Global scientific snippets

The lynx may be reintroduced into the Kielder Forest on the Scottish Border.

ALL these bits of news are directly and indirectly related to our natural world. I’m a true believer that we all need to be updated on recent discoveries, various proposals, plans and scientific research, all in the context of making our world a better place for humans and animals to share. While flipping from subject to subject, it is hoped that my readers may find something or somewhere interesting to themselves.

Dawn of mankind

Recent discoveries in the fields of genetics and anthropology suggest that that the origins of modern human beings are much older than previous researchers thought them to be. Until a recent discovery it was thought that Homo sapiens emerged from Homo erectus about 200,000 years ago and 100,000 years later migrated to the Middle East.

Last year saw a dramatic new dating with the fossils of a modern man entombed in rock strata in Morocco. Palaeontologists have dated this find at about 300,000 years old. An archaeological ‘dig’ in Israel, at Misliya, on Mount Carmel has recovered a piece of bone that very closely resembles modern humans and has been dated at 175,000 years old. In the caves near this place there was found evidence of camp fires and pretty sophisticated stone knapped tools.

The Israeli professor of Anatomy and Archaeology at Tel Aviv University goes as far as saying that Homo sapiens could have appeared 500,000 years ago. Quite a thought but the evidence is there that man moved out of Africa and dispersed across the Eurasian continent at a fairly fast rate.

Friesian cows are seen in a field.

Super tropical cows

We have all heard of the American computer entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates, but have we heard of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – a charitable body, established to redistribute most of the billionaire’s wealth to assist the alleviation of suffering and poverty in the developing world? This foundation has recently donated £29 million to a research project aimed at cows producing more milk for longer periods of time.

The genes of high yielding breeds of European cows, such as the Guernsey, Jersey, and Friesian, will be mixed with those of tropical breeds such as the Kenyan Masai with the aim of producing a cow that can withstand tropical diseases, especially tick-borne ones, and will have a faster conversion rate of fodder as well as tolerating extremely high temperatures.

The European breeds produce 30 litres of milk per day whereas a Masai tribesman’s cow yields only two litres. Education is also needed to break the Masai culture that numbers of cattle display wealth and prestige. On sparse grazing on the savanna grasslands, suffering two dry seasons a year, quality of cattle must, in future, overcome quantity.

In Bill Gates’s own words, “You can sell the output and that’s money for school-fees. You can keep the output, and that’s diet diversification!” As few African cows are vaccinated owing to cost factors, part of the funding, assisted by a contribution from the UK’s Department for International Development (DID) will be used to establish a consortium, Galmed, which will focus solely on vaccine research. I wonder what these hybrid cattle will be named. Eastern Malaysia, has its own Friesian dairy cattle herd on the highlands near Ranau, Sabah.

New burns treatment

Last year, many of us saw those raging fires on our TV screens. At that time, I wondered besides reported human deaths, how much wildlife was destroyed. In Brazil, plastic surgeons recently discovered that the skin of a freshwater fish, the tilapia, can be sewn onto a human burn-victim’s skin with success. These skins are rich in collagen, helping the process of healing.

In the Californian fires, two black bears and a mountain lion were rescued with their paw pads badly burnt. Vets estimated that these severe burns would take six months or more to heal in captivity. A further dilemma faced the vets for one bear was pregnant and they feared that she would suffer stress in captivity and thus reject her cub. Institutionalisation does cause animals and, indeed, humans stress.

An alternative was to inject the bears with antibiotics and bandage their pads before releasing them into the wild, but such an option would deny them regular check-ups. After deliberation with other veterinary centres, the bear-vets decided to sew tilapia skins to the bears’ pads and then bandage them. Upon awaking from the operation, one bear immediately stood up on its hind legs. However, the mountain lion ate its bandages. Within a short time, these animals will be back in their forest habitats.

‘Rewilding’

Conservationists invented this word to encourage the reintroduction of once native animals back into the UK. A reindeer herd was introduced into the Scottish Highlands in the 1950s and wild boars broke out of an enclosure in the Forest of Dean on the Welsh border to breed heartily in the 1990s. The latter are a nightmare in village gardens for their foraging habits and are a road danger to motorists at night.

Beavers have been introduced into Devon’s rivers and crept across to the adjoining county of Somerset’s rivers. Conservationists rightly hold the opinion that what mankind has destroyed, it should repair.

The Lynx Trust UK has recently applied to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for a licence to reintroduce six breeding European lynx into the Kielder Forest on the Scottish Border. Such wildcats have been reintroduced into the Harz Mountains in Germany and into the French/Spanish Pyrenees mountains, but not without considerable objections from hill farmers with their sheep herds to protect.

To be fair, there are other wildcats breeding today, because of a government law prohibiting the keeping of wildcat species without a costly licence. This law saw the release of many wild cats into the wild including pumas.

As a lynx is top of the food chain, with no predators other than man who exterminated them many moons ago with gunshots for the sale of their pelts, I can appreciate farmers’ concerns for the protection of their livestock. We shall see, but I, for one, do not want to see a lynx the size of a Labrador dog, snatching and ravishing my dog.

Infected coral reefs

In a detailed study of 159 coral reefs in Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Thailand, marine biologists at Cornell University, USA found that plastic debris is destroying coral by spreading diseases such as the skeletal eroding band and the white syndrome. They have found that many forms of bacteria, colonising pieces of plastic which have been trapped on coral formations, have deprived growing corals from sunlight, water circulation around the polyps and caused scratches to the polyps, thus allowing infections to enter their structure.

This study estimates that over 11 billion plastic objects are embedded in reefs right across the Asia-Pacific and forecasts that by 2025 – just seven years’ time –  this will increase to just under 16 billion items.

A Californian black bear holds a fish in its mouth. – Photo by Jan Dawson (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

‘Britain in bloom’

For many a year, a team of judges, in June and July, have trawled cities, towns and villages in Great Britain to award certificates and accolades to the most flower-full sights. Urban councils resort to hanging baskets on lamp posts and floral flower beds in their parks and entrance roundabouts to the town or city – all paid for out of council charges to residents and beyond. In villages such as mine, local parish councils ask residents to spruce up their gardens and their doorways – more hanging baskets at, yet, more personal expense.

Perhaps a new competition should be devised to ‘crown’ the villages displaying the most unseasonal flowers growing in mid-winter in hedges and roadsides. In January this year, the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland have found hundreds of species of plants still growing and blooming after another mild winter (See ‘Topsy-turvy weather confuses plants’ in thesundaypost – Jan 28, 2018).

At the end of January, this mild winter has allowed 90 per cent of all flowering species to grow, when, according to text books only 10 per cent should still exist in mid-winter. I hasten to add that snow is forecast this week, so I’ll start bringing the logs in for my wood-burning stove.

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