Posts Tagged ‘animals’


Seal

Antarctic fur seals feel climate impacts


Antarctic fur seals feel climate impacts

By Jonathan AmosScience correspondent, BBC News

Antarctic fur seals

Over the study period, the birth weight of pups was seen to fall significantly

 

Changes in the Antarctic climate are showing up in the fur seal population, say scientists.

Three decades of data show the females of this species are being born smaller, and those that do survive to motherhood are breeding later in life.

Subtle changes in their genetics are also being recorded.

Researchers tell the journal Nature that a shift in a dominant climate pattern has affected the supply of the seals’ primary food source – krill.

“There has been a significant reduction in the size and the mass of the pups at birth,” explained Dr Jaume Forcada from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

“Over 27 years, we see pups being born with 8% less body mass. We also see the females breeding later in age – at least by one or two years.

“And when they start breeding, they are bigger than they used to be 30 years ago. This kind of thing has been seen before in all sorts of mammals, and is classically an indication of food stress.”

The fur seals gather in huge numbers on beaches of Bird Island and all around South Georgia

The study was centred on South Georgia, a British Overseas Territory (BOT) in the South Atlantic that falls within the influence of Antarctic waters.

BAS has a long-term monitoring station on the territory’s Bird Island, from where it has tracked the behaviour and health of the furs since the early 1980s.

In their report, the researchers tie the declining performance of the population directly to the increasingly unreliable provision of krill.

In particularly bad years when there are few krill at South Georgia, all the predators that depend on them will suffer poor breeding success, and the beaches will be littered with dead pups and penguin chicks.

BAS has a seabird and seal biological research station on Bird Island

The krill come mostly from much further south, carried on currents to the BOT from the Antarctic Peninsula and the western side of the White Continent.

The production of these little crustaceans is heavily dependent on sea ice, which they use for protection and as a food resource, eating the algae that grow on the undersides of floes.

But sea ice in Antarctica’s western sectors has been in sharp decline in recent years (in contrast to other sectors).

The BAS team attributes this to a significant shift in an atmospheric pressure pattern known as the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), which, in its positive phase, will limit sea ice formation through more storms, higher winds, higher temperatures and more rain.

“From the 1990s, it has been in the most positive phase of the historical record, and the record has now been reconstructed back through 1,000 years with ice cores; and what we know now is that the SAM is more positive than it has ever been,” said Dr Forcada.

“What you have to know is that the availability and predictability of krill at South Georgia is highly correlated with the SAM.”

sea food

Krill are an important food for many animals, not just fur seals

The BAS team also examined the DNA of the seals and found mothers today to have a wider genetic diversity than 20 years ago.

Ordinarily, greater genetic variation – or heterozygosity – is a good thing because it enables a population to better withstand disease and environmental stress.

But the group records that this increased diversity is not seen in the pups being born each year on Bird Island, in part because that diversity is dependent also on the genetics of the male bulls, but also because the circumstances in which the seals now find themselves means that the weakest pups are being very effectively winnowed out.

 

sea ice

Western sectors of the Antarctic have seen a decline in sea ice over the period

“If heterozygosity was inherited from these feeder mums to their pups and heterozygosity would prevail to the point where no more pups were being born homozygous (narrow diversity), you could think they were showing in the longterm an evolutionary response. But they’re not showing that,” explained Dr Forcada.

“They’re showing a selection process that acts mostly through the survival of the fit young females, and then at each generation the clock re-sets.”

Antarctic fur seals are currently an abundant species that has now fully recovered from the over-exploitation by humans at the turn of the 20th Century.

But if the stresses continue, warns the team, South Georgia’s population is likely to fall as breeding success dwindles and individuals disperse in search of more predictable krill supplies.

Antarctic Fur Seal

 

 Monk Seals

Antarctic Fur Seals are plentiful, but the Hawaiian Monk Seal is critically endangered.

 

Here’s a clip from our Before It’s Too Late documentary Hawaii Isle of Extinction. This tells of the fight to help with the recovery of this species.



Bats ‘fly by polarised light’


 

Bats ‘fly by polarised light’

By Jonathan Webb
Science reporter, BBC News

 

The new study suggests that bats calibrate their in-built magnetic compass using polarised light at sunset

Bats use the pattern of polarised light in the evening sky to get their bearings, according to a new study.

As well as having unusual echolocation skills and their own magnetic compass, bats are now the first mammals known to make use of polarised light.

Other animals with this ability include birds, anchovies and dung beetles.

To make the discovery, published in Nature Communications, zoologists placed bats in boxes with polarising windows before watching them fly home.

Light waves normally wiggle all around their direction of travel, but when they pass through special filters – or are scattered by gases in the atmosphere – they can become polarised, so that the oscillations all line up.

“We initially didn’t think that the bats would use polarised light,” said the paper’s senior author, Dr Richard Holland from Queen’s University in Belfast.

Dr Holland was one of the scientists who discovered in 2006 that bats navigate by somehow sensing the earth’s magnetic field – but that in-built compass needs to be calibrated. Other experiments showed that the calibration was happening at sunset, when the bats’ day begins.

“We thought that surely, the sun’s disc itself would be a more likely cue,” Dr Holland told the BBC. But his team recently tested how bats responded when the sun’s image was shifted by mirrors, and found no difference.

Guided by the polarised light? One of the greater mouse-eared bats used in the study

So they switched their attention to the pattern of polarised light that appears at sunset, which is already known to be important for various other animals, particularly birds.

t’s invisible to humans, unless we wear polarising glasses. “If you were standing looking at the sun, you’d see a dark band going directly over your head, from left to right,” explained Dr Holland.

Mysterious ability

To find out if bats were using this pattern, the scientists put them into boxes with a nice view of the sunset, but only through custom-made polarising windows. Half the boxes had windows that recreated the normal pattern, and half flipped it around by 90 degrees.

Then they took the bats about 20km from their home roost in a Bulgarian cave, released them and tracked them. Sure enough, the bats from the boxes with rotated windows were much more erratic at heading toward home.

In proper scientific fashion, when Dr Holland was collecting the data he was “blinded” as to which group of bats was which – and he initially thought he might be wrong all over again.

When a colleague revealed the real designation and they compared both sets of results, it was a satisfying moment. “Whenever you set out to test one of these ideas, it’s always amazing that it actually works!” Dr Holland said.

Bats were taken from a cave in north-eastern Bulgaria and tracked as they flew home again

 

Although plenty of other animals, including some birds, fish, amphibians and insects, are known to detect polarised light, the only other mammal that we know can perceive it is, in fact, humans. In certain situations, such as when light reflects off glass or water at particular angles, or when we look at white areas on an LCD screen, some people see a blurry phenomenon known as “Haidinger’s brush” – produced by the polarisation of light.

According to Dr Marie Dacke, who studies animal vision at the Lund University in Sweden, how this happens is still a mystery.

Insects, Dr Dacke explained, have specialised receptors in their eyes for detecting polarisation. “But in birds and fish and so on, we don’t really have a clue about how they’re able to perceive this kind of light,” she told the BBC.

“I did not expect them to find that in mammals, such as in a bat. So I thought this was really fascinating.

“The big challenge will actually be to find the mechanism by which bats are able to do this. There is still a bit to reveal before the full story is known.”

Here’s an interesting video clip on studies into Australian bats.

 


Global decline of wildlife linked to child slavery


 

 

By Matt McGrath
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Global decline of wildlife linked to child slavery

 

Children enslaved as fishing labour in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana

 

New research suggests the global decline in wildlife is connected to an increase in human trafficking and child slavery.

Ecologists say the shortage of wild animals means that in many countries more labour is now needed to find food.

Children are often used to fill this need for cheap workers, especially in the fishing industry.

The decline in species is also helping the proliferation of terrorism and the destabilisation of regions.

According to a study in the journal, Science, the harvesting of wild animals from the sea and the land is worth $400bn annually and supports the livelihoods of 15% of the world’s population.

But the authors argue that the rapid depletion of species has increased the need for slave labour. Declining fisheries around the world mean boats often have to travel further in harsher conditions to find their catch.

In Asia, men from Burma, Cambodia and Thailand are increasingly sold to fishing boats where they remain at sea for many years, without pay and forced to work 18-20 hour days.

“There’s a direct link between the scarcity of wildlife, the labour demands of harvests and this dramatic increase in child slavery,” said Prof Justin Brashares from the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study.

“Many communities that rely on these wildlife resources don’t have the economic capacity to hire more labourers, so instead they look for cheap labour, and in many areas this has led to the outright purchasing of children as slaves.”

This exploitation also happens in Africa, where people who once found their food in the neighbouring forests now travel for days to find prey.

Fishers to pirates

Children are often used by hunters to extract wildlife from areas that would be too costly to harvest.

The researchers contrast the outcomes of the collapse of fisheries of the north east coast of the US and in the waters off Somalia.

 

The decline of fish stocks is increasing the need for slave labour to work on the boats

 

While in the US the decline was cushioned by federal subsidies to retrain fishermen, in Somalia the increased competition for fish stocks led to the rise of piracy.

“That’s how the whole Somali conflict started,” said Prof Brashares.

“Fishermen started going out with guns, trying to fine boats that were fishing illegally in their waters.

“Unfortunately some segment of that community said we can do much better by ransoming these boats that we can do by fishing.”

The rise in value of items like tiger parts and elephant ivory have led to an explosion of trafficking, by powerful groups to further their aims.

The authors point to the Janjaweed, the Lord’s Resistance Army, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, which they say have all been involved in poaching ivory and rhino horn to fund terrorist attacks.

Other researchers say there is not enough data to support this claim.

Regardless of the strength of the evidence, the western response to these events has been to declare a “war on poachers”.

The authors believe that this is misguided, and is missing the bigger picture.

“We can continue to try and cover it up with little bits of enforcement,” said Prof Brashares.

“But until we start to address the bigger issue which is poor governance and the global free for all, we are not going to address the tide of conflict.”

The study says there are some approaches that can work. They argue that when local governments give fishers and hunters exclusive rights to harvest some areas, social tensions can be reduced.

They point to Fiji’s fishery structured around territorial use rights and in Namibia pro-active policies have helped to reduce poaching.

“The most important bit from this article, I think, is that we need to better understand the factors that underlie fish and wildlife declines from a local perspective, and that interdisciplinary approaches are likely the best option for facilitating this understanding,” said Dr Meredith Gore, from Michigan State University who wasn’t part of the study.

The research has been published in the journal, Science.


‘Fluffy and feathery’ dinosaurs were widespread


 

‘Fluffy and feathery’ dinosaurs were widespread

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

 

All dinosaurs were covered with feathers or had the potential to grow feathers, a study suggests.

The discovery of 150-million-year-old fossils in Siberia indicates that feathers were much more widespread among dinosaurs than previously thought.

The find “has completely changed our vision of dinosaurs”, the lead researcher told BBC News.

The details have been published in the journal Science.

 

The creature, called Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, was about 1m long, with a short snout, long hind legs, short arms, and five strong fingers.

Its teeth show clear adaptations for chewing plants.

Until now, fossilised evidence of feathery dinosaurs has come from China and from a meat eating group called theropods.

The latest discovery, in Russia, is from a completely separate group of plant-eating dinosaurs called ornithischians – which account for half of all dinosaurs.

Fluffy covering

The find takes the origin of feathers millions of years further back in time than had previously been thought, said Dr Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium, who led the research.

Belgian and Russian researchers discovered an area filled with ancient dinosaur bones in Kulinda, south eastern Siberia

“It was a big surprise,” he said.

 

“The fact that feathers have now been discovered in two distinct groups, theropods in China and ornithischians in Russia means that the common ancestor of these species which might have existed 220 million years ago also probably had feathers.”

The discovery has “completely changed our vision of dinosaurs”, he added.

“Instead of thinking of dinosaurs as dry, scary scaly creatures a lot of them actually had a fluffy, downy covering like feathers on a chick,” said co-researcher Dr Maria McNamara of Cork University in Ireland.

Alternative view

So do all the pictures of dinosaurs in children’s books need to be redrawn to make creatures like Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex and the vicious Velociraptor, fluffier and cuter?

The researchers believe the dark areas on this dinosaur fossil are remains of the earliest feathers

Perhaps a little bit, according to Professor Mike Benton, of Bristol University, who was also involved in the work.

“Our research doesn’t mean that all dinosaurs had feathers, especially as adults,” he told BBC News.

“Some will have had feathers as young animals and kept them throughout their lives. Others may have lost feathers as they grew up, and became large enough not to need them, or replaced feathers with scales or relied on bony plates in the skin for protection.”

The key point is that dinosaurs were all initially feathered and warm blooded, confirmation of an idea that has prevailed for years, he said.

“Feathers were used first for insulation and signalling; they only later became adapted for flight.”

But Dr Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London, has doubts.

“Most feathers have a branching structure,” he told BBC News.

“Instead these look like little streamers coming from a central plate. No bird has that structure in any part of its plumage and none of the developmental models that biologists use to understand the evolution of feathers includes a stage that has anything like that kind of anatomy.”

 

Did you know that Australian once had a marsupial lion?

By Mike Searle, Before It’s Too Late

An amazing and unique discovery has been made in Australia. In a massive cave below the Nullabor Plane the Western Australian Museum discovery the first fully intact skeleton of the Marsupial Lion (Thylacoleo Carnifax).

Thylacoleo

Marsupial Lion

Australia is known for its cute marsupials, the koala, the kangaroo and the wombat among others. Very few people are aware that there was once a marsupial that was a deadly “creep up and get ya” predator that was more ferocious than a sabre tooth tiger. It was Thylacoleo Carnifex – the Marsupial Lion Australia’s lost predator.

The Nullarbor Plain is a remote treeless desert resting between the Great Australian Bight and the Great Sandy Desert. It is hard, stony country…flat and featureless.

In May of 2002 an group of cavers, in an Indiana Jones style operation, discovered three caves, which had never been entered by man. The entrance to one of the caves was mere shoulder-width, vertical tube that rapidly expanded to cathedral proportions. In the first cave their head torches illuminated a sight that caused scientific wonderment and a world-wide media frenzy.

At the far end of a side tunnel the cavers discovered the pristine and complete skeleton of the fabled marsupial lion, Thylacoleo. It lay there as if it had died only a year ago. The skeleton was bleach white against the red earth and not a speck of dust on it. Their immediate reaction was to take a photo and get out – their main concern was to preserve the site for scientific analysis.

The photo of Thylacoleo and the cave coordinates ended up on the desk of Dr John Long, vertebrate palaeontologist a world renowned Bone Digger with the Western Australian Museum. Within a matter of weeks funding and an expedition to recover the remains had been arranged. It would prove a journey full of surprises both during the expedition and later as the remains were studied. The first surprise to take John and his team by surprise was the age of the remains. He was sure the skeleton could only be about 40,000 years old – several dating techniques later and a shattering date of at least 500,000 years suddenly propelled the find into mega-star status.

Marsupial Lion

Thylacoleo

 

 

Bone Diggers – Mystery of a Lost Predator is the amazing story of the dangerous recovery mission and how the remains of the marsupial lion allowed science a unique opportunity to reconstruct the beast and it’s behaviour.

From recreating its brain to morphological analysis, the life and form of Thylacoleo began to take shape – this is science at its best!
 

 

 

 

 


Chimpanzee language: Communication gestures translated


 

 

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Chimps will check to see if they have the attention of the animal with which they wish to communicate

Researchers say they have translated the meaning of gestures that wild chimpanzees use to communicate.

They say wild chimps communicate 19 specific messages to one another with a “lexicon” of 66 gestures.

The scientists discovered this by following and filming communities of chimps in Uganda, and examining more than 5,000 incidents of these meaningful exchanges.

The research is published in the journal Current Biology.

Dr Catherine Hobaiter, who led the research, said that this was the only form of intentional communication to be recorded in the animal kingdom.

Only humans and chimps, she said, had a system of communication where they deliberately sent a message to another individual.

“That’s what’s so amazing about chimp gestures,” she told BBC News.

“They’re the only thing that looks like human language in that respect.”

Shout or signal?

Although previous research has revealed that apes and monkeys can understand complex information from another animal’s call, the animals do not appear to use their voices intentionally to communicate messages.

This was a crucial difference between calls and gestures, Dr Hobaiter said.

“It’s a bit like if you pick up a hot cup of coffee and you scream and blow on your fingers,” she said.

“I can understand from that that the coffee was hot, but you didn’t necessarily intend to communicate that to me.”

Subtle signals
Some of the chimps’ gestures, the researchers say, are unambiguous – used consistently to convey one meaning.

Leaf clipping, for example, where a chimp very obviously takes small bites from leaves is used only to elicit sexual attention.

Many others, though, appear to be ambiguous. A grab, for example, is used for: “Stop that,” “Climb on me,” and “Move away.”

Although many are very subtle, some of the footage captured by the researchers shows very clearly what the chimps mean to convey.

In one clip, a mother presents her foot to her whimpering offspring, signalling: “Climb on me.” The youngster immediately jumps on to its mother’s back and they travel off together.

“The big message [from this study] is that there is another species out there that is meaningful in its communication, so that’s not unique to humans,” said Dr Hobaiter.

“I don’t think we’re quite as set apart as we would perhaps like to think we are.

“But then chimps are more closely related to us than they are to the rest of the great apes, so it makes sense that we are incredibly similar to them in many ways.”

Dr Susanne Shultz, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Manchester, said the study was commendable in seeking to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the evolution of human language. But, she added, the results were “a little disappointing”.

“The vagueness of the gesture meanings suggest either that the chimps have little to communicate, or we are still missing a lot of the information contained in their gestures and actions,” she said.

“Moreover, the meanings seem to not go beyond what other less sophisticated animals convey with non-verbal communication.

“So, it seems the gulf remains.”


Web users join hunt for Hawaii tree invaders


 

By Mark Kinver
Environment reporter, BBC News

The invasive non-native Australian fern tree stands out against the canopy of the native forest species

US conservationists and a satellite imagery company have teamed up to use the power of crowdsourcing to halt the spread of destructive invasive plants.

Species such as the Australian tree fern are using up vital water supplies within native forests on Hawaii, home to unique species found nowhere else.

So far, more than 5,000 people have visited the website.

To date, each pixel of the images of the forest has been scrutinised by web users at least 50 times.

“From a biodiversity viewpoint, it is very important that we protect forest resources,” explained Trea Menard, director of forest conservation for the US-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

“Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of our forests,” he told BBC News.

“For example, only about 27% of the forest remains on Kauai and that is an important forest because it is the biodiversity cradle for Hawaii as it is the oldest island.

Threatened habitat
“The native forest is extremely unique. About 90% of the plants and animals that evolved here do not occur anywhere else in the world, which means they are endemic to Hawaii.

“If they are lost from Hawaii, they are pretty much lost to the planet.”

The invasive plants are dramatically reducing the volume of fresh water available for native species.

The Australian tree fern is able to penetrate remote areas of the native forest because it is dispersed via spores carried by the wind, making it difficult to be tracked and located on the ground.

In order to overcome this obstacle, TNC has teamed up with satellite imaging firm DigitalGlobe to call on web users to scan and spot the invasive species in images posted on the web.

The images, provided by Resources Mapping, are aerial photos providing 1cm per pixel.

Luke Barrington, senior manager for DigitalGlobe’s crowdsourcing platform, said the high-quality, natural colour images had enabled web users to identify the invasive species.

He explained: “The connectivity of billions of people online is transforming the way that the globe solves global problems. Millions of people are coming together to solve a problem.”

The campaign has been running since June and each pixel of the images available has been accessed by at least 50 users, providing a built-in level of quality control.

Here’s a 9 minute clip from our documentary Hawaii – Isles of Extinction. This clip looks at the impact of introduced plant species.

Here’s the full 50 minute documentary Hawaii – Isles of Extinction which looks at the much wider issue of Hawaii’s dwindling endemic flora and fauna.


‘Immediate protection’ needed for Pitcairn’s marine bounty


 

 

By Matt McGrath
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Grouper fish on Oeno Atoll followed divers for two hours

Researchers say that “immediate protection” is required for the waters around the remote Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific, home to one of the world’s rarest and most valuable collections of marine species.

The waters have “unique global value that is irreplaceable” says the report, from an international team of scientists.

They’ve carried out the first underwater surveys of the deep and shallow waters around the islands, best known for their connection to the mutiny on the Royal Navy ship, Bounty, in the 18th century.

Some of the mutineers settled on Pitcairn and around 50 of their descendents still live there, governed as a British overseas territory.

The four islands in the group lie halfway between New Zealand and South America.

They are said to be further from a continent than any other inhabited island.

The extremely remote location has prevented prior scientific exploration of the unsullied waters.

“It is a treasure trove of marine species,” Dr Enric Sala told BBC News.

“People know about the mutiny on the Bounty but the true bounty of the Pitcairn’s is underwater.”

The scientists found healthy coral reefs and an abundance of fish, around half of them not found anywhere else in the world.

A fish seen near Henderson Island, the largest of the Pitcairn group

A key indicator of the water’s good state were the number of top predators like sharks that the scientists recorded. They accounted for over half of the biomass at Ducie Atoll, one of the least disturbed locations.

Perhaps the most significant discovery was down to the purity of the water. The scientists found a type of coralline algae living deeper than anywhere else on earth.

“It lives at 382m that’s more than 100m deeper than the previous record, because of the clarity of the water,” said Dr Sala.

“It also allows coral reefs to grow to depths that are incredible elsewhere, we found well developed reefs between 75 and 100m below the surface.”

The remoteness of the islands has been critical in preserving the waters but the scientists saw some evidence of the encroachment of illegal shark fishing, carried out by foreign fleets.

A voracious, toothy predator, the titan triggerfish, being cleaned by a tiny wrasse

They argue that plans to turn the islands into one of the world’s biggest marine reserves should go ahead as soon as is practicable.

The islanders have voted in favour of this approach and a plan has been submitted to the UK government to create a 836,000 sq km protected zone around the islands.

The plan is still being considered by the UK, but it has been boosted in recent weeks with the announcement that the United States is to declare a huge reserve around the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

The scientists say the time is right for the Pitcairns to follow suit.

“These islands are like a time machine, that allow us to get back hundreds of years to see what we have lost,” said Dr Sala.

“But we can also to determine what we want for the future.”

Their report is published in the journal, PLOS One.



The US has seen continuing declines of honeybee populations

US sets up honey bee loss task force


The US has seen continuing declines of honeybee populations

The US has seen continuing declines of honeybee populations

The White House has set up a taskforce to tackle the decline of honey bees.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the agriculture department will lead the effort, which includes $8m (£4.7m) for new honey bee habitats.

Bee populations saw a 23% decline last winter, a trend blamed on the loss of genetic diversity, exposure to certain pesticides and other factors.

A quarter of the food Americans eat, including apples, carrots and avocados, relies on pollination.

Honey bees add more than $15bn in value to US agricultural crops, according to the White House.

The decline in bee populations is also blamed on the loss of natural forage and inadequate diets, mite infestations and diseases.

There has also been an increase in a condition called colony collapse disorder (CCD) in which there is a rapid, unexpected and catastrophic loss of bees in a hive.

But other North American pollinators, like the monarch butterfly, have seen decreases in their populations as well.

© SMG

© SMG

Some environmental groups have criticised the president for not acting more directly, including taking action against neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides linked to bee deaths.

“The administration should prevent the release and use of these toxic pesticides until determined safe,” Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica told Reuters.

In the plan announced on Friday, Mr Obama directed the EPA and the agriculture department to lead a government-wide task force to develop a strategy within six months to fight bee and other pollinator declines.

Also announced on Friday was funding for farmers and ranchers in five states – Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin – who establish new habitats for honey bee populations.

 

Bees are the most important pollinators. However they are also being used to detect illegal substances such as explosives and drugs. Find out more by watching this video from our TV series Animal X Natural Mystery Unit.

 



Badgers: Ministers ‘wilfully’ ignoring science advice


 

 

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

A senior government adviser has described coalition plans to change the way the pilot badger culls are assessed as “an abuse” of the scientific method.

Prof Timothy Coulson is concerned the government is considering a less reliable way of assessing humaneness in the cull and numbers of badgers killed.

He is also concerned that it will scrap independent oversight.

It would also make it impossible to assess whether recommendations to improve the cull have worked.
Writing in Animal Ecology in Focus, Prof Coulson says that ministers must be “wilfully” ignoring the concerns of its own scientists.

“I am tempted to speculate that the government no longer wants to know whether the pilots are effective or humane,” he says in his article. “They just want to cull badgers, regardless of whether the population or humaneness consequences can be assessed.”

He added: “And I fear we may hear that the second year is a success once it is over.”

Prof Coulson told BBC News that he considered culling to be an “easy option” to make it look as if the government was trying to solve the spread of TB in cattle when it could actually make the problem worse if it failed to kill enough badgers.

“If culling worked I’d be fully supportive of them rolling it out, but all the evidence is that it does not,” he told BBC News.

Prof Coulson, from the University of Oxford, is an internationally respected population biologist and was a member of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) that assessed the effectiveness, safety and humanness of two pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire last year.

Protesters have questioned the rationale for the cull

A spokesman for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is running the pilot culls, said: “We will continue to monitor the effectiveness and humaneness of the badger culls closely to assess the impact of the improvements we are making following the IEP’s recommendations.”

“We are currently assessing the best and most cost-effective methods of doing this,” she added. “Scientific evidence such as the findings of the IEP will always play an integral role in developing our approach to dealing with bovine TB, which includes strengthening cattle movement controls and developing vaccines for cattle and badgers.”

However, Prof Coulson said that Defra ministers were not listening to the advice of their own scientists.

He told BBC News: “Government agencies are stuffed full of very competent scientists. Presumably the concerns that they must have raised are being wilfully ignored by government. I wonder why?

“I suspect the government no longer wants to know the answer to whether their ongoing pilot culls will deliver the required outcome.”

Prof Rosie Woodroffe, of the Zoological Society of London, works closely with government employed scientists on the science of the badger cull. She told BBC News that she has “little doubt” that some scientists in Defra and other government agencies will be concerned that these culls will be ineffective and inhumane.

“I don’t know whether policymakers are not listening to their own scientists, or simply not seeking their own scientists’ views on what has become such a political issue.”

Defra authorised two pilot culls over a four year period in Somerset and Gloucestershire last to see whether licensed marksmen could kill 70% of the badger population in the pilot areas, the number required to reduce the spread of TB in cattle. Defra agreed to independent oversight of the culls by the IEP. BBC News revealed earlier this year that the IEP concluded that the trials were ineffective and raised concerns about the number of badgers that died slowly after being shot by marksmen.

On the basis of that advice, Defra decided not to extend the culls to other parts of England as it had originally hoped – though the two pilot trials will continue for three more years as they are required to do under the culling licence issued by Natural England.

But Defra has decided not to continue with the independent oversight provided by the IEP. The department is also considering changing the method for assessing the number of badgers killed, citing cost as the reason.

Cost question
The method used last year involved analysing the genetic code of badgers in the cull area before the cull and then analysing the code of the badgers that were killed. Prof Coulson said this gave an accurate assessment of the proportion of badgers killed.

Instead, the BBC understands that Defra is considering two alternative approaches to monitor the culls. One of these is based on data from the companies that carried out the cull, but the IEP had little faith in these data, was critical of them in its report and did not use them.

The second method is based on a computer model which has not been validated for the two cull areas. The IEP was also critical of this in minutes of its meetings.

Prof Coulson has told BBC News that the “genotyping” work is not an expensive method and whatever method is used instead will be much less accurate. Genotyping costs around a £15-20 per badger and so the cost of doing the work should run into a few tens of thousands of pounds at most.

“A cynic might speculate that (the change in method) is because following best animal ecology practice might lead to conclusions at odds with what the government seems unjustifiably determined to do,” he said.

“In addition to changing the protocols, there is to be no more independent oversight of the ongoing culls. So who will oversee the analysis of data and the interpretation of results? The same folks that have decided to change the protocols half way through the experiment?”

The IEP made recommendations to improve humaneness which the government has accepted. The success or otherwise of these recommendations will also be hard to assess, according to Prof Coulson, because he believes the data on humaneness are not going to be collected from autopsies of badgers to assess how they were killed as was done last year.

Prof Woodroffe says that it won’t be possible to compare last year’s figures with the next set if the method used to count the badgers that have been killed is changed.

“Ministers and farmers are hoping that this year’s pilots will be more effective than last year’s. To give policymakers, farmers and the public confidence in the outcome of the pilots, it’s essential that the same methods are used consistently,” she said.

Prof Coulson added that changing the way in which the experiment was assessed was “an abuse of the scientific method”.

“‘If the methods Defra are thought to be considering are used in place of those applied last year, it would be like starting a surgical procedure with a scalpel and forceps and finishing it with a garden spade and axe,” he said.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4′s World At One programme, the farming minister George Eustice said that Prof Coulson was “completely wrong”.

“There are two separate things and I think he is confusing these two items, One is the monitoring and evaluation and last year we had 300 visits from (government) vets, compliance visits from Natural England and we carried out over 150 post mortems (of badger carcasses). That was the raw data that was collected,” he said.

“Then there was the separate thing which is what the IEP did and that was really to give us advice on how we should treat the data we had. It was a one off project. They have given us advice on how we should treat that data and their work is over.”



Humpback whale breaching © Storyteller Media Group.

Young Humpback Whale Saved From Fishing Net


 

 

 

 

This amazing whale rescue.



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