Penny Thoughts

Tag: environment

Beauty in the Detail: Pollen

I shared some amazing photos of pollen a few days ago by Martin Oeggerli which you can find here. I got a great response from these and I loved the photos so I thought I’d look about for anything else similar.

I stumbled across a huge variety of images. Unlike the National Geographic photos these are non-colour pictures but I feel they still capture the beauty of the microscopic natural world that surrounds us.

The beauty that can be seen in nature, I feel is overlooked by us all. There are some stunning things that we can miss in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives. I have recently started to realise just how much of the world I filter out when going about my daily routine. We need to start stopping more, expand our current tunnel vision and take in the wonder that surrounds us.

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I just love how alien these pollen grains look, yet these microscopic grains float around us all the time and can cause those runny noses and watery eyes we all hate in the Spring time.

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These amazing photos were taken by Louisa Howard using an electron microscope and her whole collection can be found here if you want to further explore these bizarre microscopic grains.

Delving into the microscopic world provides a whole new level of wonder that is far beyond our own visual abilities. Beauty can be found in all areas of life, even within the very small. Work like this gives us the opportunity to peak into this incredible world we know so little about.

 

National Geographic Pollen Photography

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine

Found these amazing shots of pollen and pollination on National Geographic. Just a reminder of how intricately beautiful life can be. There is a whole microscopic world unavailable to our normal vision but these kinds of pictures allow us to peak into the world of the small.

The above photo is by Martin Oeggerli and shows the pollen grains of a venus fly trap. The photo below, also by Oeggerli, shows small pollen grains (yellow) attached to the stigma of a geranium. This meeting will eventually lead to fertilisation of the plant.

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine

Another one of my favourites from this collection of photos is below and shows a single pollen grain of the Indian Mallow plant. It is covered in spikes which aid in attachment to bird feathers etc to enable dispersal of this pollen grain to other Indian Mallow plants.

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine

We may have stunning pieces of human made art but  it seems that we should start looking more into the world around us, and the visual beauty that surrounds us everyday.

Follow the link to see all of the amazing photos as I’ve only included a few favourites.

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine.

Poisonous Rhino Horns: The Answer to a Difficult Question?

This year over 200 rhinos have been illegally slaughtered to feed the incessant demand for rhino horn coming from the East. The huge majority of this demand is coming from China where the horn is used for traditional medicine and the ivory for numerous products including artworks and weapon handles.

One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch up to $68 000 on the black market making it worth more than its weight in gold. This clearly lucrative business attracts a lot of people and devalues the potentials costs associated with being part of an illegal industry.

There have been endless attempts to try to control this illegal poaching but with very little success. The number of rhinos being poached is rising each year and the future is looking ever darker for rhinos around the world. A ban has existed since the 1970s but is providing little protection to these heavily targeted creatures. Due to this, alternative approaches have been considered.

I have already written a post about the attempt to legalise the ivory trade to enable more control of the industry. This idea was based on the fact that rhino horn is made out our keratin, like our finger nails and therefore can regrow. So essentially rhino horn harvesting could take place. If you want to read more about this really interesting idea follow this link.

This year, another alternative method of control is being carried out in a game reserve in South Africa; Sabi Sands. It is targeting the medicinal use of the rhino horn which is ingested. The rhino horns are being injected with a mixture of parasiticides and an inedible pink die. If ingested, this cocktail of chemicals will make the consumer very ill, leading to “nausea, stomach ache, [and] diarrhoea.”

Andrew Parker, chief executive of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association has stated that the poison will not kill people just make them very ill. The pink dye will also be very obvious and therefore should act as an obvious visual deterrent. This dye will also make it very obvious to poachers that the rhino horn is poisoned and should prevent continued hunting of rhinos in those regions. It will also serve as a very good indicator for border control forces who will rapidly be able identify rhino horn in its whole or powder form.

So what is actually in this poisonous cocktail of chemicals. The parasiticides used are generally used to control mites on livestock like horses, sheep and cattle. This is mixed with the dye and injected into a hole that is bored into the rhino horn when the rhino is sedated. This “toxification” has already been carried out on over 100 rhinos in South Africa, and work is continuing to toxify even more.

This process does seem like a good idea, however, it does bring up some moral concerns. This process is acting with the intention of causing harm to consumers. Yes, these consumers are acting illegally, but does that justify this kind of action? In my opinion it does. These people aren’t going to die, but it will serve as a lesson to not consume this illegal product. The lesson may be harsh, but the current “weaker” attempts are not working. Maybe these consumers deserve this kind of action and considering the product will be bright pink they would have to be pretty stupid to go on and eat it.

Another concern is that this may not bring an end to poaching or even reduce the levels, it may simply displace the poaching to other places. Poachers may be put off from poaching in certain regions due to this action, however, these people are likely to just target other areas to obtain their income. This method could be effective if carried out throughout a

ll/the large majority of the rhino’s distribution; unfortunately, this is really not a possibility. Many rhinos do reside within reserves and parks, but a large proportion of these parks do not have the people, the materials or the funds to carry out this kind of work. Also, many rhinos do not live in parks and therefore it would be extremely complicated to toxify all rhinos.

Maybe with significant funding and support, a campaign could be carried out; this is unfortunately pretty unlikely too. A huge amount of lobbying and campaigning would be required, with research and trials to determine whether this method would be a possibility. This would all take quite some time, and maybe too much time for the rhinos.

There is also concern that the rhino poachers simply wouldn’t care. These people are criminals, if they can still fetch a decent amount of money it is very likely that they will continue to poach these rhinos until the horn completely devalues. Devaluing may occur if this toxification can be rolled out across the world driving down global demand, but as has been mentioned, this is a lot easier said than done.

The Sabi Sands reserve want to tell poachers that they have no place being in their park as their rhinos are pointless kills. I do worry about this message; a few years ago some parks were shaving the horn off rhinos so that the poachers had no access to the horn and therefore, no profit. However, the poachers retaliated and many rhinos were slaughtered in response.

Overall, I think this is a good idea. Measures in place aren’t working and so new, alternative measures are having to be considered. This approach does come with some ifs and buts, but in my opinion, every little helps. However, it may reach a point  where our greed seals the fate for rhinos, where investing effort into saving them would be rendered pointless. Some people already think this is the case. I do still think there is some time, but that window of opportunity is ever shrinking and action needs to be taken now before it’s too late.

Threatened Species of the Week- Pangolins: One of Conservation’s Hidden Stories

It’s that time again where I reveal the chosen threatened species of the week.. well strictly this week it is 2 species but you’ll forgive me for that I’m sure.

There is a great deal of media coverage surrounding numerous threats to wildlife, including polar bear hunting, the ivory trade and the timber industry. However, these problems are only part of a much larger and concerning set of challenges that the world’s wildlife is facing.

Relatively unknown creatures are being overshadowed by poster-children of conservation campaigns, regardless of the often intense levels of exploitation they face.  With little media coverage and poor public interest, there is almost negligible drive felt by governments and policy makers to take action. This is why I am doing this feature, to increase the awareness of those species under great threat that the majority of us are completely unaware of.

So what is being overlooked? The simple answer is: an awful lot, and this weeks threatened species of the week is the Pangolin. Strictly there are actually 8 species of pangolin, of which 2 are listed as endangered under the IUCN criteria; the Sunda Pangolin and the Chinese Pangolin.

Pangolins were ranked the most illegally trafficked animal in Asia in 2011, yet most people are completely unaware of them, with them receiving little media coverage. Pangolins are related to anteaters and are found across Africa and Asia. They are covered in thick, hard scales made of keratin; the same material that makes up our finger nails and the precious horn of rhinos and tusks of elephants.

Although the pangolins are protected under international law, little success is being seen in the conservation of these docile creatures.

Population numbers are decreasing in all eight species of pangolin, and two species are listed as endangered under the IUCN Redlist criteria. These declines are being driven by the increasing demand for these unique animals’ meat, scales and hide.

The biggest demand for pangolins is coming from Asia. In some Asian cultures the pangolin scales are believed to have unique medicinal properties.

With countries like China becoming increasingly wealthy the demand for these scales is ever increasing. This rapidly rising demand is pushing up prices and tempting more people into the illegal poaching trade.

This increase in poaching popularity is driving the population numbers way down. Pangolins are now so rare that they can be sold for as much as $1000 on the black market.

The co-Chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group, Dan Challender has stated that “…tens of thousands of illegally traded pangolins are seized each year”. This is still likely to be a massive underestimate with a huge number of poached pangolins escaping identification and inclusion in these figures.

As this trade is illegal there is very limited market data available, making appropriate targeting of conservation strategies increasingly difficult

If the situation remains as it is for pangolins and many other species of concern, the future for wildlife does not look bright. Nature interacts in a multitude of ways and it is not just the poster animals that are of importance; everything matters.

Sustainability: Fashion or Function?

As I’m currently doing a project on the maintenance of biodiversity in urban areas, words like “sustainability”, “ecosystems”, “biodiversity” are popping up all over the place. These terms are generally all wonderfully defined, fully equipped with a visual aid and chart of the writer’s choice.

After reading my first few reports and papers I started to realise that people are throwing these words around like their going out of fashion. It seems that saying that you’re being “sustainable” is the new cool. People like these words; it makes them sound future-thinking, caring and wordly. Really I think it’s a whole load of crap.

In most cases these words are being thrown out with really very little understanding of what is going on. It seems that the sustainability club is the new jock club of political life. Politicians absolutely love it. As much as I like Boris Johnson it seems that he can hardly go 2 minutes without mentioning being  “sustainable”, and “green”.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is brilliant that politicians and policy makers are being more considerate of the environment; it sets a good example for our future. But really they’re just trying to stick a tiny tiara of “sustainability” on the massive turd that is our past. Maybe they think that if they say sustainability enough times the huge damage we humans have done to our environment will vanish in a poof of smoke.

I came across a google program called Ngram Viewer where you can type in a word and see how much it has been used in literature over time. If you want to have a play follow this link. I typed in these new environmental buzzwords and found something rather funny. There has been no mention of these words anywhere up until about the 1960s and 1980s.

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These words are getting people ever so excited; everyone wants a piece of them. They are  like the shiny, new iphones of the word world.. people can’t wait to show off just how sustainable they are being and how much they truly care for these ecosystems they know very little about.

Hopefully there will be some substance behind the politician’s new favourite words. But it still seems to me that the people who are actually making the difference are the conservation charities and organisations. Governments and councils are still realistically more interested in developing their growing economies than helping out the natural world that we have been shitting on for the last few hundred years.

New Hope For Corals: Self-Recovery

study publsihed this week in Science has shown that coral reefs can in fact recover themselves after disaster, when under the right conditions.

Scott reef is an isolated reef found 250km from the coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean.  It suffered a mass bleaching event in 1998 in which over 80% of the coral cover was lost. Dr James Gilmour, the lead author of the study stated that, “The initial projections for Scott Reef were not optimistic”.

Before this paper, it was believed that seriously damaged corals could only recover in the presence of nearby coral reefs. Planula are the gametes of corals; they are what forms when the male and female gametes of the corals fuse together, much like our eggs and sperm. These planula are free-swimming and can reach neighbouring reefs and settle. Before the findings of this study were published, this process was thought to be the mechanism by which damaged reefs could recover.

Scott reef was monitored for 15 years by the researchers and the findings were very much unexpected. The researchers did not have much faith in the reef recovering to its pre-bleaching state in the near future. However, over the years of monitoring they observed the reef recovering at a surprisingly fast rate considering its isolation and level of damage.

Instead of the reef relying on propagules from other healthy reefs, the researchers found that the very few surviving corals were producing planula at high enough rates that self-replenishment was taking place.

It was soon realised that these few survivors were growing at such high rates because of the conditions existing in this isolated reef. Because Scott reef is so isolated from other reefs and so far offshore, the levels of human influence are reduced. The water quality at Scott reef is much better than other near shore reefs which receive higher levels of pollutants from the coast.

Water quality is linked with the health of reefs and meant that Scott reef had an increased ability to cope with and recover from the bleaching. The reef also received reduced levels of fishing and sedimentation compared to other reefs helping with its surprisingly speedy recovery.

The isolation that was initially considered a hindrance for the reef was actually enabling its survival.

This work proves that coral reefs can spring back from extreme damage. However, this recover is dependent on conditions. These findings are great for those reefs similar to Scott reef; isolated and with reduced human pressure. However, the majority of reefs do not have these qualities and are still at threat from the ever increasing human pressures. Non-isolated reefs are relatively safeguarded by neighbouring reefs sending propagules, but there is only so much these reefs can take.

Even conservative estimations predict that all coral ecosystems could be lost by the end of this century. So although this paper is good news in that it shows another way in which corals can recover after severe damage, the pressures facing coral reefs are ever worsening and need to be addressed.

Pesticides Wiping The Memories of Our Bees

This year, evidence has mounted supporting the idea that neonicotinoid pesticides are contributing to the dramatic falls in bee populations over the last few decades. I have already written two posts regarding this matter. If you are interested feel free to give them a quick read as I won’t be going over too much of the stuff I included. The first can be f0und here and delves into what effects neonicotinoids are having on bees and other pollinating insects. The second summarises the results of the EU vote against the ban of these pesticides and can be found here.

The proposed ban of neonicotinoids was rejected when put forward to the European Commission on the 15th March this year. One of the main arguments presented by opposers of the ban, including the UK environmental secretary, Owen Paterson, was that more data and research was required supporting the idea that neonicotinoids are negatively impacting bees, before a ban could be properly considered.

There has been a lot of response to this, including  a recent evaluation by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This report has suggested that neonicotinoids do not pose a serious threat to bees in a natural, real life setting. One of their main arguments is that the majority of the research that has been carried out has been done so in a lab based environment. They believe that the levels of neonicotinoids that most bees are exposed to in the wild are not comparable to those used in the lab based research and that the results are therefore over estimations.

This is a major punch in the face for supporters of the ban and researchers trying to investigate into this topic. With DEFRA being such a big name, it is likely that many people will be swayed due to this report. However, I have not.

This is a little irritating to me. Yes, a lot of the research was carried out in lab based environments, but I do not feel that this fact alone is enough to render these findings invalid. The huge majority of scientific work takes place in the most part in labs. Does this mean that all lab based work should be dismissed? NO.

The neonicotinoids are affecting bees and other pollinating insects in detrimental ways, whether that be in the lab or the field. It is likely that the lab setting may intensify these effects, but bees are being affected in the real world. Numbers are falling and something is causing that.

I found this very recent study published yesterday in Nature. This study is something different, it has lab AND field based experimentation. The researchers have shown that neonicotinoids actually impair the memory of bees which is impacting their ability to successfully forage and therefore pollinate the world’s plants. The study was led by Mary Palmer and her team and they state that it is known that neonicotinoids do impact bees, but that there is little empirical evidence to explain how and this needs to improve.

They successfully demonstrate how 2 neonicotinoids (imidacloprid and clothianidin) directly affect neuronal transmission within the nicotinic receptors in the brains of honey bees. They looked at the effects of neonicotinoids in bee Kenyon cells (KCs). KCs are neurons found in the brains of arthropods, including incsects. These KCs play an important role in learning and memory, particularly when it comes to smells.

The research team looked at the effects of sublethal levels of neonicotinoids on honeybees in the field and in the lab. They found in the lab group that the exposure led to a significant impairment of the bees’ abilities to learn and remember smells. This is particularly important as bees rely in part on the specific scents of certain flowers in their foraging and pollination behaviours. In the field, the neonicotinoids impair bees’ abilities to forage efficiently and navigate to and from the nest. Effects are being seen in the field.

These findings are worrying as they show that the levels of neonicotinoids that many bees are exposed to are impacting learning and foraging abilities. If bees cannot forage efficiently, then they cannot pollinate efficiently. This does not bode well for our already suffering global food security.

Another concerning finding is that these impacts are being exacerbated by other pesticides. This is very important as there is a lot of overlap in pesticide use and also regular switching of pesticides. This means that the majority of bees will be affected as they find themselves in ever increasingly common regions of extensive pesticide usage.

This study is great in showing an actual physiological change that results in the cells of bees in response to exposure to neonicotinoids. The use of research in a lab and field environment also helps with securing the accuracy and representativeness of their findings and reducing the opportunity to dismiss this important work. However, Mary Palmer and her team do state in the paper that improvements could be made. They explain that the cultured KCs do show marginally different levels of response to actual KCs and that future work could look into this disparity.

Regardless of the potential flaws, this study empirically shows neonicotinoids directly impacting bee learning and memory. I’m sure that this study will be just one of many similar studies appearing in the near future. The research is likely to be faced by a lot of opposition, with papers like the above being in the firing line of organisations who intend to undermine as much as possible.

This area is a hot topic and the demand for this type of research is ever increasing. Let’s hope that the methodology is a stringent as possible giving opposition very little excuse to dig their claws in and undermine very important work.

Things are Looking Up: Sharks and Manta Rays

My posts have been pretty depressing recently so I thought I’d look for something slightly more positive to write about. It is relatively difficult to find positive stories when it comes to the state of our world’s wildlife, but I found some happiness in sharks and manta rays.

A Slightly Depressing Start…

The CITES conference that has taken place over the last couple weeks has featured quite a lot in some of my more recent posts. It was where the proposals for the legal trade of rhino horn and polar bear hunting ban were rejected. Generally I have had quite a negative slant on the outcomes of the conference so here comes a more positive outcome.

Sharks and manta rays are facing increasing levels of exploitation. Once again there is increasing demand for them in Asia which is only worsening due to the increasing wealth in this continent. China’s insatiable demand for shark fin for their soup and use of manta ray gill rakers for medicinal properties is tempting many people into the poaching industry.

The sharks and rays are common in coastal regions where many poor people live. The poaching provides a stable income on which many people rely on. 1kg of shark fin can be sold for over $100 on the black market, which is a large amount of money for many of these poachers.

The increasing demand for these products with Asia’s increasing wealth is tempting more people into poaching, but is having a huge detriment on the shark and ray populations. Inhambane is a coastal region of Mozambique and has seen an 87% decrease in shark numbers in the last 10 years alone. This region’s thriving sea life brought in tourists from all over the world, as people could see 7-8 sharks on one dive. Now however, it is a very different story. The chances of seeing even one shark are pretty poor and this has led to a huge decrease in the number of tourists being attracted to the area.

Some Good News I Promise…

This is the case in many regions where these sharks and rays used to thrive. Local economies have suffered and more and more people are turning to more environmentally damaging practices like poaching. It has been a vicious cycle and this has now been internationally recognized by CITES.

At the conference 2/3 of the CITES parties had to vote in favour of the proposal to protect shark and manta ray species. Success was seen, with 5 shark species and 2 manta ray species being granted protection under CITES. Some of these chosen few include the oceanic white tip shark, porbeagle sharks and 3 species of hammerhead sharks.

This is a great step in the right direction for conservation of these animals. The trading of these animals is a big problem but this action has been taken at a good time. It should hopefully ensure their protection in the future by targeting protection more effectively. With demand increasing, well thought out conservation should help to safe guard these animals from the ever increasing threats.

Research Progress for Rays and Sharks

To ensure effective conservation attempts more information is going to be needed. Research into the current population sizes and assessment of the market data would be a good start, and the good news is, this is already underway.

A team from Equipe Cousteau and The Deep have just finished the first phase of their shark and ray conservation project. The expedition was led by Nigel Hussey and Steven Kessel, both marine biologists from the University of Windsor and members of the Ocean Tracking Network.

The work was carried out at Dungonab Bay marine park in the Sudanese Red Sea. With the help of local conservation teams and fishermen, the team managed to successfully tag 22 manta rays with acoustic, satellite and GPS tags. This is the first time the manta rays have been tagged in such a way and is a huge step in increasing our knowledge of these amazing creatures. The acoustics will be monitored and the GPS tags will allow tracking of these rays enabling us to monitor their movements.

This will provide precious data about the rays which can hopefully work to enable better application of conservation measures especially on the back of the new CITES protection.

Genetic work has already found that the majority of the manta rays may in fact be the giant manta ray species rather than the coastal manta ray species which was previously believed. So already, this research is improving population data for these quite poorly researched animals.

They next phase of the research will be focusing efforts on sharks and hopefully equally promising results will be seen.

I feel that this is a rare glimmer of hope in an otherwise depressing world of conservation failures and needs. Fingers crossed more cases like this will begin to receive more support and media coverage to capture increased public interest. The state of the world’s wildlife is pretty tattered, but cases like this are helping to patch up some of this mess. There is no miracle cure for the state of the Earth, but a gradual and widespread recovery process is going to be needed to make the difference.

To Legalise or Not to Legalise? Rhino Horn Trade

SA rhino poaching at record high

This week the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) are meeting in Bangkok to discuss the current and future threats to wildlife. The ivory trade is set to be a hot topic at the conference. This has been proven already with the announcement of a ban on the trade of elephant tusk in Thailand last week. A highly controversial proposal is also being put forward this year, calling for the legalisation of the African rhino horn trade.

A ban on the trade of rhino horn has existed since 1977, but it is failing to protect the rhinos which are being illegally slaughtered for their precious horn. The demand for rhino horn is rapidly increasing as buyer countries like China and Vietnam become richer.  With the ban in place, the only way this huge demand can be supplied is by illegal poaching.

With rhino numbers ever dwindling and demand ever increasing, horn is becoming more and more expensive. One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch $68 000 in the illegal markets; this makes it more valuable than gold. This combined with the inadequate enforcement of penalties by often corrupt governments means the benefits of poaching far outweigh the potential risks. Wealthier poachers mean the use of more technologically advanced and efficient methods of poaching. The conservation efforts are struggling to keep up and therefore, rhino populations are falling dramatically.

A Legal Market

Dr Biggs and his colleagues at the University of Queensland believe that legal trade is the only way to supply the “insatiable international demand” for rhino horn, whilst simultaneously protecting the rhinos. They suggest that a highly regulated and monitored legal trade could fulfil these needs as the profits made from this legal market can go directly to the conservation of the rhinos.

The reason this legal trade could be possible is due to the fact that rhino horn is made of keratin and therefore constantly grows, much like our own fingernails. So this means that rhino horn can essentially be harvested. Most illegal poachers kill rhinos for their horns, but Dr Biggs and his colleagues state that “sedating a rhino to shave its horn can be done for as little as $20.”

This kind of approach has seen success in the crocodile skin market, but can it be applied to rhinos? The researchers believe it can, but there is concern that legalising will only increase the demand further so that the legal market alone is not enough.

However, Dr Biggs and his colleagues believe that if the trade is controlled solely by one central selling organisation (CSO), successful legal trade could be possible. They believe that selling in this way will enable much easier identification of changes in demand and the presence of illegal traders and suppliers.

Legal trading should drive down the high prices and tempt buyers away from the more risky illegal suppliers. This should in turn lead to a huge reduction in the levels of illegal poaching and enable more efficient protection of these unique animals.

Dr Biggs has stated that he believes the rhino horn trade “is an urgent issue, we must start the process of getting a legal trade evaluated and put in place soon.” It has been predicted that it could take up to six years to get this system into place. The big question here is whether the rhinos can continue to be exploited for that long.