Tuesday, July 31, 2012

8 Uses For Epsom Salts

Epsom salts. Generations of Europeans use this inexpensive product for health and beauty. Photo courtesy: Flickr/theilr/CC BY 2.0

Yes, an Epsom salt soak may bring images of the old great-aunt soaking her bunion-bound feet, but it’s a remedy whose efficacy shouldn’t be discounted. Epsom salt is made up of magnesium and sulfate, which have a surprising array of health and beauty benefits. The salt soak is a lost art whose time for revival has come. But beyond the classic Epsom salt bath, the inexpensive ingredient can be put to splendid use in a number of other ways as well. For starters:

1. Improve Overall Health

According to the National Academy of Sciences, American’s collective magnesium deficiency (a growing problem over the last 50 years) is partially to blame for high rates of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, arthritis and joint pain, digestive maladies, stress-related illnesses, chronic fatigue and other ailments. Modern farming has depleted many minerals from the soil, including magnesium – and the standard western diet with its fat, salt and sugar actually abets depletion of the important mineral as well. Researchers say that soaking in an Epsom salt bath and absorbing the minerals through the skin is one of the easiest ways to increase the body's levels of both magnesium and sulfate. Use 2 cups of Epsom salt per bath, soak 3 times weekly for at least 12 minutes.

2. Treat Body Aches

Sulfate is important for joint and tissue function. Increasing the body's level can lessen discomfort from sports injuries, arthritis, sprains, strains, the flu and other aches. Use 2 cups of Epsom salt per bath, soak 3 times weekly for at least 12 minutes.

3. Fade Bruises

To lessen the appearance of bruises, make a compress by soaking a washcloth in cold water mixed with Epsom salt – use two tablespoons per cup – then apply to the skin.

4. Remove Splinters

According to the Epsom Salt Council, Epsom salt increases osmotic pressure on the skin, which draws foreign bodies toward the surface. Dissolve one cup of Epsom salt in a tub of water and soak the affected area.

5. Natural Hair Volumizer

For big, bouncy hair, give it a volumizing mask by mixing one part hair conditioner to one part Epsom salt and work the mixture through your locks. Leave on for 20 minutes, rinse and style as usual.

6. Make a Facial

Boost your the magnesium in your facial skin while also exfoliating and deep-cleansing by mixing 1/2 teaspoon of Epsom salt with cleansing cream. Massage on skin, rinse with cool water and dry.

7. Feed House Plants

House plants love the minerals in Epsom salt, feed them monthly by mixing in two tablespoons Epsom salt per gallon of water.

8. Grow Ginormous Pumpkins

The world's largest pumpkin, grown by pumpkin whisperer Ron Wallace, weighed in at 2,009 pounds. Wallace's secret weapon? Epsom salts. "People think that you use it for your feet but it's also a great form of fertilizer," said Wallace.

For more information on the many uses of Epsom salts, go to the Epsom Salts Council website.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Canada Wins 2012 Dodo Award

It might not be as prestigious as Stephen Harper's 'World Statesmen of the Year' award, but it is a recognition, of sorts.

Canada, along with the U.K., is being awarded the annual Dodo award at a UN conference on biodiversity — currently taking place in India — by the Convention on Biological Diversity Alliance, an international network of environmental activists and civil society organizations.

Hindu Business Line explains why Canada received the award:
"The 'Dodo Awards', are conferred on those governments, who have failed to evolve, and whose actions at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are contributing to, rather than preventing, biodiversity loss

'Canada is the clear leader, for breaching the moratorium on ocean fertilisation and geo-engineering adopted by the CBD in 2008 and 2010,' said Silvia Ribero of the ETC Group.

Canada was also selected for its strong stance on biofuels. The country insisted that the CBD is not the place to discuss food security, and so the impacts of biofuel expansion on food should not be considered."
Ribero's comment is in reference to recent media reports that say the world's largest ever geo-engineering experiment was conducted on the west coast of B.C. and contravened two UN conventions.

The UK's Guardian newspaper suggests the group — consisting of American businessman Russ George and the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp's John Disney — dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean, in July, as a means to create plankton to absorb carbon dioxide in the hopes to "create lucrative carbon credits."

The dump caused a 10,000 square kilometre bloom of phytoplankton — microscopic plant-like organisms at the base of the marine food web that remove carbon from oceans — which can actually be seen from space.

Disney spoke to CBC Radio's As It Happens, and said the federal government knew what was happening.

"All I am saying is everyone from the [Canada] Revenue Agency down to the National Research Council, and [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and Environment Canada, all these people, they have all known about this," he said.

Disney also disputes the Guardian's characterization of the experiment. He told CBC they dumped a ground dirt-like substance with only traces of iron into the ocean in order raise oceanic nutrient levels to revive salmon populations.

According to the Toronto Star, Environment Canada is investigating Disney's claims.

"If this [experiment] happened, it would be in violation of Canada's Environment Protection Act," environment minister Peter Kent said.

Regardless, the dump has put the Canadian government smack dab in the middle of an international environmental controversy and has resulted in us receiving a "Dodo."

Keep in mind that this isn't Canada's first Dodo award.

According to a CBC News report from 2010, Canada won the first ever iteration of the award two years ago because of the Harper government's record on resource "access and benefit sharing" with its indigenous populations.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Did You Know...

The first cars did not have windshield wipers until an American woman named Mary Anderson noticed they were needed. In 1903, she invented a window-cleaning device operated with a lever by the driver.

Mount Washington in New Hampshire (USA) was the location of the strongest recorded wind gust. The gust, which occurred on April 12, 1934 was clocked at 231 miles per hour.

There is a crop grown in Colombia, as well as some other South American countries, called fique. It is a natural fiber that can be made into such things as rope, sacks, tapestry and purses.

When baby polar bears are born, they are much smaller than human babies. They are the size of a rat and usually weigh just over one pound.

Roald Dahl, the famous writer known for such children's stories and "James and the Giant Peach" and "Witches", also wrote a few screenplays including "You Only Live Twice", a James Bond film.

Performance capture animation, which uses part animation and part live action was used in films like "The Polar Express" (2004) and "Monster House" (2006).

Actor Richard Gere doesn't just act. He is also a guitar collector. His collection of 110 guitars and amplifiers recently sold at auction in New York for almost $1 million.

In Switzerland, which borders several European countries, most people (nearly 64%) speak German; while, about 20% speak French and 6.5% converse in Italian. Therest of the population speaks a variety of languages.

Those who tend to get bloated might want to try eating kiwi fruit. The fiber and other nutrients in this fruit are recognized as an aid to digestion.

American Charles Cretors invented the first popcorn machine in 1885. The machine was steam-driven and it popped the corn in a mixture of butter, lard and salt.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Living Near Ganges River Can Cause Cancer

The holy River Ganges. Photo courtesy: Bien Stephenson/CC BY 2.0

Some new research shows that the pollution of the River Ganga, the holiest river for Hindus and lifeline for the millions of people living along its course, is so dire that it's causing elevated rates of cancer in people residing nearby. The worst-affected areas are in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the ancient holy city of Varanasi, the flood plains of Bengal, and in Bihar.

Times of India reports that a study done by the Indian Council of Medical Research says that rates of gallbladder cancer in areas drained by the Ganga are the second highest in the world. Rates of prostate cancer in the region are the highest in all of India.

The report places the blame on improper waste disposal, often flowing entirely untreated into the river, with industrial pollutants in particular singled out. Dipankar Chakarabarty, director of the Jadavpur University School of Environmental Studies explains:
The arsenic that gets into the river doesn't flow down. Iron and oxygen in the water form ferroso ferric oxide, which in turn bonds with arsenic. This noxious mix settles on the riverbed. Lead and cadmium are equally heaving and naturally sink in the river. This killer then leeches back into the groundwater, making it poisonous. The consequences of using or drinking this poison can manifest earliest in two years and latest in 20. But by then, it's way too late.
Government plans have been in place to clean the Ganga for well over a decade — to both industrial and human waste being discharged into the river — but have yielded little to no results overall.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Kudzu - More Than Just an Invasive Species

Contrary to the plant’s outward manifestations, its medicinal effects can induce moderation. Photo courtesy: Benjamin Miller/Free Stock Photos.biz

Kudzu is a legume (Pueraria lobata) that specializes in overabundance in our Southern states. Southerners who weave baskets from kudzu, herds of goats and cattle, even herbicides can’t keep up with its growth, which can cover farm equipment and small buildings in one season if not checked. Each vine grows at least a foot every week.

Having only known kudzu from watching acres of it fly by as I traveled by train in the South, I was surprised to hear a close friend say she would rather have some bottles of kudzu tablets than electronic cigarettes to cut down on her smoking.

She said that while exploring a new supplements store in her area, she found a bottle that was labeled “good for addictions.” It was kudzu tablets. On trying a pill three times a day, she found that kudzu made her forget to smoke.

While there haven’t been studies specifically addressing smoking and kudzu, researchers are getting closer to an explanation of the mechanism of smoking-addiction relief. This involves puerarin, a major component of kudzu. Puerarin discourages substances in the brain from getting on their accustomed receptor sites, thereby decreasing the desire to smoke.

Studies on alcoholism show a completely different mechanism at work. Kudzu eliminates a toxic byproduct of alcohol in the liver. The hangover cure that the Chinese have known for hundreds of years is explained by this mechanism.

Despite recognizing the positive effects of kudzu and puerarin, researchers are not sure why they have this effect.

In 1998, there was a Harvard study on alcoholic hamsters that drank the human equivalent of five cases of wine a day. After being given kudzu by injection, they preferred water.

Another study was done in 2005 at Harvard Medical School’s affiliate, McLean Hospital, on binge drinkers. Fourteen heavy drinkers (who drank three or four beers at a time) were enrolled in the study. The laboratory was outfitted like a living room, with a fridge containing everyone’s favorite drinks.

Seven subjects were given kudzu extract in pills every day for a week. The other seven were given placebo. At the end of the week, they all came in for drinks. The ones on kudzu drank about half their usual number, 1.8 beers. They took more, smaller swallows per beer and took longer to drink each bottle.

The placebo group drank the same as usual, 3.5 beers. The next week, the groups were reversed. The ones that had had the placebo were given the kudzu for a week. Again, those on kudzu drank half as much beer, except for one subject who did not seem to be affected by kudzu.

Contrary to the plant’s outward manifestations, its medicinal effects seem to induce moderation. My friend’s smoking did not cease altogether but went from almost a pack a day down to three to five cigarettes a day. The drinkers, including the hamsters, cut down only by half.

Online kudzu supplements were found not to work unless they were 30 to 40 percent kudzu extract. In that case, two pills three times a day were advised. Most supplements were assayed at 1 percent and were said to work because one has to take so many and gets so full of the ingredients that one no longer wants to drink.

Asians have used kudzu in medicine for hundreds of years. In China, it is called “gen gen” and is honored as one of the 50 fundamental herbs of the “Shen Nong Canon” during the Western Han Dynasty, from 206 B.C. to A.D. 9. The plant was commonly used for alcoholics and their ailments, from hangovers to many other ailments affecting every organ and system in the body.

In Japan, the plant is called “kuzu” and has many uses as food and in textile manufacture as well as medicine.

Written by: Louise McCoy, Epoch Times Staff

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Spider Silk May Be Used in Biodegradable Computer Chips

Spider silk is being widely researched for its amazing qualities. Photo courtesy: PhoTones_TAKUMA/CC BY-SA 2.0

Researchers have been trying to crack the code of spider silk for years. Its properties make it ideal for so many uses, but so far its recipe has remained the secret of spiders. Yet that doesn't mean researchers aren't coming up with amazing ways to use the silk spiders produce themselves. And this time, it's computer chips.

According to Wired, "Light can travel through a silk strand as easily as it does through a fiber optic cable" as discovered by physicist Nolwenn Huby of the Institut de Physique de Rennes in France.

"Huby and her team were able to transmit laser light down a short strand of the silk on an integrated circuit chip. The silk worked much like glass fiber optic cables, meaning it could carry information for electronic devices, though it had about four orders of magnitude more loss than the glass. Huby said that with a coating and further development, the silk could one day have better transmission capabilities."

Because spider silk is a harmless natural material, the electronics made from them could be put to use in the medical field, with devices such as bandages with embedded electronics that can monitor for infections, and which can be absorbed into the body. And because spider silk is biodegradable, the scale of e-waste could potentially be greatly diminished.

Of course, the possibilities are still a thing of the future. It is difficult to imagine being able to harvest enough spider silk to fulfill the needs of the global electronics industry. Scientists would probably still need to figure out how to craft synthetic silk, let alone figure out how to use silk in devices like batteries, chips and so on.

Still, the discovery of the latest amazing feature of spider silk should give us another reason to pause and be marveled by nature.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Yangtze River Mysteriously Turns Bright Red

Chinese officials are investigating industrial dye and upstream silt as two possible sources for the Yangtze River's red coloring near the city of Chongqing. Photo courtesy: Image via Shutterstock. Other two photos courtesy: telegraph.co.uk

A stretch of China's longest river has abruptly turned the color of tomato juice, and officials say they don't know why.

Residents of the southwestern city of Chongqing first noticed that the Yangtze River, called the "golden waterway," had a spreading stain on its reputation yesterday.

Though the bright-red water was concentrated around Chongqing, Southwest China's largest industrial center, it was also reported at several other points along the river, according to ABC News.

Investigators have yet to determine a cause, but the Telegraph reports that environmental officials are considering industrial pollution and silt churned up by recent upstream floods as possible sources for the color.

One natural explanation for red water that can likely be ruled out is color-producing microorganisms, according to Emily Stanley, a professor of limnology (the study of inland waters) at the University of Wisconsin.

"When water turns red, the thing a lot of people think of first is red tide," Stanley told Life's Little Mysteries. "But the algae that causes red tide is a marine group and not a freshwater group, so it's highly, highly unlikely that this is a red-tide-related phenomenon."

Fresh water does occasionally turn blood-red for biological reasons (a lake that turned red during a drought in Texas last summer led to talk of the end times), but Stanley said this is most often due to incursions of color-producing bacteria that arrive when a body of water has less oxygen than normal. Because rivers move constantly, struggling and mixing with the air above them as they go, they rarely ever get the oxygen deficiencies necessary for a life-based red dye job.

After reviewing a few images of Chongqing's shockingly red river, Stanley put her money on a man-made cause.

"It looks like a pollutant phenomenon," she said. "Water bodies that have turned red very fast in the past have happened because people have dumped dyes into them."

An industrial dye dump was in fact the explanation when an urban stretch of another Chinese river, the Jian, turned crimson last December. Investigators traced the color back to a chemical plant that they said had been illegally producing red dye for firework wrappers.

Still, Stanley says she can't rule out the other possibility officials are now reportedly investigating: an upstream influx of silt. Her instinct, though, is that red clay would be more likely.

"China is well known for having areas with a lot of steep hill sides and a lot of land use practices that promote soil erosion and soil going into rivers," she said. "You can get red-colored clays that wouldn't be a whole lot different from having a big dose of dye go in there. But if that's the cause I'd imagine there would have had to be a huge storm or a huge amount of clay go into the system."

Taking another look at the Campbell's-hued Yangtze, she said, "It looks really industrial somehow."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

New Cave-Dwelling Coral Discovered in the Coral Triangle

A specimen of Leptoseris troglodyta, the cave-dwelling coral, photographed near Indonesia in 2003. Photo courtesy: Bert Hoeksema

A new species of coral has been discovered that clings to the ceilings of underwater caves in the western Pacific's Coral Triangle.

Able to tolerate low levels of light, the species lacks the symbiotic algae that most corals need to survive. The newfound species is related to deep-sea corals that survive in dark conditions below depths of 130 feet (40 meters), but so far, this species has been found no deeper than 115 feet (35 m), according to a description of the species published today in the journal ZooKeys.

The coral forms smaller polyps than its relatives and grows quite slowly, said study author Bert Hoeksema, a researcher at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, Netherlands, in a statement.

A close-up of the trumpet of the newly discovered cave-dwelling coral. Photo courtesy: aquaportail.com

Its range overlaps with the Coral Triangle, a region that's well-known for its high diversity of marine organisms. The species has been dubbed Leptoseris troglodyta. The word "troglodyte" is derived from ancient Greek and means "cave dweller." Troglodyte also refers to some of my old boyfriends!

Investigations into how the coral is able to survive without symbiotic bacteria could shed light on the relationship between the two species. This relationship is critical; when water temperatures increase — as is happening in the world's oceans now — many corals may expel their algae, in a process known as coral bleaching. This often leads to the coral's death.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Russia's Geoglyphs May Outdate Peru's Nasca Lines

A historical Google Earth image from 2007 showing the animal-shaped geoglyph in Russia, which may predate Peru's famous Nazca Lines. Photo courtesy: Yahoo!News

By: Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor
Published: 10/12/2012 09:31 AM EDT on LiveScience

A huge geoglyph in the shape of an elk or deer discovered in Russia may predate Peru's famous Nazca Lines by thousands of years.

The animal-shaped stone structure, located near Lake Zjuratkul in the Ural Mountains, north of Kazakhstan, has an elongated muzzle, four legs and two antlers. A historical Google Earth satellite image from 2007 shows what may be a tail, but this is less clear in more recent imagery.

Excluding the possible tail, the animal stretches for about 900 feet (275 meters) at its farthest points (northwest to southeast), the researchers estimate, equivalent to two American football fields. The figure faces north and would have been visible from a nearby ridge.

"The figure would initially have looked white and slightly shiny against the green grass background," write Stanislav Grigoriev, of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of History & Archaeology, and Nikolai Menshenin, of the State Centre for Monument Protection, in an article first detailing the discovery published last spring in the journal Antiquity. They note that it is now covered by a layer of soil.

Fieldwork carried out this past summer has shed more light on the glyph's composition and date, suggesting it may be the product of a "megalithic culture," researchers say. They note that hundreds of megalithic sites have been discovered in the Urals, with the most elaborate structures located on a freshwater island about 35 miles (60 km) northeast of the geoglyph.

A man named Alexander Shestakov first discovered the glyphs using satellite images. He alerted researchers, who sent out a hydroplane and paraglider to survey the giant structure.

This has since progressed to an on-the-ground excavation by a team led by Grigoriev. They've found that the stone architecture of the geoglyph is quite elaborate. When they excavated part of a hind leg the largest stones were on the edges, the smaller ones inside. This past summer they also found the remains of passageways and what appear to be small walls on the hoof and muzzle of the animal.

"The hoof is made of small crushed stones and clay. It seems to me there were very low walls and narrow passages among them. The same situation in the area of a muzzle: crushed stones and clay, four small broad walls and three passages," Grigorievwrote in an email to LiveScience. He cautioned that his team didn't excavate all the way down to the bottom of the walls, not wishing to damage the geoglyph.

Among the finds from the excavations are about 40 stone tools, made of quartzite, found on the structure's surface. Most of them are pickaxe-like tools called mattocks, useful for digging and chopping. "Perhaps they were used to extract clay," he writes in the email.

The style of stone-working called lithic chipping used on one artifact dates it to the Neolithic and Eneolithic (sixth to third millennia B.C.), though Grigoriev says the technology is more typical of the Eneolithic, between the fourth and third millennia B.C.

If that date is correct, it would make the geoglyph far older than Peru's Nazca Lines, the very earliest of which were created around 500 B.C. Grigoriev added that current studies of ancient pollen at the site will help to narrow down the age.

In the Antiquity journal article, Grigoriev and Menshenin point out that palaeozoological studies show that the landscape in the southern Urals supported fewer trees in the Eneolithic, with forest growth not appearing until about 2,500 years ago. "This means that there were open landscapes in the Eneolithic and Bronze Age, which allowed the hill figure to be created," they write.

Researchers say this geoglyph may have been built by a "megalithic culture" in the region that created stone monuments in prehistoric times.

"[M]any megalithic sites with features in common with European megaliths have been located: Some 300 are known but have not yet been studied in detail," write Grigoriev and Menshenin in the Antiquity article. Among these megaliths are numerous "menhirs," large upright standing stones.

The most spectacular megalithic complexes are on the relatively small Vera Island, located on Turgoyak Lake, about 35 miles (60 km) northeast of the geoglyph.

Grigoriev and Julia Vasina of the South-Ural State University described the Vera Island megaliths in a 2010 article, noting the surviving portion of one monument, megalith two, as being covered by a mound and supporting a gallery and square chamber. Another monument, megalith one, is cut into the bedrock and covered by a mound consisting of stones, brown sand and lots of grass. It is more than 60 feet (19 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide. It contains three chambers one of which has "bas relief sculptures" in the shape of animals, probably a bull and wolf.

Stone tools and ceramics found at the megalithic sites date them to between the Eneolithic period and the early Iron Age, around 3,000 years ago. Researchers emphasize more dating work needs to be done to verify; however, if the evidence holds, the giant geoglyph, along with the megaliths, were constructed millennia before Peru's Nazca Lines, a testament to the building prowess of an ancient prehistoric culture in the Ural Mountains.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Salt Marshes Are Not Up To Snuff

What a beautiful sight this is. Sea lavender on a Norfolk coastal marsh. Photo courtesy: Keith M Law /Alamy

Man-made English salt marshes are failing to meet European conservation regulations that stipulate they should be as rich in plant life as natural wetlands, a new study warned on Thursday.

Salt marshes are coastal wetlands that are flooded and drained by salt water brought in by the tides, and are found all around the coastline of Great Britain. They are important ecosystems that provide essential food, refuge or habitat for fish, invertebrates and birds. The flowering plants that live there are very specialised, as only a few species can tolerate the salty conditions.

Scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) compared the vegetation of 18 marshes created as part of man-made changes to the coastline since 1991, and 17 marshes created accidentally by storm surges since 1881, with 34 natural salt marsh sites in the UK.

They found that the artificially-created salt marshes suffered significantly reduced biodiversity. Characteristic perennial plants such as sea lavender (Limonium vulgare), sea thrift (Armeria maritima), sea arrowgrass (Triglochin maritima) and sea plantain (Plantago maritima) were very poorly represented, while shrubs such as sea purslane (Atriplex portulacoides) were becoming dominant..

Under the EU habitats directive, new salt marsh must be created every time natural salt marsh is lost to coastal development or erosion caused by sea-level rise. New marshes must display "equivalent biological characteristics" to their natural counterparts.

Man-made salt marshes in south England have been created by relocating sea walls inland and breaching the old, outer walls to let the sea flood in, creating a marsh. Many accidentally-created salt marshes have formed when old sea walls collapsed and let in the sea.

While salt-tolerant (halophytic) flowering plants colonised artificially-created salt marsh rapidly, the composition of these marshes was "significantly different" to natural marshes.

Sediment conditions in lower-lying areas were less oxygenated than those at the same elevation in natural marshes, the study said, and man-made marshes tended to be drier. The artificial sites tended to be flat and featureless with scrappy vegetation and patches of bare ground.

"It is clear from our work that marshes reactivated by managed realignment do not provide habitats and species in comparable proportions to natural marshes and do not have equivalent biological characteristics. They therefore do not satisfy the requirements of the EU habitats directive," said the report, published in the journal of Applied Ecology.

Lead author Hannah Mossman, of UEA's school of environmental sciences, said: "Salt marshes such as those in north Norfolk, Essex and around much of the coast of England are loved by naturalists and tourists alike for their natural beauty plus their rare and rich ecology.

"These unique tidal areas also provide vital habitat for invertebrates, a staging post for migrant birds, and the only environment in which a number of salt-tolerant plants can survive."

Saltmarshes protect shorelines from erosion, reduce flooding and protect water quality by filtering runoff. The south of England is naturally subsiding into the sea, and is already experiencing coastal erosion.

"In the face of rising sea levels, managed coastal realignment has become an increasingly important option," the study said.

The report said conditions of man-made saltmarshes could be improved by additional conservation management such as manipulating the elevation or planting more mid- and upper-marsh species.

Saltmarshes and reedbeds are at risk from land reclamation or drainage for agriculture or coastal development – around 50% of saltmarsh area worldwide has already been lost or degraded.

The United Nations Environment Programme has urged greater protection for saltmarshes, sea grasses, mangroves and seaweeds partly because they soak up greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, helping to slow global warming.

This week construction work began on Europe's largest man-made nature reserve that will transform Wallasea Island in Essex into a 1,500-acre wetland.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fishing Wars

British fishermen were dredging for scallops in the Channel when rocks were thrown at them from nearby French boats. Photo courtesy: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

British fishermen have been attacked by French boats in the Channel, raising fears of battles among rival boats over resources as quota limits bite and declining stocks make fishing ever more difficult.

The British fishermen were dredging for scallops in an area west of Le Havre, a lucrative fishing ground, when they were attacked with rocks thrown from nearby French boats, which attempted to block their path.

They called for help from the UK coastguard and Royal Navy, but were told that a French naval vessel would be sent. When it arrived, according to the men, the French authorities refused to intervene, angering the British fishermen and raising fears that a similar confrontation could happen again.

"We were like sitting ducks," said Kevin Loughran, skipper of the Vertrouwen, a 23-metre scallop dredger which was first to be attacked. "Someone could have been killed."

Loughran says he was fishing about 15 miles west of Le Havre, an area within bounds for British fleets, which may not fish closer than 12 miles from the French coast, on Monday morning when his boat was surrounded by about eight or nine French vessels, which obstructed the Vertrouwen's path.

Loughran called other British fishing vessels in the area, and about six came to his aid. Shortly afterwards, the attackers were joined by other French boats, taking the number to about 40, according to the UK's Marine Management Organisation, which monitors British boats.

According to Loughran and others, the French started to throw rocks, and to try to damage the propellers and engines of the British boats by throwing nets in them. Flares were also set off by at least one French vessel, according to the witnesses. One of the Vertrouwen's five crewmen was injured by a thrown rock, though not seriously.

Andrew McLeod, owner of the Van Dijk which was one of the boats attacked, said: "This was extremely dangerous behaviour – there could have been a collision and a boat could have been sunk."

A French naval vessel was sent but according to the British fishermen it failed to intervene. When the French fishing boats eventually moved off, crew from the naval vessel then boarded some of the UK boats, demanding to inspect them. "That seems to have been intended to make them lose even more fishing time," said McLeod.

The UK Maritime Management Organisation told the Guardian that the French authorities were dealing with the matter. French coastguards and the French embassy did not return calls.The British fishermen are planning a return to the same scallop beds on Thursday and are calling for a UK fisheries protection vessel to be placed in the area as a neutral observer. "I am hoping for a nice quiet trip with no trouble," said Loughran.

Fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, said: "We are aware of the situation involving UK scallop fishermen on 8 October. The Marine Management Organisation are working closely with French authorities and will continue to encourage action should any further incidents take place. UK vessels have a legitimate right to fish in these waters and France must continue to provide adequate protection to UK fishermen. We are monitoring the situation and will continue to keep an open dialogue with our French counterparts."

British vessels are allowed only 36 days of fishing in the best scallop grounds, which include the Channel and about extend to about half the main scalloping areas. They are also limited in the size of scallops they can take, to those over 110mm. Channel scallops tend to be of lower quality than those from some other areas, but they are relatively plentiful, and currently fetch about £1 a kilo - a poor price, according to Loughran.

The MMO said: "As soon as we were made aware of the situation we contacted the French authorities and encouraged them to intervene. They did and are continuing to deal with this matter. We believe issues should be dealt with by the country in whose waters any such incident occurs. We are continuing high-level negotiations with our French counterparts to seek assurances that these issues will not recur."

Incidents such as this have been rare, but not unknown. In 2002, the British scallop dredger Philomena was allegedly attacked by French fishermen about 20 miles off Brest.

Friday, July 20, 2012

I Spy With My Little Eye...

A softball-sized eyeball that washed up on the beach in Florida. Marine biologists have yet to identify the species from which the eyeball came. Photo courtesy: Reuters

A giant eyeball discovered washed up on the shores of Florida has created an internet buzz and left marine biologists pondering its likely owner.

The blue, softball-sized body part was stumbled upon Wednesday by beachcomber Gino Covacci as he walked through the surf at Pompano Beach. Having kicked the object over, he found himself staring into the large lens of an as-yet-to-be identified sea creature.

"It was very, very fresh," he told Florida newspaper the Sun Sentinel, adding: "It was still bleeding when I put it in the plastic bag."

Experts put the eyeball on ice, ahead of preservation in a formaldehyde. It has since been sent to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St Petersburg. Marine biologists are now attempting to discover the derivation of the dislodged eyeball.

On Friday, an assistant biology professor at Florida International University in Miami said the eyeball could have come from a deep-sea squid or a large swordfish.

Heather Bracken-Grissom said she had started discussing the eyeball with her colleagues as soon as they saw the pictures on the internet. She added that the lens and pupil are similar to the shape of a deep-sea squid's eye.

Bracken-Grissom also noted that a squid's eyes can be as large as soccer balls, and that they can be easily dislodged.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

City Living May be Driving Us Insane

A modern, busy intersection. Photo courtesy: Flickr/CC BY 2.0

I always knew it to be true; and, now there is research that backs me up: country living is better for you than city living. I should have married a farmer. I get very uncomfortable in large crowds; and, feel physically ill if I must endure them for any length of time. The stressors of city living (over-crowding, pollution, lack of privacy, noise, lack of green space, etc.) all combine to make me a definite country girl.

Simply living in cities may be driving us insane. Or at least making us more likely to develop schizophrenia or various forms of psychosis. That's the fear propelling a growing body of research, which seeks to document the psychological effects of growing up and living in dense urban areas. If scientists' fears are confirmed, it'd be quite a blast of bad news, especially when paired with the fact that the world is fast moving out of rural areas and into cities. More than half the world lives in cities now, remember.

The basic premise is this: people who spend their lives in cities are more prone to be subjected to longer periods of stress, and, after prolonged exposure, their bodies aren't good at tuning it out. The science journal Nature explains:
Considered from an evolutionary standpoint, the physiological stress response is definitely a good thing: it helps mammals to survive ...

Problems arise when the stress response doesn't switch off. Stress-hormone levels that stay too high for too long cause high blood pressure and suppress the immune system. And, although the mechanisms are unknown, scientists agree that severe or prolonged stress also raise the risk of psychiatric disease — most brutally in those who have a genetic predisposition, and when the stress occurs while the brain is still developing. In theory, then, the ceaseless challenges of the city could produce this kind of damaging stress. Some fear that they could end up driving an increase in mental illness around the world.
Now, there have only been a handful of studies that have actually linked rising rates of mental health to increasing urbanization — the most convincing one was published in 2003. Called the Camberwell study, here's what it found:
In 1965, health authorities in Camberwell, a bustling quarter of London's southward sprawl, began an unusual tally. They started to keep case records for every person in the area who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder or any other psychiatric condition. Decades later, when psychiatrists looked back across the data, they saw a surprising trend: the incidence of schizophrenia had more or less doubled, from around 11 per 100,000 inhabitants per year in 1965 to 23 per 100,000 in 1997 — a period when there was no such rise in the general population.
One possible explanation was that exposure to the city itself, and its myriad stresses, was driving the decline in mental health. Statistics collected in the United States and Germany seem to corroborate the finding. Nature notes that "In Germany, the number of sick days taken for psychiatric ailments doubled between 2000 and 2010; in North America, up to 40% of disability claims for work absence are related to depression, according to some estimates."

But nobody's making any conclusions — cities are vast, complex human ecosystems, and it's extremely difficult to pinpoint how, if, or why living in them may give rise to mental health problems. There's still a ton of study to be done, and there may be more specific reasons that city residents are suffering from mental health woes. So, scientists have embarked on ambitious projects to map entire metropolises, follow citizens with mobile app tech as they go to work, and to better understand how the urban environment causes stress.

One thing seems to be certain; better-planned cities, with ample green spaces and areas in which residents can find relief from the bustle are preferable to the concrete jungle. Research in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that city dwellers who lived closer to green spaces exhibited better mental health; they were less likely to be stressed or to suffer from more serious ailments.

Findings like that should be taken seriously; we've firmly entered the age of the city — cities are now the way most humanfolk are choosing to organize their societies. And that's a good thing; cities are more efficient, use less energy, generate less waste and pollution than sprawl does. And they can certainly be built in pleasing, less-stressful ways. If we start studying how cities impact mental health now, we all might be a good deal happier down the line, when everybody's living in them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bangladesh's Toxic Tanneries

If you buy leather produced in Bangladesh, odds are it came from the these conditions. There comes a time when everyone has to make the decision as what they will accept and what they cannot accept. Then, they must decide whether they will act or ignore the situation. After you have finished viewing the videos and reading the blog, it is my sincere wish that each reader will refuse to buy Bangladeshi leather particularly Hazaribagh leather. Then, if the spirit is moved, letter, emails or phone calls to local leather shops letting them know that if they sell Bangladeshi leather, you will take your business elsewhere.

To contact the Bangladeshi government:
Prime Minister's Office
Old Sangsad Bhaban
Address: Tejgaon, Dhaka-1215
E-mail: info@pmo.gov.bd (link is on right-hand side of page)

A new report from Human Rights Watch exposes the horrific environmental, health, and social conditions under which 90% of Bangladesh's leather is produced, in the Hazaribagh area of the nation's capital Dhaka.

You can watch the short video above to get the gist of the situation — which involves child labor, the government admitting it doesn't enforce the laws that are on the books, and pretty horribly working conditions all around — but here are some of the deeper details of the report:

Leather produced in Hazaribagh goes to 70 countries, but most of it ends up in China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain and the US. For the past ten years Bangladesh's leather industry has grown by $41 million per year, with $663 million worth of leather produced in 2011-2012.

As far as the environmental impact goes, the report summary says:
The wastewater that pours off tannery floors and into Hazaribagh’s open gutters and eventually Dhaka’s main river contains, among other substances, animal flesh, sulfuric acid, chromium, and lead. The government estimates that about 21,000 cubic meters of untreated effluent is released each day in Hazaribagh. Government officials and tannery industry representatives told Human Rights Watch that no Hazaribagh tannery has an effluent treatment plant to treat its waste, which can have many thousands of times the legally permitted concentrations of pollutants.
And the child labor/poor working conditions aspect:
Human Rights Watch interviewed children, some as young as 11, working in tanneries. They were engaged in hazardous work, such as soaking hides in chemicals, cutting tanned hides with razorblades, and operating dangerous tanning machinery. Women and girls said that they are paid comparatively less than men and that, in addition to their own work, they must also perform tasks normally performed by men.
Read the full report: Toxic Tanneries: The Health Repercussions of Bangladesh's Hazaribagh Leather

And, of course, all of this is after the fact that the animals raised for leather probably had horrendous living conditions as well...

A brilliant video produced by a tourist to the country; and, what he sees in the tannery district.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bulk is Better

A good way to store your bulk foods. Photo courtesy: mrsdkrebs/CC BY 2.0

Once relegated to the dusty corner of the health food store, the bulk food aisle has bloomed into a viable section of many mainstream supermarkets. Bulk food has grown up! And with good reason. Buying food in bulk significantly reduces the amount of direct packaging going into landfills. And the ability to purchase from bulk bins in smaller amounts cuts down on food waste. It’s the antithesis to big box stores.

Bulk goods require less overall transportation for delivery to consumers. There is much less packaging that needs to be produced and transported prior to being filled. And the transportation of bulk foods to markets is more efficient because it can be packed so densely on a truck.

And now, the results of a recent study may elevate bulk foods to an even more popular status: Organic bulk foods on average are 89 percent less expensive than their organic packaged counterparts, according to research results from the Portland State University’s Food Industry Leadership Center (FILC). That is just all kinds of awesome.

To celebrate, the Bulk is Green Council (BIG), a national non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the economical and environmental benefits of buying natural and organic foods in bulk, is partnering with markets across the United States with the annual Bulk Foods Week which will occur at grocery stores nationwide on October 14-20, 2012.

Retailers participating in National Bulk Foods Week will be offering specials and discounts on select bulk food items, as if we needed more incentive. Find participating grocery stores near you at the BIG website.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Incredible Edible Todmorden

© Incredible Edible Todmorden

What I want to know is: When I can I move? Imagine having fresh, unadulterated fruits and vegetables growing all around town. Not to mention, the wholesome country eggs being produced there. Good, nourishing, natural food is the best defense against disease and illness. Way to go, Todmorden!

The Incredible Edible town called Todmorden in the north of England is a model for sustainable living based on the local food movement. TreeHugger has posted about Edible Incredible before but this blog promotes Todmorden's Egg Map, as well as their Green Route Map which promotes Vegetable Tourism!

An inspiring video on turning a village "edible". Lots of great info included as well.

This week at Glassnature, a creative un-conference organised by oh!BCN in Barcelona, Incredible Edible’s co-founder Pam Warhurst gave an inspiring talk about why it is important to connect the dots between community, learning and business, and why we should all live and work in an edible landscape. What started off as propaganda gardening, lead to other campaigns such as the Todmorden Egg Map, a fairly simple yet effective way to promote local food and businesses, because as Pam says: “every egg matters” and “it is all very eggciting”, plus, she gives eggcellent advice here.

© Incredible Edible Todmorden

With Todmorden’s popularity its business increased and the town started to attract tourists eager to see the blooming local food movement. Pam explained that, in order to make Vegetable Tourism an attractive option all year round, design students from Goldsmiths College in London offered to create the Todmorden Green Route Map. That way you are sure not to miss the Bee Store, the Bug Hotel or the Waggle Dance Garden!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Beauty Treatment Kills One and Hospitalizes Three

Women are dying to look more beautiful and more youthful - literally. Photo courtesy: yahoo!news.com

My personal prayers are with these women. Going to a beauty parlour should not be a life-threatening adventure. May the remaining three recover.

A 46-year-old woman has died in Hong Kong and three others are fighting for their lives following a beauty parlor treatment that involves blood transfusions further highlighting a lack of regulation in the city's cosmetic industry.

The cases have prompted an investigation by police and medical authorities, and renewed calls by health experts for tighter regulation of Hong Kong's beauty industry.

"Yes, the woman aged 46 died of septic shock," a government spokeswoman said. Three others, aged 56, 59 and 60, were in hospital with the eldest in critical condition.

Septic shock is normally caused by bacterial infection and can result in respiratory and organ failure, even death.

The four had recently undergone a complicated blood transfusion procedure at the DR beauty chain, according to government statements, in a treatment that was meant to boost their immune system and appearance.

The women paid around HK $50,000 ($6,400 USD {$1 USD = 7.7526 HKD}) for the procedure, which experts say is at best an experimental treatment for cancer patients and which has not shown to have any aesthetic application so far.

DR said in a statement that the procedures were carried out by a doctor who was not employed by the parlor.

The procedure required their blood to be taken to isolate and culture certain types of immune cells. These "cytokine-induced killer cells" were then injected back into the women together with their own blood plasma.

The four quickly fell ill with fever, dizziness and diarrhea. In an earlier blood sample taken from the woman who died, health officials found Mycobacterium abscessus, a superbug that is notoriously difficult to kill.

Although the direct cause of the woman's death has yet to be confirmed, experts say it is likely to have been bacterial infection.

"They now have to find out where the bacterial contamination occurred in this whole process. Did it happen when the blood was drawn, during the culture process or when it was reinjected back into the body?" said William Chui, president of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists in Hong Kong.

The cases raise fresh questions on how governments in many places in Asia regulate doctors' conduct and sale of medicines; but, exercise little or no control over what goes on in beauty parlors or what goes into "healthcare" products.

In Singapore in 2002, 15 women developed liver problems and one died after consuming Chinese-made slimming pills that were later found to contain two undeclared ingredients. One of the patients, an actress, survived only after a liver transplant.

Felice Lieh Mak, a leading medical expert in Hong Kong and former chairman of the Medical Council, said: "We hope that this tragedy will result in some attempt at making a legislation, or at least work towards legislating and defining what medical treatment is."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

100-Million-Year-Old Fossil Found of Spider and Wasp

There is no shortage of insects trapped in amber. Photo courtesy: dailygalaxy.com

Researchers have found what they say is the only fossil ever discovered of a spider attack on prey caught in its web – a 100 million-year-old snapshot of an engagement frozen in time.

The extraordinarily rare fossils are in a piece of amber that preserved this event in remarkable detail, an action that took place in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar in the Early Cretaceous between 97-110 million years ago, almost certainly with dinosaurs wandering nearby.

Aside from showing the first and only fossil evidence of a spider attacking prey in its web, the piece of amber also contains the body of a male spider in the same web. This provides the oldest evidence of social behavior in spiders, which still exists in some species but is fairly rare. Most spiders have solitary, often cannibalistic lives, and males will not hesitate to attack immature species in the same web.

This is the only fossil ever discovered that shows a spider attacking prey in its web. Preserved in amber, it's about 100 million years old. Photo courtesy: Oregon State University.

“This juvenile spider was going to make a meal out of a tiny parasitic wasp, but never quite got to it,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus of zoology at Oregon State University and world expert on insects trapped in amber. He outlined the findings in a new publication in the journal Historical Biology.

“This was a male wasp that suddenly found itself trapped in a spider web,” Poinar said. “This was the wasp’s worst nightmare, and it never ended. The wasp was watching the spider just as it was about to be attacked, when tree resin flowed over and captured both of them.”

Spiders are ancient invertebrates that researchers believe date back some 200 million years, but the oldest fossil evidence ever found of a spider web is only about 130 million years old. An actual attack such as this between a spider and its prey caught in the web has never before been documented as a fossil, the researchers said.

The tree resin that forms amber is renowned for its ability to flow over insects, small plants and other life forms, preserving them in near perfection before it later turns into a semi-precious stone. It often gives scientists a look into the biology of the distant past. This spider, which may have been waiting patiently for hours to capture some prey, was smothered in resin just a split second before its attack.

This type of wasp, Poinar said, belongs to a group that is known today to parasitize spider and insect eggs. In that context, the attack by the spider, an orb-weaver, might be considered payback.

Both the spider and the wasp belong to extinct genera and are described in the paper. At least 15 unbroken strands of spider silk run through the amber piece, and on some of these the wasp was ensnared.

Its large and probably terrified eyes now stare for eternity at its attacker, moving in for the kill.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Drug Cartels Threaten Guatemala's Maya Nature Reserve

Scarlet macaws.

The 200-foot summit of Temple IV in the ancient Maya city of Tikal provides a spectacular view of Central America's largest expanse of intact rainforest. In the late afternoon, spider monkeys dangle from nearby branches, stretching to pick small fruits. The guttural barks of howler monkeys echo through the canopy — a lush green broken only by the occasional flash of lemon yellow from a swooping toucan.

This lowland forest is the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala, a 2.1 million-hectare (5.2 million-acre) sanctuary that covers 19 percent of the country and contains roughly 60 percent of its protected area. The UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve sustains a wide array of biodiversity, most notably the last remaining population of a key subspecies of scarlet macaw.

But this magnificent creature and others that inhabit the reserve — jaguars, pumas, Guatemalan black howler monkeys, Baird's tapirs — are being pressured not just by the standard threats common to tropical regions, such as illegal logging, fires, and commercial hunting. Even more virulent forces are gnawing away at the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including Mexican drug cartels that cut into the forest to build airstrips to transport drugs, Salvadoran gangs that carve out huge cattle ranches to launder drug money, and Chinese organized crime groups moving their illegal logging network toward the reserve to supply Asian markets with prime tropical hardwoods.

As a result, this natural and cultural treasure — the heart of the Selva Maya, a forest spanning the borders of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize — has in recent years effectively been cut in two. The western side, which includes two of the reserve's five national parks and is bordered on the west and the north by Mexico, is under siege, according to Guatemalan park officials. The eastern part of the reserve, where Tikal rises above the jungle canopy and which borders Belize, is lush and intact.

"The story of the Maya Biosphere Reserve has increasingly become a tale of two reserves — one of conservation successes and one of failures," says Roan McNab, director of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Guatemala program. McNab is a pivotal figure in a coalition of Guatemalan and foreign conservation groups battling to preserve the eastern half of the reserve and claw back some of the denuded lands of the western sector.

Much is at stake, as the reserve and the surrounding Selva Maya are the largest block of intact forest north of the Amazon Basin. The reserve supports 513 of Guatemala's bird species (71 percent of the national total), 122 mammal species (64 percent), 95 reptile species (39 percent), and more than 80 species of neotropical migrant birds from North America. It enshrouds Tikal, a national park and World Heritage Site, and hundreds of other vestiges of Mayan civilization.

The international coalition struggling to preserve the heart of the reserve has enjoyed some important successes. Scarlet macaws are making a comeback thanks to intensive restoration efforts. The presence of the civilian government and military has grown. Prosecution of environmental crimes is up, albeit slightly. And community-based forest concessions have brought some rural Guatemalans sustainable income and empowered them in managing parts of the reserve.

"There's a greater social awareness now of the importance of preserving environmental stability," says Rolman Hernandez, director of the Petén region of Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas (CONAP), the Guatemalan park service. The reserve covers more than half of the Petén, the largest and northernmost of Guatemala's 22 departments, or provinces.

The region that became the Maya Biosphere Reserve was once a vast mix of lowland rainforest, wetlands, lagoons, lakes, rivers, and mangrove forests. As many as 2 million people lived here at the peak of Mayan civilization, around 800 A.D., archeologists estimate. Then came the Mayan decline and Spanish conquest.

Until the 1960s, the region consisted of a few isolated forest villages. Then roads, built mainly to access oil and timber, opened the the area to illegal colonization and slash-and-burn agriculture. The reserve was created in 1990 to help control deforestation, but CONAP, financially strapped and often overruled by government officials friendly to the ranchers, has been hampered in its attempts to control the wave of destruction, McNab and others say. Today the human population is 118,000, with most living in poverty.

The eastern half of the Maya Biosphere Reserve not only harbours much of Guatemala's biodiversity, but it also includes historic Mayan sites like these temples, part of Tikal National Park and World Heritage Site. Photo courtesy: Al Argueta/Alamy

Criminal activity in the area began to intensify a decade ago, further accelerating the destruction of the western half of the reserve. An important factor is that northern Guatemala is ideally situated to refuel drug aircraft flying from South America and transfer narcotics to trucks for the easy drive to Mexico. The cartels operated in a "climate of impunity" since the army and police lacked the power to take them on, McNab says. The ranchers built dozens of airstrips, including one dubbed the "international airport," which had three runways and more than a dozen abandoned aircraft. The result was a loss of 40,000 hectares of forest.

Guatemalans have developed a new term for what's happening in the region: narcoganaderia, a combination of the Spanish words for drugs and cattle ranching. The cartels launder drug money by investing in cattle production and reaping profits from cattle sales in Mexican markets.

CONAP officials say evidence of the work of Chinese-backed criminal groups lies in the yard behind the agency's Petén headquarters, in San Benito. The yard is crowded with timber and confiscated vehicles. Victor Penados, CONAP's coordinator of control and vigilance for the reserve, points to a pile of rosewood confiscated from suppliers to Chinese criminal groups. The wood comes from one of several recent timber-smuggling busts by the government reported in national news media. This pile, confiscated from a truck delivering the wood to the Caribbean seaport of Puerto San Tomas de Castillo for shipment to China, has a market value of $125,000, Penados estimates.

Operatives with Chinese criminal cartels have been conducting illegal logging just south of the reserve, according to CONAP. McNab fears it won't be long before the Chinese-backed groups start cutting inside the reserve itself and then turn to intensive jaguar poaching for body parts to serve a Chinese market that is already driving Asian big cats toward extinction.

This conservation drama is playing out under extreme conditions. CONAP and WCS staffers have been threatened many times. Some have been taken hostage, while others have had to "disappear" for several weeks after raids to reclaim illegally acquired ranchland. McNab himself was held at gunpoint by two looters of a Mayan ruin deep in the jungle. The writer was accompanied into the forest with as many as five armed security guards as they traveled near cartel ranches. Always in the back of his mind were the nation's poverty, corruption, history of dictatorship, lawlessness, and 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

The influence of illegal logging and ranching in the reserve is evident in a series of three CONAP land-use maps showing a wave of fires and land clearing that gobbled up large green swaths of forest from 2000 to 2011, especially in the western section. McNab warns that if law enforcement does not improve, the reserve faces a "chain of falling dominoes threatening to sweep eastward all the way to Guatemala's border with Belize."

Nowhere is the tale of two reserves more visible than at the Guacamayas Biological Station in Laguna del Tigre National Park. To the south, across the Rio San Pedro and beyond, stretches a vast plain of ranchland, the raw result of deforestation. To the north, the rainforest canopy rolls untattered all the way to the border with Mexico. In 2008, scientists discovered a 1,100-hectare clear-cut smack in the middle of that expanse. It turned out to be a large cattle ranch linked to a Salvadoran gang involved in drug trafficking.

Such forest destruction has in recent decades reduced by 75 percent the habitat of the region's scarlet macaws, a subspecies of the scarlet macaws found farther south in Latin America and the last remaining macaws in the wild in Guatemala. By 2000, scarlet macaws had nearly been extirpated in the reserve. A 2003 WCS study estimated that the population, mostly centered in the forest to the east of Laguna del Tigre park, had dropped to 200 birds. That year, the researchers monitored 15 nests, but only one chick successfully fledged.

But a program of predator control, environmental education in local schools, and hand-rearing by veterinarians brought the number of successful macaw fledglings to 29 in 2011 and 49 for this year's nesting season. Says McNab, "We feel pretty good about adding that number of birds to the population. That's big in terms of saving the species."

To halt continuing deforestation, CONAP and its allies have established what they call "the Shield" — a lattice of trails running along the eastern border of Laguna del Tigre park, anchored by three major bases for patrols by CONAP, the army, national police, and others. Patrols and arrests have risen steadily over the past four years.

If the success or failure of the Shield will determine whether the western front of the reserve holds, what happens in villages like Uaxactún will decide whether the eastern part will avoid destruction from within.

Uaxactún, population 280, is one of 14 villages awarded government concessions more than a decade ago as part of an experiment in community-based forest management. The concessions, covering nearly one-fourth of the reserve, require residents to protect the forest ecosystem and manage its wood and other resources sustainably.

The villagers must refrain from poaching, intensive logging, slash-and-burn farming, and other unsustainable practices, as well as patrol for and report any such illegal activity. In return, CONAP, WCS, and other groups provide technical and financial support for forest-product ventures. Dozens of residents now work in sustainable harvesting of timber, date palm fronds, chicle for chewing gum, and other non-timber products from the forest. Others work in the village sawmill and woodworking shop.

Village leaders say the concession is working well. But not all the concessions have been so successful, according to a study published in March in the journal Forest Ecology and Management. Among reasons for the problems were limited funding, the low CONAP budget, pressure from illegal ranching, and land speculation.

The effort in the village of Cruce a la Colorada was one of the failures. In 2010, disputes between ranchers and concession managers became so heated that concession members received death threats. A community leader was assassinated. In the ensuing climate of fear, the project collapsed.

But the conservation groups remain hopeful.

"You can grapple with these governance issues and you can have success," McNab says. "It takes an integrated strategy working with a huge suite of partners, but it can be done."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wild Parrots Name Their Children

Wild pair of green-rumped parrotlets, Forpus passerinus, photographed in Venezuela. Male (left) and female (right). Image: screengrab.

People who live with parrots know that they can mimic their human care-givers as well as many of the common sounds in their environment. One parrot owner started receiving mysterious phantom phone calls. The phone would ring; but, no matter how quickly it would be answered, there was never anyone there. Then, one day, the mystery was solved. The owner had answered yet another phantom call when she happened to glance at the parrot. Much to her amazement, the phone rang again while it was still up to her ear. More suspiciously, the parrot's beak moved.

The parrot had learned to imitate the sound of a ringing phone so well that the owner could not tell the difference between the phone and the parrot. Now, before answering any phone calls, the owner checks in with the parrot first.

Although such mimicry is delightful, it does raise the question of what purpose does vocal mimicry serve for wild parrots?

One proposed hypothesis for parrots' remarkable ability to mimic sounds in their environment is to develop and maintain social cohesion. For example, several species of wild parrots studied to date demonstrate the ability to readily imitate their flock mates' calls. This ability is important for psittacines: when an individual parrot moves from one locale to another, it learns the calls of the local parrot flock as part of forming a social bond with those birds.

But research in spectacled parrotlets, Forpus conspicillatus, went further: this research showed that each parrot has its own signature call – a unique sound that is used only for recognising that particular individual (doi:10.1007/s002650050481). Basically, each parrot has its own name. Interestingly, similar to human culture, members of each parrot family have names that sound more like each other than like those for other parrot families. But how do young parrots acquire their special signature calls (their names)? Do they learn their names from their parents, or are they born knowing their names?

To answer to this question, Karl Berg, a graduate student in Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, assembled a team of researchers and studied a wild population of green-rumped parrotlets, Forpus passerinus, in Guarico, Venezuela. Because this particular population has been carefully documented for decades, it provided an excellent opportunity to study the social dynamics of wild parrots.

Slightly smaller than a domestic canary, green-rumped parrotlets are the smallest parrot species in the Americas. They are resident in open forest and scrubland throughout much of tropical South America, and they have small ranges. These tiny, mostly green, parrots are slightly sexually dimorphic cavity nesters, laying between five and seven eggs in a termite nest, in a tree cavity -- or in a hollow pipe.

To distinguish between the two hypotheses (social name learning versus biological name inheritance), Mr Berg and his team of researchers set up inconspicuous video cameras and audio recorders inside and outside 17 nest cavities in PVC pipes in 2007 and 2008. When the resident female parrotlet had completed her clutch, nine of those nests were swapped between unrelated birds that lived far enough apart that they did not come into any auditory contact with each other. (The other eight nests were controls that remained with their biological parents.)

The researchers then recorded and analyzed the sounds in each nest cavity (figure 1 a & b):

Figure 1. Least-squares regression of contact call similarities within pairs and within sibling groups of green-rumped parrotlet nests. (a, b). Dotted lines indicate confidence intervals. (a) r2 = 0.64, p < 0.02; (b) r2 = 0.62, p < 0.01.

The team found that each adult had its own unique contact call and that contact call was more similar to each bird's mate's call than to calls produced by adults at other nests.

They also recorded and analyzed the nestlings' contact calls (figure 1 c & d):

Figure 1 c & d. Least-squares regression of contact call similarities within pairs and within sibling groups of green-rumped parrotlet nests. (c, d) Mean canonical scores of nestlings as a function of canonical scores of siblings within nests (c) in 2007 and (d) in 2008. Dotted lines indicate confidence intervals. (c) r2 = 0.71, p < 0.02; (d) r2 = 0.37, p < 0.15.

As expected, the parrot nestlings' calls were more variable than those of the adults, but sibling parrots tended to show strong similarities in their contact call structure. Like their parents, nestling parrotlet calls were more similar to their siblings than to nestling calls at other nests (however, this finding was significant only in 2007).

But were the foster parents learning their adopted nestlings innate contact calls or were the nestlings learning calls that their parents assigned to them? The researchers had anticipated this question by recording the foster parents' calls prior to them hearing their adopted nestlings' calls. Spectrographic analysis showed that it was the parents who assigned signature calls -- names -- to the young parrots instead of the other way around. Further, all parrot nestlings adopted contact calls that were notably similar to those that their parents -- whether biological or foster -- vocalized to them in the first weeks of their lives. Taken together, these data indicate that nestling parrots learn their names from their parents and parrot names are the result of social learning rather than biological inheritance.

It's likely that parrots evolved the ability to mimic sounds for social reasons, although those precise reasons are still unknown. But since this ability allows families to recognise each other by voice, it is likely that such vocal recognition is important for restricting parental care to one's own fledglings after parrot families begin moving to communal foraging and roosting sites.

These findings have a number of interesting implications as well. For example, can parrots recall and distinguish particular individuals and identify family members, even after being separated for years? This also raises the possibility that parrots may have a concept of individuality and even of self awareness.

This video is a slide presentation of these findings:

Reposted from GrrlScientist

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fish Predicted to Reduce 25% in Size by 2050

Glassfish on a coral reef in Egypt. Scientists have examined the effect of rising ocean temperatures on the growth and distribution of more than 600 species of fish. Photo courtesy: Tarik Tinazay/AFP/Getty Images

Global warming is likely to shrink the size of fish by as much as a quarter in coming decades, according to a groundbreaking new study of the world's oceans.

The reduction in individual fish size will be matched by a dwindling of overall fish stocks, warned scientists, at a time when the world's growing human population is putting ever greater pressure on fisheries.

"We were surprised as we did not think the effects would be so strong and so widespread," said Prof William Cheung from the University of British Columbia in Canada, who led the research. His team examined the effect of rising ocean temperatures on the growth and distribution of more than 600 species of fish around the world and found that they are expected to shrink in size by 14-24% by 2050, with the biggest effects in tropical regions.

"It could be worse than that," said Prof Callum Roberts, at the University of York, who described the research as the most comprehensive to date. Roberts, who was not one of the study's authors, said additional impacts of climate change such as the acidification of the ocean and reduction of nutrients in surface waters could decrease fish stocks even further, as would continued overfishing.

"We will see dramatic changes in the oceans likely to reduce productivity," said Roberts. "One billion people rely on fish for primary animal protein and that is going to increase, especially in developing countries. We have to get to grips with our dependence on fossil fuels otherwise we are stuffed."

The fish shrinkage predicted by the new research results from two effects: the difficulty of growing in warmer, oxygen-poor waters, and migration.

"The metabolic rate of fish in the warm oceans increases and therefore they need more oxygen," said Cheung, whose work is published in Nature Climate Change. But warm water holds less oxygen and so their growth is limited.

In addition, there are more small-bodied fish in the tropics and these will migrate to temperate or polar regions as the ocean warms, reducing the average fish size.

The two effects are similar in impact, said Cheung, who used computer models to project the effect of warming on fish physiology, distribution, migration and population.

"We are already seeing the effects," he added, pointing to a 2011 study that showed the reduction in the size of haddock in the North Sea correlated closely with increasing temperature. Cheung's team projected temperature rises using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, based on a high-emissions scenario that matches the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

"Our work shows a very concerning future for the oceans and so it is very important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop better fish management policies to adapt to these changes," said Cheung.

Roberts said the research showed the impact of climate change on the oceans looked set to be greater than previously predicted. The reduction in fish size due to overfishing was well known, he said, as for the last century fish have increasingly "lived fast and died young", preventing them reaching full size. But, if overfishing continues, this effect would be additional to the shrinkage caused by warming, Roberts said.

Furthermore, rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to more of the gas dissolving in the ocean, increasing its acidity. "That makes life much tougher for animals that make a chalky skeleton," said Roberts. "We need to worry about these tiny animals – such as coccoliths and foraminifera – which are an important part of primary production: the base of the food chain."

Lastly, Roberts said the heating of the oceans means that the warmer layer at the surface mixes less with the colder layer below. As the colder layer contains most of the nutrients, that means less food for fish. "We are already seeing some evidence of this, as oceanic 'deserts' are getting larger."

"All this is yet one more reason to do something to cut greenhouse gases urgently," he said.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Great Barrier Reef in Danger of Collapse

Coral cover on Australia's Great Barrier Reef has declined by more than half over the last 27 years according to marine scientists. Storms, coral bleaching and a rise in the number of crown-of-thorn starfish which suck out the coral's nutrients, have led to the alarming decline. Scientists warn that unless action is taken the coral will halve again within a decade. Video courtesy: guardian.co.uk

Coral cover in the Great Barrier Reef has dropped by more than half over the last 27 years, according to scientists, a result of increased storms, bleaching and predation by population explosions of a starfish which sucks away the coral's nutrients.

At present rates of decline, the coral cover will halve again within a decade, though scientists said the reef could recover if the crown-of-thorns starfish can be brought under control and, longer term, global carbon dioxide emissions are reduced.

"This latest study provides compelling evidence that the cumulative impacts of storms, crown-of-thorns starfish (Cots) and two bleaching events have had a devastating effect on the reef over the last three decades," said John Gunn, chief executive of the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Coral reefs are an important part of the marine ecosystem as sources of food and as protection for young fish. They are under threat around the world from the effects of bleaching, due to rising ocean temperatures, and increasing acidification of the oceans, which reduces the corals' ability to build their calcium carbonate structures.

The Great Barrier Reef is the most iconic coral reef in the world, listed as a Unesco world heritage site and the source of $A5bn (£3.2bn) a year to the Australian economy through tourism. The observations of its decline are based on more than 2,000 surveys of 214 reefs between 1985 and 2012. The results showed a decline in coral cover from 28% to 13.8% – an average of 0.53% a year and a total loss of 50.7% over the 27-year period. The study was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal (subscription).

Two-thirds of the coral loss has occurred since 1998 and the rate of decline has increased in recent years, averaging around 1.45% a year since 2006. "If the trend continued, coral cover could halve again by 2022," said Peter Doherty, a research fellow at the institute.

The incredibly beautiful; but, deadly crown-of-thorns starfish is causing the rapid decline of coral reefs. Photo courtesy: shells-of-aquarius.com

Tropical cyclones, predation by Cots, and bleaching accounted for 48%, 42%,and 10% of the respective estimated losses. In the past seven years the reef has been affected by six major cyclones. Cyclone Hamish, for example, ran along the reef, parallel to the coast for almost 930 miles (1,500km), leaving a trail of destruction much greater than the average cyclone, which usually crosses the reef on a path perpendicular to the coast.

The starfish problem was first recorded in 1962 at Green Island off Cairns. "When we say outbreaks, we mean explosions of Cots populations to a level where the numbers are so large that they end up eating upwards of 90% of a reef's coral," Gunn said. "Since 1962 there have been major outbreaks every 13-14 years."

The evidence suggests that outbreaks of Cots start two or three years after major floods in northern rivers.

In September, scientists at the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced that Caribbean coral reefs are on the verge of collapse, with less than 10% of the reef area showing live coral cover. The collapse was due to environmental issues, including over-exploitation, pollution and climate change.

David Curnick, marine and freshwater programme co-ordinator at the Zoological Society of London, said many of the most endangered coral species around the world were also under severe pressure from the aquarium trade.

"Corals are notoriously hard to propagate in captivity and therefore the trade is still heavily dependent on harvesting from the wild."."

He said the results of the Great Barrier Reef survey were not surprising and the challenge for conservationists was to limit the localised threats to give reefs a chance to recover and develop resilience against the effects of climate change. "This is challenging but entirely achievable and there are many community-led projects around the world demonstrating this."

Corals can recover if given the chance. But this is slow – in the absence of cyclones, Cots and bleaching, the Great Barrier Reef can regrow at a rate of 2.85% a year, the scientists wrote. Removing the Cots problem alone would allow coral cover to increase at 0.89% a year.

Reducing Cots means improving water quality around the rivers at the northern end of the reef to reduce agricultural run-off – high levels of nutrients flowing off the land feed and allow high survival of Cots larvae. Another option is some form of biological control of populations – Gunn said there were promising results from research on naturally occurring pathogens that could keep Cots in check, but it was not ready to be applied in the field.

He said the future of the Reef lay partly in human hands. "We can achieve better water quality, we can tackle the challenge of crown-of-thorns, and we can continue to work to ensure the resilience of the reef to climate change is enhanced. However, its future also lies with the global response to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The coral decline revealed by this study – shocking as it is – has happened before the most severe impacts of ocean warming and acidification associated with climate change have kicked in, so we undoubtedly have more challenges ahead."