BBC.Really informative. Click here

Orangutans Communicate Intelligently Using Gestures, Researchers Have Discovered

 Two British scientists from the University of St Andrews who spent nine months observing the great apes at Twycross Zoo in the UK, Apenheul Primate Park in the Netherlands, and the Durrell trust in Jersey have identified 40 frequently used body language signals of Orang-utans.   These signals were employed repeatedly to send messages such as "I want to play", "give it to me", "go away", "follow me", or "stop doing that". The research also shed light on the origins of human speech millions of years ago. Orangutans can learn human sign language.
The gestures have been compiled into the first ape dictionary.

Details of the study appear in the latest issue of journal Animal Cognition.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Scientists Crack the Biomechanics of Ant's Balancing Act Using video

The balancing act of ants while carrying heavy load must have intrigued many.  As a kid I have watched it with utter fascination. Now the scientists have unraveled the science behind the delicate balancing act. The lead researchers were Dr Karin Moll and Dr Walter Federle from the University of Cambridge. Dr Falvio Roces from the University of Wurzburg in Germany was an associate. The experiments were done on Grass-cutting ants (Atta vollenweideri) that carry plant fragments many times heavier and longer than themselves.
To maintain stability,centre of gravity of ant and load needs to remain above the area of the supporting legs. Using high speed video cameras the scientists have recorded controlled head movements that aid balance. The ant's neck also plays a very critical part in balancing the load. This feature is previously unknown in any insect. The neck joint being involved in the adjustment of the load position was in fact a surprise.
Full details appear in the latest issue of Journal of Comparative Physiology

Saturday, June 19, 2010

This Week's Wildlife Photos from Guardian

Have a look at this week's stunning wildlife images from The Guardian. Click HERE

Unconventional Natural Gas

I just read a good piece of writing in New Scientist on Unconventional Natural Gas and its enormous potential as a source of clean energy. Unconventional Natural Gas? Yes
Unconventional natural gas tends to be trapped in impermeable hard rock or sandstone or in shale deposits. New technology to extract natural gas from unconventional  deposits has great portent for  previously gas-poor countries in the Americas, Asia and western Europe. They could now have enough cheap gas to last for another 100 years.
The problem with coal is that it is dirty. Nuclear power is very expensive.  Renewables are not predictable. So the best option is to go in for gas. The world consumes around 3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas each year, and consequently reserves from conventional sources will run out by 2068. At current rates of consumption unconventional reserves could give us an extra 60 years. The estimate for unconventional reserves is 900 trillion cubic meters. The scenario is bright.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Research on Wild Potato Germplasm Points to the Urgent Need to Conserve Biodiversity

Research led by Dr Dennis Halterman and Dr Shelley from the ARS Vegetable Crops Research Unit in Madison, Wisconsin, USA,  has demonstrated that the wild potato germplasm offers resistance to some major potato diseases.
The researchers have identified a wild potato species called Solanum verrucosum that contains a gene with resistance to late blight. Late blight is considered to be the most destructive disease afflicting potato. The scientists plan to move the late-blight resistance gene into the cultivated potato. Efforts are also on to tackle early blight, a fungal disease that affects the potato.
Next on the agenda is tackling Verticillium wilt, a fungal disease that can linger in the soil for up to 10 years. The scientists have developed a molecular marker to screen potato germplasm for resistance against this disease which makes the work of researchers easier. More work is on the anvil which will revolutionize potato cultivation.
The research points to the need for conserving the wild relatives of our cultivated food plants. Our future food security depends on it. This should also act as an eye opener for our politicians whose “development” agenda spells doom for biodiversity in many areas.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Crayfish Comes As an Excellent, Practical Model for Insight into Human Decision Making

University of Maryland researchers headed by Dr Jens Herberholz, have come to the conclusion that Crayfish make surprisingly complex, cost-benefit calculations and this may help unravel the cellular brain activity involved in human decisions. Their study is the first to isolate individual crayfish neurons involved in value-based decisions. According to the researchers matching individual neurons to the decision making processes in the human brain is simply impractical for the time being now. The happy news is that basic organization of neurons and the underlying neurochemistry are similar, involving serotonin and dopamine.
In the experiments Crayfish was offered a choice between finding their next meal and becoming a meal for an apparent predator.  Dr Herberholz says the fish carefully weighed the risk of attack against the expected reward.
To make a quick escape, the crayfish would flip their tails and swim backwards. This action was preceded by a strong, measurable electric neural impulse. Specific neurons that come in to play during the decision-making process were identified. The fish take the action in a matter of milliseconds.
When the predator appears to be moving too rapidly for escape the crayfish chose to freeze.
The research has shown that crayfish, similar to organisms of higher complexity, integrate different sensory stimuli that are present in their environment, and they select a behavioural output according to the current values for each choice.
Details of the study appear in online edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Whales Help Offset Carbon Emission

Here is an interesting piece of information about sperm whales. Australian researchers say Sperm whale faeces may help oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the air. The research was led by Dr Trish Lavery from Flinders University in Adelaide.
Sperm whales release about 50 tonnes of iron every year via its faeces. This stimulates the growth of phytoplankton which absorbs CO2 during photosynthesis. This in turn results in the absorption of about 40,000 tonnes of carbon which is more than twice as much as the whales release by breathing. The calculations are based on Southern Ocean sperm whales. The researchers say that the global total could be much more substantial. Lack of iron limits phytoplankton growth in many regions.
The sperm whales eat mainly squid in the deep ocean, and defecate in the upper waters where phytoplankton can grow. Here is the twist. If the sperm whales eat and defecate in the same place they would absorb and release the same amounts of iron. Myriad are the ways of nature.

Details are published in Royal Society journal Proceedings B

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Small Carnivores Play Important Role in Helping Fruiting Plants to Reproduce and Disperse their Seeds.

It is a known fact that many small carnivores eat fruits as supplements. It was assumed that it was purely an incidental happening and does not have much ecological significance. This is set to change now.
Scientists from the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC) have shown that carnivorous animals such as foxes and martens play an important role in helping fruiting plants to reproduce and disperse their seeds.
The researchers studied how foxes and (Vulpes vulpes) and the European pine marten (Martes martes) consumed the fruit of the rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia) in the Cordillera Cantábrica mountain range. They found that that both species were capable of tracking yearly differences in the abundance of rowan fruit in Cantabrian forests and plumbed for the most productive trees. The Carnivores were helping to disperse the seeds. The carnivores consumed considerable proportion of the fallen fruit and this was much more than the amount destroyed by rodents during the same period.
The Rowan is a pioneer species that colonizes secondary scrub and "prepares the way for further succession.
According to the researchers, the rowan-fox-marten system could be important in mountain ecosystems on the Iberian Peninsula.
Full details appear in the latest issue of journal Acta Oecologica

Monday, June 14, 2010

Humpback Whales Discovered to Form Lasting Bonds

Scientists have discovered that individual female humpbacks reunite each summer to feed and swim together. Even though Toothed whales, such as sperm whales, associate with one another this is a first observation of its kind for baleen whales, which are the largest of all whales.
The discovery was made by Dr Christian Ramp and colleagues of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study group based in St Lambert, Canada. They have found that female humpbacks reunite each summer to feed and swim together in the Gulf of St Lawrence, off Canada. The longest recorded friendships lasted six years. How the whales find each other each summer is still an enigma. The scientists suspects the whales use sound to find and recognize other individuals.

Details of the discovery are published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fungi Can Speed Up Growth Rate of Rice by Two to Five Times

Plant pathologist Ian Sanders and colleagues from University of Lausanne, Switzerland, have evolved a method by which fungi can speed up growth rate of rice by two to five times.
Nearly 80% of plant species have established a bond with a common fungus. In return for sugar, the fungus helps the plants extract nutrients from the soil. But fungi do not have this special relationship with rice. The aim of Dr Sanders was to devise a method to artificially enable the method in rice.
Dr Sanders collected single fungal spores from fields near Zürich and cultivated them in the lab. The researchers extracted individual spores from each parent and grew them for three generations. The scientists found that the third generation of fungi bonded with rice and increased the plants’ growth rate by two to five times. The scientist attributes the success of bonding to third generation’s greater genetic variability.
The work is still in the labs but scientist hope that in the immediate future it can be taken to the field on an extensive basis.
Full details appear in the latest issue of journal  Current Biology.

Friday, June 11, 2010

This Week's Best Wildlife Pictures from Guardian

Have a look at this week's best wildlife pictures from Guardian. Click here

Blindfolded Seals Can Track Passing Fish with Their Whiskers

Here is another piece of incredible news from the nature world. Blindfolded Seals can track passing fish with their whiskers.
The fascinating information is the outcome of research by Wolf Hanke ,  Sven Wieskotten, Hanke, Guido Dehnhardt, Björn Mauck and Lars Miersch from the University of Rostock, Germany.
The researchers found that the seals can also track passing mini-submarines for a distance of 40m. Latching on to hydrodynamic trails in water with their sensitive whiskers; seals easily track passing fish even in the most turbid waters.
Details appear in the latest issue of in The Journal of Experimental Biology.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Evidences of Mathematical Strategies Followed by Marine Animals While Hunting

The latest issue of journal Nature dated June 9 has a paper on the fascinating hunting pattern of marine animals. The authors show that the hunting pattern is not a random one. The animals follow a mathematical pattern called Lévy walks, punctuated by rare, long forays in any direction. Dr David Sims, a researcher at the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom in Plymouth was the lead researcher.
Dr Sims and his colleagues say they have firm evidence for Lévy behavior in 14 species of open-ocean marine predators, including tuna, swordfish, marlin and sharks. The group managed to collect more than 12 million data points for their research.
Lévy behavior was more prominent in waters where plankton, fish and other food was scarce. According to Dr Sims Lévy motion improves the chances of finding prey.
It was Gandhimohan Viswanathan, a theoretical physicist at the Federal University of Alagoas in Maceió, Brazil, who first demonstrated Lévy walks pattern in wandering albatrosses. Wandering albatrosses, fitted with radio-tracking devices, made the occasional long flight that is the hallmark of a Lévy pattern.
Dr Sims and his team are now looking to identify Levy behavior in lower marine animals such as octopuses.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Breakthrough Cisgenics Study Heralds New Exciting Vistas for Forestry

Scientists have demonstrated that growth rate and other characteristics of trees can be changed through "cisgenics". Cisgenics is a type of genetic engineering that is conceptually similar to traditional plant breeding, and uses genes from closely related species that are sexually compatible. The path breaking research was pioneered by forestry scientists at Oregon State University. The study was done with poplar trees.
In conventional transgenic, traits from one plant or animal can be transferred to an unrelated species. But cisgenics uses whole genes from the same plant or a very closely related species. The enormous increases in the speed of genome sequencing have helped the scientists. Sequencing that used to take years can now be accomplished in days.
With the aid if the new technology a gene that gives plants more heat tolerance might be useful in helping plants to deal with a warming climate. Ornamental trees could be developed for shorter height for use in urban areas. Sky is the limit for experimentation.
The new findings have been published in the latest issue of journal Plant Biotechnology Journal.