Monday, April 30, 2012

Plane in Washington, DC Sinks Into Tarmac

Thanks to 100 degree temperatures, the tarmac in Washington, DC became soft enough to entrap an airplane. Photo courtesy: Philip Dugaw

Global warming will have many expected; and, sometimes hilarious results. This week in Washington, DC it was so hot that an airplane sank 4" into the tarmac; and, became trapped.

We now know that the first half of this year was the hottest in U.S. history. We also know that respected climate scientists have explicitly described the extreme weather this year thusly: It's "what climate change looks like."

And yeah, it looks like devastating wildfires and heat waves and sweating, thirsty people without power all along the eastern seaboard. But it also looks like that, above. That's a plane sinking nearly half a foot into the boiling runway.

The Washington Post explains:
the temperature reached 100 degrees in Washington on Friday and that apparently softened the airport paving enough to immobilize the airplane. The small vehicle that usually tows planes away from the gate tugged and pulled, but the plane was stuck.

A jet airliner getting stuck in the airport tarmac appeared to be one of the more unusual incidents that occurred in the Washington area amid a blistering string of daily temperatures above 95 degrees.
It was so hot that tarmac had gotten soft enough for a plane's wheels to actually sink down into. So passenger Phillip Dugaw snapped an image and posted it onto Reddit, and it promptly went viral. His account: "They spent over an hour trying to get it out with the tug-truck, before they deplaned us. Still didn't work. Then they off-loaded luggage to try to make it even lighter and blasted the engines to try to get it out. After two hours, they gave up and cancelled the flight."

Yeah, climate change also looks like crazy infrastructure fails and pain-in-the-ass travel snafus. And that's just the beginning.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

21 Nations Vote Against Whale Sanctuary

Photo courtesy: Thoth, God of Knowledge/CC BY 2.0

Today, in the enlightened, internetted 21st century, whaling should be the simplest conservation issue out there. We've killed too many of them, they're endangered, and people love them. All evidence points to the fact that we shouldn't kill them anymore.

There are many reasons to stop hunting them beside the obvious one. First and foremost, they are sentient beings who should have the right to live their lives without fear of being harpooned. Secondly, you would think that the outcry against whaling from the public would be sufficient to put an end to it without even taking into account the added incentive of the booming industry that is whale watching. And let's not forget - the demand for whale meat is minimal and even their oil isn't used anymore.

Another effort to protect whales has crashed and burned at the International Whaling Commission meeting; a proposal was made to turn the Southern Atlantic into a giant whaling sanctuary. Nations like Brazil and Argentina, both of which have thriving whale-watching industries, were totally behind it. So were more than 35 other countries.

Unfortunately, 21 nations weren't, and voted not to protect whales. The BBC reports:
Latin American countries argued that declaring a sanctuary would help whale conservation and whale-watching. The bid gained more than half of the votes but fell short of the three-quarters majority needed to pass ...

The proposal covered almost the entire Atlantic Ocean south of the Equator, from the west coast of Africa to the east coast of South America. It would have joined up with the two existing whale sanctuaries approved by the IWC, in the Southern and Indian Oceans.
This stuff is frustrating in a radically different way than something like climate change is. This is a major, multifaceted blight that seeps into every aspect of our daily lives. Nothing is more infuriating than world leaders' continued inaction on climate change, but the enormity of the problem at least makes the chaos understandable. If we can't rally to protect endangered whales (while of course respectfully preserving the right of limited catch for indigenous populations who subsist on them) then there's little hope, frankly, that we can protect much of anything at all.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Tick Bite Can Turn Victim Vegetarian

A bite from one of these could end your carnivore days forever. Photo courtesy: John Tann/CC BY 2.0

Imagine breaking out in agonizingly painful and itchy red welts, or even anaphylactic shock, with no clear explanation about why it is happening. With careful logging of everything you eat or touch, the picture becomes more clear: eating meat triggers this misery. People with these symptoms are finding themselves faced with a choice: eat meat and suffer; or become vegetarian.

Fortunately for those inflicted by this mysterious allergy, one of the victims of this strange disease was Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, a reknowned University of Virginia immunologist. Dr. Platts-Mills and his colleagues at UVA have been on a mission to figure out just what is going on. They reported initially in 2009 on what appeared to be a wholly new type of food allergy: cases of anaphylactic shock that were not occurring immediately after a food was eaten as is typical for food allergies, but which had its onset 3-4 hours after consumption of the trigger.

In the spring of 2011, the team of researchers came to an even more surprising conclusion: tick bites are causing meat allergies. The trigger turns out to be an oligosaccharide (a complex sugar, galactose-alpha 1,3-galactose or alpha-gal, if you like scientific names) contained in the cell on non-primate mammals -- that means a molecule that is in beef, pork, lamb, and other meats that is not found naturally in human cells. Alpha-gal in the tick's saliva sensitizes susceptible people when they are bitten; hives or anaphylactic shock result when the person subsequently ingests alpha-gal in meat.

The growing number of cases, as well as celebrity victim John Grisham, have recently raised the public profile of this allergy, which has been receiving reviews in the medical literature for several years already. Known cases largely follow the geographic range of the Amblyomma americanum, or the Lone Star tick, with a focal point in Virginia, but also including North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, the lower half of Missouri and Australia, where doctors have associated another species of tick with meat allergies.

Not yet explained: Neither Lone Star ticks nor eating beef are new, so why are the reported cases of this allergy suddenly increasing? Have the ticks evolved a new component of their saliva recently? Are people more susceptible due to other confounding factors in their diets or lifestyles? Could changing climate in tick habitats be to blame?

While we do not recommend deliberately allowing white-spotted ticks to feast on you in hopes of finally breaking off your love affair with meat, you might want to look at it this way: if you convert to vegetarianism now, you won't need to worry about miserably itchy attacks of hives as a consequence of tick bites.

The Lone Star tick is just one more reason -- joining sustainable One Planet living, health benefits, and a warming sense of moral superiority -- for adopting a vegetarian lifestyle.

The Lone Star tick website gives great advice on how to recognize the male and female Lone Star ticks. True tick experts may note that the tick in the image has dressed up to better imitate the female Lone Star tick, recognizable by a single white "star" on the dorsal shield, a marking that is not shared by the male of the species.

In the meantime, be careful in the woods; and, use an environmentally- and people-friendly bug repellant.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Exxon Valdez Still Creating Controversy Even as She is Slated for Demolition

Ship breakers at work. You will notice the lack of tools - these ships are broken down literally by hand. Photo courtesy: Jim Brickett/CC BY-ND 2.0

It's the end of an era, yet continuing on the same tack at the same time: The Exxon Valdez, yes the same ship that caused the iconic massive oil spill in Alaska after it ran aground, is heading to India to be broken down, after being formally retired from service earlier this year. But as Business Line reports even as it nears death (as it were), there's still a good deal of controversy around the ship.

ToxicWatch Alliance is objecting to the ship being granted permission to land at the Alang shipbreaking grounds in Gujarat, India. TWA reports that the ship is currently about 12 miles off Mumbai, halted by a Supreme Court decision.

TWA says the ship poses an environmental threat due the presence of asbestos and PCBs in the ship.

There is no picture that can adequately depict the extent of the sheer horror of the ship-breaking yards. Toxins fill the air, water, land; and, even the workers. These poor, desperate workers live in such abject poverty that even working in a toxic soup breaking apart ships with their bare hands is preferable to starving to death slowly.

At least part of the objections raised are about the conditions in which ships in general are broken down in India as the Exxon Valdez itself:
Mr Krishna [from TWA] said apart from the threat to the marine ecology, workers too faced grave danger. “Workers labour on tidal sands to cut ships up by hand, exposing themselves to the risk of toxic chemicals, fires, explosions and falling steel plates,” he said, and added that dismantling the hazardous vessel could not be achieved on a tidal beach, as was currently being done.

Though this photo is from shipbreaking grounds in Bangladesh, it is an essentially similar situation in Gujarat. Ships are run aground and then broken down by teams of workers, with the metal being recovered. Photo courtesy: Naquib Hossain /CC BY-SA 2.0

TWA says that since the 1980s more than 5000 foreign ships have been processed in the Alang yards, causing harm to the nearby marine environment. As responsible countries (the USA, Canada, European countries, etc), we should not allow ships to be sold to these firms.

Allowing unskilled workers to be exposed to the toxins in these leaking hulks is totally inexcusable under any circumstances; not to mention, the pollution that is leaking into the oceans. There is no concrete barrier protecting each countries' water from the pollution in another country's water. What ends up in the water in India will eventually end up back on our doorstep.

For those that don't know, for many years the Alang shipbreaking yards were a "de facto" photographers' tourist attraction. You could enter the yards and photograph the work relatively freely. It's a very dramatic scene. But since alarms were raised about the effect of the work on the environment and the hazardous conditions for the workers, access is much more strictly controlled.

As point of fact, the Exxon Valdez had not actually gone by that name for some time. Since the oil spill in 1989, the vessel had gone through many name changes, the last being the Oriental Nicety, after it was purchased for scrap metal (for the second time) in Singapore by an Indian firm.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Prisoners Reduce Sentences by Generating Electricity

Possibly one of the street lamps powered by convicts. Photo courtesy: b3d_/CC BY 2.0

Although prisons are ostensibly intended as places where convicted criminals can pay their debts to society, confinement behind bars rarely yields anything other than the punishment alone. But now, thanks to an innovative new initiative underway at a correctional facility in Brazil, prisoners are being given the chance to slash their sentences while bringing a bit of light into the world, literally -- by producing the electricity used to power street lamps.

According to Jornal Nacional, Brazil's Santa Rita do Sapucaí prison, following the suggestion of a local judge, recently installed electricity-generating stationary bikes as part of a plan to keep inmates active while letting them contribute to a greater good.

For every 16 hours spent pedaling to charge a battery connected to the bike, prisoners of good standing will shave a day off their sentences. The energy will then be used to power streetlights in the city that might otherwise be dark, making the community a safer place at night for everyone.

Using the bikes isn't mandatory, but when their benefits are as win-win, there's no reason it needs to be. "I was a little chubby," says one inmate. "I've lost about nine pounds [riding the bikes]."

Given the success of the program so far, the prison plans to add even more power-generating bikes which will go even further to reduce sentences, waistlines, electricity bills, and carbon emissions -- all while making the world a brighter place, in more ways than one.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Scientists at Rice University Develop a Spray-On Battery

An electron microscope image of a spray-painted lithium-ion battery developed at Rice University shows its five-layer structure. Photo courtesy: REUTERS/Ajayan Lab/Rice University/Handout

Scientists in the United States have developed a paint that can store and deliver electrical power just like a battery.

Traditional lithium-ion batteries power most portable electronics. They are already pretty compact; but, limited to rectangular or cylindrical blocks.

Researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas, have come up with a technique to break down each element of the traditional battery and incorporate it into a liquid that can be spray-painted in layers on virtually any surface.

"This means traditional packaging for batteries has given way to a much more flexible approach that allows all kinds of new design and integration possibilities for storage devices," said Pulickel Ajayan, who leads the team on the project.

The rechargeable battery is made from spray-painted layers, with each representing the components of a traditional battery: two current collectors, a cathode, an anode and a polymer separator in the middle.

The paint layers were airbrushed onto ceramics, glass and stainless steel, and on diverse shapes such as the curved surface of a ceramic mug, to test how well they bond.

A beer stein served as an able substrate for a paintable battery developed at Rice University. Photo courtesy: REUTERS/Jeff Fitlow/Rice University/Handout

One limitation of the technology is in the use of difficult-to-handle liquid electrolytes and the need for a dry and oxygen-free environment when making the new device.

The researchers are looking for components that would allow construction in the open air for a more efficient production process and greater commercial viability.

Neelam Singh, who worked on the project, believes the technology could be integrated with solar cells to give any surface a stand-alone energy capture and storage capability.

The researchers tested the device using nine bathroom tiles coated with the paint and connected to each other. When they were charged, the batteries powered a set of light-emitting diodes for six hours, providing a steady 2.4 volts.

The results of the study were published on Thursday in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Slick Tricks

Don't those pancakes look yummy! Photo courtesy: thibeault'

One way to sneak some healthy fruit and nutrition into your loved ones (and establish a new family favourite) is banana pancakes with fruit topping. The recipe is very simple. Take whichever recipe or mix is your favourite; and, start by measuring out the liquid (water or milk) into a bowl. To this add one broken banana. Use your immersion blender to liquify banana. Add all other ingredients and mix well. Cook as usual.

The fruit topping can be made with any fruit you like; but, I prefer a berry blend. Take your fruit and cut into small pieces. Place in saucepan with 1/4 cup of water; and, begin to heat gradually. Add a small amount of sugar if desired. Cook fruit until softened and juicy. Turn heat off. You may use this sauce warm, room temperature or even cold. If sauce is to be used cold, make ahead of time and refrigerate.

A plain old spray bottle. Photo courtesy:

Do you live in a place that gets snow? Here's a trick that will entertain the kids for hours on end. Collect up a bunch of old spray bottles and fill them with water. Into each bottle put a few drops of 100% pure vegetable dye. The more drops, the darker the colour. Give them to the kids - outside! - and let them create to their heart's content. There is absolutely no danger to any animal that might come in content with the frozen colours nor with the vegetable dyes harm the earth when the snow melts. This is win-win in my book. Creativity should be encouraged in a variety of mediums - even snow.

Pigeons Recognize Different Human Faces

Man feeding pigeons. Photo courtesy: Mat McDermott/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

New research shows that pigeons have more advanced cognitive processes than we commonly give them credit for, that they can recognize familiar human faces from unfamiliar. I don't know why this should come as a shock to anyone. It has long been established that crows and many other birds recognize human faces. Ask any parrot owner if their birds recognize them apart from any other person who may be in the room at the time. The answer (and mine is included) is "yes". My parrotlets recognize me; and, fly to me exclusively when called.

The study, published in Avian Biology Research, found that "the experimental group birds were able to recognize and classify the familiar people using only their faces...the results show that pigeons can discriminate between the familiar and unfamiliar people and can do this solely using facial characteristics."

Lead research Dr Anna Wilkinson:
Such advanced cognitive processes have rarely been observed in pigeons and suggest that they not only recognize individual humans but also know who they know, something which could be very important for survival. To know individuals and act appropriately to them is enormously advantageous. (Science Daily)
The researchers also say that the discovery of this ability in pigeons is further noteworthy because it shows that the ability to recognize individual facial characteristics is not restricted to birds normally considered to be highly cognitive.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Makeup Samples Contain Mold, Bacteria and Fecal Matter

Photo courtesy: Yahoo!News

You might want to rethink that free makeover at the makeup counter.

Good Morning America went undercover to test the makeup samples at 10 big beauty stores and found that one out of every five samples had mold, yeast, and -- prepare yourself for this one -- even fecal matter.

OMG! How does this happen?

The Microbiology lab at New York University Langone Medical Centre says the eyeshadows, lipsticks, and foundations you've been testing before buying are not only caked with poop, but they're also smeared with strains of bacteria that can make you sick.

These pots, bottles and myriad of other containers usually do not supply a toothpick, cotton swab, or any other aid to removing the sample; so, people use their fingers to get the sample(s) they wish to try. Unfortunately, some of those digits have been in places and touched things we'd rather not think about - without the benefits of a handwashing afterwards.

Beauty counters, on average, replace their makeup samples once a year; so, the bacteria and other delights left behind have a good long time to ferment into something truly digusting.

The biggest germ dispensers are makeup brushes, foundations, and eye makeup. If you're hell-bent on testing makeup before you buy, always use a disposable applicator and test the color on the back of your hand or your neck -- not your face or (gasp!) your lips.

And if you're thinking you're immune because you only shop for makeup in the fancy department stores, check this out: GMA found no germ disparity between the high-end department store samples and the ones at the drugstore. It seems bacteria is indifferent to class.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Enviropigs Euthanized

Three of the enviropigs when they were younger. Photo courtesy:

To me this is a true horror story. Someone somewhere decides that in order to successfully complete some worthless test or other, some form of animal must be genetically-modified. So, the animal is modified without thought to the after effects of this modification, the quality of life this animal will have modified or what is to become of the animal once the tests are over.

The enviropigs at the University of Guelph found out what happens when they outlive their usefulness to man.

A group of genetically-modified pigs was quietly put down last month after the University of Guelph found no way to continue the research or farm the animals out, the school confirmed Thursday.

University Spokeswoman Lori Bona Hunt said she had received "many generous and well-intentioned offers" from individuals and groups interested in helping find homes for the "enviropigs."

"Unfortunately, there was absolutely no opportunity for this to occur, as adoption, donation or transfer of the animals would represent a breach of protocols and Canadian policies," Bona Hunt said.

"Releasing the enviropigs would also have violated Canadian regulations for the containment and use of transgenic animals, and possibly compromised consumer safety and market protection."

As a result, she said, the 10 animals — from the 10th generation of enviropigs — were "humanely euthanized" on May 24.

The pigs, genetically modified to generate less-polluting waste, were set to become among the first produced for human consumption until the project's main financial backers, Ontario Pork, pulled the plug largely based on consumer antipathy toward the altered animals.

The school said it was trying to find ways to allow the research to continue.

Farm Sanctuary, a U.S.-based group that had offered to try to find new homes for the animals, decried the killing.

"By killing 10 perfectly healthy individuals, when there was a clear and effortless alternative for the University, Guelph has forfeited any claim it might have had as anything other than a profit-driven arm of Canada’s meat industry," said spokesman Bruce Friedrich.

"We're saddened by Guelph's callous and mercenary killing of the enviropigs, who deserved better."

Rich Moccia, an associate vice-president at the school, said last month that relinquishing control of the enviropigs posed unacceptable risks.

"The possibility of escapement or inadvertent release, however remote, could occur, with the possibility that they could intermix with either feral or domesticated pigs, or even end up in the human food chain by accident."

The school planned to preserve the pigs' genetic information in long-term safe storage operated by the federal government in Saskatoon.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Guide to Pesticides on Produce

Photo courtesy: born1945/CC BY 2.0

While the following report deals with produce in the USA, I'm sure that figures are generally the same worldwide.

Health and environment watchdog, Environmental Working Group (EWG), has released the eighth edition of its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce with updated data on 45 commonly-consumed fruits and vegetables and their total pesticide loads. The results are based on analysis of pesticide residue testing data from the US Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration.

Every year EWG takes to task the worst offenders with its Dirty Dozen list, while giving a shout-out to produce with the lowest pesticide levels with the list of the Clean Fifteen. It's such a brilliant and helpful approach, giving shoppers the power to avoid the most contaminated food while still being able to purchase conventional produce when and if circumstances require it.

This year they also added a new category to the Dirty Dozen -- the Plus category includes green beans and leafy greens (kale and collard greens) that haven't met traditional Dirty Dozen criteria, but are found to be routinely tainted with highly toxic organophosphate insecticides. According to EWG, these insecticides are toxic to the nervous system and have been largely removed from agriculture over the past decade, but they are not banned and still show up on some food crops. Sigh.

Dirty Dozen: The 12 to buy organic (in order of pesticide load, apples being the worst offenders).

1. Apples
2. Celery
3. Sweet bell peppers
4. Peaches
5. Strawberries
6. Imported nectarines
7. Grapes
8. Spinach
9. Lettuce
10. Cucumbers
11. Domestic blueberries
12. Potatoes

Clean Fifteen: Buying organic is more sound environmentally, but if you can't, these options are less contaminated and don't pose as much of a health threat as do the dozen above.

1. Onions
2. Sweet corn
3. Pineapples
4. Avocado
5. Cabbage
6. Sweet peas
7. Asparagus
8. Mangoes
9. Eggplant
10. Kiwi
11. Domestic cantaloupe
12. Sweet potatoes
13. Grapefruit
14. Watermelon
15. Mushrooms

Other disheartening data from the report includes:

•Some 98 percent of conventional apples have detectable levels of pesticides.
•Domestic blueberries tested positive for 42 different pesticide residues.
•Seventy-eight different pesticides were found on lettuce samples.
•Every single nectarine USDA tested had measurable pesticide residues.
•As a category, grapes have more types of pesticides than any other fruit, with 64 different chemicals.
•Thirteen different pesticides were measured on a single sample each of celery and strawberries.

For the full list, see Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. You can also download a pocket-sized guide here.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Guerilla Gardening - the Natural Way

A variety of different melons. Photo courtesy: aworldcommunitycookbook

Melons are one of my favourite fruits - I haven't met a melon yet I haven't loved. Of course, I love all kinds of fruit; but, melons are particularly nutritious, health-giving and delicious.

I am even trying to grow a couple of vines on my balcony using the following tip. No matter what kind of melons you grow, they'll be the tastiest treats in town if you use this simple trick at planting time: Mix 5 lbs of earthworm castings (available in catalogs), 1/2 pound of Epsom salts (available in any drug store), and 1/4 cup of instant tea granules (usually available in the bulk section of your local supermarket) in a wheelbarrow or big tub. Then put 1 cup of the mixture into the bottom of each planting hole. Your melons will grow sweet and juicy beyond your wildest dreams!

Did You Know That...

Those who regret getting a tattoo may be in for a shock if they want to rid themselves of this type of body art. Tattoo removal can cost more than double the price of getting the tattoo; and, it may take eight or more laser treatments, spaced at least a month apart, for full removal.

An autoharp, which is a chorded zither, is a stringed instrument which usually has 36or 37 strings; but, can sometimes have more. The instrument has buttons which, when pressed, play a certain chord. Skilled players can not only play chords, but can play melodies as well.

A tipi (or teepee) was quite a comfortable home for the Native peoples of North America. Made from animal skins and wooden poles, they were warm in the winter, cool in the summer and stayed dry, no matter what the weather.

The six-legged, long-bodied dragonfly should be considered a welcome insect. Using its two pairs of strong wings, dragonflies are fast flyers. They eat pesky mosquitoes, flies and ants.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lake Superior Zoo Floods, Animals Die

Photo courtesy: © Emily Lepisto

Global warming has been the orchestrator of yet another tragedy. Climate change has caused flooding in Duluth, Minnesota, USA. Hundreds of animals have died at the zoo and an entire community has been cut off.

The Mayor of Duluth, Minnesota - Don Ness - has declared a state of emergency as heavy rainfall has undermined roads, knocked out power, and devastated the city only days after the tourist town's famous Grandma's marathon. The disruption to humans is severe, with evacuations of low-lying areas underway, but no fatalities reported yet. A different story plays out for the animals of the Lake Superior Zoo.

As many cages remain flooded, the toll of the rains cannot yet be known, but many of the zoo's barnyard animals have drowned, including sheep, goats and donkeys. The zoo has updated their facebook page to help keep friends of the zoo informed as the tragedy evolves:
What has happened at the zoo is extremely traumatic for our staff and animals. Our hearts are broken and we very much appreciate your kindness and compassion. It is our priority to keep you all appraised of the latest developments. We ask for your patience and continued support. We assure you we are continually working to maintain the safety and well-being of our beloved animals.

Animals that could swim did: the zoo's polar bear, named Berlin, and a seal escaped as the waters floated them above the enclosures of their zoo homes. Berlin, the polar bear, was darted with a tranquilizer and has been moved to a safe area. A seal celebrating his freedom on Duluth's Grand Avenue was caught in a phone photo by local anchorman Dan Hanger and has been making the rounds on facebook and the Duluth news outlets.

"The zoo is a lake," my Duluth contact is reporting to me as he drives by the site, trying to reach the nearby historical Morgan Park neighborhood, famous as the factory town erected for workers at the U.S. Steel plant. The planned community can be accessed only through tunnels underneath the railways that once brought ore to be turned into steel, but which have now flooded and closed off all traffic, as the rain continues to fall.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

City Cuts Down Gardener's Food and Medicine Garden

Ms. Morrison talks with KOTV reporter about the damage done to her garden. Photo courtesy: KOTV/Video screen capture

There are few things I despise more than high-handed bureaucratic tactics...and, this one incites me to riot. Look at that woman's face, she is devastated. I hope the city of Tulsa gets a ton of flack over this one.

KOTV reports that Denise Morrison grows an edible and medicinal garden of over 100 plant varieties in her front and back yard. Last August, she received a letter from the city reporting a complaint about her yard.

She took photographs of her gardens and went to meet with city inspectors who told her “Everything, everything needs to go” when she asked for problem areas to be pointed out.

Upon hearing that all of her garden would have to be destroyed she called the police who issued her a citation so she could appear in court and work it out with the city. At her court hearing on August 15 the judge directed both parties to return to court in October.

Ms. Morrison captures city workers on video destroying her plants. Photo courtesy: KOTV/Video screen capture

The very next day, Morrison found, and photographed, city workers cutting down most of her plants-with what appears to be a bobcat and riding lawnmower- including trees that bore fruits and nuts. It is important to point out here that the city did not have permission to take action against the garden because the judge had put off hearing their case until October.

Before and after shots of Ms. Morrison's garden. Photo courtesy: KOTV/Video screen capture

Everything that Morrison grew could be eaten. At the time the gardener was unemployed and not covered by insurance. She used her garden not only to feed herself, but to treat her diabetes, high-blood pressure and arthritis. According to Morrison, when she explained this to the enforcement officials she was told “we don’t care.” Morrison has filed a civil rights lawsuit arguing that the enforcement officials overstepped their bounds.

If this is sounding familiar to you it's because gardens like Morrison's are always coming under attack. Remember the story of Adam Guerrero last year that made national headlines after Colleen blogged about it at TreeHugger?

I wish Ms. Morrison all the luck with her lawsuit because gardens are a civil right; and, the removal of hers was high-handed, illegal, and unfeeling. If you wish to make your views known about this travesty, please click here. All contact info for the city of Tulsa is here.

Warning: Food Alert

This omelet may contain more than you think it does. Photo courtesy:

As an allergy sufferer, I know how miserable allergies can be; so, I was stunned by the information contained in a commercial I saw recently.

A famous pancake house revealed that a "splash" of pancake batter is added to every omelet made. They didn't declare exactly what a "splash" was; but, they claim this is what makes their omelets so light and fluffy.

The reason I felt this must be brought into the light is simple. Omelets are one of the few foods that many people feel safe eating because they are confident they know what is in there - eggs and seasonings...period. Never, would I expect pancake batter in an omelet.

So...fellow allergy sufferers, no matter what you are ordering in a restaurant disclose all of your allergies to the server and insist they be brought to the chef's attention. Apparently, you just never know what may lurking in your food.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Scientists Discover Bears Can Count

Black bear. Photo courtesy: dalliedee/CC BY 2.0

In yet another blog on one of my favourite subjects, animal intelligence - we now discover that bears are smarter than we previously gave them credit for being. When are we going to wake up and realize that just because we lack the skills to communicate with the animals this does not mean that they are not intelligent?

Further, rather fascinating, illustration that non-human animals can be far more than intelligent than they are generally given credit for: New research in Animal Behaviour shows that American black bears have at least rudimentary counting ability, demonstrating performance "similar to that found previously with monkeys," which "suggests that bears may also show other forms of sophisticated quantitative abilities."

To determine this, the scientists put bears through number-based tests on a touch-screen computer, which rewarded them for correct answers. BBC Nature describes the tests:
They touched the screen to select one or other of the arrays, and were given food if they got the answer right. One bear was rewarded for touching the screen with a greater number dots, and for the other two bears, a correct answer was an array with a fewer number of dots. The team wanted to ensure that the animals were not merely estimating magnitude, a skill that has been shown by many animals.
Sometimes the dots were moving and sometimes not, but, "Despite encountering greater difficulty with dots that moved within the arrays, one bear was able to discriminate numerically larger arrays of moving dots, and a subset of moving dots from within the larger array, even when area and number were incongruent. Thus, although the bears used area as a cue to guide their responses, they were also able to use number as a cue."

The scientists say that this is the first time a species that has not evolved to live socially has demonstrated the ability to individuate items.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Waistlines Worldwide Carry Enough Food for 300 Million People

"You can be lean without being really poor, and Japan seems to have pulled that off". Photo courtesy: this particular greg/CC BY 2.0

A few years back Mat quoted British journalist Fred Pearce, who questions the prevailing wisdom about overpopulation:
Rising consumption today is a far bigger threat to the environment than a rising head count. And most of that extra consumption is still happening in rich countries that have long since given up growing their population.
Mat concluded:
A reasonably equitable distribution of the planet's resources, among humans and non-humans, dictates that those of us at the top of the heap start consuming less, way less--Pearce's point in urging that long, hard look in the mirror.
Now new data show that this is literally true, particularly when it comes to food. When they look in the mirror it is not going to be a pretty sight. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine used population and body mass index information to calculate the total body mass of the population. They then calculated how much of that was healthy body mass, how much was due to overweight and how much to obesity. It turns out that people in a lot of the wealthier countries in the world are carrying around a lot of extra pounds which have to be fed. One of the authors explained the meaning of this to the BBC:
When people think about environmental sustainability, they immediately focus on population. Actually, when it comes down to it - it's not how many mouths there are to feed, it's how much flesh there is on the planet.
There also appears to be a correlation between countries where people drive a lot and body mass. For example, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are in the top ten. Professor Roberts speculates:
One of the most important determinants of average body mass index is motor vehicle gas consumption per capita. So, it is no surprise to see many of the Arab countries in the list - people eat but they move very little because they drive everywhere.
The amount of excess body mass being carried around is the equivalent of three hundred million people.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Nearly 100 Species of Birds Threatened in Amazon

The Hoary-throated Spinetail is predicted to lose more than 80% of its habitat in the Amazon, according to the latest survey of the world's birds. Photo courtesy: IUCN

Birds in the Amazon are under increasing threat from deforestation, while large populations of duck have disappeared from northern Europe, and vultures are under intensifying attack in Africa, according to the latest survey of the world's birds.

The Rio Branco antbird has been singled out for particular concern – it lives in the Amazon, but its relatively long lifespan makes it more vulnerable than some other species to even moderate deforestation. The hoary-throated spinetail is predicted to lose more than 80% of its habitat in the same region, putting it on the "critically endangered" list, meaning the species faces serious risk of extinction.

According to BirdLife International's update for 2012 of the IUCN red list of threatened species, close to 100 species of birds across the Amazon region are now at a greatly increased threat of extinction.

"We have previously underestimated the risk of extinction that many of Amazonia's bird species are facing," said Leon Bennun, director of science, policy and information at BirdLife. "However, given the recent weakening of Brazilian forest law, the situation may be even worse than recent studies have predicted."

In Africa, the white-backed and Rueppell's vultures have been classified as "endangered", after their numbers have declined rapidly. Vultures have been suffering across the globe, particularly in areas such as India and south-east Asia, because of poisoning from pesticides, loss of habitat and harassment from farmers. The decline in their numbers has raised fears for the future of other species, as vultures play a key role in the food chain by feeding on dead animals.

But this year's list – based on a review that takes place every four years – shows that it is not just tropical species that are facing serious threats. In northern Europe, more than one million long-tailed ducks have mysteriously disappeared from the Baltic region over the past two decades. No one is sure why this has happened, and the species is now classified as "vulnerable", while another northern European sea duck, the Velvet Scoter, has been listed as "endangered".

BirdLife called for conservation efforts to be increased, as birds across the globe face mounting threats from habitat loss, hunting and predation, pollution, and other environmental problems.

Stuart Butchart, global research coordinator for BirdLife, pointed to the success of some conservation programmes as a guide to future efforts to ensure the survival of some of the world's rarest species. For instance, in the Pacific, the Raratonga Monarch of the Cook Islands has returned from the brink of extinction, owing to a concerted attempt to control predators such as black rats, which are not native to the islands and the proliferation of which created havoc for nesting birds. In Brazil, the restinga antwren, which lives in the coastal south-east of the country, has been found to be more widespread than previously thought, while a new protected area covering some of its key habitat should help to ensure its long term survival.

Butchart said: "Such successes show the remarkable achievements that are possible where effort and dedication by conservationists and local communities are backed up with political support and adequate resources." But he said more efforts were needed, and on a wider scale, to ensure more species stay off the critically endangered list.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Japanese Appetite For Whale Meat Dimishes

Fried whale meat at a restaurant in the Japanese capital, Tokyo. Photo courtesy: Yuriko Nakao/Reuters

Japan's failing appetite for whale meat left three-quarters of meat from whales caught in the north-west Pacific last summer unsold, according to a report.

Junko Sakuma, a freelance journalist, said the body responsible for selling meat from Japan's controversial "scientific" whaling programme had failed to sell 908 tonnes of the 1,211-tonne catch, despite holding 13 public auctions since last October.

The report, published on the website of the Tokyo-based Dolphin and Whale Action Network, said the Institute of Cetacean Research, a quasi-governmental body that oversees the hunts, had hoped to use sales from the meat to cover the costs of the whaling fleet's expeditions.

The failure of the auctions to pique consumer interest in meat from minke, Bryde's and sei whales has forced the institute to revert to private sales through Kyodo Senpaku, the for-profit firm that collects, processes and sells the meat on behalf of the institute.

Sakuma said the oversupply of whale meat, despite pockets of demand for the highest quality produce, had made Japan's lethal research programme unsustainable.

The Institute of Cetacean Research blamed low demand on the complicated auction procedure and reluctance among food suppliers to attract criticism from anti-whaling groups such as Sea Shepherd. I'm sure that even though he is in jail, Capt. Watson is rejoicing over this news.

"We could not achieve the results we had anticipated," an institute official told Kyodo.

Although the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling in 1986, Japan is allowed to conduct so-called "scientific" hunts in the north-west Pacific and the Antarctic. The IWC stipulates the meat must be processed and sold on the open market.

But campaigns to revive the tradition of eating whale meat – which was largely confined to a few coastal towns – have failed to capture the public's imagination.

A 2006 survey by the Nippon Research Centre found that 95% of Japanese people never or rarely eat whale meat. Consumption of whale meat rose after the second world war as it provided a much-needed source of protein.

Sakuma's report will come as another blow to Japan's beleaguered whaling industry.

Campaigners claimed a major victory when the Antarctic whaling fleet returned to port in March with just 30% of its planned catch of more than 900 whales. The fisheries agency blamed the poor catch on bad weather and "sabotage" by Sea Shepherd.

Late last year, it was revealed the government used 2.28bn yen (£18.5m) from the 11 March earthquake recovery fund, on top of its existing $6m (£3.87m) annual subsidy, to pay for the most recent Antarctic hunt.

The justification the fisheries agency gave for this atrocious mishandling of earthquake disaster funds is that it was a perfectly acceptable use of the money because one of the towns destroyed by the tsunami was a whaling port.

Who do you think you're kidding, Japan?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Carbon Storage Determined to be Cause of Several Earthquakes

A hydraulic fracturing drill rig in Troy, Pennsylvania. Scientists don't yet know why it appears storing fracking by-product underground carries a higher seismic activity risk than fracking itself. Photo courtesy: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground could give rise to small earthquakes, according to a new report from the US National Research Council.

But the authors said there was too little research to be firm on the findings, and called for more work to be done.

The report examined sites where hydraulic fracturing – the practice of blasting dense rocks apart with water, sand and chemicals in order to release tiny bubbles of natural gas trapped within them – had been used. The authors found that fracking in itself carries only a low risk of causing earthquakes of sufficient magnitude to be felt by people.

The finding comes despite a report into the only major shale gas fracking site in the UK, near Blackpool, that found two earth tremors – far too small to do any damage but enough to be felt in nearby villages – were directly linked to the fracking activities.

However, the US report did find evidence that where wastewater was injected underground as a by-product of fracking – a procedure not used in the UK – earthquakes could occur. It is not clear why injecting wastewater underground carries a higher risk of seismic activity than fracking in itself. But the finding has clear implications for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, because that process would also require the injection of large volumes of gas or liquid – in the case of CCS, carbon dioxide under high pressure.

The authors called for more research to show whether these problems occurred with carbon capture and storage and whether they could be avoided.

The report also noted that despite the potential for earthquakes, no significant damage had been caused by fracking in the US. However, some tremors have been felt – similar to those in the Blackpool region – and have given concern to local residents.

The scientists said: "Technologies designed to maintain a balance between the amount of fluid being injected and withdrawn, such as most geothermal and conventional oil and gas development, appear to produce fewer induced seismic events than technologies that do not maintain fluid balance."

They recommended closer oversight of such activities.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pakistani Villagers Hold a Tree-Hugging

Some of the participants that gathered to hug a tree. Photo courtesy: © Zafar Iqbal

Every once in a while, a story comes along that just makes me giggle inside. The mass tree-hugging in Pakistan is one such story. I wish we, in the western world, would do more of this type of thing. What a wonderful bonding moment between all participants. In a totally gentle, "no tree was harmed" kind of demonstration, the villagers showed the world how they felt about their beloved trees; and, drew world-wide attention to their cause.

Straddling the borders of India and Pakistan, Kashmir may be one of the most hotly-contested places on the planet -- but despite being at the center of a tumultuous boundary dispute, the people that call the region home share in common something far more important: a love of nature. And it shows.

In a recent show of solidarity with the forest and one another, more than a thousand Pak-Kashmiri villagers gathered in near the Pakistan-Indian border to set a world record by simultaneously giving their beloved trees a loving squeeze. For over a minute, the assembled crowd of men, women, and children were joined together in the simple, symbolic gesture of hugging a tree.

Photo courtesy: © Zafar Iqbal

The event, which took place 150 miles from Pakistan's Kashmir capital of Muzaffarabad, was organized by a local social development organization to underscore the important role forests play in the region's culture and the livelihoods of its people, reports the Kashmir Monitor.

“This was an emblematic effort to show huge respect to our forests and to raise awareness among the local communities who largely depend upon the forests for their livelihood,” says volunteer organizer Amiruddin Mughal.

Although Kashmir in recent decades has gained international attention for the precariousness of its political boundaries, for folks living there, environmental threats seem much closer at hand. This region of the world has has long been known for its natural beauty, but in recent decades deforestation, soil erosion, and human encroachment as begun to pose a serious threat to both the forest and the numerous endangered species that call it 'home'.

The recent mass tree-hugging is currently being reviewed by the Guinness Book, where it is expected to break the current record involving 700 nature-lovers in the UK. Meanwhile, local environmental specialists, like Aftab Alam, hope that the collective tree-hugging will bring some much needed attention to an ecological problem too often overshadowed by Kashmir's more widely-known challenges.

“Awareness and education through such kind of events is only one side of our environmental landscape. Our generations may face catastrophic future if government and environmental agencies do not respond swiftly to tackle ecological challenges.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Japanese Pier Washes Up on Oregon Beach

The dock that washed ashore in Oregon is 66 feet long and covered with an estimated ton of marine life. Photo courtesy: Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation

A Japanese dock that ripped from its moorings during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and washed ashore in Oregon this week brought with it an estimated 100 tons of sea life.

Oregon State University (OSU) scientists said Thursday that there are about 13 pounds of organisms per square foot on the 66-foot-long dock, which has been traced to the Northeast coast of Japan. Tests show that the dock is not contaminated with radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown after the tsunami, but it did bring with it the danger of invasive species.

"This float is an island unlike any transoceanic debris we have ever seen," John Chapman, an OSU marine invasive species specialist, said in a statement. "Drifting boats lack such dense fouling communities, and few of these species are already on this coast. Nearly all of the species we've looked at were established on the float before the tsunami; few came after it was at sea."

Wakame, a known invasive seaweed, clinging to the "tsunami dock" on an Oregon beach. Photo courtesy: Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation

Among the hitchhikers are urchins, starfish, anemones, flealike crustaceans called amphipods, worms, mussels, limpets, snails, filter feeders called solitary tunicates, algae, and four to six species of barnacles, Chapman and his colleagues reported.

Estimates from the Japanese government and NASA suggest the monstrous tsunami swept up 5 million tons of debris, with about 70 percent sinking to the seafloor; the rest (1.5 million tons), like this huge dock, have been floating across the ocean. And although tsunami debris has likely been washing up on the west coast for months, the researchers were shocked to see such a rich raft of life make it all the way across the open Pacific, where food is scarce, to Newport, Ore.

"It is as if the float drifted over here by hugging the coasts, but that is of course impossible," Chapman said. "Life on the open ocean, while drifting, may be more gentle for these organisms than we initially suspected. Invertebrates can survive for months without food and the most abundant algae species may not have had the normal compliment of herbivores. Still, it is surprising."

Oregon state officials are organizing volunteers to scrape the dock clean of the organisms, which will be bagged and disposed of. Many of the species are not native to Oregon's shores, and could damage the state's ecosystem if they become established there.

Among the species on the Japanese dock are these exotic mussels (Mytilus edulis or M. galloprovicialis) and unknown barnacles. Photo courtesy: Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation

For example, a brown algae called Undaria pinnatifida was present over much of the dock, according to Jessica Miller, an ecologist at Oregon State. The algae is native to the western Pacific, but has established itself in southern California.

"To my knowledge it has not been reported north of Monterey, Calif., so this is something we need to watch out for," Miller said in a statement.

Likewise, small shore crabs found on the dock are similar enough to ones that live in Oregon that they could find a home on the state's coast. Oysters, clams, limpets, snails, mussels, sea stars and worms could also move in, Miller said.

These little creatures can have a big impact. The invasive zebra mussel, for example has grown so densely in some lakes and streams in the United States that no other species can survive. They even clog intakes for drinking water and for hydroelectric companies.

It's too soon to say whether any of the species on the dock bailed before reaching the beach, according to the Oregon State biologists.

"We have no evidence so far that anything from this float has established on our shores," said Chapman. "That will take time. However, we are vulnerable. One new introduced species is discovered in Yaquina Bay, only two miles away, every year. We hope that none of these species we are finding on this float will be among the new discoveries in years to come."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Back The Pack

Women using the water pack. Photo courtesy: © Back the Pack

Water has long been an issue with me. I believe everyone should have reasonable access to fresh, clean water without fear of rape, beatings or worse. Women and female children should not have to walk for miles/hours to find water to bring back to the family. In some countries, men wait by the water for people to collect it. The women and girl children are raped as are some of the male children. If there are any young men, they are severely beaten.

While these packs won't help much with those problems, they will make the collection of water a faster, more efficient, less painful chore. Hopefully, by drawing attention to the lack of clean, fresh drinking water in these countries; and, the dangers involved in collecting it, light will spill over onto the other problems as well.

A partnership between a major industrial packaging manufacturer and a group of social entrepreneurs has produced an innovative product - a water-carrying backpack to help transport clean water safely and with less effort. And one of the best parts is that they cost just $10.

In many parts of the world, the water crisis is an in-your-face daily issue, with lots of time and energy spent just providing the basic water needs of a family.
"The burden of water transport can be huge for women and children in developing countries. The average person needs 8 to 15 liters of water per day; a family of six needs up to 90 liters daily. And in Africa, for example, women walk an average of 3.5 miles each day to get water."

And on top of that, the containers used to transport it (usually a repurposed container) may be responsible for contaminating the water because they aren't designed to store potable water.

The solution, courtesy of a partnership between Greif and Impact Economics, is the WaterWear backpack, a sanitary, collapsible, and easier-to-carry container capable of making a big impact on the lives of those affected by the water crisis. 2000 of the WaterWear packs have been distributed in Haiti, with plans to distribute many more throughout the world, both for disaster relief and daily use.

Photo courtesy: © Back the Pack
"The WaterWear™ pack is the lowest cost, ergonomically correct way to manually transport water from source to home. It is the first for purpose designed water transport product that is economically viable for developing economies and disaster relief conditions."
The following video gives an insight into the problems women and children face collecting water.

The WaterWear packs are capable of holding up to 5 gallons of water, can be carried either on the back or on the head, and stand upright for filling.

Find out more about how you can help make these water containers more widely available: Back the Pack.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Tragic Extinction of The Northern White Rhino

Photo courtesy: © prb10111 - awol

In 2006, there were possibly as many as 15 northern white rhino left in the wild; and, spearheaded by renowned conservationist Lawrence Anthony, a strong movement to protect the species. Today, the white rhino is thought to be extinct in the wild. What happened in those six years is a tragic example of the challenges conservation initiatives face around the world.

Anthony managed to secure the required experts and even funding to launch a full-scale conservation mission for the rhinos. This included equipment like helicopters and dart guns, and conservationists and officers to oversee the plans. The Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Africa supported the project. The Environmental Minister in the DRC was also onboard. So, too, was a non-profit group called African Parks, which effectively was responsible for the management of Garamba National Park were the rhinos lived.

Everything seemed to be in place, but when the proposal was officially submitted, it found resistance from an unlikely source. The ICCN — oddly enough, the Congolese government agency responsible for conservation — cautiously waylaid the project, asking for confirmation that African Parks had agreed to the plan.

"We immediately contacted the ICCN and informed them of African Parks' decision. A few days later we received a response saying that they agreed to the rescue provided African Parks agreed," Anthony explains in his new book The Last Rhinos, "But they have agreed, we replied. And with that the ridiculous merry-go-round started again and we were unable to make any more progress."

The end result, unfortunately, was that the subspecies reached a point of likely extinction in the wild. The sad story offers some insight into the delicate nature of conservation projects — and how, with so many moving pieces, it's very easy for the whole thing to fail.

Tragically, Lawrence Anthony died in March of this year after suffering a heart attack.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Global Warming Causes Tundra Shrubs to Become Trees

Alder (dark green) and willow (greyish) shrubs grow on the northernmost foothills of the Polar Ural in West Siberia, Russia. An increase in the height of these shrubs has caused problems for the indigenous Nenets who have had to modify their reindeer herding practices. Photo courtesy: B.C. Forbes

Tundra is by definition a cold, treeless landscape. But scientists have found that in a part of the Eurasian Arctic, willow and alder shrubs, once stunted by harsh weather, have been growing upward to the height of trees in recent decades.

The reason for the change: the warming Arctic climate, they say.

Roughly 30 years ago, trees were nearly unknown there. Now, 10% to 15% of the land in the southern part of the northwestern Eurasian tundra, which stretches between Finland and western Siberia, is covered by new tree-size shrubs, which stand higher than 6.6 feet (2 meters), new research indicates.

"What we have found essentially is that the growth of these shrubs is really linked to temperatures," said study researcher Marc Macias-Fauria of Oxford University's Biodiversity Institute. "They are reacting to warming temperatures by growing more."

The change first came to the attention of scientists when nomadic reindeer herdsmen, the indigenous Nenets, said they were losing sight of their reindeer in the new trees, Macias-Fauria said.

Until recently the shrubs common in this part of the Arctic stood at most about 3.3 feet (1 meter) high, too low to obscure a reindeer.

To better understand the climate dynamics associated with the increase in growth in the northwestern Eurasian tundra, he and colleagues studied information from the herdsmen's observations, temperature data, growth rings in the wood of shrubs and satellite data, including observations of the amount of green covering the landscape during the growing season.

They found the shrubs grew most in years with warm Julys.

To determine how much of the land is now covered by the treelike shrubs, they used high-resolution satellite images, verifying what they saw in these with trips out into the field.

Shrubs are common in the southern parts of treeless tundra regions, giving way to more grasses, lichens and mosses farther north. Harsh Arctic weather generally prevents the shrubs from growing up —"the bigger you are, the more exposed you are to the atmospheric conditions," Macias-Fauria said.

This Eurasian piece of the Arctic is among the mildest Arctic regions, so it may offer a hint as to what is to come in other places, he and his colleagues point out.

Were the treelike shrubs to become widespread, this change could exacerbate global warming through what is known as the albedo effect, he said. When snow falls on the tundra's shrubs, it creates a continuous white blanket that reflects the sun's energy back out into space. Trees, however, rise above the snow, breaking up the white and darkening the land surface. As a result, less energy is reflected back into space and more is absorbed, resulting in warming.

The loss of Arctic white sea ice over dark ocean has a similar effect.

Eventually, it is believed that warming will cause the forest to the south to creep north into what is now tundra. However, that process is expected to take much longer.

This research is detailed online in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Chimps Can Plan to Deceive

The 33-year-old chimpanzee, Santino, has a habit of sneaking up on visitors and hurling stone projectiles at them. Here, he is slowly moving toward visitors, with two projectiles in his left hand. (This image was taken 31 seconds before the throw.) Photo courtesy: Tomas Persson, PLoS ONE

A chimp that creates hiding places for rocks he throws at zoo visitors reveals for the first time that humanity's closest living relatives can plan to deceive, researchers say.

These findings could shed light on the evolution of higher mental functions such as planning, investigators added.

The chimpanzee known as Santino is the dominant male of his group at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden. Intriguingly, past research showed the ape calmly gathered stones from his enclosure's moat and pieces of concrete he pulled off an artificial island into stockpiles he later hurled at zoo visitors — an instance of spontaneous planning for a future event, a mental ability once widely thought limited to humans.

"A lot of great apes, especially dominant males, throw things at human bystanders," said researcher Mathias Osvath, a comparative cognitive scientist and scientific director of Lund University's Primate Research Station Furuvik in Sweden. "It is most often part of their dominance displays and an effective way to make people move, which is the main purpose of a display. Other individuals are supposed to move during such displays to accept the dominance."

Santino doesn't throw stones at Osvath or others that he knows.

"He never hits anyone, so protective gear is not necessary," Osvath said. "We know each other, and we often play. I don't have to be particularly cautious, more than never forgetting that they are extremely strong animals who can cause serious damage to you if they want to."

Now scientists find Santino appears even more foresighted and innovative than previously thought. The ape conceals his weapon caches, showing that chimpanzees are capable of even more complex planning than once known.

Santino not only hid projectiles behind logs and rocks, he also manufactured ones from hay. All projectiles were placed near the visitors' area, and helped lull visitors into a false sense of security, allowing him the chance to fling his missiles at crowds before they had time to back away.

To make like he was just wandering about, Santino picks up an apple from a water moat, just 15 seconds before hurling the stones at visitors. Photo courtesy: Tomas Persson, PLoS ONE.

The chimpanzee made his first hay hiding-place after zoo guides had repeatedly backed visitors away from him after noticing a projectile in his hands. At one point, after a projectile-throwing attempt by Santino, a tour guide left the chimp alone for hours without visitors. When the guide and a visitor group came back, Santino acted nonchalant while holding projectiles and walking toward the group.

"To the guide, his appearance did not suggest intentions of throwing. The chimpanzee even stopped and picked up an apple floating in the water, from which he took a bite as he continued approaching the visitors," wrote Osvath and colleague Elin Karvonen of Lund University online May 9 in the journal PLoS ONE. "Just within range, he made a sudden throw at the group."

After several attempts at deceiving visitors, Santino created this concealment when the people he intended to fool were out of his sight, meaning he was capable of planning even without having any targets immediately available as aids to his plans.

"The results indicate that he can anticipate behaviors of others who are not present in the situation where he makes his preparations," Osvath told LiveScience.

These findings could shed light on the evolution of thinking, Osvath added. For instance, seeing that chimpanzees have similar capabilities as us could yield insights on what our last common ancestor was like.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Living Stem Cells Found in 17-day-old Corpses

Human muscle collected 17 days after the death of the individual and harboring stem cells that are still alive (inset) and capable of being cultivated. Photo courtesy: Fabrice Chretien

Stem cells can remain alive in human corpses for at least 17 days after death, researchers say.

Stem cells give rise to all other cells in the body, a property that makes them extraordinarily valuable in potential therapies. These potent cells are often rare, only present in small numbers in tissue samples from patients and difficult to distinguish from other cell types in many cases. As such, scientists are investigating novel ways to procure stem cells and improve the viability of the ones they can get.

Past research had suggested that stem cells could actually survive in up to 2-day-old cadavers, but researchers had thought that dead bodies would be poor homes for any cells, lacking the oxygen and nutrients the body's cells need to stay alive. Nevertheless, histologist and neuropathologist Fabrice Chrétien at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and his colleagues were curious to see how long stem cells might keep ticking after a person died.

The researchers only had access to remains 17 days old, suggesting they have not yet seen the limits that stem cells can reach. "Maybe they can also resist longer," Chrétien told LiveScience.

A fusion of several stem cells, called a myotube, obtained in vitro from a human muscle collected 17 days after the individual's death. The colored markers authenticate that they are muscle cells. Photo courtesy: Fabrice Chretien

The cadavers in question had been kept at 39 degrees F (4 degrees C) to keep from rotting. The stem cells the researchers isolated give rise to skeletal muscle, the kind connected to the bones, as opposed to the kind in the heart or other internal organs.

Apparently the stem cells were able survive in the total absence of oxygen. "These cells are so resistant to extreme and deleterious conditions that they stay alive up to 17 days after death," Chrétien said.

The researchers also recovered viable stem cells from mice 14 days after death. These cells appeared to function properly after they were transplanted into living mice, helping regenerate damaged tissues.

Although these findings could suggest that old cadavers could supply stem cells for therapies, "we are not saying that we will use old cadavers for treating patients," Chrétien stressed. "For clinical applications we don't have to wait so long, but just obtain cells from cadavers only a few hours after death."

Another image of a fusion of stem cells collected from a 17-day-old human corpse. Photo courtesy: Fabrice Chretien

These stem cells in both dead mice and human corpses were dormant when discovered, with extraordinarily reduced metabolic activity, marking the first time scientists have found that stem cells were capable of such dormancy. The researchers suspect that chemicals given off after death, or the low levels of oxygen or nutrients in corpses, or a combination of all these factors, could have sent the stem cells into dormancy, helping them survive for weeks.

A better understanding of this dormancy could help lead to new ways to keep stem cells viable for longer periods for therapeutic purposes. They could also shed light on how cells in general respond to injuries and other traumas, Chrétien said.

Chrétien, with Miria Ricchetti, Shahragim Tajbakhsh and their colleagues, detailed their findings online today (June 12) in the journal Nature Communications.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wuhan City Covered With Unknown Haze

Chinese motorists wear masks as they make their way along a busy intersection in Wuhan on June 11. Wuhan was blanketed by thick yellowish cloud Monday, raising fears of pollution among its nine million inhabitants. Witnesses say the haze appeared suddenly in the morning and residents rushed to put on face masks.

Young and old residents of the Chinese metropolis of Wuhan were advised to stay indoors on Monday after a thick haze blanketed the city of nine million people, official media said.

Described by residents as opaque with yellowish and greenish tinges, the fug descended suddenly in the morning, prompting people to rush to put on face masks, witnesses told AFP.

The official Xinhua news agency quoted the environmental protection department of Hubei province saying in a statement: "Children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory diseases are advised to stay indoors."

Xinhua said straw burning was the cause and denied there had been any industrial accidents in or near Wuhan, after Internet rumours suggested there had been an explosion at a chemical complex northeast of the city.

"I looked out of the window of my office and I could not believe my eyes," said resident Li Yunzhong.

"At first I thought it was going to rain. In 31 years in Wuhan I have never known anything like it. We are very worried because we do not know what it is."

France's consulate-general in the central city advised residents to stay at home, close their windows and limit the use of air-conditioning.

"The source of the thick cloud that has covered the city of Wuhan since this morning is at present unknown," it said on its website.

"Local authorities have promised us the information as soon as possible."

Xinhua described the haze as grey-yellow in colour and said it was seen in seven cities in Hubei province, including Wuhan.

A thick yellow cloud covers a busy intersection in Wuhan on June 11. Wuhan was blanketed by thick yellowish cloud Monday, raising fears of pollution among its nine million inhabitants.

Air pollution is increasingly acute in major Chinese cities and authorities are frequently accused of underestimating the severity of the problem in urban areas, especially in Beijing.

Air-quality monitoring showed Wuhan's PM10 particulate concentration stood at 0.574 mg per cubic metre at 2:00 pm, more than triple the daily average of 0.150 mg, Xinhua reported.

A woman wears a mask as she walks along a street in front of a Chinese temple during a hazy day in Wuhan, Hubei province June 11, 2012. China's carbon emissions could be nearly 20 percent higher than previously thought, a new analysis of official Chinese data showed on Sunday, suggesting the pace of global climate change could be even faster than currently predicted. Photo courtesy: REUTERS/Stringer

But it quoted the environmental protection department saying industrial accidents were not responsible and analysis showed an increase in carbon particles from burning organic matter.

"Many farmers choose to burn crops that are left behind in their fields after harvesting," Xinhua said.

But Li was sceptical. "I doubt that," he said. "We don't practise large-scale shifting agriculture in our region."

Another resident told AFP she was leaving the city because of the cloud.

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province and an industrial centre where many foreign firms have set up factories, including the French automotive group PSA Peugeot Citroën.

Alstom also manufactures boilers for coal-fired power plants there.

China's environment suffers from industrial pollution, increasing traffic and lax protection measures.

Official air-quality statistics are sometimes at odds with non-government measurements, and are often viewed with distrust.