Archive for January, 2014

You Believe What You Want To Believe (Tom Petty)

Scientific research relies on rigorous systematic testing that involves treatment and control groups and extensive peer review to prove or disprove hypotheses. That way we can be confident in the result, regardless of what the findings may be. In reality this is not always the case, people believing what they want to believe regardless of the evidence. Look at the trouble Copernicus and Galileo had trying to convince people that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Sadly, despite being scientifically trained, I am not really any different.

As an example, coffee is a marvellous drink proven, through scientific research, to increase energy levels, improve physical performance, and lower the risk of developing type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, liver cancer and colorectal cancer. Much more spurious research that obviously needs to be repeated with a larger data set seems to link coffee to sleep disturbance, increased blood pressure and raised levels of cholesterol.

The research is similarly biased when it comes to alcohol consumption. I like nothing more than to sit back with my very full glass of red and read how the resveratrol in my Shiraz keeps my heart healthy and further protects me against diabetes and Alzheimer’s. All that nonsense about depression, cancer, cirrhosis and memory loss is surely just that?

The list goes on. Any research that supports an activity I engage in and enjoy is sound while anything that contradicts it is suspect. Science even has a name for this, confirmation bias. I suppose religions would call it faith.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Take Me Out To The Ball Game

“All the world’s indeed a stage….” So sang Rush in their song, “Limelight.” I would disagree. All the world appears to be a baseball diamond. I know that looks to have come out of left field but it’s a whole new ball game and, if you let me touch base, I will explain.

The important thing is to cover all the bases and watch out for curve balls. A good rhubarb, no matter how colourful, will get you nowhere, so don’t be caught off base and stop grandstanding. You need to play hardball with the heavy hitters. How else can you hit a home run and join the big league?

It’s clear, right off the bat that you may have to pinch hit. You might even be a switch-hitter but don’t be a screwball. Remember that it ain’t over till it’s over. Step up to the plate, get a mitt and get in the game, play ball and, whatever you do, don’t strike out.

Dr. F. Bunny

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CSIRO, University of Tasmania scientists fit tiny sensors onto honey bees to study behaviour


By Ellen Coulter

Scientists in Tasmania are fitting thousands of honey bees with tiny sensors as part of a project aimed at understanding the insect’s behaviour and population decline.

CSIRO is working with the University of Tasmania, beekeepers and fruit growers to trial the monitoring technology, in an attempt to improve honey bee pollination and productivity.

They are fitting tiny sensors to the insects, a process which sometimes involves shaving them first.

“This has been done before,” CSIRO science leader Paulo de Souza said.

“The difference here is about the size of the sensor. And the difference is the number; we’re talking about 5,000 bees.”

The sensors measure 2.5 millimetres by 2.5mm and act like a vehicle’s “e-TAG”, recording when the bees pass particular checkpoints.

Researchers can use the signals from the sensors to find out how the bees move through the landscape and understand changes in their behaviour.

They are also looking at the impacts of pesticides on the honey bees and the drivers of a condition decimating bee populations globally.

“If it impacts the bees, it impacts the whole industry that is producing food,” Dr de Souza said.

“This should help us understand optimal productivity conditions, as well as further our knowledge of the cause of colony collapse disorder.”

Bees put to sleep, shaved, fitted with sensor

The process of gluing on the tiny sensors to the bees is delicate but quick.

“We take the bee into a cold place, usually to a fridge about five degrees Celsius, for five minutes and that is enough to have the bees sleeping,” Dr de Souza said.

“We take them out again and attach it while they’re sleeping. In five minutes they wake up again and they’re ready to fly.”

But some need to be shaved first.

“Very young bees, they’re very hairy. At times we need to do something to help us,” Dr de Souza said.

Researchers say the insects are not harmed by the glue or the sensors.

“It doesn’t disturb the way the bee will see or the way the bee will fly, they just work normally,” Dr de Souza said.

“Each sensor weight is about five milligrams. This is about 20 per cent of what the bee can carry.

“So the bee can carry a lot of weight in pollen, in nectar, so this is like someone carrying a small backpack.”

Next step: shrink sensors to fit fruit flies, mosquitoes

Researchers are releasing about 20 honey bees a day from hives in southern Tasmania.

The bees travel up to 700 metres from the hives, but always return, making it easy to pinpoint changes in their behaviour.

Researchers hope their work will help farmers and fruit growers, who rely on the bees’ pollination, to improve their practices.

The next stage of the project is to shrink the sensors to only one millimetre, so they can be attached to much smaller insects such as fruit flies and mosquitoes.

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What’s infecting England’s cows with TB? Is it badgers, or farmers and climate change?

Found at

Erica Rex, E&E Europe correspondent

ClimateWire: Friday, December 6, 2013

“There’s no security, or peace and tranquility, except underground.” — Badger, from “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame

NEWENT, Gloucestershire, England — In a mist-shrouded parking lot, Will Ricks, a surveyor and landowner from Ross-on-Wye, stands in a circle of lamplight and briefs eight volunteers on the evening’s mission.

Ricks and his group belong to a volunteer organization, Gloucestershire Against Badger Shooting (GABS). Since the badger cull, or killing, began in August in Somerset and Gloucestershire, GABS volunteers spend most nights trudging down the public footpaths that crisscross muddy fields to monitor badger habitat, searching for trapped and wounded animals.

Everyone in the group wears a high-visibility vest and tall rubber boots. Ricks instructs them on the rules of engagement. An older couple have driven from Cheshire, 150 miles away, to join the patrol.

Here in the fields and woods of rural England, a bizarre war rages for the country’s soul. Armies of marksmen paid by the National Farmers Union (NFU) hunt badgers by night in a controversial culling project that supporters insist will reduce the incidence of bovine tuberculosis, or bTB. Gunmen are not permitted to shoot at a badger if there’s a human in the field. And they’re not allowed to shoot badgers within 30 meters of a sett — the elaborate system of tunnels, paths and dens badgers call home.

Badgers are nocturnal, foraging for worms and insects in fields and cow pastures. And they are a known reservoir of Mycobacterium bovis, the bacterium that causes the chronic disease.

The assault on the badger, hero of the world-famous children’s novel “The Wind in the Willows” and since 1992 a protected species, is being driven by Owen Paterson. He has been the Conservative member of Parliament for North Shropshire since 1997, and is now secretary of state of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Bovine tuberculosis can spread either through ingestion or between animals through aerosols. To be sure, it is widespread in Britain. It was found in one of every 10 cattle herds tested in 2009. Last year, 28,000 head of cattle were slaughtered because of bTB at a cost to the taxpayer in compensatory payments to farmers of £100 million ($163 million).

Paterson insists culling badgers will reduce incidence of the disease. But scientific research has shown culling does the opposite. When badgers are shot, bTB infections skyrocket.

Why do badgers leave their homes?

Analyzing data from test culls carried out between 1975 and 1997 in the U.K. and Ireland, Imperial College biologist Christl Donnelly found that culling actually increased the incidence of bTB. Donnelly’s findings state that “the increased numbers of badgers culled … were associated with significantly increased bTB risk.”

Wildlife biologist Chris Cheeseman, former head of wildlife diseases at the government’s Central Science Laboratory, spent 35 years studying badgers.

“Badger setts are closely knit,” Cheeseman said. Badgers live within complex social groups with strict hierarchies, like elephants or meerkats. When their sett is perturbed by death of a member, they tend to disband. “Killing them causes them to travel farther and wider. They are more likely to find other places to live,” Cheeseman said.

“Cattle gave the disease to badgers, not the other way ’round,” he added. Badgers often rummage in infected cow pats for dung beetles and share watering troughs with infected cattle.

In the opinion of veterinarian Mark Jones, U.K. executive director of Humane Society International, crowding and herd movement cause the rapid spread of bTB.

“According to Defra’s own figures, there have been 127 million cattle movements between farms since 1998,” he said. “The numbers of movements more than quadrupled between 1999 (3,373,646) and 2010 (13,690,294). Around 40 percent of the national herd is currently moved from one premises to another each year.”

Recent research shows that herd-to-herd transmission of bTB in cattle accounts for 94 percent of cases. Badger-to-bovine transmission accounts for about 6 percent.

Is climate change the real villain?

Retired farmer Steve Jones, who spent 40 years managing large-scale dairy farms, says the badger is being framed.

“The badger is a political scapegoat. Loads of farmers are not behind the cull. Just managing cows’ lungs would solve half of the problem. Managing slurry, nutrition, calving, mastitis would solve the rest of it. The one aspect that has no influence on bovine health is the badger.”

Complicating this battle is climate change. M. bovis can survive for several months in the environment, particularly in cold, dark and damp weather. Prolonged wet weather such as what the U.K. and Europe experienced this past spring and many of the last several years allows M. bovis to incubate for much longer periods in slurries, where liquid cow manure is stored until it can be spread on fields.

Cows remain inside barns for extended periods during inclement conditions, which leads to increased bedding contamination and greater spread of infection through aerosols. Herds pass the infection among themselves. In spring, calves drink their mothers’ infected milk. The illegal — but common — farming practice of disposing of infected milk by pouring it out on fields or into streams where badgers forage just makes matters worse.

Biologist Elaine King, former director of the Badger Trust, found that high rainfall, low temperatures and low levels of sunlight closely matched outbreaks of bTB in cattle.

The badger sett vs. the Paterson set

Paterson seems unmoved by either the science or public opinion on the badger cull. In September, after being briefed on the most recent findings of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Paterson stated that climate change would mostly be beneficial because “it would lead to longer growing seasons,” especially in northern areas.

In a 2012 referendum, members of Parliament overwhelmingly voted to abandon plans for the badger cull: 147 voted in favor of canceling it, 28 against. Paterson walked out of the chamber, saying, “I can’t stand any more of this.”

And he didn’t have to. Despite the advice of Natural England’s science adviser, Oxford University zoologist David Macdonald, Paterson declared the cull a go. Natural England is a nondepartmental public body responsible for advising the environment secretary on policy matters related to conserving and enhancing England’s natural environment.

Scientists, veterinarians and animal rights groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Humane Society International oppose the cull. More than 304,000 members of the public signed a petition condemning it. Renowned conservationist and wildlife documentarian Ian Redmond joined a GABS patrol. In a statement, he said: “If the cull is carried out as planned, the sub-population of badgers in the pilot sites will, in 6 weeks, meet the International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria for ‘Endangered.’ If this were being reported in a developing country, conservationists would be outraged.”

Farmers who oppose the cull feel they are being misrepresented.

Although it claims to be the voice for the entire English farming community, the NFU counts a meager 55,000 as members — 18 percent of the 307,000-strong national agricultural workforce. And the NFU never bothered to ballot its own membership on the issue, according to a Twitter post by Adam Quinney, the union’s vice president.

In Wales, at least, political objections have registered. In 2010, after the Badger Trust launched a judicial review against the Welsh Assembly, plans for a cull were jettisoned. Welsh badgers are trapped and vaccinated at a cost of about £600 per animal. Paying contractors to shoot badgers costs about £2,000 per animal.

So what is the badger cull really about?

“This is really about who owns the countryside,” Cheeseman said. “The fox hunting ban went through under Labour. Now Conservatives want to repeal it. [Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron] doesn’t have the political guts to do that. Farmers and landowners feel they’ve been deprived of the right to manage their property as they see fit.”

Unlike the U.S., the U.K. has little land that can be considered part of the public trust. A full third of the country remains under the ownership of the aristocracy, a set to which both Paterson and Cameron belong. Over the centuries of feudal ownership, landlords have exterminated native populations of boars, bears, wolves and lynxes.

Professor John Bourne, chairman of the Independent Scientific Group on bovine tuberculosis who advised against the planned cull, wrote: “I think the most interesting observation was made to me by a senior politician who said, ‘Fine John we accept your science, but we have to offer the farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers.'”

The bottom line of all this for badgers is that they are safe — at least, for now.

Natural England has called off the badger cull in Gloucestershire because of failure to meet its 58 percent eradication target.

In a statement, Natural England said, “Although the cull in Gloucestershire has finished early, this does not have any impact on the original licensing, which remains in place for four years.”

Culling may resume next year, but first there will be another independent review.

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So One May Walk In Peace

The recent YouTube video which shows a fellow using Krav Maga to foil a would be assailant with a hand gun ( highlights the importance of knowing a bit of basic self-defence. My son is planning to attend the soccer World Cup in Brazil later this year, followed by a solo adventure through South America. Being a concerned parent I suggested that he learn some form of self-defence before beginning his rather hazardous adventure. The system he decided to try was Krav Maga (, We both went to a trial session and liked it so much that we signed up.

Krav Maga is a system of self-defence developed by the Israeli Defence Forces. Unlike the various martial arts it does not take years and an endless supply of coloured belts to be able to defend yourself. After just one class we had already learned how to punch and kick effectively, and how to defend ourselves from a front choke. What I enjoy about the Krav Maga classes is their emphasis on practicality and using natural instinctive movements instead of having to learn a bunch of complicated manoeuvres that are likely to be forgotten in the heat of battle.

The main criticism I have heard of Krav Maga is that it is too aggressive and violent. If I am attacked I want to finish the fight as quickly as possible. The longer the fight continues the greater my chances of being injured. If finishing a fight quickly means kicking someone in the groin or elbowing them in the nose then so be it. I did not ask to be attacked and if a person chooses violence to get what they want then they have to expect the possibility of retaliation. Krav Maga is all about protecting yourself and finishing a fight as fast as possible in any way possible.

As well as teaching us how to defend ourselves, the classes also teach how not to become a victim in the first place. Be aware of your surroundings and act confident. I hope that I never have to use what I have learned but the knowledge I have will help me to act more self-assured and hopefully avoid future confrontations.

Because of its simplicity and effectiveness I cannot recommend Krav Maga highly enough for both men and women.

Dr. F. Bunny


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Given that we are in the season for wishful thinking it seems appropriate that I should come up with a wish of my own. After all the time I have spent banging on about how zoos are doing it all wrong it is about time I made a few suggestions outlining how zoos could be doing it right. So, my wish is for my ideal zoo.

As I have said before, I am not against zoos per se, just the concept of zoos as entertainment rather than conservation centres. In order to avoid my future wrath I have devised a series of criteria that zoos must satisfy to be considered “ideal”. These are the Bunny Criteria. After all, what’s the point of devising standards if you can’t name them after yourself in order to achieve some level of immortality (although, as Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my films. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”)?

  1. The zoo must be a non-profit organisation. As long as zoos are forced to pander to the public and the almighty dollar they will always risk putting money before animal welfare and conservation. This can be achieved through wealthy patrons/owners or government sponsorship e.g. White Oak Plantation/White Oak Conservation Center (, and the Lubee Bat Conservancy (, both in Florida and both closed to the general public.


  2. With so many endangered species in the world and so few zoo places the zoo must focus on maintaining these species with no, or an absolute minimum, of non-endangered species e.g. the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust ( on Jersey Island.


  3. Zoos must have excellent education programs ranging from intelligently designed play areas for children e.g. Copenhagen zoo ( to structured classroom activities for school children to guided presentations within the zoo (presentations that do not include anyone patting tigers or other inmates) e.g. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (


  4. Zoos must be connected to in situ conservation programs by releasing captive bred species to the wild, assisting with habitat management and encouraging visitors to adopt conservation related activities.


  5. Zoo enclosures must meet certain minimum standards, which are already in place in many countries and administered through organisations such as ZAA, AZA, etc. However, the old adage of the bigger the better certainly applies when it comes to zoo enclosures. Every effort must be made to hold animals in a natural environment, in natural groups and fed a natural diet. If this cannot be done satisfactorily then the animal has no place in the zoo e.g. elephants in small urban zoos, polar bears in Australia, gorillas in Canada, etc.


  6. Zoos should focus primarily, if not exclusively, on local fauna and maintain as much of the local natural environment as possible in order to encourage visitors to enjoy and conserve that environment and the species contained therein e.g. Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve in Canberra ( Too many problems occur in zoos because of an inability to adequately duplicate an animal’s natural environment. The further from home that animal is the greater these problems will be.

There they are, The Bunny Criteria. No doubt there is plenty of room for improvement as it is hard to be dogmatic about these sorts of things. If a species is not local but endangered with an in situ conservation program e.g. the Mauritius kestrel, should it be maintained in a zoo? Yes. If a species is local and not yet endangered but can be used in the zoo to highlight environmental issues e.g. koala and habitat fragmentation, should it be kept in a zoo? Probably. If a species is not local and not endangered but has a high profile thatis used to bring visitors through the gate e.g. elephant, should it be in the zoo? No.

I am happy for animals to live in zoos as long as their welfare remains paramount and their presence realistically facilitates their conservation, rather than visitor entertainment. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that breeding one elephant every couple of years even comes close to satisfying this criterion.

Dr. F. Bunny

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