Conservation, Nature, Science

River Dolphins and Amazonian Manatees Get New Protection

The pink river dolphin, gray river dolphin, and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law.
The pink river dolphin is one of the species, along with the gray river dolphin and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law. Photo: Shutterstock

Thanks to a newly developed plan, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees in Peru will finally receive protection.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in England worked with Peruvian officials for more than two years to develop that law.

“These species are only found in the Amazon,” said Dr. Joanna Alfaro, formerly of the University of Exeter. “Neighboring countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador already had legislation to protect them, but Peru did not. To bring about this legislation, we worked in lose collaboration with the Peruvian government, with support from [World Wildlife Fund] Peru, and held five workshops with local authorities.

Like other species of dolphins and manatees, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees face threats from climate change, fishing, and loss of habitat, not to mention pollution, noise, and boat traffic.

The new law, the National Action Plan for the Conservation of River Dolphins and the Amazonian Manatee, was approved by Peru’s Ministry of Production. It requires conservation and monitoring of habitats. It is also designed to bring about better management of the species’ habitats.

“We are delighted to have been a part in the development of this law, and we are excited to see the plan in full implementation,” said researcher Elizabeth Campbell. “It was a long process, but it showed how government agencies can work with non-governmental academics, private companies, and others.”

Professor Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter, who supervised the research, said, “We believe this action plan will aid conservation and reduce the threats that dolphins and manatees face in the Amazon today. It is a great example where research was used as a baseline for the legal framework to protect biodiversity.”

The University of Exeter project was funded by the Darwin Initiative, a UK-based grant program that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide. It provides funding to countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives in preserving that biodiversity.

Conservation, Nature, Science

Logging Threatens Leatherback Turtles

Leatherback turtles are under threat from fishing nets, marine debris like plastic, and now it seems that even distant logging activities are threatening the species.
Baby leatherback turtles like this one can become the victims of predators if their way from nest to ocean is impeded by logging debris. Photo: Shutterstock

Leatherback turtles face a number of difficulties, all of which threaten the species as a whole. They are often caught in fishing nets or eat marine debris like plastic. Many of their nesting sites are under pressure from tourism and other human activities. And now it turns out that even logging is a danger to them, despite the fact that it rarely happens near beaches.

The problem is that logging creates quite a lot of debris, which ends up washing ashore on the beaches where leatherback turtles make nests and lay eggs. These turtles have to lay their eggs far enough up the shore that they won’t be flooded by high tide. But that debris can get in the way of mothers building nests, who have to spend more time on that process and have to build their nests closer to the tideline.

Once they hatch, baby leatherback turtles make their way across the sand and down to the water, but that is becoming increasingly difficult in areas subjected to logging debris. The turtles have to navigate around the debris, which requires them to use up more energy and puts them at increased risk of predation. While not every turtle makes it to the water—where they can start eating to replenish the energy spent getting there—with increased obstacles, even fewer are doing so. Over time, this could result in an overall decrease in the leatherback turtle population, which is already struggling.

“Leatherback turtles are already under immense pressure, from fisheries bycatch, and are also one of the species prone to ingesting marine plastic litter,” said Prof. Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter. “Our research clearly indicates that logging presents another threat. It is now paramount that beach cleanup operations are built into logging activities to prevent further damage to the species.”

Luckily, leatherback turtles are a favorite of environmentalists, tourists, and other people with the social clout or budget to try and affect change on their behalf, so the odds are good that they will at least be supported with beach cleanup activities.

“Simple measures could make a real difference, such as repositioning organic waste areas, or salvaging the wood debris as an energy source,” said Dr. Adolfo Marco Llorente of the Doñana Biological Station. “It is also essential that logging practices [which] reduce the impact on the marine environment are implemented.”

Nature, Science

Light Pollution Linked to Immune Problems in Hamster Pups

Light pollution--including exposures to light at night from our tablets, phones, and TVs--can have more serious effects than previously imagined.
Light pollution–including exposures to light at night from our tablets, phones, and TVs–can have more serious effects than previously imagined. Photo: Shutterstock

According to a study by researchers at The Ohio State University, disruptions in sleep schedules are not only bad for the health of animals and people, but they can have effects which are passed on to offspring. What’s more, these problems can also be caused not just by interrupting sleep schedules, but by unnaturally light night.

To do the study, researchers used nocturnal Siberian hamsters. They exposed one group of hamsters of both sexes to a standard light day/dark night cycle, and one group to dim light at night, for nine weeks. They then mated the hamsters in four groups—mothers or fathers with dim-light exposure, both parents with exposure to light at night, and both parents with standard light exposure. After the hamsters mated, the entire group lived under standard light conditions.

The researchers found that dim light exposure had a definite influence on the offspring. Fathers and mothers seemed to pass along genetic instructions that impaired immune response and decreased endocrine activity. But it’s especially important to note that the negative changes were traced to both parents.

“These weren’t problems that developed in utero. They came from the sperm and egg,” said senior study author Randy Nelson, “It’s much more common to see epigenetic effects from the mothers, but we saw changes passed on from the fathers as well.”

While this certainly adds to the ongoing discussions of how screens are affecting us as we use them late at night, it has some other implications too. Light pollution is not a problem that has been taken very seriously in the past, despite the fact that previous research has proven that it has negative effects on animals. It has been known to interrupt animal sleep and activity patterns, and this new research has shown some specific, and negative, consequences of light pollution.

But it’s not just for animals that we should be concerned. Humans are making continued use of screens at night, often in otherwise dark rooms, which seems to be having some negative effects on our bodies. Studies have shown that it interrupts sleep and strains our eyes, but the OSU study shows that it could actually affect how genes are passed on to children.

“I think people are beginning to accept that light pollution is serious pollution and it has health consequences that are pretty pronounced—an increase in cancers, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and anxiety disorders,” Nelson said. “We should be concerned about the increasing exposures to light at night from our tablets and phones and TVs.”

Nature, Science

Researchers Test “Whale Breath” for Microbes

Scientists have found a way to test "whale breath" for bacteria or fungi.
Scientists have found a way to test “whale breath” for bacteria or fungi. Photo: Shutterstock

Recent research has shown that southern resident killer whales, also known as orcas, which range from California to British Columbia, are subject to a variety of bacteria and fungi that may pose a health risk to the whales, and the source of which is still unknown.

Because they range so far, orcas are exposed to a wide variety of pollutants like agricultural runoff, and some of the bacteria show antibiotic-resistant tendencies, perhaps caused by the increased use of antibiotics in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Understanding the health of southern resident killer whales is essential, as they’ve been endangered for some time. In the 1990s alone, their numbers dropped from around 108 to about 70, making it all the more important to protect those who remain.

But giving such animals a checkup has long been very difficult, but the researchers who are concerned about these bacteria and fungi have developed a new way to do exactly that.

They found the bacteria by testing droplets and exhaled breath caught from the blowholes of orcas, allowing them to see what kinds of microbial passengers they have.

“We wanted to find out what sort of bacteria and fungi represent in healthy whales and the potential pathogens they are being exposed to in their environment,” said study lead author Stephen Raverty, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia. “In some circumstances, these pathogenic microbes could pose a threat to the animals and contribute to clinical disease.”

This technique allows researchers to study the health of the whales now instead of waiting until they beach themselves or are otherwise found dead, after which a necropsy can be performed. While necropsies can tell us a lot about the dead animal, data collected from live specimens can be more important because it can allow us to react to sickness among those animals.

By collecting this “whale breath,” researchers will be able to get a better handle on what disease threats these whales face in the wild. Unlike more obvious dangers like depleted prey or increased water traffic disrupting their sonar, microbes are hard to detect in the first place, so it can be hard to keep them from causing harm.

“Assessing whether animals are healthy or sick is virtually impossible to do for live animals as big as whales,” said UBC professor Andrew Trites, who was not involved in the study. “Raverty and his colleagues found a way to assess health by collecting microbiota and pathogens when the whales exhaled between dives. It is an ingenious way to give whales a checkup.”

Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Science

National Academy of Sciences Says EPA Pollutant Studies Are Necessary

EPA employees protest job cuts, March 2, 2017
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers and supporters protest job cuts during rally in Chicago, Illinois, March 2, 2017. Photo: John Gress Media Inc / Shutterstock.com

The EPA periodically performs controlled human inhalation exposure (CHIE) studies, in which people are exposed to air pollutants in order to study their short-term effects. The concentration and duration of such exposure is minimal, intended to not have any lasting harm on participants, and of 845 such participants in eight studies between 2009 and 2016, only one person had an unexpected complication.

But that does mean that there is some potential risk to participants who, while they are provided with information about the potential risks of such studies, are given that information through highly technical consent forms. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently finished a study that found that the value of the CHIE studies outweighs their risk, with some caveats.

Primarily, they suggest that the EPA develop clearer language for participant consent forms, in order to prevent further dangers. “While communicating with potential participants, it’s particularly important to appropriately characterize the risks,” said Robert Hiatt, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. “EPA needs to make every effort to ensure that these descriptions are accurate, scientifically grounded, and comprehensible to people.”

But overall, the studies have been found to benefit society far more than they endanger participants, which is exactly what one might want from such studies. By looking at how pollutants interact with human biology on their own, we can learn more about those pollutants in particular, which informs laws about air quality. It also helps us to determine what might be to blame when pollutants mix in the atmosphere and cause otherwise unforeseen problems.

The findings by the National Academy come at a time when the EPA is under considerable scrutiny by Congress and the President. Anything that can help the EPA prove that they’re helping the American people will be welcome in keeping that agency funded and active, which is necessary if we’re to do anything about climate change and other human activities which damage the planet.

Nature, Science

Nanoparticles Containing Bee Venom Toxin Kill HIV

A toxin found in bee venom has been found to kill HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Photo: Shutterstock

By now, we’re all aware that bees have a huge impact on agriculture by pollinating plants, but it turns out they might also be able to help us deal with one of the most dangerous diseases on the planet: HIV. According to research at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, a toxin found in bee venom can be used to kill HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

It works like this: nanoparticles loaded with melittin, the toxic agent in bee venom, come in contact with HIV or other viruses and, pokes holes in the protective envelope that surrounds those viruses. They don’t harm normal cells because those cells are too large to fit through the “bumpers” on the nanoparticles, but the HIV particles are small enough to get through.

What’s more, the same process might be useful against other diseases too. Nanoparticles like these have been shown to kill tumor cells, and might work against hepatitis B and C, viruses which have protective bubbles similar to HIV. And these aren’t the only diseases with this feature.

Unlike existing HIV drugs, which prevent the virus from reproducing, this actually kills the virus, allowing it to work as a preventative to HIV in the first place. But it can also function as a treatment for those who already have HIV, especially if the strain they are infected with is drug-resistant.

One advantage of using the nanoparticle method is that the virus can’t adapt to become resistant to it. “We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” said Joshua L. Hood, MD, PhD, one of the researchers. “Theoretically, there isn’t any way for the virus to adapt to that. The virus has to have a protective coat, a double-layered membrane that protects the virus.”

This finding is an important step in the development of a vaginal gel that can be used to perhaps prevent the spread of HIV. “Our hope is that in places where HIV is running rampant, people could use this gel as a preventive measure to stop the initial infection,” said Dr. Hood.

That an element of bee venom is capable of doing this is amazing. But the simple fact is that nature is highly varied and capable of some pretty startling things. The more we learn about the world and the creatures we share it with, the more we’ll be able to do for ourselves and the world around us.

Washington University notes that no bees were harmed in this study because researchers used a synthetic version of the bee venom toxin.

Green, Science

Researchers Develop Method for Storing Solar Energy in Liquid

A team of researchers is working on a way to store solar energy as heat, to be released later.
The development of ways to store solar energy as heat could be a huge breakthrough. Photo: Shutterstock

While we have been capable of harnessing the energy of the sun for immediate use. However, before solar can replace fossil fuels and other less safe sources of energy, there needs to be a way to store that energy for later use.

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, are working on just that. They have developed a chemical solution to store solar energy, which can then be turned into heat on command, without destroying the medium in which it’s stored. They refer to it as a molecular solar thermal system.

The process is based on the organic compound called norbornadine, that when exposed to light converts into quadricyclone.

“The technique means that we can store the solar energy in chemical boonds and release the energy as heat whenever we need it,” said Professor Kasper Moth-Poulsen, who is leading the research team. “Combining the chemical energy storage with water heating solar panels enables a conversion of more than 80 percent of the incoming sunlight.”

When the research team held its first conceptual demonstration of the technique in 2013, they were able to convert a mere 0.01 percent of solar energy into stored energy that could be transported elsewhere. They were also using an element called ruthenium, which was very expensive. Now, they have improved that storage capacity to 1.1 percent. This may not sound like much, but it’s 100 times more effective than previous technology. The ruthenium has also been replaced by cheaper carbon-based elements.

“We saw an opportunity to develop molecules that make the process much more efficient,” said Moth-Poulsen. “At the same time, we were demonstrating a robust system that can sustain more than 140 energy storage and release cycles with negligible degradation.”

As the team continues to develop this technology, we hope to see simultaneous improvement in solar energy harvesting techniques—both of which could contribute to a higher degree of use for solar products.