UK rapped over marine mammals

DolphinsImage copyright
Martin Kitching

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Dolphins need to be included to achieve a coherent network of protected areas

The European Commission is taking the UK to court for failing to protect endangered harbour porpoises.

Britain is supposed to have created special sites round the coastlines to protect the animals, but has proposed only two.

The Commission says it has repeatedly urged the government to fulfil its obligations as other nations have done.

The government has not yet made a comment on the court action.

The move comes as the Wildlife Trusts launch a campaign for the UK to declare many more Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) to safeguard mammals round the shores.

They say safeguards to the UK’s domestic marine life should be as strong as they are around Britain’s overseas territories.

Ministers recently promised to safeguard an area of ocean equivalent to 16 times the land area of the UK.

But that figure refers mainly to the seas round far-flung islands. Progress on our own marine reserves is slower.

The government said it would announce new sites in Phase Three of its marine conservation zones (MCZs).

But this will not happen until 2018.

That would add to the 50 existing zones dotted round the UK, but a spokesman would not say how many new MCZs were being considered.

Wildlife campaigners say the existing areas need to be joined together to ensure safe passage for mobile species like dolphins.

Lissa Batey, from the Wildlife Trusts, told BBC News: “We can’t achieve an ecologically coherent network of protected areas without including top predators in the process – whales, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks – which are still under threat.

“Many are suffering from the impacts of fishing, whether direct or indirect, increased boat traffic, marine developments and the more persistent effects of pollution.

“By designating areas of the sea, we can provide safe havens and some impacts can be limited or removed altogether.”

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Kat Brown

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Many large marine animals, such as basking sharks, are under threat

The vast majority of the UK’s protected space, though, surrounds oceanic islands forming part of the legacy of empire.

Ministers are safeguarding the waters around four islands in the Pacific and Atlantic, including one of the world’s biggest zones around Pitcairn, home to descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

There will be two more zones around the south Atlantic islands of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

The British moves contribute to an extraordinary period for ocean conservation. President Obama has also announced the world’s biggest protected zone round Hawaii.

Dr Mark Spalding, from the US group The Nature Conservancy hailed recent global developments.

He told BBC News: “The UK’s dramatic expansion of protected areas is a tremendous contribution to the conservation of the oceans, and one that needs to be roundly applauded.

“The numbers are eye-watering, but actually we should really look beyond these numbers. In both Pitcairn and St Helena these protected areas have been established with, and for, the local communities.

“That means sustainable fishing and the potential for growth in ecotourism. It’s a different model from simply closing off large tracts of the ocean – and while that’s important too, it’s not a model that can work everywhere. We should watch these places and learn from them.”

Professor Callum Roberts, from the University of York, told BBC News the vast majority of MCZs are what he called worthless paper parks.

“They have no management, virtually nothing in the way of protection, and fail almost every test of a worthwhile marine protected area,” he said.

The Wildlife Trusts agreed enforcement should be improved but said that already in Lyme Bay, one of the early protected zones, species were returning.

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Rosetta probe set for comet collision

Landing location

One of the most audacious space missions ever undertaken is about to come to an end.

The Rosetta probe that has been tracking a comet for the past two years is going to deliberately crash itself into the 4km-wide ball of ice and dust.

European Space Agency scientists say the satellite has come to the end of its useful life and they want to get some final, ultra-close measurements.

Rosetta is not expected to survive the impact with Comet 67P.

But even if some of its systems remain functional, pre-loaded software on board will ensure everything is shut down on contact.

Controllers here at Esa’s operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, commanded Rosetta to change course late on Thursday.


New data shows ‘staggering’ extent of great ape trade

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Getty Images

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The new database suggests there were 1,800 seizures of great apes over the past ten years

A new database suggests say there has been a dramatic under-reporting of the live, illegal trade in great apes.

Around 1,800 orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas were seized in 23 different countries since 2005, the figures show.

Since 90% of the cases were within national borders they didn’t appear in major data records, which only contain international seizures.

The new database has been published at the Cites meeting here in Johannesburg.

Records incomplete

Comprehensive data on the illicit trade in great apes is rare.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) only keeps records of international seizures, which experts in the field have long believed was giving a misleading impression.

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In Borneo and Sumatra the clearing of forest has increased seizures

The new Apes Seizures Database paints a more detailed picture, compiling figures for any seizure of a great ape in an unlawful situation dating back to 2005.

“It’s definitely a staggering number, it’s larger than we expected,” said Doug Cress from the Great Ape Survival Partnership, who have put together the new database.

“We’re finding that it’s really averaging about two seizures a week around the world. That may seem small but the usual ratio for a chimpanzee is that to get one alive you’ve had to kill five or 10, for gorillas it’s like four to one.

“That extrapolates quickly to a lot of dead in the wild.”

Orang-utans were by far the most commonly captured animals, accounting for 67% of seizures by the authorities.

It’s believed that habitat destruction in Borneo and Sumatra has seen large numbers flushed out of the forests.

The conversion of their natural homes into palm oil plantations or for pulp and paper has made the orangutans easy prey for those who want to trade them illegally.

Chimpanzees represented about a quarter of all seizures while gorillas represented six percent and bonobos around 3%.

“This is a live trade, mostly infants that have to be moved quickly,” said Doug Cress.

“They are trafficked on fast routes – that usually means hand luggage, the overhead bin in your airplane.”

Cash rewards

While Indonesia and Malaysia are high on the list of countries with seizures thanks to the orangutans, West Africa also emerges as a hub, specifically countries such as Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cameroon.

What’s feeding the trade is money – a chimpanzee in Asia can sell for between $25-30,000. A gorilla can command up to $45,000.

As well as the animal welfare worries, and the impact on wild populations, there are also concerns about the potential to spread disease. HIV is believed to have originated in apes before being transmitted to humans.

Doug Cress believes that the new method of collecting and monitoring the data will help the fight against the live trafficking of these animals.

“Most databases have up to three years for countries to file information, but by then the trail is cold.

“We are talking about live time with this new database, when we see trends we will inform Interpol and Cites immediately.”

The Apes Seizures Database has been built by the GRASP Partnership, in conjunction with the UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

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Total trade ban for Gibraltar’s monkeys agreed

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The illegal trade in infant Barbary Macaques is threatening the species

Europe’s only non-human primate, the Barbary Macaque, has gained the highest level of species protection at the Cites meeting in Johannesburg.

While about 200 live safely on the Rock of Gibraltar, they are experiencing rapid decline in their natural habitats in North Africa.

Hundreds of infants are illegally taken from the wild each year for European pet markets.

Countries banned any form of trade in the species.

The Barbary Macaque seems to specialise in isolation. It’s the only African primate species north of the Sahara and the only macaque species in Africa.

Experts estimate that there are between 6,500 and 9,100 Barbary Macaques in fragmented populations strung across Morocco and Algeria. They were categorised as endangered in 2008 as their numbers plummeted by 50% in 24 years.

While destruction of habitat is a significant cause of their decline, another important factor is illegal trade.

About 200 infants are taken from the wild in Morocco each year. Some are used as photo props for tourists in North Africa. Most are bought by Europeans wanting to raise them as pets.

In Morocco, the animals sell for up to 450 euros each. In Europe they can fetch 2,000 euros.

“People actually think it will be a suitable pet, it isn’t, it’s horrible,” said Rikkert Reijnen of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

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The Gibraltar macaques are popular with tourists

“They need a lot of attention, they basically wreck your house and as they grow older they start to follow their natural behaviour, which is sometimes aggressive.”

Most end up in animal sanctuaries. Between 2001 and 2015, there were 545 reports of Barbary Macaques being rescued and sent to sanctuaries, mostly in France, Belgium and Spain. It’s ironic that while the numbers in the wild are going down fast, the Macaque sanctuaries are over stocked.

So great is the concern about the impact of this pet trade on their survival that Morocco, supported by the EU, asked the Cites meeting here to put the animals on Appendix I. It was the first time in 30 years that Cites considered increasing the level of protection for a monkey species.

“This Appendix I listing means that the animal gets more attention from the authorities,” said Rikkert Reijnen.

“When an Appendix I-listed species starts coming in to your country illegally, the authorities start thinking twice. There are a lot of tortoises coming into Europe but it doesn’t have that priority with law enforcement, so that Appendix I listing is critical in getting that priority.”

With an estimated 3,000 Barbary Macaques kept as pets in Europe, the EU is keen to be seen to doing what it can to stamp out the trade.

MEP Gerben Jan Gerbrandy, is leading the European Parliament delegation to the Cites meeting and says that this is an important moment for the survival of the species.

“The adoption of the joint proposal from the EU and Morocco would be a key next step in protecting a species for which the EU is unfortunately a key destination market. Now we have to make sure that any agreement is properly and coherently enforced to the fullest effect. That is where the real difference will be made.”

If the macaques are given increased protection, it may have some implications for Gibraltar. The population on the Rock has been kept to around 200 through culling, something that has proved controversial in the past.

If the species is elevated to Appendix I it’s likely that the populations would have to be controlled through contraception and other humane methods.

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New safeguards agreed for world’s most trafficked mammal

pangolinImage copyright
Wendy Panaino

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Pangolins are found all over African and Asia but their numbers have plummeted because of illegal trade

A little known species driven to the edge of extinction by poaching has gained extra protection at the Cites meeting in South Africa.

Pangolins are slow moving, nocturnal creatures found across Asia and Africa but over a million have been taken from the wild in the last decade.

The trade is being driven principally by demand for their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Now the Cites meeting has agreed to ban all trade in eight species of Pangolin.

Scales of destruction

As the world’s only mammal covered in scales, these species are sometimes known as scaly anteaters. The creatures have very long, sticky tongues. These come in very handy when searching for ants, their favourite food

However these scales, which the animal uses for protection, are one of the key reasons for their demise.

In traditional Chinese medicine they are dried and roasted and used for a variety of ailments including excessive nervousness, hysterical crying, palsy and to aid lactation.

As well as the scales, the meat of the Pangolin is eaten as bush meat in many parts of Africa and in China it has become something of a delicacy.

The level of illegal trade is astonishing. Between January and September this year, authorities seized more than 18,000 tonnes of Pangolin scales across 19 countries.

The majority of these scales came from African pangolins in Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana. Experts estimate that each kilogramme of scales requires the killing of three or four animals. It is believed that pangolins make up around 20% of all illegal trade in species.

Zero quotas

All pangolins are already listed on Appendix II but with a zero quota for Asian species. This has caused major problems say conservationists.

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Tikki Hywood Trust

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Pangolins only produce one offspring per year, limiting their ability to recover from poaching

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Getty Images

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The trade in frozen pangolin scales and meat is one of the biggest illegal markets

“When pangolins are just in their product forms as scales or meat it’s impossible to tell the Asian ones from the African ones,” said Jeff Flocken from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

“Up to now all Pangolins were on Appendix II with zero quota trade in the Asian species, but what that allowed was a massive trade in African species and also enabled a whole mechanism for laundering Asian ones as African ones which are legal.”

Here at the Cites meeting, range state countries proposed that four species of African pangolins and four Asian varieties be up-listed to Appendix I meaning that all commercial trade would be stopped and greater protection demanded from law enforcement.

There was widespread support for the move, with few dissenting voices. All over the large hall, stuffed toy pangolins could be seen on desks, indicating sympathy for the plight of this little known species.

Indonesia objected to the up-listing of two Asian species, the Sunda and Chinese pangolins but the conference voted overwhelmingly to include them.

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Pangolins curl into a ball when threatened which is useful against predators but not against poachers

“This is a huge win and rare piece of good news for some of the world’s most trafficked and endangered animals,” said Ginette Hemley from WWF.

“Giving Pangolins full protection under Cites will eliminate any question about legality of trade, making it harder for criminals to traffic them and increasing the consequences for those who do.”

Some objections had been expected about the African species but none materialized and the Conference of the Parties accepted the extra safeguards without a vote.

“Everyone wants this, law enforcement wants this,” said Jeff Flocken from IFAW.

“When they are listed as Appendix I there will be no mistake as to what’s legal or illegal, because they will all be illegal.

“This is a clear message from the world that the pangolins are in dire need of protection and we are going to try and make it happen.”

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Farm subsidies: Payment to billionaire prince sparks anger

Field of crops

Taxpayers are paying more than £400,000 a year to subsidise a farm where a billionaire Saudi prince breeds racehorses.

The Newmarket farm of Khalid Abdullah al Saud – owner of the legendary horse Frankel – is among the top 100 recipients of EU farm grants in the UK.

The system’s critics say Brexit will let the UK redirect £3bn in subsidies towards protecting the environment.

A spokesman for the prince declined to comment.

Farm subsidies swallow a huge chunk of the EU’s budget. They were started after World War Two to stimulate production, but led to food mountains that had to be dumped.

A compromised reform process – the so-called “greening” of the Common Agricultural Policy – resulted in farmers mostly being paid depending on how much land they own.

The UK’s top beneficiaries include estates owned partly or wholly by the Queen (£557,706.52); Lord Iveagh (£915,709.97); the Duke of Westminster (£427,433.96), the Duke of Northumberland (£475,030.70 ) the Mormons (£785,058.94) – and many wealthy business people.

Asked if the Queen thought it appropriate to receive taxpayers’ subsidy based on the size of her land holding, a spokesman for the Palace said: “Subsidies are open to all farmers, and are received on the Queen’s private estate. We would not comment beyond the detail that is already in the public domain.”

A spokesman for the Duke of Westminster also declined the question, but said the farm produced quality food while taking the environment very seriously.

In EU-wide rankings, the UK scores highly on the transparency of information about who receives what, although the identity of some landowners on the list is concealed through offshore trusts.

The big conservation organisations Natural England (£970,580.50), the National Trust (£2,666,880.26) and the RSPB (£2,002,859.51) are among the top recipients.

Source: Defra

They also get extra public money under a parallel grant designed to encourage wildlife. The latter two argue for reform of the subsidies.

A campaign for reform is being launched by Greenpeace, which does not normally focus on farming, but says Brexit demands a re-examination of many policies.

The group said it was an “outrage” that subsidies were given to those such as Khalid Abdullah al Saud, who owns Juddmonte Limited farms. His stallion Frankel is said to be worth over £100m for breeding.

Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr told BBC News: “The subsidy system is utterly broken. We need public money spent on farming to be offering demonstrable public benefits.”

The Taxpayers’ Alliance added: “Farmers should be put on notice. Taxpayers shouldn’t be handing out what are effectively land subsidies, often to extremely wealthy individuals.”

Top of Defra’s 2015 payments list is Aberdeenshire farmer Frank Smart, whose business netted grants of £2,963,732.77.

He told BBC News: “I don’t want to discuss any part of my business with the media, thank you.”

Mr Smart would not comment on complaints that he has been “slipper farming” – a technique in which farmers buy up land principally for the grants attached to it. The practice is not illegal but it has been heavily criticised.

One MP, the Conservative Richard Drax, is in the top 100 beneficiaries. His jointly-owned farm received £351,752.29.

Past EU attempts to radically reform the subsidies have been blocked by Europe’s farmers.

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There have been calls for farming subsidy reform when the UK leaves the EU

Two ministers in the government’s environment department, Defra, receive farm subsidies.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble declares an interest as a partner in CM Robarts Son, (SIC) which nets £45,479.19 in direct payments.

George Eustice is a director of a Cornish farm receiving £2,313.

A Defra spokesman said Mr Eustice and Lord Gardiner had properly declared potential conflicts of interest and both had been cleared for discussions on the future of farm grants.

The spokesman said that in the context of Brexit, all policies were being re-examined, adding: “The secretary of state has underlined the need for continuity for farmers and is looking forward to working with industry, rural communities and the wider public to shape our plans for food, farming and the environment outside the EU.”

In the Tory leadership contest, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom promised farmers that she would continue farm subsidies.

The Treasury has already guaranteed direct payments for land ownership until 2020, although to the dismay of conservation groups has not committed to continue funding wildlife protection on farms.

The Tenant Farmers’ Association wants to keep the £3bn total subsidies but split the cash between enhancing the environment, creating infrastructure to develop farm businesses, and public funding to promote British food.

The Country Landowners Association seems to think reform is inevitable.

“Brexit has given us the opportunity to develop a new food, farming and environmental policy which can deliver even greater benefits for the natural world,” its spokesman Christopher Price said.

The farmers’ union, the NFU, did not comment when asked if it accepted reform of the grants system was now inevitable.

Many environment groups believe reform of the labyrinthine grants system is beyond the capacity of Defra, which has lost many staff in recent savings. They want a broadly based commission to outline how much the government needs to spend on farming to meet the objectives of its 25-year plan to protect the environment.

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First ‘three person baby’ born using new method

Dr John Zhang with the baby boyImage copyright
New Hope Fertility Centre

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Dr John Zhang holding the baby boy who was conceived thanks to the new technique that incorporates DNA from three people

The world’s first baby has been born using a new “three person” fertility technique, New Scientist reveals.

The five-month-old boy has the usual DNA from his mum and dad, plus a tiny bit of genetic code from a donor.

US doctors took the unprecedented step to ensure the baby boy would be free of a genetic condition that his Jordanian mother carries in her genes.

Experts say the move heralds a new era in medicine and could help other families with rare genetic conditions.

But they warn that rigorous checks of this new and controversial technology, called mitochondrial donation, are needed.

It’s not the first time scientists have created babies that have DNA from three people – that breakthrough began in the late 1990s – but it is an entirely new and significant method.

Three person babies

Mitochondria are tiny structures inside nearly every cell of the body that convert food into usable energy.

Some women carry genetic defects in mitochondria and they can pass these on to their children.

In the case of the Jordanian family, it was a disorder called Leigh Syndrome that would have proved fatal to any baby conceived. The family had already experienced the heartache of four miscarriages as well as the death of two children – one at eight months and the other at six years of age.

Leigh syndrome

  • A severe neurological disorder, affecting at least one in 40,000 new-born babies.
  • Usually becomes apparent during the first year of a child’s life.
  • First signs include vomiting, diarrhoea and difficulty with swallowing.
  • Causes the progressive loss of movement, and deterioration of mental functions.
  • Symptoms are linked to the development of patches of damaged tissue which develop in the brain.
  • Children with the condition usually die within two to three years, usually because of respiratory failure.
  • Mutations in 75 different genes have been linked to the condition.
  • Most of those mutations occur in DNA from the nucleus, but in about one in five cases the culprit is found in mitochondrial DNA.

Scientists have devised a number of fertility methods to help such families.

The US team, who travelled to Mexico to carry out the procedure because there are no laws there that prohibit it, used a method that takes all the vital DNA from the mother’s egg plus healthy mitochondria from a donor egg to create a healthy new egg that can be fertilised with the father’s sperm.

The result is a baby with 0.1% of their DNA from the donor (mitochondrial DNA) and all the genetic code for things like hair and eye colour from the mother and father.

Dr John Zhang, medical director at the New Hope Fertility Centre in New York City, and his colleagues used the method to make five embryos – only one of them developed normally.

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1) Eggs from a mother with damaged mitochondria and a donor with healthy mitochondria are collected 2) The majority of the genetic material is removed from both eggs 3) The mother’s genetic material is inserted into the donor egg, which can be fertilised by sperm.

The UK has already passed laws to allow the creation of babies from three people.

But the science does raise ethical questions, including how any child from the technique might feel about having DNA from three people.

Fertility experts say it is important to push ahead, but cautiously.

Some have questioned whether we are only now hearing the success story while failed attempts could have gone unreported.

Prof Alison Murdoch, part of the team at Newcastle University that has been at the forefront of three person IVF work in the UK, said: “The translation of mitochondrial donation to a clinical procedure is not a race but a goal to be achieved with caution to ensure both safety and reproducibility.”

Critics say the work is irresponsible.

Dr David King from the pro-choice group Human Genetics Alert, said: “It is outrageous that they simply ignored the cautious approach of US regulators and went to Mexico, because they think they know better. Since when is a simplistic “to save lives is the ethical thing to do” a balanced medical ethics approach, especially when no lives were being saved?”

Dr Zhang and his team say they will answer these questions when they presents their findings at a meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in October.

Prof Darren Griffin, an expert in Genetics at the University of Kent, said: “This study heralds a new era in preimplantation genetics and represents a novel means for the treatment of families at risk of transmitting genetic disease.

“With radical new treatments like this there are always challenging ethical issues, however any concerns need to be balanced against the ramifications of not implementing such a technology when families are in need of it.”

The structure of a cell

Nucleus: Where the majority of our DNA is held – this determines how we look and our personality

Mitochondria: Often described as the cell’s factories, these create the energy to make the cell function

Cytoplasm: The jelly like substance that contains the nucleus and mitochondria

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Materials programmed to shape shift

Media captionScientists have pre-programmed materials to transform their shape.

Scientists have pre-programmed materials to change their shape over time.

Previous shape-shifting materials have needed some external trigger to tell them to transform, like light or heat.

Now, a US-based team has encoded a sequence of shape transformations into the very substance of a polymer, with each change occurring at a pre-determined time.

Details appear in Nature Communications journal.

The principles could be applied in implants that deliver medicine from within the human body and the technology could also see use in heavy industry.

Professor Sergei Sheiko from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues introduced two types of chemical bond to their polymer: permanent bonds and dynamic (or reversible) bonds.

The permanent bonds store the material’s final shape, while the dynamic bonds control how quickly it can reach this shape.

Prof Sheiko said there were several parameters in the material which, when adjusted, allowed the scientists to control the changes.

“One is the strength of the individual bond – or the energy of dissociation of the individual bond. The other is the concentration of these bonds,” he explained.

“There is a third parameter: several individual hydrogen bonds (dynamic bonds) can form a cluster. This cluster of hydrogen bonds can then form stronger cross-links.”

In bloom

As a proof of concept, the team designed a synthetic flower which “bloomed” in a pre-programmed fashion.

“We wanted to make the concept more explicit. So there are plenty of examples in nature, like flowers, which change their shape with time,” Prof Sheiko told BBC News.

“One of the advantages of our technology is that you can assemble a complex shape of individual pieces like these petals. Usually shape memory materials are just made up of one chunk that changes shape.”

He said each of the pieces could be programmed individually, with different timings.

Asked how precisely the timing of the changes could be controlled, Prof Sheiko explained: “We cannot control accurately between 20 and 21 seconds. But we can control between 20 and 60 seconds, two minutes and five minutes.

“We can control [the shape changes] pretty accurately on a scale of minutes and hours.”

Potential applications include drug delivery systems, which allow medicines to be released within the body according to a specific timescale.

“People want a material that changes shape without a stimulus. The reason is very practical: there is often no way to apply one.

“In the body, for example, it is pitch black inside and the temperature is super-stable. Our bodies work very hard to maintain a constant temperature. It’s a similar situation in space, or down an oil borehole.”

Prof Sheiko said his team had been asked about the possibility of producing a smart cement for the oil and gas industry. This could be poured down a borehole but would remain liquid for a while before setting at a specified time.

He explained: “It’s a very interesting challenge indeed, to design materials that would change their properties – which could be colour, shape, density, or mechanical properties – simply as a function of time.”

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Elon Musk outlines Mars colony vision

Media captionElon Musk: Ticket to Mars human colony should be affordable

Entrepreneur Elon Musk has outlined his vision for establishing a human colony on Mars for people that can afford a $200,000 ticket price.

Mr Musk, who founded private spaceflight company SpaceX, was speaking at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday.

His colonisation plan uses a fully reusable transportation system that would take 100 people and 80-days to get to Mars and eventually as little as 30-days.

This transportation system consists of a spaceship that is refuelled with methane and oxygen in Earth orbit and also on Mars after landing there.

Mr Musk explained that to achieve the $200,000 price, the entire transportation system has to be reusable.

He spoke of a colony of a million people to make it self-sustaining and that, with his plan, that could take 100 years.

Media captionEntrepreneur Elon Musk has outlined his vision for getting to Mars.

To reach a million, Mr Musk said: “I want to make Mars seem possible, something we can do in our life times… and that anyone can go if they wanted to.”

The first Mars flight could take place in 2022, according to SpaceX’s timeline for Mars colonisation.

Mr Musk said that he would like to name the first spacecraft that goes to Mars, The Heart of Gold, after a starship in Douglas Adams’ book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The launch site will be Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre pad 39, from where the Apollo Moon missions flew.

The reason why Mr Musk wants to go to Mars is, he said: “Without someone with a real ideological commitment, it didn’t seem we were on any trajectory to become a spacefaring civilisation.”

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A colony of a million people could take 100 years to establish

The prototype spaceship is planned to make test flights in four years, initially going into space, but not into orbit.

At the weekend, Mr Musk announced that SpaceX had carried out its first test of the Raptor rocket engine that will power the spaceship and the booster that puts it into orbit.

A prototype booster fuel tank has been built and tested and Mr Musk showed a picture of the enormous tank with staff standing next to it.

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SpaceX has built a huge prototype booster fuel tank

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This photo from Mr Musk’s talk shows the prototype tank from the inside

The combination of the booster and spaceship is called the Interplanetary Transportation System (ITS) and together they stand 122 metres tall, bigger than an Apollo-era Moon programme Saturn V rocket.

The booster will have 42 Raptor engines. Arranged in concentric circles, there will be an outer circle of 24 engines, an inner circle of 14 and in the centre seven Raptors.

Future versions of the ITS could be larger to accommodate bigger spaceships with up to 200 passengers.

The spaceship will have nine Raptor engines, carry 450 tonnes of people and cargo and have an open plan “occupant compartment” for colonists, according to Mr Musk.

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Mr Musk said the Raptor engine had been fired at a test facility in Texas

He envisages communal living during the eighty-day trip with movies and lectures and zero gravity games.

The ITS’ development will be funded by profit from SpaceX, Mr Musk’s own wealth. He sees the colonisation of Mars as a “huge public private partnership”, and said, “that is how the United States was established”.

Spaceships would be sent every two years when Mars is closest to Earth and the two worlds will be 57.6 million kilometres apart in 2018.

At their furthest, they can be 400 million kilometres apart and in the past they have only been as close as 100 million kilometres.

Once it reaches Mars, the spaceship is shaped so that it will naturally be decelerated as it passes through the atmosphere. Its engines will then fire to slow it down to land vertically on legs, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket does today.

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The SpaceX founder wants to open up access to the whole of the “Greater Solar System”

Mr Musk outlined a future where 1,000 spaceships could be in orbit. “The Mars colonial fleet would depart en masse.” He expected a spaceship to last 12-15 flights.

The price could eventually come down to $100,000 to $140,000. If someone wanted to return to Earth they could take a returning spaceship, “for free”, Mr Musk commented.

SpaceX also plans to launch the spacecraft it calls Red Dragon to Mars in a couple of years when the Earth and Mars are closest.

Red Dragon is a version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft that is carrying cargo to the International Space Station, and a human version is being developed for astronauts.

SpaceX will offer the Red Dragon flights to governments and private organisations to send scientific and commercial payloads to the Red Planet.

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Scientists solve singing fish mystery

Media captionWatch and listen: Scientists bring the singing fish into their lab

When California houseboat residents heard their low, submarine hum in the 1980s, they thought it might be coming from noisy sewage pumps, military experiments or even extraterrestrials.

But this was the nocturnal hum of the midshipman fish; a courtship call, and the source of a biological secret scientists have now solved.

Researchers brought the fish into their lab to work out why they sang at night.

The US team’s findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

Chemical clock

The researchers found the singing was controlled by a hormone that helps humans to sleep – melatonin.

And looking more closely at how melatonin acts on receptors in different parts of the fish’s brain could help explain why it is such a powerful “chemical clock” with a role in the timing of sleep-wake cycles, reproduction and birdsong.

Prof Andrew Bass, who led the research, said his curiosity about midshipman fish had been piqued by a paper written in 1924 by an academic called Charles Greene, which described how the male fish would hum at night.

“Greene referred to midshipman as the California singing fish,” said Prof Bass.

“We discovered that females are also sonic, but it’s only territorial males that build nests and produce the hum to attract females to [those] nests.”

Nocturnal calling

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A Bass

Image caption

Midshipman got their name because the luminescent ‘photophores’ reminded early observers of the buttons on a naval academy midshipman’s uniform

To find out if the humming was controlled by an internal clock, or circadian rhythm, the team first kept a group of midshipman fish in constant light.

This almost completely suppressed their humming.

“But when [we gave the fish] a melatonin substitute,” said Prof Bass, “they continued to hum, though at random times of day without a rhythm.

“Melatonin essentially acted as a ‘go’ signal for the midshipman’s nocturnal calling.”

Courtship song

Limiting their foghorn-like serenade to the night time probably benefits the fish; a nocturnal chorus might be timed for when females are most receptive, or when their predators are less likely to hear.

But the study also suggests a broad and fundamental role for melatonin throughout the vertebrate kingdom – finding a fish with a behaviour so intrinsically linked to their body clock suggests this brain circuitry evolved in our most primitive, aquatic ancestors.

Dr Ni Feng, from Yale University, who was also involved in the study, said: “Melatonin is the same supplement that humans might take to fall asleep easier and get over jetlag faster.

“But in the nocturnal fish, like the midshipman, it serves to wake them up and pave the way for their nocturnal courtship song performance.

“[So] our study shows that singing fish can be a useful model for studying hormones and reproductive-related vocal communication behaviours shared by many vertebrate species.”

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© Warren Fyfe