Penny Thoughts

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

Category: Biology

Could Young Blood Stop you from Ageing?

Research in the US has shown that injecting old mice with young blood leads to improved muscle strength, brain function and stamina; potentially reversing the effects of ageing.

3 studies were published last week in Science, all reporting on the rejuvenating effects of young blood in older mice. The young blood led to the appeared reversal of age-related declines in memory, learning, stamina and the function of many organs including the heart and brain.

Ageing is the underlying cause of a huge number of health problems. As our bodily systems slowly go into decline with age, health problems like dementia, cancer, heart disease and diabetes become more and more common. By learning more about the ageing process and its links with various health problems, we could predict, or even prevent many cases. Therefore, this research carried out in the US is of great importance.

In each study the researchers used a process called heterochronic parabiosis, which essentially involves joining two mice together; think conjoined twins. This process is carried out by making an incision on one side of each mouse and then allowing the wounds to heal in such a way that the two mice become joined. This process results in the joining of the two mice’s blood supply.

The researchers joined young mice (3 months) with older mice (18 months) and studied the effects of the new shared blood supply.  They found that brain function increased in the older mouse, as not only did the mice grow more neural connections (how brain cells communicate), these connections were also stronger. This means better communication between the cells in the brain of the older mouse.

Villeda, lead author of one of the papers told the Guardian “There’s something about young blood that can literally reverse the impairments you see in the older brain.”

From these initial findings Villeda went on to directly inject older mice with young blood plasma (blood without red blood cells), and what he found was remarkable. He tested the young and old rats’ memory and ability to learn using a water maze and testing their ability to remember a threatening environment.

The old rats injected with young blood plasma performed just as well as the six-month old rats in the maze task. Even more remarkably, the older rats performed as well as the three-month olds in remembering a threatening environment.

These results suggest that there is something in the blood of young rats that is essentially reversing or halting the ageing process in older rats.. so what is it?

The answer to that very important questions is Creb; a protein that regulates the brain. The young blood plasma actually increases the activity of Creb which in turn switches on the genes that create neural connections.

However, young plasma isn’t just improving learning and memory in mice. Further studies have shown that injected young blood also increases blood flow in the brain by encouraging blood vessel growth. There was also an increase in the growth of neural stem cells which later become new brain cells. It has also been found that young blood makes older mice stronger and boosts endurance due to increased muscle function. The young blood also led to the older mice gaining a greater sense of smell.

So this is all very exciting, but what happens if you do the opposite, and inject young mice with old blood? Well, interestingly the younger mice show the opposite results; they show decreased brain and muscle function and perform less well in memory and learning tasks. So the process works both ways.

So what does this all mean for us? According to Villeda, “The evidence is strong enough now, in multiple tissues, that it’s warranted to try and apply this in humans”. This potential research is however, not expected to take place until three to five years from now.

This is all very promising, and if the same is found in humans there could be a dramatic reduction in the onset of age-related health issues, which would be particularly important as the aged population in the UK continues to grow. Preventing the onset of these diseases would save a huge amount of money and potentially work to prevent the potential impeding public health crisis.

However, we cannot know for sure the impacts of this study on humans until clinical trials are carried out. So don’t go stitching yourself to your children just yet.. there is plenty more we don’t know.

 

Advertisements

Fracking 101: Are Flaming Taps the Future for the UK?

I’ve been seeing a lot of media coverage about fracking recently. It isn’t something that I’ve ever really delved into but with all the media attention recently I thought I would look a little into it. I knew very little about fracking and after doing a little research into the topic I found out some really interesting things. Also with the use of fracking being considered in the UK I thought I would do a fracking 101 post for those readers like me who are new to this idea.

So let’s start with what fracking actually is.

“Fracking” is actually the name for the process of hydraulic fracturing which involves pumping liquid into drilled holes in the earth. The liquid is injected at very high pressures leading to shale rock  deep into the earth’s crust fracturing and releasing natural gas.

So fracking is a method of extracting natural gas locked up in the shale rock of the earth’s crust, but what is actually involved in the process?

So obviously water is required; this is the core component of the liquid injected into the ground. However, I had no idea just how much water would be required, with 1-8 million gallons of water needed for just one fracking job. 1-8 million is one of those figures so large that you can’t really come to terms with it so I thought I’d help to visualise it. Let’s split the figure at 4 million gallons of water. That is the equivalent to filling 80 000 bath tubs, or a swimming pool the length of 4 football pitches, 200 ft. wide and 40 ft. deep. Basically, it is a hell of a lot of water.

But it is not just water that is required in enormous amounts; “fracking fluid” is made up of water mixed with sand and a cocktail of 600 chemicals. 40 000 gallons of this chemical concoction are mixed with the 1-8 million gallons of water per fracturing job.

This mixture of 600 chemicals is made up of some nasty products, many of which are carcinogens and human, animal and plant toxins. These include the (unfortunately) commonly known polluting culprits like lead, mercury and uranium but also many other hazardous chemicals including ethylene glycol, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde. These chemicals have numerous detrimental effects when existing in unnaturally high concentrations in the environment.

Right, so once the fracking fluid has been mixed what is the process involved in extracting the natural gas?

The fracking can take place over land or ocean as long as the appropriate rock and gas stores are located there. The fracking fluid is pressure injected down a pipeline drilled into the ground at these sites. When it reaches the end of the pipeline the shale rock cracks due to the high pressure of the fracking fluid. This released gas enters the well and is extracted to fulfil our growing energy demands.

Like all other forms of non-renewable energy extraction and some renewable energy forms, there are many associated detrimental effects. These effects have been touched upon already but I’ll go into more detail as to the problems and risks involved.

So firstly there is the massive water requirement. Water demand is ever growing for many reasons driven at their core by the world’s growing population. However, the ability to fulfil this demand is falling and it is predicted that water demand will be 40% higher than supply by 2030. This means that industries requiring huge amounts of water are becoming increasingly unsustainable. Therefore, practises like fracking need to consider new methods to reduce their water use or their future is hugely limited if not completely empty.

The impending water crisis is predicted to lead to huge water deficiencies worldwide. Do we want our limited water to be driving frankly, unsustainable practices or nourishing the drought ridden landscapes and populations that are predicted to become increasingly common?

The second issue I’d like to delve into a little further is the problem of contamination. It is known that methane and other chemicals from the fracking fluid can leak into nearby groundwater. This water can be extracted and used as the drinking water supply for nearby towns and cities. It is has been noted that methane concentrations in water supplies near to fracturing sites are 17 times higher than normal wells.

In the documentary GasLand by Josh Fox there are numerous clips of people putting matches to their running taps and the water setting alight due to the presence of the flammable methane. If that is not enough of a visual representation of the effects of fracking, I don’t know what is. This documentary is incredible and I really recommend you watch it.

Over 1000 cases of water contamination have been recorded near to fracturing wells. The consumption of the contaminated water has been known to cause numerous sensory, respiratory and neurological health problems in people in the affected areas.

These contamination problems are further worsened by the fact that 50-70% of this toxic fracking fluid is left in the ground to continue leaching into surrounding rock and water. This fluid is not biodegradable so can remain for years polluting the earth 1000s of meters below our feet. Just because we cannot see the effects of this industry in plain sight doesn’t mean that this polluting activity does not affect us.

The fluid that is removed is left in pits to evaporate. This releases VOCs (volatile organic compounds) including methane and formaldehyde which evaporate into the atmosphere and contribute to our already worsening problems of air contamination, acid rain and ozone pollution.

So why is this important now?

Practises like this cannot be maintained forever. With our ever increasing demand for energy and water not being matched by our earth’s dwindling supply, practises like this need to change.

Fracking is relatively common practise in the US and the government ruled in 2006 that methods like fracking were exempt from following the guidelines of numerous environmental safety acts. This alone shows how governments are putting money and unsustainable practises ahead of human and environmental wellbeing.

There is plan to potentially carry out fracking in the UK. Yes, energy demand is growing and needs to be fulfilled but is this short sighted approach to fulfilling that demand really going to help us in the long term?

I found a really good website briefly outlining the facts and dangers involved in fracking which I would really recommend as a more visual and interactive representation of fracking.

Two Worlds Collide in The Mechanical Mind of Justin Gershenson-Gates

Justin Gershenson-Gates’s website, A Mechanical Mind is a treasure trove filled with the unique, the bizarre and all things mechanical.

His robot-like critters are made from a huge variety of mechanical parts, combining nature and mechanics in a way I have never seen before. I find it interesting, as a biologist, to see that the anatomy of these arthropods can still clearly be seen even though it has been replaced by materials very far from the natural.

I always love a bit of nature-themed art, and Justin’s mechanical crawlies are a new and interesting way of recreating nature. Most art projects that have a nature theme tend to use natural, organic materials. Whereas Justin’s methods include using man-made materials and parts to create these bizarre futuristic looking bugs. Maybe his next step could be to make them functional.. this is a bloody big ask but it would be brilliant.

Most of Justin’s creations are creepy crawlies but he also makes some lovely jewellery pieces, including heart pendants and a large variety of brooches. Some of the items are listed on Etsy so you can go and buy these  items for a really reasonable price; they’ll make a truly unique Christmas present!

I couldn’t resist adding a few pictures, there are a couple of jewellery pieces at the bottom too. Enjoy!

Threatened Species of the Week: The Cretan Orchid


You may have noticed that this week’s threatened species is very different to all others I have chosen; it is a plant. Generally when people think about threatened species the first images that come to mind are animals like tigers, pandas and rhinos. I imagine an incredibly small proportion of people would think of for example, a plant or a fungus.

Although an enormous number of non-animal species are at risk of extinction they receive a disproportionately small amount of media coverage and attention. So I thought that this would be a good platform on which to expose a few of these relatively ignored threatened species.

The Cretan orchid (Orchis sitiaca) is endemic to the small Greek island of Crete. The orchid mainly grows on slightly acidic to alkaline soils in the central and eastern mountains of the island.

This area over which they are found is already small and is becoming smaller with the increasing threats of habitat loss. The grasslands are no longer being grazed to maintain them and are therefore developing into more shrub/ forest land; a habitat unsuitable for the Cretan orchid.

Another threat to these orchids is tourism. Crete is one of the most popular Greek islands and with more people comes more picking and more trampling. Although people are encouraged not to pick these orchids, their beautiful appearance can commonly be too tempting for some.

Currently no figure has been estimated for the population size of the Cretan orchid, but due to its already small range and the threats facing it, the IUCN Red List criteria have classed the Cretan orchid as endangered. Without populations figures it cannot be determined whether the population is increasing or in decline; however it is incredibly likely that the latter is the case.

All orchids are protected under the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and this means that certain actions are recommended to ensure their protection. These actions include habitat protection, fencing vulnerable sites, raising public awareness and monitoring and surveillance programmes.

These actions can be effective, but with already small and fragmented populations it can be extremely difficult and expensive to carry out; and usually the required funding is not available.

This species of orchid is predicted to suffer increased intensity of threats over the coming years. Although there are actions in place to protect the Cretan orchid and others like it, they are still at risk of extinction. So next time you see a pretty flower when you’re wandering about resist that temptation to pick it out of the ground, you never know how precious it could really be.

Bee Big Brother: A Unique Insight into the Secret Lives of Bees

Explore.org have created Bee Cam, a live stream from inside a honeybee hive, to provide us with a unique insight into the inner workings of a living bee colony.

No matter how large our curiosity may be, in reality we cannot go about sticking our heads in beehives (for obvious reasons). So instead the folks at explore.org have provided the virtual alternative to this potentially deadly idea.



Live streaming video by Ustream

From the creators of Bear Cam and Bird Cams, explore.org have carefully positioned cameras within and at the entrance to a beehive in Waal, Germany. The stream is in HD, completely live and runs 24hrs a day to fulfill all of your bee watching needs. You can even take snapshots of the live footage if a particularly photogenic bee comes along.

Bee Cam is providing a rare glimpse into the lives of one of the world’s most rapidly declining group of insects. Bees are facing a multitude of threats including colony collapse disorder, climate change, disease, and the heavily covered threat of pesticides. The mystery killer, Colony Collapse Disorder alone is thought to have contributed to the collapse of over 10 million colonies in the last 6 years.

The colony of bees being observed by Bee Cam are in the process of recovering from a colony collapse. This Big Brother of the bee world is allowing a crucial insight into how these colonies respond to colony collapse and what behaviours they undergo to recover from such an event.


Live streaming video by Ustream

You can watch the honey bees carry out many behaviours including cell cleaning and capping, comb building and honey making. You can also observe how the individual bees interact; undergoing behaviours like grooming which help to maintain the cooperative life strategy that these bees abide by.

If you have some spare time, head over to explore.org to watch these busy bees go about their dayly business. If like me you are an avid bee fan then you will love this amazing glimpse into their lives.

Threatened Species of the Week: The Spiny Seahorse

This weeks threatened species of the week is the Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus histrix)!

The spiny seahorse is considered vulnerable to extinction under the IUCN classification system due to destruction of their habitat, their trade popularity and vulnerability as by-catch. If you aren’t sure of the classification technique used by the IUCN Redlist then have a look at this post which explains the ins and outs of this system.

Spiny seahorses were previously classed as data deficient. However, after an investigation of the species it was found that they were in decline and this bumped their ranking up to vulnerable. Studies estimated that the world population of spiny seahorses has declined up to 30% in the last 10-15 years, suggesting that they have been under extreme pressure over the last few decades.

The first culprit for this decline is the massive demand for these creatures as pets and for traditional medicine. The populations are being exploited to fulfil this demand and as a result the existing populations are struggling to maintain their numbers. It has been predicted that each year more than 200 000 individuals are traded in parts of the seahorses range and this level of trade is set to continue and potentially increase.

Surveys have also shown that the spiny seahorses are not only becoming rarer, but they also seem to be shrinking. The seahorses that are being caught are smaller than they used to be and this is likely due to the fact that most adult seahorses are rapidly removed from the populations. This leaves more of the smaller juveniles to be caught as many individuals do not survive long enough to reach full maturity before they are caught.

The second major pressure on the spiny seahorse populations is the ever growing issue of by-catch. By-catch are all those unwanted living organisms that are caught in the process of fishing and trawling in the ocean. A huge number of these seahorses are being caught as by-catch throughout the species’ range.

The huge majority of spiny seahorses caught as by-catch are caught as a result of trawling. Trawling involves dragging huge and heavy structures along the seafloor to catch creatures like mussels, clams and oysters. This method is incredibly damaging to the sea floor, basically destroying and removing everything in its path. The spiny seahorses that exist at these depths are swept away with the rest of the sea floor.

By-catch can and should be returned to the ocean. However, due to the huge demand for these seahorses they are generally considered a pleasant surprise as they can be easily sold into the medicine and pet trade. Less damaging trawling methods do exist, however, the majority of these seahorses are being caught in the oceans of developing countries that rarely use these trawlers.

The third threat to these seahorses is habitat destruction; possibly the biggest threat to all biodiversity across the world (but that is another story for another day). As mentioned, these seahorses exist close to the seafloor; specifically at depths of 6-20m. They live on various substrates including sponges, weedy rocky reefs, soft corals but mainly on seagrass beds.

The biggest habitat loss is being seen in seagrasses which are declining as a result of numerous factors. So the first big threat to seagrass is our good friend trawling. Trawling removes the seagrass like it removes the seahorses; leaving the seafloor baron of seagrass. So trawling is threatening spiny seahorses in multiple ways and it could be argued that this is the threat that is the most important to target.

Another threat to the seagrass is eutrophication which occurs when for example fertilisers and sewage leak into water systems. This leads to a massive increase in algae and plankton and therefore an enormous increase in the levels of photosynthesis in these water systems. This removes a significant proportion of the oxygen from the water and therefore starves the other living organisms (including seagrass) that need this oxygen to survive.

Other threats to the seagrass include coastal building which is removing much of the seagrass habitat in those regions. Invasive species are also threatening seagrass; with foreign plants outcompeting the native seagrasses and invasive wildlife consuming it. Overall, the seagrass habitats are under great threat and as a result, so are the spiny seahorses that call these grasses home.

All the threats that face spiny seahorses are predicted to not only continue, but also to worsen. The seahorses may be categorised as vulnerable currently. but it is likely that it will not be too long until they are bumped up to threatened.

Methods are in place to attempt to reduce the impacts of these threats, including stricter control on the seahorse trade. However, with a huge majority of the seahorses being caught as by-catch, it is incredibly difficult to control this trade. More protection is needed for our sea beds, however, the enormous demand for sea life for food, pets and medicinal purposes is meaning that more and more of our seabeds are being trawled and damaged each day.

Luke Jerram- Glass Microbiology

Luke Jerram increases the microbiological world by 1 million times to show the beauty of the cells and pathogens that can both take away and create life.

Being a biology lover I get rather excited when biology reaches the art world. When I found these sculptures by Luke Jerram I couldn’t wait to share them on here.

Scultpures were made of numerous different pathogenic and non- pathogenic creatures including viruses, bacteria, and apicomplexa, including E. coli, adenovirus, malaria and salmonella. All sculptures are scientifically accurate and have even been used as a teaching tool in the fields of microbiology. The sculptures allow people to see these pathogens as large, 3D entities rather than the coloured, 2D forms most people are used to. This means people can really get a grasp of them as whole orgnisms rather than simply pictures in books.

The reason why these sculptures are so important is that they provide a accurate representation of the (lack of) colour of these pathogens. Unlike what many people may believe, these pathogens are in fact colourless, but due to the tecniques used in microscopy, the pathogens have to be dyed to be observed.

This means that the pictures of these critters that we are accustomed to seeing are false-coloured. Without staining, these pathogens could not be seen and therefore it has to be done. But Luke Jerram’s work has provided the opportunity to see the pathogens as their more transparent selves.

Members of the collection are currently residents at The Museum of Art and Desing (NYC), The National Glass Centre (UK), Pittsburg Glass Museum and Caixa Museum Madrid. If you are lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to one of these exhibitions.. do it!

If you want to find out more about these not-so-micro entities then visit the Luke Jerram Glass Microbiology website here. It is full of lots of information about the exhibitions and beautiful photos of some of Jerram’s work. I’ll share a few more photos here becuase I can’t narrow it down to a couple as they are all too stunning.

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.

Sublime Science: Teaching Kids the Wonders of Science

Looking for an exciting and truly unique kids part experience? Get in touch with Sublime Science! Some great names and institutions have been raving about Sublime Science, including the BBC, ITV, the Telegraph and more.

Having finished my degree at Imperial I came home for some well deserved time off in the sun. After a couple of weeks of stress-free living I could ignore my dwindling bank balance no longer and it was time to start looking for a job.

I had entered these holidays with no intention of getting right into a high-climbing, high-paying job; I really just wanted something to get me by; whether that be in the field of science or not. I had a search about, looking at working in retail, or a bar.. I was open to most things. However, on my search I stumbled across something that appeared to be my perfect job.

This certainly wasn’t what I was expecting, and seemed far too good to be true so I had a look at the details. The job is with an entertainment company called Sublime Science who work to get kids interested and involved in science. The position was as a presenter, which involved going to kids parties, schools, nurseries etc and doing a show full of awesome tricks and experiments.

A week or so later I was told that I had an interview which was amazing news. I went along and after a light drilling of questions I was told that I had the job. I couldn’t believe my luck; I had found the perfect job for me right now, just 3 weeks after leaving university and had successfully got the jobAs I plan on getting into a career in science communication this seemed like the perfect job to start that journey. I also love performance and have worked with kids before so the perks just kept coming. So obviously I quickly filled out the application form and waited to hear any news.

148507_10201071994614986_1496435749_n

I got my training schedule in and today I attended my first session. The training basically involves going to see other presenters do their shows and each time taking over the show a little at a time until I run the whole shabang. got my Sublime Science tshirt and was told that my training schedule would be sorted asap. Obviously I was a very happy lady and decided to strut about the house in my new tshirt even if it was just the cat and my mum who were enjoying the show.

As today’s session was my first I simply had to go to a lovely 8 year old boy’s birthday party and enjoy the show! I think I loved it as much as the kids. From slime and sweet making to amazing science tricks and experiments, I almost forgot I was “working”.

The kids absolutely loved it, and so did the parents. I’m so glad something like this exists, getting kids excited about science rather than intimidated or bored.

Hopefully the rest of my training will go well and I’ll soon be running my own show with Sublime Science. If you have kids or work in a school/ nursery etc you must get in contact with Sublime Science and book a party! In a few weeks time it might even be me coming round and making slime.

Threatened Species of the Week- Tasmanian Devils and Transmissible Cancer

Welcome to the very first post in my new feature: Threatened Species of the Week!

Which species will have the honour of being the first threatened species on my list? I was thinking of ways to choose this first species and dabbled with a few ideas. I decided to look into a threatened species that comes with a very interesting story to liven things up a little.

Because of this I decided to go for.. drum roll please.. the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)! How terribly exciting.. right so let’s give you some facts about this creature and why it is threatened by extinction.

Tasmanian Devils are listed as Endangered by the IUCN Redlist classification which is all explained in a previous post which you should have a look at if you haven’t already. These marsupials are found wild only in Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia.

Their numbers have been declining for some time for numerous reasons, however the most devastating culprit is a disease which is rapidly wiping out the isolated populations. This disease is called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) and is a kind of cancer. The cancer is common throughout 60% of the Tasmanian Devils’ natural range and is spreading at a rate of 7-50 km per year.

Studies of these tumours stunned scientists as they realised something very bizarre was going on. If you compare the tumours of people suffering from the same kind of cancer the DNA of the cancerous cells are specific to that individual. Essentially each person’s tumour cell DNA is different.

However, studies of the tumour cells of these Tasmanian Devils found that the DNA was almost identical. Now this makes very little sense as tumour cells are those which have mutated from that individual’s normal healthy cells. So how on Earth can all of these different diseased Tasmanian Devils have the same DNA in the cells of their tumours??

The answer to this question is that the cancer is being directly transmitted from infected individuals to uninfected individuals. But how can this be? Cancers don’t spread from person to person, they occur as a consequence of genetic and environmental factors. So this existing transmissible cancer occurring in Tasmanian Devils is something incredibly intriguing.

Research and observation soon found the key to this unusual transmissible cancer. The temperament of the Tasmanian Devil created by Warner Bros. was based on fact, with real Tasmanian Devils being incredibly aggressive creatures. They regularly fight and this characteristic is the root to why these Devils share the same tumours.

The tumours that form as a result of DFTD form on the face, commonly around the mouth and jaw. When an infected Devil fights and bites their opponent the teeth essentially act as needles, injecting the cancerous cells into the flesh of the other Devil. So these Devils are directly transmitted this cancer to each other.

In the region of Tasmania where most Devils are found, roughly 30% of the total population was lost within the first 3 years after the disease’s arrival, and the adult population declined by 50% each year. From this information it has been predicted that within 10 years of the disease’s arrival, the devils in that region will be extinct.

Already the population has predicted to have declined from 130 000-150 000 individuals in 1987 to 10 000-25 000 in 2007. Estimates of the whole Devil range predict that over 70% of the total population will be lost in less than 10 years.

The tragic thing about this situation is that, although the cause of decline is well understood, very little can be done to prevent it. There is no cure for this cancer and the fighting nature of the devils means that the disease will continue to spread. To make things worse devils are commonly killed by vehicles, dogs and foxes in the region and the low genetic diversity that exists as the population bottlenecks with further threaten the devils in the future.

Efforts are being done to protect the devils and attempt to limit the spread of the disease in the currently unaffected regions. The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program works to research DFTD and maintain the existing population. Devils are being reared in captivity to act as a kind of insurance population as the wild devils continue to decline. The program is also trying to develop resistance to the disease through rearing programs and also are developing a vaccine to treat DFTD, however the use of the vaccine would not be feasible for wild devils.

The situation is not looking good for Tasmanian Devils and in my opinion the wild population will become extinct and the “insurance” devils will attempt to make up for the loss with reintroductions to the wild.

Right.. well I hope you enjoyed the first instalment of Threatened Species of the Week and will be reading again next week!

NEW FEATURE- Threatened Species of the Week

As I generally blog about current biological issues I fancied mixing things up a little and decided I would create a regular feature for my blog. It took me a bit of time to decide what this feature would be, but I decided upon something that interests me and will hopefully interest you readers.

So the plan is that I will be publishing a post each week on a threatened species. This species may be an animal, plant, fungus.. whatever. My main aim is to increase awareness of those threatened species that we rarely hear about.

We are costantly being bombarded with pleas to protect tigers, rhinos, polar bears etc, but these are a mere fraction of the number of species threatened by extinction in our over-polluted and over-populated world.

I will be using the IUCN Redlist to choose threatened species so I’ll give a quick Redlist 101 for those of you unfamiliar with the classification.

So the IUCN Redlist is a list of species that are classified into varying categories depending on how threatened by extinction they are.

So there are 9 categories starting with:
1. Least Concern (LC)
2. Near Threatened (NT)

These two categories do not count as “threatened” and therefore those species classed as LC or NT will not be included in this feature. The following 3 categories describe the varying levels of being threatened by extinction and therefore, species within these 3 categories will be included.
3. Vulnerable (VU)
4. Endangered (EN)
5. Critically Endangered (CR)

There are two categories defining extinct and these are:
6. Extinct in the Wild (EW)
7. Extinct (EX)

Again those species within these categories will not be included as it is unfortunately too late for them.

So I will be looking at those species that fall into the threatened categories of Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered.

There are 2 other categories as can be seen in the picture, these are Data Deficient (DD) and Not Evaluated (NE). It takes a lot of time and effort to collect enough population data and make an assessment of species and therefore there are an enormous number of species that have not been evaluated or there is not enough data available to accurately categorise. Constant efforts are however in place to get as many species categorised as possible.

So that is all a little dry, but I wanted to make sure we were all clear on the ins and outs of the classification I was using. I look forward to posting my first threatened species very soon!

Greenpeace Activists Reach New Heights as they Climb the Shard

A group of Greenpeace activists are climbing the tallest building in Western Europe today in a protest against oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

At 4.20am this morning, police were called to the Shard as people reported climbers scaling the side of the building. The team, made up of 6 women, although from varying corners of globe, are all united in the fight against gas and oil drilling in the Arctic.

The protesters main target is Shell, who’s headquarters surround the Shard. Shell have recently announced that they are going ahead with their plans to expand gas and oil drilling in the Arctic. This fragile continent is already dramatically impacted by climate change and therefore there is enormous concern about the direct and indirect impacts that this drilling will have.

Updates on the progress of the climb are being covered by Greenpeace on twitter. Pictures and accounts of the women scaling the sides of the 310m high Shard are regularly being posted alongside pleas for support and plans to contact Shell. These women are clearly skilled climbers if they can keep their twitter up to date while clinging to the side of the glass fortress that is the Shard.

Already over 33 000 people have signed up to show their support for the climbers and their disgust at Shell and numerous other gas and oil companies’ plans. A live broadcast by Greenpeace is also covering the event and getting in contact with scientists, conservationists and Shell.

Shell have acknowledged the event and accept Greenpeace’s opinion, however are showing no sign of changing their plans. A spokesman said that “If responsibly developed, Arctic energy resources can help offset supply constraints and maintain energy security for consumers throughout the world”. The spokesman also claims that Shell do take action to reduce environmental impacts, however no specific examples were given.

A spokesman from the Metropolitan police announced that they are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the protesters, the public and those working in the building. The climbers are currently at 150m; just under half way. All climbers are wearing harnesses and are attached to the building, with a maximum of 6m fall if an accident were to occur.

Once they complete their climb the protesters will be hanging a piece of unknown artwork to emphasise their message.

Everyone please get involved, join the fight, use the hashtag (#iceclimb) and follow the journey of these brave women!

%d bloggers like this: