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Antarctic iceberg expedition set to reveal hidden realm

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Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43036188

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Origins of land plants pushed back in time

Early plants would have looked much like this lava field in IcelandImage copyright
Paul Kenrick

Image caption

Early plants would have looked much like this lava field in Iceland

A seminal event in the Earth’s history – when plants appeared on land – may have happened 100 million years earlier than previously thought.

Land plants evolved from “pond scum” about 500 million years ago, according to new research.

These early moss-like plants greened the continents, creating habitats for land animals.

The study, based on analysing the genes of living plants, overturns theories based purely on fossil plant evidence.

“Land plants emerged on land half a billion years ago, tens of millions of years older than the fossil record alone suggests,” said study author, Dr Philip Donoghue of the department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.

“This changes perception of the nature of early terrestrial environments, displacing pond scum in favour of a flora that would have tickled your toes – but not reached much higher. “

Image copyright
Natural History Museum, London

Image caption

Fossil plant stem dating back 400 million years from Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Early plants would have provided a habitat for fully terrestrial animals, which emerged onto land at much the same time, he said.

This coincides with the time period when life became more diverse and abundant in the seas – an event known as the Cambrian explosion.

“Our results show the ancestor of land plants was alive in the middle Cambrian Period, which was similar to the age for the first known terrestrial animals,” said co-researcher Dr Mark Puttick, from the Natural History Museum, London.

Molecular clock

For the first four billion years of Earth’s history, the continents would have been devoid of all life save microbes.

When land plants arose, they greened the continents and created habitats for animals.

The spread of plants around the world and their adaptations to life on land influenced levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperatures, sustaining all life on Earth.

The study, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calls into question existing theories on the evolution of land plants.

The researchers say the fossil ages underestimate the origins of land plants, and so these models need to be revised.

The new study is based on the so-called molecular clock method – analysing the genes of living organisms combined with knowledge from fossils about shared ancestors.

Follow Helen on Twitter.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43116836

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France to let wolf population grow despite farmers’ fears

Wolves in Les Angles, south-western France. File photoImage copyright
AFP/Getty Images

Image caption

After being wiped out by hunters in the 1930, wolves returned to France in the 1990s

France is to allow the wolf population to grow from about 360 now to 500 by 2023, despite protests from farmers worried about their livestock.

A new plan announced by the government represents a rise of nearly 40% in the wolf population.

After being eradicated by hunters in the 1930s, the wolf made its way back into France from Italy in the 1990s.

Wolves are listed as a protected species by the Bern Convention that France has signed up to.

Animal rights groups had been pushing for a more radical proposal and accused ministers of lacking political courage.

In a gesture to farmers, the government said that hunters in France would still be allowed to cull 40 wolves this year, the same as in 2017. Up to 10% of the wolf population could be culled every year from 2019, and that proportion could rise to 12% if more frequent wolf attacks were registered.

Almost 12,000 sheep were killed by wolves in France in 2017 and the government has come under strong pressure from farmers in French regions – particularly in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

“We place trust in all of the stakeholders and local lawmakers to calm the debate and enable co-existence over the long-term,” Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot said in a joint statement.

The new plan also envisages that livestock owners will be able to apply for state funds to protect their animals from wolves.

France is not the only Western European country witnessing the return of the wolf.

Last month a wolf was spotted in the Flanders region of northern Belgium for the first time in over a century.

There were an estimated 60 wolf packs living in Germany in 2017, a rise of some 15% on the previous year.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43122088

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France to let wolf population grow despite farmers’ fears

Wolves in Les Angles, south-western France. File photoImage copyright
AFP/Getty Images

Image caption

After being wiped out by hunters in the 1930, wolves returned to France in the 1990s

France is to allow the wolf population to grow from about 360 now to 500 by 2023, despite protests from farmers worried about their livestock.

A new plan announced by the government represents a rise of nearly 40% in the wolf population.

After being eradicated by hunters in the 1930s, the wolf made its way back into France from Italy in the 1990s.

Wolves are listed as a protected species by the Bern Convention that France has signed up to.

Animal rights groups had been pushing for a more radical proposal and accused ministers of lacking political courage.

In a gesture to farmers, the government said that hunters in France would still be allowed to cull 40 wolves this year, the same as in 2017. Up to 10% of the wolf population could be culled every year from 2019, and that proportion could rise to 12% if more frequent wolf attacks were registered.

Almost 12,000 sheep were killed by wolves in France in 2017 and the government has come under strong pressure from farmers in French regions – particularly in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

“We place trust in all of the stakeholders and local lawmakers to calm the debate and enable co-existence over the long-term,” Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot said in a joint statement.

The new plan also envisages that livestock owners will be able to apply for state funds to protect their animals from wolves.

France is not the only Western European country witnessing the return of the wolf.

Last month a wolf was spotted in the Flanders region of northern Belgium for the first time in over a century.

There were an estimated 60 wolf packs living in Germany in 2017, a rise of some 15% on the previous year.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43122088

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DNA secrets of how vampire bats became bloodthirsty

A common vampire bat going out for its nocturnal huntImage copyright
Brock Fenton

Image caption

A common vampire bat going out for its nocturnal hunt

DNA analysis is giving clues to how the vampire bat can survive on blood alone.

The bat can drink up to half its weight in blood a day unlike other relatives, which dine on fruit, nectar or insects.

Blood is low in nutrients and can harbour deadly viruses.

Vampire bats have key differences in genes involved in immunity and food metabolism compared with other bats.

The researchers say the bat’s gut microbes are also distinct.

They found evidence of more than 280 types of bacteria in the bat’s droppings that would have made most other mammals unwell.

“The data suggests that there is a close evolutionary relationship between the gut microbiome and the genome of the vampire bat for adaptation to sanguivory (feeding exclusively on blood),” said study author, Dr Marie Zepeda Mendoza of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

The common vampire bat harbours many genes that have been selected to cope with blood feeding, she added.

Protein-rich diet

Blood is very high in protein (93%), but low in carbohydrate (1%) and vitamins. It may also harbour blood-borne diseases.

Vampire bats have evolved many features for such a specialised diet – from sharp teeth for severing blood vessels to changes in kidney function to deal with a protein-rich diet.

However, while such adaptations have been well studied, there has been relatively little research on the genome of the vampire bat.

International researchers analysed both the genome of the vampire bat and its microbiome – the microorganisms that live inside the gut.

They found that genome size was similar to that of other bats but the genome contained more “jumping genes” (DNA sequences that change position in the genome).

These were found in areas involved in immune response, viral defence, and both lipid and vitamin metabolism, suggesting they have played a key role in the evolution of the bat’s specialised diet.

The microbiome of vampire bats is completely distinct from that of nectar-feeding, fruit-eating, and meat-eating bats, they say.

The researchers argue that microorganisms in the bat’s gut may also be involved in digestion, immunity and overall health, and have evolved alongside changes in the genome.

“Adaptation to specialised diets often requires modifications at both genomic and microbiome levels,” they write in the journal, Nature Ecology and Evolution.

‘Messed-up creatures’

The common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) is one of only three mammals that feed exclusively on blood.

They swoop down at night to feed on the blood of cattle and other animals, including, occasionally, people.

They make an incision near an artery using their teeth and then lick up the blood as it trickles out.

This impressive feat makes vampire bats, arguably, pretty amazing creatures, although Dr Mendoza joked: “I usually call them ‘messed-up creatures’.”

Follow Helen on Twitter.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43112650

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DNA secrets of how vampire bats became bloodthirsty

A common vampire bat going out for its nocturnal huntImage copyright
Brock Fenton

Image caption

A common vampire bat going out for its nocturnal hunt

DNA analysis is giving clues to how the vampire bat can survive on blood alone.

The bat can drink up to half its weight in blood a day unlike other relatives, which dine on fruit, nectar or insects.

Blood is low in nutrients and can harbour deadly viruses.

Vampire bats have key differences in genes involved in immunity and food metabolism compared with other bats.

The researchers say the bat’s gut microbes are also distinct.

They found evidence of more than 280 types of bacteria in the bat’s droppings that would have made most other mammals unwell.

“The data suggests that there is a close evolutionary relationship between the gut microbiome and the genome of the vampire bat for adaptation to sanguivory (feeding exclusively on blood),” said study author, Dr Marie Zepeda Mendoza of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

The common vampire bat harbours many genes that have been selected to cope with blood feeding, she added.

Protein-rich diet

Blood is very high in protein (93%), but low in carbohydrate (1%) and vitamins. It may also harbour blood-borne diseases.

Vampire bats have evolved many features for such a specialised diet – from sharp teeth for severing blood vessels to changes in kidney function to deal with a protein-rich diet.

However, while such adaptations have been well studied, there has been relatively little research on the genome of the vampire bat.

International researchers analysed both the genome of the vampire bat and its microbiome – the microorganisms that live inside the gut.

They found that genome size was similar to that of other bats but the genome contained more “jumping genes” (DNA sequences that change position in the genome).

These were found in areas involved in immune response, viral defence, and both lipid and vitamin metabolism, suggesting they have played a key role in the evolution of the bat’s specialised diet.

The microbiome of vampire bats is completely distinct from that of nectar-feeding, fruit-eating, and meat-eating bats, they say.

The researchers argue that microorganisms in the bat’s gut may also be involved in digestion, immunity and overall health, and have evolved alongside changes in the genome.

“Adaptation to specialised diets often requires modifications at both genomic and microbiome levels,” they write in the journal, Nature Ecology and Evolution.

‘Messed-up creatures’

The common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) is one of only three mammals that feed exclusively on blood.

They swoop down at night to feed on the blood of cattle and other animals, including, occasionally, people.

They make an incision near an artery using their teeth and then lick up the blood as it trickles out.

This impressive feat makes vampire bats, arguably, pretty amazing creatures, although Dr Mendoza joked: “I usually call them ‘messed-up creatures’.”

Follow Helen on Twitter.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43112650

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Ocean plastic tide ‘violates the law’

The final programme in the series will look at some of the threats facing the oceansImage copyright
BBC BLUE PLANET II

Image caption

The issue in the UK has fired to the top of the political agenda following the BBC’s Blue Planet II series

The global tide of ocean plastic pollution is a clear violation of international law, campaigners say.

They have been urging for a new global treaty to tackle the problem.

But a new report – to be presented to a Royal Geographical Society conference on Tuesday – says littering the sea with plastics is already prohibited under existing agreements.

The report urges those governments that are trying to tackle the issue to put legal pressure on those that are not.

The paper has been written by the veteran environment journalist Oliver Tickell.

His conclusions are backed by ClientEarth, the legal group that successfully sued the UK over failures to meet air pollution laws.

  • Plastic waste ‘building up’ in Arctic
  • Plastic pollution in seven charts
  • ‘Shame and anger’ at plastic pollution

Tickell says legal action against big polluters such as China, India and Indonesia can be taken only by a nation state.

So he calls for governments and green groups to support small island nations suffering most from plastic pollution.

Tickell maintains that marine plastic litter can already be controlled through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); the London Convention; the MARPOL Convention; the Basel Convention; Customary Law, and many other regional agreements.

Article 194 of UNCLOS, for instance, requires states to “prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source.

“Measures shall include, inter alia, those designed to minimize to the fullest possible extent… the release of toxic, harmful or noxious substances, especially those which are persistent, from land-based sources… [and] shall include those necessary to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life.”

Tickell adds: “Amid all the hand-wringing over ocean plastic, the fact that it’s actually illegal has scarcely been mentioned.

“Sadly, very few states are in compliance with those obligations they have committed to.”

He says offenders could be taken to the International Court of Justice and ordered to pay compensation.

But Tickell warns that enforcement is not easy as only nation states are able to bring a case.

He believes small islands suffering the worst impacts of marine plastic pollution may be fearful of confronting the generally larger, more powerful countries responsible for the problem.

China, India and Indonesia are among the worst culprits.

A spokesman for ClientEarth told BBC News: “Under current international law, states already have the obligation to prevent, control and reduce marine plastic pollution.

“A new convention might impose more specific action, but the political energy needed for a new international agreement could be put to better use.

“Negotiating a new international agreement is not a pre-requisite for action at the national level.”

Tuesday’s conference is organised by a campaign group called Artists Project Earth. It is proposing the Ocean Plastic Legal Initiative.

Follow Roger on Twitter.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43115486

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Ocean plastic tide ‘violates the law’

The final programme in the series will look at some of the threats facing the oceansImage copyright
BBC BLUE PLANET II

Image caption

The issue in the UK has fired to the top of the political agenda following the BBC’s Blue Planet II series

The global tide of ocean plastic pollution is a clear violation of international law, campaigners say.

They have been urging for a new global treaty to tackle the problem.

But a new report – to be presented to a Royal Geographical Society conference on Tuesday – says littering the sea with plastics is already prohibited under existing agreements.

The report urges those governments that are trying to tackle the issue to put legal pressure on those that are not.

The paper has been written by the veteran environment journalist Oliver Tickell.

His conclusions are backed by ClientEarth, the legal group that successfully sued the UK over failures to meet air pollution laws.

  • Plastic waste ‘building up’ in Arctic
  • Plastic pollution in seven charts
  • ‘Shame and anger’ at plastic pollution

Tickell says legal action against big polluters such as China, India and Indonesia can be taken only by a nation state.

So he calls for governments and green groups to support small island nations suffering most from plastic pollution.

Tickell maintains that marine plastic litter can already be controlled through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); the London Convention; the MARPOL Convention; the Basel Convention; Customary Law, and many other regional agreements.

Article 194 of UNCLOS, for instance, requires states to “prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source.

“Measures shall include, inter alia, those designed to minimize to the fullest possible extent… the release of toxic, harmful or noxious substances, especially those which are persistent, from land-based sources… [and] shall include those necessary to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life.”

Tickell adds: “Amid all the hand-wringing over ocean plastic, the fact that it’s actually illegal has scarcely been mentioned.

“Sadly, very few states are in compliance with those obligations they have committed to.”

He says offenders could be taken to the International Court of Justice and ordered to pay compensation.

But Tickell warns that enforcement is not easy as only nation states are able to bring a case.

He believes small islands suffering the worst impacts of marine plastic pollution may be fearful of confronting the generally larger, more powerful countries responsible for the problem.

China, India and Indonesia are among the worst culprits.

A spokesman for ClientEarth told BBC News: “Under current international law, states already have the obligation to prevent, control and reduce marine plastic pollution.

“A new convention might impose more specific action, but the political energy needed for a new international agreement could be put to better use.

“Negotiating a new international agreement is not a pre-requisite for action at the national level.”

Tuesday’s conference is organised by a campaign group called Artists Project Earth. It is proposing the Ocean Plastic Legal Initiative.

Follow Roger on Twitter.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43115486

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Woburn Safari Park: Elephant Tarli survives deadly virus

A three-year-old endangered Asian elephant has beaten the odds to overcome an Ebola-like virus.

Tarli, born at Woburn Safari Park in Bedfordshire, was diagnosed with the early stages of the usually fatal disease thanks to a routine blood test.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-43078782

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Scientists have developed a lung probe that finds infections

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Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43077353

© Warren Fyfe
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