Penny Thoughts

The Ramblings of a Biology Lover, with a Few Surprises on the Side

Month: April, 2013

See You in Week…

I’m off to Rhodes for a week so won’t be able to do any blogging until I’m back. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say when I return. Have a good week.. I’m going to go and enjoy some sunshine (hopefully) 🙂

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The Mysterious Caged Tree

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Yesterday was a lovely day so I thought I’d go to Kew Garden with my mum. I’ve been once before but the weather was a bit grim so it was nice to go back with some good weather.

We had a good potter around and then my mum pointed out something a bit odd. It was a tree caged in iron bars. Looked a bit odd so we wandered over to see why this tree was locked up behind bars.

Turns out the tree is a Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) and was considered extinct for 2 million years. There are a lot of fossils of this tree and it was thought that there were no living specimens until 1994 when it was discovered in Australia.

Living trees were found in a deep rainforest gorge in the Blue Mountains in west Sydney. The basically unexplored gorge contained these trees and now about 100 mature Wollemi pines exist there. 

Obviously this finding made the trees very collectable and at risk of over harvesting and extinction. To help to prevent this, researchers at Kew have helped to conserve this species by running a propagation programme. Lots of these trees are being grown and can now be bought in the Kew shop.

I found this a bit odd.. if the trees can be bought in the shop and all over the place, why is this tree still locked up?

We never found the answer to this question. My guess is that it may be an early specimen that they are trying to maintain so that specimens can be grown from its seeds. The trees are likely still relatively expensive so it is also likely to prevent people sneaking into Kew and chopping the poor thing down.

New Hope For Corals: Self-Recovery

A 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.

Sandalwood Road Photography: Nature and More..

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A little bit of shameless self-advertisement here.. apologies. I have set up a new blog today for my photography escapades. I’ve recently managed to get my hands on an old camera from my Grandpa’s house and it has spurred me on to get back into photography.

I had a brief stint when I was about 16 but studies have always limited what I’ve been able to do.. until now! Nearing the end of my degree I hope to get a little bit of time to pursue some of my other loves, and what better place to present my work than on another blog?!

There will still be glimmers of my interests and loves. I love taking photos of nature, whether it be landscapes, animals or plants, I’m sure they will feature pretty commonly. Feel free to go and have a look.. there isn’t much on there at the moment but give it a bash 🙂

Hope you all enjoy!

sandalwoodroad.wordpress.com

Fabrics of the Future: Hagfish Slime?

Clothes are important to anyone; whether you’re an avid fashionista or more of the practical sort, we all need clothes. However, the materials and fabrics of choice may be straying from the ordinary to the extraordinary in the not so distant future. The source of the  fabric for your new dress or coat could be swimming at the deep, dark depths of our ocean floor.

Research led by Atsuko Negishi at the University of Guelph in Canada has suggested that hagfish slime could be used to create a super stretchy, lycra-like fabric. The team managed to collect this slime from the hagfish and realised that it could be treated and then spun into threads much like silk.

This does seem a bit odd and gruesome, but it really is very logical to put these materials that nature provides to good use.

The majority of the fabrics we rely on today, are oil-based polymers which basically means that the materials are petroleum based. With our ever decreasing supplies of petroleum the demand for alternatives to these products is high.

Hagfish are ancient, bottom-dwelling animals that have been around for over 300 million years. If you’ve done some evolutionary biology in your time, you should definitely remember these weird creatures. When these strange, eel-like creatures are approached or attacked they release this sticky slime as a deterrent. The slime contains mucous and huge amounts of certain protein fibers that belong to a family of protein fibers called intermediate filaments. These filaments are great for making fabrics as they can be deformed and stretched to shapes and sizes very different to their original form.

The researchers aren’t quite ready to produce full on items of clothing, but they intend to pursue this concept further to hopefully create the basis for more environmentally friendly fabrics of the future.

If you want to read the original paper it can be found here.

 

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.

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