Monday, June 30, 2014

Public asked to spot clever birds

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is asking the public to take part in a national survey of bird intelligence.

From 1 July, the charity is asking people to submit video clips or descriptions of the behaviour or rooks - some of our cleverest garden birds.

Rooks have already demonstrated their intelligence in lab-based studies that have tested their ability to solve problems and use tools.

This survey will examine if and how wild rooks apply these skills.

The rook is a member of the corvid or crow family, which is famed for its intelligence.

As well solving laboratory-based puzzles, crows have been spotted exploiting urban environments by, for example, dropping walnuts onto busy roads and using the traffic to crack them open.

And although rooks are farmland birds, and tend to keep away from the middle of big towns and cities, they are increasingly being tempted into our gardens by bird feeders, so researchers hope this will provide the ideal setting to study their natural behaviour.

The study will look at six categories of behaviour: feeding, caching (hiding and storing food), tolerance, object play, socialising and vocalisation.

Dr Nathan Emery from Queen Mary University of London, an expert in corvid behaviour who is helping run the study, explained that many of the abilities the birds had demonstrated were previously thought to be uniquely human.

'We've done a lot of different studies on a number of corvids looking into their intelligence and behaviour, focusing on their amazing memories, their ability to imagine future scenarios and plan for them,' he told BBC News.

'This survey will provide vital information that couldn't be attained any other way into how rooks use our gardens, eat and cache our food and, importantly, whether rooks can produce innovative solutions to novel problems they don't encounter in the wild.'

As well a giving insights into the abilities of these clever crows, the charity wants to understand the behaviour of rooks in order to work out the reason for a decline in their numbers in recent years.

Satellite to seek 'missing carbon'

The US space agency (Nasa) will make a second attempt on Tuesday to put a high-resolution carbon dioxide observatory in orbit.

The first satellite was destroyed on launch in 2009.

Since then, scientists and engineers have built a near identical spacecraft, which will launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

'It's been a long walk back to where we are now,' David Crisp, the mission's Science Team Leader, told BBC News.

'We've delivered the spacecraft, but we've still got a number of challenging steps ahead of us before this system is on orbit, operating and returning science data.'

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) will ride to orbit on a Delta II rocket

Lift-off is timed for a 30-second window at 02:56 local time (09:56 GMT; 10:56 BST).

The $468m ($275m) OCO-2 mission is going to trace the global geographic distribution of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - to try to identify precisely where it is emitted and absorbed.

Uncertain 'sinks'

Humans are adding nearly 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year, principally from the burning of fossil fuels.

Only about half of this sum stays in the atmosphere, where it drives a warmer climate.

About half of the other half is absorbed into the ocean, with the remainder pulled down into land 'sinks'.

Exactly where, though, is highly uncertain.

It will likely include underappreciated areas of forest and grassland, but getting to the answers is complicated by the variability in the performance of sinks from year to year.

'Understanding what controls that variability is really crucial,' said Dr Mike Gunson, the OCO-2 project scientist at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

'If we can do that today, it might inform us about what might happen in the future.

'Will those processes continue? Or will we see an abatement in their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, and does that increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, obviously having climate change impacts.'

Japanese lessons

The observatory carries a single instrument - a spectrometer that breaks the sunlight reflected off the Earth's surface into its constituent colours, and then analyses the spectrum to determine how much carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen is present.

Combining the data on these two gases can be used to work out atmospheric concentrations.

Current CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere stand at about 400 parts per million.

OCO-2's precision should enable it to detect changes of one or two carbon dioxide molecules out of the 400.

However, to locate the sources and sinks, scientists will need to combine this information with models that estimate how CO2 is being moved and mixed through the air.

The mission follows on the heels of the Japanese Gosat (Greenhouse gases Observing SATellite) venture, which has been doing a similar job since 2009, although at a lower resolution than OCO-2 will manage.

The Nasa scientists say they have learnt a huge amount from the Gosat experience, and expect the US satellite's science return to be hugely boosted as a result.

Dr Crisp commented: 'Our science team has been working very closely with the Japanese, and this has provided a critical series of opportunities to develop and then validate the algorithms we will use to analyse the data.

'We are now so much further ahead of where we would have been had we launched successfully in 2009. In fact, we now think that within a few months of [Tuesday's] launch, we'll be producing a product that will be far better than anything we could have produced in the nominal mission of [the original satellite].'

Plant health

One technique proved by Gosat that will be pursued by OCO-2 is the ability of a space-borne spectrometer to detect the glow induced in chlorophyll by sunlight.

Being able to sense a fluorescence in plants' key photosynthetic molecule makes it possible to assess the health of vegetation.

Over time, researchers should be able to tell, for example, if some forests are becoming stressed and therefore less efficient at absorbing CO2.

Europe has carbon missions of its own coming at the end of the decade.

The French space agency (Cnes) is developing a concept called MicroCarb, which, like Gosat and OCO-2 before it, will measure carbon dioxide concentrations.

Cnes is also working on a concept with the German space agency (DLR) called Merlin. This satellite would study the distribution of methane in the atmosphere.

And the European Space Agency (Esa) has approved a project called Biomass. It will employ an orbiting radar system to 'weigh' the amount carbon stored in the world's forests. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Older sperm donors 'just as good'

Women should not worry about using sperm from older donors as the success rate is the same as using a younger man's sperm, researchers say.

The average age of donors has risen in the UK since the right to anonymity was removed in 2005.

Doctors said there was concern about the impact on the odds of a pregnancy.

Experts said only older men with the best sperm could donate, so men as a whole should not see the results as an excuse to delay fatherhood.

A presentation at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology annual conference showed the average age of donors was 26 before the law change and 34 afterwards.

'It is a huge difference,' said Dr Meenakshi Choudhary from the Newcastle Fertility Centre.

'It may concern women, who are already older, who know their chances are lower, that if they go for an older sperm then their chance of a live birth will be further reduced and compromised.'

She analysed data from 39,282 cycles of IVF between 1991 and 2012, concluding that older men had the same success rates as younger men.

Dr Meenakshi Choudhary told the BBC: 'It doesn't matter up to the age of 45 years, there was no decline observed in this study.

'Sperm donors are a select group of the population, they are healthy fertile donors who go through a stringent recruitment criteria.

'Based on this we can say that age does not matter as long as the sperm quality is good.'

'Men not invincible'

Dr Allan Pacey, a lecturer in sperm at the University of Sheffield, said men should not be tempted by complacency.

He told the BBC: 'I think there is a perception out there that men are invincible from reproductive ageing - we just need to look at Charlie Chaplin who was 73 when he had his eleventh child.

'We know that as men go above the age of 40 and go into their fifties, their chances of getting a woman pregnant does reduce as a consequence of age.

'I don't think you can take this data and apply it uncritically to the general population, the advice would still be you should be trying to have a child before the age of 40 or 45.'

Warming threat to emperor penguins

Climate change is likely to cut Antarctica's 600,000-strong emperor penguin population by at least a fifth by 2100, a study suggests.

The main threat to the penguins comes from changes to sea-ice cover in the Antarctic, which will affect their breeding and feeding.

Dynamics will differ between penguin colonies, but all are expected to be in decline by the end of the century.

Details are published in Nature Climate Change journal.

The US, British and Dutch researchers urge governments to list the birds as endangered. Such a listing could impose restrictions on tourism and fishing.

The team, led by Stephanie Jenouvrier of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said the global population of emperor penguins would probably decline by between 19 and 33% from current levels.

Dr Jenouvrier said the penguins 'face possible extinction throughout a significant portion of their range in the foreseeable future'.

She added that emperor colonies in Antarctica's Ross Sea may experience population declines later than others because sea ice conditions are still suitable for them.

'Implementing a marine protected area in the Ross Sea could help buy time to avoid extinction and to put in place needed conservation and greenhouse gas mitigation strategies,' she said.

To feed their young, emperor penguins leave the colony for months at a time and travel long distances across Antarctic ice to reach open water to find nourishment, such as krill.

They are dependent upon an optimal amount of sea ice cover for a variety of reasons, including refuge from predators while foraging.

Changes to the sea-ice cover can also significantly affect the abundance of krill, the emperor's primary food source and a critical species in the Antarctic food web.

More sea-ice is good for krill, but means that parents might have to waddle further to the sea.

'There is a goldilocks point for ice and emperor penguins,' Phil Trathan, an expert at the British Antarctic Survey (Bas), told Reuters.

Mr Trathan said it was unclear if the ungainly birds could adapt by climbing on to land or higher ice. Four emperor penguin colonies had recently been found on ice shelves, above sea level where glaciers spill off the land.

Satellite measurements of Antarctic sea-ice extent show winter coverage to be at record levels. However, climate computer modelling expects this trend to be reversed in the future, as conditions in the Antarctic warm.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

'Flying saucer' to test Mars tech

The US space agency (Nasa) is set to test what looks every inch like a flying saucer.

In reality, the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is a demonstrator for the type of technologies humans will need to land on Mars.

The LDSD will be deployed from a high-altitude balloon off Hawaii.

It will trial a new type of parachute and an inflatable Kevlar ring that can help slow down a spacecraft as it approaches the Red Planet's surface.

Nasa says it is trying to raise the current maximum mass that can be put on Mars from 1.5 tonnes to something nearer the 20-30 tonnes a human mission might require.

Ian Clark, the LDSD's principal investigator told BBC News: 'We're testing technologies that will enable us to land bigger payloads, much heavier payloads, at higher altitude and with more accuracy than we've ever been able to do before.'

The test is taking place at the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.

A helium balloon will lift the LDSD to about 35km (120,000ft) before releasing it.

A rocket motor will then kick the vehicle on up to about 55km (180,000ft) and a velocity of about Mach 4 (four times the speed of sound).

As the LDSD begins to slow, it will deploy its two new atmospheric braking systems.

The first to come out will be the 6m (20ft) inflatable 'donut'. This will increase the vehicle's size and also, as a result, its drag.

Once the velocity has dropped to about Mach 2.5, the parachute will come out.

'The supersonic parachute we're testing is enormous,' says Ian Clark.

'It's 100ft (30m) in diameter; it generates two-and-a-half times the drag of any previous parachute we've sent to Mars. We're going to use it at a velocity that's faster than we've used a parachute at Mars.

'We're really going to push it to the edge where the materials themselves, the nylons and Kevlars that the parachute is made of, may start melting.

'We don't know; that's why we do this testing.'

Assuming the structures all stay intact, the parachute should drop the LDSD in the ocean after about 45 minutes.

Nasa's plan is to return next year with a larger ring and parachute to test.

The Curiosity rover, at one tonne, is the biggest object landed on Mars to date.

There is a recognition that this payload capability will have to be increased substantially if astronauts on the planet are to receive all the food supplies and equipment they need to survive.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Increased protection for war wrecks

Tens of thousands of sailors and merchant navy personnel lost their lives in World War One but now the huge number of ships sunk in the conflict are to be offered increased protection under a UN agreement.

Many of these wrecks are now threatened by salvage operations, deliberate destruction and looting.

But experts from 36 states meeting in Belgium have been hearing how the Unesco Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage will increase safeguards.

Introduced in 2001, the convention only applies to ships sunk at least 100 years ago.

With the centenary of World War One imminent, the agreement is soon to be extended to thousands of sites.

'It makes a real legal difference,' Ulrike Guerin, of Unesco, told BBC News.

Scale of the losses at sea

  • It is estimated that Britain mobilised 11,000 war vessels, of which some 1,100 were sunk

  • More than 74,000 sailors and 15,300 men of the merchant navy lost their lives

  • Germany lost hundreds of warships and submarines and almost 35,000 men

  • Civilians also suffered, with 1,198 people dead when the liner Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland in 1915

'It prevents the pillaging, which is happening on a very large scale, it prevents the commercial exploitation, the scrap metal recovery, and it will have regulations on the incidental impacts, such as the problem of trawlers going over World War One sites.'

Metal attraction

The naval losses suffered by the belligerents during the Great War pale in comparison with the suffering in the trenches.

However, there were a number of large-scale engagements, including the Battle of Jutland and at Gallipoli.

The locations of many of the wrecks of these ships are known and have proved popular with recreational divers but also with commercial salvage companies.

The issue of dismemberment for salvage has become a major problem, especially as the price of metals has increased in recent years.

In 2011 Dutch ships dismantled the remains of three British cruisers sunk in 1914.

HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy went down with the loss of 1,500 lives but the remains of the ships were destroyed for the copper and bronze they contained.

The Netherlands is said to be close to signing the convention and that would help prevent this type of action in the future.

Countdown to WW1 The World War One Centenary

However, the increase in the number of sites that signatories of the convention will soon become responsible for raises concerns about resources.

'The heritage managers of countries like France and Belgium and the rest are now staring down the barrel of a major headache,' said Dr Innes McCartney, who has led six research expeditions to the wrecks from the Battle of Jutland.

'There are war graves in the English Channel that in the past few weeks have been subject to salvage, within sight of land. This issue is ongoing. If you want to stop it, it's a matter of resource. Mouth is one thing but money is what makes the difference.'

While Britain has not signed the convention, the government has taken the view that it will observe the spirit of the agreement.

The researchers also want to compile a global inventory of ships lost in the war and carry out investigations on erosion. Apart from these steps, the scientists say the biggest issue is education.

'The very fact that there were twice as many merchant ships sunk in World War One than World War Two is a statistical fact that the vast majority of the public have no cognisance of,' said Dr McCartney.

'One of the challenges is to show people what is there and that it is very much part of their cultural history and legacy.'

As part of their efforts to increase recognition of the undersea heritage of World War One, Unesco is asking all ships in port and at sea to use commemorative signalling on Saturday evening.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

'Citizen science' hits 50-year mark

The Biological Records Centre, which supports more than 80 wildlife recording societies and schemes, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Its data, submitted by volunteers, is used by scientists, such as monitoring the spread of invasive species.

It has also helped researchers gain insight into ecological concerns, such as the demise of pollinating insects.

To mark the centre's half-century, biologists have gathered for a special event at the University of Bath.

'The Biological Records Centre [BRC] has been supporting, in many different ways, volunteers making records of nature and wildlife in Britain over the past half-century,' said Michael Pocock, an ecologist based at the BRC.

'There are a whole load of recording schemes and societies, each of which are run by volunteer experts who will in turn inspire, equip and encourage people to go out and record a particular group that they are interested in.

'In a sense, it is the BRC's role to make that process as efficient and successful as possible.'

Growing knowledge

Although the BRC was established in 1964, and now forms part of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a number of the recording schemes have been going much longer.

The earliest plant record in Britain dates back to the 16th Century.

The idea of having a central body to co-ordinate and share the data from wildlife recording schemes dates back to the turn of the 20th Century but successive efforts were derailed by the outbreak of world wars.

The information provided by the 85 schemes to the BRC has provided an unprecedented insight into the UK's flora and fauna.

'Societies and schemes share their data with us, and we are able to collate it and store it,' said Dr Pocock.

An estimated 96 million observations are available via the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Gateway website.

'One of our main uses is to apply expertise we have, such as in terms of statistics or analysis, to answer some of the cutting-edge questions.

'For example, we wouldn't really have a good idea of how pollinators are doing without the enthusiasm-led recording of these different groups over the course of many decades.'

Early warnings

Another advantage of having a centralised system is that it provides a vital resource for scientists monitoring the spread of invasive non-native species (Inns).

The UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, published in 2005, identified Inns as one of the main threats to biodiversity, along with the likes of climate change, habitat loss and the overexploitation of natural resources.

Invasive species are estimated to cost the UK economy about £1.7bn each year, and the BRC records have identified 1,991 species on these shores.

Recently, the BRC co-ordinated an expert group of volunteer recorders in an 'horizon-scanning review' to predict which Inns were likely to arrive here in the near future and have an impact on native biodiversity.

Another of the BRC's roles is to develop 'innovative use of technology' to help harness the enthusiasm and knowledge of naturalists, turning observers of nature into recorders of nature. Over the past 12 months, it has been involved in the release of six smartphone apps.

'Technology has really supported the development of citizen science projects. It has made it much easier to establish projects, collect data and to provide feedback to people involved in the schemes,' Dr Pocock said.

Now, he added, the process was much quicker and the emergence of websites, blogs and social media meant contributors could remain more closely involved.

Dr Pocock recalled: 'I took part in projects when I was young that involved cutting coupons out of a magazine, filling it in and posting it off. Then, maybe, six or 12 months later there might have been a little write-up in the same magazine about what the results were.'

'Media coverage'

However, behind the modern facade, the process and function of biological recording remained the same.

'I have been involved in a project called conker tree science,' he said.

'This was monitoring the movement and distribution of the horse chestnut leaf miner. We had lots of media coverage, and I thought it was all very new and exciting until someone pointed out to me that there was a project 20 years ago that looked at the distribution of the firethorn leaf miner. It also had coverage in national and regional newspapers, appeared on the BBC's Tomorrow's World and Ceefax.

'So the emergence of things like websites and smartphone apps help but the concept of volunteers getting involved is absolutely not new.

'I think the emergence of 'citizen science' has been good to break down the idea that only people in white lab coats do science, but - certainly within the biological recording world - it hasn't changed the ways that we do it.'

Huge X-ray space telescope planned

Europe has initiated the process that should lead to the biggest X-ray space telescope ever built.

Dubbed Athena, the satellite will be some 12m in length and weigh about five tonnes when launched in 2028.

The European Space Agency's (Esa) Science Programme Committee selected the project at a meeting in Toulouse.

Design work now will confirm the technologies and industrial capability needed to construct the mission, which is costed at over one billion euros.

'It's a tremendously exciting moment for the team; it's not every day you have a billion-euro decision go in your favour,' said Prof Paul Nandra, the chairman of the Athena Collaboration.

'We've just got to build it and get it up there, and as long as we do our job right, there's nothing that should stop that,' he told BBC News.

The SPC will meet again, probably in 2019, to give a full and final approval to the telescope project.

This should be a rubber stamping exercise - provided costs can be contained and no technical showstoppers are identified.

In truth, there should be no surprises. The Athena concept has been under study for a number of years already by leading scientists and industrial partners.

Athena is regarded as a next-generation observatory - an X-ray equivalent to the giant machines such as the Square Kilometre Array and the European Extremely Large Telescope which will view the cosmos at longer wavelengths.

Athena will have a survey capability and sensitivity a hundred times better than today's best X-ray space telescopes - America's Chandra mission, and Esa's XMM-Newton telescope.

Athena will use its advanced optics and detectors to look deep into the Universe and far back in time.

Silicon optics

The key objectives are twofold - to understand how gas was assembled into the galaxies and galactic clusters we see around us today, and to study the origin and evolution of the monstrous black holes that reside at the centres of galaxies.

An Athena-like telescope is needed to do this because the processes being investigated are extremely hot, and radiate at high energies - in the X-ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The telescope will carry some novel mirrors for the purpose, incorporating 'silicon pore optics'. These use stacks of silicon material to corral the X-ray photons towards the telescope's two big instruments.

'The Wide Field Imager does what it says - it maps X-rays over a wide field, and that's what you need to discover black holes in the distant cosmos, to count them, and to see how they formed in the early Universe when the first stars and galaxies were also forming,' explained Prof Nandra, who is affiliated to the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.

'The X-ray Integral Field Unit will do spectroscopy, measuring very accurately the energy of the X-ray photons. The XIFU enables you to do lots of very interesting astrophysics, mostly regarding hot gas structures in the Universe.'

Rocket uncertainty

One interesting question for the feasibility study concerns Athena's launcher.

Ordinarily, the choice would be a heavy-lifting Ariane 5, but there is no certainty that this rocket will still be in production by 2028.

Europe would hope by then to have a new vehicle, Ariane 6. However, its specifications are currently under review and the ability to loft a telescope the size of Athena has yet to be confirmed.

Athena is what Esa terms a 'Large Class' mission - its biggest and most expensive space science ventures.

It likes to launch one of these every few years.

Gaia, a star mapper, has just gone into orbit. This will be followed in 2016 by Bepi-Colombo, a joint project with Japan to go study the planet Mercury.

Juice, a mission to Jupiter and its moons, is taking the 2022 launch opportunity.

And with Athena targeted for 2028, it is likely the 2034 slot will go to a trio of satellites known as Lisa that will aim to detect gravitational waves in space. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Auditors probe green power contracts

The government may have failed to protect the interests of bill payers when awarding green energy contracts, says the National Audit Office (NAO).

Eight long-term deals worth £16.6bn were signed earlier this year to secure projects said to be at risk of cancellation.

The NAO says too much money was awarded to these renewable sources 'without price competition'.

It is concerned that this could ultimately increase costs to consumers.

Under an EU directive, the UK government is committed to producing 30% of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020.

To drive investment in this area, the government has long operated a system of subsidising generators.

'Start Quote

We are not convinced that they needed to do this amount this early'

End Quote Jill Goldsmith National Audit Office

In an effort to improve efficiency and value for money, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) embarked on a series of reforms to the electricity market over the past two years.

The major change has been the introduction of Contracts for Difference.

This is a two-way system where the government sets an agreed price for electricity and the generators either receive a subsidy or have to pay money back depending on the state of the market.

Ultimately, the idea is that generators would bid for these contracts, guaranteeing that consumers would get green energy at the most competitive price.

But with the system not fully up and running until April next year, DECC was faced with the tricky problem of how to fund enough renewables to meet 2020 targets.

Limiting opportunities

Its solution was to award early contracts to five offshore wind farms, two coal plant conversions to biomass and one biomass combined heat and power plant.

However the NAO is not satisfied that the way these contracts have been awarded is good for consumers and the long-term health of the renewables industry.

'Our view is that awarding £16.6bn of contracts has limited the opportunities to secure better value for money through competition under the contracts for difference regime, due to start this year,' said Jill Goldsmith from the NAO.

The NAO highlights the fact that the money will generate just 5% of the renewable electricity required by 2020.

It is also concerned that the department made its decision to commit consumer funding, not on the basis of price competition but with a weighting for the likely impact on the project of any delay or 'hiatus'.

'The qualification rule around hiatus required confirmation that the project would be put back if they didn't get funding,' said Jill Goldsmith.

'It was a kind of yes/no qualification criteria which was largely based on confirmation from the project's board that this was the case.'

The government watchdog is concerned that the prices that have been agreed for energy under these contracts 'may provide higher returns than needed to secure the investment'.

The report suggests that the projects were likely to make money but the government did not ask for any information on projected costs and profits in the bidding process.

The early contracts

The projects that have been approved are:

  • Beatrice offshore wind, Outer Moray Firth

  • Burbo Bank offshore wind, Liverpool Bay

  • Drax 2nd biomass conversion unit, Selby

  • Dudgeon offshore wind, north of Cromer

  • Hornsea offshore wind, off the East Yorkshire coast

  • Lynemouth biomass conversion, Ashington, Northumberland

  • Teesside biomass with combined heat and power, Middlesbrough

  • Walney extension offshore wind, off Walney Island

Crucially DECC has not included any provision for clawing the money back if returns are excessive, something that has drawn the ire of Margaret Hodge, chair of the Commons committee of public accounts.

'I am frustrated that, despite the huge consumer subsidy that has gone into supporting these projects, the Department has failed to put in place any arrangements to recoup consumers' money if providers make bigger-than-expected profits from these projects,' she said.

'This is an issue we have raised as a committee before: private providers must not be allowed to make excessive profits at the expense of consumers and taxpayers.'

The report also expresses concern that these early contracts have been awarded 58% of the funds available for renewable contracts up to 2020/21.

'We are not convinced that they needed to do this amount this early,' said Jill Goldsmith.

'It ties their hands on the amount available for spending in the next round.'

The report is at pains to point out that the steps taken have boosted confidence in the market and the projects supported can make a significant contribution to meeting the UK's 2020 targets.

The government goes further, saying these projects will provide an extra £12bn of private investment, will support 8,500 jobs and add up to 5% of low carbon capacity to the energy mix.

A DECC spokesperson said: 'The government has been dealing with a legacy of underinvestment and neglect in our energy system, meaning we've needed to drive through reforms to secure investment in new generation to keep the lights on in the years and decades ahead while decarbonising our electricity supplies, and getting the best possible deal for consumers.

'As the NAO's report recognises, these early contracts are designed to offer better value to billpayers than the previous system and have reassured those we need to invest in our energy security. Without that investment, projects would have been unable to go ahead or been significantly delayed - putting our future energy security at risk.'

Officials from DECC are due to appear before the committee of public accounts on 2 July.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Odours distract insects from flowers

Insects find locating their favourite flowers more difficult when pollution and other odours get in the way, new research has shown.

Tobacco hornworm moths feed on the nectar of plants which can grow hundreds of metres apart.

Researchers found the moths tracked the flower's scent better in clean air, when other smells were not present.

They discovered the other odours changed how the moth's brain processed the plant's scent.

The findings are reported in the journal Science.

Adult tobacco hornworm moths, Manduca sexta, have wingspans of 4in (10cm) and can travel up to 80 miles (129km) in an evening, looking for food and mates.

Their ability to detect scents is similar to that of dogs, and both are several thousand times more skilful than humans.

They pollinate the trumpet-like blossoms of Sacred Datura, Datura wrightii, but the calories from one feed are only enough to fly for 15 minutes, making accurate navigation essential.

Little is known about how insects tell the difference between flower odour and the variety of natural and man-made scents in the air.

The research team from the University of Washington and University of Arizona, conducted fieldwork in the south-western United States, where the moths' search for Sacred Datura can be hindered by the scents of neighbouring plants.

The plants often grow in dense groups of creosote bush, Larrea tridentata, which give off some of the same aromatic chemicals as Sacred Datura.

'Start Quote

These same volatiles from vehicles may affect pollinators like honeybees or bumblebees'

End Quote Jeffrey Riffell University of Washington

The scientists used a chemical detection device (called a proton transfer-reaction mass spectrometer) to study the odours given off by the flowers in the wild.

They then flew moths in a wind tunnel where they controlled the smells the moths were encountering. The insects' neuron pathways were also recorded to see which were activated.

The team found the moths located Sacred Datura most easily when its scent was at lower intensities (frequencies between 1-2 hertz).

They tested moths' responses to the flower's scent when different odours, including the creosote bush and man-made pollutants, were present. They found the other smells masked Sacred Datura's scent making it more difficult for the moths to recognise and track.

The authors found this was because the other smells affect odour-processing neurons in the moth's brain, altering the insect's perception of the plant's scent.

Jeffrey Riffell, lead author, said: 'Local vegetation can mask the scent of flowers because the background scents activate the same moth olfactory channels as floral scents.'

He said they were surprised to find that even scents that were only vaguely similar to those that are attractive to moths, such as those from car and lorry exhausts, also misled them.

'Nature can be complex but an urban environment is a whole other layer on top of that,' Mr Riffell added.

'These moths are not important pollinators in urban environments, but these same volatiles from vehicles may affect pollinators like honeybees or bumblebees, which are more prevalent in many urban areas.'

The researchers plan to study other pollinators and hope to identify more chemicals that can alter insects' ability to recognise flowers.

Join BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

Tough test for US Orion spaceship

Nasa says the most difficult test yet of the parachute system for its Orion spacecraft has gone without a hitch.

The test version of the Orion capsule touched down safely in the Arizona desert after being dropped from a C-17 military aircraft at 10.6km (35,000ft).

The US space agency said Wednesday's test was the closest to simulating a real return to Earth.

Orion is designed to replace the shuttle as America's manned space transport system.

'We've put the parachutes through their paces in ground and airdrop testing in just about every conceivable way,' said Orion's programme manager Mark Geyer.

'The series of tests has proven the system and will help ensure crew and mission safety for our astronauts in the future.'

Nasa is preparing Orion for its first trip to space in December, a two-hour, four-orbit flight that will send an unmanned version of the spacecraft more than 5,700km (3,600 miles) into space.

It will then be returned to Earth to test the performance of many of the craft's critical systems.

In the latest test, over the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground, engineers put additional stresses on the parachutes by allowing the test craft to 'free fall' for 10 seconds, which increased the vehicle's speed and aerodynamic pressure.

After the free fall, Orion's parachutes deployed, pulling away the spacecraft's forward bay cover, which is critical to the rest of the system performing as required.

The test marked the last time the entire parachute sequence will be tested before Orion launches on its first space flight test, called EFT-1, later this year.

'Drastic action' needed on Ebola

'Drastic action' is needed to contain the spread of deadly ebola in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Nearly 400 people have died in the outbreak which started in Guinea and has spread to neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia.

It is the largest outbreak in terms of cases, deaths and geographical spread.

The WHO said it was 'gravely concerned' and there was potential for 'further international spread'.

Call to save Pitcairn's ocean bounty

Researchers say that 'immediate protection' is required for the waters around the remote Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific, home to one of the world's rarest and most valuable collections of marine species.

The waters have 'unique global value that is irreplaceable' says the report, from an international team of scientists.

They've carried out the first underwater surveys of the deep and shallow waters around the islands, best known for their connection to the mutiny on the Royal Navy ship, Bounty, in the 18th century.

Some of the mutineers settled on Pitcairn and around 50 of their descendents still live there, governed as a British overseas territory.

'Start Quote

People know about the mutiny on the Bounty but the true bounty of the Pitcairn's is underwater'

End Quote Dr Enric Sala National Geographic Society

The four islands in the group lie halfway between New Zealand and South America.

They are said to be further from a continent than any other inhabited island.

The extremely remote location has prevented prior scientific exploration of the unsullied waters.

'It is a treasure trove of marine species,' Dr Enric Sala told BBC News.

'People know about the mutiny on the Bounty but the true bounty of the Pitcairn's is underwater.'

The scientists found healthy coral reefs and an abundance of fish, around half of them not found anywhere else in the world.

A key indicator of the water's good state were the number of top predators like sharks that the scientists recorded. They accounted for over half of the biomass at Ducie Atoll, one of the least disturbed locations.

Perhaps the most significant discovery was down to the purity of the water. The scientists found a type of coralline algae living deeper than anywhere else on earth.

'It lives at 382m that's more than 100m deeper than the previous record, because of the clarity of the water,' said Dr Sala.

'It also allows coral reefs to grow to depths that are incredible elsewhere, we found well developed reefs between 75 and 100m below the surface.'

The remoteness of the islands has been critical in preserving the waters but the scientists saw some evidence of the encroachment of illegal shark fishing, carried out by foreign fleets.

They argue that plans to turn the islands into one of the world's biggest marine reserves should go ahead as soon as is practicable.

The islanders have voted in favour of this approach and a plan has been submitted to the UK government to create a 836,000 sq km protected zone around the islands.

The plan is still being considered by the UK, but it has been boosted in recent weeks with the announcement that the United States is to declare a huge reserve around the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

The scientists say the time is right for the Pitcairns to follow suit.

'These islands are like a time machine, that allow us to get back hundreds of years to see what we have lost,' said Dr Sala.

'But we can also to determine what we want for the future.'

Their report is published in the journal, PLOS One.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Faeces reveal Neanderthals' diet

Analysis of the oldest reported trace of human faeces has added weight to the view that Neanderthals ate vegetables.

Found at a dig in Spain, the ancient excrement showed chemical traces of both meat and plant digestion.

An earlier view of these early humans as purely meat-eating has already been partially discredited by plant remains found in their caves and teeth.

The new paper, in the journal PLOS One, claims to offer the best support to date for an omnivorous diet.

Poo is 'the perfect evidence,' said Ms Ainara Sistiaga, a PhD student at the University of La Laguna on the Canary Islands, and the study's first author, 'because you're sure it was consumed'.

Ms Sistiaga and her colleagues collected a number of samples from the remnants of a 50,000-year-old campfire in the El Salt dig site, a known Neanderthal habitation near Alicante on Spain's Mediterranean coast.

A year later, the samples were analysed in a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Ms Sistiaga is a visiting researcher.

Significant plant intake

The team used a technique called gas chromatography to separate the chemicals bound up in the ancient samples. This was combined with mass spectrometry to figure out which molecules were present and in what quantities.

Importantly, the relative concentration of an ester called coprostanol - used to detect human sewage - suggested that several samples were in fact traces of fossilised faeces.

The faecal matter came from the very top layer of the fire remains. Ms Sistiaga explained this probably means it was left behind after the fire was extinguished, perhaps on the periphery of another nearby campfire.

'Start Quote

The start point, the teeth, and the end point, the faeces, show the same thing. The evidence is clear at both ends'

End Quote Dr Stephen Buckley University of York

'The fire was not active at the moment of the deposit - it makes sense,' she said with a chuckle.

In thin sections of soil from exactly the same area, the team also identified small 'coprolites' - whole pieces of fossilised poo - which showed characteristics of human faeces, including their physical structure and a high phosphate content which makes them glow under blue light.

Dated at about 50,000 years old, based on the layer in which it was found, this is the oldest human excrement ever identified. Ms Sistiaga said her samples easily pre-date other fossilised faeces, belonging to modern humans ( Homo sapiens) and found in Egyptian mummies and ancient Greek latrines.

The key finding, however, came from the chemical make-up of the miniscule traces of faeces in the campfire ashes. All these samples were dominated by products of meat digestion, but one in particular showed significant amounts of plant-derived esters as well.

So although the Neanderthal's predominant food source was meat, Ms Sistiaga explained that the chemistry of her sample suggested a 'significant intake of plants'.

'If you find it in the faeces, you are sure that it was ingested,' she told BBC News. 'This molecular fossil is perfect to try to know the proportion of both food sources in a Neanderthal meal.'

Based on the history of the area, the vegetable matter that supplemented these ancient humans' mostly meaty diet could have been a mixture of berries, nuts and root vegetables.

Revision required

Dr Stephen Buckley is an archaeologist at the University of York, who has previously reported evidence of plant matter in the dental tartar of Neanderthals - some of it cooked, and some of it possibly medicinal.

He described the new research as 'something new and different' and a 'hugely welcome addition' to the question of Neanderthal diet, which remains controversial among scientists.

'The start point, the teeth, and the end point, the faeces, show the same thing,' Dr Buckley told the BBC. 'The evidence is clear at both ends, if you like.'

'It will be much harder, now, for people to dig their heels in and try to argue that Neanderthals just ate meat and not plants to any degree.'

He added that their diet probably varied depending on where they lived.

'If you're in central Germany, it might make sense to eat more meat - the climate is cold, and you need more calories. But if you're in Spain, where there was a milder climate, then there might be more of a reason to consume plants.'

Diet has been suggested as one of the reasons for the Neanderthals' extinction, some 30-40,000 years ago. As meat-eaters, the explanation goes, they were out-competed by the more adaptable Homo sapiens.

'Increasingly, it's obvious that the picture needs to be revised,' Dr Buckley said.

Ms Sistiaga agrees: 'We believe Neanderthals probably ate what was available in different situations, seasons, and climates,' she said.

Antibiotics focus of £10m prize

Antibiotic resistance has been selected as the focus for a £10m prize that will aim to tackle one of the world's biggest challenges.

Six themes were originally identified by the organisers; the public was then invited to vote for their choice.

The competition is based on the 1714 Longitude Prize won by John Harrison.

Harrison's clock allowed sailors to pinpoint their position at sea for the first time.

The outcome of the public vote was announced on the BBC's One Show on Wednesday.

The charity Nesta and the government-funded Technology Strategy Board have offered the £10m for the prize.

Solar cells made using bath salts

Researchers have developed a new manufacturing method which could bring down the cost of making a type of solar cell.

A team at Liverpool University has found a way of replacing the toxic element in the process with a material found in bath salts.

The scientists say that this could have a 'massive, unexpected cost benefit'.

The research has been published in the Journal Nature and unveiled at the ESOF conference in Copenhagen.

Dr John Major, who led the research said that his team's work might be the development that brings the cost down to the level of fossil fuel,' he told BBC News.

'Start Quote

It might be the development that brings the cost down to the level of fossil fuel'

End Quote Dr Jon Major Liverpool University

More than 90% of the solar cells are made from silicon. Around 7% are made from a material called cadmium telluride. The cadmium telluride cells are thinner than silicon and these are popular because they are also lighter and cheaper.

Toxic ingredient

They have the drawback that a toxic chemical, cadmium chloride, is needed to manufacture them. Cadmium chloride is also expensive.

A significant proportion of the manufacturing cost of cadmium telluride cells is to protect the workforce from toxins and to dispose of contaminated waste products safely, according to the research team.

Dr Major discovered that a cheaper, non-toxic alternative, magnesium chloride, could be used instead of the toxic compound and work just as well.

Magnesium chloride is completely safe. It is used to make tofu and is found in bath salts. It also extracted from sea water and so is a small fraction of the price of cadmium chloride.

Dr Major's boss, Prof Ken Durose, who is the director of the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy at Liverpool University, believes that his colleague's discovery has the potential to transform the economics of solar energy.

'One of the big challenges with solar energy is to make it cheap enough to compete with conventional power generation,' he told BBC News.

'Solar will progressively get cheaper until it will become more and more feasible for solar power to be produced from solar electricity farms.'

'Start Quote

The cost of materials and dealing with toxins is a very small fraction of production costs'

End Quote Nigel Mason PV Consulting

Comparing the relative costs of different energy technologies is extremely difficult because they are so different and the results are contentious.

But when pressed, Prof Durose made his best guess to assess the potential impact of the new technique, stressing that his figures were rough and ready and contained assumptions that could and probably would be challenged.

Cost debate

That said, he estimated that the cost of electricity produced from current cadmium telluride technology is very approximately 10 pence per unit, significantly higher than the 8.25 pence per unit for electricity produced from gas.

But he thought that the benefits of cheaper materials and the cost saving from not having to deal with toxic materials could bring the cost of cadmium telluride cells to 8.2 pence per unit - lower than gas.

However, Dr Nigel Mason of PV Consulting believes that the researchers are being very optimistic in their assessment of the impact their development will have on the price of solar energy.

'The development is great for the environmental management and safety of the production process but the cost of cadmium chloride material and dealing with its safe disposal is a relatively small fraction of production cost,' he told BBC News.

A key factor is that tellurium is one of the rarest elements on Earth so there would not be enough of the chemical to make enough solar cells if the technology took off, according to Dr Mason.

But Dr Major believes that solar energy could eventually meet the world's energy needs.

'There is enough sunlight that falls on the Earth every hour to generate enough electricity for the planet for a year,' he said.

'The way solar is progressing it will just be a matter of time before it becomes competitive with fossil fuels and eventually replace them.'

Follow Pallab on Twitter

Jab 'protects mice against tumours'

Scientists have developed a vaccine that they say provides some protection against brain tumours in mice.

The vaccine works by boosting the immune system to attack abnormal cells.

The approach has not been tested on humans, but clinical trials could begin next year in Germany, say researchers.

Brain tumours are difficult to treat so more research is urgently needed to give patients better options, said a cancer charity.

'Start Quote

Using the immune system to attack cancer is an exciting approach to tackling the disease and this research is another step forward in finding new treatments'

End Quote Dr Emma Smith Cancer Research UK

A team at the National Centre for Tumour Diseases in Heidelberg developed a vaccine that targets brain tumour cells.

It is based on the natural ability of some patients with brain tumours to mount an immune response against the disease - although this is not enough to stop the tumour growing.

The mouse experiment showed that a vaccine may be able to boost this natural approach, the researchers said.

'We can induce an immune response that is similar to what we see in some brain tumour patients who have a natural immunity but it is not strong enough to take care of the tumour,' said Prof Michael Platten.

The team is applying for approval to start a human clinical trial in Germany next year.

'Exciting approach'

'It's still too early to know if the vaccine will be efficacious in humans,' he added.

The charity Cancer Research UK described the research, published in Nature, as 'exciting'.

'Using the immune system to attack cancer is an exciting approach to tackling the disease and this research is another step forward in finding new treatments,' said Dr Emma Smith, senior science information officer.

'But this is a very early-stage study and was carried out in mice, so much more research is needed before we know if the vaccine is safe or effectively boosts an immune response against brain tumours in people.

'Brain tumours are a diverse group of cancers and are difficult to treat, so we urgently need more research to give people better options.'

Other researchers around the world are looking into similar vaccines to stimulate the immune system to fight off cancer.

A trial started in the UK last year into a similar vaccine to fight brain tumours.

The approach, known as immunotherapy, is also being tested in the US.

UK faces 'significant' land shortage

Britain is running out of land for food and faces a potential shortfall of two million hectares by 2030 according to new research.

The report, from the University of Cambridge, says the growing population plus the use of land for energy crops are contributing to the gap.

It criticises the government's lack of a coherent vision on how to make the most of UK farm land.

The authors warn that tough choices may need to be made on future land use.

The total land area of the UK amounts to over 24 million hectares with more than 75% of that used for farming.

'Start Quote

We may well find that there's a large amount of the land growing biofuels, has solar panels and wind farms on it, when actually we need more land put aside for the food needs of our growing population'

End Quote Andrew Montague-Fuller, University of Cambridge

While self sufficient in products like barley, wheat, milk, lamb and mutton, the UK still imports large amounts of fruit and vegetables and other farm products including pork.

Overall the UK runs a food, feed and and drink trade deficit of £18.6bn.

Under pressure

With a population expected to exceed 70 million by 2030, the extra demand for living space and food will have a major impact on the way land is used, the report says.

On top of these pressures, the government is committed to using bioenergy crops such as miscanthus as renewable sources of energy, further limiting the stock of land for food.

'That is putting some very significant future pressures on how we use our land,' said Andrew Montague-Fuller, the report's lead author.

'If you look at the land that is required under some of the bioenergy projections made by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, that could potentially take some significant chunks of land.'

Another factor is the EU, in the shape of the Common Agricultural Policy which now requires farmers to put more land aside to protect nature.

'They are meeting one of the objectives but maybe hurting some of our other objectives like growing more food, and biomass type crops,' said Mr Montague-Fuller.

The report estimates that all these factors will require an extra seven million hectares of land by 2030.

However there are a number of factors that will offset this, including reductions in the 19% of food an drink that are wasted in the UK.

Combined with increased yields and reductions in meat consumption that will boost land for farming, the authors say there is likely to be an overall two million hectare shortfall.

The report highlights the fact that there are a number of uncertainties about how land will be used, and they point the finger at government for lack of a coherent overall vision.

'What they are not doing is stepping back and looking at the overall direction and vision for future land use, and making sure that all of these different policies all add up so that we are clear about what our demands are and where the land will be released from to meet those needs.'

The report has been produced by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in collaboration with the National Farmers' Union (NFU), and companies including Asda, Sainsbury's and Nestle.

According to Dr Andrea Graham from the NFU, the report highlighted some tough choices ahead.

'This report shows that agricultural land will need to be multi-functional, delivering a range of goods and services. We will need the full range of tools to meet future demand, employing the very best technology and innovation to drive efficiency, quality, yields and profitability.'

Andrew Montague-Fuller says that there is a danger that the future farming landscape of Britain might not be compatible with the country's needs.

He said: 'We may well find that there's a large amount of the land growing biofuels, has solar panels and wind farms on it, when actually we need more land put aside for the food needs of our growing population.

'We may get the balance wrong if we don't face up to this shortfall.'

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Vampire bats lose bitter taste

Vampire bats' strict blood diet has made them lose much of their ability to taste bitter flavours, a study has found.

Bitter taste acts as a natural defence against eating poisonous foods and was thought to be indispensable in animals.

Researchers say the bats' special diet and use of smell, echolocation and heat could have made taste less important.

Their work shows poor bitter taste is more widespread in animals than previously thought.

The findings are reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Toxins typically taste bitter to animals but bottlenose dolphins and some whales have been shown to have reduced bitter taste, probably because they swallow their food whole, making taste unnecessary.

Vampire bats are the only mammals to feed solely on blood meaning they are unlikely to encounter toxic foods in the wild. The research team wanted to find out if that had left them with a lack of bitter taste.

Lead author, Professor Huabin Zhao, from Wuhan University, previously discovered that vampire bats had lost sweet and umami (savoury) tastes.

The researchers analysed the genomes of four bat species - representing two major subgroups of bats - and identified bitter taste receptor genes, which allow animals to taste bitter flavours.

As a result they predicted all bats should have bitter taste.

They compared the sequences of nine taste receptor genes in all three species of vampire bats and 11 species of non-vampire bats.

'Start Quote

Vampire bats lost bitter taste very recently'

End Quote Professor Huabin Zhao Wuhan University

They found vampire bats had a higher percentage of non-functioning bitter taste receptor genes (called pseudogenes) (47%) compared to non-vampire bats (4.3%). This demonstrated a greatly reduced bitter taste in vampire bats.

Vampire bats were found to still have some functioning bitter taste receptors but the authors say these are unlikely to play a major role in selection of food and may suggest vampire bats' ancestors did not originally feed on blood.

'From our study we understand that vampire bats do not need bitter taste, but some bitter taste receptor genes are still needed in vampire bats for other functions,' Prof Zhao said.

'Unlike other mammals, vampire bats lost bitter taste very recently, suggesting they may switch their diet from insects to blood in a recent time range.

'More importantly bats represent a unique case in mammals for studying the driving force in taste receptor evolution.'

The researchers are now planning to look more closely at the role of functioning bitter taste receptors in vampire bats.

Join BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

Butterflies use magnetic compass

The monarch butterfly uses a magnetic compass to guide its extraordinary migration thousands of km across North America, scientists say.

Monarchs are known to possess a Sun compass but even on cloudy days they still keep flying south towards Mexico.

In a laboratory experiment, butterflies changed direction when the magnetic field around them was altered.

It suggests that like turtles and birds the insects have a geomagnetic compass, says a study in Nature Communications.

'Start Quote

This is a marvellous piece of biology. It's like a work of art. It's inspiring and can teach us important things'

End Quote Prof Steven Reppert University of Massachusetts Medical School

It raises concerns the butterflies may be disturbed by human-induced magnetic 'noise' - which can apparently disrupt the European robin, a migratory bird.

Miracle migration

The North American monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus is famous for its epic journey from Canada to Mexico.

Every Autumn, despite never having flown more than a few hundred metres, millions of the insects set off across Lake Erie and head south for the warmer forests of the Michoacan mountains.

There they spend the winter - coating the trees in an amazing display which attracts thousands of tourists.

The ancient Mayans believed the butterflies were the souls of the dead, and the insect has become a symbol of North American trade and cooperation.

'This is a marvellous piece of biology. It's like a work of art. It's inspiring and it can teach us important things about migrating animals,' said Prof Steven Reppert of University of Massachusetts Medical School.

For years his team have been trying to solve the puzzle of how the butterflies maintain their direction towards the equator.

Previously they found the butterflies could calculate the position of the Sun via light-sensitive molecules in their antennae.

By combining this with their inbuilt biological clock, they create a time-compensated Sun compass.

But even under thick cloud cover, the insects do not lose their way - hinting at an additional, magnetic compass.

To test for this, the scientists strapped butterflies into a flight simulator, allowing them to point in any direction while flying 'on the spot'.

They surrounded the chamber with a magnetic coil system and varied the inclination angle of the field - effectively changing the position of the equator and the poles.

The monarchs responded by turning in the direction they perceived as south.

Crucially - the magnetic compass only worked when the butterflies were also exposed to light in the ultraviolet-A/blue range. This was not present in previous magnetic experiments with monarchs - explaining why they failed to find evidence of such a compass, the researchers believe.

'To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of the use of an inclination magnetic compass by a long-distance migratory insect,' said Prof Reppert.

'It may serve as an important orientation mechanism when directional daylight cues are unavailable.'

Whether the monarchs possess a 'map sense' that allows them to recognise specific locations, such as overwintering sites, remains to be determined, the researchers say.

They are investigating the mechanism of the compass - which they believe is mediated by molecules in the antennae known as cryptochromes, which are sensitive to both light and magnetic fields.

A similar compass may be present in birds and sea turtles, but the butterfly is much easier to study and could reveal clues to their behaviour.

Learning how the monarchs perform their miracle could also aid their conservation.

'People are concerned - currently they are threatened by climate change, herbicides and the continuing loss of milkweed [their primary food source] and overwintering habitats,' said Prof Reppert.

'We're used to seeing about half a billion butterflies at the overwintering sites. But last year it was probably two orders of magnitude lower.'

And now there is new vulnerability to consider: 'The potential disruption of the magnetic compass in monarchs by human-induced electromagnetic noise,' said Dr Reppert.

He points to a recent study of the European robin, which found that even weak electromagnetic fields from electrical devices and AM radios can apparently interfere with the birds' internal compass.

Growing pains of China's water needs

China's scarce water supply is being wasted as crops grown in water-stressed provinces are exported to wet, rainfall-rich areas, a study reports.

Farming accounts for about 65% of water use in China and the limited resource is coming under pressure from rapid urbanisation and industrialisation.

Officials have called the nation's water shortage a 'grave situation' and called for strict water controls.

The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Water worries

'China faces most of the major challenges to sustainable agriculture,' wrote an international team of researchers.

'Fast socioeconomic development, rapid urbanisation and climate change, along with very limited water resources and arable land per capita,' they added.

'Because arable land is available mainly in the water-scarce north, irrigation has become widespread, covering 45% of the country's agricultural land and accounting for 65% of national water withdrawal.

The study focused on four major food crops - soya, wheat, rice and corn (maize) - and three livestock groups: ruminant, pork and poultry.

Together, these products accounted for 93% of China's domestic food supply in 2005, according to figures from the United Nations.

The team - involving scientists from the US, Japan and China - assessed the volume of water used by different provinces to produce these crops and livestock, including the volume from rainwater and irrigation systems.

They concluded: 'China's domestic food trade is efficient in terms of rainwater but inefficient regarding irrigation, meaning that dry, irrigation-intensive provinces tend to export to wetter, less irrigation-intensive ones.

'We (also) identify specific provinces (for example, Inner Mongolia) and products (for example, corn) that show high potential for irrigation productivity improvements.

The team added that the paper's findings had important policy implications.

'They constitute an essential input for designing policies and provide a framework for analysing how these policies might change China's... irrigation use in the near future.'

'Grave situation'

The issue of water scarcity is one that the nation's officials know could undermine efforts to achieve sustainable development.

In 2012, China's vice minister of water resources, Hu Siyi, warned: 'Because of the grave situation, we must put in place the strictest water resources management system.'

He said that about two-thirds of Chinese cities were 'water-needy', nearly 300 million rural residents lacked access to safe drinking water, and 40% of rivers were seriously polluted.

Although China has one of the world's largest annual internal renewable water resources (water in rivers and groundwater from rainfall), its population of 1.3bn people means that, per capita, the national average of renewable water supplies is just one third of the global average.

Within the country, there is a vast difference. People in northern provinces only have a tiny fraction of water resources available to them compared with residents of southern parts of China.

While the north only has about one-fifth of China's water supplies, it accounts for two thirds of the nation's cropland.

A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the intensive use of groundwater resources had resulted in the lowering of water tables by up to 300m and the rapid depletion of groundwater reservoirs.

It added that groundwater extraction in northern provinces was unsustainable as water was being consumed faster than it could be replenished.

However, in contrast - it added - less than 30% of the known groundwater resources in southern China were being used as a result of having a more plentiful supply of surface water sources.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Pesticide toll 'impossible to deny'

Neonicotinoid pesticides are causing significant damage to a wide range of beneficial species and are a key factor in the decline of bees, say scientists.

Researchers, who have carried out a four-year review of the literature, say the evidence of damage is now 'conclusive'.

The scientists say the threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.

Manufacturers say the pesticides are not harming bees or other species.

Neonicotinoids were introduced in the early 1990s as a replacement for older, more damaging chemicals.

'Start Quote

Using them as prophylactics is absolute madness in that sense'

End Quote Prof Dave Goulson University of Sussex

They are a systemic insecticide, meaning that they are absorbed into every cell in a plant, making all parts poisonous to pests.

But some scientists have been concerned about their impact, almost since the moment they were introduced.

Much of the worry has surrounded their effects on bees.

There's been a well documented, global decline in these critical pollinators.

Many researchers believe that exposure to neonicotinoids has been an important destabilising factor for the species.

'Worldwide impacts'

In 2011, environmental campaigners, the IUCN, established an international scientific taskforce on systemic pesticides to look into the impacts of these chemicals.

The members have reviewed over 800 peer reviewed papers that have been published in the past 20 years.

Their assessment of the global impact says the threat posed goes far beyond bees.

In their report, to be published next month, they argue that neonicotinoids and another chemical called fipronil are poisoning the earth, the air and the water.

The pesticides accumulate in the soil and leach into water, and pose a significant problem for earthworms, freshwater snails, butterflies and birds.

The researchers say that the classic measurements used to assess the toxicity of a pesticide are not effective for these systemic varieties and conceal their true impact.

They point to one of the studies in the review carried out in the Netherlands.

It found that higher levels of neonicotinoids in water reduced the levels of aquatic invertebrates, which are the main prey for a whole range of species including wading birds, trout and salmon.

'There is so much evidence, going far beyond bees,' Prof Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex told BBC News.

'They accumulate in soils, they are commonly turning up in waterways at levels that exceed the lethal dose for things that live in streams.

'It is impossible to deny that these things are having major environmental impacts.'

DDT comparison

The scientists are very worried about the prophylactic use of neonicotinoids, where seeds are coated in the chemicals and the plant grows up with the ability to destroy pests already built in.

'It is a bit like taking antibiotics to avoid getting ill,' said Prof Goulson, one of a team of 29 scientists involved in the research.

'The more they are used, the stronger the selective pressure you place on pest insects to become resistant to them. Using them as prophylactics is absolute madness in that sense.'

The task force argues that with neonicotinoids and fipronil making up around a third of the world market in insecticides, farmers are over-relying on them in the same way as they once became over reliant on chemicals like DDT.

'We have forgotten those lessons and we're back to where we were in the 1960s,' said Prof Goulson.

'We are relying almost exclusively on these insecticides, calendar spraying 20 times or more onto a single field, it's a completely bonkers way.'

While neonicotinoids don't accumulate in human or animal tissue in the way that DDT once did, the modern pesticides are more lethal, about 6,000 time as toxic compared to the older spray.

Representatives of manufacturers say that there is nothing new in the task force study.

'There is very little credible evidence that these things are causing untoward damage because we would have seen them over 20 years of use,' said Dr Julian Little from Bayer, one of the manufacturers of neonicotinoids.

'If you look at the tree bumblebee, it is eating the same food as the other bees, and is being exposed to the same pesticide load and weather conditions and yet it is flourishing, whereas some other bees are not.

'If it were pesticides causing the mass destruction of our fauna, surely you would see effects on all bees?'

The European Crop Protection Association said the task force was being selective in their evidence, pointing to recent studies carried out by industry showing that the declines in bee populations have been overstated.

'We respect the scientists who have produced this research, but it appears that they are part of a movement that brings together some academics and NGOs whose only objective is to restrict or ban the use of neonicotinoid technology regardless of what the evidence may show,' a spokesperson said.

Europe already has a two-year moratorium in place meaning that neonicotinoids can't be used on flowering crops such as oilseed rape.

Last week, President Obama announced the creation of a pollinator health task force to look at the impact of pesticide exposure on bees and other insects.

Prof Goulson says that he isn't in favour of a ban.

'We have been using these things for 20 years and there's not a single study that shows they increase yield,' he said.

'I'm not personally in favour of an outright ban but I think we should use them much more judiciously - if they don't benefit yield we should stop using them.'

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Cave given world heritage status

A cave in southern France dubbed the 'prehistoric Sistine Chapel' has been added to Unesco's World Heritage list.

The 1,000 drawings carved in the walls of the Decorated Cave of Pont d'Arc, or Grotte Chauvet, are 36,000 years old and include mammoths and hand prints.

Cave experts only discovered it in 1994 as the entrance had been concealed by a rockfall 23,000 years earlier.

It was one of several cultural and natural wonders granted the status by a committee of delegates in Doha, Qatar.

UN cultural agency Unesco said the cave, located in the Ardeche region of France featured 'the earliest and best-preserved expressions of artistic creation of the Aurignacian people', who were believed to be the first modern human culture in Europe.

'The large number of over 1,000 drawings covering over 8,500 square metres (90,000 square feet), as well as their high artistic and aesthetic quality, make Grotte Chauvet an exceptional testimony of prehistoric cave art,' said Unesco.

'Its state of preservation and authenticity is exceptional as a result of its concealment over 23 millennia.'

The entrance was found 25 metres underground, with the cave stretching into several branches covering around 800 metres.

Less than 200 researchers a year are allowed inside the cave and the more remote parts remain unexplored.

The painted images, which are the oldest known human drawings, include dozens of animals such as wild cats, rhinos, bison and bears.

Remnants and prints of real ancient animals have also been found, including the remains of large cave bears which are believed to have hibernated at the site.

It is the oldest cultural property classified as a World Heritage site by Unesco.

A full-scale replica of the cave, the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc, is currently under construction nearby and is due to open next year, in a bid to share the discovery with a wider audience.

'The inscription of the Cave as a World Heritage site is a wonderful tribute to the first artists in history,' said Pascal Terrasse, president of the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc Grand Project.

'It guarantees the conservation of the cave and allows us to understand and explain its significance as heritage.'

Researchers believe the cave was never permanently inhabited by humans 'but was instead of a sacred character' and 'used for shamanist ritual practice'.

'It is our whole human and artistic history which is summarized in what has been rightly called, the prehistoric Sistine Chapel,' said Jean-Jack Queyranne, the president of the Rhône-Alpes Region.

'Everything is there: profile, perspective, movement, but also a desire to communicate a message of humanity and creation, which is also that which we bear through our proposal as a World Heritage List nomination or through the creation of The Cavern Pont-d'Arc.'

Badger advice 'wilfully' ignored

A senior government adviser has described coalition plans to change the way the pilot badger culls are assessed as 'an abuse' of the scientific method.

Prof Timothy Coulson is concerned the government is considering a less reliable way of assessing humaneness in the cull and numbers of badgers killed.

He is also concerned that it will scrap independent oversight.

It would also make it impossible to assess whether recommendations to improve the cull have worked.

'Start Quote

The government no longer wants to know whether the pilots are effective or humane and I fear we may hear that the second year is a success once it is over'

End Quote Prof Timothy Coulson Government advisor

Writing in Animal Ecology in Focus, Prof Coulson says that ministers must be 'wilfully' ignoring the concerns of its own scientists.

'I am tempted to speculate that the government no longer wants to know whether the pilots are effective or humane,' he says in his article. 'They just want to cull badgers, regardless of whether the population or humaneness consequences can be assessed.'

'And I fear we may hear that the second year is a success once it is over,' he says.

Prof Coulson told BBC News that he considered culling to be an 'easy option' to make it look as if the government was trying to solve the spread of TB in cattle when it could actually make the problem worse if it failed to kill enough badgers.

'If culling worked I'd be fully supportive of them rolling it out, but all the evidence is that it does not,' he told BBC News.

Prof Coulson, from the University of Oxford, is an internationally respected population biologist and was a member of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) that assessed the effectiveness, safety and humanness of two pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire last year.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is running the pilot culls, said: 'We will continue to monitor the effectiveness and humaneness of the badger culls closely to assess the impact of the improvements we are making following the IEP's recommendations.'

'We are currently assessing the best and most cost-effective methods of doing this,' she added. 'Scientific evidence such as the findings of the IEP will always play an integral role in developing our approach to dealing with bovine TB, which includes strengthening cattle movement controls and developing vaccines for cattle and badgers.'

'Start Quote

We will continue to monitor the effectiveness and humaneness of the badger culls closely to assess the impact of the improvements we are making following the IEP's recommendations'

End Quote Defra spokesperson

However, Prof Coulson said that Defra ministers were not listening to the advice of their own scientists.

He told BBC News: 'Government agencies are stuffed full of very competent scientists. Presumably the concerns that they must have raised are being wilfully ignored by government. I wonder why?

'I suspect the government no longer wants to know the answer to whether their ongoing pilot culls will deliver the required outcome.'

Prof Rosie Woodroffe, of the Zoological Society of London, works closely with government employed scientists on the science of the badger cull. She told BBC News that she has 'little doubt' that some scientists in Defra and other government agencies will be concerned that these culls will be ineffective and inhumane.

'I don't know whether policymakers are not listening to their own scientists, or simply not seeking their own scientists' views on what has become such a political issue.'

Defra authorised two pilot culls over a four year period in Somerset and Gloucestershire last to see whether licensed marksmen could kill 70% of the badger population in the pilot areas, the number required to reduce the spread of TB in cattle. Defra agreed to independent oversight of the culls by the IEP. BBC News revealed earlier this year that the IEP concluded that the trials were ineffective and raised concerns about the number of badgers that died slowly after being shot by marksmen.

On the basis of that advice, Defra decided not to extend the culls to other parts of England as it had originally hoped - though the two pilot trials will continue for three more years as they are required to do under the culling licence issued by Natural England.

But Defra has decided not to continue with the independent oversight provided by the IEP. The department is also considering changing the method for assessing the number of badgers killed, citing cost as the reason.

Cost question

The method used last year involved analysing the genetic code of badgers in the cull area before the cull and then analysing the code of the badgers that were killed. Prof Coulson said this gave an accurate assessment of the proportion of badgers killed.

Instead, the BBC understands that Defra is considering two alternative approaches to monitor the culls. One of these is based on data from the companies that carried out the cull, but the IEP had little faith in these data, was critical of them in its report and did not use them.

The second method is based on a computer model which has not been validated for the two cull areas. The IEP was also critical of this in minutes of its meetings.

Prof Coulson has told BBC News that the 'genotyping' work is not an expensive method and whatever method is used instead will be much less accurate. Genotyping costs around a £15-20 per badger and so the cost of doing the work should run into a few tens of thousands of pounds at most.

'Start Quote

Ministers and farmers are hoping that this year's pilots will be more effective than last year's. To give policymakers, farmers and the public confidence in the outcome of the pilots, it's essential that the same methods are used consistently'

'A cynic might speculate that (the change in method) is because following best animal ecology practice might lead to conclusions at odds with what the government seems unjustifiably determined to do,' he said.

'In addition to changing the protocols, there is to be no more independent oversight of the ongoing culls. So who will oversee the analysis of data and the interpretation of results? The same folks that have decided to change the protocols half way through the experiment?'

The IEP made recommendations to improve humaneness which the government has accepted. The success or otherwise of these recommendations will also be hard to assess, according to Prof Coulson, because he believes the data on humaneness are not going to be collected from autopsies of badgers to assess how they were killed as was done last year.

Prof Woodroffe says that it won't be possible to compare last year's figures with the next set if the method used to count the badgers that have been killed is changed.

'Ministers and farmers are hoping that this year's pilots will be more effective than last year's. To give policymakers, farmers and the public confidence in the outcome of the pilots, it's essential that the same methods are used consistently,' she said.

Prof Coulson added that changing the way in which the experiment was assessed was 'an abuse of the scientific method'.

''If the methods Defra are thought to be considering are used in place of those applied last year, it would be like starting a surgical procedure with a scalpel and forceps and finishing it with a garden spade and axe,' he said.

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Forests 'fundamental' to well-being

A senior UN official has described the world's forests as 'fundamental' to human well-being and survival.

Eva Mueller, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization's Forestry Division, said trees provided a direct source of food, fuel and income.

Commenting on the findings of the UN's State of the World's Forest report, she added forests habitats were home to an estimated 80% of global biodiversity.

The report has been published at a UN forestry meeting in Rome, Italy.

She added: 'Food from the forests - like fruit, nuts, mushrooms, leaves, roots, insects and wild animals - often contributes a nutritious supplement to rural people and provides a safety net in times of hardship.

'Forests, trees, farms and agroforestry systems contribute to food security, nutrition and livelihoods in several ways including as a direct source of food, fuel, employment and income,' Ms Mueller explained.

'They are fundamental to the survival of forest dwellers, including indigenous people.

The report, which was published at the start of the UN's World Forest Week, said that it was time for the sector to shift its focus from 'trees to people'.

Knowledge gap

It stated: 'State of the World's Forests (SOFO) 2014 argues that this will enable the development of the socioeconomic benefits from forests to meet the growing demands of society, while maintaining the integrity of the forest resource base.

'Across the world, forests, trees on farms, and agroforestry systems play a crucial role in the livelihoods of rural people by providing employment, energy, nutritious foods and a wide range of other goods and ecosystem services.

'They have tremendous potential to contribute to sustainable development and to a greener economy. Yet, clear evidence of this has been lacking.'

In the findings, the report's authors said income from the formal forestry sector accounted for about 0.9% of the global economy. However, the informal income (from woodfuel, construction materials, food etc) took forests' contributions to about 1.1% of the global economy.

In employment terms, the formal sector provided 13.2 million jobs, while an estimated 41 million livelihoods were dependent on the informal sector.

The report also outlined the importance of forests' contribution to food and nutrition security. In 2011, it observed, about 10.9kg of edible non-wood forest products (NWFP) were consumed per capita globally.

As a fuel, it estimated that one-in-three of the world's population depended on woodfuel for cooking, while 764 million people used woodfuel for boiling drinking water.

Ms Mueller added forests also played an important role indirectly in people's well-being.

'Forests are important providers of ecosystem services,' she said. ' For example, they help to deliver clean water by protecting water sheds and water courses.

'For most of the year, herders in arid and semi-arid lands depend on trees as a source of fodder for their livestock.

'As habitat for an estimated 80% of the world's biodiversity, forests provide genetic material important for crop and animal improvement, and are home to many pollinator species.'

'Biggest prize in science' announced

The first winners have been announced for a new prize for mathematics.

Five researchers have been awarded the Breakthrough Prize for their groundbreaking work.

The Breakthrough Prizes are awarded for recent achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics.

The organisers describe them as the 'biggest science awards in the world' as they offer the most prize money - $3m (£1.76m) for each.

Among the winners are Professor Richard Taylor, a British mathematician currently working at the Institute of Advance Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. He is a leader in the field of number theory and has helped to develop powerful new techniques to solve longstanding mathematical problems. He told BBC News that he felt 'very surprised, excited and lucky' to win the award.

'Start Quote

Mathematics is a team effort, involving collaboration and building on the work of one's colleagues so I want to find a way of giving something back to the community'

End Quote Prof Richard Taylor Maths breakthrough prize winner

He said he had not decided what he would do with his prize money, but said he wanted spend it on something that would benefit his field.

'Mathematics is a team effort, involving collaboration and building on the work of one's colleagues so I want to find a way of giving something back to the community'.

He said that such awards were important because they help to attract the 'the best brains into science'.

'Science has an undeserved reputation of being dry and unglamorous so anything that can be done to change that image is to be welcomed,' he told BBC News.

The organisers' aim is to introduce some 'razzmatazz' into science prizes, describing their winners as 'the real rock stars'.

The Breakthrough Prizes were launched by a group of philanthropic technology billionaires including Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group, and Yuri Milner, founder of investment firm Digital Sky Technologies.

Mr Milner said the aim of the prize was to 'cultivate a positive image of science and rationalism, and an optimistic view of humanity's future'.

'Outside the field of entertainment, intellectual brilliance is under-capitalized in our society. 58 years ago, one of the most famous men on earth was not an actor, athlete or musician, but a theoretical physicist. Albert Einstein's face was on magazine covers, in newspapers and on television, worldwide,' he said.

'His name was synonymous with genius. Yet most of today's top scientists - despite opening new windows onto the Universe, curing intractable diseases and extending human life - are unknown to the general public. The greatest thinkers of our age should be superstars, like the geniuses of screen and stadium.'

Mark Zuckerberg said: 'Mathematics is essential for driving human progress and innovation in this century. This year's Breakthrough Prize winners have made huge contributions to the field and we're excited to celebrate their efforts.'

The other winners are: Simon Donaldson from Imperial College London; Maxim Kontsevich, Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in France; Jacob Lurie, Harvard University in Boston, and Terence Tao, University of California, in Los Angeles.

The prize for mathematics was launched last year to help redress the paucity of awards recognising achievement in the field. Others include the the Abel, Clay and Wolf prizes and the Fields Medal.