Everyone in the UK seemed to get very excited about the first British astronaut, Tim Peake. I feel bad, but space just doesn't fill me with the sense of wonder and excitement and so I just couldn’t get into the fanfare surrounding the launch. There is also the oddity that although Tim Peake is the first British astronaut, he isn’t actually the first Briton in space: that honour goes to Helen Sharman. I’m not trying to put a downer on the whole scientific endeavour, but it just doesn’t float my boat but I’m sure that Brian Cox is going crazy about it!
Some good news this week about nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and Europe’s ability of reducing its emissions. NO2 is not very good for public health and increases the amount of ozone (O3) at ground level (it’s great when it’s in the upper atmosphere but not so great when we can breathe it in).
Results of tracking of NO2 production have recently been published, and although the overall trend isn’t great at least it show a significant drop in emissions from Europe and the US. I’m trying to see the positives instead of the negatives!
For my undergrad thesis I worked on Chalkhill Blue butterflies at a wildlife reserve in Bedfordshire. Like most people growing up in Britain my experience of butterflies was mainly seeing the odd Cabbage White float over my garden. But the reserve where I did my research was teaming with 10s of species and huge number of these magical insects. Walk along a hedge row and it would erupt in front of you with clouds of blues, oranges, yellow and greens as the butterflies swarmed around you. Those experiences make the news the 76% of Britain’s butterflies are in decline very saddening. Some species and some areas are doing fine but for the majority of these enigmatic species the trend is downwards. Chris Packham spoke well on the Today Programme (01:20:38) about the possible reasons for the decline and the need for research into why it’s happening and how we can stop it.
Darwin's finches are one of the most emblematic images of the voyage of the Beagle and are an integral part of the story that has grown up around how Darwin discovered the Theory of Natural Selection. The diversity of the beaks of these birds has become part of the fabric of biological history. I first heard about the issues facing Darwin’s finches while listening to an episode of Radiolab: LINK (it was part of a larger episode on the Galapagos). These iconic birds are facing a huge threat from invasive flies that lay their eggs in their nest’s and whose larvae attack the nostrils of the finch nestlings. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Darmouth have been studying the medium ground finch and modelling how these parasites will impact the population and the results are not good: they could be extinct within 50 years. But the models also show that if you reduce the risk of infestation occurring, and the researchers suggest using cotton soaked in pesticide that the birds can incorporate into their nests. But in a cool twist this new parasite-host relationship has resulted in a change in behaviour in a closely related species with increased begging rate from nestlings when parasitized, resulting in them being fed more and more likely to survive!
A couple of other really cool science news stories this week: hummingbird heat loss and elephants and earthquakes.