Talk about a mammoth appetite, when most of the world’s large mammals went extinct roughly 10,000 years ago, the vast majority of the vanished species were herbivores. This of course meant that they were no longer around to eat the plants they otherwise would have, and - according to Christophers Doughty and Field from Oxford and Stanford Universities respectively – this freed up an extra 1.4 trillion kilos of food, roughly 2.5% of the net product of all Earth’s dry land. However, the researchers add, this excess had been ‘used up’ by burgeoning human numbers by around 1700 and today we consume six times as much as the Pleistocene critters ever did while simultaneously driving down land productivity by 10% (Nature)(PDF).
That’s not to say that our massive consumption doesn’t have it’s upside, As Vangelis Kapatos of Manhattan discovered when he attempted suicide by jumping from his ninth floor flat, only to survive when his fall was broken by a pile of uncollected garbage. Mr. Kapatos’ timing, from his perspective, couldn’t have been worse, the unusually large garbage pile was due to collections being suspended because of snow. They were due to resume the day after his impromptu dumpster dive (Today Online).
Mind you, we’re not the only animals prone to excess. After finding the bodies of dozens of starlings near the city of Constanta in Romania, locals were concerned that the cause might be bird flu, instead post-mortems of the birds have revealed that they in fact died of alcohol poisoning, having ‘drunk’ themselves to death on the discarded leftovers of the local winemaking industry. A least they died happy (BBC News).
Better than dying happy, though, is living happy, and the secret of that, says the UK’s Office for National Statistics, is having a job. But it’s not the pay but the job security that counts, say the government statisticians, which ironically are facing staff cuts themselves due to the economic downturn. Other key happiness factors, according to the preliminary report, are good personal health and a decent family life. What will we do without these people (Telegraph)?
Sperm whales are among the biggest living things on the planet and, surprisingly for these gentle giants, once must have been among the most fearsome. Palaeontologists working in Peru have uncovered the remains of an extinct long lost relative of today’s sperm whale that had 30-40 cm long teeth in both jaws (the modern form has much smaller teeth in the lower jaw only). With jaws more closely resembling those of a killer whale than its thrust/suction feeding relative, scientists believe the newly named Leviathan melvillei was a 15 m long hunter of large prey, probably other whales. Its size, jaws and undoubted intelligence would have made this marine monster more than a match for the giant shark Megalodon with which it shared its home (Science [article], Nature [paper]).
Sperm whales are still the largest animal ever to have teeth, but today their diet consists mostly of squid – including the infamous giant squid – and therein lies a problem. Whereas most land dwelling creatures live on plant material, or some juicy meaty derivative thereof, and hence are essentially “carbon-neutral”, marine animals from penguins to whales feast upon carbon that was probably sequestered in the oceans hundreds if not thousands of years ago, or has weathered out of rocks that are millions of years old. One upshot of this is that carbon dating is notoriously inaccurate on marine organisms, what scientists call the “reservoir effect”, another is that unlike water breathers such as fish, who return this carbon to the oceans, air breathing animals like whales will release this carbon to the atmosphere as CO2 and so contribute to global warming. However in new research published by the Royal Society of London, researchers have calculated that whales have actually offset their carbon emissions with emissions of another kind. Whale poop is iron rich and comparatively liquid, hence returns the excess iron in the whale’s diet back to the oceans in a form that is readily usable by phytoplankton. The team, led by Trish Lavery of Flinders University in Australia, estimate that sperm whales are responsible for removing 200,000 more tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere annually than they actually emit (Royal Society).
But it’s not all good news for the tree-huggers for while whales might be a boon in the fight against climate change, their free-range, organic farming practices of preference are almost certainly not. In a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences, Jennifer Burney of Stanford University and her colleagues have found that intensive farming is by far the most land and carbon efficient method of agriculture. Because agricultural land use is a major contributor to global warming, increasing the yields from farmland, and thereby reducing the amount of land farmed, strongly outweighed the extra carbon emissions of the intensive farming needed to achieve this. Doing the sums on farm outputs since 1961, the team found that increased yields have produced the same as cultivating an additional area the size of Russia at 1961 levels, which would have led to the release of 590 billion more tonnes of CO2, equal to about a third of all man-made emissions since the industrial revolution (PNAS).
And modern farming may be coming to our rescue in another way, as a source of cheap batteries. Almost since Ben Franklin gave up kite-flying, kids in schools the world over have been making batteries out of apples or a potatoes. Now a trio of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, led by Alex Goldberg, have found a way to turn these vegetable power sources from classroom curiosities into a viable product. What’s more amazing is the method they discovered to generate a tenfold increase the output of their potato power-pack, they boil the potato first. How did no-one think of this before (AIP)?
Another new idea, albeit a less welcome one, is that one should prosecute scientists for not knowing everything. At least that seems to be the approach taken by the public prosecutors of the Italian city of L’Aquilla, which last year was hit unexpectedly by an earthquake that killed over 300 people and injured 1600 more. The defendants include the head of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and the director of the National Earthquake Center along with four other equally prominent scientists and Bernardo De Bernardinis then deputy head of the Civil Protection Agency, who together are looking at being tried for manslaughter for not alerting the population to the imminent disaster at a meeting held one week before the quake struck. It was Bernardinis, a government official, who claimed in a press conference held immediately after the meeting that the scientists had said there was “no danger”, despite the minutes of the meeting clearly showing that at no time was the chance of a major shock ever ruled out (Nature).
The week saw the publication of the 2010 Eden Wildlife Report, which tracks the numbers of foreign species introduced to the UK over the past century. Compiled by Dr. Toni Bunnell and a team from the University of Hull, the report mentions wallabies thriving in Scotland, scorpions setting up home in Kent and aardvarks that have somehow emigrated from Brazil to Cumbria (Telegraph).
Of course, this won’t be news to one member of Britain’s thriving rod-fishing community, who this week caught a piranha in his local pond (Guardian).
Another place you might not expect to see exotic creatures is on your lunch menu, but that didn’t stop one restaurant owner in Mesa, AZ from putting “lion burgers” on the menu to celebrate soccer’s World Cup. Cameron Selogie of the Il Vinaio makes his “mane course” with genuine lion meat imported from South Africa, earning him the ire of local animal rights groups and several death threats, but not a reprimand from health officials. According to an FDA spokesman serving lion meat is perfectly legal, as long as it’s not roar (Scotsman).
Slightly luckier than the lions, one cat who has fallen on his feet is Oscar, a housecat from the Isle of Jersey in the UK, widely billed as the “bionic cat” after successfully receiving two artificial hind legs to replace the ones he lost in an altercation with a combine harvester (BBC News).
You might think pitting a rodent like mammal against a 12 tonne Triceratops makes for an equally one-sided match up, but evidence emerged recently that our primitive ancestors occasionally feasted upon dinosaurs. Seventy-five million year old “gnaw marks” of a kind characteristic of early mammals, and belonging to a creature not much bigger than a squirrel, have been found on the fossil bones both of Tricerotops and the crocodile-like predator Champsosaurus (LiveScience).
Sadly today the nearest we get to dinosaur flesh is turkey or chicken, but not all birds were prized solely for their meat. The huia bird of New Zealand for example, was once used to make the feathered head-dresses of Maori chiefs, until predation from accidentally introduced species drove it to extinction around 1907. But if the bird has gone its feathers have not, and one recently became the most expensive feather ever when it sold at auction for NZ$8000, i.e. $4000 American (Telegraph).