Nature Blog Network Future Earth: April 2009

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Rove models and leonine leaders

As The Apprentice illustrates with excrutiating clarity, leadership is an ephemeral quality, a master (or mistress) of disguise.

To mark President Obama's first 100 days in office, Future Earth recognises the greening of the United States of America and offers you two faces of conservation leadership from other continents:

Rove Model. Australian Rove McManus is indeed a Wildlife Warrior. A role model for using communication skills, knowledge, passion, humour (and, O.K. charm!) to good effect. He's out there for the wildlife of the world, and the people co-existing with it, having checked out the issues himself (ask him about presenting farmer-of-the-month awards in Cambodia).

Leonine leader. In Africa, Shivani Bhalla is the recipient of this year's "Young Women Conservation Biologists" award. Maybe she is another candidate for "World's best job", but it needs phenomenal persitence, perspicacity (and, O.K., charm again!) to make conservation gains for carnivores and reduce conflict with communities across their range.

So a grateful shout out to these three types of talent - or maybe a tremendous twitter ...@BarackObama @Rove1974 @Ewasolions

Monday, 20 April 2009

Ant Analogies (4) Getting aHead

Meet Solenopsis geminata - tropical fire ant, a hot climate specialist found in hot arid regions around the world. It has spread globally through human commerce and is a major invasive pest in many regions, busily destroying biodiversity values on the way. Loves disturbed areas - a dead cert for a starring role as climate, population and food production find their convergent crises, I'd wager.

Now meet Pogonomyrex sp., a Genus of harvester ants from the deserts of northern and southern America. (Sadly no recent photos from Alex Wild this time, just the unattributed portrait from Wiki). Echoing Chandler in the sitcom "Friends" the connection between these two screams "Big Head, Big Head"! Fortunately a trio of scientists delved further, measuing the head size and shape of both polymorphic and monomorphic species. (Ed: Forget the Australian island "World's best job", surely being an Ant Measurer is a contender for the title?). Anyway, they detected signs that the polymorphic forms were a response to dietary change, and concluded that bimodal shape variation may be a common evolutionary response to seed processing.

The sting in the tail from this train of thought? Wha
t adaptations to specialised roles and tasks might serve our descendents if they need a different societal model to survive - assuming we are reconnected to forces of natural selection or technology allows us to create our own castes? Or will the big brains in our own big heads get us out of this mess first? (Ed again: my female descendents are O.K. with this, just so long as one caste all look like Hugh Jackman).

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Ant analogies (3)

Ant of the day (photo thanks to Alex Wild) is Myrmecia piliventris, the Australian Jack Jumper Ant, one of the Bulldog Ants. What might we learn from this feisty fighter? Well, to avoid it if possible - jack jumper ants cause more deaths in Tasmania than spiders, snakes, wasps, and sharks combined. The problem is that their powerful venom frequently causes allergic reactions and anaphylatic shock is not uncommon. Fortunately their biographer and analyst Simon Brown has made it part of his life's work to protect the rest of us.

Aside from torturing human invaders, their venemous punch is advantageous for hunting and fighting. Colony living, workers make solo foraging trips and carry back prey to the nest. They are territorial and fight readily.

Which is why they feature in Arthur Schopenhauer's classic "The World as Will and Representation" as as a paradigmatic example of strife and constant destruction endemic to the will to live". "..... the bulldog-ant of Australia affords us the most extraordinary example of this kind; for if it is cut in two, a battle begins between the head and the tail. The head seizes the tail in its teeth, and the tail defends itself bravely by stinging the head. " (Gordon Brown, are you reading this?)

His sad conclusion was that emotional, physical and sexual desires can never be fulfilled. F-ant-astic.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Ant analogies (2)

Future Earth's Ant Analogies post was meant to be the start of a series about these Masters of the Universe, but inspiration went underground. Thanks to Alex Wild for bringing ants back to the surface with all their brilliant diversity - and unless he asks me not to, I'm featuring and crediting his fantastic photos in this antline of posts.

Ant of the day is from north America - Polyergus sp, Legionaire ants, often called Amazon Ants.

Polyergus are parasites on their hosts Formica ants. For detail see AntWeb but in essence, Polyergus cannot raise their own broods. They take over nascent colonies from Formica queens, allowing the host queens to live only as long as they are useful in building a critical mass of worker ants. Colonies also supplement the supply of workers with efficient raids on nearby Formica colonies - giving rise to anthropomorphic expressions of "piracy" or "slave raiding".

At the risk of alienating the science blogosphere, I think we can be too precious in deriding anthropomorphism. But that's for later debate. Instead of describing these behaviours in human terms, let's look at the models of existence that have evolved in 12,000 species of ants and see whether we might like to keep a few of them in our back pockets as options for our own existence on future earth. Another post tomorrow - exam term homework for selfish genes.

(P.S. Feast your eyes at

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Palm oil free Chokolit for Easter?

Ultimate feel good factor here - indulge in delicious chocolate this Easter knowing that you are helping wildlife and supporting an environmentally-friendly business. Louis Barnett was 12 when he started the Chokolit Company and, like many creative and entreprenneurial people, struggling with formal education due to dyslexia.

Many people achieve huge success despite dyslexia, including Richard Branson and (probably) George Washington. Many more struggle for a foothold on the educational ladder, their often intelligent and multi-layered minds working against the linear sequencing required for reading and writing. A few years ago I delved into the difficulties, delights and dilemmas of dyslexia, becoming convinced that we need to cherish dyslexia genes as they will help us survive - even thrive. Today's handicap, tomorrow's selective advantage.

So tuck into that Chokolit; I'd particularly recommend the "Biting Back' bar with the elephant on the wrapper. Premium Belgian Dark Chocolate with Chilli (and nary a smidgeon of palm oil). The chilli bit amuses me... concentrated chillis are quite successfully used as "pepper spray" to keep elephants off farmers crops in both Africa and Asia. Truncated pleasure.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Eggciting discovery in Cambridge

A gift from the grave. Rising to public attention this Easter is a perfect present from Charles Darwin. The size and shape of a Frys cream egg, this little treasure's original owner was a south American Tinamou from Maldanado - a male Tinamou in fact, as it is the males of the Nothura that incubate the eggs. Tinamou are related
to cassowaries, emus, kiwis, rheas and ostriches.

This specimen has been lurking since the late 19th Century in the Zoology Museum at Cambridge University where zoology professor Alfred Newton had deposited it. Like a neglected but secure deposit in a Swiss bank, modern curators discovered the egg that was one of only a very few bought back from the Beagle's wanderings. Newton was sent the egg by Darwin, through the intermediary of his son Frank, and the professor's notebook records that "
The great man put it into too small a box, and hence its unhappy state."


Sunday, 5 April 2009

Body language bonanza

The Europe summits have provided a host of photo ops and what rich seams they provide for miners of body language.

This is my favourite, from the Independent today. The annointed, the boss and the wanabe. Anyone who has spent time studying non-human primates will have seen something similar in multi-male groups in their own habitats.

We are not so very different. Professor Filipo Aureli's research group has recently demonstrated that consolation between members of a chimpanzee group reduces stress and is not simply a technique for deflecting aggression. This is indicative of empathy, usually thought to be a uniquely human characteristic. On April 1st (naturally) a BBC report looked into calls by Aureli and others for the Great Apes to be re-classified as hominids and the suggestion that this should be exposed to public debate by the Linnean Society. Dr. Sandy Knapp, Chair of the Linnean Society Committe was asked for her opinion. "What makes us the same is more interesting than what makes us different" she said.

Is that an empathetic arm President Obama, or a confirmation of dominance, or a "thank you for the troops my friend"?

Who is with me that a mountain gorilla would be able to read its intent in a heartbeat?.

(Thanks to Aveling Artworks for permission to use this contemplative illustration).

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Carbon Cha-cha-cha?

The Cha-cha-chá and a host of sensuous latin fusion dances diffused out from Latin America and created an enthusiastic following around the world. Please, Latin America, consider carbon-carbon-carbon at the regional World Economic Forum in Rio de Janeiro next week (14-16 April) and set the rest of the World dancing to your tune. The summit will address "Implications of the Global Economic Crisis for Latin America" as well as "other serious challenges, such as climate change". In the region that hosts the Amazon, this add on for climate and carbon issues is nothing like enough and leadership is needed, from the World Forum, from Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who will open the meeting and from the other heads of state also part of the summit.

The forum has set up a climate task force, with business and "thought leaders". Worthwhile, but again, not enough, and possibly a distraction. It is focused on alternatives and adaptation - the 20%+ of the problem that could be solved by stopping deforestation and degradation is almost a throwaway line in the letter this group sent to the G20 leaders this week. Meanwhile, many of the companies listed are still looking to biofuels for renewable energy and ignoring the impacts on land use and natural habitats - thereby ignoring ecosystem services of water and biodiversity in addition to the carbon calculations.

Is "low carbon propserity" feasible? Certainly prosperity is a motivator, but so is survival and that has to take precedence. If the Amazon dies it is Giselle's "dance of death" that will be percolating out from the Americas to the rest of the world rather than the life-enhancing Cha-cha-chá.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

(H)air force one

Just 12 generations ago, Barack Obama's ancestor Thomas Blossom was born in the little Cambridgeshire village of Shelford, 20 minutes by car (3 by helicopter) from where Air Force One touched down in Stansted a few hours ago. The local Hair Salon called Hair Force One has been handed a marketing bonanza.

When young Thomas was a mere toddler, the Blossom family moved to the nearby village of Stapleford, thereby sparking a neighbourly feud 429 years later as each village jostles to claim this famous heritage of their Puritan resident.

Now Barack, Mr. President sir, sprinkle a little fairy dust over those G20 leaders please. Change has come back to old England.