Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bear Filmed Using Tool

Video courtesy: Yahoo!News

Yet another example of animals being more intelligent than we give them credit for. If we truly understood how intelligent animals are, I doubt that we would eat them anymore.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Cassava - the Rambo of Food Crops

Esemu Paskal, of the Tim Teko farmers group, harvests a disease-resistant strain of cassava. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

I have eaten cassava and it is very similar tastewise to potatoes - quite delicious. The texture is slightly different; but, it is a versatile vegetable that could help provide food security for African farmers and their families.

Cassava is "the Rambo of food crops", and could be the best bet for African farmers threatened by climate change, scientists claim.

Cassava is the second most important source of carbohydrate in sub-Saharan African, after maize. It is eaten by about 500 million people every day.

The root becomes even more productive in hotter temperatures, growing in poor soil and without water, scientists said. It outperformed potatoes, maize, beans, bananas, millet and sorghum in tests using a combination of 24 climate prediction and crop suitability models.

The scientists producing the research were from the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security Research Program. Their findings were published on Monday in a special edition of the scientific journal Tropical Plant Biology.

"Cassava is a survivor; it's like the Rambo of the food crops," said climate scientist Andy Jarvis, the report's lead author. "It deals with almost anything the climate throws at it. It thrives in high temperatures, and if drought hits it simply shuts down until the rains come again. There's no other staple out there with this level of toughness."

By 2030, temperature rises of between 1.2 and 2C combined with changes in rainfall patterns "will leave cassava in a class of its own", the study said.

In east Africa, for example, cassava production would increase 10%. In west Africa, where it is most widely eaten, cassava will hold its ground, significantly outperforming the suitability of potatoes, which will decrease by 15%. Bean suitability is set to decrease 20% and banana suitability by 13%.

In the cooler climes of southern Africa, climate change should bring a 5% increase in suitability for cassava, the scientists found. Only in central Africa did it register a small, 1% decrease in suitability, according to the tests.

Jarvis said farmers could enhance nutrition and reduce risk from climate change by planting a diversity of crops, with cassava acting as a failsafe.

Cassava originated in South America, where it's called yucca and has been used since prehistoric times. It was introduced to Africa by Portuguese traders in the 17th century. It is eaten in the same way as a potato and can be boiled or fried. It is also often pounded to a flour to make a thick porridge.

The scientists hoped their findings would push the scientific community to focus on the root. Cassava research has been dwarfed over the decades by greater research into better-known staples like maize, rice and wheat.

Breeding to improve drought and cold tolerance could support the expansion of cassava production into drier areas of sub-Saharan Africa and cooler parts of southern Africa, the report said.

More research could also help make cassava more resilient to pests and diseases such as whitefly, mealybug, cassava brown-streak disease and cassava mosaic disease.

"Tackling cassava's vulnerability to pests and diseases could be the final hurdle to a food secure future for millions of people," said Jarvis. "If we're well-prepared for these threats, cassava could be one of the most climate change-resilient crops an African farmer can plant."

He added that he was glad to finally be able to report good news about food security and climate change in sub-Saharan Africa. "While the other staples will struggle in the face of climate change, it looks as though cassava is going to thoroughly enjoy it."

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Warmer Temperatures Affecting Cheetahs' Ability to Breed

Lucky to be born. Cheetahs have developed abnormal coils in their sperm as a result of warmer temperatures affecting the big cat’s ability to reproduce. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

The world's fastest animal, the African cheetah, is losing its ability to reproduce because of climate change, according to Kenyan researchers.

Scientists with the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and the Kenya Wildlife Service have discovered that the animal, Acinonyx jubatus, has developed abnormal coils in its sperm as a result of warmer temperatures, affecting the big cat's ability to reproduce. The warmer temperatures are also affecting its feeding habits, they say.

Risky Agwanda, head of mammology section at NMK, said: "Climate change has contributed to defects of the cheetah sperm. Many have abnormal coils, low sperm counts, as well as extremely low testosterone levels. Change in climate has made the survival of the gazelle difficult; and, as a result, the cheetah has had to switch to other diets, also affecting its ability to reproduce effectively.".

He added that the animal, that can accelerate from 0-100 kph in three seconds, has a sperm count 10 times lower than the domestic cat.

"Cheetahs love to prey on Thomson's gazelles, they have a very high protein content compared to other herbivores and the population of the gazelle has been on a rapid decline due to poor climate conditions and human activities.

"We have studied a large number of the cheetahs. As a result, it preys on other herbivores such as the zebra which do not have a high nutritional content. We discovered that the gazelle diet can actually help maintain the good health of the cheetah sperm if the animal has not yet been negatively affected by poor climate," explained Agwanda.

There are currently only 1,000 cheetahs in Kenya according to figures from the Kenya Wildlife Service. In the early 1980s, there were more than 5,000 cheetahs in Kenya.

As gazelle numbers continue to decrease due to drought, conservation efforts of the cheetah could be badly affected. The gazelles are also crossbreeding with other herbivores, reducing their protein content further, Agwanda said.

Scientists have never discovered any reproductive health deficiencies in other big cats, which they say can adapt more to climate change compared to the cheetah.

"The genetic make-up of the animal is more sensitive as compared to the other big cats. The cheetahs have weak genes," said Agwanda.

Mordecai Ogada, a fellow cheetah researcher at the National Museums, says that also another problem threatening the survival of the animal is conflict between humans and wildlife, resulting in damage to to the cheetah's habitat. Ogada added that cheetah numbers have also declined because of poaching for their skin, which fetches a high price on the black market.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

This Principal Means Business

Photo courtesy: coolclips

Such a great idea! I just love it.

Chronically tardy and truant students at a Massachusetts high school are getting a rude awakening -- a pre-recorded morning wake-up call from their school principal.

The so-called "robo-calls" that began on Wednesday are aimed at rousting about 500 students, the worst-offending sleepyheads, from bed and getting them to school on time.

"It's 6:15 and it's Durfee High School calling," booms the voice of Principal Paul Marshall of B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River, according to Vice Principal Ross Thibault.

Robo-calls are typically used to notify parents of weather-related school delays and cancellations.

Durfee joins other U.S. schools in Massachusetts and Illinois and New York which have taken on the added role of alarm clock to combat high rates of tardiness and absenteeism.

In New York City the wake-up calls feature the voice of former professional basketball star Magic Johnson.

At Durfee High School in Fall River, about 46 miles south of Boston, 20 percent of the student body will be getting routine phone calls at home at 6:15 a.m. The school day's first class begins at 7:45 a.m.

Administrators hope the effort will boost attendance from 88 percent now to at least 95 percent.

"Historically, we have battled attendance problems. We are an urban district and our attendance has always been a concern," Thibault said.

The school resorted to the calls after failing to improve attendance with punishments like detention or enforced study hours at schools, he added.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Failed Nuclear Power Plant Becomes Amusement Park

The huge cooling tower has been transformed inside and out. Photo courtesy: Henk-Jan van der Klis/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Amusement parks can seem banal if you're fed up of overpriced food, long lines and not-so-great rides. But this extraordinary amusement park in Germany has an edge over its competitors -- it's built out of an abandoned nuclear power plant.

The immense cooling tower houses a swing ride, while its outside walls have been converted to a 130 foot tall climbing wall. In addition, there are more traditional rides like a carousel, merry-go-round and Ferris wheel, attracting approximately 600,000 visitors each year.

An inside view of the cooling tower. Photo courtesy: Corbis

Photo courtesy: Wunderland Kalkar/Promo image

Located near Kalkar, Germany, this "Wunderland" park is a great example of adaptive reuse that could also solve the problem of what to do with the country's nuclear power sites as it plans to completely phase out nuclear power by 2022.

According to the Daily Mail, this nuclear power plant was never used, though it was supposed to be the world's most hi-tech nuclear power plant when it was constructed in 1972. But after many protests and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the multi-million dollar project was cancelled 12 years later, with a Dutch businessman stepping in and buying the plant in 1995.

What was originally planned as office and working space now houses the hotel and other amenities. Photo courtesy: harry_nl/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The park now boasts several hundred hotel rooms, bars and restaurants (operated out of the plant itself it seems), dozens of rides, a museum, miniature golf and tennis courts. But is it safe? Well, the Daily Mail quotes a park spokeswoman as saying:
People come from all over the world because they are completely fascinated by the park. It's totally unique and that's what draws people in. It's not something you see every day. Some people worry it's unsafe but it is 100 per cent safe. Because the nuclear power station has never been put to use, the whole complex is guaranteed free of radiation.

Good to know; thrill-seekers can find out for themselves at Wunderland Kalkar (website).

Monday, December 26, 2011

Climate Change Could Kill 900 Bird Species by 2100

The resplendent quetzal faces increased competition from other birds and drier habitat due to global warming. Photo courtesy: Matt MacGillivray/CC BY 2.0.

You might think birds, of all animals, could just pick up and move if their environment changes in a way not to their liking, but global warming poses a very real threat to the avian world: Scientists say climate change is likely to drive up to 900 bird species into extinction by the end of the century unless additional conservation measures are taken.

Tropical bird species are particularly vulnerable because they are adapted to living in a stable climate, where temperatures do not vary wildly throughout the year, according to Çağan Şekercioğlu of the University of Utah, the lead author of "The effects of climate change on tropical birds," a scientific review of some 200 separate studies published recently in the journal Biological Conservation.

Surface warming of 3.5 degrees Celsius -- the middle range of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest estimate -- by the year 2100 "may result in 600-900 extinctions of land bird species, 89 percent of which occur in the tropics," Şekercioğlu and his co-authors Richard Primack and Janice Wormworth write. "Depending on the amount of future habitat loss, each degree of surface warming could lead to approximately 100-500 additional bird extinctions."

A red-capped manakin. Some manakin species in Brazil could lose up to 80 percent of their habitat. Photo courtesy: caspar s/CC BY 2.0

The new article, which updates previous research from 2007, looks at different categories of birds (such as "aquatic birds in the tropics," "arid zone species," and "birds in human-dominated landscapes") to assess which will be the most affected by climate change. It also examines how global warming compounds other threats, including habitat loss, hunting, invasive species, pollution, and disease.

"[I]n some cases habitat loss [from agriculture and development] can increase bird extinctions caused by climate change by nearly 50 percent," Şekercioğlu says, calling for further research to be conducted, degraded habitat to be restored, and more land to be protected.

It's not just birds that are at stake. "Farmers, hunter-gatherers, nomadic herders, and others, especially in less developed countries, depend on a healthy environment, and birds are important for ecosystem services like seed dispersal and insect control," The New York Times points out in an article about the study.

And as Şekercioğlu told the paper: "If this is happening to birds, and they can migrate, then for other organisms, it’s going to be worse."

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Seattle to Create Largest Public Food Forest

Photo courtesy: MrTavis

Now, here's a project I can really sink my teeth into. What an absolutely marvelous idea! A public food forest. Who would have thought?

Strange as it may seem, for most of human history the food that fueled our existence was not packaged, preserved, or purchased from the grocery store, it was provided by nature. But perhaps even today we are still skilled foragers at heart, if not just a bit unpracticed. Soon, however, residents of Seattle, Washington will get the chance to grab a bite the old-fashioned way -- thanks to a brand new food forest being planted in the heart of their city.

Earlier this month, planners broke ground in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood for what will be the nation's largest free and open edible landscape, the Beacon Food Forest, a project three years in the making. Established on the notion that permaculture infrastructure brings about more sustainable communities and ways of thinking, local agriculturist formed the group Friends of the Food Forest to help realize the dream of creating a public space where food could be grown and shared.

Sitting on seven sloping acres of hillside in Jefferson Park, the urban forest will feature a variety of food-bearing trees, shrubs, vines, and other plants. Robert Mellinger of Crosscut describes the design of the nation's soon-to-be largest publicly available food forest:
The end goal is an urban oasis of public food: Visitors to the corner of 15th Ave S. and S. Dakota Street will be greeted by a literal forest — an entire acre will feature large chestnuts and walnuts in the overstory, full-sized fruit trees like big apples and mulberries in the understory, and berry shrubs, climbing vines, herbaceous plants, and vegetables closer to the ground.

Further down the path an edible arboretum full of exotic looking persimmons, mulberries, Asian pears, and Chinese haws will surround a sheltered classroom for community workshops. Looking over the whole seven acres, you'll see playgrounds and kid space full of thornless mini edibles adjacent to community gardening plots, native plant areas, a big timber-frame gazebo and gathering space with people barbecuing, a recreational field, and food as far as you can see.
Crafting such an idyllic public space, of course, didn't come without some hard work and dedication of the surrounding Beacon Hill community -- though its certainly not beyond the reach of others. For nearly a century, the land the forest will sit on was left unused in the hands of the Seattle Public Utilities department. With the idea that more could be done with that space, Friend of the Food Forest set about rally public support and raising funds for the revolutionary park. Finally, after garnering an incredible amount of public interest, city officials ultimately decided to grant the group the unprecedented liberty of spearheading such a community project on public land.

"If this is successful," Beacon Food Forest's lead landscape architect Margarett Harrison tells Crosscut. "It is going to set such a precedent for the city of Seattle, and for the whole Northwest."

For agriculturalist Jenny Pell, one of the project's earliest supporters, the thought of food forests sprouting up throughout Seattle could not just transform the otherwise cold city landscape, it might even change its residents urban lifestyles for the better.

"If people had access to larger pieces of land to do projects like this you would see really different cultures emerging around these things," she says. "If Seattle could provide 5 percent of its food from within the city, that would be more than almost any other city in the world. Even places that are really committed get less than 1 percent. Can you imagine what the city would be like if 10 percent of the food came from the city?"

Such urban food forests may be worlds away from those wild ones which nourished our primitive ancestors for millennia, but the sustaining power of communities working together towards a shared goal knows no limitation. Let's not forget to mention the health benefits that come with this. Foragers will get additional exercise and fresh air collecting this food. Plus the health benefits of eating foods grown without pesticide or artificial fertilizer will benefit all who partake of this free bounty.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Dill is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus (approx. 1500 BCE); the ancient Egyptians used it to relieve headaches. Stems of dill were found in the tomb of Amenhotep II. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, dill symbolized wealth and luck. Dried seed heads were hung in the home, over doorways and above cradles to symbolize love and protection.

Apparently native to Europe and Asia, dill also became featured in many cuisines. Along the way, people figured out that dill has some beneficial health effects, too. According to some food historians, the Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne was fond of having his banquet tables strewn with dill so that overindulgent guests could use it to settle any digestive upsets. Later, early American colonists referred to dill seeds as "meeting house seeds", as they were chewed during long church services to keep hunger pangs at bay. Today, studies show that dill's compounds, including monoterpenees and flavonoids, may have antibacterial and antioxidant effects.

In home remedies, dill is most often consumed as a tea to help settle an upset stomach or ensure a good night's sleep. The seeds are stronger and more flavorful than the leaves, though both can be used. In cooking dill is, of course, most commonly associated with pickling, though dill is a welcome addition to many other dishes as well.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Miracle Trees Live up to Their Name Again

Photo courtesy: woodleywonderworks/CC BY 2.0

Lack of access to clean drinking water is a huge problem for many people in the world, and their only recourse is to drink the water at hand, which may be contaminated and dirty. One of the big issues in supplying clean water to those communities is the cost of the technology to do so, but a new method for water purification using just sand and tree seeds could be the answer to inexpensive and sustainable drinking water.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University knew that earlier studies showed that a substance from the seeds of the miracle tree, or Moringa oleifera, was able to clean water, but that the processes used in those studies were either too expensive or not feasible for producing water which could be stored. The team set out to develop a less expensive and simpler way of using the miracle tree's seeds to purify and clean drinking water that would also be more sustainable.

Their new study found that by using an extract of the Moringa seed (containing the positively charged protein) to bind to sediment and kill microbes, in conjunction with negatively charged sand, they were able to produce potable and storable water without expensive or complicated technology.
“The resulting ‘fictionalised,’ or ‘f-sand,’ proved effective in capturing lab-grown E. coli and damaging their membranes. The f-sand was also able to remove sediment from water samples. The results open the possibility that f-sand can provide a simple, locally sustainable process for producing storable drinking water.” - Stephanie B. Velegol, Ph.D., lead author
The miracle tree, Moringa oleifera, is already grown for biofuel, food, and medicine in some equatorial regions, so this purification method could also make that natural resource that much more useful.

Moringa seed pods. Photo courtesy: Forest & Kim Starr/CC BY 3.0

Sustainable and inexpensive drinking water using just seeds and sand? Sounds like a winner. With over 1 billion people lacking regular access to clean drinking water, this new method could be a life-saver for many of our fellow world citizens. Here's hoping it goes beyond the study stage and gets scaled up for implementation in the real world.

For more information, click here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Did You Know That...

Today, Rembrandt (1606-1669) is known as one of the world's most famous portrait painters; but, in his day, he was criticized for his work. Some said his intimate portraiture was too personal or too eccentric.

The rose family isn't just about beautiful flowers. Apple, pear, peach, cherry, plum, mountain ash and hawthorne trees are also members of the rose family.

The San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906, registered 8.3 on the Richter scale and lasted 20 seconds followed by almost a minute of aftershocks. The quake sparked fires that burned for three days and destroyed two-thirds of the city.

The largest living sea mammal is the Blue Whale, which can weigh up to 189.6 tons. The smallest land mammal is the Pygmy Mouse, which can weight as little as 6.8 grams.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Climate Change May Make Mt. Everest Unclimbable Says Apa Sherpa

Photo courtesy: borisov/CC BY 2.0

Towering 29,029 feet above sea level, the formidable Mount Everest has served to tested the strength and perseverance of humanity's boldest souls -- but, due to the warming effects of climate change, ascending the world's highest peak may become more difficult yet.

Nepalese climbing guide Apa Sherpa has scaled Everest a record twenty-one times and likely knows better than anyone that mountain's rugged terrain, though he says it's becoming increasingly unrecognizable. Like many people living in the Himalayas, this 'Super Sherpa' has seen his fair share of changes to the range's ice coverage and run-off which has impacted farming in the region due to global warming, and he says Mount Everest is beginning to grow impassable because of it.

"In 1989 when I first climbed Everest there was a lot of snow and ice but now most of it has just become bare rock. That, as a result, is causing more rockfalls which is a danger to the climbers," Apa told the AFP, via PhysOrg. "Also, climbing is becoming more difficult because when you are on a mountain you can wear crampons but it's very dangerous and very slippery to walk on bare rock with crampons."

While far too many people still believe that the harmful effects of climate change has yet to be convincingly proven, for folks living in the shadow of Everest there remains little doubt. A recent survey of Nepalese farmers found that well over half felt that the weather had been getting warmer in the last decade, with 70 percent saying that water has become less plentiful. But it's not just those relying on snow-melt witnessing a changing landscape.

"What will happen in the future I cannot say but this much I can say from my own experiences -- it has changed a lot," says Apa Sherpa. "I want to understand the impact of climate change on other people but also I'd like tourism to play a roll in changing their lives as it has changed mine."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How Much Water Goes Out With the Trash Each Year?

Oranges rotting on a London market stall. Wasting food leads to the waste of huge quantities of water. Photograph: Martin Godwin via

As consumers throw millions of tonnes of uneaten food into the bin each year, few give a thought to the hidden cost of such waste – the water that it took to grow the food.

But new research shows that we throw away, on average, twice as much water per year in the form of uneaten food as we use for washing and drinking.

What is worse, increasing amounts of our food comes from countries where water is scarce, meaning the food we discard has a huge hidden impact on the depletion of valuable water resources across the world.

According to the first comprehensive study into the impact of the "embedded water" in the UK's food waste on world water supplies, more than a 5% of the water used by the United Kingdom is thrown away in the form of uneaten food. While these figures deal with the UK, I'm sure the numbers are indicative of most of the first-world countries; and, possibly some of the second-world countries as well.

The research was carried out by the government's Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) and the green campaigning group WWF, and is published with the title: Water and Carbon Footprint of Household Food Waste in the UK.

The water used to produce food thrown away by households in the UK amounts to about 6.2bn cubic metres a year.

That represents 6% of the UK's total water footprint, which includes water used in industry and agriculture.

About a quarter of the water used to grow and process the wasted food originates in the UK, but much of it comes from countries that are already experiencing water stress.

Green campaigners have for years called for more attention to be paid to "hidden" or "embedded" water – water that is used in the production of all sorts of goods, from food and clothing to cars and furniture, and which represents a hidden cost on exports.

As more countries suffer from water scarcity, these exports can further deplete natural resources and cause environmental problems such as salination – which can render land unfit for growing crops – and higher prices for water to poorer consumers.

Food waste carries another environmental cost: it accounts for about 3% of the UK's annual greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the amount generated by 7m cars each year.

That is enough to cancel out the greenhouse gases saved each year by British households' recycling efforts.

Liz Goodwin, chief executive at Wrap, said: "These figures are quite staggering. Although greenhouse gas emissions have been widely discussed, the water used to produce food and drink has been overlooked until recently.

"However, growing concern over the availability of water in the UK and abroad, and security of the supply of food, means that it is vital we understand the connections between food waste, water and climate change."

She said the organisation – which is threatened with budget cuts – would work further with retailers, food and drink companies and local authorities to reduce the amount of food wasted.

David Tickner, head of freshwater programmes at WWF, said consumers could make a "small but very significant" contribution to reducing water stress if they tried to avoid wasting so much food.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Malaysians Protest Rare Earth Mining

Protesters say the rare earth plant being built in eastern Malaysia poses a hazard from radioactive waste. Photograph: Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters via

About 3,000 Malaysians have staged a protest against a refinery for rare earth elements being built by the Australian mining company Lynas over fears of radioactive contamination.

It was the largest rally so far against the £146m ($231m Cdn) plant in eastern Malaysia, and could pose a headache for the government with national elections widely expected this year.

Authorities recently granted Lynas a licence to operate the rare earth plant in Pahang state, the first outside China in years, and it has been the subject of heated protests over health and environmental risks posed by potential leaks of radioactive waste.

Lynas says its plant, which will refine radioactive ore from Australia, has state-of-the-art pollution controls and plans to start operations by June.

Protesters, including opposition MPs, pledged on Sunday to put pressure on the government to scrap the project. Many wore green T-shirts with the words "Stop Lynas" and some shouted "Destroy Lynas" during the two-hour rally in the Pahang state capital, Kuantan.

The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, said his alliance would seek an emergency motion in parliament to urge the government to cancel the project. He also pledged that the opposition would scrap the plant if it won national polls expected by June.

"We don't want [this project] to sacrifice our culture and the safety of the children," he told the crowd.

Lynas says its refinery could meet nearly a third of world demand for rare earths, excluding China. It also may curtail China's stranglehold on the global supply of 17 rare earths essential for making hi-tech goods, including flat-screen TVs, mobile phones, hybrid cars and weapons.

Malaysian activists and Pahang residents have sought a court order to halt the Lynas plant.

An International Atomic Energy Agency team, which assessed the Lynas project last year, found it lacked a comprehensive long-term waste management programme and a plan to dismantle the plant once it is no longer operating.

Malaysia's last rare earth refinery, operated by Mitsubishi of Japan, in northern Perak state, was closed in 1992 after protests and claims that it caused birth defects and leukaemia among residents. It is one of Asia's largest radioactive waste cleanup sites.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Meat Grown in a Lab to be Sold to Public Soon

Lurking in a petri dish in a laboratory in the Netherlands is an unlikely contender for the future of food. The yellow-pink sliver the size of a corn plaster is the state-of-the-art in lab-grown meat, and a milestone on the path to the world's first burger made from stem cells. Now, if this isn't enough to turn you vegetarian, nothing can. Lab-grown meat...yummy!!

Dr Mark Post, head of physiology at Maastricht University, plans to unveil a complete burger – produced at a cost of more than £200,000 ($315,817 Cdn) – this October.

He hopes Heston Blumenthal, the chef and owner of the three Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire, will cook the offering for a celebrity taster as yet unnamed.

The project, funded by a wealthy, anonymous, individual aims to slash the number of cattle farmed for food, and in doing so reduce one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Personally, I'm not surprised that (s)he elected to remain anonymous.

"Meat demand is going to double in the next 40 years and right now we are using 70% of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock," Post said.

"You can easily calculate that we need alternatives. If you don't do anything meat will become a luxury food and be very, very expensive."

The recipe for meat grown in the lab. Image courtesy: Guardian graphics

Livestock contribute to global warming through unchecked releases of methane, a gas 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Post said the burger would be a "proof of concept" to demonstrate that "with in-vitro methods, out of stem cells we can make a product that looks like and feels and hopefully tastes like meat". I'm salivating already.

Post is focusing on making beef burgers from stem cells because cows are among the least efficient animals at converting the food they eat into food for humans.

"Cows and pigs have an efficiency rate of about 15%, which is pretty inefficient. Chickens are more efficient and fish even more," Post said. "If we can raise the efficiency from 15% to 50% it would be a tremendous leap forward."

Post and his team of six have so far grown thin sheets of cow muscle measuring 3cm long, 1.5cm wide, and half a millimetre thick. To make a burger will take 3,000 pieces of muscle and a few hundred pieces of fatty tissue, that will be minced together and pressed into a patty.

Each piece of muscle is made by extracting stem cells from cow muscle tissue and growing them in containers in the laboratory. The cells are grown in a culture medium containing foetal calf serum (whatever that is), which contains scores of nutrients the cells need to grow.

The slivers of muscle grow between pieces of Velcro and flex and contract as they develop. To make more protein in the cells – and so improve the texture of the tissue – the scientists shock them with an electric current. Maybe I'm alone here; but, I don't want to eat anything that's been electrocuted first.

Post said he could theoretically increase the number of burgers made from a single cow from 100 to 100m. "That means we could reduce the number of livestock we use by 1m," he said.

If lab-grown meat mimics farmed meat perfectly – and Post admits it may not – the meat could become a premium product just as free range and organic items have.

He said that in conversations with the Dutch Society of Vegetarians, the chairman estimated half its members would start to eat meat if he could guarantee that it cost fewer animal lives.

Meat grown in the laboratory could have several advantages, because its manufacture is controlled at each step. The tissue could be grown to produce high levels of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, or to have a particular texture.

Because the burgers are made from animal stem cells, researchers could make products from more exotic animals. "We could make panda meat, I'm sure we could," Post said.

He believes it will be a relatively simple matter to scale up the operation, since most of the technical obstacles have already been overcome. "I'd estimate that we could see mass production in another 10 to 20 years," he said.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Will Whales and Dolphins be Granted Personhood Status?

A little girl waves to a passing Beluga whale at the Vancouver, BC aquarium. Photo courtesy: rafe arnott / metro file

The answer, in a word, is absolutely!

Many year ago, my daughters and I were paying one of our frequent visits to the Vancouver Aquarium. At the whale exhibit, my youngest happened to stand in the spot the trainers stand in to signal the Beluga whale to spit (so to speak). He spat at her and spat again about five minutes later and so on. She was delighted - the whale recognized her. While my eldest and I toured the rest of the Cetacean exhibit, she stood there visiting with the whale who remembered and recognized her from previous visits.

She truly believed he recognized her; and, I like to think she was right. The point being she was so convinced of the intelligence in marine animals it never occurred to her that he might learn to recognize some of the frequent visitors to his enclosure.

I am hoping that these magnificent mammals are given personhood status. Just because their lifestyle is different to mine does not mean their lives are of any less value than mine.

Whales and dolphins are intelligent and cultural creatures and should be granted basic personhood rights, scientists argue.

Lori Marino, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, and Thomas White of Loyola Marymount University in California plan to present the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Vancouver.

The declaration aims to open a discussion about the ethical and policy implications of giving cetaceans basic personhood rights. Giving personhood rights is already being considered for the great apes.

According to the scientists, research has proven that whales have cultural and cognitive abilities similar to humans. The emotional and social areas of the cetacean brain are “enormously complex,” notes one researcher, “and in many species are “even more highly elaborated than in the human brain.”

Whales are self-aware — they can recognize themselves in mirrors — they understand symbolic language and they think about others in a way comparable to humans.

“They’re very similar to us: (they) have a sense of individual identity, personality, the ability to control behaviour and abstract thinking,” White said. “They’re even more social beings than humans are.”

They also have complex cultural lives involving learning, the transmission of cultural traits from one generation to the next and the use of tools.

Some scientists believe that whales, in particular, have mastered their own language. The use of sound among whales and dolphins is particularly advanced, and researchers say there may be “something like grammar, syntax, even language” in the complex songs and codas passed between generations and individuals.

The sonar use of sound has interesting social implications as well. “There’s nowhere to hide,” notes a researcher. “They can use sound to form an image of each other’s insides—whether you’re pregnant, hungry, sick.”

“We’ve shown that all these qualities that make humans persons are shared with other animals,” said Marino. “(They) shouldn’t be treated like property or objects — shouldn’t be confined, captured, slaughtered or exploited and all the things we still do to dolphins and whales,” she said.

Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie University biologist says this: "Based on what we know, I’d guess that cetacean culture is intermediate between humans and chimpanzees. Not in material culture, but in most other respects."

Annelise Sorg, president of the Coalition for No Whales in Captivity, said the symposium will “open up a door that hasn’t been opened to any other species before.”

Friday, December 16, 2011

Alberta Tar Sands Responsible for Wildlife Deaths

Photo courtesy: Mr Empey/CC BY 2.0

The Alberta Tar Sands project is probably the most despised example of environmental ruin there is - worldwide. Environmentally, it is such a disaster that well-paid employees are quitting their jobs rather than continue to contribute to the environmental devastation that is the "oilsands".

The Alberta Oil Sands have been called "the most destructive project on earth" and now, there's a new item on the list of economic and environmental costs. Last year, Canada Wildlife Officers shot 145 problematic black bears in the region.

A bad berry crop last summer and careless handling of food and trash at the miner camps have been blamed for the dramatic increase in bear encounters. In 2010, 52 black bears where shot.

"It’s a very disturbing fact to hear and it’s one more cost of oilsands development that we need to look at...the fact that these numbers are so high is definitely very worrying," Mike Hudema of Greenpeace commented.

"Any kind of wildlife fatality is too many for these companies from their perspective and obviously they take it seriously,” commented Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, “it’s just a matter of a high number of bears in the area.”

That said, Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell called the attitude towards bears—and wildlife in general — primitive. "There needs to be much more responsible behavior by companies running these camps to really get serious about reducing food and other attractants," she said, "the attitude of ‘attract them, feed them and then shoot’ them is really repugnant to most Albertans."

This was not the first major loss of wildlife due to the tarsands project. In 2008, for example, 1,600 ducks perished in a tailings pond.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Restaurant Uses Heat From Volcano to Cook

The cooking grill for the El Diablo restaurant. Apparently, the hole gives off so much heat, it is immpossible to look directly into it. Photo courtesy: goforchris/CC BY-ND 2.0

Operating a restaurant on a volcano sounds like an insane thing to do, but that's what local notable architect Cesar Manrique has been doing with El Diablo, a restaurant that's been in business -- cooking food using volcanic heat -- since 1970.

Located in Timanfaya National Park, on Lanzarote, a Spanish island northwest of Morocco, the restaurant's main draw is its volcanic cooking, on a large grill that uses the heat of the volcano to cook meat and fish for its patrons. Thankfully, it's not the type of active volcano with lava flows oozing out; rather, it's dormant, but the smoldering heat from deep within the earth is still enough to cook food.

According to Oddity Central, the restaurant's customized grill was a bit of an architectural feat: in order to bypass the problem of not being able to build conventional foundations due to the heat underground, architects Eduardo Caceres and Jesus Soto used nine layers of volcanic basalt rock to make a suitable cooking pit.

The El Diablo restaurant serves Canarians food which is cooked using geothermal heat (a cast-iron grill placed over a large hole in the ground). Temperature just a few metres below the surface reach between 400 and 600 degrees. Photo courtesy: Sylviane Moss/CC BY-ND 2.0

It's an interesting attraction on this rocky island that was created volcanically millions of years ago, and had its last volcanic eruption in 1824. In addition to views of the island, a three-course meal and transportation to and from one's hotel, the restaurant offers a tour of the cooking grill to tourists for 50 euros. More interesting info on Cesar Manrique's work -- who sometimes integrated volcanic formations in his designs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Brewers Buy Hops From Backyard Gardeners

Photo courtesy: Zach Beauvais/CC BY-SA 2.0

I remember driving with my parents through the extremely fertile Fraser Valley routinely as a child. We would pass field after field of hops grown almost exclusively for the brewing industry. Hops are not grown as prevalently now as they were several decades ago putting the brewing industry in the position of having to buy their hops where they find them. Obviously, they would like to source their hops close to home if possible and a new program was born.

An innovative new community program has been developed in Britain in which London breweries will buy up hops grown by their neighbors in back gardens, allotments and community farms around the city:

The idea is a simple one: rather than breweries in London buying their hops from wherever they can source them (sometimes as far afield as New Zealand), people across London grow hops in their back gardens, on their patios and balconies, allotments and community gardens, which are then used by local brewers. As they put it, “we want to grow hops across a network of individual and community gardens, get local breweries to make beer out of them and drink the result. Simple!”
Be sure to also check out the City Farmers post on Brixton Beer that inspired Rob's explorations. The idea of businesses building alternative supply chains, effectively crowd sourcing what are often considered commodity ingredients that would otherwise come from around the world, is as intriguing as it is revolutionary.

There are several other benefits that are part of this package:
- could be a small source of income for the growers.
- develops a sense of community. After all, the beer's local.
- encourages men to garden. There's nothing sissy about hop growing.
- encourages gardeners to expand their operations. Nothing is more grounding than gardening.

Not to mention building up a proprietary supply chain close to home, these breweries are also building up a community of soon-to-be customers too. I mean, who wouldn't want to drink more beer if they knew that it was, in part, a product of their labors?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Safety Tip

Photo courtesy:

Call me what you will - I'm a security nut. I shred everything; but, one of the things I make sure I shred is the bill attached to any delivery food. The trend today (when assigning buzzer numbers to new suites) is to give buzzer numbers that, in no way, indicate which suite you are ringing. That way, if someone buzzes your suite, they have no way of knowing which suite is yours unless you tell them. A good idea for personal safety.

However, the bills that come with delivery food usually has the buzzer number written on it somewhere so the driver knows who to buzz. When you think about it, they contain a lot of sensitive information - your name, address, and buzzer number. I don't want someone who dumpster dives for information to know that much about me.

Shred those bills, it could save your identity from being stolen.


An American crow. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

Most people consider crows to be the equivalent of flying rats with the added annoyance of their extremely raucous, constant cawing back and forth.

However, crows also have some very human-like qualities. They are extremely intelligent creatures who consistently solve problems and use tools to get what they are after. They also form strong attachments to their flock; and, particularly their mate. Crows mate for life and are devoted to each other. If one of the pair becomes ill or injured, its mate will bring food to the disabled bird and protect it from predators. Not only that; but, during the breeding season the young from the previous year will assist their parents in feeding and protecting the newest babies.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Russians Regenerate 30,000 Year-Old Plant From Seeds


Russian scientists have grown flowering plants using seeds stored by squirrels 30,000 years ago and preserved by the Siberian permafrost, a new study showed, in what may become a key experiment in the race to revive ancient species.

The seeds of the herbaceous Silene stenophylla are by far the oldest plant tissue to have been brought back to life, according to lead researchers Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The latest findings could be a landmark in research of ancient biological material and the bid to potentially revive other species, including some that are extinct.

The scientists highlight the importance of permafrost itself in the "search of an ancient genetic pool, that of pre-existing life, which hypothetically has long since vanished from the earth's surface".

The previous record for viable regeneration of ancient flora was with 2,000-year-old date palm seeds at the Masada fortress near the Dead Sea in Israel.

The latest success is older by a significant order of magnitude, with researchers saying radiocarbon dating has confirmed the tissue to be 31,800 years old, give or take 300 years.

"For the first time, we managed to recreate a plant with the help of fruits that are 32,000 years old," Yashina told AFP.

The study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, described the discovery of 70 squirrel hibernation burrows along the bank of the lower Kolyma river, in Russia's northeast Siberia, and bearing hundreds of thousands of seed samples from various plants.

All burrows were found at depths of 20-40 metres (65 to 130 feet) from the present day surface and located in layers containing bones of large mammals such as mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, horse, deer, and other representatives of fauna from the Late Pleistocene Age.

The permafrost essentially acted as a giant freezer, and the squirrelled-away seeds and fruit resided in this closed world -- undisturbed and unthawed, at an average of minus 7 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit) -- for tens of thousands of years.

Scientists were able to grow new specimens from such old plant material in large part because the burrows were quickly covered with ice, and then remained "continuously frozen and never thawed," in effect preventing any permafrost degradation.

"The experiment was successful thanks to the discovery of viable particles from the placenta of three fruits found intact by our colleagues in a squirrel burrow," said Yashina.

"Preserved in eternal ice in a perfect state, the three fruits had not germinated and has therefore kept the placental tissue cells viable," she added.

In their lab near Moscow, the scientists originally sought to grow plants from mature S. Stenophylla seeds, but when that failed, they turned to the plant's placental tissue, the fruit structure to which seeds attach, to successfully grow regenerated whole plants in pots under controlled light and temperature.

"This is an amazing breakthrough," Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Programme at Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada, told The New York Times.

"I have no doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim."

Scientists have known for years that certain plant cells can last for millennia under the right conditions.

Some earlier claims of regeneration have not held up to scientific scrutiny, but the Yashina/Gilichinsky team was careful to use radiocarbon dating to ensure that the seeds and fruit found in the permafrost were not modern contaminants from S. Stenophylla, which still grows on the Siberian tundra.

Arctic lupines, wild perennial plants in North America, were grown from seeds in a lemming burrow believed to be 10,000 years old and found in the mid-20th century by a gold miner in the Yukon.

Zazula recently used radiocarbon methodology to determine that those seeds were modern contaminants, according to the Times.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Quick, New Procedure for Saving Lives

If the blood pressure readings from a patient’s two arms differ by 15 or more, it could indicate a narrowing of arteries to the legs, decreased blood flow to the brain, heart disease, and a 70 percent increased risk of dying from either heart attack or stroke, a recent study found. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

There is a new technique being practised lately that takes less than one minute to perform and has saved lives. Next time a visit to the family doctor is in order, have him/her check the blood pressure in both arms. That's right - both arms. The second reading will take one minute or less; and, could save your life.

A new study says many doctors are not taking blood pressures the right way; and, that by doing it incorrectly, they could be putting their patients’ lives at risk.

Cardiologist Oscar Garfein takes blood pressure readings from both of his patients’ arms. That technique saved the life of one of his patients.

“I found that in one arm, it was very, very low, and in the other one, it was normal,” says Garfein. “And it helped me arrive at a diagnosis of a potentially lethal condition.”

Garfein’s routine is supported by a new study showing that different readings in the right and left arms could be a sign of heart disease or blood vessel problems.

If the two readings of systolic blood pressure — the pressure of blood in arteries when the heart is contracting — differ by 15 or more, it could indicate a narrowing of arteries to the legs, decreased blood flow to the brain, heart disease, and a 70 percent increased risk of dying from either heart attack or stroke.

“You want to search for the risk factors that are associated with this,” says Garfein, “such as high blood pressure or cigarette smoking or high cholesterol, and treat them very aggressively.”

Many cardiologists routinely check blood pressure in both arms, but the practice is much less common on a routine doctor’s visit.

This study, published in The Lancet, confirms a double reading could flag an underlying vascular problem in someone who otherwise seems to be healthy.

“All it takes is about a minute and you can find something that really, most of the time, points to the fact that this patient has established vascular disease,” says Garfein.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fruit Flies Use Alcohol to Kill Wasp Parasites

Study finds that fruit flies can medicate themselves with alcohol to avoid death from parasitic wasps. (André Karwath/Wikimedia Commons)

While humans can use alcohol to disinfect wounds, some insects take things a step further by eating food containing alcohol to get rid of parasites.

Fruit flies are the unwilling hosts of certain endoparasitic wasp species which lay their eggs inside the fly larvae with an injection of venom that helps suppress the antiwasp immune response and allow the eggs to hatch. When the young wasps emerge, they proceed to eat the flies alive.

However, infected larvae of the fruit fly species Drosophila melanogaster can avoid this unfortunate death by medicating themselves with alcohol.

“We found that environmental alcohol protects fruit flies from being parasitized by wasps, and that, even after being infected, fruit fly consumption of alcohol leads to death of the wasps growing within them,” said research team leader Todd Schlenke at Emory University in a press release.

“Surprisingly, fly larvae actively seek out ethanol-containing food when infected, showing they use alcohol as an antiwasp medicine.”

This alcohol-seeking behavior may even help to prevent wasps from laying their eggs in the fly larvae in the first place.

“D. melanogaster has a special ability to tolerate high levels of alcohol,” Schlenke explained. “It seemed possible that this ability might protect the flies from generalist parasites.”

Even without their antiwasp immune response, some flies are able to survive parasitization simply through ethanol consumption.

“These little fruit flies, the same that hover around the brown bananas in your fruit bowl, are making complex decisions about how much alcohol to consume based on whether or not they have internal parasites,” Schlenke concluded.

The findings will be published in Current Biology in March.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Arsenic Found in Prepared Baby Formula

Photo courtesy: jonfeinstein/CC BY 2.0

So you are rationing the apple juice after the previous arsenic scandal, and paying extra for the sure-to-be-melamine-free baby formula. All is right with the world.

Until MSNBC's Today show wakes you up with the latest news: arsenic has been found in baby formula. And here is the head scratcher: according to researcher B. Jackson and colleagues, the arsenic source is organic sweetener!

The source of the arsenic contamination, which has been found in organic cereal bars as well as infant formula, has been traced to "organic brown rice syrup". The organic sweetener is made by a process of enzymatic digestion of brown rice.

Since the organic sweetener relies on organically grown rice, the source is likely not agricultural control products used on the rice itself (barring organic cheaters, of course). But many other sources could be suspect; some of the most likely include:

•Arsenic contamination of water used in growing or processing the brown rice syrup,
•Arsenic-based pest control used in areas where the brown rice is stored (downstream from the organically certified rice farming), or
•Heavy metal contamination of activated charcoal used to purify and decolorize the syrup.

Given that sweetener constitutes only a fraction of the final product, and inorganic arsenic levels were found up to 6 times the EPA safe drinking water limit* in baby formula and 17 times the limit in high energy cereal bars, the brown rice syrup itself must be contaminated at relatively high levels of inorganic arsenic. (*There is no legal limit for arsenic in foods.)

The finding of "organic" infant formula with brown rice syrup as a primary ingredient exposes a further hole in the regulatory system for foods. Organic high energy bars (with 17X arsenic levels) use organic brown rice syrup because it consists of 45% maltose, 3% glucose and 52% maltotriose. Maltose and maltotriose are made up of two and three glucoses each. All of these three sugars have a glycemic index (GI) (measuring the speed at which the sugars enter the bloodstream) higher than table sugar!

While this might be appropriate for high energy bars, research for this article indicates that the effects of a high-GI induced blood-sugar rollercoaster on infant and child development is not well understood. In adults, high-GI foods have been linked to type 2 diabetes.

The incredibly high demand for energy in the early stages of growth may make this irrelevant, but studies do suggest that infant health is affected by the types of sugars consumed in breast milk or formula. One has to wonder: should we be experimenting on our babies with the sugars in infant formula, regardless of cost or organic considerations?

Of course, infants with lactose intolerance require special accomodation, but the parent seeking a healthy alternative to breast-feeding can be lured into buying an "organic" formula without a full understanding of the impact of the choice on their child's development.

Look for responses from both the FDA and the organic brown rice sugar industry in the coming days. The FDA will certainly attempt to calm people (after all the safe limit for drinking water includes a safety factor of 100, so 6X and 17X concentrations are not immediately dangerous). The brown rice syrup folks will have to find the contamination, get their acts in order, and keep an eye open for federal regulations -- which in the wake of one food contamination scandal after another may finally get the attention they deserve.

Consumers can look for "brown rice sugar" or "brown rice syrup" on labels, choosing products that do not contain these sweeteners -- at least until it appears the process has improved to ensure that organic means free of hazardous contaminants, as people should be able to expect.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Did You Know That...

The Himalayan snowcock is a large, grey partridge-like bird. Its nests are often found way up high in the Himalayas at heights of over 13,120 ft.

Alexander the Great couldn't grow a very good beard, so each day, he scraped off his "peach fuzz" with his dagger. His comrades didn't want to offend him; so, they started to shave, too, and it soon became a custom.

The saying "got his goat" originates from an old horse trainer's trick that involves putting a goat in the stall with a race horse to keep the horse calm. If a devious opponent stole the goat, it was said that the thief upset the horse's owner because he "got his goat".

A squid has eight arms and two tentacles and swims by forcing a jet of water out of its body. It is said that squid found in the Pacific Ocean can grow to be up to 59 ft. long; but, this has not been scientifically documented.

The Titanic had 20 lifeboats that had room for 1,178 people if filled to capacity. Unfortunately, there were 2,228 people on board during the ship's fateful voyage.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Elephant Massacre in Cameroon

Male Asian elephant. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

Poachers have killed more than 200 elephants in Cameroon in just six weeks, in a "massacre" fuelled by Asian demand for ivory.

A local government official said heavily armed poachers from Chad and Sudan had decimated the elephant population of Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon's far north in a dry season killing spree.

"We are talking about a very serious case of trans-frontier poaching, involving well-armed poachers with modern weapons from Sudan and Chad who are decimating this wildlife species to make quick money from the international ivory trade," said Gambo Haman, governor of Cameroon's North region.

Speaking on local radio, Haman said some of the poachers were on horseback and operated in cahoots with the local population, who were given free elephant meat and were glad to be rid of animals that damage their crops.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said cross-border poaching was common during the dry season but the scale of the killings so far this year was unprecedented.

"This latest massacre is massive and has no comparison to those of the preceding years," the group said in a statement.

Citing a record number of large scale ivory seizures in 2011, TRAFFIC, a conservation group which tracks trends in wildlife trading, has warned of a surge in elephant poaching in Africa to meet Asian demand for tusks for use in jewelry and ornaments.

Underlining the clout of the poaching force, Haman said a group of 50 had killed six Chadian soldiers who tried to arrest them as they fled with the ivory.

"In January we counted 146 (elephant) carcasses and since the beginning of this month we've had close to 60 already. This may only be a tip of the iceberg as some may have been killed in parts of the park that we cannot access," Haman added.

Cameroon has dispatched a rapid reaction force to the zone but Haman said there were not enough troops to cover the remote park in Cameroon's far north.

IFAW said it was not clear how many elephants remained in Cameroon but a 2007 estimate but the figure a between 1,000 and 5,000.

TRAFFIC has said that the spike in poaching and illegal ivory trade in Africa was a direct consequence of China's investment drive into the continent.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cat's Purr as Loud a Lawn Mower

Smokey, 12-year-old gray and white tabby cat in Northampton, England has the world's largest purr according to Guinness World Records. Alisdair Tait/Northampton College/Associated Press. Photo courtesy: cbcnews

Smokey the cat has roared her way into Guinness World Records having achieved the loudest purr by a domestic cat.

Guinness says the grey-and-white tabby in Northampton, England earned her place with record-setting 67.7 decibels. In a video on the cat's website, the 12-year-old, ordinary-size feline purrs with a sound akin to the cooing of an angry dove.

Smokey first rose to prominence in February, when her owner, Ruth Adams, ran a local competition for the most powerful purr. A community college recorded the purr and submitted it to Guinness.

Guinness says the loudest animal sounds are the low-frequency pulses made by blue whales and fin whales when they communicate with each other — sounds that reach 188 decibels. By comparison, a lawnmower is 90 decibels.

The following is a video of Smokey doing what she does best - purr.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Artificial Cloud Suggested as Way to Cool the FIFA Stadium in 2022.

Very short clip; but, shows exactly how this is designed to work. Video courtesy:

The fierce summer heat in the Gulf has led to concerns about conditions for players and fans at the tournament. Temperatures in June and July can soar up to 50C (122F). I'm not sure how anything can live in these temperatures; let alone, move and play football.

Deaths at these temperatures happen to locals who know better than to move during these times. Those players who are not used to these temperatures face an even greater challenge.

Qatar was announced as host in December. Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, initially said he expected the games to be moved to winter when the temperatures would be more tolerable. But Blatter has since stated he feels the tournament will go ahead as planned in the summer months. This seems incredibly strange since I would think that the health, safety and comfort of both players and fans alike would dictate a move to the winter months.

Qatar plans to air-condition their World Cup stadium via solar power, and now scientists have designed the 'clouds', which can be produced at a cost of $500,000 (about £310,000) each.

Saud Abdul Ghani, head of the mechanical and industrial engineering department at the university, said the 'clouds' are made from a lightweight carbon structure, and carry a giant envelope of material containing helium gas. Four solar-powered engines move the structure via remote control. This gives the 'cloud' the ability to adjust to the sun's movements and provide shade no matter what time of day it is.

Qatari president of the Asian Football Confederation Mohammed Bin Hammam, who will stand against Blatter for the Fifa presidency in June, has said his country is "well equipped to challenge the summer heat".

But global players' football union FIFPro backed a switch to winter, saying the Gulf country "does not provide suitable conditions for a festival of football such as the World Cup".

Qatar beat Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States to host the tournament in the vote held by Fifa's executive committee on December 2, 2010 in Zurich.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bangladesh Comes to the Aid of Freshwater Dolphins

Photo courtesy: don_macauley/CC BY 2.0

Freshwater, or river, dolphins are by their very nature a rarity in the world. Only four species are known, with two in Asia and two in South America — one of the Asian species, the Baiji of the Yangtze river, has been declared functionally extinct.

Now, the South Asian river dolphin is receiving some desperately needed attention in the form of new sanctuaries. Surprisingly, one of the world's poorest countries is taking the lead in freshwater dolphin protection.

Bangladesh has announced a plan to open three new sanctuaries in the Sundarbans — the world's largest mangrove forest — to protect both subspecies of the South Asian river dolphin.

"Declaration of these Wildlife Sanctuaries is an essential first step in protecting Ganges River and Irrawaddy dolphins in Bangladesh," Brian D. Smith, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Asian Freshwater and Coastal Cetacean Program, explained, "as biological indicators of ecosystem-level impacts, freshwater dolphins can inform adaptive human-wildlife management to cope with climate change suggesting a broader potential for conservation and sustainable development."

Currently, the dolphins face threats from dam projects, by-catch, pollution, prey loss due to overfishing, changes in salinity levels, and hunting — many of the same pressures that drove the Baiji to extinction.

The sanctuaries will also protect a range of other endangered species the make their homes in the Sundarbans.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Giant Snails Invade Florida

Giant African land snails are shown to the media as the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announces it has positively identified a population of the invasive species in Miami-Dade county, last September. Photo courtesy: Joe Raedle, AFP

No one knows how they got there. But an invasion of African giant snails has southern Florida in a panic over potential crop damage, disease and general yuckiness surrounding the slimy gastropods.

The US and Florida departments of agriculture have mobilized 34 agents to battle the infestation and the US Fish & Wildlife Service is heading up an investigation into how the mollusks--which can be up to 20 centimeters (eight inches) long--arrived.

"This is a big snail, a very big snail," says Suzi Distelberg, a district inspector for the Florida Department of Agriculture, as she probes one of the shells with a gloved hand.

"No it's not empty, see...eeew. It's very heavy, you can tell the snail is still in there.

"We've been told that they like to eat the stucco off the sides of the houses because it contains calcium, and the calcium helps to build their shells."

The lissachatina fulica, or giant African land snail, can live up to nine years, and are prolific in reproduction, laying up to 1,200 eggs a year, making it extremely invasive. A single snail can create a mass that invades an entire neighborhood.

Local resident Yolando Garcia Burgos one morning discovered snail excrement on her exterior wall, and ended up collecting 583 of the mollusks in a week, finding them in her bushes, on her grill and in her ivy. State authorities say they have captured 35,000 since the invasion began in September.

But the concern is not simply a question of aesthetics: The snail's mucus can contain a parasite which transmits a form of meningitis, which is not lethal but can provoke extreme abdominal pain.

The pest is also a threat to agriculture, feasting on some 500 plant varieties including peanuts and melons.

"If they were to become established, it could devastate Florida's agriculture," said Mark Fagan of the state agriculture department, who noted that agriculture is second only to tourism for the state's economy.

It's not clear how the world's largest snail species arrived in Florida. Originally from east Africa, they have also been found in Caribbean islands including Guadeloupe and Martinique.

This is not the first invasion for Florida. In 1966, a boy imported three giant snails as pets, and his grandmother released them into the wild, which led to a colony of 18,000. The eradication effort took nine years and cost over one million dollars.

Importation of these animals is illegal in the United States without a federal permit. But officials point out they are used in certain Afro-Caribbean religious practices.

Fagan says it's not clear if the snails were brought over for religious ceremonies or as pets and got "out of control."

The eradication effort is in full force even though the snails are in a sort of hibernation during which they dig themselves into the ground, making them less visible.

Authorities are hoping to bring down the population before the spring rains, which could cause a population surge.

Officials say the areas being cleaned up will remain under scrutiny for several months. Gardens are treated with iron phosphate, which are not harmful to other animals, but disrupt the snails' feeding habits.

The captured gastropods are taken to a lab where specialists like Mary Yong examine them and, ultimately, kill them off. The snails are effectively drowned in an alcohol solution. Or scientists toss them in the freezer to ensure they are dead.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Climate Change Threatening to Kill Oldest Living Things on the Planet

A seagrass meadow in Florida. Photo courtesy: Heather Dine / NOAA Photo Library/CC BY 2.0

It's survived for possibly hundreds of thousands of years, spreading across the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. But now, what is thought to be the oldest living thing on Earth may be reaching the end of its extended lifespan -- due to climate change.

According to research published earlier this month in PLoS ONE, the journal of the Public Library of Science, the vast meadow of the slow-growing seagrass Posidonia oceanica stretching underwater from Spain to Cyprus (h/t Boing Boing) could be up to 200,000 years old -- dating it back to the time when humans first appeared on the planet.

(The seagrass bed, which spans more than 2,000 miles, is what is known as a "clonal plant colony" and is identified by scientists as one single organism, constantly reproducing by cloning itself.)

Not just important because of its age alone, the Posidonia oceanica meadow, like other seagrass beds, supports "marine ecosystems that rank among the most valuable on earth in terms of biodiversity and production," the researchers wrote. Though the endemic Mediterranean seagrass has no native competitors or major predators, they said, it's not in good shape.

"The seagrass in the Mediterranean is already in clear decline due to shoreline construction and declining water quality and this decline has been exacerbated by climate change," Professor Carlos Duarte, a member of the research team, told The Daily Telegraph. "If climate change continues, the outlook for this species is very bad."

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Selenium Contamination Creates Two-Headed Trout and Other Deformities

River winding through a canyon. Photo courtesy: Alan Vernon

A government report released recently has found that selenium contamination from a phosphate mine in Idaho is connected to fish deformities in the area, including two-headed trout. And, the problem will worsen if water quality standards are relaxed as the company is requesting.

From Reuters/Scientific American:
The findings come as Smoky Canyon Mine is asking the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to relax restrictions on the amount of selenium the mine is allowed to drain into tributaries of the Snake River. The Smoky Canyon Mine is run by the J.R. Simplot Company near the Wyoming border.

Simplot is one of the nation's largest privately-held companies with annual sales of about $4.5 billion. Obviously, the company wields considerable clout in its home state.

Environmentalists' concerns about selenium, an element released as a byproduct of the mining operation, prompted a U.S. Senate panel to ask contaminant specialists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate whether Simplot's request would harm wild trout and other species.

Two-headed fish fry. Photo courtesy: Alternet

Yet Simplot argues the effects seen in fish are just one piece of a complex puzzle, and stands behind its proposal to relax the water quality standards. AP explains what's at stake in the decision both for Simplot and for opponents of the proposed new standards:
For Simplot, working with rules allowing for higher levels of selenium than currently allowed could save time and money devoted to cleanup and future monitoring.

For environmentalists, a change in standard could open the door to legal challenges or other mining companies seeking the same change in a region already impaired by decades of mining. And at least one federal agency has already weighed in, raising concerns about Simplot's research and claims the company is underestimating the potential impacts any change could have on fish.
Simplot doesn't deny that the selenium contamination has some effects—the company hired toxicologists to test selenium exposure and found that many developing brown trout died and others were hatched with two heads. What the company has done, the government review found, is underestimate these effects. More again from Reuters:
Fish and Wildlife Service scientists found Simplot underestimated rates of deformity and mortality in the wild linked to selenium exposure. The agency said Simplot had failed to account for deformities of trout that had died, skewing the rate of abnormalities in the company's favor.

The company's findings "systematically biased low and environmentally unrealistic quantification of larval deformity rates," according to the government report, which was reviewed by three independent scientists.
The story explains that other wildlife, such as mallard ducks, are also affected but Simplot did not analyze those risks. The phosphate mined is used to produce fertilizer and livestock feed supplements.

This is not the first time that selenium contamination has harmed wildlife; California's Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge saw major deformities in birds and a massive fish die-off in the 1980s, but that led to the closure of the refuge.

AP quotes Marv Hoyt, Idaho director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition: "Any change in the standard would do nothing more than get Simplot off the hook to clean up as much as they should... How does anything being proposed by Simplot help improve the environment or the population of fish in those streams?"