Penny Thoughts

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

Category: Zoology

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.

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.

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!

Duck Feeding, Dog Poo and Goldfish Dumping: The Nightmares of Public Parks

I must apologise.. I have rather been neglecting my blog recently. I got back to university and have had to jump immediately into my final year project.. so I have been a little overwhelmed.

I’ve been doing tonnes of research so as soon as I come to terms with the endless pages of notes I’ll try to get posting regularly again.

My dissertation is on what works to maintain biodiversity in urban areas. Being that I live in London while I study, it has been something I’ve thought about since arriving at Imperial two and a half years ago. I’ve always looked at the paved streets and concrete buildings and thought that you couldn’t really be further from nature. The idea of looking into the horizon is pretty unexciting when I am at home in Leicester. However, in London I find that I go 8 weeks without really seeing the horizon at all.

It all sounds a bit depressing, but don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love living in London. The constant hustle and bustle and vibrancy of the people and surroundings keeps me busy wherever I go. But there is no place in London I prefer than Hyde Park.

Being at Imperial has its perks; I’m probably only ever a 2 minute walk from Hyde park. Recently with the weather picking up I’ve been nipping there at lunch times to enjoy the sunshine in a more green and pleasant place than my computer labs.

Being that part of my dissertation is about how London parks manage their grounds to maintain biodiversity, I feel I have some kind of excuse to spend a little more time there than I probably should.

But saying all that, this week I have learnt a lot about how much work goes into maintaining the urban parks of our world. The constant pressure from the incessantly growing urban matrix means our parks are hugely vulnerable and are in a constant war against pollution and people.

Things that I’m sure we are all guilty of doing can have really detrimental effects on our much beloved parks and green spaces. Feeding the ducks, letting our dogs poo all over the place, littering, building dens, making fires, going off the paths, and trampling through meadows and bushes are things that many of us do with only the smallest tingling of mild guilt.

However, these relatively minor behaviours have big impacts on our parks that are already under constant fire from the “big problems” of air, noise and water pollution.

Something I have found surprising is just how bad feeding the ducks is.. I mean I thought I was helping them out. Apparently if you feed park birds and mammals too much bread it fills them up very quickly and means they don’t eat other food. The bread basically leaves no room for the animals to eat the foods that actually provide them with the nutrients they need. Also excess feeding leaves a lot of food on the ground and this attracts pests like rats and foxes, and nobody wants that.

I am not a dog owner so the idea of picking up a dog’s poo has never really been something I’ve worried about. We all know that dog poo is damaging to the environment in many ways; yet I seem to spend my life hop, skipping and jumping these piles of joy whenever I’m walking around London.

In many of the parks in London they have acid grasslands. These are basically ecosystems that are made up of plants that require very little soil nutrient content to survive and thrive. These are rare habitats in urban areas and are being managed to maintain their existence and to enable this ecosystem to thrive in our challenging urban environment.

Dog poo is a big threat to these grasslands as they provide nutrients to the soil, like a stinking, doggy  fertiliser. This added nutrient alters the soil and makes it increasingly unsuitable for the acid grassland plants. It also means that more common species of plants (often weeds) can colonise the area now that there is more nutrient in the soil. If this continues, these less specialist species can spread and take over the rare acid grassland. This is only one example of the damage to the natural environment that can occur when people let their dogs release their load in our green spaces.. pick up your poop.

Not only do we humans let our dogs do their business all over our urban parks, we also discard of our unwanted pets in them.. what a great idea! I’m sure some people probably think they are doing their poor neglected pet a favour by releasing it into a natural environment.. this is not true.. at all.

I spoke to a wonderful lady at Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park about her experiences in the urban-based park and she shared some brilliant insight into the difficulties of maintaining these precious spaces. She mentioned that one big problem they have is people releasing unwanted pets like goldfish and terrapins into their lakes and ponds. As multiple goldfish had been dumped they bred and now have increased rapidly in number. Some of their lakes are riddled with these household pets. Yes, goldfish are lovely, but that is when they are in a fish tank fully equipped with fake shrubbery and bubbling treasure chests. The lakes and ponds on Greenwich Peninsula are not where these fish belong and they are eating everything.

The staff at the ecology park are doing their best to control these unwanted gold guests, but with their continued breeding and people’s continued ignorance it is proving relatively difficult. Working with locals and informing them about where they should take their unwanted pets is helping; so hopefully this amazing wetland will be goldfish free in the near future.

These are only a couple examples of how our behaviours can directly damage the areas we love so much. Urban parks and green spaces keep us happy and provide an oasis in an otherwise grey and polluted environment. Let’s respect these places we love; they are struggling enough as it is.

 

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.

Two-Headed Animals: Dicephalia From Sharks to People

In 2011, fishermen caught an adult bull shark in the Gulf of Mexico. The adult was pregnant, and they soon realised that one of the foetuses was a lot more interesting than first thought.

The foetus had developed normally in all aspects, except that it had two heads. This bizarre phenomenon is known as dicephalia, and is when a single fertilised egg develops into a foetus with two heads. Dicephalia is something that occurs across nature and we humans generally refer to it as conjoined twins.

So the idea of a two headed animal is not hugely novel, however, the occurrence of this phenomenon in chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish) like sharks, rays and skates is very rare.

C. Wagner and his team from Michigan State University managed to get hold of this truly unique shark and tried to understand the mechanisms of development that caused this two-headed marine animal. They released a paper this week that discusses the finding of this unusual shark and delves deeper into the interesting science behind the development of dicephalia.

The two-headed foetus was not the alone in the womb, with other normal foetuses having been found. The foetuses had developed enough that they were severed from their umbilical cords and released back into the wild. The two-headed foetus died soon after it was severed from the mother and was preserved in 70% ethanol to enable the research on this unique creature.

Other Examples of Dicephalia

This finding got me delving into other dicephalic creatures that have been found, so I thought I’d share some of the cases with you. I find it all really interesting except some of the science behind it is pretty complex, so if you do end up looking into it I wouldn’t get too bogged down in all the detail.

This is Abigail and Brittany Hensel, these are the most well known human dicephalic twins. Each twin has its own set of main organs (heart, liver, lungs etc.) but can only control one half of their body. So each twin has control over one leg and one arm. This meant that learning movements that required coordination between both halves was very difficult as it requires cooperation. This meant that walking, running clapping etc were highly difficult things to master.

This two-headed albino Honduran milk snake is an example of dicephalia in reptiles. Other two-headed snakes have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity. However, in the wild it is likely that survival is reduced due to the difficulty that comes with two heads controlling one body.

Another two-headed reptile; but this time a baby tortoise. Apparently this individual shows little difficulty in carrying out normal functioning and just goes about its daily business like any other tortoise.

 

An example of dicephalia in felines. This pair are from Massachusetts and are called Frank and Louie. They hold the world record for the longest living two-headed cat. Seems a pretty niche category.. but I swear most world records these days are a bit ridiculous.

 

Hope you enjoyed looking at some of the world’s weird and wonderful creatures, even if they do have more heads than normal.

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.

Pre-Coloured Silkworms

These strange balls of fabric are actually the raw starting material for silk; but they are normally never this vibrant. Silk is a hugely popular fabric with over $30 billion worth produced each year in China alone. Silk comes from silkworms which produce the raw material when they form cocoons. This is then removed and boiled to obtain fibroin which is the core ingredient for silk.

From here the process gets quite complex and expensive. The dying process requires huge amounts of water, dye and energy to complete and there is a lot of waste produced. However, researchers in Singapore think they have come up with a much more environmentally friendly and efficient method of producing the coloured silks without the harsh dying process.

Instead of manually dying the silk, the researchers came up with solutions that could be fed to the silkworms containing natural dyes. The dyes don’t harm the silkworms as they are natural based dyes and researchers found no negative effect on the worms. The silkworms then subsequently produce silk cocoons of the chosen colour. Not only can they make the silkworms produce different coloured cocoons, they can also provide fluorescent and glow in the dark properties to the dyes. This means the silks come straight from the silkworms in the chosen colour and potentially fluorescing.

This means no harsh dying process needs to occur. All that is needed is the extraction of the fibroin fibers and production of the fabric itself. The researchers demonstrated how this could be a potentially much more cost effective and environmentally friendly approach to silk production.

Currently most silk is harvested from silkworms in farm type environments. For this approach silkworms would have to be kept in more controlled lab-type environments so their specific diets could be provided. This could be a possibility, and silk production could take place on a much larger, commercial scale.

There’s not been too much progression with this work yet, but I still think it is pretty awesome. I like the idea of thousands of these multicoloured, fluorescing cocoons hanging around. With increasing pressure on companies to become more “green”, this provides a great opportunity to do so in the silk industry.

Losing the Polar Bear Battle

Polar bears can be legally hunted in Canada for their fur, fangs and other body parts. This is the only country where this hunting is legal but the US put forward the proposal at this year’s CITES conference to ban this hunting altogether.

Polar bears currently fall into CITES appendix 1 which means legal hunting of these animals is allowed with strict monitoring and regulation. The proposal aimed to bump the polar bears up to appendix 2 which would make hunting of polar bears completely illegal.

This is not the first time that this proposal has been considered, but no success has been seen. There were hopes that the ban would get passed at the CITES conference, but this was not to be. 2/3 of the parties were needed to vote in favour of this proposal for it to be passed. Unfortunately, this was not even nearly reached. 38 voted in favour, but 42 voted against (48 abstained from the vote).

This result served for much disappointment for many nations including the US, Russia and the UK. However, with many important nations like China and Vietnam importing these products from Canada the number of opponents added up.

Canada was also strongly opposed to the proposal as the polar bear market provides the native Inuit people with a stable income. With roughly 600 polar bears being hunted and sold each year at a price of $5000 at auction, it is clear that they are a crucial income source for many Inuit people.

Depressing Future For Polar Bears

Polar bears have become a bit of a poster child for species affected by climate change. This is in part due to their popularity in modern culture and the visibly huge effects climate change is having on their habitat. So it does seem rather counter intuitive that there is legal hunting of this already vulnerable species.

The arctic habitat that these polar bears inhabit has decreased by nearly 20% since 1980 and this decrease is set to accelerate in the future. It is predicted that if we do not get a hold of our CO2 emissions by 2060, the ice caps will be committed to melting. That means no habitat for the polar bears at all.

Regulated Hunting

Terry Audla, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, argued that their hunting methods are sustainable and that they “hunt for subsistence”. He explains that the polar bears are needed to make money and put food on the table. Cows, chickens and pigs etc are not available to them; they are working with what they have.

This point is fair, however, there is no doubt that the hunting is having detrimental effects on the polar bear populations. Although this hunting has not been a huge problem in the past, it is likely that the combined effect of climate change and hunting in the future will only drive the polar bear populations down further.

My concern is that as the populations inevitably fall and therefore prices of polar bear products increase in price, we will have a situation very similar to that currently seen in the rhino horn trade. I have already written a post relating to these issues so I won’t delve into the details but you can find it here.

I feel that this may be another case of the powers of the world continuing to act in a reactive manner rather than a proactive manner. Yes, right now, the effects of polar bear hunting aren’t having a hugely dramatic effect, but we will not be able to say the same in the near future. Will it then be too late?

If you have any opinions on this or the rhino post, please share.. I’d love to hear what other people’s thoughts are..

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