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Dec 12, 2017, 11:42 PM
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 on: Dec 11, 2017, 06:21 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Ski resort will devastate Unesco world heritage site in Bulgaria, says WWF

Expansion of budget ski resort Bansko into Pirin national park will be disastrous for centuries-old forests home to brown bears and wolves

Arthur Neslen
11 December 2017 11.12 GMT

A budget ski resort expansion is poised to carve 333km of new slopes and 113km of ski lifts through a Unesco world heritage site of “outstanding universal value”, according to documents obtained by WWF in a lawsuit.

The 400sq km Pirin national park in Bulgaria is one of Europe’s best preserved homes for large mammals such as brown bears and wolves, which roam its glacial lakes, alpine meadows and dense forest.

But commercial logging may also soon be allowed in a zone stretching across nearly 60% of the park, under a draft management plan that WWF says would enable a 12-fold expansion of the Bansko resort, dubbed “Europe’s budget ski capital”.

Katerina Rakovska, a WWF expert in Bulgaria, said the new documents showed the government had aligned its draft to “exactly” fit the zoning regime requested by the prospective ski resort builder, Ulen.

“This disastrous plan would open the door for the clear cutting of centuries-old forests, causing grave damage to biodiversity,” she said. “Research already shows that brown bears, chamois and capercaillie are avoiding areas of mass tourism. Under this proposal, they would literally have nowhere else to go.”

Last month, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the south-west Bulgarian park a site of “significant concern” because of the potential ski development and associated logging.

WWF says that the 10-year management plan would give a green light to resort construction across 7.5% of the park – compared to 0.6% at present – and bring in a new zoning system that could permit widespread logging under the guise of maintenance and restoration actions.

Another government document released in the WWF lawsuit says that “timber logging for the needs of the park, the local communities and the local small business has to happen under an approved forest management plan”.

Miroslav Kalugerov, the director of Bulgaria’s nature protection service, denied that the planned new park regime would harm Pirin’s nature or biodiversity, calling fears of commercial logging “unjustified and groundless”.

The development blueprint was intended to “remove diseased and injured individual [trees] and groups of trees”, by selling them to local people for a nominal fee, he said.

“Because of the prohibition for construction of new roads and clearings in the draft new management plan, most probably, maintenance and restoration activities in future will be carried out on 5% of the park’s territory,” he said.

However, a ministerial position paper seen by the Guardian describes the plan as “a radical change” from current rules which “gives grounds to expect a high level of impact on the natural habitat types, and habitats of species of conservation importance”.

The draft proposal was funded by the European commission and could become a running sore for Bulgaria as it prepares to take up its six-month presidency of the EU. Pirin overlaps with two Natura 2000 sites that are protected by the bloc’s birds and habitats directive.

An EU source said: “It is for the Bulgarian authorities to ensure that the conservation measures and management plans adopted meet the EU rules on the Natura 2000 sites.”

Any activities that could affect protected areas would have to undergo appropriate environmental assessments, the source added.

 on: Dec 11, 2017, 06:18 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Chinese ban on plastic waste imports could see UK pollution rise

Chinese restrictions from January will hit UK recycling efforts and risk plastic waste being stockpiled or ending up in landfill, warn industry leaders

Sandra Laville

A ban on imports of millions of tonnes of plastic waste by the Chinese government from January could see an end to collection of some plastic in the UK and increase the risk of environmental pollution, according to key figures in the industry.

Recycling companies say the imminent restrictions by China – the world’s biggest market for household waste – will pose big challenges to the UK’s efforts to recycle more plastic.

Analysis of customs data by Greenpeace reveals British companies have shipped more than 2.7m tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong since 2012 – two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports.

Pressure is growing on Thérèse Coffey, the environment minister, to take urgent action to support and build the UK recycling industry to meet the challenges created by the China ban. But when asked recently, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, said: “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is ... something to which – I will be completely honest – I have not given it sufficient thought.”
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Stuart Foster from Recoup, said there were indications in 2008 and 2012 that the Chinese market might be restricted in future but no action was taken in the UK. He said the restrictions on the export market should be an opportunity for the UK to develop its own infrastructure and create a circular economy in plastics.

But there was no robust plan in place to cope with the impact of the closure of the biggest market for waste in the world and the restrictions would lead to stockpiling of plastic waste, more incineration and the risk of more landfill.

“Whatever happens we need to maintain control of the material because the bigger worry is about leakage of plastic into the environment,” said Foster.

China’s dominance in manufacturing means that for years it has been the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials. In 2016, China imported 7.3m tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, the US and Japan.

But this summer the Chinese announced they intended to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of this year, including polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) drinks bottles, other plastic bottles and containers, and all mixed paper, in a campaign against yang laji or “foreign garbage”.

The Chinese have also increased quality controls for all other waste including cardboard, something other markets are likely to follow, which will also put the British recycling industry under huge pressure. The impact could see local authorities reducing collections because they are not economically viable.

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, said the government was asleep on the job and the situation was a shambles. “If the government is serious about waste and recycling, they need to invest and come up with a coherent plan for the recycling industry,” he said.

Ray Georgeson, head of the Resource Association, an advocacy body for the recycling industry, said the lower-grade materials would have nowhere to go.

“Can you imagine the press coverage if local authority recycling rates drop by 5 or 10% because the plastics have no market to go to?” he said.

Lee Marshall, chief executive of Larac, which advises local authorities on recycling, told Greenpeace the fee at sorting plants may increase for councils because the sorting would have to be done to a better standard for new markets, or the price they get for any materials may decrease.

This could lead some councils to stop collecting some types of plastic, such as meat trays and yoghurt pots, for recycling. “While councils don’t like turning materials off … if the economics are such that it does cause them a problem, that’s a decision they’ll have to make,” he said.

Marcus Gover, chief executive of Wrap, said the restrictions posed “substantial challenges” and urgent action was needed to secure a thriving recycling supply chain for plastics and paper to benefit the UK economically and environmentally. The quality of UK recycling has to improve to meet higher standards put in place by China and other markets, he said

Many believe the restriction of the Chinese market should be opportunity for the UK to develop its recycling infrastructure and forge a link with the UK manufacturing industry to utilise more recycled plastic.

But many experts said the government was not taking action.

Foster said: “If you could get the link in place with UK manufacturers making plastic products, so that it makes business and environmental sense to use the recycled content and at the same time build up the recycling infrastructure in the UK, this is a real opportunity.

“We need the right policy put in place. But unfortunately because of Brexit ... we have other priorities.”

Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: “This ban could mean a double whammy for council tax payers if the price of our exported waste falls and the cost of UK disposal rises. The government should show leadership and invest in more reprocessing facilities at home to reuse these valuable materials, create green jobs and prevent plastic and paper pollution.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We are continuing to work with the waste industry and the Environment Agency to understand the impact across the sector of the Chinese government’s proposed restrictions on waste imports.

“We are also looking at ways to process more of our recycling at home as part of our resources and waste strategy.”

 on: Dec 11, 2017, 06:13 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Co-op to sell food past its 'best before' date in bid to cut waste

Goods such as pasta, crisps and rice will be cut to 10p and sold for a further month at East of England

Rebecca Smithers Consumer affairs correspondent

A major retailer has become the first to start selling food that is past its “best before” date in a drive to reduce food waste.

From this week, the East of England Co-op – the biggest independent retailer in East Anglia – will sell tinned goods and dried food such as pasta, crisps and rice for a nominal 10p once they reach their best-before date. The offer will not apply to fresh and perishable foods, however, which carry a “use by” date indicating when a product is safe to eat.

The move by the retailer, which is independent of the Co-operative Group, follows a three-month trial in 14 stores that found that the 10p items generally sold within hours of being reduced.

Despite concerted efforts to reduce food waste through the entire supply chain, the government’s waste advisory body, Wrap, says £13bn-worth of edible food is thrown out in Britain every year.

Wrap is overseeing a major simplification of labelling with consumers often unaware of the difference between a use-by and a best-before date.

The East of England Co-op hopes to save at least two tonnes of food from being wasted annually with the initiative.

As part of the Co-op Guide to Dating campaign, shoppers will be told “Don’t be a binner, have it for dinner!” and “It’s not nice to get dumped”.

“We are committed to reducing waste in our business and the Co-op Guide to Dating is one of many initiatives we have instigated to make the East of England Co-op as efficient as possible, reducing our impact on the environment,” said Roger Grosvenor, the company’s joint chief executive and head of its retail division.

“During our trial we found our 10p items went within hours of being reduced, sometimes quicker,” said Grosvenor. “The vast majority of our customers understand they are fine to eat and appreciate the opportunity to make a significant saving on some of their favourite products. This is not a money-making exercise, but a sensible move to reduce food waste and keep edible food in the food chain. By selling perfectly edible food we can save 50,000-plus items every year which would otherwise have gone to waste.”

The Food Standards Agency advises that products past their best-before date are safe to eat but may not be at the optimum quality intended by the producer. The products will remain on sale for a month past their best-before date.

The East of England Co-op has also launched a new “reduced to clear” policy, offering bigger discounts earlier in the day on foods nearing their use-by dates.

The 10p discounted food cannot be donated to charities such as food banks as they do not accept items past their best-before dates.


Sadiq Khan plans network of London water fountains to reduce plastic waste

Proposals include new fountains and bottle-refill stations across the capital in parks and public squares
Person drinking from water fountain.

Nicola Davis
11 December 2017 06.00 GMT

London’s mayor Sadiq Khan wants to roll out a new network of water fountains and bottle-refill stations across the capital to help reduce the use of single-use packaging, such as plastic water bottles, the Guardian has learned.

The mayor also wants to experiment with getting businesses to make their tap water available to the public, building on a scheme launched two years ago in Bristol.

A million plastic bottles are bought worldwide every minute, and annual consumption is expected to surpass half a trillion bottles by 2021. A large proportion wind up buried in landfill sites or littering the ocean, with figures revealing that more than half of the plastic bottles bought in 2016 were not collected for recycling.

“The mayor wants to see a reduction in the amount of single-use plastic bottles and cups across the capital and has asked City Hall officers to examine the feasibility of a pilot community water refill scheme, or other interventions,” said a spokesperson for Khan, adding that the mayor has also written to the government to discuss trialling a deposit return scheme in London and would like London’s businesses to make tap water available to the public.

“Sadiq supports boroughs in identifying suitable locations for water fountains and bottle-refill stations during the planning process in new or redeveloped public spaces, such as town centres, shopping malls, parks and squares,” the spokesperson added, pointing to Khan’s blueprint for London, which is open for consultation until March 2018.

“Free drinking-water fountains that can refill water bottles, as well as be drunk from, should be provided in appropriate locations in new or redeveloped public realm,” the report notes, adding that such locations include busy pedestrian areas, parks and squares.

The mayor appears to be joining an incipient movement to challenge the inexorable spread of plastic. Retailers such as Pret a Manger, JD Wetherspoon and even London Zoo have indicated that they want to curb their plastic usage, and last month Jamie Oliver also called for more drinking stations to be installed to provide “a free and greener alternative to sugary drinks”.

In addition, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has revealed that greater access to drinking fountains across the country is being considered as part of the government’s bid to cut plastic waste.

Enthusiastically rolled out by Victorian philanthropists for public health and temperance reasons, water fountains were once far more abundant than they are today: the current provision around London and England’s metropolitan boroughs shows vast disparities.

Exclusive data gathered by the Guardian reveals that while the borough of Lambeth has 25 drinking fountains around its parks and open spaces, many others, including Sutton, Enfield and Haringey, have none – and no plans to install any.

A similar dearth was found across England’s urban hubs: not one of the councils across Manchester, Merseyside or South Yorkshire – encompassing Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham – reported having any drinking fountains in parks or town centres, with those that had been installed were decommissioned.

And it remains to be seen whether Gove and Khan’s ambitions will be realised. Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, also announced “a new era of public fountains” in 2008, but did not follow through.

“Under the previous mayoralty, several proposals for providing water fountains and water bottle refill stations were explored but there were concerns over high installation costs,” a spokesperson for Khan told the Guardian.

But the Guardian has established that costs are negligible. Documents regarding the installation of a drinking fountain in Shrewsbury Park, Greenwich, suggests it would cost about £6,000.

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets, which has 11 drinking fountains and is considering installing a further two, said that the decision to install fountains tended to be made when refurbs of parks and playgrounds were being undertaken, and after consultation with the public.

A survey by YouGov and Keep Britain Tidy earlier this year revealed that 70% of individuals questioned agreed that tap water should be more freely available, while 59% said they would be more likely to reuse a water bottle if they could easily fill it in shops, parks and other locations.

Paul O’Connell, a trustee of the Drinking Fountain Association that was set up in 1859, said that while budget cuts appeared to be behind the decommissioning of existing fountains by councils, commercial considerations might also play a role in decisions over whether to install fountains.

He said that, for example, seven years ago, Network Rail admitted that it did not want new drinking points on its stations, in part because it would undermine retailers.

In a letter to O’Connell, seen by the Guardian and dated February 2010, a transport ministry official noted that Network Rail believed that “installing water fountains would take away the revenue that retailers receive from the sale of bottled water (and other drinks) and rents that Network Rail receives from retailers is a significant source of revenue”.

When contacted by the Guardian, a Network Rail spokesperson said that water fountains were not, and would not, be installed in stations, but refused to give a rationale. “Water fountains are not a facility we currently have in stations and there are currently no plans to do so,” the spokesperson said.

While O’Connell said he welcomed the plans from the London mayor, he warned that promises to boost the number of water fountains had been made before, to little effect. “Obviously, we have been here before,” he said.

But, he added, the approach could bring many benefits if installed in the right locations, from aiding public health, to saving money and helping the environment.

“There is a lot of waste caused by single-use plastic and it’s a basic human need to have drinking water,” he said.

 on: Dec 11, 2017, 06:11 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
US military agency invests $100m in genetic extinction technologies

Technology could be used to wipe out malaria carrying mosquitos or other pests but UN experts say fears over possible military uses and unintended consequences strengthen case for a ban

Arthur Neslen
11 December 2017 11.10 GMT

A US military agency is investing $100m in genetic extinction technologies that could wipe out malarial mosquitoes, invasive rodents or other species, emails released under freedom of information rules show.

The documents suggest that the US’s secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has become the world’s largest funder of “gene drive” research and will raise tensions ahead of a UN expert committee meeting in Montreal beginning on Tuesday.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is debating whether to impose a moratorium on the gene research next year and several southern countries fear a possible military application.

UN diplomats confirmed that the new email release would worsen the “bad name” of gene drives in some circles. “Many countries [will] have concerns when this technology comes from Darpa, a US military science agency,” one said.

The use of genetic extinction technologies in bioweapons is the stuff of nightmares, but known research is focused entirely on pest control and eradication.

Cutting-edge gene editing tools such as Crispr-Cas9 work by using a synthetic ribonucleic acid (RNA) to cut into DNA strands and then insert, alter or remove targeted traits. These might, for example, distort the sex-ratio of mosquitoes to effectively wipe out malarial populations.

Some UN experts, though, worry about unintended consequences. One told the Guardian: “You may be able to remove viruses or the entire mosquito population, but that may also have downstream ecological effects on species that depend on them.”

“My main worry,” he added, “is that we do something irreversible to the environment, despite our good intentions, before we fully appreciate the way that this technology will work.”

Jim Thomas, a co-director of the ETC group which obtained the emails, said the US military influence they revealed would strengthen the case for a ban.

“The dual use nature of altering and eradicating entire populations is as much a threat to peace and food security as it is a threat to ecosystems,” he said. “Militarisation of gene drive funding may even contravene the Enmod convention against hostile uses of environmental modification technologies.”

Todd Kuiken, who has worked with the GBIRd programme, which receives $6.4m from Darpa, said that the US military’s centrality to gene tech funding meant that “researchers who depend on grants for their research may reorient their projects to fit the narrow aims of these military agencies”.

Between 2008 and 2014, the US government spent about $820m on synthetic biology. Since 2012, most of this has come from Darpa and other military agencies, Kuiken says.

In an email reporting a US military-organised conference in June, a US government biologist noted that Darpa’s biotechnology program manager Renee Wegrzynhad said “the safe genes projects account [was] for $65m, but then mentioned with all other support in the room, it was $100m”.

A Darpa spokesman said that the figure was “a liberal, notional estimate” that included researchers at the meeting funded by Darpa under related efforts.

“Darpa is not and should not be the only funder of gene-editing research but it is critical for the Department of Defense to defend its personnel and preserve military readiness,” he said.

Darpa believes that a steep fall in the costs of gene-editing toolkits has created a greater opportunity for hostile or rogue actors to experiment with the technology.

“This convergence of low cost and high availability means that applications for gene editing – both positive and negative – could arise from people or states operating outside of the traditional scientific community and international norms,” the official said. “It is incumbent on Darpa to perform this research and develop technologies that can protect against accidental and intentional misuse.”

Gene-drive research has been pioneered by an Imperial College London professor, Andrea Crisanti, who confirmed he has been hired by Darpa on a $2.5m contract to identify and disable such drives.

Fears that the research could be channeled towards bioweapons were “all fantasy”, he said. “There is no way this technology could be used for any military purpose. The general interest is in developing systems to contain the undesired effects of gene drives. We have never been asked to consider any application not for the good of eliminating plagues.”

Interest in the technology among US army bureaus has shot up since a secret report by the elite Jason group of military scientists last year “received considerable attention among various agencies of the US government”, according to an email by Gerald Joyce, who co-chaired a Jason study group in June.

A second Jason report was commissioned in 2017 assessing “potential threats this technology might pose in the hands of an adversary, technical obstacles that must be overcome to develop gene drive technology and employ it ‘in the wild’,” Joyce wrote.

The paper would not be publicly disclosed but “widely circulated within the US intelligence and broader national security community”, his email said.

 on: Dec 11, 2017, 06:09 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Keystone’s existing pipeline spills far more than predicted to regulators


TransCanada Corp’s  existing Keystone pipeline has leaked substantially more oil, and more often, in the United States than indicated in risk assessments the company provided to regulators before the project began operating in 2010, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.

The Canadian company is now seeking to expand the pipeline system linking Alberta’s oil fields to U.S. refineries with its proposed Keystone XL project, which has U.S. President Donald Trump’s backing.

The existing 2,147-mile (3,455 km) Keystone system from Hardisty, Alberta, to the Texas coast has had three significant leaks in the United States since it began operating in 2010, including a 5,000-barrel spill this month in rural South Dakota, and two others, each about 400 barrels, in South Dakota in 2016 and North Dakota in 2011.

Before constructing the pipeline, TransCanada provided a spill risk assessment to regulators that estimated the chance of a leak of more than 50 barrels to be “not more than once every seven to 11 years over the entire length of the pipeline in the United States,” according to its South Dakota operating permit.

For South Dakota alone, where the line has leaked twice, the estimate was for a “spill no more than once every 41 years.”

The spill risk analysis was conducted by global risk management company DNV GL. A spokesman for DNV did not respond to a request for comment.

Members of South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commission told Reuters last week they could revoke TransCanada’s operating permit if an initial probe of last week’s spill shows it violated the terms of the license.

Those terms include requirements for standards for construction, regular inspections of pipeline infrastructure, and other environmental safeguards.

“They testified that this is going to be a state-of-the-art pipeline,” said one of the commissioners, Gary Hanson. “We want to know the pipeline is going to operate in a fashion that is safe and reliable. So far it’s not going well.”

TransCanada shut a section of the line while it cleans up the leak, which occurred near the town of Aberdeen on Nov. 16. An official did not respond to a request for comment.

The spill took place days before regulators in neighboring Nebraska approved a route for TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline through the state, lifting the last major regulatory hurdle for the expansion that has been delayed for years by environmental opposition.

Trump handed TransCanada a presidential permit for Keystone XL in March, reversing former President Barack Obama’s decision to reject the line on economic and environmental grounds, saying that it would create jobs and boost national security.

TransCanada’s spill analysis for Keystone XL, which would cross Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, estimates 2.2 leaks per decade with half of those at volumes of 3 barrels or less. It estimated that spills exceeding 1,000 barrels would occur at a rate of once per century.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Richard Valdmanis)


Oil industry is to blame for earthquakes in Texas

12/11/2017 at 06:37 ET   

As an unnatural number of earthquakes hit Texas, researchers continue to wonder why. But, now a new study may have the answer.

The research—published in the journal Science Advances—says the oil and gas industry are to blame for the surge in seismic activity. In an attempt to understand whether the quakes are a result of human activity or natural origin, researchers analyzed fault history for two different areas in the United States: the Fort Worth Basin in Texas and the northern Mississippi embayment. Their findings revealed that the faults rarely move.

“There hasn’t been activity along these faults for 300 million years,” Beatrice Magnani, the study’s lead author and a seismologist at Southern Methodist University, told Scientific American. “Geologically, we usually define these faults as dead.”

Since there has been minimal movement, Magnani and her colleagues point to another cause: wastewater injection. In their paper, they argue that when the wastewater from extracting natural gas seeps down into the faults it can disrupt them, ultimately leading to an earthquake. However, there is no way to definitively know if drilling or nature causes the ground to rumble.

“It’s been a head-scratching period for scientists,” Magnani told The Washington Post.

Relying on what’s called “seismic reflection data,” the research team looked at photos that are created by sound waves deep underneath the Earth’s surface. The authors believe their research is the only published study to examine earthquakes in such a way.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to discriminate natural and induced seismicity using classical structural geology analysis techniques,” they wrote in their paper.

Oklahoma has also seen an unnatural surge of recent earthquakes. The team hopes that their approach can be applied there too.

“We hope that the response from our colleagues will be to deploy this [technique] elsewhere,” Michael Blanpied, co-author of the study and a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist, told The Washington Post.

Other scientists have previously recognized that some earthquakes are caused by human activity, but they’re few and far between, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

“In some parts of Texas the majority of earthquakes epicenters occur near active petroleum fields or injection wells,” the University of Texas at Austin’s website states.  “Fortunately, the vast majority of petroleum fields and injection wells do not cause earthquakes, and the majority of human-caused earthquakes are small and harmless.”

 on: Dec 11, 2017, 06:06 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Is owning a dog good for your health?

A new study suggests canine-lovers could be 23% less likely to die from heart disease – or it could just be that healthier people prefer dogs

Luisa Dillner

Dogs really are our best friends, according to a Swedish study that says canine ownership could reduce heart disease. A study of 3.4 million people between the ages of 40 and 80 found that having a dog was associated with a 23% reduction in death from heart disease and a 20% lower risk of dying from any cause over the 12 years of the study. Previous studies have suggested dogs relieve social isolation and depression – both linked to an increased risk of heart disease and early death.

The solution

Dog owners show better responses to stress (their blood pressure and pulse rates don’t soar), have higher levels of physical activity and slightly lower cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association was sufficiently swayed by a review of dozens of studies to release a statement in 2013 saying that owning a dog “was probably” associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Their reluctance to more strongly endorse dog ownership is because most studies are what is called observational – researchers note an association, but can’t prove causation. This means that other factors might explain why dog owners are healthier than, say, goldfish owners – for example, perhaps only people who are fit in the first place buy pets that need daily walkies.

Tove Fall, an epidemiologist and the lead author of this latest study, says they tried their best to allow for any differences in education, existing ill-health and lifestyles between those with and without dogs. The study found the biggest positive impact of having a dog was on people living alone. “It seems that a dog can be a substitute for living with other people in terms of reducing the risk of dying,” says Fall. “Dogs encourage you to walk, they provide social support and they make life more meaningful. If you have a dog, you interact more with other people. If you do get ill and go into hospital and you have a dog, there’s a huge motivation to try to get back home.”

Of course, getting a dog and watching it from your sofa while you eat fatty food is not going to reduce your risk of heart disease. And a toy dog may look cute, but won’t have any effect either. Fall’s study showed the most health benefits came from having retrievers or pointers. Until her German shorthaired pointer died last year, she ran 10km with her most days. “In Sweden, we have one of the lowest rates of dog ownership in Europe,” says Fall, who has recently got a new puppy. “Maybe this will increase the acceptance that dogs are important to people.”

 on: Dec 11, 2017, 06:04 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Evolution row ends as scientists declare sponges to be sister of all other animals

Longstanding question of whether sponges or comb jellies were first to branch off the evolutionary tree from the common ancestor of all animals may be settled

Nicola Davis

A longstanding row in animal evolution has come to a head, with a team of scientists claiming they have ended the debate over which type of creature is the sister of all other animals.

Researchers have been torn for years over whether sponges or marine invertebrates known as comb jellies were the first type of creature to branch off the evolutionary tree from the common ancestor of all animals.

Now researchers say the debate is over: the sponges have won.

“We need to try to understand the sponges much better if we want to understand the nature of animals’ – and our own – deepest ancestry,” said Davide Pisani, co-author of the research and professor of phylogenomics at the University of Bristol.

The finding, say experts, is no trivial matter, as it could have drastic implications for what the last common ancestor of all animals looked like.

“Sponges are simple – humble, in a sense – creatures that live at the bottom of the sea; they are filter-feeders, they don’t do much,” said Pisani. “The comb jelly is a very different creature. They are extremely pretty and rather complicated,” he added, pointing out that comb jellies look a bit like jellyfish and can propel themselves through water, create patterns of light and have both a simple nervous system and a gut – including a mouth and anus.

“If the comb jellies are the sister of all of us, then we either are in a situation where the last common ancestor of all the animals was quite complex, [having] a nervous system, a gut and muscles and then the sponges [lost these features] or all these things we see in the comb jellies … evolved multiple times in animals,” he said, adding that the scenario also posed other puzzles such as what the ancestral creature would have preyed on.

“If the sponges are the sister group of everything else … then we can assume a much simpler scenario,” said Pisani. “Then the assumption is we evolved from a filter-feeder organism.”

With different models of evolutionary relationships applied to the same genetic data throwing up either a triumph for the sponge side of the debate or the comb jellies, the researchers of latest study turned to statistics to resolve the issue.

“With this type of approach you can evaluate the extent to which alternative models are capable of describing a dataset, so you can say ‘this model is good for this specific dataset and this model is not good’,” said Pisani.

The results, published in the journal Current Biology, were clear, he said. “Models that provide a much better description of the data invariably find the sponges at the root of the tree, for all of the datasets that have been published up to now.”

That, he adds, ties in well with the fact that the closest living relatives of all animals are filter-feeding aquatic organisms called choanoflagellates.

But the findings he said, should offer us all food for thought. “I think part of why people love this debate so much is the comb jellies are beautiful and the sponges are somewhat ugly. The sponge is the underdog in a sense,” he said. “So it is quite nice to know that we have really humble beginnings, rather than this glamorous start.”

While Pisani believes proponents of the comb jellies might continue the debate, he says the wrangle is drawing to a close. “From my perspective, yes, this is the last word,” he said.

Antonis Rokas, professor of biological sciences and biomedical informatics at Vanderbilt University, and who has previously published studies supporting the idea that comb jellies are the oldest sister group to all other animals, welcomed the research. “It is a great step in the right direction toward resolving the debate,” he said, adding that the analyses comparing the accuracy of models are insightful.

But, he said, the new approach brings with it its own difficulties, leading him to believe the jury is still out. “With this study, the authors have significantly tipped the balance toward the sponges-sister hypothesis,” he said. “But I will eagerly await to see what are the effects of adding additional genomes from both sponge and ctenophore lineages, as well as models that do not reduce the information provided from the data, before considering the debate solved.”

 on: Dec 11, 2017, 06:02 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Country diary: quieter times for Badgeropolis

Dolbenmaen, Gwynedd This sett was, I think, first occupied in the early 1950s, its entrances concealed among dense rhododendron thickets

Jim Perrin

This sett I’ve known for 50 years. I think it was first occupied in the early 1950s. Huge now, 200 metres long and 60 wide, with innumerable entrances concealed among dense rhododendron thickets, I called it Badgeropolis, and spent much time watching from the hillside above as the badgers made their moonlit excursions. These were an enchantment: the silvery bounce of their beautiful coats; the rough-and-tumble of cubs’ play; their curiosity and habituation to my still, nightly presence; the astonishing inflected vocabulary of squeal, purr, yelp and mew; their tenderness at mating; the affection between boar and sow, parents and cubs.

There was little threat to badgers in those days. Shepherds in the valley viewed them fondly as natural pest-controllers. The only horrible sight I witnessed was when one rogue farmer set his collies on a big old boar caught in a fox snare, and summoned his friends. The savage noise of his “sport” polluted the valley. By the time I reached its source, the badger was defenceless, a back leg stripped by wire to sinew and bone, the dogs still ripping at it.

I took a shotgun propped against a parked Land Rover, hurled the dogs aside, put the muzzle to the poor animal’s heart, replaced the gun, and spat at the spectators’ feet as I walked away. It was a death that filled the valley with throbbing silence. That night, my tyres were slashed.

Through the Thatcher years, the big sett became a focus for terriermen with spades and sacks. They dug out these old spirits of place, sold them to the calvaries of city dog-pits.

This afternoon, for the first time in years, I went back to see how Badgeropolis had survived. Setts can be remarkably resistant to persecution. I looked for signs that denote presence and activity: neat dungpits along field-margins; snuffle-holes among leaf-litter; tufts of hair where pathways pass beneath barbed wire; paw prints and scratch-marks. All were there, but so much less numerous and recent than I remember. A new darkness has arrived for these lovely, sentient creatures.

 on: Dec 11, 2017, 06:00 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Land of the birds: why Australia has the world's greatest diversity of avian life

Australia is home to one in 10 of the world’s unique bird species – and most of the world’s birds can trace their lineage to the continent

John Pickrell

If you live in Australia, you may not realise how unique and special the birds around you are. Our continent was perhaps the most important for the evolution of modern birds, with a majority of the world’s species tracing their ancestry here.

Long ecologically adrift as an island continent, Australia benefited through the evolution of a remarkable diversity of fascinating, colourful, noisy, clever, innovative species of bird.

Australia is home to about 830 species – more if you include neighbouring islands – nearly one in 10 of the world’s 10,000 or so living bird species. About 45% of these are endemics, found nowhere else.

We are lucky to have two of the world’s largest and heaviest birds – the flightless cassowary (which I’m backing in the Bird of the Year poll #teamcassowary!) and the emu – which are perhaps the most superficially similar to birds’ dinosaur ancestors. And related flightless ratites were probably already common across the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana long before Australia split from Antarctica and South America.

Three groups of birds found widely worldwide – parrots, pigeons and songbirds – evolved in Australia, which explains why the former two are so diverse and abundant here.

Parrots, with their cacophonously noisy calls, immediately stand out to first-time visitors to Australia. They are so species-rich in Australia that – as biologist Tim Low notes in his book Where Song Began – New South Wales alone has almost as many parrots as the continents of Africa and Asia combined.

The songbirds are an enormous group of living birds, comprising about 5,000 species, such as the robins, mockingbirds, jays and thrushes of the northern hemisphere, and the magpies, bowerbirds and lyrebirds of Australia.

Throughout the 20th century ornithologists believed many bird groups evolved in the north, only later spreading to Australia. It was an extension of the idea promulgated by 19th century naturalists that Australia was an empty land, waiting to be filled with good stuff from the north.

Finding fossils in Australia is relatively challenging compared with many other parts of the world, and the fossil record of birds is particularly poor because they have small, light bones, perfectly adapted for flight but unlikely to be preserved. But songbird fossils were eventually found here that were up to 54m years old – much older than those found elsewhere in the world.

Research in the 1980s also started to show that the greatest genetic diversity of songbirds was found in Australia. The idea that songbirds first appeared in Australia took a long time to be accepted overseas, but a huge study of 100 species from 25 countries left little doubt when it was published in the journal Nature Communications in 2016.

That work suggested songbirds had begun to diversify in Australia 33m years ago but did not begin to spread beyond our shores for another 10m years – a period during which Australia was replete with birdsong, but much of the rest of the world was silent to its beauty.

The unique nature of Australia’s eucalypt and paperbark forests has also shaped bird evolution. Gum blossoms, for example, provided a resource for great numbers of nectar-feeding honeyeaters. And as Low also points out, the presence of much nectar as a jealously guarded resource may be why so many Australian birds are raucously noisy – species such noisy miners, rainbow lorikeets and various wattlebirds.

Australian birds generally are very noisy, even non-nectar feeders such as magpies, kookaburras and some cockatoos.

There are many other ways in which Australian birds are unique. Many have power as “ecosystem engineers”, exerting profound impacts on their habitats. Pigeons, fruit doves and cassowaries are all vital to spreading the seeds of fruit trees; lyrebirds reduce bushfires by frequently turning over leaf litter and effectively creating firebreaks; and huge numbers of birds are important pollinators.

So, if you haven’t realised it yet, if you live in Australia, you are lucky to have this wonderful diversity of fascinating birds filling the suburbs, bush and rainforests around you. Next time you’re outside, look up into the trees and appreciate these Aussie marvels of evolution for what they really are.

• John Pickrell is an award-winning science writer based in Sydney and the author of Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds. Follow him on Twitter.

 on: Dec 11, 2017, 05:58 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Darja
Petting zoos at the office are the latest perk for stressed-out employees

By Andrea Sachs
December 11 2017
WA Post

Squeals on Wheels brought animals to a real estate agency in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26 to help employees relax. (Patrick Martin, Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Chris Delaney typically unwinds from his job at Discovery Communications by taking leisurely weekend drives or flipping through stacks of vinyl at used record stores. But on a recent midweek afternoon, the broadcast ingest operator was releasing his stress — right there at work — by stroking a bearded dragon, a household lizard with thankfully inert spikes.

“He’s very mellow,” Delaney said of the coldblooded creature resting on his lap. “Applying a warm hand puts this guy in a good mood.”

At the office animal party for the over-My Little Pony set, the good vibrations were flowing in both directions. How could you tell? Well, Norbert didn’t puff up his body and deploy his defenses, and Delaney didn’t rush to the medic with gouged fingertips. Quite the opposite: After finishing with Norbert, he requested a cuddle with another member of the visiting menagerie from Squeals on Wheels, a traveling petting zoo based in Potomac, Md.

“I think my favorite was the rabbit,” Delaney said after several failed attempts to soothe an African pygmy hedgehog named Tweedledee. (Or was it his brother, Tweedledum? Hard to know, because all hedgehogs act like twitchy acupuncturists.)

At the mention of his name, Rex the Velveteen rabbit attempted an escape, thumping his head against the cover of his wooden bin. Perhaps he needed an animal to hold, too.

In these anxious times, the embattled masses are resorting to all manner of succor. We meditate in the morning and drink a stiff one after work. Yell at traffic on the way to laughter yoga. Binge on Netflix all night and down cup after cup of pour-over coffee the next morning.

And now, with the rise of office animal parties, you can stroke a bunny, cradle a puppy or massage a tortoise’s neck on company time. If your colleagues or clients grow irate over unanswered emails, tell them to submit a complaint to Slinky, the blue-tongued skink.

“Animals make the environment less stress-y,” says Alan Beck, director of the Center of the Animal-Human Bond at Purdue University. “When you talk to another person, your blood pressure goes up. When you talk to animals, it goes down.”

During the tensest time of the year, Dawn Bailey, director of human resources at Aronson accounting firm in Rockville, Md., arranges special treats for her bleary-eyed accountants. For this tax season, she hired Squeals on Wheels. “All I wanted to see was the teacup pig running down the hallway,” she said. Unfortunately, that fantasy didn’t fly, as the oinker couldn’t breach the conference room.

Workplace stress is a real affliction, of course, but so is Instagram-oholism, especially among millennials. Which makes the office animal parties a major draw.

“We don’t put ordinary experiences from the office on our social feed,” notes Jeff Fromm, an author of books on the millennial generation, “just the extraordinary.”

The unconventional perks can also help employees forget — or at least forgive — their long work hours. Your 12-hour day may prevent you from owning a dog, but you can frolic with one on the clock.

“For many people today, particularly millennials, there is a definite blurring of the line between personal life and work,” said Jason Dorsey, president and co-founder of the Center for Generational Kinetics in Austin. “Millennials often know they won’t be able to retire, so why not have fun at work?”

Thanks to this trend, animal facilities across the country are accumulating miles on their little red wagons. Honey Hill Farm has led camels to a shipping logistics provider in Cincinnati (for Hump Day, of course) and released hopping kangaroos in its hallways. Brooklyn’s Foster Dogs has let its rescue pups loose at various New York offices. Austin-based Tiny Tails to You has chilled out such pressure-cooker players as Apple, Facebook, Dell and Whole Foods.

Of course, animal encounters during business hours can involve some risk, so keep a spare shirt and dry shampoo in your desk drawer.

“I don’t want her to go to the bathroom in your hair,” Squeals on Wheels’ Grant Phillips warned a Nest DC employee as a chicken blazed a northward trail.

Nest DC, a property management company, can’t seem to kick the critter habit. For its third Squeals on Wheels event in two years, some of the guests returned, but others didn’t receive an invitation.

“We didn’t bring the ducks this time,” said Grant, “because they kind of made a mess last year.”

Better-behaving birds Delilah and Henrietta, both bantam chicks, did attend. Baby teacup pig Thumbelina came wrapped in, yes, a blanket and slept through most of the two-hour stay. Nothing could rouse her. Not the squeaks of the guinea pigs or the carousel ride of hands passing her around like a hairy infant.

“I think everyone would be so much nicer if they could cuddle a pig once a week,” said Grace Langham, chief executive of Nest DC.

Employees at Dataprise in Rockville also discovered the calming effect of nuzzling with creatures, but their Xanax was puppies.

“I juggle multiple tasks,” said Charlie Chiochankitmun, a program manager, “so it’s nice to juggle multiple puppies instead.”

Homeward Trails Rescue Center in Fairfax Station, Va., supplied the quartet of pups, who ran, wrestled and relieved themselves around the break room. Employee Sarah Tabor raced over to a puddle in high-heeled boots, paper towels in hand. Later, at the kitchen sink, Nabil Gharbieh tended to puppy-induced wounds on his arms.

“Are they vaccinated?” he jokingly asked the volunteer.

Eight-week-old Taisha, Taima and Tabora scrambled down a hallway. Taima paused for a quick chew on an elegant green suede shoe still attached to a foot.

“It’s hard to be stressed with puppies running around,” said Katie Zelonka as she watched them dash past. “I don’t know how much we’re getting done, though. I should get back to my email.”

After 90 minutes, the puppies passed out under a kitchen table and the employees grudgingly returned to work, the dog hair on their clothes and the bite marks on their shoes serving as reminders to relax.

Click to watch:

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