Friday, February 28, 2014

UK's space engineers want new cadets

Apprentices are being invited to take one giant leap for mankind and sign up for elite space engineering training.

The first degree-level apprenticeship in the field is being launched by Skills Minister Matthew Hancock at the National Space Centre in Leicester.

The programme aims to encourage more scientists and engineers into the UK's space industry, expected to be worth £30bn in the next two decades.

The Royal Astronomical Society says this demand is not currently being met.

Loughborough College, the National Space Academy and the University of Leicester will provide the education for the programme and the space industry will employ the trainees.

Mr Hancock said: 'Ahead of National Apprenticeship Week, I would like to encourage young people to think about a career in this stimulating and fast-moving sector. I'm sure there will be opportunities for apprentices working in this sector to be involved in some innovative and exciting projects.'

He also said he wanted it to be the 'new norm for young people' to choose between university and an apprenticeship.

Dr Martin Killeen, head of technology at Loughborough College, said: 'Significant issues have been identified regarding graduates emerging from university without the skills mix required for space engineering. We have worked extensively with the space industry to develop our higher apprenticeship programme to ensure it combines both the work-based skills and the knowledge which meet employers' needs.'

Anu Ojha, director of the National Space Academy education programmes, added: 'The space sector is growing rapidly and needs highly skilled technicians in a number of engineering disciplines if it to sustain that growth.

'The higher apprenticeship in space engineering is a brilliant initiative. The National Space Academy looks forward to working with Loughborough College and helping provide space companies with highly employable, rounded people with an academically rigorous vocational qualification.'

The space sector has a huge impact on everyday life, and is showing significant growth despite the economic downturn.

It is being driven by increasing demand from consumers for satellite TV and radio, mobile phone services, GPS navigation and from the government for emergency services and security, for air traffic management or to monitor climate change.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says this demand will lead to continued and sustained growth between now and 2030.

The announcement comes ahead of a speech by Education Michael Gove on Monday, in which he is expected to encourage more businesses to take part in apprenticeship training programmes.

Storms unearth wartime bomb threat

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of wartime bombs unearthed because of the winter storms and flooding.

Bomb disposal teams in the South West have dealt with double the number of unexploded ordnance than in the same period last year.

Since mid December, the Royal Navy's Southern Dive Unit has recovered or disposed of 244 items of ordnance.

During the same period last year, they dealt with just 108 items.

Almost 70 years after the end of WWII, one legacy of that conflict continues to turn up on beaches and harbours around Britain.

Unexploded shells, bombs and mines continue to be discovered every year, and the Royal Navy's Southern Dive Unit is tasked with making these devices safe.

Its area of responsibility stretches for some 2,250km (1,400 miles). It begins from the highwater mark in Hull and proceeds seaward to the territorial limit, and then runs clockwise around the British Isles - including the Isle of Wight, Channel Islands, and Isles of Scilly - to finish in Liverpool.

Thanks to the unremitting storms and wild weather that have hit the UK since mid-December, these divers have been busier than ever.

The human mine hunters

The members of the Southern Dive Unit are dubbed the 'human mine hunters'. They are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

They train how to handle unexploded devices in an old torpedo test lake at their base on Horsea Island in Hampshire.

Wearing heavy diving rigs that create no bubbles, the divers are able to get alongside the ordnance.

As they approach a test device in the water, the diver uses a 'go slow' approach. This means he only fins once every 3m. The team is trained to work in zero visibility. They can identify the type of ordnance and country of origin by measuring it with their hands and forearms.

In the test that I observed, the diver wrapped the projectile in plastic explosives. This is called a 'counter mine'. He retreats to a safe distance of at least 600m, depending on the size of the munition. In a live situation, it would then be detonated

The unit has been responding to emergency calls almost every day.

The divers have had to deal with a British anti-submarine mine discovered by surfers in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, and a rare WWI German mine that was found on a beach near Newquay in Cornwall.

'The explosive is normally of very high quality,' said Chris O'Flaherty, the commanding officer of the Fleet Diving Squadron.

'The Germans were very good engineers. A number of them aren't viable but an awful lot of them are, and we prove that regularly by the manner in which we dispose of them.

'The explosive deteriorates and the main charge is usually relatively stable. It's the detonator that's the dangerous part.'

I ask him why so few people have been injured by unexploded ordnance. He replies: 'Good fortune.'

The unit was called out to Braunton in Devon last weekend to defuse a live shell found by local couple Phil Naylor and his wife Sue. The storms have scoured away the sand dunes where they normally walk.

'Sue pointed at something, and it was definitely suspicious,' said Phil. 'It looked like the tip of a bomb or a missile. I went a bit closer to make certain that's what it was. I used to be an RAF armourer and recognised it to be an artillery shell.'

Phil's grandfather, born in Braunton, would have trained on this very beach for the D-Day Landings.

'This shell would have been one of thousands fired here to simulate what the poor guys would find when they hit the beaches [in France],' said Phil.

'It's quite weird to think that he might have seen that shell flying over his head.'

It's not just walkers that need to be careful.

Coastal engineer Andy Bradbury walks over the ribbon of shingle that makes up Hurst Spit in Hampshire. The crunching sound of his feet is muted by the grumble of diggers and other heavy machinery at work on the beach. New Forest District Council has a lot of rebuilding and reinforcing to do.

'It's been a very rough winter,' he says. 'During the storms there were about 100,000 tonnes of material redistributed around the beach. When this happens, it unearths all kinds of bits and pieces that you really don't want to see.'

At a key point at the opening to the Solent, Hurst Castle was built by Henry VIII to guard the approaches to Southampton. It has been used as a military base on and off ever since.

Andy points towards the castle. 'We know they used to practice firing from there. We have found items spanning several hundred years. Explosives used back in the late 1800s are often more dangerous than more recent devices.'

He explains that when 'lyddite', an early type of high explosive, dries out it can become very unstable.

Just the night before, the unit dealt with a shell uncovered on the beach. Seven more had been found over the weekend.

He looks down into the crater left by the ordnance. 'All of the machine drivers are briefed on what they do,' he says. 'They are told not to touch anything. It may be dangerous.'

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Badger culls were 'ineffective'

An independent scientific assessment of last year's pilot badger culls in parts of Gloucestershire and Somerset has concluded that they were not effective.

Analysis commissioned by the government found the number of badgers killed fell well short of the target deemed necessary, the BBC understands.

And more than 5% of badgers culled took longer than five minutes to die, failing the test for humaneness.

The pilot culls were intended to limit the spread of TB in cattle.

They were carried out to demonstrate the ability to combat bovine TB though a controlled reduction in the population of local badgers.

'Start Quote

We have always stated that if the pilots were to fail on humaneness then BVA could not support the wider roll out of the method of controlled shooting'

End Quote Robin Hargreaves, President, British Veterinary Association

Contracted marksmen, paid for by farming groups, were employed to shoot the animals at night.

The Independent Expert Panel was appointed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to help ministers evaluate the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of the Gloucestershire and Somerset pilots.

Prof Rosie Woodroffe, a scientist at the Zoological Society of London, said that the panel's 'findings show unequivocally that the culls were not effective and that they failed to meet the humaneness criteria.

'I hope this will lead to the Secretary of State (Owen Patterson) to focus on other ways of eradicating TB in cattle,' she told BBC News.

The President of the British Veterinary Association (BVA) told BBC News that it was the BVA that had taken a lead in calling for the controlled shooting to be tested and critically evaluated before it was rolled out.

'We are unable to comment in detail on the findings of the IEP until we have seen the report,' he told BBC News. 'But if these figures are true then they would certainly raise concerns about both the humaneness and efficacy of controlled shooting.

'We have always stated that if the pilots were to fail on humaneness then BVA could not support the wider roll out of the method of controlled shooting.'

'Start Quote

The findings show unequivocally that the culls were not effective and that they failed to meet the humaneness criteria'

End Quote Prof Rosie Woodroffe Zoological Society of London

The pilots were authorised by Defra and licensed by Natural England.

The target for marksmen was to kill at least 70% of badgers in the cull areas within a six-week period.

Extensive research carried out by Prof Woodroffe in earlier trials in the 1990s had shown that a failure to kill this percentage of badgers in a narrow window of time could actually worsen matters as disturbed and diseased animals took the TB into new areas.

When both trials duly failed to kill sufficient badgers within the specified period, they were extended on the advice of the Chief Vet, Nigel Gibbens. The panel in its report, though, concerns itself only with the initial six weeks.

First assessments had suggested that, in those six weeks, 58% of badgers had been killed in the Somerset cull and 30% in the Gloucestershire pilot.

'Start Quote

We knew there'd be lessons to be learned from the first year of the pilot culls which is why we're looking forward to receiving the panel's recommendations for improving the way they are carried out.'

End Quote Defra spokesman

However, BBC News understands the independent panel's analysis, which used more precise methodology, found that less than half of badgers were killed in both areas over the six-week period.

Defra had also agreed a criterion with the expert group for how the trials could be deemed humane.

The standard set was for no more than 5% of the shot badgers to take more than five minutes to die.

But the expert group found the time limit was exceeded by between 6.4% and 18% of shot animals, depending on the assumptions made.

The expert group, however, held back from describing the trial as 'inhumane' on the grounds that there may be some circumstances in which greater suffering of badgers might be justified. An example would be if the spread of TB was causing more problems than otherwise anticipated.

Prof Woodroffe was among 32 scientists who wrote to Mr Patterson in 2012 expressing fears that the culls risked increasing TB in cattle rather than reducing it.

'Our predictions have been borne out,' she told the BBC. 'It has cost a fortune and probably contributed nothing in terms of disease control, which is really unfortunate.'

The assessment also found a wide variation in the effectiveness and humaneness of the contractors brought in by farming groups to kill the badgers.

The expert panel said that if culling was to be extended to other parts of the country, the marksmen recruited would need to be closely monitored.

On the issue of public safety, the panel found no problems.

Andy Robertson, director general of the National Farmers' Union, said he could not comment on the contents of the IEP report until it was officially published. However, he stressed the threat TB in cattle posed to his members.

'More than 30,000 cattle were killed in the first 11 months of 2013 because of the disease. It is vital that we do everything we can to tackle the disease. Badgers play a key role in spreading bovine TB and so it's essential that any TB eradication policy must include a targeted cull of badgers in those areas where TB is rife.'

Defra said that it it not know when the report would be submitted by the IEP or when it would be published, stating only that 'no deadline had been set'. A spokesperson added: 'We knew there'd be lessons to be learned from the first year of the pilot culls which is why we're looking forward to receiving the panel's recommendations for improving the way they are carried out, because we need to do all we can to tackle this devastating disease.'

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Northern Lights illuminate the UK

The Aurora Borealis - better known as the Northern Lights - has been giving rare and spectacular displays over parts of the UK, including as far south as Essex.

The lights have been clearly visible off the east coast, in Norfolk, as well as the west coast, in South Wales.

Mysterious mummy ritually sacrificed

A previously unidentified female mummy was killed in a ritual sacrifice in South America, new research has found.

A team of scientists analysed the skull to find evidence of a blunt trauma to the head, suggesting she died very quickly from the blow.

DNA analysis also revealed she suffered from a parasitic infection called Chagas disease, they write in Plos One.

Her symptoms indicated she would not have lived for much longer even if she had escaped her killers.

Chagas is still endemic in South America - especially those living in poverty - and can be deadly if not treated early.

Andreas Nerlich, co-author of the study from Munich University, Germany, said that the girl was likely to have come from a poor family.

'The parasite lives in mud-brick walls typical of those from lower social classes, not in stone houses or better equipped, cleaner surroundings,' he told BBC News.

For more than 100 years, it was unclear where the mummy was from, but now detailed CT scans, injury reconstructions and DNA evidence have finally given clues to her origin.

The mummified woman is over 500 years old, and would have died in her early 20s.

She is thought to have arrived in Germany after a Bavarian princess brought her back from an expedition to South America in 1898.

The rope which tied her plaits was made out of material that originated in South America and her skull formation was also typical of the Inca people.

She was killed and buried in a hot and dry sandy region that resulted in natural mummification. For many years, however, it was simply assumed she was a German bog body.

'We assumed she died in a ritual killing but we have no clear evidence from written sources,' explained Prof Nerlich.

'Present-day techniques offer such a wealth of information that we can reconstruct various aspects of past lives, diseases and death.'

The analysis will now help scientists understand the origin of the Chagas pathogen and its molecular construction.

Evidence of ritual sacrifice in South American mummies is well documented.

In the Incan empire, young girls were often given up to the sun god in religious rituals. The parents and local communities of sacrificed victims were consequently highly respected.

Emma Brown from the department of archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford, UK, who was not involved with the study, said that due to the lack of contextual data it was hard to definitively say that the mummy was a human sacrifice.

'This individual is older than the usual profile of ritually killed females, who are typically around the age of 13 or 14,' Dr Brown told the BBC.

'It is important to recognise the historical context of this mummy. The radiocarbon dates cover the period of the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

'Historical records describe repressive and extreme forms of violence and recent bio-archaeological investigations of conquest-era cemeteries have revealed that many types of trauma, including massive blunt force cranial trauma [shown here] are quite common,' she added.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rare songbird faces fire ant threat

Rain, rats and fire ants threaten the survival of the rare Tahiti monarch, despite a record best year for its conservation.

Just 10 breeding pairs remain in the wild population, which numbers fewer than 50 mature birds in total.

Efforts to save the birds won an award from conservation partnership BirdLife International.

But experts warn that poor weather and predators could dramatically affect the current breeding season.

The Tahiti monarch ( Pomarea nigra) is a species of monarch flycatcher that lives in four forested valleys on the island of Tahiti in French Polynesia.

Adults are black with pale blue beaks and juveniles are a red-brown colour.

Populations of the songbirds have declined throughout the 20th Century, but a local conservation programme that has been running for the past 16 years has succeeded in boosting breeding figures.

In 2013, conservationists at Manu, the Polynesian Ornithological Society, saw a record four-fold increase in chicks compared with the previous year.

Their efforts to manage the forest home of the critically endangered monarchs won the BirdLife International People's Choice Award, voted for by the public.

The breeding season for the birds lasts from September to June and last year some were able to produce two broods.

But so far this season, the birds have faced torrential tropical rains and conservationists are concerned by an encroaching colony of little fire ants.

'Eight chicks have survived the rain so far. But I am worried for the fledglings; they are so inquisitive they are not afraid of the introduced predators,' explained Caroline Blanvillain, Head of Land Birds at Manu.

Ms Blanvillain monitors the steep valleys where the Tahiti monarchs live and describes them as 'friendly little birds'.

Martin Fowlie from Birdlife International identifies the bird's behaviour as 'ecologically naive'.

'They are typical of island endemic species that evolved with very few predators, if any,' he said. 'They don't see humans as potential predators as you might if you went into my garden in the UK.'

The biggest predator of the birds is the black rat, a non-native species that arrived on the island with European trade ships.

'Rats are not supposed to be on Tahiti, they arrived on boats and have killed thousands of birds,' said Ms Blanvillain.

'And now there are fire ants on the edge of the valley. If the ants reach the nest they will eat the chicks and adults in minutes.''

Little fire ants, also known as electric ants because of their stinging bite, were first discovered in Tahiti in 2004 and have since colonised large areas of the island.

The predatory ants are native to South and Central America and are considered a pest species elsewhere in the world where they disturb the native ecology.

'Alien invasive species are the second biggest threat to birds,' said Mr Fowlie.

'Across the Pacific, we know a lot of birds have gone extinct because of introduced species,' he said citing destructive animals such as pigs, through plants that provide unsuitable nest sites, down to mosquitoes that can spread alien diseases.

Manu have installed hundreds of rat trapping stations throughout the forest and recruited local school children to help plant native trees in an effort to restore the birds' natural habitat.

'This is a bird that evolved for this particular island and this particular habitat. It's always difficult to say what would happen if the species went extinct, we just don't know,' said Mr Fowlie.

'But it's one part of a complex fabric of ecosystem and as you start to lose bits the whole thing can unravel. It's important to keep everything in place.'

Join BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

Kepler bags huge haul of planets

The science team sifting data from Nasa's Kepler space telescope says it has identified 715 new planets beyond our Solar System.

This is a huge new haul.

In the nearly two decades since the first so-called exoplanet was first discovered, researchers had claimed the detection of just over 1,000 new worlds.

Kepler's latest bounty orbit only 305 stars, meaning many are in multi-planet systems.

The vast majority, 95%, are smaller than our Neptune, which is four times the size of the Earth.

Four of the new planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth, and they orbit their host suns in the 'habitable zone' - the region around a star where water can keep a liquid state.

Whether that is the case on these planets cannot be known for sure - Kepler's target are hundreds of light-years in the distance. This is too far away for very detailed investigation.

Kepler was launched in 2009 on a $600m (£395m) mission to assess the likely population of Earth-sized planets in our Milky Way Galaxy.

Faulty pointing mechanisms eventually blunted its abilities last year, but not before it had identified thousands of possible, or candidate, worlds in a small patch of sky in the Constellation Lyra.

It did this by detecting the periodic variations in the brightness of stars caused by orbiting exoplanets passing in front of them.

One analysis of Kepler data published in November suggested that perhaps one in five stars like our Sun hosts an Earth-sized world located in the habitable zone. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Pine smell 'limits' climate change

New research suggests a strong link between the powerful smell of pine trees and climate change.

Scientists say they've found a mechanism by which these scented vapours turn into aerosols above boreal forests.

These particles promote cooling by reflecting sunlight back into space and helping clouds to form.

The research, published in the journal Nature, fills in a major gap in our understanding, researchers say.

One of the biggest holes in scientific knowledge about climate change relates to the scale of the impact of atmospheric aerosols on temperatures.

Perfumed air

These particles form clouds that block sunlight as well as reflecting rays back into space.

They can be formed in a number of ways, including volcanic activity and by humans, through the burning of coal and oil.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), they 'continue to contribute the largest uncertainty to estimates and interpretations of the Earth's changing energy budget.'

'Start Quote

If you go into a pine forest and notice that pine forest smell, that could be the smell that actually limits climate change'

End Quote Dr Mikael Ehn University of Helsinki

One of the most significant but least understood sources of aerosols are the sweet-smelling vapours found in pine forests in North America, northern Europe and Russia.

These aerosols have confounded climate models as scientists haven't been able to accurately predict how many of the particles form.

Now an international team of researchers say they have solved the chemical mystery by which the rich odours become reflective, cooling particles.

They've long understood that the smell of pine, made up of volatile organic compounds, reacts with oxygen in the forest canopy to form these aerosols.

The scientists now found that, in fact, there is an extra step in the process, what they term a 'missing link'.

They've discovered ultra-low volatility organic vapours in the air that irreversibly condense onto any surface or particle that they meet.

'These vapours are so crazy in structure from what we had known before,' said one of the authors, Dr Joel Thornton, from the University of Washington

'It turns out that this level of craziness is what gives them the special properties to stick to those smallest particles and help grow them up in size to become aerosols.'

The scientists say that having a clear understanding of the way in which forest smells become aerosols will improve the accuracy with which they can predict the ability of these particles to limit rising temperatures.

'It's certainly crucial for explaining the response of the boreal forest to a changing climate,' said Dr Thornton.

'It's thought that the vapours being emitted from the vegetation in the pine forests are contributing roughly half of the aerosols over the forest,' he said.

'We've found the reasons how the vapours get converted into particles, so we are basically explaining around 50% of the aerosol particles.'

Cooling effect

The authors believe that this is playing a significant role in reducing the impact of rising temperatures. They argue that this effect is likely to strengthen in the future.

'In a warmer world, photosynthesis will become faster with rising CO2, which will lead to more vegetation and more emissions of these vapours,' said lead author, Dr Mikael Ehn, now based at the University of Helsinki.

'This should produce more cloud droplets and this should then have a cooling impact, it should be a damping effect.'

The researchers sampled the air in the forests of Finland and carried out experiments at an air chamber at the Julich Research Centre in Germany.

They believe that the discovery was down to a combination of technique and technology.

'One very important thing is that before now, people haven't had the instrumentation to detect these ultra-low volatile compounds,' said Dr Ehn.

'When you pull them through a metal tube into your instrument they come into contact with the tube walls and they are lost, you won't detect them.'

'We have an instrument that is as wall-less as can be, we have a very high flow of air and a very short inlet line so that it is almost sampled right from atmosphere.'

The scientists stress that the new understanding is not a panacea for climate change as forests will stop emitting vapours if they become too stressed from heat or lack of water.

However, Dr Ehn believes the vapours could have a significant impact in the medium term.

'If you go into a pine forest and notice that pine forest smell, that could be the smell that actually limits climate change from reaching such levels that it could become really a problem in the world.'

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Roman 'gladiator school' recreated

Archaeologists have made a virtual reconstruction of a Roman gladiator school discovered on the banks of the River Danube in Austria.

The so-called ludus was on a scale to rival the famous ludus magnus, the gladiatorial school behind the Colosseum in Rome.

The remains at Carnuntum were mapped using sophisticated aerial surveys and ground-penetrating radar.

The archaeologists published their findings in the journal Antiquity.

Carnuntum was the capital of Upper Pannonia in Roman times and a major trading centre for amber.

Excavations in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries revealed many elements of the ancient settlement, including a legionary fortress and the civilian town.

It contains the ruins of amphitheatres, Roman baths and the remains of a monumental arch known as Heidentor.

The ludus was detected only in 2011, in an area to the south of the town, where little is visible on the surface.

According to this newly published survey, the school was complete with individual cells for the gladiators and a circular training arena.

Although about 100 ludi are thought to have existed in the Roman Empire, almost all have been destroyed or built over.

Key crops head to 'doomsday vault'

More than 20,000 crops from more than 100 nations have arrived at a 'Doomsday vault' in the Arctic Circle.

The latest delivery coincides with the sixth anniversary of the frozen depository in Svalbard, which now houses more than 800,000 samples.

The shipment includes the first offering from Japan, where collections were threatened by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

The facility is designed to withstand all natural and human disasters.

Deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago - located halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole - the vault, which cost £5m (US $7m) and took 12 months to build, offers permanent protection for the world's food crops, say its operators.

The purpose of the depository, owned by the Norwegian government and maintained by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center, is to store duplicates of all seed samples from crop collections around the world.

The GCDT says permafrost and thick rock ensure that, even in the case of a power cut, the seed samples will remain frozen.

'The vault can therefore be considered the ultimate insurance policy for the world's food supply,' it adds.

'It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today.'

The Japanese barley samples were provided by the Barley Germplasm Center at Okayama University.

Prof Kazuhiro Sato from the university's Institute of Plant Science and Resources said experts became concerned about the long-term safety of the national collection following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused widespread devastation.

'If something bad happened to our genebank, these resources could be damaged permanently,' he said.

'Barley is very important not just for Japan but for the food security of the world - we have varieties that are productive even in dry conditions and in saline soil.'

Speaking ahead of a meeting at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, GCDT executive director Marie Haga said: 'Our annual gatherings at the seed vault are a sort of Winter Olympics of crop diversity, only we are not competing against each other but against the wide array of threats - natural and man-made - ranged against the diversity of food crops, diversity that is so crucial to the future of human civilisation.'

She added: 'We are particularly excited to be welcoming our first seed deposits from Japan, which has been very active globally in the preservation of a wide array of crop species.'

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ancient forest losses 'data lacking'

The scale of ancient woodland being lost to development in Britain is being made worse because of a lack of accurate data.

The Woodland Trust says that systems are so poor, the government cannot say how much ancient forest has disappeared in the last 10 years.

However, a new report from the Forestry Commission says that the UK's tree cover has increased significantly.

They say the amount of forest has more than doubled in the last 100 years.

Ancient woodland is defined as forests that have been in existence since 1600.

'Start Quote

If we ask the government how much ancient woodland has been damaged or destroyed by development in the last 10 years, they cannot tell us'

End Quote Austin Brady The Woodland Trust

These older trees only cover some 2% of the UK but are highly valued because of the scale and diversity of wildlife that they harbour.

While their numbers were first recorded in 1981 in the Ancient Woodland Inventory, campaigners say it is an inadequate tool as it does not count stands of trees smaller than two hectares.

The Woodland Trust says there is no adequate recording of ancient forests lost as a result of development on either a local or a national basis.

'If we ask the government how much ancient woodland has been damaged or destroyed by development in the last 10 years, they cannot tell us. The figures around the losses just don't seem to be accounted for,' the Trust's Austin Brady told BBC News.

'The reality is that planning decisions on ancient woodland are giving consent for the destruction and removal because there is considered to be a local need for that development.'

Wrong type of forest

The trust says it is aware of at least 400 ancient woods currently under threat in the UK. It points to the example of Oaken Wood in Kent, where 32 hectares of ancient woodland were destroyed to facilitate the development of a quarry.

The government says that the current planning system provides adequate protection for these ancient trees. A national planning policy framework was introduced in 2012 that removed a default 'yes' to development in the guidelines.

The Forestry Commission has published new details about the scale of tree cover across the UK. Its report says that Britain now has two-and-a-half times more forest and woodland than it did 100 years ago.

Some 13% of the UK, amounting to almost four million football pitches, is now covered in trees. The information and maps have been compiled as part of the National Forest Inventory.

'Managing forests to provide these benefits is a complex business which needs precise and up-to-date information,' said Wilma Harper from the Forestry Commission.

'The National Forest Inventory will be the most accurate inventory of our forest resources we have ever produced, and provides a great baseline to work from as we move forward.'

But the Woodland Trust says that much of the increase is in the 'wrong type of forest', including many pine trees that were planted in the 20th Century.

'Not all woodland is created equal; some of it is non-native conifers, some of it is our most precious ancient woodland that has been there for centuries,' said Austin Brady. 'You can't trade one for the other.'

A government spokesman told BBC News: 'Strong protections are in place for the Green Belt, ancient woodland, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and many other countryside and heritage treasures, such as World Heritage Sites.

'The national planning framework also puts power back into the hands of local people, ensuring they are in charge of deciding the areas they wish to see developed and those to be protected.'

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Stunning whale graveyard explained

It is one of the most astonishing fossil discoveries of recent years - a graveyard of whales found beside the Pan-American Highway in Chile.

And now scientists think they can explain how so many of the animals came to be preserved in one location more than five million years ago.

It was the result of not one but four separate mass strandings, they report in a Royal Society journal.

The evidence strongly suggests the whales all ingested toxic algae.

The dead and dying mammals were then washed into an estuary and on to flat sands where they became buried over time.

It was well known that this area in Chile's Atacama Desert preserved whale fossils.

Their bones could be seen sticking out of rock faces, and the spot acquired the name Cerro Ballena ('whale hill') as a result.

'Start Quote

We managed to sample all the superstars of the fossil marine-mammal world in South America in the Late Miocene'

End Quote Nicholas Pyenson Smithsonian Institution

But it was only when a cutting was made to widen the Pan-American Highway that US and Chilean researchers got an opportunity to fully study the fossil beds.

They were given just two weeks to complete their field work before the heavy plant returned to complete construction of the new road.

The team set about recording as much detail as possible, including making 3D digital models of the skeletal remains in situ and then removing bones for further study in the lab.

Identified in the beds were over 40 individual rorquals - the type of large cetacean that includes the modern blue, fin and minke whales.

Among them were other important marine predators and grazers.

'We found extinct creatures such as walrus whales - dolphins that evolved a walrus-like face. And then there were these bizarre aquatic sloths,' recalls Nicholas Pyenson, a palaeontologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

'To me, it's amazing that in 240m of road-cut, we managed to sample all the superstars of the fossil marine-mammal world in South America in the Late Miocene. Just an incredibly dense accumulation of species,' he told BBC News.

The team immediately noticed that the skeletons were nearly all complete, and that their death poses had clear commonalities. Many had come to rest facing in the same direction and upside down, for example.

This all pointed to the creatures succumbing to the same, sudden catastrophe; only, the different fossils levels indicated it was not one event but four separate episodes spread over a period of several thousand years.

The best explanation is that these animals were all poisoned by the toxins that can be generated in some algal blooms.

Such blooms are one of the prevalent causes for repeated mass strandings seen in today's marine animals.

If large quantities of contaminated prey are consumed, death can be rapid.

'All the creatures we found - whether whales, seals or billfishes - fed high up in marine food webs and that would have made them very susceptible to harmful algal blooms,' said Dr Pyenson.

The researchers believe the then configuration of the coastline at Cerro Ballena in the late Miocene Epoch worked to funnel carcases into a restricted area where they were lifted on to sand flats just above high tide, perhaps by storm waves.

This would have put the bodies beyond marine scavengers. And, being a desert region, there would have been very few land creatures about to steal bones either.

A lot of the fossils at Cerro Ballena are perfect but for a few nicks inflicted by foraging crabs.

The researchers are not in a position to say for sure that harmful algal blooms were responsible for the mass strandings. There were no distinct algal cell fragments in the sediments; such a presence could have amounted to a 'smoking gun'. What the team did find, however, were multiple grains encrusted in iron oxides that could hint at past algal activity.

'There are tiny spheres about 20 microns across - that's exactly the right size to be dinoflagellate cysts,' said Dr Pyenson.

'They're found in algal-like mats all around the site. We can't say whether those were the killer algae, but they do not falsify the argument for harmful algal blooms being the cause in the way that the sedimentology falsifies tsunami being a potential cause.'

Cerro Ballena is now regarded as one of the densest fossil sites in the world - certainly for whales and other extinct marine mammals. The scientists calculate there could be hundreds of specimens in the area still waiting to be unearthed and investigated.

The University of Chile in Santiago is currently working to establish a research station to carry this into effect.

To coincide with the publication of a scholarly paper in Proceedings B of the Royal Society, the Smithsonian has put much of its digital data, including 3D scans and maps, online at and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Scientists track Fukushima plume

The likely scale of the radioactive plume of water from Fukushima due to hit the west coast of North America should be known in the next two months.

Only minute traces of pollution from the beleaguered Japanese power plant have so far been recorded in Canadian continental waters.

This will increase as contaminants disperse eastwards on Pacific currents.

But scientists stress that even the peak measurements will be well within the limits set by safety authorities.

Since the 2011 Fukushima accident, researchers from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography have been sampling waters along a line running almost 2,000km due west of Vancouver, British Columbia.

And by June of last year, they were detecting quantities of radioactive caesium-137 and 134 along the sampling line's entire length.

Although the radioactivity concentrations remain extremely low - less than one becquerel per cubic metre of water - they have allowed the scientists to start to validate the two models that are being used to forecast the probable future progression of the plume.

One of these models anticipates a maximum concentration by mid-2015 of up to 27 becquerels per cubic metre of water; the other no more than about two becquerels per cubic metre of water.

Bedford's Dr John Smith told BBC News that further measurements being taken in the ocean right now should give researchers a fair idea of which model is correct.

And he emphasised again: 'These levels are still well below maximum permissible concentrations in drinking water in Canada for caesium-137 of 10,000 becquerels per cubic metre of water - so, it's clearly not an environmental or human-health radiological threat.'

Dr Smith was speaking at the Ocean Sciences Meeting 2014 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

He was joined on a panel discussing Fukushima by Dr Ken Buesseler from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The Whoi scientist described the citizen science effort now under way to record radioactivity in beach waters of the western United States.

Members of the public are being recruited to regularly gather water samples from California to Washington State and in Alaska and Hawaii.

No caesium-134 has yet been detected. Caesium-137, which was also released by the damaged power plant, is in the environment already as a result of the A-bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s. However, Dr Buesseler expects a specific Fukushima signal from both radionuclides to be evident very shortly in US waters.

The sampling project, which is organised at the website, is having to be funded through private donation because no federal agency has picked up the monitoring responsibility.

'What we have to go by right now are models, and as John Smith showed these predict numbers as high as 30 of these becquerels per cubic metre of water,' he told reporters.

'It's interesting: if this was of greater health concern, we'd be very worried about these factors of ten differences in the models. To my mind, this is not really acceptable. We need better studies and resources to do a better job, because there are many reactors on coasts and rivers and if we can't predict within a factor of 10 what caesium or some other isotope is downstream - I think that's a pretty poor job' and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Monday, February 24, 2014

'Biggest meteorite impact' hits Moon

Scientists say they have observed a record-breaking impact on the Moon.

Spanish astronomers spotted a meteorite with a mass of about half a tonne crashing into the lunar surface last September.

They say the collision would have generated a flash of light so bright that it would have been visible from Earth.

The event is reported in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

'This is the largest, brightest impact we have ever observed on the Moon,' said Prof Jose Madiedo, of the University of Huelva in south-western Spain.

'Start Quote

The impact we detected lasted over eight seconds'

End Quote Prof Jose Madiedo University of Huelva

The explosive strike was spotted by the Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System (Midas) of telescopes in southern Spain on 11 September at 20:07 GMT.

'Usually lunar impacts have a very short duration - just a fraction of a second. But the impact we detected lasted over eight seconds. It was almost as bright as the Pole Star, which makes it the brightest impact event that we have recorded from Earth,' said Prof Madiedo.

The researchers say a lump of rock weighing about 400kg (900lb) and travelling at 61,000km/h (38,000mph) slammed into the surface of the Moon.

They believe the dense mass, which had a width of between 0.6 and 1.4m (2-4.6ft), hit with energy equivalent to about 15 tonnes of TNT.

This is about three times more explosive than another lunar impact spotted by Nasa in March 2013. That space rock weighed about 40kg (88lb) and was about 0.3 to 0.4m wide (1-1.3ft).

Scarred Moon

The team believes the impact has left behind a 40m-wide crater (130ft).

'That's the estimation we have made according to current impact models. We expect that soon Nasa could observe the crater and confirm our prediction,' said Prof Madiedo.

It would be one of many scars on the lunar surface.

Unlike our planet, the Moon has no atmosphere to shield it from meteorite collisions, and its surface shows a record of every strike.

The researchers believe that impacts from rocks of about 1m in size could be far more common than was previously thought - both on the Moon and on Earth.

However, most rocks of this size would burn up as the entered the Earth's atmosphere, appearing as a fireball in the sky.

For meteorites to make more of an impact here, they need to be larger.

For example, the asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia on 15 February 2013 was estimated to be about 19m-wide.

It hit the atmosphere with energy estimated to be equivalent to 500,000 tonnes of TNT, sending a shockwave twice around the globe. It caused widespread damage and injured more than 1,000 people.

Follow Rebecca on Twitter

Rare 'polio-like' disease reports

US doctors are warning of an emerging polio-like disease in California where up to 20 people have been infected.

A meeting of the American Academy of Neurology heard that some patients had developed paralysis in all four limbs, which had not improved with treatment.

The US is polio-free, but related viruses can also attack the nervous system leading to paralysis.

Doctors say they do not expect an epidemic of the polio-like virus and that the infection remains rare.

Polio is a dangerous and feared childhood infection. The virus rapidly invades the nervous system and causes paralysis in one in 200 cases. It can be fatal if it stops the lungs from working.

Global vaccination programmes mean polio is endemic in just three countries - Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

There have been 20 suspected cases of the new infection, mostly in children, in the past 18 months,

A detailed analysis of five cases showed enterovirus-68 - which is related to poliovirus - could be to blame.

In those cases all the children had been vaccinated against polio.

Symptoms have ranged from restricted movement in one limb to severe weakness in both legs and arms.

Dr Emanuelle Waubant, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told the BBC: 'There has been no obvious increase in the pace of new cases so we don't think we're about to experience an epidemic, that's the good news.

'But it's bad news for individuals unlucky enough to develop symptoms which tend to be moderate to severe and don't appear to improve too much despite reasonably aggressive treatment.'

'Emerging infection'

The cases have been spread over a 100-mile diameter (160km) so the research team do not think the virus represents a single cluster or outbreak.

However, many more people could have been infected without developing serious symptoms - as was the case with polio.

Dr Waubant suspects similar cases in Asia could explain why California is affected, but not the rest of the US.

Fellow researcher Dr Keith Van Haren, from Stanford University, said the cases 'highlight the possibility of an emerging infectious polio-like syndrome' in California.

He added: 'We would like to stress that this syndrome appears to be very, very rare. Any time a parent sees symptoms of paralysis in a child, the child should be seen by a doctor right away.'

Commenting on the findings, Jonathan Ball, a professor of virology at the University of Nottingham, told the BBC: 'Since the near-eradication of poliovirus, other enteroviruses have been associated with paralysis, but these viruses usually cause a very mild cold-like illness and severe complications are very rare.

'Two children showed evidence of being infected by a strain of virus called enterovirus-68, which has become strongly associated with outbreaks of respiratory illness.

'Whether or not this strain of enterovirus has caused these or other cases of paralysis is possible but remains conjecture, further studies will be needed to determine this.'

Crystal is 'oldest scrap of crust'

A tiny 4.4-billion-year-old crystal has been confirmed as the oldest fragment of Earth's crust.

The zircon was found in sandstone in the Jack Hills region of Western Australia.

Scientists dated the crystal by studying its uranium and lead atoms. The former decays into the latter very slowly over time and can be used like a clock.

The finding has been reported in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Its implication is that Earth had formed a solid crust much sooner after its formation 4.6 billion years ago than was previously thought, and very quickly following the great collision with a Mars-sized body that is thought to have produced the Moon just a few tens of millions of years after that. Before this time, Earth would have been a seething ball of molten magma.

But knowledge that its surface hardened so early raises the tantalising prospect that our world became ready to host life very early in its history.

'This confirms our view of how the Earth cooled and became habitable,' said lead author Prof John Valley, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US.

'We have no evidence that life existed then. We have no evidence that it didn't. But there is no reason why life could not have existed on Earth 4.3 billion years ago,' he told the Reuters news agency.

Plate tectonics and weathering have ensured that very little of the Earth's early surface remains to be studied.

Some rock formations that are upwards of 3.5 billion years old persist in select places such as Canada, but the vast majority of Earth's surface rock is modern, less than a few hundred million years old.

The zircons found at Jack Hills are tough pieces of old rock that have been incorporated into the newer, reworked material.

But, barely visible to the naked eye, they still retain insights on the conditions under which they originally solidified.

Previous research had indicated the Jack Hills zircon in Prof Valley's publication to be very ancient, but scientists had concerns that some of its lead atoms might have been lost or even migrated inside the crystal over time.

This would have given the impression the zircon was older than it really is.

However, using two sensitive analytical techniques, Prof Valley and colleagues were able to show the zircon's internal uranium-lead clock was showing a true age.

In doing so, their study suggests strongly a continental crust was present on Earth about 100 million years after the planet formed. And by implication, it tells us that if temperatures were low enough, it could have perhaps even sustained liquid water at its surface.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Tourism hope for threatened lemurs

Madagascar's lemurs - the world's most threatened primate - could be saved from extinction by eco-tourism, conservationists say.

The big-eyed fluffy creatures are unique to the island but their numbers have declined dramatically in recent years.

Now researchers have unveiled a survival plan that combines tourism with increased conservation efforts.

Writing in Science, the team says the project will cost £4.6m ($7.6m),

There are over 100 species of lemur known to science, the majority of which are at dangerously low levels, largely due to habitat loss from illegal logging.

Madagascar is the only known home of these species as its unique location, split off from the African mainland, has allowed the primates to evolve in near isolation.

Political turmoil has enveloped Madagascar following a coup in 2009. As a result of the instability, illegal logging has increased on the island, a source of valuable rosewood and ebony trees.

Due to a lack of environmental policing, the habitat of the lemurs has been under constant threat and the primates are now one of the most endangered groups of vertebrates on the planet.

Over 90% of these species are at risk and are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN)'s red list of threatened species.

This includes over 20 species regarded as critically endangered, which is the highest level of threat.

The team propose that cashing in on Madagascar's unique lemur 'brand' would help the animals and poor rural communities.

Dr Christoph Schwitzer from the Bristol Zoological Society has been working in Madagascar for more than a decade. He said that tourists had still been flocking to the island, despite the political instability.

'There's always a trade-off between the destruction caused by too many tourists and the money they bring to the country that can be used for wildlife conservation,' he told the BBC's Science in Action programme.

'This balance for Madagascar is still very positive for conservation and it's a long way until it may tip over.'

Conservationists point to eco-tourism in Rwanda and Uganda where visitors are willing to pay a premium to observe endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.

There are already successful examples of this in Madagascar such as the Maromizaha forest which is home to at least 13 lemur species.

'Start Quote

We have the people, we have the place, we have the ideas, we are just just lacking funding'

End Quote Dr Christoph Schwitzer Bristol Zoological Society

Local villagers have been taught English and French and several now work as guides. A multi-purpose interpretive centre has also been built there.

While just eight visitors came to the forest in 2008, by 2011 this had increased to 208.

'Obviously these people spend money in local communities and contribute to the upkeep, maintenance and management of protected areas,' added Dr Schwitzer.

Other aspects of a new three-year emergency action plan include increasing the number of long-term research field stations and building up conservation programmes.

These could help reduce another threat to lemurs, the illegal hunting of the primates for bushmeat.

Dr Schwitzer and colleagues have been in charge of a field station for the past decade and they found that this station deterred illegal activity on protected areas nearby.

This would also help stop illegal logging for tropical hardwood which destroys the lemurs' natural habitats - a key issue threatening their survival.

Despite the challenges, Dr Schwitzer said he was hopeful they could 'scrape together the funding'. He pointed out that the money was small in terms of international aid and could bring a significant return in preserving a unique habitat.

'We haven't lost a single species of lemur - indeed not a single species of primate, during the last two centuries since our records began.

'We have the people, we have the place, we have the ideas, we are just just lacking funding,' he added.

Listen to Science in Action on the BBC World Service at 20:30 GMT or download the podcast here

Tree loss mapped in 'near real time'

A new global monitoring system has been launched that promises 'near real time' information on deforestation around the world.

Global Forest Watch (GFW) is backed by Google and over 40 business and campaigning groups.

It uses information from hundreds of millions of satellite images as well as data from people on the ground.

Businesses have welcomed the new database as it could help them prove that their products are sustainable.

Despite greater awareness around of the world of the impacts of deforestation, the scale of forest loss since 2000 has been significant - Data from Google and the University of Maryland says the world lost 230 million hectares of trees between 2000 and 2012.

'Start Quote

From now on, the bad guys cannot hide '

End Quote Dr Andrew Steer World Resources Institute

Forest campaigners say this is the equivalent of 50 football fields of trees being cut down, every minute of every day over the past 12 years.

One of the big problems in dealing with tree loss has been a lack of accurate information. Over the same time period as all these trees were lost, around 800,000 sq km of new forest was planted.

To tackle the dearth of reliable and up to date information, the US based World Resources Institute (WRI) has lead the development of GFW, using half a billion high resolution images from Nasa's Landsat programme.

The system utilises the cloud computing power of the Google Earth Engine, the Google Maps Engine and new algorithms developed by the University of Maryland.

While high resolution images of global tree loss and gain are updated annually, data on tropical forests at a resolution of 500 metres is updated monthly.

Global forest loss

  • The Earth lost 2.3m sq km of tree cover in 2000-12, because of logging, fire, disease or storms

  • But the planet also gained 800,000 sq km of new forest, meaning a net loss of 1.5m sq km

  • Brazil showed the best improvement of any country, cutting annual forest loss in half between 2003-04 and 2010-11

'Global Forest Watch is a near-real time monitoring platform that will fundamentally change the way people and businesses manage forests,' said Dr Andrew Steer from WRI.

'From now on, the bad guys cannot hide and the good guys will be recognized for their stewardship.'

The GFW technology will allow campaigners and local communities to upload information, pictures and videos from vulnerable forest areas around the world.

The technology is said to be easy to use and will incorporate information showing protected areas, logging, mining and palm oil concessions and daily forest fire alerts from Nasa.

The tool will be aimed at politicians and decision makers but also at indigenous groups.

In Brazil, the Paiter Surui people are already using smart phones and GPS software to monitor illegal logging.

For governments in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, the technology could be useful in helping enforce the laws on logging that are often flouted.

When tree losses are detected, alerts can be sent out to a network of partners and citizens around the world who can take action.

GFW is also being backed by large businesses including Nestle and Unilever.

Suppliers of commodities such as palm oil, soy and timber products can use the online database to show that their products come from legal and licensed sources.

'Deforestation poses a material risk to businesses that rely on forest-linked crops. Exposure to that risk has the potential to undermine the future of businesses,' said Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever.

'As we strive to increase the visibility of where the ingredients for our products come from, the launch of Global Forest Watch - a fantastic, innovative tool - will provide the information we urgently need to make the right decisions.'

The technology has been funded by grants from the UK, Norwegian and US governments.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dogs in scanners reveal vocal skills

Devoted dog owners often claim that their pets understand them. A new study suggests they could be right.

By placing dogs in an MRI scanner, researchers from Hungary found that the canine brain reacts to voices in the same way that the human brain does.

Emotionally charged sounds, such as crying or laughter, also prompted similar responses, perhaps explaining why dogs are attuned to human emotions.

The work is published in the journal Current Biology.

Lead author Attila Andics, from the Hungarian Academy of Science's Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, said: 'We think dogs and humans have a very similar mechanism to process emotional information.'

Eleven pet dogs took part in the study; training them took some time.

'We used positive reinforcement strategies - lots of praise,' said Dr Andics.

'There were 12 sessions of preparatory training, then seven sessions in the scanner room, then these dogs were able to lie motionless for as long as eight minutes. Once they were trained, they were so happy, I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it.'

For comparison, the team looked at the brains of 22 human volunteers in the same MRI scanners.

The scientists played the people and pooches 200 different sounds, ranging from environmental noises, such as car sounds and whistles, to human sounds (but not words) and dog vocalisations.

'Start Quote

It is the first time we have seen this in a non-primate'

End Quote Attila Andics Eotvos Lorand University

The researchers found that a similar region - the temporal pole, which is the most anterior part of the temporal lobe - was activated when both the animals and people heard human voices.

'We do know there are voice areas in humans, areas that respond more strongly to human sounds that any other types of sounds,' Dr Andics explained.

'The location (of the activity) in the dog brain is very similar to where we found it in the human brain. The fact that we found these areas exist at all in the dog brain at all is a surprise - it is the first time we have seen this in a non-primate.'

Emotional sounds, such as crying and laughter also had a similar pattern of activity, with an area near the primary auditory cortex lighting up in dogs and humans.

Likewise, emotionally charged dog vocalisations - such as whimpering or angry barking - also caused a similar reaction in all volunteers,

Dr Andics said: 'We know very well that dogs are very good at tuning into the feelings of their owners, and we know a good dog owner can detect emotional changes in his dog - but we now begin to understand why this can be.'

However, while the dogs responded to the human voice, their reactions were far stronger when it came to canine sounds.

'Start Quote

It would be interesting to see the animal's response to words rather than just sounds'

They also seemed less able to distinguish between environmental sounds and vocal noises compared with humans.

About half of the whole auditory cortex lit up in dogs when listening to these noises, compared with 3% of the same area in humans.

Commenting on the research, Prof Sophie Scott, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, said: 'Finding something like this in a primate brain isn't too surprising - but it is quite something to demonstrate it in dogs.

'Dogs are a very interesting animal to look at - we have selected for a lot of traits in dogs that have made them very amenable to humans. Some studies have show they understand a lot of words and they understand intentionality - pointing.'

But she added: 'It would be interesting to see the animal's response to words rather than just sounds. When we cry and laugh, they are much more like animal calls and this might be causing this response.

'A step further would be if they had gone in and shown sensitivity to words in the language their owners speech.'

Dr Andics said this would be the focus of his next set of experiments.

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Fear suppressing neurons found

Scientists have found neurons that prevent mice from forming fearful memories in an area of the brain called the hippocampus.

These inhibitory neurons ensure that a neutral memory of a context or location is not contaminated by an unpleasant event occurring at the same time.

The team says their work could one day help them better understand the neural basis of conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder.

The study is published in Science.

Attila Losonczy, from Columbia University in New York and colleagues, were interested in how the hippocampus stores memories of a particular context and then separates this memory from a fearful event.

When looking at individual neurons in the brains of mice, they found inhibitory cells - called interneurons - were crucial for fear memory formation to travel to the correct part of the brain.

'These cells are activated by the unpleasant salient event and they act somewhat like a filter. They may function to block out unwanted information related to this strong, salient event,' Dr Losonczy told the BBC's Science in Action programme.

Stopping fear

'This way, the hippocampus can process and store contextual information reliably and independently without the potentially detrimental interference from this [unpleasant] salient event,' he added.

When mice were conditioned to express fear in a particular context, they later associated the same environment with the unpleasant event.

But when scientists deactivated these inhibitor neurons, the mice no longer showed any fear. That is, the team was able to stop the mice from forming fearful memories.

This highlighted the importance of the role of these interneurons on first encoding the fearful memory before it is passed onto another part of the brain.

'The next time this aversive stimulus is not present, we should still be able to remember the context correctly,' Dr Losonczy explained.

'This contextual representation is then played out from the hippocampus to other brain areas like the amgydala where the actual association between the context and the fearful event takes place.'

Understanding how context and fear are learned and the specific neurons involved, could help scientists better help people with conditions like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders.

'If we understand how the circuits in our brain influence memory under normal conditions, we can then try to understand what actually went wrong during psychiatric disorders,' added Dr Losonczy.

Parallel processing

Xu Liu from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, who was not involved with the research, said that the study was a cleverly designed way to 'peek into the mouse's brain and zoom into the cells of interest while the animal was learning'.

'This study solved the puzzle of how the hippocampus can successfully encode the context, while ignoring the impact of the ongoing negative stimulus.'

'[It] shows one mechanism for parallel-processing in the brain, where temporally overlapping inputs are disentangled and sorted into separate pipelines for further processing,' Dr Liu told BBC News.

Listen to Science in Action on the BBC World Service at 20:30 GMT or download the podcast here

Winter wettest ever, says Met Office

The UK has had wettest winter on record - 486.8mm of rain - beating previous 1995 record, Met Office says.

Figures for 1 December to 19 February show that the country had the wettest winter in records dating back to 1910.

It beats the previous record set in 1995 of 485.1mm (19.1 inches) of rain.

More to follow.

Bristol Channel earthquake recorded

An earthquake has been recorded under the Bristol Channel, the British Geological Survey (BGS) has confirmed.

The 4.1 magnitude quake happened at about 13:00 GMT and was felt in Somerset, Swansea and Devon.

The epicentre was north of Illfracombe, Devon, and south of the Gower in Wales and was at a depth of 3.1 miles (5km).

Reports on Twitter talked of one building in Bridgwater 'swaying' during the quake while others said it was felt as far away as Taunton.

EU takes UK to court over dirty air

The European Commission has launched legal proceedings against the UK for failing to deal with air pollution.

The EU says that levels of nitrogen dioxide, mainly from diesel engines, are 'excessive' in many British cities.

The Commission says that this gas can lead to major respiratory illnesses and premature deaths.

Britain was supposed to meet EU limits by 2010, but the government admits that London won't achieve this standard until 2025.

The UK's problem with dirty air stems from the EU's air pollution directive, which came into force in 2008.

It set limits on the the levels of air-borne contaminants, including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, gases that are produced from the burning of fossil fuels.

'Start Quote

The UK has some of the worst NO2 levels in Europe, they're a national disgrace'

End Quote Alan Andrews ClientEarth

They are an important element of ground-level ozone, which can damage human health as well as plants and animals.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which in the main is produced by diesel cars and trucks, can inflame the lining of the lungs and lead to respiratory disease.

It is of particular concern to people living near roadways in big cities and those suffering with asthma.

Controlling the amount of this gas in air has proved particularly difficult for the UK.

For the purposes of air pollution, the UK is divided into 43 zones.

The invisible killer

  • Campaigners say that research shows air pollution causes around 29,000 early deaths in the UK every year

  • Across the EU, more than 400,000 people died prematurely in 2010 from air pollution, according to the Commission. As well as deaths, 100 million work days are lost every year through illnesses like asthma.

  • The direct costs to society, including damage to crops and buildings, amounts to 23bn euros every year

In 2010, when the EU restrictions were meant to come into effect, the levels of nitrogen dioxide were exceeding the limits in 40 of these 43 areas.

Member states were able get an extra five years' grace if they put in place plans to cut levels of NO2. The UK admitted that the limits relating to 16 zones including London, could not be met by the revised deadline of 2015.

For many of these areas, including Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Merseyside and Glasgow, the government believes the levels can be reached by 2020.

In London though, they admit it is likely to be 2025.

For the EU, this is far too long. They've decided to launch the first case against a member state for breaching the limits on NO2.

Several other EU members, including France, Sweden, Denmark and Greece have also exceeded the levels, but the EU denied that the UK was being picked on.

'Our priority is to protect public health and the environment,' said European Commission spokesman Joe Hennon.

'We think that's what the people of the UK would want as well.'

What might have tipped the EU's hand was a ruling by the UK Supreme Court last year.

In a case brought by environmental campaigners ClientEarth, the judges agreed that the government was in breach of an obligation to reduce air pollution.

In the judgement, Justice Lord Carnworth wrote that 'the way is now open to immediate enforcement at national or European level.'

The campaign group believes that, in addition to the Supreme Court verdict, the scale and the duration of the UK's breaches made the EU action inevitable.

'The UK has some of the worst NO2 levels in Europe, they're a national disgrace,' said Alan Andrews, a lawyer with ClientEarth.

'London has a particular problem, in some streets it is three or four times above the legal limits.'

The legal process could ultimately end in the European Court of Justice where the UK would face huge fines if found in breach of the directive.

The main pollutants

  • Particulate matter - fine dust emitted by road vehicles, shipping and power generation. Experts are particularly concerned about particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres

  • Sulphur dioxide - emitted by power generation, industry and shipping. Damages health and acidifies land and water

  • Nitrogen oxides - released by road vehicles, shipping and power generation. Harms health and contributes to acid rain

  • Ammonia - emitted by livestock and through the use of fertilisers. Damages health and causes acidification

  • Volatile organic compounds - emitted from solvents, vehicles and power generation. They are a key component of ground-level ozone

If the government is to cut levels it will need to take drastic actions, say campaigners. Around half of new car sales are diesel powered, they say. There will need to be strict low emissions zones in cities.

'Germany implemented low emissions zones very early,' said Alan Andrews.

'They have 60, we just have the one in London and ours doesn't include cars - it's a low standard.'

Another option is cutting speed limits.

'The evidence from Germany suggests they can reduce NO2 by 10-15% on heavily polluted roads, but the scale here in the UK is so big they need to be looking at everything possible to tackle the problem,' said Mr Andrews.

The UK has two months to respond to the European Commission. The BBC asked the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for comment on the action, but it declined to provide one.

Follow Matt on Twitter.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Europe picks Plato planet-hunter

Plato planet-hunter and star probe

  • Design calls for a suite of 34 telescopes to be mounted on a single satellite platform

  • Mission should confirm and characterise hundreds of rocky worlds in habitable zones

  • Its technology would have the sensitivity also to detect the planets' moons and rings

  • Intricate measurements of the host stars (asteroseismology) would yield key information

  • To launch from Sinnamary in French Guiana on a Soyuz rocket in 2023/2024

  • Plato would be stationed 1.5 million km from Earth on its 'nightside'

A telescope to find rocky worlds around other stars has been selected for launch by the European Space Agency's Science Policy Committee.

Known as Plato, the mission should launch on a Soyuz rocket in 2024.

The observatory concept was chosen following several years of assessment in competition with other ideas.

It is expected to cost Esa just over 600 million euros, although hardware contributions from member states will take this closer to a billion (£800m).

Astronomers have so far found over 1,000 planets beyond our Solar System, but none as yet has been shown to be truly Earth-like in terms of its size and distance from a Sun similar to our own.

The PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars mission will look to change that.

It will be tuned specifically to seek out rocky worlds orbiting in the 'habitable zone' - the region around a star where water can keep a liquid state.

'Plato will be our first attempt to find nearby habitable planets around Sun-like stars that we can actually examine in sufficient detail to look for life,' said Dr Don Pollacco, the University of Warwick researcher who leads the Plato Science Consortium.

'Nearly all the small transiting planets discovered so far have been beyond our technology to characterise. Plato will be a game-changer, allowing many Earth-like planets to be detected and confirmed and their atmospheres examined for signs of life.

'Plato planets will allow us to develop and test theories of planet evolution, understanding the type of small planets in the Universe and the real frequency of Earth-like planets,' he told BBC News.

Plato is not really one telescope but rather a suite of 34 telescopes mounted on a single satellite.

The intention is for this array to sweep about half the sky, to investigate some of its brightest and nearest stars.

The observatory will monitor these stars for the tell-tale tiny dips in light that occur when planets move across their faces.

An important part of this investigation will be to perform an intricate study of the host stars themselves, using their pulsations to probe their structure and properties.

Such observations, referred to as asteroseismology, would provide key, complementary information for the proper characterisation of the rocky worlds.

The mission will be led by Dr Heike Rauer at DLR, the German space agency.


  • Planets beyond our Solar System are often given the term 'exoplanet'

  • More than 1,000 have been detected to date using several techniques

  • But many of these worlds are large planets believed to resemble Jupiter or Neptune

  • Many gas giants have been found to be orbiting very close to their stars

  • This has prompted new ideas to describe the formation and evolution of solar systems

The key British hardware contribution will be the camera system that sits behind the telescope suite.

This will incorporate 136 charge-coupled devices (CCDs) produced by the e2v company in Chelmsford, Essex. Just under a metre square, the CCD system will be the biggest ever flown in space.

Plato should prove to be a good fit with other next-generation astronomical facilities.

These will include the ground-based European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which will have a primary mirror some 39m in diameter. To be built in Chile, this giant should be operating by 2024, and will have the power to investigate the atmospheres of the Plato's newly discovered planets.

Plato is the third medium-class launch opportunity to be offered under Esa's so-called Cosmic Vision programme, which defines the organisation's space science priorities.

The first two to be selected were Solar Orbiter, a space telescope to study the Sun, to launch in 2017; and Euclid, a telescope to investigate 'dark energy', to fly in 2020.

Esa will now refine the final design of Plato and find an industrial contractor to lead the construction of the satellite.

The agency's national member states will need also to agree any contributions they wish to make over and above their mandatory commitments.

Once all this is done, the mission will be formally 'adopted' - legal-speak for 'final go-ahead'. This should happen within the next two years.

The unanimous selection of Plato by the SPC on Wednesday will be immensely pleasing to the team behind the Eddington space telescope - an Esa mission to find distant planets and do asteroseismology that was cancelled due to budget woes in the early 2000s. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Bumblebees hit by honeybee diseases

The beleaguered bumblebee faces a new threat, scientists say.

Researchers have found that two diseases harboured by honeybees are spilling over into wild bumblebees.

Insects infected with deformed wing virus and a fungal parasite called Nosema ceranae were found across England, Scotland and Wales.

Writing in the journal Nature, the team says that beekeepers should keep their honeybees as free from disease as possible to stop the spread.

'These pathogens are capable of infecting adult bumblebees and they seem to have quite significant impacts,' said Professor Mark Brown from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Around the world, bumblebees are doing badly.

In the last few decades, many species have suffered steep declines, and some, such Cullem's bumblebee ( Bombus cullumanus) in the UK, have gone extinct.

Scientists believe that the destruction of their habitats - particularly wildflower meadows - has driven much of this loss, but the latest research suggests that disease too could play a role.

The researchers looked at two pathogens commonly found in honeybees and found they can also infect adult bumblebees.

In honeybees, deformed wing virus (DWV) causes significant problems. Its severity seems to be exacerbated by the presence of another widespread parasite, the varroa mite, causing entire colonies to collapse.

Bumblebees do not carry the varroa mite, but the scientists found that those infected with DWV had a dramatically shortened lifespan. The fungal parasite has also been shown to have an impact on bumblebee longevity.

'Start Quote

The most likely explanation is that the honeybees are acting as the source of the virus for the bumblebees'

End Quote Prof Mark Brown Royal Holloway, University of London

Prof Brown said: 'A significantly shorter lifespan in the field would impact on their ability to go out and collect food and look after other bees.'

The researchers found the diseases were already prevalent among wild populations.

Looking at 26 sites across Great Britain and the Isle of Man, the researchers found that about 11% of bumblebees were infected with DWV and 7% were infected with the fungus. By comparison, about 35% of honeybees carried DWV and 9% had the fungus.

'A geographical patterning provides us with the information that transmission is occurring among these animals - they are sharing parasite strains,' said Prof Brown.

'We cannot say it definitively, but because of the epidemiology, the most likely explanation is that the honeybees are acting as the source of the virus for the bumblebees.'

The team suspects that the same pattern will also be found around the world - and says that controlling disease in honeybee hives is vital to stopping the spread.

'We have to, at national and international levels, support management policies that enable our beekeepers to keep their bees as free of diseases as possible,' Prof Brown said.

'The benefits are not just to the honeybees, they are to the wild bees as well.'

The researchers also want to investigate whether neonicotinoid pesticides are playing a role in problem.

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal suggested that the chemicals are affecting the immune systems of honeybees, making them more susceptible to pathogens.

'If bumblebees were exposed to neonicotinoids and had the same effect, you would expect the bumblebee viral load to be going through the roof. This is something we are hoping to test later,' said Prof Brown.

In the European Union, neonicotinoids have been banned for two years because of fears that they may be harmful to bees. But the British government strongly opposed the plan, rejecting the science behind the moratorium. Both Syngenta and Bayer, which manufacture neonicotinoids, are now taking legal action against the European Commission in an effort to overturn the ban.

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Screens replace windows on fast jet

A company building a supersonic jet says it plans to replace cabin windows with thin display screens embedded in the wall.

Cameras recording outside the aircraft will display pictures on the screens.

Spike Aerospace, which is designing the plane, says drag will be reduced by removing windows, which 'cause significant challenges in designing and constructing an aircraft fuselage'.

The S-512 supersonic jet is not expected to launch until 2018.

In a blog on its website the company said windows required additional structural support and added weight to the aircraft but these problems could be eliminated by using micro-cameras and flat displays.

Cruising speed

It plans to surround the aircraft with cameras and display the views on the cabin screens. Passengers will be able to dim the screens or change the images.

Dr Darren Ansell, an expert in space and aerospace engineering at the University of Central Lancashire, said that the experience for passengers of being in a plane without windows could be an unusual one.

'There will be no natural light - it will all be simulated - so it will be a bit like being in a tube. And how would it work from a safety perspective? If there was an accident how would you know which way the plane was facing, and where you had landed, when the cameras have failed?' he said.

Spike Aerospace is based in Boston in the US and is made up of a team of engineers who have experience of aircraft design and building.

In December, it announced plans for the S-512, which it claimed would be the world's first supersonic business jet.

Expected to cost $80m (£48m), the jet will carry 18 passengers and the company claims it will be able to fly from New York to London in three to four hours rather than the six to seven it currently takes.

It will have a cruising speed of Mach 1.6 and a maximum speed of Mach 1.8. In comparison, a Boeing 777-300 has a cruising speed of Mach 0.8.

Other firms are racing to develop similar supersonic jets, including Aerion and Gulfstream.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Farmland butterflies bounce back

Farmland butterflies have flourished thanks to last year's hot summer, charity Butterfly Conservation say.

The annual Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey (WCBS) recorded almost double the number of insects compared with the previous year.

Long, sunny periods provided perfect breeding conditions for some of the UK's brightest species, it suggested.

But experts warned the mild winter could reverse the insects' fortunes if they emerged too early for spring.

The survey has been run by Butterfly Conservation, the British Trust for Ornithology and The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology since 2009.

Last year, volunteers monitored 850 randomly selected 1km squares across UK farmland.

With more than 70% of the UK's land area devoted to agriculture, the survey provides a broader picture of butterfly health across the country, rather than in hotspots such as nature reserves or gardens.

Dr Zoe Randle from Butterfly Conservation, who co-ordinated the survey, said the results were some of the best ever recorded for common and widespread species.

The small tortoiseshell, which had been a cause for concern in previous years, had a dramatic turnaround.

Mirroring their resurgence in garden surveys, small tortoiseshells were seen in 80% of the wider countryside sites, compared with just 40% in 2012.

'Start Quote

We're at the mercy of the weather to be honest'

End Quote Dr Zoe Randle Butterfly Conservation

Both the large and small 'cabbage' whites, common blue, small copper and brimstone all thrived too but the most abundant was the meadow brown, with 8,000 more butterflies counted this year than last year.

'[Farmland] provides nectar sources for butterflies,' explained Dr Randle.

'It also provides caterpillar food sites, so the immature stages have got something to eat.

'There are hedgerows and trees that provide places to lay their eggs and to stay out of the elements.'

Although warm weather provides perfect conditions for these cold-blooded insects to feed and breed in the summer, mild winters can cause a problem.

'We don't really know with all this extreme rainfall, what effect that's going to have on our butterflies. It's unprecedented so there's no scientific evidence to show one way or another,' said Dr Randle.

'One thing we do know is that warm, wet winters are no good for some species of moth.'

'These mild winters increase pathogen activity, so there will be lots more fungi about,' she said, explaining that butterflies which overwinter as eggs or caterpillars are vulnerable to diseases caused by fungi.

According to Dr Randle, warm days in winter can also cause butterflies to emerge early when fewer food plants are available.

This can result in the insects running out of energy before the breeding season, which leads to population declines.

'We're at the mercy of the weather to be honest,' said Dr Randle.

'In the longer term, species are generally declining, and one good summer doesn't ensure it's going to be good in the future.'

She added that this year's survey is vital in determining the impact of mild, wet winter conditions for the summer-loving species.

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Cern mulls huge physics machine

The possibility of building an underground 'atom-smasher' four times the size of the Large Hadron Collider is to be explored by experts.

The decision follows a high level meeting of scientists this week in Geneva, near the European particle physics centre, Cern.

The proposal is for a 100-km tunnel which would encircle the Swiss city.

It would reach to the Alps in the east, the Jura mountains in the west and even go under Lake Geneva.

Maps showing the proposed route reveal that it dwarfs the existing LHC, which is itself a world record beater as a science facility.

Dr Rolf Heuer, director general of Cern, who opened the meeting, argues it is already time to start thinking about what will follow the LHC, even though that machine has only been running a few years.

'We have very long lead times,' he explained, 'because our projects are ambitious, and they need a lot of research and development.

'Take as an example the LHC. It is just three years into full swing, but the real discussions on the LHC started in 1983; the first meeting on the physics in 1984. And the first data were taken in 2009. So we need a long lead time. And that's why we start now to kick off this project.'

The 100km Cern tunnel is just one of several proposals to be considered following the 'kick-off' meeting being held this week. Japan and China are also interested in hosting giant international colliders, though the European advocates argue Cern's established infrastructure would deliver substantial savings, and greater certainty over its success.

As well as the size and location of the collider, the particles to be smashed in it are also hotly debated.

New approaches

Some experts favour colliding protons, as is done in the LHC: Far higher energies can be reached using these, meaning researchers can explore higher extremes of conditions, more closely mimicking the Big Bang.

Paul Collier, head of beams at Cern, says the size of the Geneva basin is fortuitously right for such a machine. The aim is to reach energies about eight times higher than the 27-km-long LHC, at which point cornering round the bends of the tunnel becomes much harder for the speeding protons.

The larger radius and gentler curvature of the 100km tunnel, which just fits between the troublesome limestone either side of the basin, helps somewhat; and steering magnets, under development at Cern now, with twice the power of the LHC's would do the rest.

Other experts, however, prefer using electrons, as were fired through the LHC's predecessor, the LEP (the Large Electron Positron collider). These can be steered more easily, and give a far cleaner physics signal, meaning the complexities of interpretation that dog the LHC experiments can be avoided.

As to the value of building any experiment to succeed the LHC, Dr Heuer dismisses any suggestion that the discovery of the Higgs boson marks an end point to particle physics.

'By no means. We've only just begun,' he said.

'It took nearly 50 years to complete the so-called Standard Model, which just describes barely 5% of the Universe - the visible Universe. Fifty years for 5%! We still need to explore 95%, and this is what I would call the dark Universe.

'We very much hope that with the LHC running at higher energy next year, we might get the first glimpse of what dark matter is, for example. And building on that I would assume that we then can build a physics case for a future circular collider.'

Open questions

For Guido Tonelli, spokesperson for the CMS detector at Cern, when the Higgs discovery was underway, the essence of a physics case already existed.

'In my view - this is different from other scientists - I consider it important to start digging the new collider now, independent of what might be found at the LHC in the next few years,' he explained.

'If nothing appears in the next phase of the LHC, we have to move to higher energies, because there we might find solutions to the big questions that are still open.

'If we do find something, we know that at the LHC, we might be able to see the 'tail of the dinosaur', and we would need a machine with much higher energy to see the 'entire animal'. So I accept we don't yet know the details of the next accelerator; but the need for one is clear now.'

Rolf Heuer, only half jokingly, suggests the 100km proposal is modest by comparison with the Gothard Base rail tunnel (to run through the Swiss Alps) which is currently nearing completion and has three tunnels each measuring 57km long.

Cern civil engineer John Osborne, agrees the tunnelling shouldn't be complex - using tunnel-boring machines as was done with the Channel Tunnel, the full length could be excavated in five or six years, he estimates. Though he concedes it would produce a lot of material that would have to disposed of.

'For the LHC tunnel, which was 27 km, we dug up about 1.5 million cubic metres of rock. And for that we managed to find local quarries that we could fill with all the excavated material.

'But for this tunnel, for which we don't know all the dimensions, it would be substantially more - maybe 10 million cubic metres? So we do need to think about the environmental impact, and what we can do with this rock.'

Money, money, money

As to the price, no-one was prepared to venture a number. Perhaps because Rolf Heuer sternly advised the 350 participants not to.

'Any number you mention will be wrong,' he explained, 'and worse it will be remembered forever.' And give the proponents a lot of trouble, he implied.

But he hopes to make the proposal affordable, by making a partnership across the world.

To that end, the next phase of the pilot study will be governed by a handful of leading experts from every region, to identify the feasibility of each proposal, identify the technology gaps, and the physics requirements. By the time it reports back, in about 5 years, the next set of results from the LHC should help settle on a conceptual design for a machine that might be built anywhere.

From there another five years to complete a detailed design, choose a site, and secure international approval and financing. And with 10 years to build and install the equipment, it might just be feasible to have a new machine ready when the LHC retires in 2035. Though the mood at the meeting was that is an optimistic timeline.

Paul Collier, head of beams at Cern, concedes the proposal might seem headstrong, but argues it is the rational route ahead for particle physics.

'There's no point in doing small leaps when you invest in such a facility. If you take little steps, you will not get the value for money,' he said.

Another participant, approaching retirement himself, pointed out that the tunnel that now houses the LHC, and previously housed LEP was first discussed 40 years ago, and will still be in use in 20.

Likewise, the future collider will probably go through many incarnations, and still be running in 60 years.

He recalled a proverb he had to translate from Latin as a schoolchild: 'He plants the seeds of trees he'll never see bearing fruit.'