Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Is Meat Glue Safe?

tarale /CC BY-SA 2.0

I have blogged about the adding of "pink slime" and "meat glue" to our meat products before all in the name of the almighty dollar. It would seem that some have heard the cries of an outraged public and have promised to suspend the use of pink slime. Good news; but, what about meat glue?

Transglutaminase and beef fibrin, often called meat glue, is an ingredient used across the food industry to hold together smaller cuts of meat, poultry, and fish that’s been used for decades. Meat glue itself isn’t considered dangerous by most, but there is a larger fear of food borne illness when small pieces of meat, sourced from different places, are held together.

The FDA (Federal Department of Agriculture - USA) says the ingredient is “generally recognized as safe” but consumers have been grossed out by the idea that they could be eating beef tenderloin that’s actually tiny little pieces of beef glued together and sold at a higher cost.

Meat glue is actually a powder added to meat and rolled up in plastic wrap. The meat is refrigerated for 6 hours and the result is a solid piece of meat that’s seemingly impossible to tell from the real thing.

“The amount of bacteria on a steak that has been put together with meat glue is hundreds of times higher,” said microbiologist Glenn Pener reported on Future in Vegan.

Like pink slime, the practice has endured harsh public scrutiny as much because of a lack of transparency as anything else. But meat glue, unlike pink slime, is labeled. The ammonia used in pink slime isn't listed on any ingredient labels because it's considered a "processing agent" even though it's completely misleading to think that it doesn't end up in the final product.

But even if it’s listed very few people actually knew what it was until recently. In an effort to ensure that meat glue doesn't endure the same fate as pink slime, the meat industry is responding to recent criticism.

Food Safety News reports:
"We're definitely making an effort to engage," said Janet Riley, the head of public affairs for the American Meat Institute, which represents the major players in the meat industry. Riley has made a point of addressing transparency concerns head on, noting that the practice of using TG and beef fibrin is "absolutely not a secret."

And is it safe? Again, Food Safety News:
Dana Hanson, an extension meat scientist at North Carolina State University, said that it is possible that different cuts put together could be more susceptible to contamination by potentially introducing pathogens into the center of a pieced-together steak. But Hanson said that federal cooking recommendations would be sufficient to kill any bacteria.

But once again, public input is making the food industry shutter in fear of a negative reaction and without a doubt, transparency is a good thing.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Pacific "Garbage Patch" Changing Mating Habits of Insects

Seaplex researchers Matt Durham and Miriam Goldstein encounter netting and plastic in the Pacific. Photo courtesy: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Marine insects in the Pacific Ocean are changing their reproduction habitats in response to environmental changes from the accumulating amount of rubbish in the north Pacific subtropical gyre, also known as the great Pacific garbage patch, according to researchers.

The patch has increased in size 100 times since the 1970s, including its swath of microplastic particles of less than 5mm diameter. The marine insect Halobates sericeus, a species of water skater, is now using the microplastic debris as a surface to lay its eggs, said a study by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego, published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

"This paper shows a dramatic increase in plastic over a relatively short time period and the effect it's having on a common North Pacific Gyre invertebrate," said graduate student and lead author Miriam Goldstein, in a statement released by Scripps. "We're seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly attributed to the plastic."

Goldstein was part of a graduate student team, the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (Seaplex), which travelled to the patch to study its environmental impact in 2009. The study compared the group's findings to data from the early 1970s.

The Seaplex team found that water skaters typically lay their eggs on floating objects like seashells, bird feathers and pumice, but the change to plastic could have "ecosystem-wide consequences". The insects are an important link on the marine food chain, plus predators like crabs rely on their eggs as a source of food.

Increased quantities of microplastic could also mean population growth of the water skaters, and more pressure on their prey zooplankton and fish eggs, according to the study.

Debris from the patch has had an impact on other marine life, including ingestion by fish and invertebrates at a rate of roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tonnes per year, according to Scripps. It also transports pollutants and has introduced alien species into new areas.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bangladesh's War Against Climate Change

Grappling with solutions ... villagers repair a vital flood-protecting embankment after Cyclone Aila struck in 2009. Photo courtesy: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty

Rebecca Sultan's life has been shattered twice in a few years. First, the 140mph winds of Cyclone Sidr ripped through her village, Gazipara, flattening houses, killing 6,000 people and devastating the lives of millions as it slammed into southern Bangladesh in 2007.

Then, 18 months later, as Sultan was recovering, Cyclone Aila tore in from the Bay of Bengal with torrential rains, breaching the coastal embankments and flooding her fields with salt water.

Storms of this intensity historically happen in Bangladesh once every 20 to 30 years. But two "super-cyclones" in two years, followed by a narrow escape when super-cyclone Nargis killed 100,000 people in nearby Burma a year later, convinced Sultan and her village, as well as many sceptics in government, that climate change was happening and Bangladesh's very survival was at stake.

Gazipara, like thousands of other villages in coastal Bangladesh, is now racing to adapt to the increased flooding, erosion and salt-water intrusion.

Sultan and 30 other women have raised their small houses and toilets several feet up on to earth plinths. Others are growing more salt-tolerant crops and fruit trees, and most families are trying different ways to grow vegetables. "We know we must live with climate change and are trying to adapt," said Sultan.

Elsewhere in Bangladesh, hundreds of communities are strengthening embankments, planting protective shelter belts, digging new ponds and wells and collecting fresh water. Some want to build bunkers to store their valuables, others want cyclone shelters.

"I am quite amazed at how people are grappling with climate change and are adapting," said Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi scientist who is head of the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London and an adviser to the Bangladesh government on how to adapt to climate change.

"It's by far the most aware society on climate change in the world," Huq said. "It has seen the enemy and is arming itself to deal with it. The country is now on a war footing against climate change. They are grappling with solutions. They don't have them all yet but they will. I see Bangladesh as a pioneer. It has adapted more than any other country to the extremes of weather that climate change is expected to bring."

With the latest research showing more droughts in the country's north and rising sea levels, more than 30 million Bangladeshis are liable to lose everything from climate change in the next 30 to 50 years, said Atiq Rahman, director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment report.

"It's extreme events, like super-cyclones and the droughts, that will dominate in future, not the mean [average]," Rahman said. "It's the extra days of heat or cold or the intensity of the cyclones that will affect life most. Poor people cannot wait for global leadership on climate change – they are acting now. They are paying with their own lives, their own resources, their own efforts. They cannot wait. It is not a question of choice."

The trouble, Rahman told a conference on community adaptation last week in Dhaka, is that traditional knowledge about when to plant which crops, or to harvest, may not be sufficient. "Government recognises it is a very real threat. But what happens in the future will not be indicated by what has happened in the past. There is a new knowledge challenge," he says.

"Many know to plant more tolerant crops in hard years, but lack the drought-tolerant or salt-resistant seeds now needed to deal with worsening conditions. We need new technologies, funds and knowledge."

But, said the foreign minister, Dipu Moni, rich countries had not given the money they had pledged to help Bangladesh and other vulnerable countries adapt. "Climate change is real and happening," Moni said. "A 1C rise in temperatures for Bangladesh equates to a 10% loss of GDP. One event like Sidr can take 10 to 20 years to recover from and cost us billions of dollars. But we don't see the money coming.

"The people being affected are not the big banks but the poor. Our plight goes quite unnoticed. It does not make the rich countries produce trillions of dollars overnight. It's a shame, but we keep trying."

According to her ministry, Bangladesh has received $125m (£78m) so far, including $75mfrom the Department for International Development (DfID). "But [countries] have refused to [say] if the climate change money is taken out of [the existing] aid basket," said a senior civil servant. "We want clear guarantees that this money will be on top of official development assistance money. DfID has not clarified this is additional to ODA."

On the coast, Sultan pondered the changes. "The difference we've all seen in the weather in just a few years is great. Now we are getting sudden rains, we don't know when to expect them; the water levels rise faster, the erosion is greater and we are getting more salinity. We used to know when the seasons would change; now they are temperamental. We are resilient and determined to adapt to whatever happens, but it is hard."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Parachuting Mice From Helicopters Is The Newest Weapon to Rid Guam of Brown Tree Snakes

Mice, like this little cutie, will be laced with poison and then parachuted out of a helicopter. Photo courtesy: tinali778/CC BY 2.0

60 years after they found their way to the shores of Guam, brown tree snakes have become the island's most pervasive invasive species. Now believed to number in the millions, the unwelcome serpents have decimated the region's wildlife, slithering around without having to worry about any natural predator. Faced with this unchecked threat, experts have teamed up with an unlikely ally in the battle against snakes -- scores of parachuting mice laced with a lethal payload.

Authorities from the US Geological Survey believe that the snakes first arrived in Guam, a US territory in the west Pacific, hitching a ride by boat or plane during World War II. Since then, the snakes have proliferated on an unimaginable scale by feasting on the island's native bird species, and their population growth left unchecked shows no signs of slowing.

The snakes, which are mildly venomous, have caused many problems. They get everywhere, and people have even woken up with them in their beds.

The island's power system is regularly shorted out by snakes crawling on the lines. It is so frequent the locals now call power cuts "brown outs".

But the biggest impact has been on the wildlife - it has been decimated. The forests here are eerily quiet. Now the only place where the Guam's native birds, such as the koko, can be seen on the island are in cages in a captive breeding centre.

"The brown tree snake has had a devastating impact. Ten out of 12 native forest bird species disappeared in 30 years," reports Cheryl Calaustro, of the Department of Agriculture. "The birds here evolved without predators. They were quite naive. And when the snake arrived on Guam it ate eggs, juveniles, adults. Whole generations disappeared."

Brown tree snakes, an invasive species, on Guam have nearly wiped out all native birds and other native wildlife. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

As conventional methods of controlling the snakes have done little to squelch the island's 2 million or so brown tree snakes, conservation officials have begun experimenting with a more creative approach.

From the BBC:
One effort has involved air-dropping mice that have been laced with poison and fitted with parachutes out of helicopters. It provides a deadly dinner for any unsuspecting snakes below.

"Right now we are using acetaminophen (paracetamol). It commonly used as a pain reliever and fever reducer in humans, but it is 100% lethal to all brown tree snakes," explains Dan Vice of the US Department of Agriculture.

"If they eat that dead mouse containing acetaminophen, they will die."

It was about this time, after reading this, that I had a crazy flashback to a promotion a Radio Station ran many, many years. They were going to allow the good citizens of the city the opportunity to hunt their own Thanksgiving dinner just like the pilgrims did - they were going to release live turkeys onto the streets of the city. The birds were free to anyone who caught one.

There was only one real problem with the plan. They decided to release the birds from a helicopter. It didn't take long for them to realize that turkeys can't fly.

It just seems to me that pushing things - dead or alive - out of helicopters never seems to work out as it was intended.

If the move seems rooted in desperation, that may be because it is. In the last six decades, brown tree snakes have transformed Guam's island ecosystem, perhaps beyond repair.

Elmo, the Jack Russel is an expert at sniffing out snakes. Photo courtesy: bbc.co.uk

Efforts to eradicate the brown tree snake population on Guam and prevent them from hitching a ride to another destination are vigorous.

In a busy cargo depot close to the airport, Elmo the Jack Russell, kitted out in a smart, green uniform, is sniffing box upon box of goods waiting for export.

He is on the hunt for any unwanted stowaways.

As he catches wind of an unusual scent, he begins to scrabble, alerting the government inspector to the presence of a snake - and is rewarded with a treat.

A small army of dogs check every single item of cargo before it leaves Guam.

"It is a monumental project. We're working 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Mr Vice.

"Cargo doesn't stop, the airport doesn't shut down, so we have to be there to make sure the cargo going on the airplane has indeed been snake inspected."

Letting the snakes on a plane could have devastating consequences. After all, look what happened when a brown tree snake hitched a ride to Guam.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Peru Issues Health Alert Due to Mysterious Animal Deaths

A dead dolphin on a beach in Peru. Photo courtesy: bobistraveling/CC BY 2.0

Last month, reports first began to surface of an ongoing animal die-off on the beaches of northern Peru -- but as the mysterious deaths have escalated, so too has the cause for alarm. All told, hundreds of dolphins and pelicans have been found dead since February, prompting the Peruvian government to issue a public health warning.

In an announcement over the weekend, Peru's health ministry presented an alert urging people to stay clear of a long stretch of coastline where thousands of animals have turned up dead in recent months. Although the beaches will officially remain open, the ministry publicly advises that health workers take precautions when clearing away the bodies of dolphins, pelicans, and other wildlife, as the origin of the die-off has yet to be determined.

From The Guardian:
"The health ministry ... calls on the population to abstain from going to the beaches until the health alert is lifted," the ministry said in a statement posted on its website, along with a photograph of a dead pelican. It added that officials had so far checked 18 beaches in and around Lima for dead birds, but gave no details on any findings. A mass pelican death along Peru's northern coast in 1997 was blamed at the time on a shortage of feeder anchovies due to the el Niño phenomenon.

When dolphins started washing ashore in droves earlier this year, biologists first suspected that underwater oil exploration was to blame; sonar and acoustic sensing equipment have proven lethal to whales and orcas in the past. More recently, however, scientists believe that a virus may be behind the 877 dolphins found dead since February.

The estimated 1,200 pelican deaths over this same time period is not thought to be related following preliminary investigations, though avian flu has been ruled out as the cause.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

South Korea Attempts to End Sale of "Baby Flesh" Pills

Capsules containing the flesh of human babies. Photo courtesy: ABC News

This one is just so sick, I have to help shine a light on those who do this type of thing. The more people are aware and the more it is discussed in the open - the greater the chances of stopping this travesty of humanity.

Add this twist to the scourges of human trafficking and flesh peddling: Pills sold as Viagra-style performance enhancers that contain the powdered tissue of aborted fetuses and dead infants.

South Korea has seized nearly 17,500 of the bizarre capsules from tourists' luggage and international mail since last August, according to the state-run Korea Customs service said in a statement Monday. The capsules were made in northeastern China in a stomach-turning process in which dead babies' bodies were chopped into small pieces and dried on stoves before being turned into powder, the Korea Customs Service said.

The pills, which are typically smuggled in by ethnic Koreans living in northern China, aren't just creepy, the contain "super bacteria" that is hazardous to human health, the statement said. South Korea began cracking down on the drugs last year after a television network aired a documentary accusing Chinese pharmaceutical companies of collaborating with abortion clinics to make the pills from human fetuses and the remains of dead infants, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In parts of China, consumption of human placentas is believed to help revive blood supply and circulation, according to the China Daily report. In addition, many believe the fetus is a "tonic" for disease has kept the pills in demand, according to the China Daily, which reported Beijing has been investigating the matter as well. But the latest use of fetal tissue is as a sexual performance enhancer, according to a report in the Global Times, a tabloid published by the official People’s Daily.

The Korean customs announcement comes less than a month after China’s drug regulators announced the suspension of sales of 13 drugs (11 Chinese traditional medicines and two antibiotics) after finding they were encased in gelatin capsules that contained excessive levels of chromium. According to China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, the toxic drug capsules were believed to originate from factories in China’s coastal Zhejiang province and had been made using scraps of leftover leather.

Pills smuggled into Korea have come from China’s northern cities of Yanji, Jilin, Qingdao and Tianjin, the Korean customs statement said.

The Korean customs office has requested an examination of ingredients to determine if a legal import channel can be established for non-hazardous health supplements from China, the statement said.

Customs officials refused to say where the dead babies came from or who made the capsules, citing possible diplomatic friction with Beijing. Chinese officials ordered an investigation into the production of drugs made from dead fetuses or newborns last year.

The customs office has discovered 35 smuggling attempts since August of about 17,450 capsules disguised as stamina boosters, and some people believe them to be a panacea for disease, the customs service said in a statement. The capsules of human flesh, however, contained bacteria and other harmful ingredients.

The smugglers told customs officials they believed the capsules were ordinary stamina boosters and did not know the ingredients or manufacturing process.

Ethnic Koreans from northeastern China who now live in South Korea were intending to use the capsules themselves or share them with other Korean-Chinese, a customs official said. They were carried in luggage or sent by international mail.

The capsules were all confiscated but no one has been punished because the amount was deemed small and they weren't intended for sale, said the customs official, who requested anonymity, citing department rules.

China's State Food and Drug Administration and its Health Ministry did not immediately respond to questions faxed to them Monday. Chinese media identify northeastern China as the source of such products, especially Jilin province which abuts North Korea.

The Jilin Food and Drug Safety Agency is responsible for investigating the trade of such remains there. Calls to the agency and to the information office of Jilin's Communist Party were not answered Monday.

The South Korean Customs Agency began investigating after receiving a tip a year ago. No sicknesses have been reported from ingesting the capsules.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Did You Know That...

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the great composer, Verdi, had not quite finished his opera Aida, which was supposed to be performed a the dedication. Instead, Verdi's Rigoletto was what people heard instead.

A land of literacy and languages: Four different languages are spoken in Switzerland, They are German, French, Italian and Romansh. The life expectancy of the Swiss is 80; and, with a literacy rate of 99% most people can read and write.

Switzerland does not use the Euro as its currency; but, instead uses the Swiss franc. An industrialized country, it boasts a very low crime rate. About 20% of the population consists of foreigners.

Nine cities vied for the honour of hosting the 2012 Olympic Summer Games. London was chosen by the International Olympic Committee beating out Havana, Istanbul, Liepzig, Madrid, Moscow, New York, Paris and Rio de Janeiro.

Koalas like to sleep a lot. In fact, these Australian marsupials can be found snoozing for over 75% of the time. Their most active time is after sunset, when they move around and bark at their friends. Glad I'm not the only one that barks at my friends.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Rooftop Fish Farm and Vegetable Garden in Our Futures

An artist's concept of the rooftops once the Globe comes into vogue. Illustration courtesy: © Antonio Scarponi/Conceptual Devices

With rooftops across the world being used to grow food, raise chickens, and provide habitat, how does the enterprising urban grower up the ante? Perhaps with a rooftop fish farm.

The prototype Globe/Hedron "is a bamboo greenhouse designed to organically grow fish and vegetables on top of generic flat roofs. The design is optimized for aquaponic farming techniques: the fish’s water nourishes the plants and plants clean the water for the fish," according to designer Antonio Scarponi/Conceptual Devices, who is collaborating on the project with the Zurich-based group UrbanFarmers.

"Using this farming technique, Globe/Hedron is optimized to feed four families of four all year round," Scarponi writes, projecting that it could annually produce 100 kilograms of fish and 400 kilograms of vegetables, from broccoli and Swiss chard in the winter to tomatoes and eggplant in the summer.

Illustration shows how the aquaponics will be handled in the Globes. Illustration courtesy: © Antonio Scarponi/Conceptual Devices

The creators of Globe/Hedron, which TreeHugger first got wind of on designboom, are raising money on indiegogo to build the initial prototype.

According to Scarponi, the geodesic-dome design allows the heavy fish tank to rest on the frame of the greenhouse and be redistributed to a larger surface, so "the aquaponic farm can be housed on more roofs without any structural building adaptation."

The dome can be equipped with PV panels and cooling turbines to generate energy and the basic structure can be adapted with greenhouse panels or insulating panels to suit different environments and weather conditions. The grow beds inside can also be installed in different configurations "according to cost, environmental needs, and optimized insulation," and the whole dome can be disassembled and packed inside the fish tank for easier shipping.

Scarponi says he hopes the globe will be self-sufficient energy-wise, reducing operating costs, and sell for about the price of a small car.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dutch Football Club Signs Toddler to Contract

Here's the little guy signing his contract. Photo courtesy watchmojo.com

Baerke van der Meij may be just a toddler; but, he sure can kick a football. The Dutch child so impressed the local VVV Football Club in the town of Venlo that they symbolically signed him to their team on a 10-year contract.

The club first saw Baerke successfully kick three balls straight into his toy box on a YouTube video that his father posted. They invited him a "trial", where they learned the little boy has football potential in his genes. His grandfather had played for VVV. A club spokes person said the youngster demonstrated good technique and perseverance.

Take a look at Baerke in action in the following short clip.

Guerilla Gardening - the Natural Way

Photo courtesy: Mama's Taverna

Attention Fellow Home Gardeners and Growers of Tomatoes.

There is a trick to growing strong, healthy tomato plants that will produce many sweet tomatoes all summer long. Tomatoes (one of my favourite foods and so incredibly good for you) require calcium in order to grow to their fullest potential.

The easiest way to get calcium to your tomatoes is by watering them with the water you just boiled your eggs in. Let the water cool to room temperature before watering. Eggshells are one of the most natural sources of calcium around. If you don't boil your eggs, save the shells and soak them for 48 hours before watering your plants with the soaking water.

BTW: House plants benefit from the odd "calcium" watering as well.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Debt-Ridden Indian Farmers Committing Suicide

That Indian farmers have been committing suicide at depressingly shocking rates, due most often to high debts incurred when the industrial agriculture techniques and/or GM crop seeds they've been told will make them wealthy don't quite pan out as promised, is a long-running issue at the intersection of environmental and social justice — but this latest news is particularly stark.

The Times of India reports that in the past 48 hours five farmers in just one district of the state of Maharashtra have killed themselves, all over high debts. For the year, just five months and two days old, 332 farmers have chosen to end their lives because of debt.

In other words, in one state in India (albeit a big state) nearly 3 farmers each day are killing themselves because the debts they have incurred.

About this time of year, looking back at 2010 and for the whole of India, the number of farmer suicides divided out to one every 30 minutes (!!!).

Of course, the suicides bring about their own sets of problems: the widow and/or family may not be able to afford a burial; the widow is left alone to support the children; the debt in some cases will be passed on to the widow; what is left of the family may lose their land and/or their homes - the list is endless.

What's going on? Drought reducing crop yields and reducing the amount of water available (and required) for the Bt cotton they've invested in.
"As per official admission of Maharashtra agriculture minister Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, this year cotton cultivation has jumped to more than 44 lakh hectares in dry land region of Mahrashtra covering Vidarbha, Marathwada, Khandesh and North Maharashtra, but due to drought the yield has dropped to 45 lakh bales in comparison to last year's yield of 86 lakh bales," Tiwari said. "Moreover, cost of cultivation has jumped to almost double, not to mention lack of proper irrigation facilities for rain-sensitive Bt cotton crop," he added.

The latest farmer to kill himself owed Rs300,000 ($5663) — which gives you some additional insight into the precarious financial situation these farmers are in, in the first place.

All of this becomes additionally poignant today, as a new report commissioned by Greenpeace International finds that Bt brinjal (eggplant or aubergine, depending on your nationality)—currently banned from commercial cultivation in India, but there's a push to change that — poses an environmental risk.

The gist of it is this: Much like has been the case with other genetically-modified crops designed to be resistant to a particular pest or to a specific pesticide, but which are also designed so that they won't interbreed with non-GM varieties of the plant, nature always finds a way and manages to bypass the GM tinkering.

The Hindu provides more detail, saying the study finds that:
Brinjal relatives do occur in the regions where cultivation of GE Bt brinjal is proposed, and that GE Bt brinjal may mate with these relatives to spread the GE Bt gene. Spread of the GE Bt gene would have considerable ecological implications, as well as implications for future crop contamination and farmers' rights. Importantly, the spread of the GE Bt gene could result in the brinjal becoming an aggressive and problematic weed, the Greenpeace report suggests, while impressing upon the governments the need to employ the precautionary principle and not permit any authorization of the outdoor cultivation of GE Bt brinjal, including field trials.

Outdoor field trials are currently underway in the Philippines, the report notes.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Loss of Biodiversity as Dangerous as Climate Change

Photo courtesy: Dorothy Voorhees/CC BY-SA 2.0

Plenty of research has been done trying to calculate how ecosystems are going to be hit by climate change, how much productivity in a particularly ecosystem will change, but until now not so much on how extinctions and biodiversity loss will change productivity.

The bad news is that this new research shows biodiversity loss alone, if worst-case scenarios play out, would be as bad as the impact of climate change.

Report lead author David Hooper from Western Washington University says, "Some people have assumed that biodiversity effects are relatively minor compared to other environmental stressors. Our results show that future loss of species has the potential to reduce plant production just as much as global warming and pollution." (Science Daily)

Key word in the quote is 'potential'.

The study found that at the low range of projections for plant species loss (1-20%), the impact on ecosystem plant growth will be low in comparison to other environmental changes. In the intermediate range of species loss projections (21-40%), the effect is "comparable in magnitude" to climate change. At the high end of species loss however (41-60%), "the impact of species loss ranked with those of many other major drivers of environmental change, such as ozone pollution, acid deposition on forests, and nutrient pollution."

Perhaps all of that is fairly intuitive, at least at the high end (remove that much biodiversity and the impact is likely to be large), but now we have some sort of quantification of it.

Read the research: A global synthesis reveals biodiversity loss as a major driver of ecosystem change.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Stonehenge Had Lecture Hall Acoustics

No one knows why ancient people built Stonehenge. Its origin and purpose have long been question by man; but, now scientists think they may have the answer. Photo courtesy: Pete Strasser | nasa.gov

The stone slabs of England's Stonehenge may have been more than just a spectacular sight to the ancient people who built the structure; they likely created an acoustic environment unlike anything they normally experienced, new research hints.

"As they walk inside they would have perceived the sound environment around them had changed in some way,"said researcher Bruno Fazenda, a professor at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. "They would have been stricken by it, they would say, 'This is different.'"

These Neolithic people might have felt as modern people do upon entering a cathedral, Fazenda told LiveScience.

Fazenda and colleagues have been studying the roughly 5,000-years-old structure's acoustic properties. Their work at the Stonehenge site in Wiltshire, England, and at a concrete replica built as a memorial to soldiers in World War I in Maryhill, Wash., indicates Stonehenge had the sort of acoustics desirable in a lecture hall.

Stonehenge itself is no longer complete, so Fazenda and colleagues used the replica in Maryhill as a stand-in for the original structure. At both locations, they generated sounds and recorded them from different positions to see how the structure influenced the behavior of the sound.

At the replica, they found a reverberation time of just less than one second, the amount of time optimal for a lecture hall. Unlike an echo, which is a single response created when sound waves reflect off something, reverberation occurs when a sound is sustained by a quick succession of reflections arriving at different times.

Modern cathedrals can have reverberation times of about 10 seconds or more, while concert halls are designed so reverberation in them will last between two and five seconds, Fazenda said.

About one second of reverberation is "just enough for us to start becoming aware of it," he said.

Based on their work at Maryhill, the researchers believe the many stones within Stonehenge would have diffracted and diffused sound waves, creating reverberation. The large amount of diffusion and diffraction would have also lead to good sound quality regardless of where the listener was standing in relation the source of sound within the structure.

"What we found in Maryhill as a model for Stonehenge was you could almost stand behind a stone and keep talking with a good level of voice, and people would be able to hear you somewhere else," he said.

For the Neolithic people who built this structure, this sort of acoustic environment was likely quite unusual. They appear to have lived in smaller, thatched-roof homes made of wood, which would not have reflected sound as effectively. And the region around Stonehenge has no significant geographical features, like high cliffs, which are associated with echoes, or large caves, which are associated with reverberation, Fazenda said.

While some have suggested that Stonehenge was designed to create certain acoustic effects, Fazenda said he sees no evidence for this.

Rather than search for an acoustic motivation behind the construction of this mysterious structure, this research is intended to help better understand how the ancient people might have used the structure, he said.

Via livescience.com (Fazenda collaborated with Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield in the UK and with archaeologist Simon Wyatt on this project.)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Koalas Are Now a Threatened Species

Koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory have been placed on the national list of vulnerable species. Photo courtesy: imagebroker/Alamy

The Australian government has listed the koala as a threatened species in parts of the country for the first time, admitting that the species faces a "serious threat" from factors such as urban expansion and climate change.

Koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory have been placed on the national list of vulnerable species, following intervention by environment minister, Tony Burke.

The listing, designed to provide a barrier to development in areas where koalas are threatened, is aimed at halting a precipitous drop in numbers that has seen the species decline by 40% in Queensland and by one-third in NSW over the past two decades.

The decision by Burke follows a Senate report released last year that made 19 recommendations, including listing the species as threatened in certain areas of the country and boosting the funding for koala monitoring.

The report outlined numerous threats to the koala, including climate change, disease and habitat loss.

Fatal attacks on koalas by domesticated dogs were also cited as a problem, particularly during recent unusually warm summers, where the marsupial has been sighted in residents' gardens, unable to climb trees and drinking from swimming pools and water bowls.

Koala populations have been under pressure for some time, with many hunted to near extinction in eastern Australia by early European settlers for the fur trade.

The species also suffers from a limited diet of eucalyptus, which has been aggressively cleared for urban development. Meanwhile, the remaining eucalyptus' nutritional value has been tarnished by increased CO2 in the atmosphere, leading the IUCN to list the koala as one of the 10 most vulnerable species in the world to climate change.

"Koalas are an iconic Australian animal and they hold a special place in the community," Burke said. "People have made it very clear to me that they want to make sure the koala is protected for future generations. Koala populations are under serious threat from habitat loss and urban expansion, as well as vehicle strikes, dog attacks, and disease."

"However, koala numbers vary significantly across the country, so while koala populations are clearly declining in some areas, there are large, stable or even increasing populations in other areas."

"In fact, in some areas in Victoria and South Australia, koalas are eating themselves out of suitable foraging habitat and their numbers need to be managed."

"But the Queensland, New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory koala populations are very clearly in trouble, so we must take action. "

While environmental groups have welcomed Burke's decision, concern has been raised that the minister failed to include Victoria and South Australia in the threatened species listing.

Larissa Waters, environment spokesperson for the Australian Greens, said: "It would have made more sense to give the koala a national listing, instead of waiting for koala populations in South Australia and Victoria to fall into decline without protection, like those in Queensland and New South Wales."

"We now need a prompt, comprehensive and well-enforced recovery plan to get the koala back off the threatened species list, and we need protection for other species not as famous as the koala but still sliding closer to extinction every day."

There is also dispute over the exact number of koalas left in the wild. The federal government estimates there are around 200,000 remaining koalas, but the Australian Koala Foundation has challenged this figure.

The foundation's chief executive, Deborah Tabart, told ABC news: "At the moment we're still of the opinion that there's not that many koalas, less than 100,000. Victoria still needs to be protected."

"I'm delighted with this because it is going to slow things down, but it's not going to save our koalas."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

20 Ways to Use Old Coffe Grounds and Used Tea Bags

umers30/CC BY 2.0

It takes a brave and hearty (and spartan) soul to give up coffee and tea in the name of food miles. Many do, but morning caffeine is the guilty pleasure that whispers in a voice too alluring for many to resist. One thing is for sure; it's generally a long journey for beans and leaves to travel from exotic climes to the kitchen counter -- so we may as well honor them with some extra chores before condemning them to the trash. For those who add their spent dregs to the compost bin, you can still do so in many of these applications once their mission has been accomplished.

Coffee Grounds

1. Soften Skin: Exfoliate with a body scrub made of coffee grounds, coconut oil, and a little brown sugar. Gently massage it on in the shower, rinse, be soft.

2. Please the Flowers: Use coffee grounds as mulch for acid-loving plants – like roses, azaleas, rhododendrons, evergreens, hydrangea, and camellias – they like coffee grounds for the natural acidity and nutrients they add to the soil.

3. Sadden the Ants: Sprinkle coffee grounds around areas of ant infestation to deter them.

4. Deter Gastropods: Used grounds are said to repel snails and slugs, sprinkle in problem areas.

5. Simplify Fireplace Cleaning: Before cleaning the fireplace, sprinkle with dampened used coffee grounds -- which weigh down the ash and thus eliminate clouds of smoke-flavored dust.

6. Make a Sepia Dye: Soak used grounds in hot water and use as a dye bath for Easter eggs, fabric, and paper for a lovely, soft brown tinge.

7. Keep Cats at Bay: Keep kitties out of the garden with a mixture of orange peel and used coffee grounds distributed around plants.

8. Encourage the Carrots: To boost a carrot harvest, mix seeds with dried coffee grounds before sowing. The extra bulk makes the wee seeds easier to sow, as well, the coffee aroma can nourish the soil and help repel pests.

Tea Leaves and Bags

A Girl With Tea/CC BY 2.0

Some tips call for dried leaves, here’s how. When you’re finished brewing tea, place the leaves into a large strainer or colander or open your tea bag to access to the tea leaves. Press out as much moisture as possible, and then spread the leaves on paper. Let the leaves dry thoroughly, turning over several times in the process. Also note that wet tea leaves stain, so if you are using wet tea leaves on or near a porous surface be sure to test in an inconspicuous place first.

9. Tame Stings and Burns: Cool tea bags can bring relief when applied to bug bites and minor burns, including sunburn. For overall skin irritation, put spent tea leaves in a bath and soak.

10. Soothe Your Eyes: The tannins in tea have anti-inflammatory effects, which is why cool ones are often employed on puffy eyes. (The chill also helps with swelling.)

11. Feed the Garden: Use tea leaves as food for garden plants – green tea is high in nitrogen, and as a bonus, the leaves can ward off pests and insects. Also good for houseplants, add old tea leaves to their water.

12. Boost Potted Plants: When potting plants, place a few used tea bags on top of the drainage layer at the bottom of the planter before adding soil. The tea bags will help to retain water and will also leach some nutrients into the potting medium.

13. Quell the Cat Box Smell: Sprinkle used, dried tea leaves in litter boxes to help reduce the smell.

14. Eliminate Pet Odors: Sprinkle dried, used green tea leaves on your pet’s pillow, bed, in the doghouse, or other smelly spots to eliminate odor.

15. Freshen the Carpet: Sprinkle dry tea leaves onto the carpet, crush them lightly and let sit for 10 minutes, then vacuum. This will refresh the carpet and deodorize your vacuum cleaner and bag. (Especially helpful if you have pets.)

16. Treat the Dog: As an extravagance, loose leaf gunpowder tea is a treat for dogs to roll around in. It’s great for the aroma and luster it adds to the coat.

17. Freshen Mats and Beds: It is common in Southeast Asia to wash straw sleeping mats in tubs of water to which tea has been added. The tea works as a deodorizer, you can apply this method to yoga mats and air mattresses.

18. Save the Fridge: If you’re out of baking soda, place dried, used green tea bags or leaves in a small open bowl in your refrigerator to help absorb odors.

19. Wash Your Hands: Rid your hands of food odors (garlic, onions, etc) by rubbing them with wet green tea leaves, an instant deodorizer.

20. Deodorize Kitchen Surfaces: Rub wet tea leaves on cutting boards and counters to remove food odors.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Deer Takes Over Duties of Nesting Duck's Deceased Mate

In Buffalo, New York, a deer and a goose formed an interesting alliance during nesting season. The deer guarded the goose while she sat on her nest in a city cemetery. Joel Thomas, of the Erie County SPCA, says the deer was within touching distance of the goose and; whenever, a human came near, it made sure to block access to the goose. Thomas says the deer repeated that behaviour several times. Thomas couldn't explain the strange relationship between the deer and the goose; but, noted it was obvious that the deer was quite devoted to protecting its feathered friend.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Did You Know That...

French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-95) not only developed the process named after him - pasteurization - but; made the other important contributions to public health including a vaccination to prevent anthrax in sheep and cattle. He also developed a vaccine to treat rabies.

Back in 1957, Beatle member John Lennon was only 16 and had started a musical group called The Quarrymen. He invited his 15-year-old friend, Paul McCartney, to join the band. The next year, George Harrison, just 14 became a member. Ringo Starr came along a little later in 1962 when the group had become known as The Beatles.

Horror and fantasy writer Stephen King has written many best sellers in his prolific career. He once described himself as "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries".

The American Civil War was a time of military inventions. Among the innovations were land mines, barbed wire, hand grenades, submarines and machine guns.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Deforestation Threatens Vietnam's Mangrove Forests

Under threat ... an Acehnese worker prepares mangrove saplings on the outskirts of Banda Aceh. Photo courtesy: Tarmizy Harva/Reuters

Standing at the entrance to Lang Co town hall, 69-year-old Mai Truc Lam gestured to the two-story building, the sun-drenched parking lot and two-lane road in front, and described the small coastal community as it once was.

"We are standing in an area that used to be mangroves," the weathered fisherman said, and then described the negative impact deforestation has wrought on the area's sea life. "Now, we do not see some species of fish here anymore."

A few minutes' drive away, on a sliver of sand that forms the Lap An Lagoon on the central coast of Vietnam, lies a modest grove of trees – some evergreens that shed a path of soft needles, and where the land meets the sea, Lang Co's few remaining hectares of mangroves, perched above the water upon their stilted, flying buttress-like roots.

Some of the mangrove trees have torpedo-shaped seeds, which have poked into the ground and given birth to a new generation of delicate seedlings, all too easily trampled upon by oblivious passersby. Yet these remaining mangroves face the threat of being razed entirely to make way for a golf course as part of local economic development plans – part of a global development trend that has seen the clearance of as much as 50% of the world's mangroves over the past half a century.

Mangroves grow along the ocean coasts of 118 countries – with a quarter of the world's 40m hectares being in south-east Asia – but with widespread deforestation due to population pressure, expansion of shrimp farms and development, scientists fear mangroves may disappear altogether in as little as 100 years. At their best, mangroves form a vast coastal barrier of trunks and roots against the sea, controlling erosion, protecting communities from storms, and providing an environment for greater fish diversity.

Furthermore, scientists last year unveiled research pointing to mangrove forests as ideal repositories for carbon storage – containing an average of 1,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare, compared with 300 tonnes per hectare of tropical forest – which could help to fight climate change by keeping carbon locked away on land and out of the atmosphere. The scientists found that most of the carbon in mangrove forests – 49% to 98% – is stored below ground in thick, tidally submerged soil in which decomposition is anaerobic in the absence of oxygen. Yet with mangrove conservation up against economic development, the more obvious path to money wins.

"My sense in Lang Co, and in provinces across Vietnam, is that economic development has become a driving force so dominant that environmental precautions have fallen by the wayside," said Evan Fox, a coastal planning consultant. "In villages where local governments are searching for ways to bolster their economic output, it is difficult to justify preservation of an area if managers and local people cannot discern its tangible benefit."

There are laws that protect the forests and mangroves in Vietnam, but enforcement can be lax, rendering such regulations impotent. "My interpretation is that it's illegal but everything is negotiable in Vietnam and since there is no consequence for breaking the law (at least in the environmental domain), mangroves get cut. Anyway, since there are so many conflicting laws, you can probably legalise what you've done by reference to a previous law," said Jake Brunner, programme co-ordinator for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Vietnam.

Shrimp farms have been one of the big drivers behind mangrove loss. A 2011 analysis of images of Vietnam's southern Mekong delta – an area that is typically mangroves – found that from 1973 to 2008, more than half of the mangroves were converted into shrimp farms, causing serious erosion. Nonetheless, communities and governments have taken little notice of the protective services that mangroves provide until a disaster of epic proportions strikes – such as the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed some 180,000 people in western Indonesia's Aceh province.

"In Aceh, after the tsunami, the result wouldn't have been like this, if we still had mangroves," said Daniel Murdiyarso, a scientist with the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research and one of the researchers behind the mangrove carbon-storage findings.

Disaster management and risk reduction are now squarely on the Indonesian government's radar, but in most countries – and most of the time – the impact of climate change is incremental and therefore unlikely to spur governments and communities to action. When typhoons have hit Vietnam, mangroves have helped to save lives.

"That's when people noticed that where there were mangroves, people survived," Brunner said. "Thailand and Indonesia suffered a very high magnitude event, the tsunami, and that sent a very clear message. In Vietnam, there have been higher frequency, but lower magnitude events, so it hasn't quite had the same impact, and you still see mangroves being lost."

Initiatives like the Mangroves for the Future (MFF), established after the 2004 tsunami and co-chaired by IUCN and the UN Development Programme, offer grants to communities like Lang Co to protect their mangroves. Since 2008, MFF has implemented about 90 projects in its eight member countries across south and south-east Asia. The $29,000 project in Lang Co – $23,000 from MFF and $6,000 from the grantee organisation, the Centre for Community Research and Development (CCRD), and the local community – is to focus on supporting natural regeneration of existing mangroves, which is less expensive and more effective than planting. According to CCRD, Lang Co had about 100 hectares of mangroves two decades ago, but today only five hectares of poor-quality mangroves remain.

Under the MFF grant, the Lang Co fishing association has been tasked with looking after these mangroves. Local fishermen will be trained in mangrove and aquatic resource management and protection.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Scientists Claim They Have Found the Cause of White-Nose Syndrome in Bats

The recent paper confirms scientists' belief that the fungus killing off North American bats is from Europe. Photo courtesy: Joe Mcdonald/Getty Images

Bats are such a misunderstood species. They are marvels of engineering, proficient with echolocation; and, keep insects from taking over the world. Unfortunately, in 2006 local bat populations became infected with what has become known as white-nose syndrome - a disease I blogged about at the time.

A mysterious disease that has devastated North America's bat population was traced on Tuesday to a killer fungus imported from Europe, probably by an unsuspecting tourist.

Since it was first detected in New York state in 2006, the disease known as white nose syndrome has spread to 19 states and four Canadian provinces.

It has wiped out entire bat colonies, killing as many as 6.7m animals, in the worst wildlife crisis in recent memory.

The fungus strikes when the bats are hibernating for the winter, leaving a white fluffy deposit on the animals' muzzles and causing lesions on their wings.

Now a team of researchers led by the University of Winnipeg have established the origins of the fungus, and determined how it kills – by rousing the bats during their winter hibernation season.

"The fungus somehow causes the bats to warm up from hibernation too often," said Craig Willis, a biologist at the University of Winnipeg who oversaw the study by US and Canadian scientists.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The extra effort, shaking bats from their torpor, exhausted the animals' fat stores far too early in the hibernation season, causing them essentially to starve to death.

The most likely source of the fungus was human. The fungus, which has been identified, as Geomyces destructans, is known to have existed for years in Europe, but it does not kill bats there. In North America, however, the disease has wiped out entire bat colonies and spread as far south as Alabama.

The disease poses no threat to humans but it has knocked out a crucial part of the ecological chain. The average bat eats up to 1kg of insects a year. Their loss could cost US farmers up to $3.7bn a year.

"A reasonable hypothesis is that a tourist tracked it into a cave in New York state on their boots or on their clothing," Willis said. "It is possible a person who had the inclination to visit a cave in Europe picked up something on their shoes and then accidentally introduced it into New York."

The scientists collected 54 little brown bats from a cave in Manitoba. Eighteen were infected with spores collected from a New York cave, and 18 with spores from a cave in Europe. A third group was not infected.

The scientists monitored the bats' response with infrared cameras. After several months, both groups exhibited the tell-tale symptoms of white nose syndrome: the fluffy white substance on their muzzles and the lesions on the wings.

Both groups were roused four or five times more often than is typical from their winter torpor, burning through their fat stores.

Because the symptoms among both infected groups were similarly severe, the researchers concluded the fungus originated in Europe. A mutant version of a native North American fungus would have produced deadlier symptoms.

The findings were seen as an important step to unravelling the mystery of the bat deaths.

"We were all sort of suspecting that the fungus was from Europe. We knew it existed there, but this paper has demonstrated that the fungus is of European origin," said Ann Froschauer, spokesperson for the white nose syndrome team at the US fish and wildlife service.

"The most likely scenario is that it was accidentally introduced by a human traveller."

The study offers no immediate fix. It is not clear how or why European bats developed resistance to the fungus or how it can be better contained. Researchers are not yet able to track the fungus to a particular country or cave in Europe.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Museums On Guard as Organized Crime Looks for More Rhino Horns

A female rhino in Tugela Private Game Reserve, South Africa, that four months earlier survived a brutal dehorning by poachers. A rhino horn can fetch up to $260,000 on the black market. Photo courtesy: Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Tonight, just like every night since last autumn, Brigitte, Dalila and Easy Boy, the three old rhinoceroses at Thoiry safari park, west of Paris, will sleep undercover in a guarded enclosure. Paul de La Panouse, the founder of the park, knows that "arrests have been made and others are imminent", but he doesn't want to leave his animals vulnerable to the "rhino mafia".

"I've seen a lot of things in my life," De La Panouse explains. "But I still find it amazing that people should be stupid enough to believe that rhino horn, which is made of keratin, like human nails or hair, could have medicinal or aphrodisiac properties."

But however stupid it may seem, organised crime groups are smuggling horn to Asia, primarily to China and Vietnam. Trade in a parts from animals protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is banned. But demand is soaring, particularly since a Vietnamese politician claimed in 2009 that rhino horn cured his cancer.

According to Europol, the European police agency, one gang has committed at least 58 thefts in 16 EU countries – including France, the UK, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. The US has also been targeted and every source is at risk: museums, auction rooms, taxidermists and private collections. "Even zoos," says Gerald Dick, head of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "That's why we decided to alert our entire network, which has so far prevented any animals from being killed."

The thefts appear to have stopped since the new year, after the police were alerted to the thieves' distinctive "English accents", which witnesses noticed. The first arrests, in Ireland last summer, were a gang of Irish travellers. The group was also allegedly involved in drug trafficking, counterfeit goods and money laundering. But they were not the only gang involved in the rhino-horn trade.

In a coordinated raid, Operation Crash struck simultaneously in several US cities, netting seven traffickers. At the suspects' homes, police found black rhino horns, $1m in cash, gold bars and luxury watches. Arrests followed in Germany and Austria.

In France officers from the National Agency for Combating Environmental and Public Health Crime (Oclaesp) led the investigation, assisted by agents from the National Agency for Hunting and Wildlife (ONCFS) and customs officers.

While reluctant to say too much with "international arrest warrants still pending", Michel Horn, the senior customs officer at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport, cites two seizures, the first in July 2011, at the airport clearance centre. "A parcel was due to depart for Asia. The waybill indicated a bronze statue, a gift of little value," he says. "We x-rayed it and found two rhino horns worth an estimated €325,000 [$423,000]." The second arrest came last autumn, near Dax in south-west France. "A spot-check stopped a four-wheel drive vehicle registered in the UK, on its way from Spain to Switzerland. Hidden in a cavity under the boot we found two horns," he adds.

There is no doubt that organised crime is behind these cases, according to Michel Quillé, deputy-head of Europol. "It's impossible to operate all over Europe without that level of organisation," he says. "First, they need to select where to strike, how to carry out the theft, then storage and transport of the goods, refining and sale through various circuits in Asia. Lastly they have to launder the proceeds."

As well as the Irish travellers, there are allegedly Polish and Lithuanian suspects. "They are highly skilled and versatile, with people of several nationalities. They work on a commission basis, demand in Asia is so high. Depending on its rarity value, a horn can fetch between €25,000 and €200,000," Quillé explains.

Hubert Géant, head of policing at ONCFS, is astounded by the scale of the trafficking operation. "Usually we're up against people trafficking living species – insects, snakes, spiders – with collectors driving demand," he says. "But this is the first time I've come across fraud on this scale for 'dead' material like rhino horn. The number of live rhinos in Africa has been seriously reduced by poachers. So organised crime is switching to other available sources."

All the investigators agree that this trade reflects a switch from conventional rackets (extortion, narcotics, armed robbery) to environmental crime. "If sometime I decide to join the opposition," one officer jokes "I wouldn't hold up banks, I'd start flogging [endangered] species or pesticides, earning just as much money, with much less danger and the risk of a shorter sentence." Stealing rhino horns is a misdemeanour, trafficking drugs is a felony in France.

Meanwhile countermeasures are being rolled out. Auctions of hunting trophies, often a throwback to the colonial era, have been banned in France. Museums are hiding or disguising horns. The Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland, sawed off the horns of six of its rhinos, replacing them with very obvious wooden fakes.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Rare Spotless Cheetah Photographed in Kenya

A spotless adult cheetah at the Athi Kapiti Conservancy in Kenya – the sighting is thought to be first in almost a century. Photograph: Guy Combes/BNPS

A rare 'spotless' cheetah has been photographed in Kenya by wildlife photographer Guy Combes, who got within around 50m of the big cat.

Combes, originally from Dorset but now based in California, had heard tale of the spotless leopard and travelled to the Athi Kapiti Conservancy in search of it but gave up after days of fruitless searching.

"I didn't think it likely that we would find the cheetah and went back to Nairobi. I then got a call saying it had been seen again so I spent another two days searching," he said. Eventually he spotted the animal.

"I was really excited as we managed to get about 50 yards away. It was a staggeringly beautiful animal. I didn't expect to see it at all, the area we were going to search was 100,000 acres without borders and it could have easily been beyond that."

John Pullen, curator of mammals at Marwell Wildlife in Hampshire, who has examined the photographs, described the sighting as "quite rare". He said: "There are some spots still evident over the back area but most are missing. The spots or markings on all wild cats are in fact the skin colour and the hair growing from that part of the skin takes on the colouration, so if you shaved off the hair the pattern would be the same. This is really like a rare skin issue where something has happened to the genetic coding that would give the normal pattern."

Combes captured the images last year but has shown it now after photographs of a strawberry-coloured leopard photographed in South Africa emerged. It also comes as footage and images of a white killer whale spotted off the eastern coast of Russia surfaced.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Scientists Plan to Mine Near-Earth Asteroids for Rare Metals

This computer-generated image shows a conceptual rendering of a spacecraft preparing to capture a near-Earth asteroid. Photo courtesy: Planetary Resources/AP

It sounds like the start of a science fiction or disaster movie, or both. An enormously rich corporation plans to start "lassoing" asteroids near the Earth, taking them to the moon to be mined and broken up, and returning the most valuable metals – including gold, platinum and rhodium – back to our planet for use in batteries and other products.

But this is real: Planetary Resources, a company based in Seattle with billionaires including former US presidential candidate Ross Perot and Google's Eric Schmidt and Larry Page among its investors, said it plans to mine "near Earth asteroids" within 10 years.

The scheme will cost billions of dollars and could take decades to come to fruition, say independent experts – but they also say that it offers an amazing chance for humans to move permanently beyond the boundaries of Earth.

"When you think about it, there's all the raw energy you need from the sun, and 99.9999% of all the material in the solar system isn't on Earth," said Dr Ian Crawford, a planetary scientist at Birkbeck College, London.

The company, formed by space entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson along with Nasa scientists and astronauts Chris Lewicki and Tom Jones, unveiled the plans at Seattle's Museum of Flight.

Their scheme would, they said, "overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP".

Planetary Resources is to begin by sending out robot spacecraft costing about $10m (£6.2m) each, carrying telescopes which would identify promising asteroids made of metals.

Those would then be lassoed by another unmanned craft and very slowly brought into a moon orbit for automated mining.

"This is the stuff of science fiction, but like in so many other areas of science fiction, it's possible to begin the process of making them reality," said Jones.

The idea is off-planet, but not out of this world, said John Zarnecki, professor of space sciences at the Open University. "There's nothing in the ideas they're laying out that requires a quantum leap in technology. They're just talking about lumps of rock. The first thing you would ask, though, is: where's the business case?"

The announcement followed the publication earlier this month of a Nasa study saying that an asteroid 7 m (30 ft) in diameter and weighing 500 tonnes could contain as much gold, platinum and rare earth metals – such as rhodium – as is mined on Earth in a single year.

All are valuable on Earth because they are rare – a consequence of how the planet formed, said Sara Russell, head of meteoritics at the Natural History Museum.

"The iron in the early Earth melted and migrated to the core of the planet, and took those metals with it," she told the Guardian. "The ones that we mine now on the surface probably come from asteroid impacts over the years."

She thinks it would be unwise to bring asteroids into orbit around the Earth for the mining process because of the risk that pieces would break off and create more "space junk" – articles circling the planet at high speed which can strike and damage craft entering or leaving orbit.

Asteroids offer far better prospects for mining than the moon, the crust of which is like the Earth's. Asteroids are comparatively small – from a few metres to many miles long – and are the remnants of the formation of the solar system 6 bn years ago. They have no appreciable gravity.

Diamandis has advocated asteroid mining for some years, and gave a TED talk on the topic in 2005.

Mining asteroids would take billions of dollars in investment to build the infrastructure on the moon or in orbit, said Crawford of Birkbeck. "The question is whether the profit could cover the cost," he said.

There are about 1,500 "Near Earth Objects" which have been located by Nasa, travelling in orbits that regularly cross the Earth's.

Travelling to them would take less energy than travelling to Mars. Anderson believes about 150 of them contain water and other valuable minerals.

In that case, mining asteroids could be hugely profitable – though of course bringing the rare metals back to Earth in any quantity might depress the price.

Crawford suggests that instead the metals could be kept in space and used to build rockets which, because they would not have to escape Earth's gravity well, could be used to explore the rest of the solar system far more cheaply than the current cost of rocket launches.

But the precedents for the return on investment from space mining is not encouraging so far. In 2003 the Hayabusa expedition took off with a mission of scraping a little piece off an asteroid and bringing it back: after multiple failures in which the rockets shut down but were eventually coaxed back to life, in 2010 it brought back its sample – 50 grammes, at a total cost of £150 m ($2,389,905 CDN).

The Apollo missions, which brought nearly 300 kg of moon rocks to Earth, cost the equivalent of £77 bn ($12,266,254,000.00 CDN) in today's money. A Nasa mission that aims to bring back just 60 grammes of an asteroid will cost about £620 m ($987,480,200.00 CDN).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Benefits of Replacing Old Biomass Cook Stoves

Woman sitting beside newer, cleaner cook stove. Photo courtesy: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / UC San Diego/CC BY 2.0

If you need a very concrete example of how ending energy poverty has very tangible immediate effects on people's lives, check out this story from UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) about how switching to more efficient cook stoves (like the one shown above, in India).

TreeHugger has covered how switching to these newer cooking stoves means better health and less emissions for all concerned. With the updated cook stoves, less pollution also means less fuel being used.

Here are some links to help promote understanding of the new cook stove program; and, the wonderful effects it produces.

Efficient Cook Stove Movement Faces Diverging Approaches; Bringing 5 Million Rocket Stoves To Women Worldwide: The Paradigm Project; US Leads Program to Cut Black Carbon Soot; and, finally, Reducing Black Carbon Soot Would Slash Arctic Warming Two-Thirds by 2030, Cut Temp Rise by 0.5C.

Here's the gist of the effect of UNDP and Peru's Ministry of Energy & Mining distributing 25,000 cleaner cook stoves—with another 125,000 planned:
In Ayacucho, Pilar and other people who have received the new cook stoves are already benefiting from cleaner indoor air. They no longer suffer from smoke bothering their eyes while they cook. Since they now need to collect much less firewood every day, they have more time to help their children with homework and they are free to dedicate part of their time to other income-generating activities.

“With the implementation of the improved cook stove programme, La Libertad region will avoid the emission of 41,000 tonnes of CO² a year,” said José Murgia Zannier, the region’s president.
UNDP's Stephen Gitonga notes, "The project is an excellent contribution to all strands of sustainable development [social, economic, environmental]. It empowers and liberates women and girls because they need to collect less firewood. The cook stoves improve public health because they eliminate "kitchen smoke” which kills two million people in the world every year. Improved public health is equal to a higher quality of life, more productivity and fewer expenses on health care. In addition to that, to manufacture, install, transport, repair and service the new stoves create jobs.”

I'll add another benefit, the reduction of black carbon soot. Though it's technically not a gas, black carbon soot is a powerful component of global warming. It traps heat in the atmosphere—and when it falls onto highly reflective surfaces like glaciers, it accelerates how fast they melt. Switching to cleaner burning cook stoves, and phasing out older, dirtier diesel engines, can quickly reducing black carbon soot emissions and quickly reduce the additional warming the create due to the fact that the soot falls out of the atmosphere quickly once the source is removed.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A New Species Discovered - The Purple Crab

A purple crab stares down the camera in the Philippine island of Palawan in an undated picture. The colorful crustacean, dubbed Insulamon palawanense, is one of four new species in the Insulamon genus described in a recent study. Photo courtesy: Hendrik Freitag

Four new species of crab have been discovered in the Philippine island of Palawan. And one of the crabs truly stands out with its unusually bright purple shell.

National Geographic reports that the Insulamon palawanese may use its uniquely colored shell to help identify its own kind.

"It is known that crabs can discriminate colours. Therefore, it seems likely that the colouration has a signal function for the social behaviour, e.g. mating," Hendrik Freitag of the Senckenberg Museum of Zoology in Dresden, Germany told AFP.

"The particular violet coloration might just have evolved by chance, and must not necessarily have a very specific function or reason aside from being a general visual signal for recognition," Freitag told National Geographic. Freitag's report on the new species of crabs was published in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology.

A male I. palawanense is seen on a rock in Palawan. The species is widespread throughout the Philippine island, unlike the other three newfound species, which are restricted to small home creeks or rivers. Photo courtesy: Hendrik Freitag

Despite the big news, the newly discovered crabs are quite small in stature, each from about an inch to two inches wide.

While many species of crab are known by their red rust hues, some differently colored crab species are quite popular around the world, perhaps most notably the Chesapeake blue crab.

Freitag said the purple crabs likely have several natural predators, including some humans in remote areas. But he said the greatest threat to the species is ongoing forest clearing for farming, mining and home building.

Large Insulamon males—such as this I. johannchristiani, another of the newfound species — sport a reddish color, possibly to signal their power. Smaller, less dominant Insulamon males and females are purple. Photo courtesy: Hendrik Freitag

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Scientists Warn Against Fishing the Newly-Melted Arctic

The newly-melting Arctic. Photo courtesy: NASA Goddard Photo and Video/CC BY 2.0

As you've probably heard, there's a lot less ice up there in the Arctic these days. And less ice means more room for all kinds of fun human activities: It means we can start taking more efficient shipping routes! Drilling for more oil! (Which will, conveniently, help melt even more Arctic!)

And we can fish. The retreating glaciers have opened up new opportunities for fishing vessels to venture forth into new territory — territory in less-regulated international waters — and commercial fishing operations might start looking to cash in. Just one little obstacle: Over two thousand scientists from 67 different nations, each of whom has signed a letter calling for a moratorium on fishing in the newly exposed areas of the Arctic until they can better understand the ecosystem.

Here's Nature:
In all, more than 2.8 million square kilometres make up these international waters, which some scientists say could be ice free during summer months within 10 to 15 years. Although industrial fishing hasn’t yet occurred in the northernmost part of the Arctic, the lack of regulation may make it an appealing target for international commercial fishing vessels.

“The science community currently does not have sufficient biological information to understand the presence, abundance, structure, movements, and health of fish stocks and the role they play in the broader ecosystem of the central Arctic Ocean,” says the letter, which ... calls for the Arctic countries to put a moratorium on commercial fishing in the region until the impacts of fisheries on the central Arctic ecosystem, including seals, whales and polar bears, and those who live in the Arctic, can be evaluated.
This is clearly and incontrovertibly a good idea; of course we should know something about these unexplored underwater ecosystems before we charge in trawling for crab.

And the scientists may have gotten out far enough ahead of the ball here to stand a chance this time—but I wouldn't count on it. We've seen how much weight the recommendations of the scientific community gets in the court of international trade policy these days, especially regarding fisheries (bye, bye bluefin tuna). But perhaps I'm being too cynical. And perhaps none of this matters too, too much, because of that other part—you know, where the Arctic is ice-free in 10-15 years. Scientists have been warning us about what happens after that, too.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Did You Know That...

Gray's Anatomy isn't just the name of a popular American television show. It's also a reference book titled Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical, circa 1858, written by British anatomist Henry Gray and considered the standard work on human anatomy.

Like so many inventions, bubble wrap came about by accident. Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes were trying to make plastic wallpaper with a paper backing. What they got instead is what is known today as the packing material called bubble wrap.

Everyone wants to get lots of Omega3 in their diets and most people know that this essential fatty acid is available in some fish. But it is also found in an odd little shrub called sea buckthorn which produces small orange berries rich in Omega3.

The robot, Juno, will arrive a the planet Jupiter in the year 2016. During its five-year voyage from Earth, Juno is powered by the sun through the use of three large solar panels.