Next Monday 14 July 2014 PGARD (Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Diseases) have organised a luncheon at Parliament House, Canberra for various party politicians to be present. Also ASEA (Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency) are also supporting this important event to raising awareness about the dangers of asbestos. I have been invited to be a keynote/guest speaker. It is an honour to have been asked and I am looking forward to this event.I will be flying up on Sunday afternoon and staying with good friends for the night rather than an early flight on the Monday morning that could leave me feeling exhausted and a bit short of breath.Our winter weather has well and truly set in today. We were lucky to get above 4 degrees celcius. …Read more
Last Friday I had my blood tests and saw my oncologist Dr Allan Zimet on Tuesday 25 March 2014 for results and the okay to fly to Washington for the annual ADAO Asbestos Conference.Allan gave me the green light to fly with a letter to show Qantas airlines just in case they were to question my flying given that I have advanced mesothelioma.My bloods were fine and I am to have a scan upon my return from America, then see Allan end of April for results.I remember last year when I flew to the ADAO Asbestos Conference in Washington with Bernie Banton Foundation as I had to have a scan prior to going. It was very much touch and go as to whether I would be …Read more
Microbes and the salt in sea water significantly shape organic matter transported by rivers to their estuaries, clarifies researcher Eero Asmala in his doctoral thesis at the Finnish Environment Institute. In his study, Asmala investigated changes in riverine dissolved organic matter in the Baltic Sea’s estuaries.”The study found significant flocculation of organic matter even at very low salinities at the mouth of the river. This is likely to affect the bottom sediment and biota, as a considerable proportion of the riverine organic load ends up in a relatively narrow zone along the coast,” Eero Asmala says.Flocculation was found to be selective. It changes the composition of organic matter en route from land to sea, removing humic compounds and reducing average molecular size, among other things.The material in the doctoral research study consisted of field and laboratory data. The changes in riverine organic matter in estuaries were investigated by means of various chemical and biological analyses. The results of the study refine the picture of the estuarine carbon and nutrient cycle as well as strengthen the link between land-use and the status of Finland’s coastal waters.A million tonnes of different compoundsThe cycle of organic matter in estuaries is not understood well, even though the nonpoint source pollution carried from the riverine catchment is one of the main causes of eutrophication of the Baltic Sea. Finnish rivers discharge approximately one million tonnes of organic carbon into the Baltic annually. The majority of this carbon is in a dissolved form distinguishing it from the particulate form, in other words, the individual molecules are less than a micrometre in size.”Dissolved organic matter (DOM) consists of thousands of different compounds whose properties vary widely. Some DOM is more and some is less readily available for the microbial food web such as bacteria and algae. In addition to carbon, DOM also contains other elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which are active in marine eutrophication,” Asmala explains.Variation between rivers and seasons, impact of land-use In his study, Asmala found considerable variation in the properties of riverine organic matter between rivers and seasons. …Read more
In an announcement that could rewrite the book on early colonization of the New World, two researchers today said they have proposed a location for the oldest fortified settlement ever found in North America. Speaking at an international conference on France at Florida State University, the pair announced that they have proposed a new location for Fort Caroline, a long-sought fort built by the French in 1564.”This is the oldest fortified settlement in the present United States,” said Florida State University alumnus and historian Fletcher Crowe. “This fort is older than St. Augustine, considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in America. It’s older than the Lost Colony of Virginia by 21 years; older than the 1607 fort of Jamestown by 45 years; and predates the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620 by 56 years.”Announcement of the discovery of Fort Caroline was made during “La Floride Franaise: Florida, France, and the Francophone World,” a conference hosted by FSU’s Winthrop-King Institute for Contemporary French and Francophone Studies and its Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution. The conference commemorates the cultural relations between France and Florida since the 16th century.Researchers have been searching for actual remains of Fort Caroline for more than 150 years but had not found the actual site until now, Crowe said. The fort was long thought to be located east of downtown Jacksonville, Fla., on the south bank of the St. Johns River. The Fort Caroline National Memorial is located just east of Jacksonville’s Dames Point Bridge, which spans the river.However, Crowe and his co-author, Anita Spring, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Florida, say that the legendary fort is actually located near the mouth of the Altamaha River in southeast Georgia.”This really is an important work of scholarship, and what a great honor it is for it to be announced at a conference organized by the Winthrop-King Institute,” said Martin Munro, a professor in FSU’s Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics and director of the Winthrop-King Institute. “It demonstrates the pre-eminence of the institute and recognizes the work we do in promoting French and Francophone culture in Florida, the United States and internationally.”Darrin McMahon, the Ben Weider Professor of History and a faculty member with the Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution, observed that Crowe and Spring’s finding — like the conference itself — highlights France’s longstanding presence in Florida and the Southeast. …Read more
Have you ever noticed that your best friends speak the same way? A new University of British Columbia study finds we prefer voices that are similar to our own because they convey a soothing sense of community and social belongingness.While previous research has suggested that we prefer voices that sound like they are coming from smaller women or bigger men, the new study — published today in the journal PLOS ONE — identifies a variety of other acoustic signals that we find appealing.”The voice is an amazingly flexible tool that we use to construct our identity,” says lead author Molly Babel, a professor in the Department of Linguistics. “Very few things in our voices are immutable, so we felt that our preferences had to be about more than a person’s shape and size.”Aside from identifying the overwhelming allure of one’s own regional dialects, the study finds key gender differences. Among North Americans, it showed a preference for men who spoke with a shorter average word length. The researchers also found a preference for “larger” sounding male voices, a finding that supports previous research.For females, there was also a strong preference for breathier voices — a la Marilyn Monroe — as opposed to the creakier voices of the Kardashians or actress Ellen Page. The allure of breathiness — which typically results from younger and thinner vocal cords — relates to our cultural obsession with youthfulness and health, the researchers say. A creaky voice might suggest a person has a cold, is tired or smokes regularly.Babel says the findings indicate that our preference for voices aren’t all about body size and finding a mate, it is also about fitting in to our social groups.BackgroundBabel and her colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz asked college-aged participants in California to rate the attractiveness of male and female voices from people living west of the Mississippi River.They found that participants preferred different acoustic signals for males and females — and the strongest predictors of voice preference are specific to the community that you’re a part of.For example, the Californian participants had a strong preference for female voices that pronounced the “oo” vowel sound from a word like “goose” further forward in the mouth. This has been a characteristic of California speech since at least the early 1980’s. In many other regions of North America, people would pronounce the “oo” sound farther back in the mouth, as one might hear in the movie Fargo.The preference for males who had shorter average word length relates to a difference between how men and women speak. In North American English, longer average word length is a style typically used by women while shorter average word length is one used by men. …Read more
Experts from Newcastle University, UK, and the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi (IIT-Delhi), reveal the spread of antibiotic-resistance to one of the most pristine locations in Asia is linked to the annual human pilgrimages to the region. The research team are now calling on governments around the world to recognise the importance of clean drinking water in our fight against antibiotic resistance.The spread of antibiotic-resistance to one of the most pristine locations in Asia is linked to the annual human pilgrimages to the region, new research has shown.Experts from Newcastle University, UK, and the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi (IIT-Delhi), sampled water and sediments at seven sites along the Upper Ganges River, in the foothills of the Himalayas.They found that in May and June, when hundreds of thousands of visitors travel to Rishikesh and Haridwar to visit sacred sites, levels of resistance genes that lead to “superbugs” were found to be about 60 times greater than other times of the year.Publishing their findings today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the team say it is important to protect people visiting and living at these sites while also making sure nothing interferes with these important religious practices.They argue that preventing the spread of resistance genes that promote life-threating bacteria could be achieved by improving waste management at key pilgrimage sites.”This isn’t a local problem — it’s a global one,” explains Professor David Graham, an environmental engineer based at Newcastle University who has spent over ten years studying the environmental transmission of antibiotic resistance around the world.”We studied pilgrimage areas because we suspected such locations would provide new information about resistance transmission via the environment. And it has — temporary visitors from outside the region overload local waste handling systems, which seasonally reduces water quality at the normally pristine sites.”The specific resistance gene we studied, called blaNDM-1, causes extreme multi-resistance in many bacteria, therefore we must understand how this gene spreads in the environment.”If we can stem the spread of such antibiotic resistant genes locally — possibly through improved sanitation and waste treatment — we have a better chance of limiting their spread on larger scales, creating global solutions by solving local problems.”Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the aim of the research was to understand how antibiotic resistance was transmitted due to a specific human activity. Local “hot-spots” of antibiotic resistance exist around the world, particularly densely-populated regions with inconsistent sanitation and poor water quality.By comparing water quality of the Upper Ganges in February and again in June, the team showed that levels of blaNDM-1 were 20 times higher per capita during the pilgrimage season than at other times.Monitoring levels of other contaminants in the water, the team showed that overloading of waste treatment facilities was likely to blame and that in many cases, untreated sewage was going straight into the river where the pilgrims bathe.”The bugs and their genes are carried in people’s guts,” explains Professor Graham. “If untreated wastes get into the water supply, resistance potential in the wastes can pass to the next person and spiralling increases in resistance can occur.”Worldwide, concern is growing over the threat from bacteria that are resistant to the so-called “last resort” class of antibiotics known as Carbapenems, especially if resistance is acquired by aggressive pathogens.Of particular concern is NDM-1, which is a protein that confers resistance in a range of bacteria. NDM-1 was first identified in New Delhi and coded by the resistant gene blaNDM-1.Until recently, strains that carry blaNDM-1 were only found in clinical settings, but in 2008, blaNDM-1 positive strains were found in surface waters in Delhi. Since then, blaNDM-1 has been found elsewhere in the world, including new variants.There are currently few antibiotics to combat bacteria that are resistant to Carbapenems and worldwide spread of blaNDM-1 is a growing concern.Professor Graham, who is based in the School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University, UK, said the team had planned to repeat their experiments last year, but the region was hit by massive floods in June and the experiments were abandoned.The team has since returned to Rishikesh and Haridwar and hope their work will prompt public action to improve local sanitation, protecting these socially important sites. On a global scale, they want policymakers to recognise the importance of clean drinking water in our fight against antibiotic resistance.”What humans have done by excess use of antibiotics is accelerate the rate of evolution, creating a world of resistant strains that never existed before” explains Graham.”Through the overuse of antibiotics, contamination of drinking water and other factors, we have exponentially speeded-up the rate at which superbugs might develop.”For example, when a new drug is developed, natural bacteria can rapidly adapt and become resistant; therefore very few new drugs are in the pipeline because it simply isn’t cost-effective to make them.”The only way we are going to win this fight is to understand all of the pathways that lead to antibiotic resistance. Clearly, improved antibiotic stewardship in medicine and agriculture is crucial, but understanding how resistance transmission occurs through our water supplies is also critical. We contend that improved waste management and water quality on a global scale is a key step.”Read more
For four decades, waste from nearby manufacturing plants flowed into the waters of New Bedford Harbor — an 18,000-acre estuary and busy seaport. The harbor, which is contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals, is one of the EPA’s largest Superfund cleanup sites.It’s also the site of an evolutionary puzzle that researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and their colleagues have been working to solve.Atlantic killifish — common estuarine fishes about three inches long — are not only tolerating the toxic conditions in the harbor, they seem to be thriving there. How have they been able to adapt and live in such a highly contaminated environment?In a new paper published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, researchers found that changes in a receptor protein, called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor 2 (AHR2), may explain how killifish in New Bedford Harbor evolved genetic resistance to PCBs.Killifish are prey fish that do not migrate. They live their whole lives in the same area, generally within a few hundred yards of the spot where they were hatched. Unlike fish that may come in and out of the harbor sporadically during the summer months to feed, the killifish are there year round and spend winters burrowing into the contaminated sediment.Normally when fish are exposed to harmful chemicals, the body steps up production of enzymes that break down the pollutants, a process controlled by the AHR2 protein. Some of the PCBs are not broken down in this way, and their continued stimulation of AHR2 disrupts cellular functions, leading to toxicity. In the New Bedford Harbor killifish, the AHR2 system has become resistant to this effect.”The killifish have managed to shut down the pathway,” said Mark Hahn, a biologist at WHOI and coauthor of the paper. “It’s an example of how some populations are able to adapt to changes in their environment — a snapshot of evolution at work.”The research team, which includes colleagues from the Atlantic Ecology Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Boston University School of Public Health, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, used a “candidate gene” approach, sequencing the protein-coding portion of three candidate resistance genes (AHR1, AHR2, AHRR) in fish from the New Bedford site and six other locations, both clean and polluted, along the northeast coast.Looking for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or subtle variations in the DNA sequence, they found differences in AHR2, which plays an important role in mediating toxicity in early life stages.”The function of this receptor is what mediates the toxic effects,” said Sibel Karchner, a coauthor and biologist in Hahn’s lab. “If you don’t have a functional receptor, then you’re not going to get the toxic effects as much as a fish that does.”AHR2 in killifish has 951 amino acids and nine of those vary among individuals. …Read more
Sep. 11, 2013 — Naturally occurring arsenic pollutes wells across the world, especially in south and southeast Asia, where an estimated 100 million people are exposed to levels that can cause heart, liver and kidney problems, diabetes and cancer. Now, scientists working in Vietnam have shown that massive pumping of groundwater from a clean aquifer is slowly but surely drawing the poison into the water. The study, done near the capital city of Hanoi, confirms suspicions that booming water usage there and elsewhere could eventually threaten millions more people.The study appears in the current issue of the journal Nature.”This is the first time we have been able to show that a previously clean aquifer has been contaminated,” said lead author Alexander van Geen, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “The amount of water being pumped really dominates the system. Arsenic is moving.” The good news, he said: “It is not moving as fast as we had feared it might.” This will buy time — perhaps decades–for water managers to try and deal with the problem, he said.Arsenic is found in rocks across the world, but it seems to pollute groundwater only under specific conditions. The huge scale across south Asia came clear only in the 1990s, when researchers from universities, nonprofit agencies and governments started testing wells systematically. Van Geen has been working in the field for 13 years, and is leading a new collaborative effort in the region under the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.Researchers link natural arsenic pollution in south Asia to vast amounts of sediment eroding off the Himalayan plateau into basins below, from Pakistan and India to China and Vietnam. The constant fresh supply reacts rapidly with local water, though the exact mechanisms of arsenic release have remained unclear, along with the potential effects of groundwater pumping. The new study clarifies some of the chemical processes, and shows clearly for the first time that human activity can widen the problem.Hanoi, like many metropolitan areas, is mushrooming in size, and using ever more groundwater. …Read more
Sep. 2, 2013 — A collaborative project involving a Kansas State University ecologist has shown that the Clean Air Act has helped forest systems recover from decades of sulfur pollution and acid rain.The research team — which included Jesse Nippert, associate professor of biology — spent four years studying centuries-old eastern red cedar trees, or Juniperus virginiana, in the Central Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. The region is downwind of the Ohio River Valley coal power plants and experienced high amounts of acidic pollution — caused by sulfur dioxide emissions — in the 20th century.By studying more than 100 years of eastern red cedar tree rings, the scientists found that the trees have improved in growth and physiology in the decades since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970.”There is a clear shift in the growth, reflecting the impact of key environmental legislation,” Nippert said. “There are two levels of significance in this research. One is in terms of how we interpret data from tree rings and how we interpret the physiology of trees. The other level of significance is that environmental legislation can have a tremendous impact on an entire ecosystem.”The findings appear in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS, in the article “Evidence of recovery of Juniperus virginiana trees from sulfur pollution after the Clean Air Act.”The principal investigator on the project was Richard Thomas, professor of biology at West Virginia University. Other researchers include Scott Spal, master’s graduate from West Virginia University, and Kenneth Smith, undergraduate student at West Virginia University.For the study, the scientists collected and analyzed data from eastern red cedar trees ranging from 100 to 500 years old. The researchers wanted to better understand the trees’ physiological response and the growth response to long-term acid deposition, or acid rain.The team focused on red cedar trees because they are abundant, long-lived and a good recorder of environmental variability. Red cedar trees grow slowly and rely on surface soil moisture, which makes them sensitive to environmental change. Their abilities to live for centuries meant that researchers could analyze hundreds of years of tree rings, Nippert said.The researchers analyzed the stable carbon isotopes within each tree ring as a recorder of physiological changes through time. …Read more
Aug. 20, 2013 — Managing fish in human-altered rivers is a challenge because their food webs are sensitive to environmental disturbance. So reports a new study in the journal Ecological Monographs, based on an exhaustive three-year analysis of the Colorado River in Glen and Grand Canyons.Food webs are used to map feeding relationships. By describing the structure of these webs, scientists can predict how plants and animals living in an ecosystem will respond to change. Coauthor Dr. Emma Rosi-Marshall, an aquatic ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, comments, “Given the degraded state of the world’s rivers, insight into food webs is essential to conserving endangered animals, improving water quality, and managing productive fisheries.”The project — which relied on a team of more than 10 researchers from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Montana State University, Idaho State University, University of Wyoming, U.S. Geological Survey, and Loyola University of Chicago — assessed six sites on the Colorado River, many so remote they required two-week boat trips through the canyon.Study sites were distributed along a 240-mile stretch downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, which was completed in 1963 for water delivery and hydroelectric power needs. During the three-year study, samples of over 3,600 animal diets and 4,200 invertebrate populations were collected and processed. Among the team’s findings: following an experimental flood, sites near the dam had the most dramatic changes in the structure and function of their food webs.Lead author Dr. Wyatt Cross of Montana State University comments, “Glen Canyon Dam has transformed the ecology of the Colorado River. …Read more
July 26, 2013 — A new report projects that by the middle of this century there will be an average 56 percent drop in the amount of water stored in peak snowpack in the McKenzie River watershed of the Oregon Cascade Range — and that similar impacts may be found on low-elevation maritime snow packs around the world.The findings by scientists at Oregon State University, which are based on a projected 3.6 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase, highlight the special risks facing many low-elevation, mountainous regions where snow often falls near the freezing point. In such areas, changing from snow to rain only requires a very modest rise in temperature.As in Oregon, which depends on Cascade Range winter snowpack for much of the water in the populous Willamette Valley, there may be significant impacts on ecosystems, agriculture, hydropower, industry, municipalities and recreation, especially in summer when water demands peak.The latest study was one of the most precise of its type done on an entire watershed, and was just published in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, with support from the National Science Foundation. It makes it clear that new choices are coming for western Oregon and other regions like it.”In Oregon we have a water-rich environment, but even here we will have to manage our water resources differently in the future,” said Eric Sproles, who led this study as a doctoral student at OSU.”In the Willamette River, for instance, between 60-80 percent of summer stream flow comes from seasonal snow above 4,000 feet,” he said. “As more precipitation falls as rain, there will more chance of winter flooding as well as summer drought in the same season. More than 70 percent of Oregon’s population lives in the Willamette Valley, with the economy and ecosystems depending heavily on this river.”Annual precipitation in the future may be either higher or lower, the OSU researchers said. They did calculations for precipitation changes that could range 10 percent in either direction, although change of that magnitude is not anticipated by most climate models.The study made clear, so far as snowpack goes, that temperature is the driving force, far more than precipitation. Even the highest levels of anticipated precipitation had almost no impact on snow-water storage, they said.”This is not an issue that will just affect Oregon,” said Anne Nolin, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, and co-author of the study. “You may see similar impacts almost anywhere around the world that has low-elevation snow in mountains, such as in Japan, New Zealand, Northern California, the Andes Mountains, a lot of Eastern Europe and the lower-elevation Alps.”The focus of this study was the McKenzie River, a beautiful, clear mountain river that rises in the high Cascade Range near the Three Sisters volcanoes, and supplies about 25 percent of the late summer discharge of the Willamette River. Researchers said this is one of the most detailed studies of its type done on a large watershed.Among the findings of the study:The average date of peak snowpack in the spring on this watershed will be about 12 days earlier by the middle of this century. The elevation zone from 1,000 to 1,500 meters will lose the greatest volume of stored water, and some locations at that elevation could lose more than 80 days of snow cover in an average year. …Read more
July 24, 2013 — The prolonged heat wave that has bathed the UK in sunshine over the past month has given the country an unexpected taste of summer that has seemed to be missing in recent years.However, a new study published today, 24 July, in IOP Publishing’s Environmental Research Letters, has provided warnings that will chime with those accustomed to more typical British weather.According to the study, winter flooding in the UK is set to get more severe and more frequent under the influence of climate change as a result of a change in the characteristics of atmospheric rivers (ARs).ARs are narrow regions of intense moisture flows in the lower troposphere of the atmosphere that deliver sustained and heavy rainfall to mid-latitude regions such as the UK.They are responsible for many of the largest winter floods in the mid-latitudes and can carry extremely large amounts of water: the AR responsible for flooding in the northwest of the UK in 2009 transported 4500 times more water than the average flow in the River Thames in London.The researchers, from the University of Reading and University of Iowa, found that large parts of the projected changes in AR frequency and intensity would be down to thermodynamic changes in the atmosphere, rather than the natural variability of the climate, suggesting that it is a response to anthropogenic climate change.To reach these conclusions, the researchers used simulations from five state-of-the-art climate models to investigate how the characteristics of ARs may change under future climate change scenarios.Firstly, they used the climate models to see how accurately they could simulate the ARs that occurred between 1980 and 2005. The five models did this successfully and were deemed capable of projecting how future ARs will develop under different scenarios.The models were then used to simulate future conditions under two scenarios — RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 — that represent different, yet equally plausible, scenarios for future increases in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. They projected changes that would occur between 2074 and 2099.Each of the five models simulated an increase in AR frequency. For the RCP8.5 projections, which represents stronger increases in greenhouse gas concentrations than RCP4.5, there was a striking level of consistency in the magnitude of change in AR frequency — all models showed an approximate doubling of the number of future ARs compared to the simulations for 1980 — 2005.The models also projected an increase in intensity of the ARs, meaning an AR impacting the UK in the future is projected to deliver more moisture, potentially causing larger precipitation totals.Lead author of the research, Dr David Lavers, said: “ARs could become stronger in terms of their moisture transport. In a warming world, atmospheric water vapour content is expected to rise due to an increase in saturation water vapour pressure with air temperature. This is likely to result in increased water vapour transport.”The link between ARs and flooding is already well established, so an increase in AR frequency is likely to lead an increased number of heavy winter rainfall events and floods. More intense ARs are likely to lead to higher rainfall totals, and thus larger flood events.”Read more
July 24, 2013 — Scientists at Chicago’s Field Museum and international collaborators have described a new species of Hero Shrew — the mammal with the most bizarre lower spine on Earth. The interlocking vertebrae of the Hero Shrew render the spine four to five times more robust relative to body mass, a condition not found in any other mammal. The spine has been an enigma to evolutionary biologists, with no known adaptive significance.This new species of Hero Shrew, named Scutisorex thori, possesses features that may represent intermediate character states between the only other known Hero Shrew species (Scutisorex somereni), and other shrews. In addition, a novel hypothesis for the function of the animal’s expanded lower spine has been proposed. The study will be published July 24, 2013 edition of Biology Letters.First discovered in 1910, the Hero Shrew’s most notable feature was not revealed for another seven years, when a specimen was dissected to reveal the most peculiar backbone of any mammal. The remarkable spine of the Hero Shrew is unique among mammals, in that the lower vertebrae have multiple lateral processes that interlock with the processes of neighboring vertebra. The arrangement, along with surrounding musculature, affords the animal extraordinary strength, so much so that the Hero Shrew has traditionally been worn as a talisman.”This shrew first came to light when explorers came to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Bill Stanley, Director of Collections and zoologist at the Field Museum. “The explorers watched in amazement as a full-grown man stood on the back of the Hero Shrew, and the animal walked away, unharmed.”Until now, there have been no other species of this bizarre shrew. The new species described in this study represents a possible intermediate between the original Hero Shrew and other shrews, since is possesses an interlocking spine, but with fewer lower vertebrae and lateral processes than the first Hero Shrew species.”You and I have five lumbar vertebrae,” said Stanley. “And so do most other mammals, but the Hero Shrew at least 10. …Read more
July 17, 2013 — The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once asked whether the living world would be different “if the tape were played twice.” If there were a duplicate Earth evolving quietly beside ours, would we observe the emergence of creatures like ourselves and of plants and animals familiar to us, or would the cast of characters be entirely different?It’s an intriguing question.So far replicate Earths are in short supply, but cases of parallel evolution (the same trait evolving independently in related lineages) allow scientists to ask some of the same questions.One beautiful case of parallel evolution is the double domestication of rice in Africa as well as Asia, which was followed by its double “de-domestication,” or reversion to a wild form, all within the roughly 10,000 years since hunter-gatherers became settled farmers.With the help of modern genetic technology and the resources of the International Rice GeneBank, which contains more than 112,000 different types of rice, evolutionary biologist Kenneth Olsen, PhD, associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has been able to look back in time and ask whether the same mutations underlay the emergence of the same traits in both cultivated and weedy rice.His latest findings, which take a close look at the genetics of hull color, appear in the July 17, 2013, online issue of the Journal of Evolutionary Biology.The answers are interesting in their own right but also have practical importance because modern agriculture is radically changing the selection pressures acting on rice, the most important food crop for most of the world’s populations.In response to these pressures, weedy forms that evolved from the crop forms are taking on traits more like those of wild ancestors. “They’re very aggressive competitors,” Olsen says, “and they’ve become a huge problem both here in the U.S. and all over the world.””In some parts of the world farmers have given up trying to grow rice and just market the weedy stuff that’s infested the fields as a health food,” he says. You sometimes see red rice from the Camargue, the delta region in southern France, in stores, he says. “Red rice is full of antioxidants, which tend also to be plant defense chemicals,” Olsen says, “but it is basically a weed.”Double domesticationWorldwide, most of the cultivated rice is Asian rice, Oryza sativa which was bred from its wild progenitor Oryza rufipogon in southern Asia within the past 10,000 years.Whether the familiar indica and japonica subspecies of Asian rice also represent independent domestications is controversial. Most of the rice grown in the U.S. is japonica rice, Olsen says, which is genetically pretty different from indica rice, the rice grown in a lot of the tropics.In any event there was a second unambiguous domestication event about 3,500 years ago when African cultivated rice (O. glaberrima) was bred from the African wild species O. barthii in the Niger River delta.Scientists are now in a position to examine the genetic basis of both the Asian and African domestications, Olsen says. …Read more
June 28, 2013 — Predicted increases in temperature and drought in the coming century may make it more difficult for conifers such as ponderosa pine to regenerate after major forest fires on dry, low-elevation sites, in some cases leading to conversion of forests to grass or shrub lands, a report suggests.Researchers from Oregon State University concluded that moisture stress is a key limitation for conifer regeneration following stand-replacing wildfire, which will likely increase with climate change. This will make post-fire recovery on dry sites slow and uncertain. If forests are desired in these locations, more aggressive attempts at reforestation may be needed, they said.The study, published in Forest Ecology and Management, was done in a portion of the Metolius River watershed in the eastern Cascade Range of Oregon, which prior to a 2002 fire was mostly ponderosa pine with some Douglas-fir and other tree species. The research area was not salvage-logged or replanted following the severe, stand-replacing fire.”A decade after this fire, there was almost no tree regeneration at lower, drier sites,” said Erich Dodson, a researcher with the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. “There was some regeneration at higher sites with more moisture. But at the low elevations, it will be a long time before a forest comes back, if it ever does.”Similar situations may be found in many areas of the American West in coming decades, the researchers say, and recruitment of new forests may be delayed or prevented — even in climate conditions that might have been able to maintain an existing forest. While mature trees can use their roots to tap water deeper in the soil, competition with dense understory vegetation can make it difficult for seedlings to survive.Openings in ponderosa pine forests created by wildfire have persisted for more than a century on harsh, south-facing slopes in Colorado, the researchers noted in their report. And fire severity is already increasing in many forests due to climate change — what is now thought of as a drought in some locations may be considered average by the end of the next century.If trees do fail to regenerate, it could further reduce ecosystem carbon storage and amplify the greenhouse effect, the study said.Restoration treatment including thinning and prescribed burning may help reduce fire severity and increase tree survival after wildfire, as well as provide a seed source for future trees, Dodson said. These dry sites with less resilience to stand-replacing fire should be priorities for treatment, if maintaining a forest is a management objective, the study concluded.Higher-elevation, mixed conifer forests in less moisture-limited sites may be able to recover from stand-replacing wildfire without treatment, the researchers said.Read more
June 27, 2013 — Scientists have discovered the reasons behind the lifespan of some of the world’s iconic mountain ranges.The study conducted by the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Aarhus University, Denmark, has revealed that interactions between landslides and erosion, caused by rivers, explains why some mountain ranges exceed their expected lifespan.Co-author Professor Mike Sandiford of the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne said the study had answered the quandary as to why there was fast erosion in active mountain ranges in the Himalayas and slow erosion in others such as the Great Dividing Range in Australia or the Urals in Russia.”We have shown that links between landslides and rivers are important in maintaining erosion in active or ancient mountain ranges,” he said.”This study is a great insight into the origins and topography of our globe’s mountainous landscape.”Mountain ranges are expected to erode away in the absence of tectonic activity but several ranges, such as the Appalachians in the US and the Urals in Russia, have been preserved over several hundred million years.Co-author, Professor David Egholm from Aarhus University said the new model study published in Nature today provided a plausible mechanism for the preservation of tectonically inactive mountain ranges.”Computational simulations performed for the study revealed that variations in mountain erosion may relate to a coupling between river incision and landslides,” he said.Researchers said rivers can cut through bedrock and this process is thought to be the major factor in controlling mountain erosion, however, the long-term preservation of some mountains is at odds with some of the underlying assumptions regarding river erosion rates in current models of river-based landscape evolution.The study revealed landslides affected river erosion rates in two ways. Large landslides overwhelm river transport capacity and can protect the riverbed from further erosion; conversely, landslides also deliver abrasive agents to the streams, thereby accelerating erosion.Feedback between these processes can help to stabilize the rates of erosion and increase the lifespan of mountains, the authors said.Read more
June 10, 2013 — The shores of the Sea of Galilee, located in the North of Israel, are home to a number of significant archaeological sites. Now researchers from Tel Aviv University have found an ancient structure deep beneath the waves as well.Researchers stumbled upon a cone-shaped monument, approximately 230 feet in diameter, 39 feet high, and weighing an estimated 60,000 tons, while conducting a geophysical survey on the southern Sea of Galilee, reports Prof. Shmulik Marco of TAU’s Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences. The team also included TAU Profs. Zvi Ben-Avraham and Moshe Reshef, and TAU alumni Dr. Gideon Tibor of the Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute.Initial findings indicate that the structure was built on dry land approximately 6,000 years ago, and later submerged under the water. Prof. Marco calls it an impressive feat, noting that the stones, which comprise the structure, were probably brought from more than a mile away and arranged according to a specific construction plan.Dr. Yitzhak Paz of the Antiquities Authority and Ben-Gurion University says that the site, which was recently detailed in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, resembles early burial sites in Europe and was likely built in the early Bronze Age. He believes that there may be a connection to the nearby ancient city of Beit Yerah, the largest and most fortified city in the area.Ancient structure revealed by sonarThe team of researchers initially set out to uncover the origins of alluvium pebbles found in this area of the Sea of Galilee, which they believe were deposited by the ancient Yavniel Creek, a precursor to the Jordan River south of the Sea of Galilee. …Read more
June 10, 2013 — Overprecision — excessive confidence in the accuracy of our beliefs — can have profound consequences, inflating investors’ valuation of their investments, leading physicians to gravitate too quickly to a diagnosis, even making people intolerant of dissenting views. Now, new research confirms that overprecision is a common and robust form of overconfidence driven, at least in part, by excessive certainty in the accuracy of our judgments.The research, conducted by researchers Albert Mannes of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Don Moore of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that the more confident participants were about their estimates of an uncertain quantity, the less they adjusted their estimates in response to feedback about their accuracy and to the costs of being wrong.”The findings suggest that people are too confident in what they know and underestimate what they don’t know,” says Mannes.The new findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.Research investigating overprecision typically involves asking people to come up with a 90% confidence interval around a numerical estimate — such as the length of the Nile River — but this doesn’t always faithfully reflect the judgments we have to make in everyday life. We know, for example, that arriving 15 minutes late for a business meeting is not the same as arriving 15 minutes early, and that we ought to err on the side of arriving early.Mannes and Moore designed three studies to account for the asymmetric nature of many everyday judgments. Participants estimated the local high temperature on randomly selected days and their accuracy was rewarded in the form of lottery tickets toward a prize. For some trials, they earned tickets if their estimates were correct or close to the actual temperature (above or below); in other trials, they earned tickets for correct guesses or overestimates; and in some trials they earned tickets for correct guesses or underestimates.The results showed that participants adjusted their estimates in the direction of the anticipated payoff after receiving feedback about their accuracy, just as Mannes and Moore expected.But they didn’t adjust their estimates as much as they should have given their actual knowledge of local temperatures, suggesting that they were overly confident in their own powers of estimation.Only when the researchers provided exaggerated feedback — in which errors were inflated by 2.5 times — were the researchers able to counteract participants’ tendency towards overprecision.The new findings, which show that overprecision is a common and robust phenomenon, urge caution:”People frequently cut things too close — arriving late, missing planes, bouncing checks, or falling off one of the many ‘cliffs’ that present themselves in daily life,” observe Mannes and Moore.”These studies tell us that you shouldn’t be too certain about what’s going to happen, especially when being wrong could be dangerous. You should plan to protect yourself in case you aren’t as right as you think you are.”Read more
May 30, 2013 — Salmon and other native freshwater fish in California will likely become extinct within the next century due to climate change if current trends continue, ceding their habitats to non-native fish, predicts a study by scientists from the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.
The study, published online in May in the journal PLOS ONE, assessed how vulnerable each freshwater species in California is to climate change and estimated the likelihood that those species would become extinct in 100 years.
The researchers found that, of 121 native fish species, 82 percent are likely to be driven to extinction or very low numbers as climate change speeds the decline of already depleted populations. In contrast, only 19 percent of the 50 non-native fish species in the state face a similar risk of extinction.
“If present trends continue, much of the unique California fish fauna will disappear and be replaced by alien fishes, such as carp, largemouth bass, fathead minnows and green sunfish,” said Peter Moyle, a professor of fish biology at UC Davis who has been documenting the biology and status of California fish for the past 40 years.
“Disappearing fish will include not only obscure species of minnows, suckers and pupfishes, but also coho salmon, most runs of steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, and Sacramento perch,” Moyle said.
Fish requiring cold water, such as salmon and trout, are particularly likely to go extinct, the study said. However, non-native fish species are expected to thrive, although some will lose their aquatic habitats during severe droughts and low-flow summer months.
The top 20 native California fish most likely to become extinct in California within 100 years as the result of climate change include (asterisks denote a species already listed as threatened or endangered):
- Klamath Mountains Province summer steelhead
- McCloud River redband trout
- Unarmored threespine stickleback*
- Shay Creek stickleback
- Delta smelt*
- Long Valley speckled dace
- Central Valley late fall Chinook salmon
- Kern River rainbow trout
- Shoshone pupfish
- Razorback sucker*
- Upper Klamath-Trinity spring Chinook salmon
- Southern steelhead*
- Clear Lake hitch
- Owens speckled dace
- Northern California coast summer steelhead
- Amargosa Canyon speckled dace
- Central coast coho salmon*
- Southern Oregon Northern California coast coho salmon*
- Modoc sucker*
- Pink salmon
The species are listed in order of vulnerability to extinction, with No. 1 being the most vulnerable.
Climate change and human-caused degradation of aquatic habitats is causing worldwide declines in freshwater fishes, especially in regions with arid or Mediterranean climates, the study said. These declines pose a major conservation challenge. However, there has been little research in the scientific literature related to the status of most fish species, particularly native ones of little economic value.
Moyle saw the need for a rapid and repeatable method to determine the climate change vulnerability of different species. He expects the method presented in the study to be useful for conservation planning.
“These fish are part of the endemic flora and fauna that makes California such a special place,” said Moyle. “As we lose these fishes, we lose their environments and are much poorer for it.”
Co-authors of the study were postdoctoral students Joseph Kiernan, Patrick Crain and Rebecca Quiñones of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.
Funding for the study was provided by the California Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission Instream Flow Assessment Program.Read more
May 6, 2013 — Meticulous attention to food safety is a good thing. As consumers, we like to hear that produce growers and distributers go above and beyond food safety mandates to ensure that healthy fresh fruits and vegetables do not carry bacteria or viruses that can make us sick.
But in California’s Salinas Valley, some more vigorous interventions are cutting into the last corners of wildlife habitat and potentially threatening water quality, without evidence of food safety benefits. These policies create tensions between wildlife preservation and food safety where none need exist, say scientists for The Nature Conservancy, writing in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The study will be published online ahead of print on Monday, May 6th, 2013.
“Farming practices for food safety that target wildlife are damaging valuable ecological systems despite low risk from these animals,” said lead author Sasha Gennet.
Check the back of your bag of spinach or prepackaged salad greens, and you’ll probably find that they came from the Salinas Valley. Salad is big business in California.
In the aftermath of a deadly 2006 Escherichia coli serotype O157:H7 outbreak traced to California spinach, growers and distributers of leafy greens came together to create the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA) on best practices for the industry, enforced by third-party auditors and inspectors. The LGMA established standards for farm work hygiene, produce processing and transport, and proximity to livestock. About 99 percent of California leafy greens now come from participating farms.
But produce farmers in the Salinas Valley report pressure from some powerful buyers to take additional precautions not mandated by government or industry standards. These buyers insist that swathes of bare ground wider than a football field is long separate the leafy greens from rivers, wetlands and other wildlife habitat.
Other precautions include treating irrigation water with chemicals toxic to fish and amphibians, and setting poisoned bait for rodents.
“The California Leafy Green Hander agreement is transparent, flexible and science based,” said Gennet. “Going above and beyond it just creates costs for farmers and doesn’t improve safety.”
It also creates costs for wildlife. Although scant evidence exists of risk of food-borne disease spread by wildlife, the risk of rejection of produce by major buyers is too much for most growers to bear, say Gennet and her co-authors. They measured changes in wetlands and riverside habitat in the Salinas Valley between 2005 and 2009, finding 13.3 percent converted to bare ground, crops or otherwise diminished. Widespread introduction of fencing blocked wildlife corridors. Low barriers even kept out the frogs.
Unlike the LGMA standards, individual corporate requirements for farm produce are generally not transparent to the public. But in surveys, farmers report pressure from auditors to implement fences and bare ground buffers around spinach, lettuce, and other leafy greens.
Such pressures have set back years of collaboration between growers and environmental advocates to make farm edges slim sanctuaries for wildlife, as well as buffers between agricultural fields and waterways. Fallow strips along streams and rivers provide corridors for migrating animals and birds.
“This is an area that is already 95 percent altered — the habitat that remains is critical,” said Gennet. “Removing 13 percent of what is already heavily-impacted habitat and cutting off wildlife corridors is a significant loss.”
The Salinas River and its tributaries are an important rest stop on the Pacific Flyway, a major migration route for neotropical songbirds, and home to raptors and shorebirds. The waterways are also corridors for deer and other big animals moving between the high country of the Diablo Range and coastal Big Sur mountains that flank the valley.
Wetlands and buffers of trees, grasses, and shrubs help to keep runoff from fields out of the waterways, slowing erosion of soil and blooms of algae downstream. An overabundance of fertilizer has created problems for domestic drinking water as well as the ecosystems of the Salinas River watershed and its outlet, Monterey Bay.
“California has a big problem with concentrated nutrients in waterways, and there is a lot of pressure on growers to reduce those inputs — so to the extent that riverside wildlife habitat could be a benefit all around, a coordinated approach to agricultural management and policy makes the most sense,” said Gennet.
“The policies that these distributors are forming are very narrow,” said Lisa Schulte Moore, an agricultural ecologist at Iowa State University who is not affiliated with the Nature Conservancy study. Nervous distributers are looking at specific risks in isolation, she said, and not asking “does the food system create a healthy human environment?”
Schulte Moore works with Iowa farmers to incorporate native grassland habitat alongside corn and soy fields. Her experiments look for native grass mixtures that don’t tend to invade the crops and are highly attractive to beneficial native insects, including the natural enemies of agricultural pests. “If we design the systems right there could be substantial benefits to the agricultural system as a whole,” she said.
The key word, Gennet says, is “co-management.” As a community, we need to approach food health, wildlife health, and water health in the Salinas Valley as parts of an integrated system. She would like to see California growers, buyers, and consumers rely on standards like the LGMA. “We think it’s been a good process, using the newest science and trying to take a constructive approach. If everybody stuck to those standards, that would be a good outcome,” said Gennet.Read more