Plastic straws could be banned, suggests Michael Gove

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Environment Secretary Michael Gove has suggested that plastic straws could be banned in Britain.

When asked by the Daily Telegraph if he would prohibit plastic straws Mr Gove replied “watch this space”.

He added that a balanced approach would be needed but said: “If it is bad, then banning it is a good thing.”

The Marine Conservation Society estimates the UK uses 8.5 billion straws every year which are among the top 10 items found in beach clean-ups.

Michael Gove also argued that outlawing plastic straws would be easier post-Brexit.

He said that being in the EU meant there were “some steps we might want to take environmentally that we can’t yet.”

But Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans said the EU was already ahead of the UK on Twitter:

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Mr Gove responded by claiming there had been “no specific proposal – as yet – from the EU to ban straws”.

According to the campaign group, Refuse The Straw, plastic straws take over 200 years to break down.

In January the Prime Minister Theresa May said she wanted to eliminate all avoidable plastic within 25 years.

Media captionScience reporter Victoria Gill looks at why there is so much plastic on beaches

A number of restaurants including JD Wetherspoon, Wagamama and Pizza Express have announced that plastic straws would be phased out or only made available on request.

The Queen has also sought to reduce plastic straw usage at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

However, a disability group has expressed concerns about the move to ban plastic straws.

The Scottish campaigning group, One in Five, has said organisations were “racing ahead” to respond to “understandable environmental concerns” without having “fully considered the needs of some disabled people”.

The group argues that paper straws cannot be used for hot drinks and that metal straws could be dangerous for those with Parkinson’s.

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Getty Images

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The alternatives to plastic straws are not always suitable

The recent BBC documentary Blue Planet II, narrated by David Attenborough, highlighted the damage caused by plastic in the sea.

This included a case of a pilot whale calf which is thought to have died after consuming its mother’s milk contaminated with toxic chemicals from plastic.

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A government spokesman said: “We are committed through our 25-year environment plan to eliminating avoidable plastic altogether by the end of 2042 so we leave our planet in a better state than we found it.”

“We are exploring a range of options, and have already introduced a world-leading ban on microbeads, and set out plans to extend the 5p plastic bag charge, improve recycling rates and explore plastic-free aisles in supermarkets.”

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‘Fishing continued’ after East China sea oil spill

It shows smoke and flames coming from the burning oil tanker Sanchi at sea off the coast of eastern ChinaImage copyright
AFP/Transport Ministry of China

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The tanker carried a highly toxic petroleum product that became invisible after the spill

Fishing continued at the site of a massive oil spill in the East China Sea for days after the incident, satellite images obtained by the BBC suggest.

Most of the fishing vessels in the affected region were identified as Chinese.

There have been major concerns over possible contamination in seafood and marine life in and around the region.

The spill occurred after an oil tanker collided with another cargo ship on 6 January before sinking days later.

It was transporting 136,000 tonnes, or almost one million barrels, of ultra-light crude oil, known as condensate, to South Korea.

It is feared to be highly toxic and is invisible, unlike the shimmering slick on the sea-surface seen after crude-oil leaks.

Experts say it is the first time petroleum product of this type has spilled in such huge quantity.

Independent experts say fishing was not stopped until much later and reports in the Chinese media indicate the same.

The BBC obtained satellite images and data showing the presence of fishing boats in the area following the event.

China is a major seafood exporter and the impacted region is known to be rich in fisheries including species like crab, squid, yellow croaker, mackerel, among others.

The Chinese state oceanic administration did not respond to repeated BBC requests for comment on fishing activities.

According to the agriculture ministry website, an area of 30 nautical miles radius from the accident site was declared as a prohibited zone after the accident.

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AFP/Transport Ministry of China

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Scientists say the visible slick on the sea surface is most likely the fuel the tanker was using

“Based on our analysis, we estimate fishing activities to have likely continued in the area since the incident occurred, including within 60 nautical miles of the sinking site,” said Brad Soule, chief analyst with OceanMind, a not-for-profit organisation specialising in tracking fishing activities.

The group’s analysis estimates that there were more than 400 fishing vessels operating within the region between 6 January and 25 January, while 13 were detected within 60 nautical miles of the sinking site.

Sanchi, the tanker carrying the oil from Iran, is believed to have drifted between 50 to 100 nautical miles south after the collision before it sank.

This could mean that it continued spilling the condensate all along the way before it went down.

China’s Ministry of Transport said that a salvage team had located the sunken vessel at a depth of 115m (380ft).

“Between January 26 and February 14, 146 observed fishing vessels were active in the region and two observed fishing vessels active within 60 nautical miles of the sinking site,” OceanMind said in its analysis.

Mr Soule said the analysis was based on transmissions received from only fishing vessels which were travelling at speeds that are associated with fishing activity, slower than typical travelling speeds.

The vessels carry communications devices called transponders that send radio signals identifying themselves.

“Fishing had continued in the area potentially polluted by the Sanchi spill, and the Chinese government didn’t close fisheries until very recently,” said Prof Richard Steiner, a noted marine scientist who has helped governments with his oil-spill management expertise in the past.

In an email to the Chinese government after the Sanchi spill, he had suggested: You should immediately close all fisheries in the region of the spill, as you do not want any contaminated fishery products entering the consumer market.

“They responded to my other suggestions but not directly to this one,” he said.

The findings of Global Fishing Watch, another international organisation monitoring fishing vessels, are also similar.

“We looked at fishing activity detected by GFW as measured in hours of activity, after the Sanchi collision happened on 6 January, and compared to the same time period the previous year,” Paul Woods of GFW told the BBC.

“Overall, I would say that this analysis suggests that the aggregate level of fishing activity in the region before and after the event did not change dramatically.”

According to China’s state-run media, Xinhua, the government’s move to keep fishing vessels away came two days after Sanchi sank – that was 10 days after the collision.

“The Shanghai marine search and rescue centre dispatched 13 vessels on Tuesday (January 16) to tackle follow-up issues, maintain order at the site, evacuate nearby merchant and fishing ships, and issue navigational warnings in both Chinese and English,” it reported on 17 January.

International oil spill experts say that intervention was too slow.

“Going by the pictures we saw, a lot of condensate had already started spilling from the Sanchi soon after it collided with another ship,” said Prof Steiner.

“If we had a 1 knot current over the site for eight days, then pollution from the event could conceivably have travelled in the subsurface plume as far as 200 miles away, downstream,” he said in the email to China’s State Oceanic Administration.

The New York Times has reported that officials in Beijing announced on 1 February that samples of fish taken within four to five nautical miles of the sunken ship contained traces of petroleum hydrocarbons, suggesting possible condensate contamination.

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AFP/Transport Ministry of China

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The Chinese government has been releasing toxicity levels from samples of sea water

“In any spill event, fuel oil will produce damage on the shore, whilst light oil like kerosene and petrol will have much more impact on marine species because of the persistence in the water column,” said Dr Corina Ciocan, a marine biologist with the University of Brighton.

“Molluscs and other filter feeding and sessile organisms are particularly affected by oil spills, as well as caged fish or coral fish – those are able to absorb high quantities of petroleum hydrocarbons present within their limited territory.”

Experts say the closure of fisheries is one of the first steps authorities take after major oil spills.

“This was something done immediately after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill incident in 2010,” said Chris Reddy, a senior scientist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US.

Mr Reddy however believes the oil spill in the East China Sea will be killing sea creatures as an immediate effect but there is no long-term seafood contamination risk.

“That is because the condensate spilled will soon be diluted by cleaner seawater, eaten by microbes, or evaporate which means there will be no concentration of chemicals threatening to contaminate the seafood,” he said.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN did not make any comment when asked whether seafood from the impacted region could already be reaching consumer markets.

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World’s fishing fleets mapped from orbit

Global map

It’s another demonstration of the power of Big Data – of mining a huge batch of statistics to see patterns of behaviour that were simply not apparent before.

Computers have crunched 22 billion identification messages transmitted by sea-going vessels to map fishing activity around the globe.

The analysis reveals that more than 55% of the world’s oceans are subject to industrial exploitation.

By area, fishing’s footprint is now over four times that of agriculture.

That’s an astonishing observation given that fisheries provide only 1.2% of global caloric production for human food consumption.

The investigation shows clearly that the biggest influences on this activity are not environmental – whether it is summer or winter, or whether there is an El Niño or fish are migrating, for example.

Rather, the major controlling factors are very largely political and cultural.

“You’d think that fishing activity would follow some natural pulse of the seasons, but in fact that’s secondary to whether it’s a weekend or not, or whether there’s a moratorium, or a public holiday,” says David Kroodsma from Global Fishing Watch, which led the study published in Science Magazine.

“Because fishing is an industrial activity tied to politics and culture, this is actually a positive message because it shows we have a lot of human agency in the way we fish the oceans, and it’s entirely within our power to change things,” he told BBC News.

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Kroodsma and colleagues have been playing with the data coming from the transponders that all large vessels are now mandated to carry.

This Automatic Identification System (AIS) means each boat will push out information every few seconds about its position, course, and speed.

These messages can be detected from space by satellites, and recent years have seen increasing numbers of spacecraft launched just to track what’s happening on the high seas.

Kroodsma’s team looked at the data from 2012 to 2016. It encompasses the messages from over 70,000 vessels. That’s far too many boats and too much data for individuals to comb through. So, the team has trained algorithms to do the work instead – to recognise in the movement of the vessels behaviours such as whether they actually have gear in the water and what sort of gear that might be. Nets or longlines, for example.

The team is able to produce “heat maps” to illustrate where fishing activity is most intense – such as in the northeast Atlantic and northwest Pacific, as well as in nutrient-rich regions off South America and West Africa.

Remarkably, it is the fleets from just five countries (China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea) that account for more than 85% of observed fishing effort on the high seas, ie away from their exclusive economic zones.

The team says that over the course of the study period, the analysis recorded over 37 million hours of fishing.

In that time, vessels consumed 20 billion kilowatt hours of energy and travelled a total of more than 460 million kilometres.

That’s 600 times the distance to the Moon and back.

Longline fishing in the open ocean, for species such as tuna, shark and billfish, was the most widespread activity globally, detected in 45% of the ocean.

“What’s most exciting is what comes next,” says David Kroodsma.

“We can now ask questions that we have the data to answer. Where are different species at risk because of bycatch? Because you can now see the overlap between species’ ranges and fishing effort.

“Or, how do subsidies affect fishing? Or, do fisherman respond more to [fuel] prices than to some type of regulation?

“Or, what parts of the ocean need more protection? We can now have much more informed discussion.”

What the team has produced is not a complete picture simply because AIS is not on every boat. The smallest vessels do not have to carry it, and of course for those that do – but wish to hide their illegal activity – they can switch it off.

But the analysis captures the majority of activity, and on the high seas, where only the largest vessels operate, it is probably missing very little.

Commenting on the study, Elvira Poloczanska, from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, said AIS had become a powerful new tool.

“Emerging applications of AIS data include fleet and cargo tracking, national fishing fleet monitoring, and maritime security,” she told Science Magazine.

“For example, AIS data is yielding information on maritime trade routes and shipping corridors and on trade flows for decision-making, enabling assessments of the contribution of ship exhaust emissions to air pollution, and allowing reduced fishing activity in the exclusive economic zones of many island states – information relevant to conservation planning.”

Global Fishing Watch has all the data from the study available for download. It can also be accessed through the Google Earth Engine.

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SpaceX launches broadband pathfinders

Launch of Falcon 9Image copyright

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The early morning launch had to go off at a very specific time

SpaceX launched again on Thursday – this time to put a Spanish radar satellite above the Earth.

But there was a lot of interest also in the mission’s secondary payloads – a couple of spacecraft the Californian rocket company will use to trial the delivery of broadband from orbit.

SpaceX has big plans in this area.

By sometime in the mid-2020s, it hopes to be operating more than 4,000 such satellites, linking every corner of Earth to the internet.

Wednesday’s flight was the first for SpaceX since the dramatic debut on 6 February of its Falcon Heavy – the world’s most powerful launcher.

This time, it was the turn of the smaller workhorse, the Falcon-9.

It lifted clear of the Vandenberg Air Force Base on the US Pacific west coast at exactly 06:17 (14:17 GMT).

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An artist’s impression of the PAZ radar imaging satellite above the Earth

The precise timing was needed to ensure the PAZ radar satellite, to be managed by Madrid-based Hisdesat, was dropped off in the right part of the sky.

The new Earth observer is to team up with a German pair of spacecraft, Tandem-X and TerraSAR-X, which are already in orbit.

As a trio they will image the planet’s surface, seeing features as small as 25cm, even when there is heavy cloud in the way.

The ascent to orbit and release of the PAZ platform took just 10 minutes. SpaceX made no attempt to recover the first-stage booster from the Falcon-9, allowing it to fall into the ocean. The rocket segment had previously flown last year.

Of more interest to SpaceX on this occasion was the release of the pathfinder satellites for its planned Starlink broadband network.

In 2016, it filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission in the US for a licence to operate a “mesh network” in the sky consisting of 4,425 satellites arranged in 83 orbital planes.

These spacecraft would be positioned at altitudes ranging from 1,110km to 1,325km, and transmit in the Ku and Ka portions of the radio spectrum.

The company would like also to put up an additional 7,500 satellites that would sit under the initial set and transmit in the V-band.

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The two SpaceX satellites either side of the adaptor that held them in the rocket

The idea is that Starlink would deliver terabits of throughput, with all spacecraft linked so that bandwidth could be focussed on those regions where it was needed most.

Wednesday’s Falcon-9 took up the Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b testbeds (CEO Elon Musk dubbed them Tintin A B in a tweet).

The pair are identical – with a bus, or chassis, being slightly less than 1 cu metre, and having two 8m-long solar wings; and weighing roughly 400kg.

The Microsats are intended to prove all the different design elements, such as the antenna that will relay the data traffic.

If all proceeds as it should, SpaceX will aim to start deploying Starlink’s satellites in batches over the next few years.

The Falcon Heavy, with its enormous lifting capacity, could help accelerate the roll-out.

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SpaceX does not talk much about its broadband plans, but that is true of all the companies that have similar proposals.

Some of these firms have already launched pathfinders. Telesat of Canada, for example, launched its Phase 1 LEO satellite in January. This is a prototype for more than 100 follow-on platforms.

Perhaps the most advanced mega-constellation in this field is OneWeb, which will be launching 10 satellites later this year for a network that will eventually comprise at least 600, but which could eventually encompass more than 2,000 spacecraft.

OneWeb is backed by heavyweights in the space industry, such Airbus, Qualcomm, Intelsat, Hughes, and MDA.

The rush to push up these broadband mega-constellations has prompted some concern on the part of those scientists who study space debris.

Computer models have suggested that unless there is a robust strategy to remove old or broken satellites from these networks, the probability of in-orbit collisions will rise dramatically.

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Neanderthals were capable of making art

Cave art

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In Maltravieso Cave, western Spain, Neanderthals stencilled their hands by blowing red paint over them

Contrary to the traditional view of them as brutes, it turns out that Neanderthals were artists.

A study in Science journal suggests they made cave drawings in Spain that pre-date the arrival of modern humans in Europe by 20,000 years.

They also appear to have used painted sea shells as jewellery.

Art was previously thought to be a behaviour unique to our species (Homo sapiens) and far beyond our evolutionary cousins.

The cave paintings include stencilled impressions of Neanderthal hands, geometric patterns and red circles.

They occupy three sites at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales – situated up to 700km apart in different parts of Spain.

The researchers used a technique called uranium-thorium dating to obtain accurate ages. It relies on measuring the radioactive decay of uranium that gets incorporated into mineral crusts forming over the paintings.

The results gave a minimum age of 65,000 years ago for the cave art, modern humans only arrived in Europe roughly 45,000 years ago.

This suggests that the Palaeolithic artwork must have been made by Neanderthals, a “sister” species to Homo sapiens, and Europe’s sole human inhabitants at the time. But, so far, the researchers have found only abstract expressions of art by Neanderthals.

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CD Standish, AWG. Pike, DL Hoffmann

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This ladder-shaped drawing from La Pasiega cave consists of red horizontal and vertical lines and is older than 64,000 years

Prof Alistair Pike, from the University of Southampton, who is a co-author of the study, said: “Soon after the discovery of the first of their fossils in the 19th century, Neanderthals were portrayed as brutish and uncultured, incapable of art and symbolic behaviour, and some of these views persist today.”

“The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals behaved is a hotly debated issue. Our findings will make a significant contribution to that debate.”

Prof Chris Stringer, from London’s Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the study, commented: “Some previous claims for Neanderthal symbolic behaviour had dating uncertainties or lay within inferred overlaps between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens 40-60,000 years ago, meaning that they could still be attributed to modern humans, or to the influence of modern humans on Neanderthal behaviour.”

He said the new work “seems to remove any doubts” that Neanderthals were capable of symbolic or artistic expression. Prof Stringer explained: “They further narrow any perceived behavioural gap between the Neanderthals and us.”

But he said it could be argued there were still no clear examples of Neanderthal figurative art – artwork drawn from real sources, such as animals or people.

Prof Pike told BBC News: “The next big question is: ‘did Neanderthals make figurative art. We’ve got hand stencils, we’ve got lots of red dots and we’ve got these lines. We want to know whether there are paintings of the kind of animals they were hunting.”

‘Meaningful’ expression

In La Pasiega cave, in northern Spain, the researchers dated a ladder-shaped (scalariform) drawing to a minimum age of 64,800 years ago. However, the artwork from this cave has yielded dates of up to 80,000 years ago. There are animals painted within the rungs of the ladder, but the scientists haven’t yet dated these – and they could be younger.

“Even different groups of modern humans were approaching art in different ways. So it’s really about the meaning of your symbols,” said Prof Pike. “Just because they didn’t paint animals, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t paint animals.”

The early ages for the cave art are supported by the dating of sea shells that were perforated to be used on necklaces and are stained with pigments.

Two of the four samples dated to about 115,000 years ago – again, much further back in time than the known presence of modern humans in the region.

Commenting on the work, Prof Clive Finlayson, from the Gibraltar Museum, told BBC News: “The work is very good, there’s nothing to fault the dates.

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Ancient “hashtag”? This engraving, in Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, was reported in 2014. It may have been made by a Neanderthal

He added: “It suggests they’re much older than anything we know of from Europe or beyond the boundaries of Europe.”

In 2014, Prof Finlayson and colleagues reported the discovery of an engraving in Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, that may have been carved by a Neanderthal. But the recent finds add to mounting evidence we have underestimated the intellectual capabilities of our evolutionary cousins.

But he said: “If we are going to be strict in our interpretations, that Neanderthals made these paintings is really inferred from the dates.” While there is no direct evidence of other human species in Iberia at this time, Prof Finlayson suggested a slight question mark remained. “To pin it on Neanderthals is highly likely… but from my knowledge I don’t think any of those three caves have Neanderthal remains.”

Early symbolic artefacts, dating back 70,000 years, have been found in Africa but are associated with modern humans.

Paul Pettitt, from Durham University, commented: “It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well.”

Prof Pike said: “Some of these things are placed in the very darkest bits of caves, where you couldn’t do it by accident. You need a light source, you’ve got to wander through passages and you’ve got to prepare your pigments. “

On the other hand, he said, “the panel in La Pasiega is on a really nice, smooth bit of wall framed by stalagmitic formations on either side. It looks like something you would stand in front of an look at”.

He added: “As to the meaning, I don’t think we’ll ever know. But I think we’re pretty happy to say it’s meaningful.”

Follow Paul on Twitter.

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Wildlife secrets of Nigeria’s last wilderness

ChimpImage copyright
Chester Zoo

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The Nigeria-Cameroon chimp is confined to remote pockets of forest

The world’s rarest chimpanzee has been captured on camera in the remote forests of Nigeria.

The Nigeria-Cameroon chimp was seen at various locations within Gashaka Gumti National Park, raising hopes for its future survival.

Conservationists also recorded the first sighting in the country of a giant pangolin.

The park is regarded as a national treasure, but its wildlife is under threat from pressures such as poaching.

Researchers from Chester Zoo, working with the Nigeria National Park Service, surveyed over 1,000 square kilometres of the national park.

Known for its mountain rainforests, savannah woodlands and rolling grasslands, it is home to some of West Africa’s most endangered animals.

The cameras spotted some animals that have never been recorded before in the area and others, like chimps, which are rarely seen.

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Chester Zoo

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Gashaka Gumti National Park is regarded as one of Nigeria’s last wildernesses

Stuart Nixon, the Africa Field Programme Co-ordinator at Chester Zoo, said confirmation of the locations of chimps was an important discovery.

“Gashaka’s been regarded for many years as having the biggest population of this Nigeria-Cameroon chimp, which is the rarest chimp subspecies,” he said.

“We consider it the most important population – that’s really why we need to count it and see what the status of the chimp is right now – that will ultimately affect what we know about this subspecies elsewhere.”

Forgotten wilderness

The chimp is endangered across its range in Cameroon and Nigeria. Its total population is down to fewer than 9,000 individuals, of which about 1,000 are thought to live within the borders of the national park.

The ape faces many threats, from illegal poaching for bushmeat and traditional medicines to loss of habitat.

Wildlife experts are exploring new areas of the park to get a better idea of numbers, as there have been no population surveys for 20 years.

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Chester Zoo

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The giant pangolin is vulnerable to poaching

The cameras captured more than 50,000 images of the park’s wildlife between 2015 and the end of 2017.

“It’s an incredible tool to use these camera traps and to reveal that this park – which is a forgotten wilderness, really, for Nigeria – still has a really important reservoir of important species for Nigeria and Africa in general,” said Stuart Nixon.

The researchers were surprised to spot a giant pangolin, which is one of the rarest and least known of the six species.

The scaled mammals are poached for their scales, which are used in traditional medicine, and their meat.

“No-one’s seen a giant pangolin – no-one even knew that they were there,” said Stuart Nixon. “It’s the first record for Nigeria as well – that highlights how rare, how elusive and how difficult they are to find and study.”

Camera traps also found the first photographic evidence of leopards, which may make up one of the most significant populations in West Africa.

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Chester Zoo

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Leopards are notoriously secretive

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Chester Zoo

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The African golden cat lives in the forests of equatorial Africa

The African golden cat was also seen on images.

“It’s likely that it’s the only significant population of the golden cat left in Nigeria,” said Stuart Nixon. “Very elusive, very little known, there’s not been many studies on them at all.”

Chester Zoo has been supporting Gashaka Gumti National Park for more than 20 years, intensifying their efforts recently to address growing threats to the park’s wildlife.

The wildlife within the park is officially protected but some animals are at risk of poaching. Chester Zoo is funding patrols for the rangers and providing training in wildlife monitoring and protection.

Yohanna Saidu of the Nigerian Park service and chief warden of Gashaka Gumti National Park said there were few places in Africa that can rival its spectacular beauty.

“But it survives barely known by the international community and under increasing threat,” he said.

“This work is helping us learn more about the secrets of one of our last wilderness areas and we must continue to work together to ensure its survival for future generations.

“If all this beauty were lost it would be a terrible tragedy for all.”

Follow Helen on Twitter.

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Tasmanian tiger ‘joeys’ revealed in 3D

Joeys in ethanolImage copyright
University of Melbourne

It is a fascinating insight into the biology of an extinct animal.

Scientists have scanned all known preserved Tasmanian tiger “joeys” to better understand the marsupial’s key early development phases.

The study tracks the changes to the infants’ skeleton and internal organs as they grew inside the mother’s pouch.

It captures in detail the transition the tiger joey made from something that resembled all other marsupials to something that looked more dog-like.

“We were surprised; they took on the puppy-dog look really quite late in pouch life – towards the end of the three months,” explained Dr Andrew Pask from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

“So, when they’re first born they have these really well developed forearms to be able to crawl from their mother’s urogenital sinus up to the pouch, and a really well developed jaw to be able to latch on to the teat. That’s quite different to us, or a mouse, say.

“It’s only really late on that they grow the extended hind limbs to give them that dog appearance,” he told BBC News.

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Media captionCT scanning’s great plus is that it is a non-destructive technique

The Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was so-called because of its striped lower back.

The marsupial once ranged throughout Australia and New Guinea but was driven to extinction as a result of hunting and competition from both humans and dingoes, the Australian wild dogs.

Its last known living individual died in captivity in Hobart Zoo in 1936. But there remain preserved specimens in collections and in particular 13 ethanol-preserved joeys.

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Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

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The Tasmanian tiger was so-called because of its stripes

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University of Melbourne

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The specimens cover ages from two to 12 weeks. The white scalebar is 10mm

The Melbourne team scanned all 13, including four that were held in Prague in the Czech Republic.

The technique of X-ray Computed Tomography (CT) allowed the scientists to virtually dissect the joeys, and subsequently to build 3D models – and even to print copies of those models.

“Until now, there have only been limited details on [thylacine] growth and development. For the very first time we have been able to look inside these remarkably rare and precious specimens,” said Axel Newton, a PhD student and lead author on the Royal Society paper describing the investigation.

Media captionA joey would live in its mother’s pouch for about 12 weeks

The scientists want to learn how the marsupial evolved to look so similar to a dog, given that their last common ancestor lived about 160 million years ago.

It is a classic example of convergence where evolution arrives at the same solutions in the traits of animals having come to them from very different directions.

The new scans and earlier genetics work will hopefully now lead the team to some firm conclusions.

We sequenced the genome of the thylacine just before Christmas, and we’re really asking that question now: can you see the same genes doing the same things to give you the same body form?” said Dr Pask.

“We really don’t understand how evolution works at the DNA level. And so looking at the thylacine and studying its development may give us some insights into that,” he told BBC News.

Details of the team’s study is published in the journal Open Science.

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Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

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A mother and three young thylacines pictured around 1910 in Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart

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Government loses clean air court case

Air pollutionImage copyright

Campaigners have won a third High Court victory over the UK government’s plans to tackle air pollution.

The judge in the case said the government plan was “unlawful” and that more action was needed in 45 English local authority areas.

He said ministers had to ensure that in each of the areas, steps were taken to comply with the law as soon as possible.

The case was brought by ClientEarth, a group of activist lawyers.

Mr Justice Garnham said: “Because the obligation is zone-specific, the fact that each of the 45 local authority areas will achieve compliance in any event by 2021 is of no immediate significance.

“The Environment Secretary must ensure that, in each of the 45 areas, steps are taken to achieve compliance as soon as possible, by the quickest route possible and by a means that makes that outcome likely.”

He added: “In effect, these local authorities are being urged and encouraged to come up with proposals to improve air quality over the next three years, but are not being required to do so. In my judgment, that sort of exhortation is not sufficient.”

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As a result of previous rulings, the government drew up new plans for reducing nitrogen dioxide pollution, much of which comes from vehicles, to within legal limits.

Five ways to avoid pollution

  • Keep away from the busiest roads – pollution concentrates around the heaviest traffic
  • Use side roads – these are cleaner because there is so much less traffic
  • Watch out for hotspots of dirty air – engines are often left running in stationary traffic. This can create “urban canyons” of pollution, particularly around traffic lights, so stand back after pushing the button before crossing the road
  • When walking up a hill always stick to the side where traffic is flowing down the hill, away from the brunt of the fumes. This will always be the cleaner alternative
  • Basic face-masks are not worth the hassle – these trap dust but little else, while heavy-duty versions are cumbersome. Scientists recommend avoiding busy roads instead

ClientEarth’s latest case was brought against the Environment Secretary and the Transport Secretary, while a claim against the Welsh Government was discontinued after it agreed to work with the campaigning group on new proposals.

A government spokesperson said: “We are pleased that the judge dismissed two of the three complaints. The judge found that our modelling is compliant and that our approach to areas with major air quality problems is ‘sensible, rational and lawful’.

“The court has also asked us to go further in areas with less severe air quality problems. We had previously considered that it was sufficient to take a pragmatic, less formal approach to such areas. However, in view of the court’s judgment, we are happy to take a more formal line with them.

“We have already delivered significant improvements in air quality since 2010 and we will continue to implement our £3.5bn air quality plan.”

A raft of recent studies and reports have linked air pollution to heart disease and lung problems, including asthma.

The Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health say that outdoor air pollution is contributing to some 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK.

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Ancient Britons ‘replaced’ by newcomers

Beaker vessels

Image caption

Beaker pottery starts to appear in Britain around 4,500 years ago

The ancient population of Britain was almost completely replaced by newcomers about 4,500 years ago, a study shows.

The findings mean modern Britons trace just a small fraction of their ancestry to the people who built Stonehenge.

The astonishing result comes from analysis of DNA extracted from 400 ancient remains across Europe.

The mammoth study, published in Nature, suggests the newcomers, known as Beaker people, replaced 90% of the British gene pool in a few hundred years.

Lead author Prof David Reich, from Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, US, said: “The magnitude and suddenness of the population replacement is highly unexpected.”

The reasons remain unclear, but climate change, disease and ecological disaster could all have played a role.

People in Britain lived by hunting and gathering until agriculture was introduced from continental Europe about 6,000 years ago. These Neolithic farmers, who traced their origins to Anatolia (modern Turkey) built giant stone (or “megalithic”) structures such as Stonehenge in Wiltshire, huge Earth mounds and sophisticated settlements such as Skara Brae in the Orkneys.

But towards the end of the Neolithic, about 4,450 years ago, a new way of life spread to Britain from Europe. People began burying their dead with stylised bell-shaped pots, copper daggers, arrowheads, stone wrist guards and distinctive perforated buttons.

Co-author Dr Carles Lalueza-Fox, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE) in Barcelona, Spain, said the Beaker traditions probably started “as a kind of fashion” in Iberia after 5,000 years ago.

From here, the culture spread very fast by word of mouth to Central Europe. After it was adopted by people in Central Europe, it exploded in every direction – but through the movement of people.

Monument builders

Prof Reich told BBC News: “Archaeologists ever since the Second World War have been very sceptical about proposals of large-scale movements of people in prehistory. But what the genetics are showing – with the clearest example now in Britain at Beaker times – is that these large-scale migrations occurred, even after the spread of agriculture.”

The genetic data, from hundreds of ancient British genomes, reveals that the Beakers were a distinct population from the Neolithic British. After their arrival on the island, Beaker genes appear to swamp those of the native farmers.

Prof Reich added: “The previous inhabitants had just put up the big stones at Stonehenge, which became a national place of pilgrimage as reflected by goods brought from the far corners of Britain.”

Image copyright
Getty Images

He added: “The sophisticated ancient peoples who built that monument and ones like it could not have known that within a short period of time their descendants would be gone and their lands overrun.”

The newcomers brought ancestry from nomadic groups originating on the Pontic Steppe, a grassland region extending from Ukraine to Kazakhstan. These nomads moved west during the Neolithic, mixing heavily with established populations in Europe. The Beaker migration marks the first time this eastern genetic signature appears in Britain.

Archaeologist and study co-author Mike Parker Pearson, from University College London (UCL), said Neolithic Britons and Beaker groups organised their societies in very different ways. The construction of massive stone monuments, co-opting hundreds of people, was an alien concept to Beakers, but the Neolithic British community “has that absolutely as its core rationale”.

“[The Beaker people] are not prepared to collaborate on enormous labour-mobilising projects; their society is more de-centralised,” said Prof Parker Pearson. “We don’t have a good expression for it, but the Americans do, and that is: nobody is willing to work for ‘The Man’.”

‘Neolithic Brexit’

The Beaker folk seemed to favour more modest round “barrows”, or earth burial mounds, to cover the distinguished dead. The group is also intimately associated with the arrival of metalworking to Britain.

Prof Parker Pearson commented: “They’re the people who bring Britain out of the Stone Age. Up until then, the people of Britain had cut themselves off from the continent – ‘Neolithic Brexit’. This is the moment when Britain re-joins the continent after 1,000 years of isolation – most of the rest of Europe was well out of the Stone Age by this point.”

What triggered the massive genetic shift remains unclear. But a paper published in PNAS journal last year suggested a downturn in the climate around 5,500 years ago (3,500 BC) pushed Neolithic populations into a thousand-year-long decline.

Image copyright

Image caption

Neolithic people built sophisticated settlements at Skara Brae in Scotland

Dr Steven Shennan, from UCL, who co-authored that study, told BBC News: “In Britain, after a population peak at around 3,500 or 3,600 BC, the population goes down steadily and it stays at a pretty low level until about 2,500 BC and then starts going up again. Around 2,500 BC the population is very low and that’s precisely when the Beaker population seems to come in.”

The reasons behind this slow population decline were probably complex, but the temporary downturn in the climate caused a permanent change in the way people farmed. One possibility is that the over-exploitation of land by Neolithic farmers applied pressure to food production.

Plague question

But disease may also have played a role in the population shift: “We have some intriguing evidence that some of the Steppe nomads carried plague with them,” said Lalueza-Fox.

“It could just be that the plague went with these migrants into Britain and the Neolithic population had not been in contact with this pathogen before.”

Whatever did happen, Prof Parker Pearson is doubtful about the possibility of a violent invasion. The Beakers, he said, were “moving in very small groups or individually”.

He explained: “This is no great horde, jumping in boats en masse… it’s a very long, slow process of migration.” Furthermore, the incidence of interpersonal violence appears to be higher in Neolithic Britain (7%) than it was in the Beaker period (1%)

The Nature study examines the Beaker phenomenon across Europe using DNA from hundreds more samples, including remains from Holland, Spain, the Czech Republic, Italy and France.

Another intriguing possibility links the Beaker people with the spread of Celtic languages. Although many linguistics experts believe Celtic spread thousands of years later, Dr Lalueza-Fox said: “In my view, the massive population turnover must be accompanied by a language replacement.”

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Nigeria’s soil-free salad farm

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