Science Matters

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A weekly round-up of science news

Animal Emotions

Research has found that cows feel emotions and have a life where they experience a lot of the same things we do. They can hold a grudge for years, enjoy a mental challenge and sheep can recognize lost friends after 3 years apart.

To justify our treatment of animals we have ascribed a lack of self and intelligence to them, but this research shows we cannot fool ourselves that this is the truth anymore. It's not just cows and sheep either, these traits have been seen in all livestock, including chickens.

Perhaps new thinking is in order to look at our animal welfare laws, but then, even after research showing that chimps are as intelligent as human children, nothing changed.
The Times story

Tsunami Nature Update

Sadly the Asian Tsunami affected everybody and everything; turtle conservation for the area has been very badly hit. The Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust field station was devastated and 6 of the 7 staff are still missing. Many nesting stations were also hit by the wave, as well as private hatcheries, one of whom lost 10,000 turtle eggs. The Thai navy also lost its conservation with the loss of 2000 turtles.
BBC World report

The Tsunami has led to divers discovering evidence of an ancient city, thought to be 1200 years old. Locals reported seeing a temple as the sea pulled back and then sand was washed away from other areas, showing stone structures which were man-made.
BBC South East Asia report


The strength of bacteria has been seen again this week, with the report that 60-70% of the worlds bacteria live beneath the surface of the earth. They live 400 metres beneath the sea bed and some are 16 million years old. The suns rays don't penetrate that far, so what are they living on? Perhaps hydrogen, but it is not known for certain as yet.
More on undersea bacteria

In another example of bacteria's toughness, they have also been found in the Alaskan permafrost, at -40 degrees centigrade. They seem to be alive and releasing gases even though they are frozen and without water. Previously it was thought that bacteria needed water to metabolise energy for themselves. The problem is that the permafrost is starting to melt, and these bacteria are presently semi-dormant. If temperatures rise and they start to metabolise faster then it could have a huge effect on our greenhouse gas problem. Presently the permafrost is viewed as a sink for the gases, but things are starting to change and then it will become a producer of the gases.

The fact that bacteria are living at such cold temperatures also indicates that this is where we may find life on other planets.
BBC science news

Iraq Marshlands

Iraq's marshes were beginning to recover from being drained by Saddam. Dykes were destroyed and 20% of the drained areas have been re-flooded. The wetlands are an important habitat for many wetland species including the smooth-coated otter. One of the marshes straddles the Iran/Iraq border and thus acts as a refuge for species which will then recolonise the other marshes, once they are flooded again. However, Iran has begun building a dyke which threatens its water supply and therefore all the marshes existence.

Endangered Whales

The western sub-species of the Grey Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is severely threatened. Only 100 are known to exist off the east coast of Russia. Their feeding grounds are now further threatened by plans to run an oil pipeline through the middle of them. The whales are bottom feeders so any disruption to the sea bottom, involving drilling and the new shipping routes to maintain the facility, will hit them very hard.

Another story of endangered whales. This time it's the Minke Whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) under threat. Japan is claiming that the Minke population is abnormally high and therefore they are competing with other whales for food and thus threatening their recovery. The Japanese are offering to resume commercial Minke whaling to help with this situation. The present estimates for Minkes are at 760,000, however recent research at Stanford University in California shows that Minke numbers were once between 500,000 and 1 million. There is no evidence that the numbers of Minkes are causing problems for any other whales population.

Space news

It only took a gamma ray blast of a quarter of a second for all the world to notice. The blast came from a neutron star in our own galaxy. It was detected on the 27th December 2004, even though the satellites was pointing the other way. It was the afterglow of gamma rays which allowed scientists to detect its origin. For 8 minutes it could be detected with a recurring signal every 7.5 seconds, which was the rate of spin of the neutron star it came from.

Other News

A new romantic gesture will be available soon; growing rings made from your own bone. A couple is sought to grow and swop rings of themselves. The only catch is that they have to have a genuine operation coming up to provide the bone samples, else they won't get ethical approval!

A charity for rescuing wild-born primates and releasing them into the wild has announced its success. 37 chimps were released into the Republic of the Congo and 5 have subsequently bred although 5 have also died and the project has caused a lot of controversy. Some people think the habitat should be secured first and that male chimps should not be released into an area where there are already males. One heart-warming effect has been the locals appreciating the chimps more. A member of the project said
'One man came to see them and said: "I'll never eat that again. It looks too much like me".'

Efforts have been taking place to find a shark repellent to save people from shark attack. However it could also be used to keep sharks away from fishing boats. Every year boat nets fishing for swordfish or tuna kill millions of sharks. In the US, where the research is taking place, sharks have only killed 22 people since 1959, so it is not the threat that people think it is.

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