Nature Blog Network Future Earth: April 2008

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

P-P-P-Pick up a P-P-P-Puffin

Well, that title will sort readers by age and location. Pretty much what the wardens on the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast are doing to the Puffins. Not an easy task when the Puffins are nestling within their burrows, but these appealing birds seem pretty tolerant of the intrusion and are due our thanks. The 5-yearly counts provide long-term data on a changing population and the environmental changes that it reflects.

I'm trying to feel sorry for the plucky wardens risking nasty nips from those psychedelic beaks, but the thought of their breezy vantage point looking back towards the Northumbrian coastline, with the wind in their hair, a packet of sandwiches and flask of coffee in their pockets and lovely data piling up to play with until summer.... its not quite working.

My mind is also playing tricks... pulling birds from their hiding places, checking their weight and condition, putting a ring on them and disappearing for another five years.... is this story really based on the Farne Islands or in a Newcastle nightclub?

(Thanks to Nigel Homer for the puffin pic).

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Staring us in the face.....

Another warning sign about imbalance and dis-equilibrium. The news just in from Butterfly Conservation is of dramatic declines in some species in the U.K. The scientists, under the watchful eye of their Chairman Sir David Attenborough (who perhaps has a unique experience of the interdependency of life's diversity around planet earth), are linking this to changes in the weather last summer. This affected the availability of food, affecting timing and success of reproduction. Butterflies are indicator species of healthy diversity and habitat change and we can watch them closely.

So what of homo sapiens? Since writing the last post, below, I was reminded that some studies have shown a greater proportion of girls are born following drought conditions. O.K., so we are not independent of our environment. We are seeing a more dynamic climate, with more extreme events. There are food riots occuring in several places around the world. Is reproductive success the next factor to monitor, and population decline inevitable? (Lovelock of course would say this is Gaia rebalancing).

(Thanks to Aveling Artworks for the (South American) butterfly artwork that stares us in the face above)

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Oh baby, baby how was I supposed to know.....

A link between what women eat before conception and the sex of their baby has been found, says research published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, today. In essence the findings show an increased proportion of boys are born to mothers with good diets incuding cereals.

There is a wealth of information available on influencing foetal gender through diet, pH, timing etc - but the interesting thing here is a reminder that humans are but any other animal responding to genetic imperative and linked to their environment. We are not as disconnected and in control (species-wide) as we might think. The lead author of this study, Fionna Mathews speculates...

"Potentially, males of most species can father more offspring than females, but this can be strongly influenced by the size or social status of the male, with poor quality males failing to breed at all. Females, on the other hand, reproduce more consistently. If a mother has plentiful resources then it can make sense to invest in producing a son because he is likely to produce more grandchildren than would a daughter. However, in leaner times having a daughter is a safer bet."

Note to Arjay's sons - try for daughters... there will be leaner times ahead!

Friday, 18 April 2008

Convergent evolution or direct descent?

Charles Darwin, Robert Watson (see below) and Colin Pillinger (Beagle 2). True to type?

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Exactly, my dear Watson

Professor Robert Watson makes a habit of producing comprehensive UN research reports packed with several years of data on what is happening to our world. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Captains of the U.S./Australia team finally started to react to the reports, but several years later than the Rest of the World squad. The same thing is happening now with the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development - - with the U.S.and an odd ally wishing to tweak the recommendations (change the rules?) to promote a greater emphasis on free markets.

This new report - summarised well in the Guardian....
will hopefully do for Food Security what Stern did for Climate Change... move it up the political agenda. It recommends agricultural reforms to stave off the world food crisis. The answer is not all in technology and intensification, but does require political will and requires decisions that take into account the social & environmental sustainability issues.

Exactly, my dear Watson.

P.S. And from the heights of human survival to the depths of pedantry (sorry!)... anyone who thinks that should be "Elementary, my dear Watson" can check:

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Gruesome Gray and Black Mass

Beset by eternal optimism? See if John Gray can make any inroads on your state of mind as he explores the human condition. If you are too busy saving the world to read John Gray, taste the summary provided by the excellent review of 'Straw Dogs' and 'Black Mass' on Entertainment News.

Suitably morbid? Recover with Arjay's calming view of evening across the Java sea.....

Plastic in Paradise (2)

Arjay recently found these mangrove roots meandering across a beach in Borneo, protecting the shoreline from turbulent tides and gathering the glittering detritus of mankind.

For a gritty reality check on just how much we are rubbishing our marine environment (and damaging our own health) see "Garbage Island" :

Not pretty.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

More Mugabe Madness

"(UK Prime Minister) Brown is a little tiny dot on this World" (Robert Mugabe, April 12th 2008).

Yes (ex Zimbabwe Executive President) Mugabe - but the dot is a Full Stop.

For a beloved country crying, it is the Full Stop underlying a global exclamation mark.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Curse of the cotton buds

Ah, the appeal of foaming brine. A lovely swim, secure in the knowledge that the salt content disinfects all the sanitary detritus and sewage?

The annual UK beach clean up organised by the Marine Conservation Society shows that cotton buds (minus the cotton - where has that ended up?) are an increasing proportion of the detritus washing up on our increasingly rubbished beaches. A mounting mix of "pick-a-sticks" for us to play with.

"Bin them", they say "so they are properly disposed of". Of course, but this increases landfill. Maybe, just maybe, we could do without them at all?

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Cultural clashes, cool waters

Isn't it striking how the Free Tibet protests surrounding the Olympic torch as it sears a path to Beijing reflect the cultures in which they are occuring, not the cultural origin of the issue?

Who did not chuckle at the sight of bumbling bobbies on bicycles trying to cope with surging crowds as the olympic flame singed a path through London? (Well, maybe not the serious, cloned, chinese security cordon). Lets not dwell on the leather-jacketed heavies scrambling for structure as the torch scorched its way through Paris. Lets consider instead, how elegantly Californians have used both aesthetic and athletic abilities to produce a visually stunning protest strung up on the golden gate bridge. Ahhh .... cool water soothing a troubled image bank.

Reflect for a moment though on the strength of tribal territories. How much of the controversy in the world comes down to cultural conflict? And how much does culture cling to a certain area of land and decisions about how to manage it? Trade and economic development have driven an international agenda (and technological expansion), but how fragile is this? As constraints on food supply and other resources starts to bite, what units of operation and cohesion will we default to..... and how rapidly? A prediction - our Future Earth will be composed of "tribal" territories and inter-tribal conflict will increase. Discuss.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

A Host of Frozen Daffodils.....

William Wordsworth's "... host of golden daffodils" were "fluttering and dancing" in the warmth of a Lake District Spring in 19th Century England.

These hopeful modern day derivatives were caught out this morning by April snow across southern England. Seasons out of sync with bio-cycles, both for the daffodils and those wishing to pick them.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Plastic in Paradise

Yet another load of non-degradable plastic makes its precarious way into the beautiful, diverse and disappearing forests of Indonesian Borneo.

At the end of this particular road, Arjay saw people finding the plastic paraphernalia very useful for their daily subsistence. Traffic in the other direction was of tapped, raw rubber and sweaty, rotting oil palm fruits ... both of which are converted into indispensable (?) trappings of life in more populous cities across land and sea.

But this is not entirely bad news. Both rubber and oil palm plantations in this area are small-scale local community lots used as cash crops in the local economies and the distant forest you see there is currently protected from the big commercial outfits. Why might this remain? Just look - along the many miles of this road runs a bright blue pipe, taking fresh mountain water to the people of the regional capital. How about that for a demonstrable ecosystem service?