Archive for September, 2013

Wipe Off 5

So says a current television commercial trying to convince drivers to slow down. A recent study indicates that this will save not only human lives but avian ones as well. It seems that birds are able to calculate the average speed that cars travel along certain stretches of road and adjust their flight initiation distance accordingly (

On stretches of road with a speed limit of 20 kilometres per hour, birds waited to fly until the car was about 10 metres away. That distance increased to roughly 25 metres on roads with a 90 km/h limit and around 75 metres at a 110 km/h limit. Consequently a speeding car will reach the bird earlier than it expects, making it more likely to be struck. Yet another reason to slow down and stick to the speed limit.

Over the years I have seen many avian road trauma victims. Recently I have begun peering into the eyes of these injured birds. Intriguingly a number of them have long standing retinal damage presumably reducing their visual acuity and field of vision. I wonder if many of the birds that are struck on roads become victims because their eyesight is compromised. To study this properly I would need to compare the injured birds with a sample of healthy wild caught birds. Something for the future.

Dr. F. Bunny


Legagneux, P., and S. Ducatez. 2013. European birds adjust their flight initiation distance to road speed limits. Biology Letters. Published online August 21, 2013. doi: 10/1098/rsbl.2013.0417.




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Wind Farms Killed 67 Eagles In Five Years


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WASHINGTON — Wind energy facilities in 10 states have killed at least 85 golden and bald eagles since 1997, says a new government study.

Just in the last five years, wind farms have killed at least 67 eagles, but the figure could be much higher, the study says.

The research represents one of the first tallies of eagle deaths attributed to the nation’s growing wind energy industry, which has been a pillar of President Barack Obama’s plans to reduce the pollution blamed for global warming. Wind power releases no air pollution.

But at a minimum, the scientists wrote, wind farms in 10 states have killed at least 85 eagles since 1997, with most deaths occurring between 2008 and 2012, as the industry was greatly expanding. Most deaths — 79 — were golden eagles that struck wind turbines. One of the eagles counted in the study was electrocuted by a power line.

The vice president of the American Bird Conservancy, Mike Parr, said the tally was “an alarming and concerning finding.”

A trade group, the American Wind Energy Association, said in a statement that the figure was much lower than other causes of eagle deaths. The group said it was working with the government and conservation groups to find ways to reduce eagle casualties.

Still, the scientists said their figure is likely to be “substantially” underestimated, since companies report eagle deaths voluntarily and only a fraction of those included in their total were discovered during searches for dead birds by wind-energy companies. The study also excluded the deadliest place in the country for eagles, a cluster of wind farms in a northern California area known as Altamont Pass. Wind farms built there decades ago kill more than 60 per year.

“It is not an isolated event that is restricted to one place in California, it is pretty widespread,” said Brian Millsap, the national raptor coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and one of the study’s authors.

The study excluded 17 eagle deaths for which there was not enough evidence. And, in a footnote, it says more golden and bald eagles have since been killed at wind energy facilities in three additional states — Idaho, Montana, and Nevada.

It’s unclear what toll the deaths could be having on local eagle populations. And while the golden eagle population is stable in the West, any additional mortality to a long-lived species such as an eagle can be a “tipping point,” Millsap said.

The research affirms an AP investigation in May, which revealed dozens of eagle deaths from wind energy facilities and described how the Obama administration was failing to fine or prosecute wind energy companies, even though each death is a violation of federal law.

Documents obtained by the AP under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act show that in two cases in Iowa federal investigators determined that a bald eagle had been killed by blunt force trauma with a wind turbine blade. But neither case led to prosecution.

In one of the cases, a bald eagle was found with a missing wing and a leg in a corn field near a turbine at EDP Renewables North America LLC’s Pioneer Prairie facility in Iowa. But the report says, “due to the sensitive nature of wind farm investigations and the fact that this investigation documented first violation for EDPR in Midwest, no charges will be pursued at this time.” The report lists four other golden eagle deaths at a wind farm operated by the company in Oregon. The company did not return emailed questions about the incidents from the AP.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which employs the six researchers, has said it is investigating 18 bird-death cases involving wind-power facilities, and seven have been referred to the Justice Department. The authors noted the study’s findings do not necessarily reflect the views of the agency, although some of their data was obtained from staff.

Meanwhile, the wind energy industry has pushed for, and the White House is currently evaluating, giving companies permission to kill a set number of eagles for 30 years. The change extends by 25 years the permit length in place now, but it was not subjected to a full environmental review because the administration classified it as an administrative change.

Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet’s wingspan. Though the blades appear to move slowly, they can reach speeds of up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.

Wind farms in two states, California and Wyoming, were responsible for 58 deaths, followed by facilities in Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Utah, Texas, Maryland and Iowa.

In all, 32 facilities were implicated. One in Wyoming was responsible for a dozen golden eagle deaths, the most at a single facility.

The research was published in the Journal of Raptor Research.

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Relative To What?

Apparently the universe is 13.8 billion years old and has a diameter of 92 billion light years.

If we accept the Big Bang Theory (the principle not the TV show) the universe formed by expanding from a single incredibly dense focus out to the magnificent vista we see today. According to that master of relativity, Albert Einstein, it is not possible to exceed the speed of light (disputed of course by numerous science fiction authors and the cast of Red Dwarf). 46 billion light years, the radius of the universe, is the distance that light travels in 46 billion years. Consequently, if the universe began from a point source i.e. the Big Bang, and could not travel faster than the speed of light, it must have taken at least 46 billion years to get as large as it now appears to be. To do it in 13.8 billion years implies faster than light travel, does it not?

Don’t think for a minute that I am advocating some kind of imaginary friend creationist approach. I just don’t get the math. I have always found physics to be the science of making things up, that no one can prove or disprove (quantum mechanics, string theory, anti-matter, dark matter, etc.), in order to explain all the things we can’t make up. Now that does sound alarmingly like religion!

Dr. F. Bunny

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Short-haired Bumblebee Nests in Dungeness


17 September 2013 Last updated at 01:57 GMT

A species of bee reintroduced to the UK after becoming extinct has nested for the first time in a quarter of a century.

The short-haired bumblebee started dying out in Britain in the 1980s and officially became extinct in 2000.

A reintroduction project saw queen bees brought over from Sweden.

After two releases of queens at the RSPB’s Dungeness reserve in Kent, offspring worker bees have been recorded there for the first time.

Short-haired bumblebees were once widespread across the south of England but declined as their wildflower rich grasslands disappeared.

Nikki Gammans, who leads the project, said: “This is a milestone for the project and a real victory for conservation.

“We now have proof that this bumblebee has nested and hatched young and we hope it is on the way to become a self-supporting wild species in the UK.

‘Fantastic reward’

“It’s been a long journey to get here, from creating the right habitat for them, collecting queens in the Swedish countryside, scanning them for diseases and then eventually releasing them at Dungeness.

“Seeing worker bees for the first time is a fantastic reward for all that hard work but we still have a long way to go to ensure this population is safe and viable.”

A first generation of queens, which were released last year, struggled in the summer’s cold, wet conditions.

But a second release of queens from Sweden bolstered the colony.

The reintroduction project has involved work with farmers to create flower-rich meadows in Dungeness and Romney Marsh which have also boosted the numbers of other threatened bumblebees.

Further releases are planned to help build the population at Dungeness.

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Chocolate Research Has Sweet Rewards


It’s a chocolate lover’s nightmare: chocolate that melts before you get a chance to enjoy it. So what’s the solution to this sticky situation? Researchers in University of Guelph’s Department of Food Science are developing heat-resistant chocolate.

In hot climates, it’s especially difficult to keep chocolate from melting during transportation. “India is the big market that the chocolate companies are going after right now,” says Terri Stortz, a PhD student in food science working with Prof. Alejandro Marangoni.

Regular chocolate melts at 34 C. “What we’re aiming for with heat-resistant chocolate is for it to hold its shape or resist deformation at 40 C,” says Stortz. “But the problem is that you still want the fat to melt at 34 C, because body temperature is 37 C. That’s why chocolate is so desirable – and that’s why people like it – because it melts in your mouth.”

Increasing the melting point of the fat can result in chocolate with a waxy texture. To overcome this, researchers are developing a “secondary structure” that would allow the fat to melt while keeping the chocolate together.

“There aren’t any heat-resistant chocolates on the market right now,” says Stortz. The product being developed in the lab would probably cost slightly more than those currently on the market, she says, because of an additive that helps the chocolate keep its shape. That ingredient is ethyl cellulose. A chemical process replaces some of the hydroxyl groups in cellulose with ethyl groups to make it oil soluble. Ethyl cellulose dissolves in oil at high temperatures; when it cools down, it creates a gel that behaves like solid fat.

The ethyl cellulose interacts with the non-fat solids in chocolate, which include 50 per cent sugar and 20 per cent cocoa solids and milk proteins. The remaining 30 per cent is fat. “The ethyl cellulose is sort of a glue between the solid particles and it creates this network within the chocolate that physically traps the fat,” says Stortz. Although the solids wouldn’t melt at body temperature, she adds, they would dissolve when they came into contact with saliva, because of their solubility in water.

How does heat-resistant chocolate taste? “It tastes a little bit different,” she admits, but most consumers probably wouldn’t notice. Ethyl cellulose typically lacks flavour but it depends on how it’s manufactured. Chocolate can be modified in many ways, she adds, so the slight change in flavour can easily be addressed in the lab.

As for baking applications, she doesn’t recommend using heat-resistant chocolate in recipes that require melted chocolate. “I wouldn’t make a fondue out of it.”

Stortz received two grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. She began working in Marangoni’s lab as a co-op student in her undergrad and went directly into the PhD program. “He’s a really interesting professor to learn from,” she says. “He’s very successful in what he’s done and hard-working.”

Stortz has studied chocolate for more than four years, but her appetite for it started long before she joined the lab, when she helped her mother make homemade chocolates. “I always grew up around chocolate.”

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Lawsuit challenges use of GMO crops and pesticides in U.S. wildlife refuges.

By Ron Meador | 09/05/13

The Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District extends over five counties in northwestern Minnesota, and its holdings might be thought of as a series of islands where woods, wetlands and remnants of tallgrass prairie are protected from further losses to agriculture and development.

There’s a special focus on maintaining habitat for waterfowl and other bird species native to the region, which has lost an estimated 80 percent of its wetlands and more than 99 percent of its native prairie.

Mammals, reptiles, insects and wildflowers, including the western prairie fringed orchid, are also highlighted in materials about resource management in the district, which is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Now the district itself is highlighted in litigation brought by national environmental groups in a challenge to the planting of genetically engineered crops, and use of new pesticides known as neonicotinoids, on lands within that system.

For decades, some land within the refuges has been cultivated under cooperative arrangements between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private farmers.

But the shift in recent years to engineered crops and new insecticides has triggered a series of lawsuits, which argue narrowly that FWS has failed to meet legal requirements for reviewing the environmental impact of such practices before permitting them — and, more broadly, that because of their persistence and other special characteristics, they have no place in areas set aside for protection as wildlife habitat.

What’s a refuge for?

In a report Tuesday on the Environmental News Service wire, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety put it this way:

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is entrusted with protecting our most vulnerable species. This lawsuit seeks to ensure the agency carries out that mandate and corrects course before irreversible damage is done. Allowing pesticide promoting, genetically engineered crops is antithetical to the basic purpose of our refuge system.”

Other plaintiffs in the case include Beyond Pesticides, the Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Besides the Detroit Lakes WMD, the example refuges — all within the FWS’ Midwest Region 3 — are  the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge near Carbondale, Ill.; theCypress Creek NWR near Ulin, Ill.; the Swan Lake NWR near Sumner, Mo.; and the Iowa WMD, which has holdings in 18 counties in the north-central part of the state.

From the lawsuit:

Region 3 includes 66 refuges and wetland management districts encompassing over 1.2 million acres. The five refuges at issue in this case collectively total over 11,000 acres of the approximate 17,000 farmed acres in Region 3.  Row crops are usually cultivated for three to five years on farmland acquired by Region 3 before it is restored to natural habitat.  While GE corn and soybeans are among the crops planted during those three to five years, they are typically the only crops planted during the last two years before farmland is restored to natural habitat.

Three to five years? That may leave you wondering, What’s the big deal?

A problem of persistence

It’s probably fair to say the plaintiff groups never met a genetically engineered crop (or pesticide) they didn’t dislike.

But the newer products and practices under challenge in these case are different from those of the past in some key ways, and the plaintiffs’ case against them is neither categorical nor fanatical.

Leaving aside the argument over how toxic the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) may be to amphibians, insects and people, the case raises more mainstream arguments about the impact of genetically engineered, “Roundup ready” crops on plant communities. More excerpts from the complaint [PDF], lightly compressed:

Studies show that cultivation of herbicide-resistant GE crops such as “Roundup Ready” soybeans and corn dramatically increases herbicide use, particularly glyphosate.

Gene flow from GE crops to conventional and organic crops, or transgenic contamination, is one adverse environmental impact stemming from GE crop cultivation.  Gene flow occurs in numerous ways, including when a crop disperses its seeds or pollen to propagate itself.

Gene flow results in transgenic contamination of related conventional or organic cultivars or wild species with potentially hazardous or simply unwanted genetically engineered content. There are over 200 documented episodes of transgenic contamination.

Widespread adoption of “Roundup Ready” technology in corn and soybeans [leads] to glyphosate-resistant “superweeds.”  These superweeds evolve quickly when “Roundup Ready” crops are grown year after year, without break, on the same fields; like bacteria exposed to antibiotics, some weeds naturally resistant to glyphosate will survive exposure, and will then reproduce and flourish. There are reports of glyphosate-resistant weeds in the states in Region 3.

More bad news for bees

The lawsuit also lays special emphasis on neonicotinoids — the insecticides that are designed to be carried throughout a plant’s tissues, and are heavily implicated in “colony collapse disorder” among U.S. honeybees:

Ninety-nine percent of corn seed is treated with neonicotinoids; therefore, it is likely that farmers are planting neonicotinoid-treated corn on Refuges.  Despite the overwhelming adoption of neonicotinoid treated corn seed, neonicotinoids are not represented on the Region 3 PUP Field Approval List [of pesticides cleared for use on refuge lands].

Neonicotinoids have been shown to adversely impact more than just managed honey bees—they also impact native bees and beneficial insects, which are critical to supporting pollination services.

Clothianidin and its parent compound thiamethoxam — the two most widely used neonicotinoids — are highly toxic to other bee species like the common Eastern bumble bee, alfalfa leafcutter bee, and blue orchard bee, all of which are valuable plant pollinators.  More than 15 threatened or endangered insects, ranging from beetles to butterflies to grasshoppers and other taxa, are potentially directly affected by the use of clothianidin and thiamethoxam products.

Readers who track the worsening problems of honeybees will no doubt make the connection: Besides exposure to “neonics,” perhaps the biggest factor driving the die-offs is the disappearance of undeveloped, uncultivated lands that offer abundant foraging opportunity for nectar-seeking bees.

The kind of land, you want to think, our national wildlife refuges would preserve in large quantities, well buffered from the agricultural lands where neonic use is unlikely to changefor at least the next several years.

What are the lawsuit’s chances?  According to the ENS piece cited above, four earlier and similar cases brought by the Center for Food Safety and PEER have “succeeded in rolling back approvals for genetically engineered crops on 75 national wildlife refuges across 30 states.”

Previously, the two groups successfully challenged approval of genetically engineered plantings on two wildlife refuges in Delaware, which forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to end such plantings in its 12-state Northeastern region.

Another suit from the same groups halted cultivation of genetically engineered on 25 refuges across eight states in the Southeast in November 2012. In that case, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg directed the Fish and Wildlife Service to reveal where the GE crops were planted on Southeast refuges, their number, the type of crop and the types of pesticides used, including the dates and amounts of application.


Ron Meador

Ron Meador

Ron Meador is a veteran journalist whose last decade in a 25-year stint at the Star Tribune involved writing editorials and columns with environment, energy and science subjects as his major concentration.

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I Vote and I Vote

We witnessed democracy in action last Saturday as Australia went to the polls to elect its first Liberal government in six years. While I prefer this system to the one where geriatrics rig elections in order to remain in power more or less indefinitely, or authority is handed down by virtue of birth or military might, or the one and only political party decides the ruler of the country for the next ten years, there is still much that can be improved. Despite governing our lives and making life and death decisions on our behalf politicians are usually portrayed as figures of fun and ridicule rather than figures of respect and authority. This can at least be partly attributed to the huge number of ridiculous one policy political parties that appear to have taken root in Australia (and also because politicians seem to say the most stupid things usually at the worst possible times).

Parties I find particularly hard to take seriously include the Pirate Party (they are for the legalisation of music and movie downloads not, as I first thought, for the compulsory wearing of eye patches, wooden legs and parrots on shoulders), the Bullet Train Party (apparently Australia is in such desperate need of a fast train linking Melbourne and Sydney that an entire political party championing that cause is required), the Fishing and Lifestyle (that’s shooting, mate) Party, the Sports Party, the Motoring Enthusiasts Party (apparently they even won a seat), the Sex Party (despite their unfortunate politically incorrect name they actually have some fairly sensible policies such as same sex marriage, legalisation of euthanasia and ending tax exemptions for religions), the No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics Party, the Hemp Party (campaigning to legalise marijuana of course), the Palmer United Party (Clive Palmer is an Australian billionaire who is constructing a replica of the Titanic. Can’t wait for that maiden voyage. Apparently they won a seat too), the Wikileaks Party, the Smokers’ Rights Party (should probably be renamed the Smokers’ Right To Die Party), and the Rise Up Australia Party (no country would be complete without at least one xenophobic, religious extremist, anti-immigration party, especially a country founded by immigration). All we needed was the Standing Up The Back And Looking Stupid Party, with its radical policies requiring the compulsory serving of asparagus and banning slavery and we would have been in our very own episode of Blackadder.

While I appreciate democracy’s basic principle that everyone is entitled to vote (except in the case of the ancient Greeks, who invented democracy, where you were ineligible to vote if you were a woman, a slave, a foreigner, a non-landowner or a male under 20) I also believe that we should be entitled not to vote, should we so choose. Unfortunately that is not an option in Australia as voting is compulsory. Mind you I am not sure how much credibility a government has when only about half the eligible voters bother to turn up and only half of those vote for the actual person in power (e.g. USA). Perhaps the result should be deemed invalid unless a critical voting mass is achieved?

Unfortunately, if we look at it closely enough, our democracy really is a bit of an illusion. In most instances we vote for one of two political parties (as the others are generally too minor or too silly to get in) and that is where our responsibility and input ends. Once in power the governing party can do more or less what it likes, pass whatever policies it sees fit and we can do very little about it until we get the chance to evict it in three or four years. Isn’t true democracy about more than voting for politicians? Under the anarchist model politicians do not have policies or power. They exist as functionaries to administer the will of the people.

The Swiss have moved a little closer to this idea with their system of referendums. If a petition gets 100,000 signatures it has to be put to the vote. In this way they almost abolished the army in 2001. Wouldn’t it be better and more empowering if we, the people who are directly affected by the outcomes, voted on things like education spending, whether to drill for oil on the Great Barrier Reef or preserve it as a marine park, what to do about boat people, whether or not to invade Afghanistan, gay marriage, a carbon tax, genetically modified crops and whether or not to allow Ronald McDonald into the country?

Dr. F. Bunny

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