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Libbie Hyman and the Invertebrates

Today we celebrate the birthday of Libbie Henrietta Hyman (6 Dec 1888 – 3 Aug 1969), the US zoologist who was responsible for one of the most important zoological reference works, ‘The Invertebrates’ – an amazingly comprehensive, 6 volume labour of love covering most phyla, and still used today. The sixth and final volume was completed at the age of seventy eight, by which time Hyman was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

An earth worm, just one of many, many, many, many invertebrate animals.(© All Rights Reserved)
An earth worm, just one of many, many, many, many invertebrate animals.
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What makes a reference work addressing the subject of invertebrates so daunting, is that something like 97% of all animal species fall in this category. Basically, invertebrates are all animal species that do not develop a vertebral column. Which means, it’s all animals except the vertebrates (reptiles, fish, amphibians, mammals and birds). Invertebrates include insects, worms, spiders, mollusks, sponges and more.

The classification of ‘Invertebrates’ is so wide that no single characteristic describes them all. While they all lack a vertebral column, they are otherwise very dissimilar, with widely varying body plans from fluid-filled hydrostatic skeletons (jellyfish, worms) to shell-like exoskeletons (insects, crustaceans).

Given this diversity, Libbie Hyman’s achievement of incorporating so many invertebrates into her six reference volumes seems even more impressive. She was certainly no spineless academic!

World Soil Day and the promotion of soil security

In 2002 the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) declared 5 December as World Soil Day. Soil may not be glamorous, but it is a key component of our natural system, and a critical contributor to food, water and energy security through its role in mitigating biodiversity loss and climate change.

Soil - a very undervalued resource.(© All Rights Reserved)
Soil – a very undervalued resource.
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Soil is vital to grow our food, to keep our livestock alive, and to keep our forests growing, which in turn keeps our environment healthy. On a human time scale, soils is a non-renewable resource, so sound soil management is extremely important. Sadly, despite this, soil is not high on most environmental decision making agendas – it is not a topic that makes for striking news headlines or wins elections.

Another factor pushing soil further down the agenda is increased urbanisation – with an ever growing percentage of the world population living in cities, soil is becoming less and less of a reality to most people.

World Soil Day aims to address this situation, by trying to raise the profile of soil and make people aware of the role it plays in a range of ecosystems.

Secure soil is the basis of a secure environment. In the words of American novelist and conservationist Wendell Berry, “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

Cloud seeding: Making your own rain and snow

Today, 13 November, marks the date back in 1946 when Vincent J Schaefer, American chemist and meteorologist, performed the first cloud seeding experiment, artificially inducing snow by sprinkling clouds with pellets of dry ice from an airplane.

While this first attempt was not completely successful – the artificially created snow evaporated as it fell through the dry air and disappeared before it hit the ground – it showed that the concept of cloud seeding is possible. This resulted in the GE Research Laboratory (where Schaefer was working at the time) receiving funding for further research into cloud seeding and weather modification.

New Zealand – getting enough rain and snow the natural way!
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While initial experiments in cloud seeding was done using dry ice, later substances used include silver iodide, liquid propane and, more recently, salt. Cloud seeding has been done to different extents around the world, in Asia, North America, Europe, Australia and Africa, with China having the world’s largest commercial operation in this domain.

In some of the most recent experimental work in the field of cloud seeding, German scientists at the University of Geneva experimented with firing short infrared laser pulses into the air, the idea being that the pulses might encourage the formation of atmospheric particles which could act as seeding particles in the clouds. According to lead researcher Jerome Kasparian, “the laser pulses generate clouds by stripping electrons from atoms in air, which encourage the formation of hydroxyl radicals. Those convert sulphur and nitrogen dioxides in air into particles that act as seeds to grow water droplets.”

While this work is still at an experimental stage, it has shown promising results in laboratory conditions. A field experiment, where the pulses were aimed at the skies over Berlin, has also shown notable increases in the density and size of water droplets in the area, when measured using weather LIDAR and it is believed that, using the right frequencies and intensities, generation of rain by this means might become a real possibility.

This really feels like science fiction, doesn’t it? Quite incredible to imagine, really!

And of course it immediately reminded me of Kate Bush’s song ‘Cloudbusting’. So herewith, in commemoration of the pioneering work of Vincent Schaefer, father of cloud seeding, the wonderful short film produced for ‘Cloudbusting’ by Kate Bush and Terry Gilliam, starring Donald Sutherland as Wilhelm Reich and Bush as his young son Peter.


Frederick Bowen and the fascinating ferns

Today we celebrate the birthday of one Frederick Orpen Bower, born 4 November 1855. Bower, an English botanist, was famous for his studies of the origins and evolution of primitive land plants such as ferns and mosses. In his research, published in books like Origin of a Land Flora (1908), Ferns (1923-28), and Primitive Land Plants (1935), Bower concluded that these plants had evolved from algal ancestors.

Ferns, the subject of much of Bower’s research, is a fascinating plant in many ways. Unlike mosses, ferns are vascular plants with stems, leaves and roots. Unlike other vascular plants, however, they reproduce via spores rather than flowers and seeds.

The shape and structure of young fern fronds can provide endless visual fascination.
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While we typically associate ferns with moist, shady areas, they can be found in a wide variety of habitats, from desert rocks to mountains to water bodies. They can prosper in marginal areas where many flowering plants fail to grow. This tenacity make certain fern species serious weeds, such as the Bracken Fern in Scotland, and the giant water fern, one of the world’s worst aquatic weeds.

From a biochemical point of view, ferns can be particularly useful in fixing nitrogen from the air into compounds usable by other plants, and for removing heavy metals from the soil.

Another beautiful young frond, appearing almost animal-like.
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Patterns and motives based on fern shapes are popular in traditional art and culture. In New Zealand, for example, the silver fern is a very prominent cultural symbol, featured often in traditional art. The leaf of the silver fern is also the proud emblem of many of the country’s top sporting teams such as All Blacks (rugby) and Silver Ferns (netball).

On a more esoteric level, ferns are a wonderful embodiment of mathematics in nature, with young fern fronds unrolling in stunning Fibonacci spirals. The patterns and structure of fern leaves can also be simulated by means of iterative mathematical functions.

Definitely a plant that fascinates on many levels. No wonder Frederick Bowen committed his life to studying these wonderful plants!

Having some fun on ‘Look for Circles Day’

Today, they say, is Look for Circles Day. The idea of the day, aimed mostly at entertaining the young ‘uns, is to see how many circles you can spot. We come across hundreds of circles each day, so in addition to the obvious ones, try to look for circles in unexpected places, and even look for implied circles (where objects occur, or are placed, in such a way that they form a circle).

A science lab can be an abundant source of circles.
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Liquid droplets splattering – a stunning symphony of circles and spheres.
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Look for Circles Day is a great opportunity to entertain kids of all ages with one of the most interesting shapes in nature, and to teach them some maths and geometry in the process. Here are some interesting circle facts:

  • A circle is an infinite set of points on a plane that are all the same distance from a specific, predefined point.
  • Of all shapes with a given perimeter, the circle has the largest area. Or to put it another way, circles have the minimum possible perimeter for a given area.
  • They are the only single-sided shape with an area.
  • A circle with an infinitely large radius is a straight line (there’s a hint to give you the upper hand when searching for circles!)
  • A circle can be split in two identical halves in an infinite number of ways, or stated more formally, a circle has an infinite number of lines of symmetry.
  • The circumference and perimeter of a circle are related through the mathematical constant pi, or π – a very interesting number in itself, as we discussed previously.
  • A solid circle is a wheel, and we all know what useful invention the wheel was!
  • Apparently, according to research done by the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, when we have no way to navigate – for example in a thick fog, or a moonless night – we tend to walk in circles (literally).
  • There is a form of divination called ‘gyromancy’ where people are made to walk in a circle until they fall down from dizziness, and the location where they fell is then used to predict future events.

Yep, as I said – circles are amazing things… Happy circle spotting!

Some damming thoughts on World Rivers Day

Since 2005, the last Sunday of September has been celebrated annually as World Rivers Day. This global celebration of the rivers around the world is aimed at highlighting the value of rivers and the importance of sustaining river health. Global activities include riverside cleanups, school projects, art exhibitions, music festivals and more.

World Rivers Day originated in Canada, where a very successful BC Rivers Day, held in British Columbia since 1980, led to the creation of Canadian Rivers Day. This eventually gave rise to World Rivers Day, launched in 2005 as part of the United Nations’ Water for Life Decade initiative.

The Fish River Canyon, Namibia. Rivers are the arteries of the earth – keeping them clean, unblocked and free-flowing is critical for the health of the planet.
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According to the World Rivers Day website, the two key global issues requiring attention are the decline of river fish populations and the construction of dams.

The construction of large dams in rivers can have severe environmental, economic and human impacts.

Environmentally, one of the biggest issues relate to the impact of dams on fish populations – dam walls block fish migrations and in some cases completely separate the fish’s spawning habitats from their rearing habitats, which can have disasterous effects on river fish populations. The dam walls also trap sediments, affecting physical processes and habitats downstream. The establishment of a dam also changes the upstream part of the river from a free-flowing ecosystem to a stationary reservoir habitat, affecting it chemically and physically, threatening existing fauna and flora and introducing new, invasive species. To quote the International Rivers Organisation, “Large dams have led to the extinction of many fish and other aquatic species, the disappearance of birds in floodplains, huge losses of forest, wetland and farmland, erosion of coastal deltas, and many other unmitigable impacts.”

Large dams are an important source of hydropower and drinking water, but they can have negative economic impacts as well. Aside from the huge cost of building and maintaining these dams, excessive dependence on hydropower can be a risky strategy in a world where climate change can severely affect rainfall patterns, potentially leading to drought induced power blackouts. While hydropower is an important sustainable power source, and an important part of an energy-secure future, it should be included as one component in a diversified power supply regime (including wind, solar etc) to mitigate economic risk.

Finally, there is the human impact, with the World Commission on Dams estimating that the development of large dams have forced between 40 and 80 million people from their land in the past half century. This has particularly impacted the poorer countries of the world, where most of the world’s large dams are being constructed. Beyond those directly displaced by the dam reservoir, large dams affect millions of people living downstream and upstream from the dam, as availability of clean water, food sources and other natural resources have been affected. Changed ecosystems, particularly in the tropics, have also resulted in the introduction of diseases like urinary and intestinal schistosomiasis (bilharzia).

The Gariep Dam, South Africa. Dams are critical sources of energy and continuous water supply, but can also severely affect river-related ecosystems.
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Considering the importance of dams in energy creation, provision of drinking water etc, a balance obviously has to be struck between the advantages and disadvantages of building dams. Perhaps the key message lies in the following recommendation from the World Commission on Dams:

“Rivers, watersheds and aquatic ecosystems are the biological engines of the planet. They are the basis for life and the livelihoods of local communities. Dams transform landscapes and create risks of irreversible impacts. Understanding, protecting and restoring ecosystems at river basin level is essential to foster equitable human development and the welfare of all species.

Options assessment and decision-making around river development prioritises the avoidance of impacts, followed by the minimisation and mitigation of harm to the health and integrity of the river system. Avoiding impacts through good site selection and project design is a priority. Releasing tailor-made environmental flows can help maintain downstream ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.”

World Rhino Day and the atrocity of rhino poaching

Today, 22 September 2012, marks the third annual World Rhino Day. Individuals and organisations across the globe, including the WWF, will join with citizens in rhinoceros range countries in standing up against the atrocity of rhino poaching.

An extensive range of activities are planned to celebrate the event, including skydives, cycling competitions, fun walks and runs, music concerts and even sandcastle building contests, all to raise funds and awareness for the plight of these majestic animals.

An awareness bracelet, sold in South Africa to collect funds to support the fight against rhino poaching.
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Rhino poaching has reached shocking levels. In South Africa, one of the worst hit countries in the world, almost 1400 rhinos have been lost since 2008, and despite attempts at curbing the problem, the numbers are increasing daily. According to the latest statistics 388 rhinos have already been killed in 2012 alone. Policing the crime is extremely difficult, as it involves patrolling vast areas of land, and dealing with criminals that are ruthless, mobile and flexible, and that can strike at any time. To stand any chance of addressing the problem, focus needs to fall on infiltrating and cracking poaching syndicates, and building up reliable informant networks. Unfortunately the challenge doesn’t stop there – there have been numerous reports of game wardens and law enforcers being part of the poaching syndicates, thus counter-acting and nullifying the efforts spent on intelligence building.

Are we the last generation who will have the privilege of seeing scenes like this in the African wild?
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Continued poaching is a symptom of larger societal problems such as unemployment and poverty, and a long as these remain, and there remains a lucrative market for rhino horns, stopping the poaching is nigh impossible. Sadly there is a growing demand for rhino horn in Asia, where it is used as traditional medicine.  As Dr Morne du Plessis, CEO of WWF South Africa, has pointed out, “Asian and African governments must work together to disrupt trade chains and to bring wildlife criminals to justice. Demand for rhino horn and elephant ivory is threatening to destroy a large part of Africa’s natural heritage. We want to see illegal markets for these products in Asia shut down for good.”

According to Dr. Joseph Okori, WWF’s African Rhino Programme Manager, “Rangers are putting their lives on the line to protect these animals from poachers and traders who are motivated only by greed. We salute all those working tirelessly to secure a future for rhinos, and we call on government leaders in Vietnam and China to do their part.”

Rhino poaching is one of the truly horrific crimes against nature committed by man, and it is shocking that it is continuing at such levels in this day and age. One can only hope that somehow, somewhere authorities will be able to find a solution if there is to be any hope of these proud animals being saved for future generations.

Get in on the action on World Water Monitoring Day

September 18th is World Water Monitoring Day. This day has been observed since 2003, with the aim being to increase public awareness of water quality and water quality monitoring.

Even though World Water Monitoring Day is still observed on 18 September each year, the initiative has in recent years (since 2009) been expanded to become the World Water Monitoring Challenge, a programme promoting citizen participation in monitoring local water resources around the globe. Basic, low cost water test kits can be ordered through the World Water Monitoring Challenge website, and facilities are provided for volunteers to upload their test results to a global water quality database. The parameters being tested include temperature, acidity (pH), clarity (turbidity) and dissolved oxygen (DO).

Getting schools and community groups involved in water monitoring is a practical and useful way to spread the water quality message.
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One of the goals of the Challenge is to expand participation to a million people in 100 countries by 2012. This is quite a stretching target, given that 2011 saw the involvement of just over 330 000 people from 77 countries. Even if the one million target is not reached this year yet, it remains a most impressive initiative, and considering the importance of keeping our global water resources useful and healthy, something that is definitely worth supporting and promoting. Conducting water tests as a schools programme or community initiative not only helps gather valuable data, but also raises awareness among participants about water quality and how their actions can directly and indirectly impact on their local water resources.

To ensure maximum particilation, the extended World Water Monitoring Challenge now runs from March 22 (United Nations World Water Day) to December 31 each year. So there’s no excuse not to get in on the action.

Celebrating the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer

Today, 16 September, is a critically important day for this little planet of ours – it’s World Ozone Day, or to be more precise, the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer.

The day was officially proclaimed as one of the United Nations’ International Observances in 1994, falling under the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP. The date was specifically selected to commemorate the signing of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer on 16 September 1987, marking this year as the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol.

So why is the preservation of the ozone so important? I’m sure it’s a lot more complicated than my basic understanding of the subject, but in essence the ozone in the stratosphere plays a critical role in absorbing much of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Furthermore ozone in the lower atmosphere also plays a role in removing pollutants from the air.

Not a pretty picture.
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Now as we humans are prone to do, many of our actions are not all that considerate of the health of the earth, and can be very detrimental to the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol aimed to identify and address substances and actions that contribute to the depletion of the ozone in the atmosphere, and is one of the great examples of international cooperation towards a global good. As an outcome of the Protocol, the phasing out of the use of ozone depleting substances is helping protect the ozone layer for generations to come. The international awareness created through the Montreal Protocol has also contributed to a greater appreciation and awareness of the effects of climate change on the earth.

To help create continued awareness, UNEP’s OzonAction Programme has developed a Public Service Announcement (PSA) video, in 6 UN languages, for global broadcasting and viral distribution.  The English announcement is embedded below, while links to the Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish announcements can be found here.


For more information, the UN website provides some very interesting general background on ozone preservation, as well as information of some ozone depleting substances in different industry sectors.

Protecting our atmosphere (and environment) for generations to come.
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In celebration of World Ozone Day, take a minute today to appreciate the ozone layer and how it contributes to the world and the environment as we know it. Not only does it protect us humans from life threatening cancer-causing UVB radiation, but it is also critical for plant health, marine ecosystems and terrestrial and aquatic biogeochemical cycles.

The theme of this year’s event is “Protecting our atmosphere for generations to come” – surely a cause well worth supporting and celebrating.

Celebrating World Lizard Day – prehistoric looks and surreal abilities

Today we celebrate World Lizard Day. Yes, you read correctly – it seems there actually is such a day! Then again, if there’s a World Snake Day, why shouldn’t there be a World Lizard Day?

While there is a huge variety of lizards in the world (more than 5600 species, I believe) we only have a small subset of geckos and skinks down here in New Zealand – some 60 species in total. Well, at least we have some, unlike snakes, which we don’t have at all.

African wire-art lizard. Lizards are often depicted in African and South American art.
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Lizards are a strange bunch. Even though many of them (like the bearded dragon) look really scary, they’re mostly harmless to humans. Except for the Komodo Dragon, of course. Growing to sizes in excess of 3m, they’ve been known to stalk and attack humans – definitely a thought that could give me some sleepless nights.

The more I learn about lizards, the more surreal I find them. And it’s not just their prehistoric looks – they are blessed with some decidedly odd skills too.

Some lizards, like the chameleon, can change colour. While it is to some extent done for camouflage, the main purpose of this is actually to signal its physiological condition and intentions to other lizards – they can for example show brighter, more aggressive colours when angered, while displaying lighter, multi-coloured patterns when courting. This colour-changing is done using specialised cells called chromatophores, containing pigments in their cytoplasm which can be voluntarily set to different intensities by the chameleon.

Chameleons can also use their tongues to reel in food from a distance of more than two and a half times their body length, by shooting their tongues out of their mouths at high speed. They can do this because their tongues are equipped with powerful, super-contracting muscles that are unique among back-boned animals. The tip of the tongue is covered in thick mucus that sticks to the prey and allows the chameleon to pull its food straight into it’s mouth. Quite useful for a quick take-away snack!

Equally strange, when you think about it, is the fact that many lizards can voluntarily sever their tails when facing danger – an act known as autotomy (from the Greek auto = “self-” and tomy = “severing”) or self-amputation. Even after it has been severed, the tail continues to wriggle, distracting the lizard’s attacker. Amazingly, the lizard can partially regenerate it’s tail over a period of a few weeks (even though the new tail will contain cartilage rather than bone, and may be a different colour to the rest of it’s body).

Even more surreal – and this really gets me – when threatened, some species of horned lizard can actually squirt blood from their eyes! This action, called autohaemorrhaging, not only confuses predators, but the blood also tastes bad thanks to the chemicals it contains. The squirting is done by restricting the blood flow away from the head, so blood pressure inside the head increases, rupturing tiny blood vessels in the sinuses near the eyelids. This bizzare act can be repeated several times, and the blood can be squirted a distance of more than 4 feet.

Honestly, a prehistoric-looking, blood-squirting, self-amputating, colour changing creature with a tongue twice it’s body length – I wouldn’t be able to make that up even if I wanted to! Surely the stuff of science fiction fantasy, and more than worthy of a special day of celebration.