Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’


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.



Northwest Passage voyage of scientific discovery


Northwest Passage voyage of scientific discovery

By Mark KinverEnvironment reporter, BBC News

The crew hope to collect a range of data during their journey through the 900-mile Arctic sea route

A crew of sailors is embarking on a pioneering citizen science expedition through the Northwest Passage between Canada and Greenland.

During the voyage, they will collect data on weather conditions, wildlife, phytoplankton levels and microplastic.

The eight-strong crew includes 14-year-old Nera Cornell, who is believed to be the youngest Briton to sail the route in the Arctic Circle.

The team expect to complete the 900-mile (1,450km) journey in eight weeks.

Until relatively recently, the route was inaccessible for most vessels because it was blocked with sea ice.

The expedition aboard the ship Aventura is part of the Blue Planet Odyssey, devised by veteran sailor and author Jimmy Cornell, which aims to raise awareness of how climate change is affecting life on Earth.

“Sailors are in touch with the oceans and the seas, so they are already experiencing the effects firsthand,” explained Doina Cornell, Jimmy’s daughter and crew member.

‘Useful data’

“All of projects are very much based on the idea that we are not professional scientists and we are doing citizen science,” she told BBC News.

“We have tried to come up with projects that we can do while we are busy sailing the boat but will enable us to collect data that is useful.”

As well as a partnership with Unesco’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the crew will also be collecting data for US researchers and plastic pollution reduction organisation 5 Gyres.

They will also measure phytoplankton levels in the waters of the infrequently travelled Northwest Passage for the University of Plymouth’s Richard Kirby and his team.

“The Northwest Passage has only been occasionally ice-free since 1999 so before this time we have very little data,” he told BBC News.

“Of course, there is data from the western and eastern sides of the Passage.

“For example, we do know that one of the first consequences of ice-free water in the Arctic was when plankton scientists noticed the appearance of a Pacific diatom (Neodenticula seminae) in the Atlantic,” Dr Kirby observed.

He described N. seminae as an key plankton species in the Pacific, as the tiny organisms are very abundant and play an important role in absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

He added: “Because of the importance of that species in the Pacific, scientists have thought whether it would be possible if it became established in the Atlantic as well as it is in the Pacific, whether it would result in an enhanced (carbon) drawdown, which would be a mitigating factor (of the increasing levels of atmospheric CO2).”

The crew will be taking measurements using a device known as a Secchi disk, a white disk measuring 30cm (1ft) in diameter.

It is lowered into the water on the end of a tape measure, and when it is no longer visible from the surface, the reading – known as the Secchi depth – is recorded.

Arctic baseline

“It is a very robust method and not prone to error and it is a good measure of phytoplankton abundance,” Dr Kirby explained.

“[This expedition] will give us the first Secchi-disk data from the Northwest Passage , which will establish a baseline for future studies.

“When we go back in future years, we will be able to look at when it changes because we are there at the beginning (of an ice-free era).”

“Will we, on this trip beat the Secchi-disk record, which stands at 79.5m in the Atlantic.”

The Northwest Passage is a series of sea channels between North America and Greenland and remains one of the most testing maritime challenges for sailors.

Located deep within the Arctic Circle, it is a navigable route through the frozen landscape providing a strategically important shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Although it has fascinated and attracted explorers since the late 15th Century, opening a commercial sea-route so close to the North Pole has remained elusive. It is only in recent years, with the retraction of Arctic summer sea-ice, that the route became passable without the need of icebreaker vessels.

To date, fewer people have sailed through the Northwest Passage than have reached the summit of Mount Everest.

 

The Secchi Disk

Secchi disk

The Secchi disk, invented in 1865 by Angelo Secchi – the Pope’s astronomer – is a circular disk that is used to measure water transparency in oceans and lakes.

The concept had long been used as a navigational tool by sailors. By lowering a dinner plate beneath the waves and measuring the depth it disappeared, it provided the crew with an indication of what ocean current they were currently sailing through.

Fr Secchi was asked by the head of the Papal Navy to measure the transparency in the Mediterranean Sea. This task gave rise to the formalised measuring system.

Ever since the first measurement was taken aboard the Papal yacht in April 1865, marine biologists have used it to measure phytoplankton abundance.

Since Secchi’s first design, there have been a number of subsequent revisions. The two most common colour variations in use today are the all-white disk and the black-and-white quadrant version.


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.



Researchers develop cheaper way of making solar cells


 

 

 

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Researchers have developed a new manufacturing method which could bring down the cost of making a type of solar cell.

A team at Liverpool University has found a way of replacing the toxic element in the process with a material found in bath salts.

The scientists say that this could have a “massive, unexpected cost benefit”.

The research has been published in the Journal Nature and unveiled at the ESOF conference in Copenhagen.

Dr Jon Major explains how the simple new technique could dramatically reduce the cost of solar energy

Dr Jon Major, who led the research said that his team’s work might be the development that brings the cost down to the level of fossil fuel,” he told BBC News.More than 90% of the solar cells are made from silicon. Around 7% are made from a material called cadmium telluride. The cadmium telluride cells are thinner than silicon and these are popular because they are also lighter and cheaper.

Toxic ingredient
They have the drawback that a toxic chemical, cadmium chloride, is needed to manufacture them. Cadmium chloride is also expensive.

A significant proportion of the manufacturing cost of cadmium telluride cells is to protect the workforce from toxins and to dispose of contaminated waste products safely, according to the research team.

Dr Major discovered that a cheaper, non-toxic alternative, magnesium chloride, could be used instead of the toxic compound and work just as well.

Solar cells being made. No need for a protective mask

Magnesium chloride is completely safe. It is used to make tofu and is found in bath salts. It also extracted from sea water and so is a small fraction of the price of cadmium chloride.

Dr Major’s boss, Prof Ken Durose, who is the director of the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy at Liverpool University, believes that his colleague’s discovery has the potential to transform the economics of solar energy.

“One of the big challenges with solar energy is to make it cheap enough to compete with conventional power generation,” he told BBC News.

“Solar will progressively get cheaper until it will become more and more feasible for solar power to be produced from solar electricity farms.”

Comparing the relative costs of different energy technologies is extremely difficult because they are so different and the results are contentious.

But when pressed, Prof Durose made his best guess to assess the potential impact of the new technique, stressing that his figures were rough and ready and contained assumptions that could and probably would be challenged.

Cost debate
That said, he estimated that the cost of electricity produced from current cadmium telluride technology is very approximately 10 pence per unit, significantly higher than the 8.25 pence per unit for electricity produced from gas.

But he thought that the benefits of cheaper materials and the cost saving from not having to deal with toxic materials could bring the cost of cadmium telluride cells to 8.2 pence per unit – lower than gas.

However, Dr Nigel Mason of PV Consulting believes that the researchers are being very optimistic in their assessment of the impact their development will have on the price of solar energy.

“The development is great for the environmental management and safety of the production process but the cost of cadmium chloride material and dealing with its safe disposal is a relatively small fraction of production cost,” he told BBC News.

A key factor is that tellurium is one of the rarest elements on Earth so there would not be enough of the chemical to make enough solar cells if the technology took off, according to Dr Mason.

But Dr Major believes that solar energy could eventually meet the world’s energy needs.

“There is enough sunlight that falls on the Earth every hour to generate enough electricity for the planet for a year,” he said.

“The way solar is progressing it will just be a matter of time before it becomes competitive with fossil fuels and eventually replace them.”

Climate change is driving the hunt for better and cheaper forms of energy. If we don’t find an alternative scientists say life on earth will never be the same again. We are already seeing unprecedented changes in our weather patterns. Hotter than ever summers and terrifying storms.

This clip Storm Front and Climate Change takes a look at the science of climate change and the future weather patterns we could be looking at.



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.

 



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