Science Matters

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A weekly round-up of science news

Rare Birds

These can be helped by farmers keeping the field stubble. This is what is left after harvesting but before ploughing it back into the ground. By delaying ploughing until the spring, birds get the benefit of the left-over seed and the cover provided. This especially helps birds such as Skylarks and Yellow Hammers and many other non-endangered bird species.


By monitoring the behaviour of butterflies, it has been seen that they show 2 different types of flying behaviour. Fast, straight lines, which get them to possible feeding areas, and then a slower flying in loops which is how they forage.


The tarantulas in Malaysia are now a protected species and The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry are conducting research to see whether any reptiles or insects are also endangered. It is a pleasure to see the welfare of non-fluffy and cute animals being taken seriously, although I find insects, spiders and reptiles adorable, it's often difficult to get public funding to save them. The Malaysians are especially concerned with the illegal trade in tarantulas and are considering asking them to be placed on the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species.


Tests have shown that the herbicide Roundup decimates amphibian numbers. Zooplankton and snails were not effected but amphibians decreased by 70% in their biodiversity and 86% in tadpole mass. Roundup says that the amounts used were 7 times those recommended and, if the proper amounts were used, no ill-efects would be seen.


Tanzania's Serengeti National Park has seen an explosion in the numbers of lions and elephants due to the anti-poaching measures.


Humans are in danger of killing off a quarter of the known primate species. Of the 625 species left, 25 are in immediate danger of extinction. Two species of African gorilla are under threat as well as the Sumatran orang-utan and more than half of Madagascar's lemurs.

Endangered Whales

The North American Right Whale was shipped to near extinction in the 18th century and it has struggled since then to increase its numbers. The recent birth of 27 whales has taken the population to nearly 350. Although 31 were born in 2001, many more die from being entangled in fishing ropes every year - up to 84 a year it's believed. So we need more births and less careless fishing in the area.

There is good news, though, for the Western Grey Whale. I reported on the population of 100 being threatened by oil pipelines being laid on the whales feeding grounds. As the whales are bottom feeders this would have disrupted their feeding. Shell, however, has moved the pipelines to avoid the feeding grounds. Environmentalists are still concerned about oil platforms and the impact of potential spills, but I still feel this is good news. It is good for the whales and it is good to see that big companies like Shell can be persuaded to change things, even when it costs them more to do so. In this case the cost of an extra 20 kilometres of pipeline.


The Nitzanim sand dunes in Israel are the largest mass of natural sands remaining. Some of the sands still function as wandering sands but many are now fixed by a unique flora which is under risk due to new building plans. Of the plant species, 20 are indigenous to Israel and there are also populations of deer, turtles and reptiles who only exist in sandy environments. The Asian Tsunami has put many turtle populations at risk; to protect this site in Israel is even more essential now.

Dalai Lama

The Buddhist leader has called for an end to illegal trafficking of wildlife between Nepal, India, Tibet and China. Last year one shipment from Tibet contained 32 tiger skins, 579 leopard skins and 665 otter skins in one single shipment. He is calling for Buddhists to remember to follow non-violence, especially in light of a new rail link between Lhasa and Beijing, which would make trafficking easier. You can keep up with news of the campaign here.


Malaria has always been difficult to cure as the malarial parasite (Plasmodium falciparum) can hide from the immune system. Finally we now know how it does it. When the parasite infects cells it deposits a protein on them, but this parasite can change the appearance of the protein when it deposits it. So as soon as the immune system has made antibodies for protein, the protein changes appearance and the immune system has to find the new version of the protein and then start making a new antibody.


For years people at risk of heart attack have been recommended to take low doses of aspirin. Recent research confirms that this works for men, but not for women. However it does reduce the risk of strokes for women, but not for men. This illustrates a huge gender divide and shows that medications effect the genders differently. This maybe the case for more medications, so further research is essential.

US Air Pollution

The US Environmental Protection Agency has been taken to court for not enforcing the Clean Air Act and regulating emissions. This action started in 1999 with a coalition of 19 environmental groups basically asking the EPA to take its job seriously. The EPA said it did not have the powers to regulate emissions. Now many more groups have joined the original coalition, including 12 states and 3 cities. This is one court action which could have the power to change the world for the better if the US is forced to take the emissions problem seriously.

US Drilling

Now the drillers are a step closer to the arctic, other environments are under threat. There has been a moratorium on drilling off US coats for 24 years. This runs out in 2007 and the Bush administration has already pledged to give drillers access to areas of the Florida coast. It is feared that other parts of the coast are to follow as the oil and gas industries are already heavily lobbying state governments.

Mining Pollution

This type of pollution is a by-product of mining and is often acidic, but microbes have been found which can clean it up, leading to a newer, cleaner method of mining. These microbes are similar to the microbes used to clear up fuel spills on water.


The European Space Agency will try to get to Mars again, hoping to arrive in 2013. The roving robot will sniff the air for chemicals and listen for Marsquakes.

Space Observatory

The Swift Space Observatory has gone live. Testing has been completed and data is now accessible to the public. The NASA mission is examining gamma-ray bursts which are thought to come from exploding stars. We will soon be sure what the source is.


The FBI have been matching bullets from crime scenes to those bullets unused and in the suspects possession. Due to unique lead ratios within bullet batches, they felt sure that to possess a bullet with the same ratio as one used in a crime was an indication of guilt. However, when you consider that batches can be from 12,000 to 35 million, it is not surprising that the FBI has recently stopped this type of ratio matching. If the batches were 35 million in size then, as the number of bullets made in the US is 9 billion, that would mean that 237 matches were available in the US each year, which is a lot of possible people matching the bullets used for each crime.

Biometric Systems

In Malaysia carjackers targeted a victims car. When they realised the cars fingerprint-recognition system would require his fingerprint everytime, they took his finger as well. This is a terrifying new level in theft. New biometric systems may only work for a short while before new measures to beat them are seen.

A biometrics expert, Farzin Deravi from the University of Kent, has said that sensors need to be sure that they are detecting a live body part. This can be done by detecting sweat. However, by holding a dead finger in someones hand, they can warm it and also cover it with sweat, so criminals will still be able to out-wit biometrics.


In light of the news of toxic waste being washed up on Somalia's beaches after the Asian Tsunami, I have been looking for updates of this story. I hope to bring something soon on the effects this is having and any news of a clean-up operation. If anyone has any news on this, please let us know, as the media seems to think this is old news now1.

And Finally...

Annoyed by everyone around you talking into their mobile phones? Well DARPA (the US Department of Defense's research agency) may have the answer. Advanced Speech Encoding is aiming to replace microphones with sensors that will detect speech via your nerve and muscle activity rather than you speaking the words. So in the future you could be surrounded by people talking silently into their mobiles instead. Quieter, but weirder and probably with a lot of mistakes as the sensor detects the wrong word?!


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