1 Tahrcountry Musings: May 2010

Monday, May 31, 2010

An Integrated Method to Create Habitat Suitability Models for Fragmented Landscapes

Valerio Amici and Francesco Geri from Dipartimento di Scienze Ambientali “G. Sarfatti”, Università di Siena, Italy, and Corrado Battisti from Ufficio Conservazione natura, Servizio Ambiente, Provincia di Roma, Italy, has come out with an excellent new model to create habitat suitability models for fragmented landscapes.
Habitat suitability models are theoretical concepts that can be used for planning in fragmented landscapes and habitat conservation. The most commonly used models are based on single species and on the assignment of suitability values for some environmental variables. Generally the cartographic basis for modeling suitability is thematic maps produced by a Boolean logic. In the new method the scientists propose a model based on a set of focal species and on maps produced by a fuzzy classification method. This method allows a better detection of ecological gradients within a landscape.
The scientists’ applied the new methodology to the Tuscany region focusing on terrestrial mammals. Performing a fuzzy classification they produced five land cover maps and through image processing operations they obtained a suitability model which applies a continuity criterion. The resulting suitability fuzzy model seems better for the study of connectivity and fragmentation, especially in areas with high spatial complexity.

Whales - Why are there so many whale species?

Whales are amazing creatures and are about 55 million years old. There are 84 living species and more than 400 other species that have gone extinct. They represent the most successful invasion of oceans by a mammalian lineage.  The largest animal known to have ever existed is the blue whale, which is more than 100 feet long. By contrast the smallest whale is about the size of a dog.
The amazing diversity of whales has always fascinated the scientists. UCLA biologists decided to have a closer look at this phenomenon. They used molecular and computational techniques to go back 35 million years, when the ancestor of all living whales appeared.
The scientists found that very early in their history, whales went their separate ways in terms of size, and ecology. Species diversification and variations in body size were established very early in the evolution of whales. The shape of variation that we see in modern whales is the result of partitioning of body sizes early on in their history. The differences today were apparent very early on.
The rate of body-size evolution in the killer whale is the fastest. They become larger over the last 10 million years. Killer whales eat mammals, including other whales.
The analytical tools for integrating the fossil data with the molecular data are just being developed and exciting things are in store for the future.
Full details appear in the latest issue of journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Recommendation - Seasons of Life by Russell Foster and Leon Kreitzman

Here is an excellent book on chronobiology, the biological rhythms that living things need to thrive and survive. Russell Foster and Leon Kreitzman weave a fascinating account of the intricacies of chronobiology

 The authors point out that just as all creatures have an internal, 24-hour clock, they also have an internal calendar governed by Earth’s 365-day rotation around the sun and it is much more complicated than circadian clock.

In this fascinating book, Russell G. Foster and Leon Kreitzman bank on recent scientific advances to explain how seasonal change affects organisms, and how plants and animals over countless generations have evolved sensitivities and adaptations to the seasons. The authors also point out the impact of seasonal change on human health and well-being.

Here are some surprising facts from the book

·         The timing of human birth has a small but significant effect on various later life attributes like susceptibility to many illnesses, including multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia.
·         Plants have the ability to measure the length of a period of light, and they germinate, flower, and reproduce on the basis of this accrued information.
·         Birds migrate not in response to weather changes but by using an internal calendar.
·         Akin to 24-hour circadian, many animals have a circannual clock in their brains that predicts the seasons.

The authors lament that climate change is wreaking havoc with the Earth’s chronobiology. Here is a good example. The eggs of winter moths of Arnhem, Holland must hatch within a 25-day time to ensure sufficient edible oak foliage to ensure its survival. The great tit must time the hatching of its eggs to coincide with this burgeon of winter moth caterpillars. The oak buds now burst 10 days earlier than they did 20 years ago. Here the caterpillars have overcompensated, hatching 15 days earlier. But it is not sure whether the great tits would synchronize or not.

A great read for those interested in the intricacies of circannual clock.

Russell G. Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Leon Kreitzman is a science writer, broadcaster and a respected futurologist.

ISBN 1861979142

ISBN 13 9781861979148

June 2009

Price £20.00

Hardback, 320 pp.

This week's Best Wildlife Images

Guardian's"This week in wildlife" is a source of joy. Wonderful images of wildlife are on display which is soul filling and is a feast for the eye. Click here to have a look at this week's images. Have a great week end.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Conservation Credit Scheme for Builders Launched in UK

UK has launched an innovative conservation credit scheme for builders to offset the damage they are doing elsewhere.
The pilot project has been launched with the sale of shares in a £100m project to restore and reconnect fragmented wetlands, woodlands and grasslands around the headwaters of the river Thames.  The shares are being sold through the Environment Bank, a bank launched with the avowed aim of delivering mitigation and compensation schemes associated with planned development. The bank was set up the three years ago by Rob Gillespie, a town planner and Professor David Hill, an ecologist. The new Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron is a votary of this scheme.The builders would be encouraged to invest in schemes in the same region as their business, so that local communities would stand to benefit.
Conservation credit schemes are on trial n the US, Australia and South Africa. In the US, which is at the forefront of conservation credit schemes, $3bn was raised for wetlands alone in 2008.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Little Things Have Tremendous Influence in the Functioning Of Ecosystem – A Lesson from the African Savannah

The latest issue of the journal PLoS Biology has a paper titled “Spatial Pattern Enhances Ecosystem Functioning in an African Savanna” authored by Robert M. Pringle, Daniel F. Doak, Alison K. Brody,  Rudy Jocqué and Todd M. Palmer. I read it with great fascination. It showed in clear cut terms how small things play a great role in ecology.

When we think of the savannah ecosystem lions, elephants, and giraffes pop up in our mind. But it seems the lowly termite has a mega role in the ecosystem. They contribute mightily to grassland productivity in central Kenya via a network of uniformly distributed colonies. Termite mounds enhance plant and animal productivity at the local level, while their even distribution over a larger area maximizes this productivity.The termites have tremendous influence and are central to the functioning of this ecosystem.

Dr Pringle and his associates began to quantify ecological productivity relative to mound density. They found that each mound supported dense aggregations of flora and fauna. Plants grew more rapidly near the mounds, and animal populations and reproductive rates fell sharply with greater distance.

Satellite imagery of the mound was even more spectacular. The mounds stood at the center of a burst of floral productivity. The highly regular spatial pattern of fertile mounds generated by termites actually increases overall levels of ecosystem production.

Dr Pringle believes that the termites import coarse particles into the otherwise fine soil in near their mounds. These coarser particles promote water infiltration of the soil. They also discourage disruptive shrinking and swelling of topsoil in response to precipitation or drought. Nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen were high in the mounds.

The new findings have important implications for conservation

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Can Bacteria Increase Learning Behavior?

It is a known fact that exposure to certain bacteria in the environment have antidepressant qualities. Research findings presented at the 110th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Diego yesterday, by Dr. Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks of The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, goes a step further. According to the researchers, Mycobacterium vaccae the natural soil bacterium which people are likely ingest or breath in when they spend time in nature could increase learning behavior.
Matthews and Jenks fed live bacteria to mice and assessed their ability to navigate a maze. This was compared with control mice that were not fed the bacteria.
The researchers found that mice that were fed live Mycobacterium vaccae, navigated the maze twice as fast when compared to control mice.
In a second experiment the bacteria were removed from the diet of the experimental mice and the test was repeated. The mice ran the maze slower than they did when they were ingesting the bacteria, but they were still faster than the controls.
A final test was done after three weeks' rest. The experimental mice continued to navigate the maze faster than the controls but according to researchers the results were no longer statistically significant. This points out that the effect is temporary limited to the time when they were ingesting the bacteria. The research definitely suggests that Mycobacterium vaccae may play a role in learning in mammals.   

The researchers end their note speculating the interesting possibility that creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where Mycobacterium vaccae is present may improve the ability to learn new tasks. This also underlines the fact that benefits of spending time in wilderness has multiple benefits

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Scientists Choose Top 10 List of Newly Discovered Species of 2009

The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and an international committee of taxonomists have announced the eagerly awaited top 10 new species described in 2009. The annual top 10 new species announcement commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Carolus Linnaeus, who initiated the modern system of plant and animal names and classifications. The 300th anniversary of his birth on May 23 was celebrated worldwide in 2007.
The 10 Toppers are
1) A minnow with fangs (Danionella dracula ) found in a stream at Sha Du Zup between Mogaung and Tanai in Kachin State, Myanmar.
2) The golden orb spider ( Nephila komaci) discovered in  Madagascar is the first species of Nephila to be described since 1879.
3) A carnivorous deep-sea sponge (Chondrocladia (Meliiderma) turbiformis) discovered from Chatham Rise, Pyre Seamount, New Zealand,
4) A worm discovered off the central coast of California (Swima bombiviridis) that when threatened releases "bombs" that illuminate for several seconds with green bioluminescence.
5) A sea slug (Aiteng ater) discovered from Pak Phanang Bay, Nakhon Si Thammarat Province, Thailand, eats bugs, which is unusual since nearly all sacoglossans eat algae and a few specialize in gastropod eggs. Its discovery has resulted in a new family, Aitengidae.
6) A frogfish (Histiophryne psychedelica) that has an unusual psychedelic pattern and is unique among frogfishes for its flat face. This hairless striated frogfish was re-discovered by Maluku Divers in Ambon, Indonesia.
7) A two-inch mushroom (Phallus drewesii discovered off the coast of West Africa
8) An electric fish (Gymnotus omarorum) discovered in Uruguay, goes by the common name Omars' banded knifefish
9) A carnivorous plant species (Nepenthes attenboroughii) discovered in Philippines produces one of the largest pitchers known.
10) An "udderly weird yam" (Dioscorea orangeana) that was found in Madagascar.
 Photos and other information about the top 10 new species, including the explorers who made the discoveries are online at http://species.asu.edu.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Role of Urban Forests in Bird Migration

The latest issue of journal Landscape Ecology has an excellent paper by landscape ecologists Stephen Matthews and Paul Rodewaldon on the role played by urban forests in bird migration. The scientists gathered the data by fitting tiny tags to Swainson's thrushes (Catharus ustulatus). The study examined seven urban forests, the smallest of which was an arboretum that was less than one hectare.
The new study says even a small urban forest can help migrating birds. Urban greenery is used by birds to rest and refuel in the middle of their journey between winter and breeding sites. The scientist says it was not necessarily the forest size that was influencing the birds. On the contrary they were responding to internal factors, such as fat reserves they had. Within migration, land birds spend up to 90% of their time resting and regaining energy at stopover sites.
The new study suggests that remnant forests within urban areas have conservation value for Swainson's thrushes and, potentially, other migrant land birds.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Tongue that Helps Musk Turtle to Breathe Underwater and Stay Submerged for Many Months

I was fascinated to read about the cracking of the mystery surrounding Musk Turtle that can stay underwater for months.
Musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), adults spend most of their lives underwater. Juveniles occasionally come onto land to search for food. This has always been a mystery. Scientists have just cracked the mystery.  The discovery was made by zoologist Egon Heiss, who is studying for his PhD at the University of Vienna in Austria.
Egon Heiss has discovered that the turtles use its specialized tongue to exchange oxygen. The tongue is lined with specialized buds called papillae.
Usually all marine turtles must come to the surface at least every few hours to draw in air.
In the case of freshwater turtles, some cannot breathe underwater, while others do so via their skin.

Details appear in the latest issue of journal The Anatomical Record.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mystery - Garden Birds Prefer Non-Organic Food to Organic, New Study Reveals

The latest issue of Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture has an interesting paper on the feeding habits of birds. I read it with great fascination. The new research has found that when presented with an opportunity between organic and non-organic foods garden birds such as robins and house sparrows invariably plumbed for non organic food.
When offered both varieties of wheat seed, the birds were able to discern between the two and ate up to 20 per cent more of non-organic variety. When the grain in the feeders was switched around, the birds soon were able to spot the difference and again settled for of non-organic variety.
Analysis of the wheat found that the non organic seeds have an average 10 per cent higher protein content than the organic seeds and this is the most likely explanation for the food preference of birds.
The researchers say the study does not take into account the long-term health implications of using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but it does raise questions about the nutritional benefits of organic food.
The garden bird work was confirmed by laboratory studies on canaries.
The lead researcher for the three-year study was Dr Ailsa McKenzie, based at Newcastle University's School of Biology.
Soil Association of UK has come up with a strong rejoinder. They say: "The UK Government’s own advisors found that bird life is up to 50% greater on organic farms showing that most birds do choose organic. Animals like chimpanzees and even rats have been shown to prefer organic food. This study has absolutely no bearing on whether organic food is better for human health or not."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Back From the Brink- World’ Smallest Water-Lily

                                          Photo Credit: RBG Kew

The importance of botanic gardens for conservation was reemphasized by the success of cracking the enigma of growing a rare species of African water-lily by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The feat was achieved by Kew's top propagation 'code-breaker', horticulturist Carlos Magdalena. Waterlilies are among the most ancient of flowering plants.
The rare species of African waterlily (Nymphaea thermarum), believed to be the smallest waterlily in the world with pads less than 1cm in diameter was discovered in 1985 by German botanist Professor Eberhard Fischer of Koblenz-Landau University. It was endemic to just one known location in Mashyuza, Rwanda. The plant grows in damp mud caused by the overflow of a hot spring. Water reaches the surface at 50C but the plant colonizes an area where the water has cooled to a temperature of 25C.
The species disappeared from Mashyuza about two years ago due to over-exploitation of the hot spring that fed the habitat. Right now no plant is known to survive in the wild.
Professor Eberhard Fischer had transported a few specimens to Bonn Botanic Gardens soon after its discovery. The species proved extremely difficult to propagate.
As part of a conservation plant exchange between Bonn and Kew, a handful of seeds and pre-germinated seedlings were transported to Kew in July 2009. Professor Carlos took the propagation as a challenge. The professor, who has a track record of bringing the rarest and most difficult plants back from the brink, unraveled the secrets of successfully propagating Nymphaea thermarum over many months of assiduous work.
The plant did not grow submerged in the deep waters of lakes, rivers or marshes like other water lily. It grows in the damp conditions at the edge of a thermal hot spring. This was the vital clue needed to crack the code. The professor placed seeds and seedlings into pots of loam within small containers filled with water, thus keeping the water at the same level as the surface of the compost, at a temperature of 25°C. The plants started to improve and after a few weeks, eight plants began to grow very well. In November 2009 heralding a new era of success Kew's collection of Nymphea thermarum flowered for the first time. Now Kew has over 30 healthy plants growing very well.
Professor Eberhard Fischer says if the natural flow of water in its historic location can be restored, plants grown at Kew can then be reintroduced into the wild.
On Saturday 22 May 2010 visitors to Kew Gardens will be able to see Nymphaea thermarum on display.
Tahrcountry salutes Dr Carlos Magdalena. Here is an admirable example where individuals, by doing practical things with plants, can make a real difference to biodiversity conservation.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

iPhone Application to the Rescue of DR Congo mountain gorillas

It is heartening to read technology being utilized for conservation works. The news becomes even sweeter when the species in question happens to be one of the most endangered species in the world.
An iPhone application called called iGorilla has been launched to help protect the critically endangered mountain gorillas in DR Congo.  The new app, launched by the Virunga National Park, allows users to choose a gorilla family, find out about individual members and follow their lives through reports, photographs and videos. Each app costs $4 (£3).Major chunk of the money going to the park. Virunga National Park is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Only 720 mountain gorillas remain in the wild with an estimated 211 of the great apes living in Virunga National Park.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Poachers Using Satellite Pictures to Localize Groups of Elephants in Chad

The story of Chad elephants is a very sad chapter in the conservation annals. From a population of around 20,000 in the 1980s, it has been reduced to a little more than 3,000. This means a decline of 85 percent in less than three decades.
Amidst poverty, hunger, violence, and hundreds of thousands of refugees in Chad the elephants do not stand a chance.  80 percent of the population in Chad lives below the poverty line. Poaching is rampant. In the month of April alone 105 elephants were killed by poachers. If the trend continues, not a single elephant will be left in Chad in three years time.
Poachers are equipped with the latest in technological devices like GPS and satellite phones. Now they have started using satellite pictures to localize groups of Elephants. The poachers are increasingly becoming a menace. Last month poachers killed two Chadian soldiers in a single weekend.
Conservationists believe the ivory does not stay in Africa, but ends up in far-away China, Japan and Thailand. The ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System)   analysis identifies Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Thailand as the three countries most heavily implicated in the global illicit ivory trade. Cameroon, Gabon and Mozambique Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam were also identified as important nodes in the illicit ivory trade. Here is a shocker. U.S. is still one of the world's largest consumers of ivory.
The conservationists firmly believe that local action alone cannot stop the decimation of elephants In Chad. International cooperation is urgently needed.

Increasing Human Noise is Affecting Corals

A study carried out by a team at the Carmabi Foundation in Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles led by Dr Mark Vermeij  have discovered  that coral larvae use sound as a cue to find coral reefs and swim towards it. How these simple creatures, the larvae of which look like tiny eggs covered in hairs, detect sound is still a mystery.
Coral aggregate to form vast reefs and this is now the most threatened ecosystems in the world. We still do not know the full intricacies of how these vulnerable animals complete their life-cycle.
Coral reefs develop in shallow, warm water, usually near land, and mostly in the tropics. The preferred temperature is 21 - 30 °C.  Coral reefs can be found off the eastern coast of Africa, off the southern coast of India, in the Red Sea, off the coasts of northeast and northwest Australia, Polynesia, off the coast of Florida, Caribbean islands and Brazil. Presently the major threats are water pollution from sewage and agricultural runoff, dredging, unsustainable collection of coral and sedimentation
The latest concern is the masking effects of human noise pollution in coral environments. Small boats, shipping, and drilling have contributed to the masking effects. The threat acquires urgency against the backdrop of the new findings.
Details of the research is published in the latest issue of journal PLoS ONE

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bad News for the Promoters of GM Crops - New Study confirms Reliance on GM is Not Sustainable

GM cops were touted by their promoters as environmental saviours. Latest research from China indicates that this belief is absolutely wrong.
Traditional cotton farmers in China used to spray their crops with insecticides to combat destructive bollworm pests. Introduction of Bt cotton helped them initially to save money by spraying their crops less. There was euphoria all around. But the excitement was short lived. The bugs have surged back with increased vigour.
A 10-year study across six major cotton-growing regions of China found that by spraying their crops less, farmers inadvertently allowed mirid bugs to thrive and this infested their own and neighbouring farms. Mirid bugs can devastate around 200 varieties of fruit, vegetable and corn crops. The infestations are potentially catastrophic for more than 10m small-scale farmers who cultivate 26m hectares of vulnerable crops in the region studied.
Now scientists are calling for the long-term risks of GM crops to be reassessed. Opponents of GM crops say this was bound to happen. This is nature’s comeuppance.
Details of the research, led by Kongming Wu of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing appears in US Journal,Science

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Biological Infrastructure that Supports Life in Jeopardy Says the latest Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (GBO3) Report

The latest Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (GBO3) report is a grim reminder of the risks that face biological infrastructure that supports life. This is a lengthy post. I have tried to put in a nutshell the salient points of the report.
  • Species which have been assessed for extinction risk are on average moving closer to extinction. Amphibians face the greatest risk and coral species are deteriorating most rapidly in status. Nearly a quarter of plant species are estimated to be threatened with extinction.
  • The abundance of vertebrate species, based on assessed populations, fell by nearly a third on average between 1970 and 2006, and continues to fall globally, with especially severe declines in the tropics and among freshwater species.
  • Natural habitats in most parts of the world continue to decline in extent and integrity, although there has been significant progress in slowing the rate of loss for tropical forests and mangroves, in some regions. Freshwater wetlands, sea ice habitats, salt marshes, coral reefs, seagrass beds and shellfish reefs are all showing serious declines.
  • Extensive fragmentation and degradation of forests, rivers and other ecosystems have also led to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
  • Crop and livestock genetic diversity continues to decline in agricultural systems.
  • The five principal pressures directly driving biodiversity loss (habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change) are either constant or increasing in intensity.
  • The ecological footprint of humanity exceeds the biological capacity of the Earth by a wider margin than at the time the 2010 target was agreed.
The continued loss of biodiversity has major implications for current and future human well-being. The provision of food, fibre, medicines and fresh water, pollination of crops, filtration of pollutants, and protection from natural disasters are among those ecosystem services potentially threatened by loss of biodiversity. Cultural services such as spiritual and religious values, opportunities for knowledge and education have declined.  Recreational and aesthetic values are also declining.
The report recommends
  • Much greater efficiency in the use of land, energy, fresh water and materials to meet growing demand.
  • Use of market incentives, and avoidance of perverse subsidies to minimize unsustainable resource use and wasteful consumption.
  • Strategic planning in the use of land, inland waters and marine resources to reconcile development with conservation of biodiversity and the maintenance of multiple ecosystem services. While some actions may entail moderate costs or tradeoffs, the gains for biodiversity can be large in comparison.
  • Ensuring that the benefits arising from use of and access to genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, for example through the development of drugs and cosmetics, are equitably shared with the countries and cultures from which they are obtained.
  • Communication, education and awareness raising to ensure that as far as possible, everyone understands the value of biodiversity and what steps they can take to protect it, including through changes in personal consumption and behaviour.
Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (ISBN-92-9225-220-8) is an open access publication, subject to the terms of the Creative Commons. Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 is freely available online: www.cbd.int/GBO3.