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Monday, April 24, 2006

"Eagle Eye Cam!"

Check out this amazing streaming live "Eagle Eye Cam" from a bald eagle's nest in Hornby Island, British Columbia, Canada.

EAGLE EYE CAM

The eggs are about to hatch and the local wildlife department are monitoring the pair.

The eagles have nested on a protected, privately owned piece of land so they are safe from harm.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Environment News: 20 years later, wildlife thrives at Chernobyl

Nature's capacity to heal itself is absolutely incredible. I for one believed that Chernobyl would forever be a "No-Mans Land" - but obviously the animals don't seem to have paid much attention...

With lynx, wolves, eagles and wild horses, the radioactive no-go zone around Chernobyl has become a rich natural reserve in the 20 years since the accident at the nuclear power plant.

Dangerously soaked with radiation following the April 26, 1986 accident at the then Soviet plant, some 4,000 square kilometres of land surrounding the Chernobyl plant were evacuated and closed to humans.


In the two decades since, Mother Nature has had nearly free reign over this patch of land straddling the border between Ukraine and Belarus. The results have been impressive.


Take for example the famed Przewalski's horse, believed to be the only true modern descendant of the wild horse. In 1998, 17 of them were introduced to the area.



Today officials who accompany visitors to the zone say the steeds number between 80 and 90, and the area around Chernobyl is one of the few places in the world where they still roam free.

Nearly completely unperturbed by man — some 350 "self-settlers" still live inside the zone, but this mainly elderly group generally keeps to its eight villages — the flora and fauna here have developed with virtually no human interference.
In one day, a lucky first-time visitor may see elk, foxes, otters, beavers, wild boars, gray cranes and endangered great spotted eagles. Regular visitors say bears have also been spotted in the area.

With so few people, the zone is the perfect habitat for endangered species. The Chernobyl International Radioecology Laboratory has so far recorded the presence there of more than 400 animal species, including 280 kinds of birds and 50 endangered species.


And despite apocalyptic predictions at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, the animal species living inside the forbidden zone are not strange, disproportioned mutants.
"The mutants never resembled the monsters described in the media and all died out quickly," said Sergei Gashak, an ornithologist at the Chernobyl lab.

The ecosystem surrounding Chernobyl has passed through several stages since the accident.
During the first year-long phase, plants and animals that were most affected by the radiation died. Some areas were so soaked with radioactivity that they had to be completely razed, such as a pine forest that became known as the "Red Forest" for the levels of radiation registered there.

Over the next six years, nature slowly licked its wounds following the disaster, he said.
Today it is coming back with a vengeance. The Chernobylinterinform — the state enterprise that provides the obligatory guides for all visitors — claims that the pines planted in place of the "Red Forest" are thriving.

Along with the recovering flora and fauna, a tourism industry has taken root. Hundreds of human visitors have come since the authorities began accepting tourist groups three years ago.


The curious have mostly come from abroad and have included Americans, Germans and Japanese, guides say.
They usually come in small groups during the summer, to be driven by guides to take a look at the power plant and at a village of the mostly elderly who have shrugged off government restrictions and radiation levels to return to the place they lived prior to the 1986 accident.

Most tourists have a moribund fascination with the town of Pripyat, which counted 45,000 residents at the time of the accident but that today is a Soviet ghost town overrun by vegetation.
Among the most bizarre visitors was a newly married couple who wanted to end their honeymoon in the city.

Many of the people who work in the zone in up to 15-day stints hope that a protected natural preserve can someday be established here.
But even after two decades signs remain that this is no ordinary wilderness zone.

There are checkpoints on entry and access is still forbidden to areas considered the most contaminated; the cemetery of buses, fire trucks and helicopters that helped evacuate the zone's residents and today are awaiting incineration; and the frequent beeps of the dosimeter every time the level of the surrounding, invisible radiation jumps.

And there is of course the radiation itself: invisible, odorless, tasteless, it permeates the buried buildings, cars and cattle, the earth that covers them, the rivers that flow nearby.

And it will do so for a long time to come.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pointless Science #3: Mouse sheds light on regeneration

Regeneration - the ability to recreate lost or damaged cells, tissues, organs or even limbs - has a limited capacity in mammals. While skin and hair cells constantly renew themselves, unlike a newt, if a human loses a leg, there is no second chance.

But the discovery of a strain of mouse, the Murphy Roths Large (MRL), with remarkable regenerative capabilities has opened up the possibility that those properties could be transferred to other mammals.


Professor Ellen Heber-Katz, a scientist from the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, US, was part of the way through an immunological study when she first stumbled across the MRL mouse's amazing abilities.
She was looking at the effects of a drug, and had marked the mice that had received the drug by punching a small hole in their ear to distinguish them from those who had not.

"I went upstairs and I looked in the cage, but none of the mice were marked," she said. "I looked at them and thought: 'what's happened?' I thought the post doc hadn't done the experiment.

"So we did it again, and we watched them, and there it was - the holes had closed up. I thought, 'Oh my God, this is just amazing'." When they looked closer they saw that there had been DNA synthesis, cell proliferation and both cartilage and new hair follicles had also grown.

The MRL mouse has been used in research for years - mostly as a model for autoimmune diseases because the genetic mutations they carry mean they have a lupus-like disease. But the accidental discovery by Professor Heber-Katz of this rapid regrowth opened up a new avenue of research.

After talking to colleagues and realising that this kind of healing had never been seen before in a mouse, Professor Heber-Katz's team switched from immunology to regeneration and began to look at the mouse to see the extent of these regenerative properties.

When the team used a cold probe to make a small injury to the heart of the MRL mice they found that the tissue regenerated and there was no scarring. When they examined what happened after spinal cord injury, again they found cell re-growth and little scarring.

The MRL mouse has even been shown to have some digit regrowth.
"It is known that if you cut off the digit tip in mice it always seems to come back; but if you cut any further, you get no growth. "We did that in the MRL mouse and there is a blastema [area of growth] that forms, there is DNA synthesis and cell proliferation, and we also think that maybe there is the beginnings of a joint that is formed. I must say that we have not seen the whole digit grow back"

The Prof believes that one of the factors that blocks regeneration in most mammals is a membrane that forms as the body starts to repair itself. She points out that when amphibians regenerate their limbs, a basement membrane does not form, but if you promote the growth of this membrane, then it seems to stop cell growth and causes scarring.

When the team looked at the formation of the membrane in the ears of MRL mice, they found that it did form initially, but disappeared soon after and then cell growth begins.
Further work has shown that two genes, mmp9 and mmp2, may be implicated.

The team are now in the process of mapping genes to try and shed more light upon the genetic combinations that may be at the root of the mouse's regenerative process. "It is a long term project, but once we know the molecules involved we can the try to modify them to see if we can get this kind of response in mammals"

The complicated nature of mammals means that we might still be a long way off the day when mammals can begin to display MRL-like regenerative properties, but Heber-Katz says the mouse could provide the first step on the path.

Okay, okay, so this is all very interesting stuff and one day may lead to some revolutionary benefits for incapacitated humans - but am I the only one that realises what these tests implied to the poor MRL mouse?

As if being subjected to autoimmune diseases wasn't enough, their new found place in the scientific spotlight means that now they've got a lifetime ahead of having little bits continuously sliced or cut or drilled from their bodies, just to prove that this theory is... erm, proved.


Scenario - one MRL mouse to another:

"Thank god, that nasty hole in my ear finally healed, its been bugging me for weeks."
"Yeah, and that chest pain I had seems to wearing off as well."
"Great, I can finally lay my head down and get a good night's sleep without my ear hurting."
"And I can actually have a bit of a run on the treadmill without doubling up in pain."
"Hang on a minute, what's that human doing coming over here with those scissors?"
"Hey, he's got hold of my leg! Get those bloody scissors away from me!"
"Oh no - here we go again..."


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Science News: Fossil Fills Land-Sea Animal Gap

If you trace our family tree 370,000,000 years back to the Late Devonian, this could well be the face of our long-lost great grand mother.
Meet Tiktaalik roseae, the newly described lobefinned fish from Nunavut, Canada. The name Tiktaalik comes from an Inuit word for the fish we call burbot, after local elders noted the similarity between the fossil and the large living fish they catch.

Unlike its namesake, however, Tiktaalik is a member of the great fish clan Sarcopterygia. Sarcopterygians achieved enduring fame and glory after certain members evolved the means to crawl out of the water and taking the first steps (literally) to a totally landlubbing lifestyle. Tiktaalik fits into this story quite well, sporting a set of characters more amphibian-like than all other fish, but more fish-like than the earliest amphibians.


The astonishingly detailed fossils were coaxed out of ancient rock just a thousand kilometres (600 miles) from the North Pole, and are helping to explain how, little by little, fish in the sea moved on to the land, evolving into the myriad species of animals that have lived, eaten or been eaten, fought and died on terra firma for more than 300 million years.


Buried in river sediments on Ellesmere Island, the preserved remains of
Tiktaalik have already been described as the "missing evolutionary link" between fish and tetrapods.


The newly discovered species looks superficially like a crocodile, with a skull around 20 centimetres (eight inches) long. Its flattened body, which probably grew to a length of between 1.25 and 2.75 metres (four to nine feet), was covered in diamond-shaped bony scales. It was like a fish, with its primitive jaw and fins, but had a tetrapod's neck and ribs.

What is generating the most excitement about the finds are joints in the fish's pectoral fins, which have bones that compare to the upper arm, forearm and primitive parts of the hand of land-living animals.

"Most of the major joints of the fin are functional in this fish," said Neil Shubin, a professor of organismal biology at the University of Chicago and co-leader of the expedition whose findings appear on Thursday in the journal Nature.

"The shoulder, elbow and even parts of the wrist are already there and working in ways similar to the earliest land-living animals," he said.

The sediment in which Tiktaalik was found has been dated to around 375 million years ago, in the swampy, pre-dinosaur era known as the Devonian.

At that time, what is now frigid Arctic Canada had a balmy, sub-tropical climate, for it was part of a mega-continent that straddled the equator.

Shubin said he believed that Tiktaalik's size and shape indicated that it was suited for living in small streams in a delta system, an environment that probably encouraged the fish to venture into shallow water or even make forays onto land in search of food or shelter from predators. "The skeleton of Tiktaalik indicates that it could support its body under the force of gravity, whether in very shallow water or on land," said co-author Farish Jenkins, a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. "This represents a critical early phase in the evolution of all limbed animals, including humans — albeit a very ancient step."

Tiktaalik fills a knowledge gap about a key transition period spanning around 20 million years in the Devonian era, between fish and the first tetrapods. Tiktaalik comes between a torpedo-shaped fish called Panderichthys that lived around 385 million years ago and whose pectoral fins and shoulder skeleton suggest it could walk in shallow water but not on land; and the first unambiguous tetrapods, Acanthostega and Ichthyostega, which lived around 365 million years ago and, despite having fishy tails, had limbs with digits.

Acanthostega and Panderichthys

To have... and to have not.

Its a funny old world, isn't it? The circumstances that keep the human race united under the common ties of community - and yet poles apart in terms of commodity.

A couple of weeks ago a sleak black Lamborghini pulled up along side me in town. This admittedly gorgeous piece of machinery is probably one of the most recognizable statements of privilege and wealth on four wheels that you're likely to come across in public. And although my salivary glands were about to go on overdrive, my thoughts suddenly switched to the absurdity of what was sitting there, growling quietly in front of my eyes.

We all know that the distribution of wealth is spread unevenly across the world - and never more so than here in South East Asia. Where else would you find such conflicting scenes of sprawling urban slums sitting shoulder to shoulder with mansions and manicured gardens? Millionaires and misery living side by side. I've lived in this part of the world for almost ten years and I'm still not used to it.

Just three months ago I was in Sri Lanka, and although a beautiful country, its still got enough economical and political obstacles to keep it from reaching its full potential for many decades to come. I recalled another unusual street scene from back then - a working elephant marching along a dusty back street, while closeby a street child begged deliriously for food.

What a contrast to the sleek machine purring at the traffic lights back here in Singapore...

I quickly calculate that the small fortune paid for this car could easily: finance research on an endangered species, restore the livelihoods of entire communities destroyed by the tsunami, and even help fund any number of medical breakthroughs - the list goes on. Of course I'm talking humanitarianism here - a bit of an antique concept these days.

As we evolve as a species, so our notorious Selfish Genes have become more dominant - it seems to be the way of things, across the board. Now don't get me wrong - this is not a jibe against the owner of said supercar (oh yeah... you can almost see the sour grapes spilling from Charith's mouth) - rather its what he stands for; a symbol of where most of the human race would like to be. Its all about possession and prestige - an almost instinctive need that plagues us.

Although my aspirations don't include owning a million dollar sports car, I still want that new camera, that computer upgrade, and eventually a nice little farm in the country. There's always something we want, on any given day.

But if we could just manipulate that little piece of DNA - mutate it, make it more malleable - turn it into an altruistic gene with all traces of selfishness spliced out... yes that's all sci-fi - but what if? What if?

What would it take for us to address the realities of poverty that plague our race even in this so-called enlightened age? What would it take for the millionaire to swap his Lamborghini for a more practical SUV and divert some of his fortune to aid the less fortunate? No, that's not going to happen is it? That's not the way we're built...

So, in Singapore's thriving business district a stockbroker drives into the sunset on his wheels of fortune and a thousand miles away in a forgotten street corner, someone is trying to figure out how they're going to be able to make it through another day.

And someone like me will vent their futile frustrations, knowing only too well that ultimately they have no solution for this contagious human condition.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Wildlife News: Possible Iberian Lynx in Madrid?

More hope for the most endangered cat in the world:

DNA analysis of excrement found last October in an Area of Special Protection for Birds (ZEPA) between the Cofio and Alberche rivers in Spain, correspond to an Iberian Lynx.

Reseaerchers believe this confirms the existence of a lost population of lynx in the Sistema Central.


The only problem is that the infamous M-501 highway that will run from capital Madrid to Ávila, and whose construction has already been approved by the Madrid government, is set to pass straight through the ZEPA area. It will almost certainly put an end to this apparent refuge.


According to Professor of Ecology, Emilio Virgós, the analysis "leaves no doubts" that the threatened species is also present outside Andalusia.
In the light of the finding, the Central Government has asked Madrid to stop the construction of the M501 highway across the area.

The President of Madrid, Esperranza Aguirre - quite a character - claims an ecologist had conveniently left the excrement for the researchers to find and has promised to go ahead with the road anyway...


Professor Virgós still hopes that the discovery will be the "catalyst" for the implementation of a Plan of Recovery for the species in Madrid, where the Lynx was previously thought to be extinct.


The finding gives new hope for the survival of the Iberian Lynx, as fewer than 200 individuals remain in the wild and therefore is considered by the IUCN to be the most endangered cat species worldwide.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Wildlife Art: 'Lion'

In yet another wild burst of directionless creativity, I started yet another piece of artwork - this time as an ode to the Lions of Gir.

As usual I have been distracted with work halfway through, and have all good intentions of completing it... eventually.


BTW - when I finally get my act together, I'll be putting up an online gallery of some of my recent work - mainly just for amusement, but some will be for sale.

- Was that just a shameless plug?
- Heavens no, it was merely a tasteful announcement.
- Oh, that's alright then.

Conservation Frontliners: Iberian Lynx cubs born in captivity!

Two more Iberian Lynx cubs were born in captivity on March 23rd at 9:30pm to the same mother, Saliega, as last year's historic cubs - the first Iberian lynx to have ever been bred in captivity.

This is a truly wonderful achievement, considering the fact that the species is now recognized as the most endangered feline in the world.


The cubs were born at El Acebuche lynx breeding facilities in Doñana, Spain. So far the sex is unknown. It is possible that another of the five captive females (Esperanza and/or Adelfa) may be pregnant and may give birth in the next few days. This cannot be confirmed as the lynx workers take a hands-off approach. Both lynxes have put on weight but this may be a psychological pregnancy. The Acebuche centre is considered too small and this spring a second centre is to open in La Aliseda in Jaen which will take the new cubs and new captures.


Saliega and her new cubs


The latest lynx count by the Junta de Andalucia estimates that at the end of 2005 there were a minimum of 38 females with territories, a basic unit for counting lynx populations - as in a male's territory there can be one or several breeding females.
These female territories were divided between Sierra Morena (26) and Doñana (15), an increase of three over last years (all three in Sierra Morena), and the highest detected since 2001.

The minimum number of cubs confirmed (older than six months) is 36 (10 in Doñana and 26 in Sierra Morena.) The total population of the Iberian lynx, including this year's cubs is estimated at 169, up from 2001 with less than 140. The Sierra Morena population is now thought to be expanding, while Doñana is stagnant, though for the first time in three years a brood of lynxes have been born within the National Park's reserve proper, a sign perhaps that recently established rabbit pens are starting to work.


Captive-bred Lynxes are to be reintroduced in three new areas in the wild by 2009. It has also been announced that the cubs born in captivity are to be released in three initial areas: Sierra Norte (Sevilla) and Despeñaperros (Jaén) and Hornachuelos / Guadalmellato (Córdoba). The reintroduction will be carried out through “soft releases” in fenced areas of 15-20 hectares which will later be opened up.

Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha and Portugal have been asked to determine possible areas for reintroduction over the next few years, Undoubtedly the role of the lynx as a flagship species will be a spur for conservation in all these areas.

Read more about the amazing work of the El Acebuche lynx breeding facility (and photos of last year's cubs!) at
Shadows and Light: Leopards, my discussion group on the Care2 network.