Is there such a thing as ‘flying ant day’?

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The emergence of winged ants during summer often provokes a strong public reaction

We’re all used to ants sprouting wings and taking to the air during summer, but is there really such a thing as a “flying ant day”? A new study appears to have solved the mystery, using data submitted by the public. Here, Prof Adam Hart, one of the report’s authors, explains how they did it.

No one can guarantee a rain-free Bank Holiday weekend or a sun-drenched Wimbledon but, no matter what the summer weather brings, you can guarantee that flying ants will make their annual appearance at some point.

Flying ants are a bit of a surprise for many people. After all, the ants we are used to seeing under stones in our gardens don’t have wings and cannot fly. These wingless ants are female workers, toiling to ensure the colony survives and grows.

Once the colony has grown large enough though, it can stop investing in growth and start investing in reproduction. The problem for ants is that workers cannot start a new colony; for that you need a larger, fertile, “queen” ant that has mated with a male from a different colony.

The flying ants we see in the summer are these potential new female queens and male ants embarking on a mating flight.

Once they have mated, on the wing, the females drop to the ground and attempt to start a new colony. Most of them will not make it, becoming bird food or dying before they are able to produce worker ants (their daughters) and develop a new colony.

But some will go on to head up new colonies that will eventually produce their own flying ants

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Once ants have mated, females drop to the ground in attempts to start new colonies

The mass emergence of these winged ants across the UK always seems to provoke a strong public and media reaction, but rather than celebrating one of the great spectacles of nature, it seems that most people would much rather it didn’t happen at all!

Reading social media feeds during a flying ant event is a lesson in insect-hating, with words like “disgusting”, “horrible” and “invasion” being typical. The term “flying ant day”, with its implication of a single mass flying event across the country, is virtually ubiquitous.

The emergence of flying ants certainly does give the impression that these mating flights are coordinated across the whole country, and the collective media reporting of them lends weight to the idea that there is a single flying ant day.

But is there really such a day, how coordinated are these flights across the country and what triggers the ants to take to the air on the day or days that they do? These were questions I set out to answer with a team from the University Gloucestershire and the Royal Society of Biology.

It turns out that the widely-held idea of a “flying ant day” is actually a misconception.

Investigating mass events like flying ants presents scientists with a problem; to find out more about what is happening we need to record when and where flying ants are emerging but to do that means being everywhere at once.

With the advent of the internet, and especially the rise of smart phones, scientists have been able to harness the power of the public, who are more-or-less everywhere all the time, to record events for them.

Citizen science, as such scientist-public partnerships have become known, is an increasingly powerful tool being used in all corners of science. We decided to harness the power of the public to find out more about flying ants.

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Whether ants flew seemed to be determined both by temperature and wind speed

Starting in 2012 and continuing for three years, the University of Gloucestershire and the Royal Society of Biology, ran an annual online Flying Ant Survey to find out where and when people were seeing flying ants.

After the first year, we also asked some people, “super-engagers” who were keen on doing more, to send us samples of the flying ants from their sightings. Using the thousands of ants returned to us we were able to determine that close to 90% of flying ants were from just one species – the black pavement ant Lasius niger.

We were also able to use the thousands of sightings to say once and for all that the media cliché of Flying Ant Day is a myth.

In fact, what the public-reported data showed us was that flying ants are much less coordinated across space and much less synchronised than we thought.

We found that ants were flying somewhere in the UK on as many as 96% of days between the start of June and the start of September.

The pattern of flying ants differed massively between years. For example, in 2012 there were just a few days in late July and a few more in mid-August where around 80% of the flying activity was focussed.

In 2012, there was a terrible patch of wet and cold weather at the end of July which seems to have concentrated flights in the periods before and after. But in other years we found very different patterns, for example the fine weather in 2013 resulted in “pulses” of ant flights across the country every few weeks throughout the summer.

We had expected to find flights clustered together geographically when we looked at records across the country but we found that flying ants were much less coordinated than we expected, with no clustering at any level at which we looked.

You might have flying ants in your garden one day and your neighbour might have them the week, or even the month, after. Even in your own garden, you might have one colony flying today and another tomorrow.

Waiting game

Although only a small effect, we did find that flying ant emergences move northwards and westwards across the UK over time, so those early flying ants in Wimbledon (the south-east) this year are exactly what we might expect, albeit a couple of weeks earlier than has been reported previously.

Weather turns out to be an absolutely critical factor in triggering ants to fly. By comparing records of flying ants with the nearest weather station data, we were able to untangle some of the factors that trigger ants to take to the sky.

Ants only flew when the temperature was above 13C and when the wind speed was less than 6.3 metres per second but overall ants like it calm and warm. During the course of the study, every day in the UK summer that had a mean temperature above 25C had ants flying somewhere.

The records sent in by the public also showed that ants are excellent at short-term weather forecasting. By examining the changes in weather in the days before and after each flying ant event, we discovered that ants were more likely to fly on days that were warmer and had lower wind speeds than the day before.

It seems that ants are able to judge if the weather is likely to get better or deteriorate. If the weather is going to improve then they will wait, but if it is going to deteriorate then as long as the temperature and wind speed are above their critical thresholds they will fly.

Ants are incredibly important in the ecosystem. As predators they keep on top of other insects and as prey (especially flying ants) they feed many birds and mammals.

Their nest digging helps to aerate and structure soil as well as acting to cycle nutrients. Thousands of people have helped to make sure the emergence of flying ants, forecasting the weather and evading hungry gulls, can be celebrated as a highly visible sign of these vital ecosystem engineers.

This research, by Adam Hart (the author of this article), Anne Goodenough (University of Gloucestershire), Thomas Hesselberg (University of Oxford) and Rebecca Nesbit (Royal Society of Biology) is published in the journal Ecography.

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Mighty T. rex ‘walked rather than sprinted’

T rex was a fierce carnivoreImage copyright
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T. rex was a fierce carnivore

The size and weight of a T. rex would have prevented it from moving faster than 20km/h (12mph), research suggests.

University of Manchester scientists used a new computer simulation to assess the speed of the massive biped.

Based on T. rex‘s muscles alone, the model came up with a maximum speed of 30km/h, but this dropped to 20km/h when skeletal strength was assessed too.

Had it moved from a brisk walk to a sprint, the dinosaur’s legs would have snapped under the weight of its body.

T. rex is everyone’s favourite dinosaur, and palaeontologists have been arguing for years about how fast it could run because this would tell us something about its hunting style and the way it caught its prey,” said Prof William Sellers.

”This project used a highly realistic computer simulation to predict how T. rex moved, and it shows that running would have been impossible because its skeleton just isn’t strong enough.

”That means that T. rex was actually quite slow and therefore not a pursuit predator.”

Hollywood makeover

Fossil footprints had already hinted that the mighty dinosaur was not as agile as its Hollywood image suggests.

However, Dr Eric Snively, of UW-La Crosse, US, who was not involved in the research, said it would still have been a scary creature.

The top speeds calculated for T. rex ”are still beyond those of most fast human joggers or distance runners and would be rather frightening to behold”, he said.

Referring to a scene in the sci-fi film, he added: ”It might well have caught Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, had he stayed outside the Jeep and in the slippery mud.”

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University of Manchester

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The research used sophisticated methods and tremendous computing power to calculate speeds

Prof Sellers said: “We can basically say that running was unlikely in any of the big predatory dinosaurs, but that doesn’t mean that the smaller ones were not fast.

“That means that as it grows up, T. rex would get larger and slower and we would expect to see the hunting behaviour change.

“This really helps fill out the picture of what life was like in the cretaceous [period], when we have large numbers of dinosaurs roaming around.”

The study is published in the journal Peer J.

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Butterfly numbers facing ‘vital’ period

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Butterfly Conservation

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Butterfly Conservation says many UK species are declining in numbers

Butterflies in the UK are facing “a vital” period following a worrying decline in their numbers, naturalist Sir David Attenborough has warned.

The TV broadcaster said some of the UK’s most common species have suffered “significant declines” in recent years.

Many have experienced “several poor years”, he added, due to cold weather and with their habitats under threat.

Warm weather this year has given some species, such as the meadow brown and red admiral “a good start”, he said.

More than three quarters of the UK’s butterflies have declined in the last 40 years, with numbers falling quicker in towns and cities, experts say.

Sir David, president of Butterfly Conservation, said that despite a warm summer last year, species like the small tortoiseshell, peacock, meadow brown and gatekeeper had seen numbers fall due to a warm winter and a subsequent cold spring.

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Butterfly Conservation

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(Clockwise from top left) The Meadow Brown, Peacock, Gatekeeper and the Small Tortoiseshell

“Worryingly, we are now seeing the fortunes of some of our once common butterflies mirror those of our rarest species and they too are now also suffering significant declines with butterflies declining more rapidly in urban areas than in the countryside,” Sir David added.

“In the last decade our butterflies have experienced several poor years and although resilient, they simply cannot sustain repeated losses, especially if the habitats they need in order to rebuild their populations are also under threat.”

He said 2017 has been a good year for species so far, but added: “Butterflies really need this to continue.”

Sir David urged members of the public to take part in the annual Big Butterfly Count to see if common species can bounce back this year.

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Why the cheetah is a champion sprinter

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The cheetah has a recorded speed of 68-75 mph (109.4-120.7 km/h)

They’re the sprinters of the animal world – cheetahs on land, falcons in the air and marlins in the sea.

But, why are they so fast when bigger, more muscular animals might be expected to outpace them?

Now, scientists have come up with a new theory to explain the gold medal-winning performance of animal athletes.

It appears it is all down to the energy required to get off the starting blocks.

“Scientists have long struggled with the fact that the largest animals are not the fastest,” said Prof Walter Jetz, from the US’s Yale University.

“In our work, we explain this with the simple fact that animals run out of readily mobilised energy before they are able to get their bodies to the maximum possible speed.

“So, while the largest animals in theory could be the fastest, the energy and time required to accelerate their larger bodies keep them from ever attaining it. “

The theory, outlined in the journal Nature Ecology Evolution, explains why lean, medium-sized animals are generally built for speed.

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The black marlin is one of the fastest fish species in the ocean

It applies to animals from fruit flies to blue whales and could even help predict the maximum running speed of animals that have long disappeared.

Results from the model were compared with data on hundreds of animal species, from flying animals to whales.

Researchers found the data generally fits with their predictions that maximum speed drops off sharply as animals grow beyond medium sizes.

“The theory is able to explain the maximum speeds of over 450 terrestrial, aerial and aquatic species varying from less than a gram to 10 tonnes in size,” said Prof Jetz, who worked on the study with colleagues at the EcoNetLab in Germany.

“It is also able to predict maximum speeds of long extinct species such as birds and dinosaurs.”

Speedy animals like the cheetah have evolved bodies primed to catch prey. They are the optimal size for maximum speed.

Accelerating takes a lot of energy, and muscles can only function at such intensity for a short time.

Thus, an elephant will never be able to overtake a cheetah because the fuel for acceleration (involving anaerobic respiration) will run out before it has reached its maximum (theoretical) speed.

The information will help scientists understand more about the ecology and behaviour of a species, including diet, hunting, migration and the search for a mate.

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The peregrine is renowned for its speed, reaching more than 320 km/h (200 mph)

“The exciting part of this proposal is that it applies equally well to animals on land, in the air and in water,” write Australian scientists Peter Bishop and Christofer Clemente in a commentary in the journal.

“With this refined explanation of why animals move as fast as they do (or don’t), we can expect to gain further insight into how locomotion and ecology has evolved in various groups throughout the history of life.”

There are a few finer differences to iron out, however, including our own performance.

Humans fall short of the capability of our animal cousins of a similar size.

“In body mass, we humans are actually not too far from cheetahs,” said Prof Jetz.

“But obviously, being primates rather than part of the cats family, our body type has not, over millions of years, adapted to outrun fast prey.

“Our limbs and bipedal movement instead signal a less specialised diet and many other trade-offs that ultimately have us readily overtaken – or worse – by a lion or cheetah, whose body types are fully optimised for speed.”

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Drifting Antarctic iceberg A-68 opens up clear water

Satellite image of giant iceberg

The giant iceberg known as A-68 that was produced in the Antarctic last week continues to drift seaward.

All the latest satellite images indicate the gap between the 6,000-sq-km block and the floating Larsen C Ice Shelf from which it calved is widening.

The particular image on this page was acquired by the Deimos-1 satellite.

It is not easy getting pictures of the Antarctic at this time of year because of the long winter nights and because of cloud cover.

Those spacecraft that have so far spied the berg have been relying on radar or on infrared sensors to pierce these difficulties.

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The monster berg – which is a quarter the size of Wales, and one of the biggest ever recorded – is so far behaving as expected.

Theory suggests it should move, in the first instance, down the slope in the ocean surface that has been created by winds in the Weddell Sea pushing water up against the coast. But the leftward deflecting effect of the Coriolis force, produced by the Earth’s rotation, should keep the berg relatively close to the continent’s edge.

Interestingly in the Deimos image, acquired on Friday, it appears as though a large segment of “fast ice” that was attached to the berg has broken free. This fast ice is considerably thinner than the main block – a few metres thick versus the 200-plus-metres of the berg itself.

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In this Sunday thermal image from Nasa’s Aqua satellite, the strong white lines are the signal of water which is warm relative to the surrounding ice and air. It also suggests a large section of fast ice has detached from the berg

Thomas Rackow and colleagues from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, are following the block with keen interest.

They recently published research in which they modelled the drift of icebergs through Antarctic waters – taking into account the different influences that act on small and large objects. There are essentially four “highways” that bergs travel, depending on their point of origin.

A-68 should follow the highway up the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, leading from the Weddell Sea towards the Atlantic.

“It will most likely follow a northeasterly course, heading roughly for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands,” Dr Rackow told BBC News. “It will be very interesting to see whether the iceberg will move as expected, as a kind of ‘reality-check’ for the current models and our physical understanding.”

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Rackow et al

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Simulated highways: Small to medium bergs (Classes 1-3) generally have a lifetime of a couple of years; the big bergs (Classes 4-5) are mostly all gone after 10 years

Polar research agencies are already discussing the scientific opportunities afforded by the breakaway.

Scientists will want to understand what effect the calving might have on the remaining parts of the ice shelf. Ten percent of Larsen C’s area was removed by the departing berg, and this loss could change the way stress is configured and managed across the shelf.

There are numerous cracks just north of a pinning point known as the Gipps Ice Rise. These fissures have long remained static, held in place by a band of soft, malleable ice.

Researchers will want to check the departure of A-68 will not alter the status of these cracks.

There are also some fascinating investigations to be done on the seafloor that will soon be uncovered when the berg moves completely clear of the shelf. Previous big calvings have led to the discovery of new species.

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World’s large carnivores being pushed off the map

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Ethiopian Wolf

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The Ethiopian wolf has lost 99% of its range

Six of the world’s large carnivores have lost more than 90% of their historic range, according to a study.

The Ethiopian wolf, red wolf, tiger, lion, African wild dog and cheetah have all been squeezed out as land is lost to human settlements and farming.

Reintroduction of carnivores into areas where they once roamed is vital in conservation, say scientists.

This relies on human willingness to share the landscape with the likes of the wolf.

The research, published in Royal Society Open Science, was carried out by Christopher Wolf and William Ripple of Oregon State University.

They mapped the current range of 25 large carnivores using International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List data. This was compared with historic maps from 500 years ago.

The work shows that large carnivore range contractions are a global issue, said Christopher Wolf.

“Of the 25 large carnivores that we studied, 60% (15 species) have lost more than half of their historic ranges,” he explained.

“This means that scientifically sound reintroductions of large carnivores into areas where they have been lost is vital both to conserve the large carnivores and to promote their important ecological effects.

“This is very dependent on increasing human tolerance of large carnivores – a key predictor of reintroduction success.”

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The tiger has lost 95% of its range

The researchers say re-wilding programmes will be most successful in regions with low human population density, little livestock, and limited agriculture.

Additionally, regions with large networks of protected areas and favourable human attitudes toward carnivores are better suited for such schemes.

“Increasing human tolerance of large carnivores may be the best way to save these species from extinction,” said co-researcher William Ripple.

“Also, more large protected areas are urgently needed for large carnivore conservation.”

When policy is favourable, carnivores may naturally return to parts of their historic ranges.

This has begun to happen in parts of Europe with brown bears, lynx, and grey wolves.

The Eurasian lynx and grey wolf are among the carnivores that have the smallest range contractions.

The dingo and several types of hyena are also doing relatively well, compared with the lion and tiger.

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Maryam Mirzakhani, first woman to win maths’ Fields Medal, dies

Maryam MirzkhaniImage copyright
Courtesy of Maryam Mirzakhani

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Prof Mirzakhani is seen as an inspiration for young female mathematicians

Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to receive the prestigious Fields Medal for mathematics, has died in the US.

The 40-year-old Iranian, a professor at Stanford University, had breast cancer which had spread to her bones.

Nicknamed the “Nobel Prize for Mathematics”, the Fields Medal is only awarded every four years to between two and four mathematicians under 40.

It was given to Prof Mirzakhani in 2014 for her work on complex geometry and dynamical systems.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Prof Mirzakhani’s death caused “great sorrow,” state media reported.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said her death was a cause for grief for all Iranians.

“A light was turned off today. It breaks my heart… gone far too soon,” US-Iranian scientist Firouz Naderi posted on Instagram.

He added in a subsequent post: “A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife.”

Prof Mirzakhani and her husband, Czech scientist Jan Vondrak, had one daughter.

Some social media users criticised Iranian officials for not using recent images of Prof Mirzakhani which showed her uncovered hair. Iranian women must cover their hair in line with a strict interpretation of Islamic law on modesty.

Iranian official media and politicians used older pictures in their social media tributes, which show her hair covered.

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Iranian Speaker Ali Larijani – using an older image of Prof Mirzakhani – said on Instagram that her loss “caused great regret”

Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne described Prof Mirzakhani as “a brilliant mathematical theorist and also a humble person who accepted honours only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path”.

“Maryam is gone far too soon but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science,” he said.

“Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world.”

Born in 1977, Prof Mirzakhani was brought up in post-revolutionary Iran and won two gold medals in the International Mathematical Olympiad as a teenager.

She earned a PhD at Harvard University in 2004, and later worked at Princeton before securing a professorship at Stanford in 2008.

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Her receipt of the Fields Medal three years ago ended a long wait for women in the mathematics community for the prize, first established in 1936.

Prof Mirzakhani was also the first Iranian to receive it.

The citation said she had made “striking and highly original contributions to geometry and dynamical systems” and that her most recent work constituted “a major advance”.

Prof Dame Frances Kirwan, a member of the medal selection committee from the University of Oxford, said at the time: “I hope that this award will inspire lots more girls and young women, in this country and around the world, to believe in their own abilities and aim to be the Fields Medallists of the future.”

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A mission to the Pacific plastic patch

Media captionMission to the plastic patch: On board with Capt Charles Moore and his team

A mariner who has spent years travelling “hundreds of thousands of nautical miles” to measure the impact of plastic waste in the ocean has estimated that a “raft” of plastic debris spanning more than 965,000 square miles (2.5m sq km) is concentrated in a region of the South Pacific.

Capt Charles Moore has just returned from a sampling expedition around Easter Island and Robinson Crusoe Island.

He was part of the team which discovered the first ocean “garbage patch” in the North Pacific gyre in 1997 and has now turned his attention to the South Pacific.

Although plastic is known to occur in the Southern Hemisphere gyres, very few scientists have visited the region to collect samples.

Oceanographer Dr Erik van Sebille, from Utrecht University, says the work of Capt Moore and his colleagues will help fill “a massive knowledge gap” in our understanding of ocean plastics.

“Any data we can get our hands on is good data at this point,” he told BBC News.

Capt Moore explained that the space occupied by sub-tropical gyres – areas of the ocean surrounded by circulating ocean currents – is approximately the same size as the entire land mass of the Earth, but they are now being “populated by our trash”.

The phenomenon of oceanic garbage patches was originally documented in the North Pacific, but plastic has now been found in the South Pacific, Arctic and Mediterranean.

“It’s hard not to find plastic in the ocean any more,” Dr van Sebille said. “That’s quite shocking”.

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Capt Charles Moore has been searching the ocean for plastic since 1997

Capt Moore is the founder of Algalita Marine Research, a non-profit organisation aiming to combat the “plastic plague” of garbage floating in the world’s oceans.

For more than 30 years, he has transported scientists to the centre of remote debris patches aboard his research ship, Alguita.

Dragging nets behind the vessel, the crew sieves particles of plastic from the ocean, which are then counted and fed into estimates of global microplastic distribution.

Although scientists agree that plastic pollution is a widespread problem, the exact distribution of these rafts of ocean garbage is still unclear.

“If we don’t understand where the plastic is, then we don’t really understand what harm it does and we can’t really work on solving the problem,” said Dr van Sebille.

Eating rubbish

Capt Moore and his crew hope to address this lack of data through their research trips.

On this latest voyage, Capt Moore and his colleagues are also investigating how plastic in the South Pacific Ocean may be threatening the survival of fish.

Lanternfish, that live in the deep ocean, are an important part of the diet of whales, squid and king penguins and the Algalita team says that plastic ingestion by lanternfish could have a domino effect on the rest of the food chain.

Christiana Boerger, a marine biologist in the US Navy, who has worked with the organisation, told BBC News that the problem of plastic consumption in fish can be “out of sight, out of mind”.

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Most of the plastic is made up of tiny pieces floating at the surface

She explained that “scientists need to actually travel to these accumulation zones” in order to bring the issue to the world’s attention.

Ms Boerger has seen the impact of oceanic garbage patches first hand, aboard the Alugita and she says that some fish species “have more man-made plastic in their stomach than their natural food”.

Globally, most of the plastic that ends up in the oceans comes from the land.

Litter is typically transported offshore by currents, which then form large revolving bodies of water, or gyres.

But Capt Moore says the South Pacific garbage patch is different from those in the Northern Hemisphere, because most of the litter appears to have come from the fishing industry.

Elsewhere, scientists are shifting their attention away from remote mid-ocean garbage patches to locations closer to home.

“If you think about plastic in terms of its impact, where does it harm marine life?” Dr van Sebille posed.

“Near coastlines is where biology suffers. It’s also where the economy suffers the most.”

Dr van Sebille also says that future research efforts need to focus on ecologically sensitive regions along the continental shelf. Even though the garbage patches cover a very large area “they are not that ecologically important”, he said.

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Our plastic rubbish has floated to islands that are thousands of miles from the nearest human population

His team has previously studied the risk of plastics to marine animals, including turtles and sea birds. “Every time, we found that the risk is mostly outside of the garbage patches,” he warned.

In the future, Dr van Sebille hopes to understand more about how plastic ends up on the coastline and is then subsequently transported to the oceans by storms. Interrupting this process might be an important mechanism for halting the growth of ocean garbage patches.

“A beach clean-up might turn out to be a very efficient way of cleaning up the ocean,” he suggests.

In the meantime, humanity’s love affair with plastic is unlikely to end soon. Plastic “will never be the enemy”, concedes Capt Moore, “It has too many uses”.

He explained that plastic pollution travels across national borders, so dealing with it required international collaboration.

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Behold Jupiter’s Great Red Spot

JupiterImage copyright
NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major

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Jason Major, a JunoCam citizen scientist and a graphic designer from Warwick, Rhode Island, took the raw images from the probe to create this perspective

An American space agency probe has returned the most detailed pictures ever of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

The Juno spacecraft passed over the giant storm on Monday as it continued with its series of close passes of the gaseous world.

The pictures of the spot reveal the intricate nature of its swirls which encompass a region bigger than Earth.

Juno’s instruments all acquired data during the pass which should now provide fresh insight on the storm.

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NASA/SwRI/MSSS /Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran

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The raw images that come down from Juno are a lot more washed out. Citizen scientists like to accentuate the colours and contrast to highlight features that might otherwise be overlooked

It has been a particularly long-lived feature on Jupiter, but there is evidence that the 16,350-km-wide oval has actually been shrinking of late.

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The Great Red Spot has persisted for centuries. Scientists are keen to learn its secrets and Juno provides the key

“For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorising about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a Nasa statement.

“Now we have the best pictures ever of this iconic storm. It will take us some time to analyse all the data from not only JunoCam, but Juno’s eight science instruments, to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot.”

Scientists describe the storm as something similar to a hurricane – but there are significant differences between that kind of storm on Earth and what we see at Jupiter. Many behaviours are not the same.

For example, hurricanes on Earth quickly lose energy when they leave the ocean surface and pass over land – but on Jupiter, there is no land. Indeed, researchers are not even sure there exists any kind of hard surface under the planet’s clouds.

This could be an explanation for why the spot has persisted for centuries. But Juno hopes to resolve such puzzles.

It has the instrumentation to determine the precise chemical composition of the oval’s clouds, to sense their temperature and structure, and to measure how deep they go. There is a suspicion that the spot has very deep roots.

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NASA/SwRI/MSSS /Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran

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The mission should reveal the spot’s internal structure and how deep its roots go

Jonathan Nichols, a British science team-member from the University of Leicester, marvelled at the new pictures.

“These images are stunning, and reveal Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in all its glory,” he told BBC News.

“From the three swirls inside the deep red core to the waves and vortices orbiting it, the images reveal the power and chaos of this iconic storm.

“The light and dark shades reveal the wind flow in the spot and potentially the 3D structure of the cloud decks. But the images are also a perfect convergence of science and art, revealing the awesome beauty of the giant planet.

“The quality of these data are superb, and it bodes well for further Juno data that will reveal how deep into the atmosphere the Great Red Spot extends.”

Juno has been at Jupiter for just over a year. It flies large ellipses around the planet, coming in close every 53 days.

Monday’s pass saw it skim just 3,500km above the cloudtops at one point. When it travelled across the spot, it was still a mere 9,000km overhead.

The practice of the mission so far has been to release raw images from JunoCam and invite the public to work on them – to process them in ways that highlight areas of scientific interest, or simply to make some fascinating artwork.

Meanwhile, the science team gets to work on the data-sets from the other instruments. Their findings take a while longer to emerge – at conferences and in journal papers.

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  • This ‘metallic hydrogen’ could be the source of the magnetic field
  • Most of the visible cloudtops contain ammonia and hydrogen sulphide
  • Jupiter’s low-latitude ‘bands’ play host to very strong east-west winds
  • The Great Red Spot is a giant storm vortex wider than Planet Earth

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Blue whale takes centre-stage at Natural History Museum

WhaleImage copyright
Trustees of the NHM, London

Image caption

The skeleton has been given a diving pose – as if it is feeding on a ball of krill

London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) has undergone a major revamp with a blue whale skeleton now forming the main exhibit as visitors come through the front door.

The marine mammal replaces the much-loved Diplodocus dinosaur, “Dippy”, which will soon head out on a tour of the UK.

The museum believes the change will give its image a refresh.

It wants to be known more for its living science than its old fossils.

The museum employs hundreds of researchers who engage in active study on a day-to-day basis.

Yes, they use the 80 million-odd specimens kept at the South Kensington institution, but their focus is on learning new things that bear down on the modern world. In that sense, the blue whale is regarded as the perfect emblem.

The specimen is being given the name “Hope” as a “symbol of humanity’s power to shape a sustainable future”.

Blue whales are now making a recovery following decades of exploitation that nearly drove them out of existence.

  • The exhibits that will support the blue whale
  • How the whale was prepared for display
  • Whaling’s ‘uncomfortable’ scientific legacy
  • Whales reached huge size only recently

The Natural History Museum is closed to the public all day Thursday for final preparations

Media captionBBC Horizon: Richard Sabin tags blue whales with John Calambokidis

Staff have spent months preparing the 126-year-old skeleton for its new role.

First, it had to be removed from its old hanging space in the mammals gallery.

Then it had to be cleaned and in a few places repaired and strengthened. And finally, it had to be re-hung from the iron girders that support the ceiling in the Waterhouse building’s spectacular Hintze Hall.

The BBC was given exclusive access to the whole process, and a Horizon documentary, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, will go out on BBC Two at 21:00 BST on Thursday.

The film will air at about the same time as the NHM’s patron, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Sir David, inaugurate the new exhibit at a gala reception.

The NHM blue whale specimen

Image copyright
Trustees of the NHM, London

Image caption

The young female blue whale beached on Wexford sands on 25 March 1891

  • Skeleton is just over 25m long and weighs 3 tonnes
  • At death, the animal was about 10-15 years old
  • NHM bought the skeleton for £250 from a middleman
  • He sold the oil for fuel; meat went to the pet trade
  • Arrived at museum in March 1892 and put in storage
  • First went on display in 1938 in the mammals gallery

A great many people were involved in the make-over, but the promotion of the whale represents something of a personal triumph for Richard Sabin, the museum’s principal curator of mammals.

He championed the change and suggested the dynamic lunge-feeding pose that the whale now assumes.

It was on a visit to the NHM in 1976, as a boy of 10, that Richard first saw the skeleton in its old display position. He describes that experience as transformative.

“I was absolutely blown away,” he told BBC News. “I remember running up the stairs to the balcony and asking an attendant if the whale skeletons in the gallery were real. And she said ‘yes, and not only that you can still see these animals in the ocean today’.

“I got home and the very next day I headed down to the public library to try to find as many books as I could on whales. It was, to coin a phase, a defining moment.”

The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

  • Biggest animal ever to have lived on Planet Earth
  • Weighs up to 200 tonnes, and can be up to 30m long
  • Hunts in all oceans, ranging from tropics to poles
  • Must eat over 4 tonnes of shrimp-like krill a day
  • Jaws open to over 90 degrees to take giant gulps
  • Commercial whalers reduced numbers to a few hundred
  • Species has rebounded to perhaps 20,000 individuals

For the Horizon film, Richard can be seen tracing the history of the specimen – meeting the descendants of the Irish fisherman who despatched the animal with a makeshift harpoon after it had beached off County Wexford in March 1891. But he also travels to North America, to the Pacific Coast, to join the Cascadia Research Group as they track migrating blue whales.

The group, co-founded by John Calambokidis, attaches tags to the giant creatures. Held on by suction cups, these devices record the behaviour of the whales, even capturing 4K video as they dive underwater.

The team is learning key facts that will help conserve the majestic animals, which went to the brink of oblivion thanks to 20th Century hunters.

“We’ve discovered that blue whales spend twice as much time at the surface at night than they do in the day,” John told Horizon.

“That’s the period when they’re most vulnerable to ship strikes. That identified right there that we need to be most concerned about ships and their transiting through blue whale areas at night rather than the day.”

Media captionA timelapse movie captures the erection of the blue whale

Image copyright
Trustees of the NHM, London

Image caption

Whale flipper: The Wexford specimen got an MOT before being re-hung

For Richard, the observation of whales in the Pacific confirmed his desire to see the conservation icon put centre-stage at his museum back in London.

“It’s been an honour and a privilege to work with the specimen that inspired me all those years ago – to breathe new life into it; to inject science from the field into it; to display it in a much more meaningful way.

“I honestly believe it will take people’s breath away when they see it.

“Thursday is going to be an amazing day for everyone involved; I am sure there will be plaudits for what we’ve done. But I can’t wait for Friday morning when the first families, the first schoolchildren, walk through the door and I get to hear what they’ve got to say about what they see.”

Fans of Dippy should not despair. After the dinosaur’s two-year tour of Britain, it will return to a make-over of its own.

The skeleton, which is actually only a plaster cast, will be fashioned again in bronze and placed in the east garden in front of the museum.

You can watch a trail for Horizon: Dippy and the Whale. After broadcast on BBC Two, the programme will be available on the iPlayer.

Image copyright
Trustees of the NHM, London

Image caption

Dippy, a copy of an American dinosaur specimen, vacates Hintze Hall after four decades of duty

Image copyright

Image caption

A new bronze Dippy will eventually feature in the eastern grounds of the museum

Image copyright
Trustees of the NHM, London

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© Warren Fyfe