Friday, May 28, 2010

And the winner is....

Congratulations to Emma Falconer who is the winner of the Communicate Science Photo Competition 2010. Emma wins for her photograph entitled "Butterflies" which was taken at the Oxford University Natural History Museum.

A copy of Reading the Irish Landscape by Frank Mitchell and Michael Ryan is winging its way to the winner.

Honorable mention goes to Greg Harris for his surface tension image and Janet Edwards for her image of Belmullet. Both of these photos really caught the judges' attention.
A special thank you to all those who submitted photographs and the judges who had the difficult task of choosing a winner. The full shortlist can be viewed here.

Well done everyone!!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Radio transmitters used to track bees

A group of scientists have used minute radio transmitters to track the movements of bees as they track down rare flowers.

It is the first example of the successful use of micro radio telemetry to track movement of an insect pollinator and the results may have implications for our understanding of biological activity patterns and the evolution of forset pollinators.

The iridescent blue-green orchid bees (Exaerete frontalis) were fitted with  transmitters weighing just 300 mg. Eyelash adhesive was used to attach the equipment to the bee's thorax (see image above).

A total of 16 bees were tagged (four were lost) and the team was able to track them for about 5 days. The results confirmed that such large orchid bees have very large home ranges and averaged about 45 hectares (although one of the bees had a range of 700 hectares).

The scientists warn that the results must be interpreted carefully but "by extending radio telemetry to bees that are scarcely a few times heavier than transmitters we obtained credible results because orchid bees are known for their flight capabilities".

These results were published in PLoS ONE journal and can viewed in its entirety here.

Irish Scientists discover new flying reptile

A group of scientists from Dublin have discovered the fossilized remains of a new species of pterosaur (a large flying reptile, see artists impression, left). Nizar Ibrahim from University College Dublin led the team who discovered the remains of the creature which they believe had a wingspan of about six metres.

The pterosaur has been named Alanqa saharica from the Arabic words 'Al Anqa' meaning phoenix. The species name 'saharica' is from its origins in the Sahara desert.

The find comes from an expedition to the Kem Kem beds in South Eastern Morocco conducted by the Dublin scientists alongside their colleagues from the University of Portsmouth and University Hassan II in Casablanca. The scientists identified the new species based on teeth and jaw remains (see below).

Nizar Ibrahim (pictured right) notes that: "This pterosaur is distinguished from all others by its lance-shaped lower jaw which had no teeth and looked rather like the beak of a gigantic heron.

"When this pterosaur was alive, the Sahara desert was a river bed basin lush with tropical plant and animal life. This meant there were lots of opportunities for different pterosaurs to co-exist, and perhaps feeding on quite different kinds of prey."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Photo Competition - Shortlist Complete

All of the shortlisted entries for the Communicate Science Photo Competition 2010 are now available to view at the online exhibition and the accompanying slide show.
The winner will be announced on Friday next, 28th May.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Funny Science: all-action Darwin

Dana Carvey is Charles Darwin in this all-action epic.

Photo Competition - Results

Yet more photos have been added to our online exhibition of entries to the Communicate Science Photo Competition 2010.
You can visit the exhibition here, comment on the photos and learn who will become the overall winner.

Friday, May 21, 2010

It's life...but not as we know it

The headline in this morning's Irish Examiner is just the start of it: "Scientists create 'Frankenstein' cell", it screams. "An American biologist has stepped into the shoes of Baron Frankenstein by breathing life into a bacterium using genes assembled in the laboratory". And the Irish Examiner calls itself a serious newspaper!

The story is a fascinating one. As we told you back in January, 2010 was the year when Craig Venter promised he'd create artificial life. And he's done it.

The research, published in Science, outlines how they got the first ever microbe to survive and proliferate based on purely human-synthesized genetic information. Scientific American has a very useful summary of the latest developments here.

The research is groundbreaking and could have implications for renewable energy systems, the production of vaccines and other areas of research. Indeed, a bacterium that can digest oil spills would be very useful at the moment.

Arthur Caplan, Director of the Centre for Bioethics at University of Pennsylvania notes that, "Venter and his group were careful to use tiny molecular changes to "watermark," or stamp their creation—an identification requirement that any scientist or company ought be required to utilize when using the techniques of synthetic biology". This would prevent "bad guys making nasty bugs".

"value of life is not imperiled or cheapened by coming to understand how it works" - CaplanSpeaking of the ethical implications for this research, Caplan ponders: "is the dignity of life imperiled by showing that human beings can create a novel living thing?  I think not. There are those who are enthralled by the idea that life is a riddle beyond solution. However, the value of life is not imperiled or cheapened by coming to understand how it works." All in all, a much more nuanced and intelligent assessment of the science than the Irish Examiner could muster.

Photos Galore!

If you haven't checked out our Science Photo Competition Page, then what are you waiting for? To celebrate the weekend approaching, we've uploaded a bumper number of entries today. We'll keep trawling through the huge pile of photos to bring you the best of the best and will be announcing the overall winner next week.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We're all in this together

We're all in this together. That's the message from a new EU campaign to inform us about biodiversity and to get people actively engaged in preserving and restoring it.

The timing is critical as it coincides with the International Year of Biodiversity and according to the Stern Review on the Economic effects of climate change, 15-40% of species could disappear by the end of this century. Despite the pretty wide margin there, any loss of species is undoubtedly a bad thing and  needs to be guarded against.

The campaign will target all EU countries but with particular focus on Bulgaria, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Poland and Romania. Quite why these specific countries have been chosen, I'm not sure.

The campaign entitled "We are all in this together" (certainly NOT We're... or to be confused with the UK Conservative Party slogan used in the recent elections) was launched at the start of the year with a snazzy new logo. As a means of getting their point across quickly, it looks pretty succesful.

Recent research in the Netherlands show that only one third of Europeans feel they know what biodiversity means or how it benefits them, with many associating the term with "distant wildlife".

A key part of the campaign is to emphasis the effect biodiversity has on every citizen and how a loss of biodiversity has negative impacts on human society - from water purification to food supply, and from energy to pharmaceuticals.

A campaign spokesperson said, "Expect to see provocative images and messages designed to catch people's attention, channelled through word-of-mouth 'viral' marketing, such as graphic outlines of a dead sparrow or flower chalked on city streets and pavements. The initiative will also feature a widspread print campaign, social networks such as Facebook and a dedicated website on biodiversity in Europe".

You can biodiversify a photo of yourself here.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Results of Photo Competition

Over the next two weeks, we'll be publishing the best of the entries received for the Communicate Science Photo Competition 2010. At the end of that process, the overall winner will be announced. The entries can be viewed on the special competition page. The page will be updated on an almost daily basis, so watch out for your entry. If you haven't entered, then you'll certainly enjoy the breath of photos submitted.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Plant Watch: Goosegrass - the Velcro plant

Over the summer months, we'll take a look at some of the more interesting plants that can be spotted around Irish towns and countryside. The aim is to make it easy to identify at least some of them and have an understanding of their biology. The best thing you can do is to get out there and have a look yourself. We'll start with an easy one to spot and it's highly abundant - so no excuses for not being able to find it!

Goosegrass (Galium aparine) is found throughout the country in both urban and rural habitats. Dog owners will be all too familiar with the seeds of this plant -often adhering in large numbers to dogs which have managed to roll in a clump of these plants. The time taken to remove the seeds from a dogs coat can be considerable!

The plant itself can be found in many different types of habitats. Look for it on scrub or wasteland in urban and semi-urban locations. It may also be found in ditches in agricultural areas; sometimes encroaching on the planted field itself.

The plant can be recognised by touch as much as anything else given its 'velcro-like' stems. These stems are noticeably 4-angled (almost square in shape) with minute, curved prickles all over which give the distinctive velcro feel.

The leaves are arranged in groups (whorls) of between 6 and 9 narrow, pointed leaves. When they eventually flower they'll produce tiny (c. 2 mm) white flowers with four petals.

The fruits, which become evident in late summer are 2-lobed and densely covered with more of these hooked bristles. In terms of seed dispersal, goosegrass is very sucessful. The seeds will stick to animals, clothing, etc. and can be carried a large distance from the parent plant.

Goosegrass is edible*. The fruits can be roasted to make a coffee-like drink and the plant can be made into a tea which has been used by herbalists to treat blood pressure and high temperatures. The plant can be boiled and used as a leaf vegetable before the seeds appear and it makes for "tolerable eating". The tea can also be used to wash your hair and treat dandruff.

The plant can be very troublesome for farmers, reducing yield in winter wheat by 12-57% in a UK study. Because of its straggling, binding nature it can seriously interfere with the process do harvesting.

* Please note, there are inherent dangers in eating wild plants which you may not have identified correctly. If in any doubt, don't eat it and consult an expert. The medicinal claims mentioned are often just that - claims. Don't consider this article a substitute for qualified medical advice.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Photo Competition -Update

**Update 16/05/2010: The competition is now closed. Results will be announced shortly**

There is just a few days left to return your entries for the Communicate Science Photo Competition, as the deadline is Saturday 15th May. To date, the quality and number of entries has been beyond expectations and I look forward to posting a number of the entries on this blog during next week (i.e. from Monday 17th May).
After that, all of the photos submitted will be examined by the judges and the winner will be announced during the week beginning the 24th May.
Stay tuned to see if your photo made the blog and could be the overall winner.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Number of the Week: 757,000

That's the amount of oil (in litres) entering the Gulf of Mexico every day after an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. BP, the US government and environmentalists are rapidly running out of options as to how to control the spill and stop it at its source.
Scientific American has a detailed report here.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

In search of the White Coat Vote

Is there such a thing as the science vote? We've heard of the green vote, the pink vote and so on, but do political parties take any notice of the White Coat Vote?

A recent survey of UK scientists by the science journal Nature, has shown that an overwhelming number of scientists surveyed think that the Liberal Democrats (31%) and Labour (33%) would give scientific research the best chance of thriving in the UK. Just 10% thought the Conservative Party would provide such a boost.

The survey of 262 scientists, the majority (64%) of whom worked in academia, also asked which party was most likely to use science or scientific advice to formulate their policies. The Lib Dem's were the clear winner on this point with 36% of scientists opting for them, 24% saying Labour and again, just 10% saying Conservative.

A massive 36% of respondents asserted that none of the main contenders for the PM job, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have any grasp of science.

And, with spending cuts high on the agenda, 71% of scientists polled thought the Conservatives most likely to cut science funding. Just 18% suggested Labour and 2% suggested the Lib Dem's. Given the reality of the economic situation in the UK and elsewhere, it seems odd that there was no "all of the above" option for this particular question.

The full results of the poll are available here.

Some citizen-scientists felt so let down by conventional parties that Michael Brooks and Sumit Paul-Choudhury founded The Science Party in April of this year and Brooks himself will contend the parliamentary election in the constituency of Bosworth.

Brooks has made clear who's seat he is aiming for - that of the Conservative David Tredinnick. According to The Science Party, Tredinnick has  little grasp of science and claimed more than £700 on MP's expenses for astrology software and training.

Tredinnick has also recently stood by a comment he made recently that those who rubbish facets of eastern medicine (including homeopathy and astrology) are being racist.

“David Tredinnick is the thick end of the wedge, but there are plenty of MPs who dismiss scientific results,” Brooks says. “When you are making decisions about what kind of healthcare our country can offer its people, that is potentially disastrous.”

Brooks is a writer and broadcaster who is a consultant with the well-known science magazine New Scientist.

In June of 2009, it emerged that Tredinnick had sought to claim expenses for his attendance at a seminar on how to "honour the female and also the male essence and the importance of each". The course was designed to teach those attending about "polarity and neutrality" and the "deep passions of our intimate relationships".
An official in the Commons fees office wrote to Mr Tredinnick to explain that "costs relating to Intimate Relationships courses do not fall within the remit of this allowance" and the claim was turned down.

***Update Friday 7th May***

With the results now becoming clearer, it seems that the scientists' choice for government (if the Nature poll is to believed), the Liberal Democrats, will not make anything like the gains which Nigel Clegg's popularity throughout the campaign suggested. The Science Party also performed badly, if the result from Bosworth (see below, via The Guardian) are anything to go by. So much for the White Coat Vote!

Communicate Science - Highlights so far

The Communicate Science blog has developed rapidly since the first postings in September 2009. Given the recent increase in viewers, I thought this was an appropriate time to look back over a few of the highlights so far. Feel free to add your own with a comment to this posting or email me directly.

In October 2009 we brought you a report on Kew's Millenium Seedbank when they celebrated having collected 10% of the world's known plant species. See it here.

We looked at the relationship between science and religion in November while we were knee-deep in flood waters. Relive the drama here.

In January, we had the pleasure of hosting humpback whales off the south coast. Get submerged in the story here.

Also that month, we contemplated the sheer beauty of nature (and the movies!) with a look at bioluminescence. Shine the spotlight here.

In March of this year, we looked at consumer acceptance of GM crops in an article that was also published on the Guardian website. Read more here.

And just last month we brought you a London picture special with images from the Natural History Museum and Kew Botanical Gardens while we also launched our own Science Photo Competition. See the London images here.

REMINDER: Science Photo Competition

**Update 16/05/2010: The competition is now closed. Results will be announced shortly**
You've got just over a week to get your entry in for the Communicate Science Photo Competition 2010. The deadline for entries is Saturday 15th May. We've already received a huge response to this competition and the standard is very high, but you can still be in with a chance if you get your entry in by the 15th. Get snapping!

Anyone can enter and there are no categories other than SCIENCE - once you think the photo has something to do with science, that's good enough for me.

Email you entry to this address and include your contact details along with a title and brief description of the photo. I'll feature some of the photos on the blog and the best (as judged by an elite panel of experts) will receive a copy of the brilliant Reading the Irish Landscape by Frank Mitchell and Michael Ryan.

Of Frank Mitchell and the book in question: "Perhaps the last of the great Irish Scientists of the natural world for whom the term 'natural historian' is genuinely appropriate...Reading the Irish Landscape, has been extensively remodeled, expanded, updated and lavishly illustrated."

Terms & conditions (no nasty ones):

1. The photo must be your own work.
2. The photo remains yours. I may use it occasionally on this blog as part of the competition, but you retain ownership and copyright.
3. Judges decision is final; it's just a bit of fun!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poisoning hampers re-introduction efforts

In what has been described as the worst spate of poisoning in recent years, 10 protected birds of prey including three Red Kites, two White-tailed Eagles, a Golden Eagle, three Buzzards and a Peregrine Falcon have been confirmed poisoned in the Republic of Ireland.

Two Red Kites and a Peregrine were found dead in Co. Wicklow, a third Red Kite released in Northern Ireland was found dead in Co. Kildare, a Golden Eagle in Co. Leitrim, and Buzzards in west Waterford, east Cork and Donegal (one of which recovered from poisoning) . All of these were poisoned by ingesting meat baits laced with Alphachloralose.

Within the last few weeks two White-tailed Eagles were found dead near Beaufort, Co. Kerry. Toxicology analyses at the State Laboratory in Celbridge, Co. Kildare, and the SASA lab, Edinburgh, Scotland, confirmed that both eagles had been poisoned by Carbofuran, a substance previously used as a pesticide but now illegal in Ireland. Searches of land in the Beaufort area located a dead lamb, a raven also poisoned by Carbofuran, as well as other livestock in various stages of decomposition.

A male White-tailed Eagle released in Killarney National Park in 2008 was found in the River Laune near Beaufort by Stewart Stephens, Laune Angling Club, on 4 April and recovered the following day. A second male White-tailed Eagle, released in 2007 was found on land in Beaufort on 12 April. Both eagles were in excellent condition and had been surviving well in the wild for 2-3 years until poisoned. One eagle had been feeding on the carcass of a sheep when it died as wool was found in the crop along with meat. An investigation is ongoing by the Department of Agriculture and GardaĆ­ in Killarney.

"The older male could have been one of the first birds to breed in the wild in Ireland in over 100 years""The loss of a further two White-tailed Eagles at this time is devastating", said Dr. Allan Mee, Manager of the White-tailed Eagle Reintroduction Project in Kerry. "The older male could have been one of the first birds to breed in the wild in Ireland in over 100 years had it survived. That it was in such good condition at the time of its death makes its loss even more tragic. We know that eagles can thrive in Kerry if given the chance but indiscriminate poisoning is literally killing our chances of re-establishing a population here" he added.

The deaths of these two birds brings to 13 the total number of White-tailed Eagles found dead, seven of which have now been confirmed poisoned, all in Co. Kerry. Fifty-five birds have been released in Kerry since 2007. "The loss of the older male is particularly hard to take because we have now lost 7 of the 15 eagles released in 2007. Year by year we are losing most of the oldest birds that could be breeding in a few years. Many of the birds have been finding sources of fish in the rivers and lakes for the first time this year which is a really positive sign. Unfortunately even birds that are intent on fishing along our rivers don't escape the threat of poisoning. If there is a carcass laced with poison in fields nearby eventually one of the eagles will be drawn to it. We can't fully protect these birds unless we stop indiscriminate poisoning" Mee added.

Despite this threat many eagles have travelled the length and breadth of the country, including at least three birds that travelled to Scotland and back, without being harmed. "One male White-tailed Eagle travelled to the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland and back over an eight month period. Another satellite tracked eagles called Fiadhna (after 9 year old Fiadhna Tangney in the Black Valley) left Killarney after release in August 2009 and has now visited 28 of the 32 counties in Ireland" Mee commented.

"The future for the reintroduction is cooperation and mutual respect"After spending the winter in the Antrim hills, Fiadhna moved west into Donegal then back east to the Sperrin Mountains, travelled on to the Cooley peninsula in Louth, before crossing west to the midlands. She then headed south to Kerry but then crossed into Clare and on to Connemara before heading east to Wicklow. In the last few weeks she returned to Northern Ireland and is now back in the Antrim Hills. "It is heartening to know that Fiadhna can cross the country and roost and feed on literally hundreds of farms in many counties without coming to any harm. To my mind this shows that the vast majority of farmers respect nature and do not use poisons. Just the other day we had a phone call from a farmer in Antrim who was happy to report that Fiadhna was back on the same farm she left months ago. The future for the reintroduction is cooperation and mutual respect between ourselves and the farming communities that eagles inhabit" Mee added.

Cooperation and support from the donor country, Norway, has been critical to the success of the White-tailed Eagle reintroduction in Kerry. However, the continuing loss of eagles to poisoning has cast a shadow over the future of this ambitious programme. The Directorate for Nature Management in Norway has supported the reintroduction programme to reestablish the White-tailed Eagle as a breeding bird in Ireland. Permits to collect up to 20 fledglings per year from Norway during 2007-2009 have been issued given that the population in Norway is a healthy and growing population, and based on the reports on Ireland still being a well suited area for the species. The Directorate of Nature Management is concerned to learn about the casualties caused by illegal poisoning. In Norway there is no evidence that White-tailed eagle predates on livestock.

The Directorate believes that the Irish authorities will take the necessary steps to correct this situation, and give the White-tailed eagle a future in Ireland.

Of three poisoned Red Kites found in the last month, a female found in Kildare had been released in Co. Down in 2008 as part of a reintroduction programme in Northern Ireland managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The RoI Reintroduction in Co. Wicklow is managed by the Golden Eagle Trust in partnership with the Department of the Environment, Heritage, and Local Government. Although some Red Kites from Wicklow and Co. Down have crossed the border in past years, this is the first kite from Northern Ireland to be found poisoned in the Republic.

Robert Straughan, Red Kite Project Officer commented "The RSPB are seeking a coordinated approach between all relevant statutory and non-statutory organisations to tackling crimes against birds of prey in Northern Ireland. The death of one of our red kites in the Republic also highlights the need for us to co-ordinate our efforts cross-border.

In NI, the new Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill will introduce tougher fines and custodial sentences for those committing crimes against wildlife, and we are also seeking an amendment to the Bill to make it an offence to possess certain pesticides. This would close a legal loophole which allows an individual to possess highly toxic chemicals for which they could have no legitimate use other than to commit an offence of poisoning animals or birds.

Political support has been demonstrated by MLAs, including Environment Minister Edwin Poots, who signed our pledge to stop illegal killing of birds of prey, which gathered over 200,000 signatures as part of RSPB's Birds of Prey campaign. The Ulster Farmers' Union have also demonstrated their support for our Red Kite project by including a red kite in their newly re-designed logo".

"All the evidence points to Alphachloralose being the poison of choice"Two Red Kites were found also dead in Co. Wicklow in mid-March. One was found floating in the sea off Wicklow Head by members of the RNLI. A second bird was found by a member of the public on a road in west Wicklow. Initially both birds were thought to have died from natural causes but tests revealed toxic levels of Alphachloralose, a narcotic used to target crows and foxes. "All the evidence we have points to Alphachloralose being the number one poison of choice in use today and the most prevalent toxin threatening the viability of the Red Kite reintroduction in Wicklow", said Damian Clarke, Project Manager for the Golden Eagle Trust. "Despite the fact that it has been banned for some years in the UK we still continue to allow its production and use in Ireland. This is unsustainable and we have a duty to afford Kites from Northern Ireland the same protection as in the UK", Clarke added.

Although the use of poison on meat baits for the control of crows was banned in 2008, the use of meat baits to kill foxes is still permitted under current regulations (Protection of Animals Act 1965). This loophole has allowed the continued use of poison and continue to pose a huge threat to our native birds of prey. However, an amendment to the Wildlife Act which will outlaw all use of poison on meat baits is imminent. In addition, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food fails to ensure that farmers, who are in receipt of direct payments (Single Farm Payment and Rural Environmental Protection Scheme) under the EU Common Agricultural Policy, comply with the Cross Compliance Policy and that they duly implement the Statutory Management Requirements in respect of the obligation not to harm Annex 1 birds of prey (which are protected under the Birds Directive). The Golden Eagle Trust is calling on the Department of Agriculture to initiate immediate farm inspections where poisoning is found to occur.

The ongoing use of toxins in the Irish Agri-Food industry will in time begin to tarnish the very valuable image of natural clean Irish food products especially in foreign markets. The Irish farming sector quite rightly highlights the very highest environmental standards our farmers follow. But the growing evidence of illegal use of poison by a tiny minority of sheep farmers is a gross contradiction of this valuable marketing tool used by an Bord Bia and others. Using poisons tarnishes the clean, green image that the Irish agri-food sector has built its reputation on.

The fact that the vast majority of farmers successfully produce food without recourse to poisons begs the question why a small minority can undermine the good image of Irish food production and rural development by using poison. Likewise, poisoning does nothing to enhance the image of the Irish countryside which is important to the tourism industry. On the contrary, ecotourism including wildlife tourism and eagle watching safaris bring in over 2 million pounds annually to the economy of Mull in western Scotland and have the potential to be an important additional selling point in Kerry where eagle tourism is just taking off. Visitor numbers at Glenveagh National Park have increased over the past few years and the resident Golden Eagles have proved to be an important attraction to the public

This report originally appeared on the website of the Golden Eagle Thrust.

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