0 comments on “Natural Cycles: Part 1 – The circle of life and waste”

Natural Cycles: Part 1 – The circle of life and waste

By Anwen Bowers

Circulation patterns in the North Pacific have created a vast plastic continent | Image: Steven Guerrisi

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a vast area in the Pacific Ocean where huge amounts of plastic and other slow-to-degrade waste has accumulated over the past half century. Rubbish from all the rivers in North America and Asia gathers here and then becomes trapped by the swirling waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

The plastic has nowhere else to go, and so it circles around the oceans, breaking down into smaller and
smaller pieces; small enough to be consumed by the plankton, fish, birds and mammals of the Pacific Ocean. This poses a huge environmental threat, and it is a result of the linear processing of waste that is a uniquely human phenomenon.

In nature, everything is processed in cycles *cue famous Disney soundtrack*. As animals feed, the basic building blocks of life are passed up the food chain, and when the top predators die or defecate, the cycle starts again. Every single atom in our bodies has already passed through a number of incarnations, already been part of an ant or a daisy or a rock, and has the potential to become so again.

They may look sinister, but vultures are nature’s recyclers; they are vital in many ecosystems | Image: Hugh Lunnon

Many organisms have carved out an ecological niche for themselves facilitating this cycle. Animals like vultures and dung beetles may not have the most glamorous rep, feeding as they do on dung and rotting corpses. But in so doing they remove a source of harmful bacteria and disease, turning it instead into bioavailable nutrients, promoting growth, habitat, and life. Unglamorous it may be, but an invaluable service nonetheless.

Where nature operates on complex, closed systems that generate zero waste, humanity tends to operate on a linear system. In this system, materials are processed into products that are useful for a time, but once they reach the end of their life span the waste is packed into crevices in the earth’s crust, or swept into oceans, never to be useful again.

This is unsustainable not only because these endpoints will eventually become saturated, but also because by taking the materials out of circulation, we are effectively putting an end to their reincarnation cycle. The more stuff that is floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the less stuff we have to use, and logic follows that we will eventually run out.

Turning empty cardboard boxes into gourmet dishes: restaurants could have a lot to gain from the circle of life | Image: Lebensmittelfotos

Luckily, more and more business models are starting to see that that by following nature’s example they can simultaneously increase productivity, whilst decreasing harmful output. Cardboard to Caviar is an initiative set up by the Green Business Network (GBN) in West Yorkshire. Inspired initially by the problem of waste cardboard packaging from the restaurant industry, GBN’s solution was to collect the cardboard, shred it and sell it as bedding for horses.

A good solution, but what about the waste that then came from the stables? GBN started to collect that too, feeding it into giant composters, where the cardboard and manure were broken down by worms. The worms, in turn, are fed into GBN’s fish farm, where they are eaten by sturgeon, which produce caviar that is sold…to the restaurant industry!  

The number of businesses that process waste into something useful appears to have increased exponentially over the last few years. They’re turning chopsticks into furniture and plastic bags into bricks.

However, a word of caution: Whilst these examples should be credited for their innovation in extending the life of waste materials, they are still, in essence, linear. The risk is that whilst storing plastic in bricks is better than storing it in the ocean, we could ultimately also be storing up the problem for future generations. Plastic, in particular, can only be recycled into a useful product once; any further processing deteriorates the quality too much.

To effectively transition into a low waste society, there also needs to be a parallel shift towards sustainable, natural materials that can either be cycled in themselves or converted into new materials, continuing the circle of waste.

0 comments on “Vegetarian aliens could save our bacon”

Vegetarian aliens could save our bacon

stephen hawking right about nasty aliens

By James Riley

Bacon is tasty, very tasty. It’s so tasty that my moral objection to the industrial-scale murder of sentient animals dissipates with each and every ketchup-soaked bite. This is a weakness on my part. I’m theoretically ethical but practically perverse. It’s a great way to be. You get to rest your nose on the edge of the moral high ground, whilst your body swings in the succulent depravity below. But in all sincerity, I would argue that an extension of vegetarian philosophy is the only possible way we could survive an encounter with extra-terrestrial life. Let’s just hope astro-porcine is less alluring.

hungry aliens eat space pig rising ape
They came for a piece? (Image: Bell and Jeff/Flickr)

I‚Äôm pretty optimistic about alien life, not only about its existence but also about its intelligence and intentions. As unnerving as it is to disagree with such a great man, I must confess I don‚Äôt share Stephen Hawking‚Äôs view: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

stephen hawking right about nasty aliens
(Image: Mike Licht/Flickr)

On earth, species have certain ecological niches, their relational position to other species and their way of life in an ecosystem. Interplanetary, interstellar or even intergalactic life may follow a similar pattern. What niches come down to is competition for resources in a given environment. If¬†one day we do share an interstellar environment with other intelligent species, there will no doubt be different ways of ‚Äėmaking a living‚Äô between the stars. But as soon as competition for resources enters the equation, we have a problem.

If aliens come here to harvest a resource that we also depend on, then we will undoubtedly lose due to the¬†competitive exclusion principle. According to this principle, also known as Gause’s Law, two species that are competing for the exact same resource cannot stably coexist. Furthermore the species with even the smallest competitive advantage will be successful in the long run. As the aliens will have traversed interstellar space to reach us, our technology and defence capabilities just won‚Äôt match up. ET, I‚Äôm sad to say, will be holding a horribly beweaponed stick.

cavemen make fire
“Hm, maybe we should start building a bigger stick now…” (Image: Lance Cpl. Nathan McCord/Wiki)

But there’s another scenario. In this case the outcome of an extra-terrestrial meeting isn’t solely left to the will and whim of evolutionary forces. Instead, as has happened in our civilisation, rational choices can overcome biological impulses.

Take eating meat for example. It is generally accepted that our ancestors ate meat in their hunter-gatherer existence. But nowadays some people have come to the conclusion, to the upmost resentment of others, that killing animals and eating meat might be a tad wrong. You know, all the confinement, force-feeding, mechanised slaughter, it is a little unsettling (until you taste the bacon). Others argue the opposite, that eating meat is ‚Äėnatural‚Äô therefore it must be the ‚Äėright‚Äô thing to do. This line of reasoning commits my favourite logical fallacy (don‚Äôt pretend you haven‚Äôt got one), the ad Naturam or appeal to nature logical fallacy. If we solely took our morality from nature we would live in a very cruel world indeed. (Watch a video of Mallards being natural here. Note: Morality not included; viewer discretion is advised.)

So what‚Äôs all this got to do with aliens and bacon? Well if aliens take the same stance‚ÄĒthe choice not to kill sentient beings based on nothing else but the value that sentience confers‚ÄĒthen perhaps we do stand a chance of a peaceful coexistence. But if aliens come with predacious intentions, aiming to harvest, experiment, extract, and/or exploit, there really is little we can do to stop them.

So hope and pray that, when our skies are darkened by the spectre of a flying saucer drifting through trembling clouds, you can smell the pungent aromas of Quorn and lentil burger emanating from the ship’s kitchen. Maybe that’s why they were called little green men all along?

0 comments on “O is for Ocean Acidification”

O is for Ocean Acidification

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

We all know that CO2¬†emissions are warming the planet. ¬†Or at least,¬†most of us¬†do. ¬†What often goes unreported is the effect of carbon dioxide on the worlds’ oceans. ¬†A lot of the CO2¬† that we pump into the air makes its way to the water and is making it more and more difficult for shelled creatures like sea urchins, lobsters, and coral to survive.

This is Bob the lobster. This is his “I’m sad because of the increased levels of anthropogenic carbon dioxide that are making my life harder” face. ¬†Image by Pedrosanch

In order to understand why this happens, we need to go back to secondary school chemistry.

Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Jared doesn’t pick on you.

No Jared! No!     Image public domain

The first lesson we need to recall is about acids.  What is an acid?

Something that bubbles in a flask?  Image by Joe Sullivan
Something that bubbles in a flask? Image by Joe Sullivan

Acids are compounds that have free hydrogen ions floating around. ¬†These hydrogen atoms are quite reactive, so it means the more free hydrogen you have floating around, the more reactive your compound. Acidity is usually measured in pH, which stands for the “power of hydrogen”. ¬†pH is measured on a scale (creatively named the “pH scale”) that ranges from 0 to 14.

Compounds that get a 0 on the scale are exceedingly acidic, meaning they are made up of pretty much just free-floating Hydrogen ions. Compounds that rate 7 are perfectly neutral, like distilled water. Compounds on the other end, near 14, are called “basic” or “alkaline” and instead of having lots of hydrogen ions to give away, they have all sorts of space for hydrogen atoms. ¬†This makes them reactive because they can strip hydrogen from things that don’t usually want to give it away (like Edward Norton’s hand in Fight Club).

The other confusing bit to remember is that the pH scale is logarithmic, meaning that each number you jump actually indicates a multiplication by 10. For example, something with pH 3 (like soda) is 100 times more acidic than something with pH 5 (like coffee).  This means if a large body of water (like the ocean) shifts by even a small pH number, the effect can be very large.

Image by OpenStaxCollege
Image by OpenStaxCollege

The second lesson we need to recall is about equilibrium.

In chemistry, everything tends towards balance. If you combine equally strong acids and bases, they will react together until the result has a pH that is in between.  You might also get a volcano-themed science fair demonstration.

When CO2 combines with water (H2O), they form carbonic acid (H2CO3).  The carbonic acid will break up (dissociate) into bicarbonate (HCO3) and a hydrogen ion (H+).  In a basic environment, the bicarbonate will dissociate further into carbonate (CO32-) and the result will be two hydrogen ions (2H+).

We can visualize this path with a chemical equation:

H2CO3¬† —- ¬† H+ + HCO3– ¬†¬†—- ¬† 2H+ + CO32-

Where this path stops depends on the environment it is in.  In an acidic environment, the balance will tend towards the left, with more hydrogen bound up with the carbonate (because there is no space in the solution for more free hydrogen).  In a basic environment, the balance will tip to the right, releasing more hydrogen and freeing up the carbonate.

Currently, the pH of the ocean sits at about 8.1 (slightly alkaline). ¬†Because of this, there is plenty of carbonate available for creepy-crawly-shellfish to use to build their homes. ¬†Crustaceans and corals combine the free carbonate with calcium to form calcium carbonate (aka limestone, chalk, and Tums). They can’t use bicarbonate (HCO3) or carbonic acid¬†(H2CO3) and find it hard to form anything at all in an acidic environment.

This means that as we add CO2 to the water, we create more carbonic acid and contribute to the acidity of the ocean, dropping its pH.  Not only does this make it hard for the little guys down there trying to make a living, but it also endangers the big chompers that eat the little guys.

The ultimate big chomper.  This is what happens when you jokingly search for
The ultimate big chomper. This is what happens when you jokingly search for “chomper” on wikimedia.

A recent review¬†found that even under the most optimistic emissions scenario, the ocean’s pH is likely to drop to 7.95, affecting 7-12% of marine species that build shells. Under a high emissions scenario, the pH will go down to 7.8, affecting 21-32% of those species.

In order to keep track of the progress of this acidification, researchers from Exeter have proposed using satellites to monitor hard-to-reach bits of the ocean.

Regardless of the pace of the change, scientists agree one thing is certain: the oceans will become less hospitable for shell-builders.  The superficial impact of this for humans will be rising prices on shellfish, but there will be much deeper ramifications throughout marine ecosystems.

And I think we all know who is to blame.


Thanks Jared.

0 comments on “N is for Naming”

N is for Naming

By Jonathan Farrow of the Thoughtful Pharaoh

Next time you happen to be walking though the Chamela-Cuixmala nature reserve on the West Coast of Mexico, keep your eyes out for this parasitoid wasp:

Image from a paper by Alejandro Zaldívar-Riverón, Juan José Martínez, Fadia Sara Ceccarelli, and Scott R. Shaw
Image from a paper by Alejandro Zaldívar-Riverón, Juan José Martínez, Fadia Sara Ceccarelli, and Scott R. Shaw

Its scientific name is Heerz lukenatcha.  There is also a related wasp named Heerz tooya.  Who comes up with these things!?

Biologists, it turns out.

The current official naming system for animals is run by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).  This multi-national commission, based at the Natural History Museum in London, keeps track of all the rules as well as the accepted names.

[There are also separate codes for other types of organisms  Рsee this wikipedia page for a list of the codes and prepare to go down an Oryctolagus cuniculus hole]

Generally, the first person to find an organism, make sure it hasn’t been named yet, and submit a scientific paper naming it, will get to choose a name. ¬†While there is quite a bit of freedom, the ICZN does provide the following guidance: “Authors should exercise reasonable care and consideration in forming new names to ensure that they are chosen with their subsequent users in mind and that, as far as possible, they are appropriate, compact, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offence.”

That guidance does get stretched sometimes…


During a 1980 entomological expedition to the Andes, one member of the team kept shouting “sh*t man, f*ck!” every time something went wrong. ¬†I guess a lot of things went wrong, because before long the whole team started calling the expedition the SMF Expedition. ¬†When a new genus¬†of beetle was discovered, they named it Esemephe (pronounced SMF). ¬†They justified it to the ICZN by saying that it was a melding of the greek words essymenos (hurrying) and ephestris (mantle), but everyone else knew it was really a reference to SMF.

Not so compact, euphonious, or memorable

The longest accepted scientific name is Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides, a species of fly.  At 42 characters, its only three short of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, the longest word in the English dictionary.

Straight up offensive

Some names were actually designed to be offensive.  Two paleontologists, Cope and Marsh, basically had a naming war at the end of the 19th century. Marsh seemingly struck the first blow, submitting Mosasaurus copeanus (-anus is a greek suffix meaning ringed).  Later, Cope named an extinct mammal Anisonchus cophater for all of his haters.  I guess he just wanted to shake it off.

This trend was repeated in the 20’s with swedes Elsa Warburg and Orvar Isberg. In 1925, Warburg named a trilobite¬†Isbergia planifrons,¬†after Isberg’s apparently flat forehead (an insult in Scandanavia). ¬†In 1934, Isberg retaliated with a mussel he named¬†Warburgia crassa,¬†after Warburg’s girth (crassa=fat).

Just funny

Sometimes, biologists just feel silly.  Here are a few of my favourite scientific names, as a reminder that scientists can be funny.

There is a genus of fungus beetles called Gelae.  The species names are baen, belae, donut, fish, and rol.  Put those together and you get a whole bunch of tasty treats!  There is another genus of beetle called Agra, and one biologist in particular, Terry Erwin, has had a lot of fun over the years with some punny species names like cadabra, memnon, and vation.

Sometimes biologists go for the celebrity names, like a beetle named Scaptia beyonceae for the yellow fur on its behind or a fossil fly named Carmenelectra shechisme (pronounced Carmen Electra, She Kiss Me).  In 2013, Carmenelectra shehuggme was also added.

Other times, taxonomists like to make you read it a few times, like a moth named Eubetia bigaulae or a scarab in a large family named Cyclocephala nodanotherwon.

For hundreds of more interesting biological names, visit curioustaxonomy.net

0 comments on “I is for Island Evolution”

I is for Island Evolution

By Jonathan Farrow from The Thoughtful Pharaoh

Unbeknownst to the rest of us, a debate has been raging in the world of biogeography.¬†¬†The debate stems from a simple observation made by a young Canadian scientist in 1964: island animals are weird. ¬†Sometimes they’re way bigger than normal, like the Tenerife Giant Rat, and other times they are way smaller than normal, like the Elephas falconeri, a tiny species of elephant.

A Rodent of Unusual Size, the (now extinct) Tenerife Giant Rat.  Image by Wikimedia user M0rph
A Rodent Of Unusual Size, the (now extinct) Tenerife Giant Rat. It reached sizes of up to 1.14m  Image by Wikimedia user M0rph
An itty-bitty extinct elephant thought to have weighed only 200kg. Image by Ninjatacoshell at the North American Musueum of Ancient Life

J.B. Foster published a short, two-page paper in the April 1964 edition of Nature positing that rodents get bigger and lapidomorphs (rabbits), carnivores, and artiodactyls (deer/goats) get smaller on islands.  This, he thought, was because small animals found the isolation of islands to be liberating.  They no longer had to worry about predators and could grow to fill their new space.  Larger animals, however, might be restricted by the relative paucity of resources on islands and would have immense evolutionary pressure to become smaller.

This led to Foster’s Rule, also known as the Island Rule. ¬†It states that in general, big animals get small on islands and small animals get big. ¬†They also do so very quickly (in evolutionary terms). ¬†For instance, red deer on Jersey, an island in the English Channel, were shown to have shrunk to to 1/6th their original size in only 6000 years.

There’s a problem, though. ¬†Like pretty much every rule in biology, there are lots of exceptions. ¬†Sometimes small animals get smaller (like Brookesia micra, the world’s tiniest chameleon) and relatively big animals get bigger (like Haast’s eagles).

So cute, right!?  Image by Frank Glaw, Jörn Köhler, Ted M. Townsend, Miguel Vences
You’ve heard of angels on the head of pin, but what about chameleons on the head of a match. So cute, right!? Image by Frank Glaw, J√∂rn K√∂hler, Ted M. Townsend, Miguel Vences
The giant, moa-hunting Haast's Eagle of New Zealand.  Almost as scary as terror birds.
The giant, moa-hunting Haast’s Eagle of New Zealand. Almost as scary as terror birds. ¬†Image by John Megahan

A 2011¬†article by a joint Israeli-Italian-British team of researchers calls the whole theory into question, showing that the smallest species in any given group is no more likely to be from an island than would be expected by chance. Size extremes, they say, exist everywhere. ¬†Islands don’t have some sort of monopoly. ¬†They do concede that large mammals tend to get smaller, but they think the idea that small animals get bigger only seems like common sense because they are easier to notice.

A British paper from 2008 throws even more confusion into the mix, showing that depending on the kinds of statistical tests you use, you can show that the island rule either exists or doesn’t. ¬†They suggest that the island rule should be looked at¬†in “taxonomically restricted studies” – biologist-speak for “case-by-case basis”. ¬†That seems to kind of defeat the purpose of a nice heuristic, though.

One thing we know for sure is that islands isolate organisms.  This isolation means that evolution can work differently for the island population and might lead to all sorts of interesting changes.  This type of evolutionary change is also called allopatric speciation and is responsible for the variation that Darwin saw in Galapagos finches.  Whether islands always create a particular kind of change is still up for discussion, but nobody can doubt that when organisms of unusual size appear, they deserve attention.

Darwin's famous finches.  He observed that some beaks were better suited for cracking seeds and others for tearing fruit.
Darwin’s famous finches. ¬†Image from The Voyage of the Beagle
0 comments on “D is for Dinosaur Evolution”

D is for Dinosaur Evolution

By Jonathan Farrow from The Thoughtful Pharaoh

When was the last time you ate dinosaur?  I had some just the other day, next to my peas and carrots.

File:Washing peas and carrots.jpg

Shocking as it may seem, dinosaurs are all around us and we interact with them on a fairly regular basis. ¬†If you’re sitting there saying to yourself, “No, dinosaurs went extinct millions of years ago!”, let me remind you of one critical and oft-forgotten fact: all modern birds (including chickens, turkeys, toucans, and cuckoos) are dinosaurs. ¬†That’s right, the mascot for Froot Loops is a dinosaur. ¬†KFC can change it’s name to Kentucky Fried Dinosaur and still be scientifically accurate.

How can this be? ¬†¬†It all has to do with how biologists name and classify organisms (the technical term for this is taxonomy). ¬†Scientists, being very much into order and rationality, made up a few¬†systems for naming organisms and describing¬†their evolutionary relationships. ¬†The system I’m going to focus on today, cladistics, has only a few basic rules and is incredibly helpful for understanding the history of life on our planet. ¬†Unfortunately it can be a bit daunting because there is some pretty scary-looking jargon. ¬†Let’s unpack some of that jargon and apply it to dinosaurs in order to find out how the heck the same word can be used to (correctly) describe animals as different as stegosauruses and canaries.

File:Stegosaurus Struct.jpg
Dinosaur, Photo by Yosemite
File:Serinus canaria -Parque Rural del Nublo, Gran Canaria, Spain -male-8a.jpg
Also a dinosaur, Photo by Juan Emilio

Two of the most important concepts for cladistics are that:

  1. All life on Earth evolved from a single common ancestor.
  2. Organisms should be classified based on last common ancestors, with organisms that share recent common ancestors being interpreted to be more closely related than organisms with more distant common ancestors.

Think of your family.  Everyone is descended from your grandparents (premise #1 above) and you are more closely related to your siblings (last common ancestor is your parents) than your cousins (last common ancestor is your grandparents; premise #2 above).

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 7.12.48 PM

Those are the basic rules of cladistics.  Pretty simple in theory, right?  The problem is that with organisms that have been dead for millions of years and only leave behind fragments of bone, deciding where they fit in to the family tree gets difficult.

File:House of ROMANOV-tree-fr.png
Like fitting Rasputin into this Romanov family tree.

Now let’s look at some of¬†that jargon I promised.

The first word¬†we need to understand is monophyletic. ¬†A¬†monophyletic group is a set of organisms that all share a common ancestor. ¬†You, your siblings, and your mum make a monophyletic group. ¬†You, your siblings, your mum, and your dad are not monophyletic because (hopefully) your mom and dad are not related. ¬†Some scientists¬†call¬†monophyletic¬†groups clades¬†and they are the bedrock of cladistics. ¬†A “proper” group must be monophyletic.

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 7.15.04 PM
A nice pink monophyletic group with you right in the middle.  Examples from nature include birds and primates.

If the group you’re looking at isn’t monophyletic, it might be¬†paraphyletic¬†or¬†polyphyletic. ¬†These are two types of almost-groups that can¬†confuse a lot of people. ¬†Paraphyletic groups choose¬†a section of the family tree, ignoring a large chunk. ¬†Polyphyletic groups choose a few individuals throughout the tree without regard for common ancestors. ¬†In the family analogy, a paraphyletic group could¬†include your mom and two of your siblings but not you. ¬†A polyphyletic group might include you and your cousin.

A nice purple monophyletic group.  Some examples from nature: bacteria and birds.
A less-nice purple paraphyletic group. Some examples from nature: Reptiles, Fish
Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 7.18.34 PM
A rather arbitrary blue polyphyletic group.  Examples from nature: flightless birds, warm-blooded animals.

Phylogenetic trees are the most common tool used by biologists to depict evolutionary relationships.  Generally the root of the tree is interpreted to be the oldest and the branches are the newest.  Every branching point is called a node.

So far we’ve been looking at phylogenetic trees of your hypothetical family, but now that we have a primer in cladistics under our belts, we can start to look at a dinosaur phylogenetic tree.

Image from an article by Matt Wendel at UC Berkeley

The way to interpret this diagram is to think of time increasing as you read up. At the bottom there are the most recent common ancestor of all crocodiles, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs: Archosaurs.  Just as with all of the other terms on this diagram, everything up from any given node belongs to the group labelled at the node.  This means that all dinosaurs are archosaurs (but not all archosaurs are dinosaurs).

Archosaurs evolved in the late Permian or early Triassic period, about 250 million years ago.  The most familiar archosaurs from that time are probably sail-backed beasts like Ctenosauriscus koeneni.

File:Ctenosauriscus BW.jpg
Image by Nobu Tamara

At the next node, you see ornithodirans, a word which refers to dinosaurs and pterosaurs. The interesting part to note here is that pterosaurs (like pterodactyls and Quetzalcoatlus) aren’t dinosaurs. ¬†They are the closest relatives to dinosaurs without actually being dinosaurs.

Those are some big flying non-dinosaurs!
Those are some big flying non-dinosaurs!

The next node on that diagram is the one we’ve been waiting for: Dinosaurs! As you can see, dinosaurs are a monophyletic group. ¬†If you want to refer to the dinosaurs that were wiped out by an asteroid 65 million years ago, you have to make a paraphyletic group and exclude birds. ¬†You can do this by saying “non-avian dinosaurs”. ¬†Let the pedantry begin!

A picture I took at the Oxford Museum of Natural History.  Can you spot what's wrong with this panel?  High horses feel nice, don't they?
A picture I took at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Can you spot what’s wrong with this panel? High horses feel nice, don’t they?

As the diagram shows, the dinosaur lineage splits at this point and we find one of the most important features that helps scientists classify dinosaurs.  It all comes down to the hip.  One group, the ornithischians, have backwards-facing pubises in line with their ischia, while saurischians have down-and-forwards facing pubises at an angle to their ischia.  This will become much clearer with some labelled images:

ornithischpelvis saurpelvis

Once you know to look for it, this difference becomes glaringly obvious whenever you look at a dinosaur skeleton.  Here, have a look at a few different images of dinosaurs and see if you can tell if its ornithischian or saurischian (I often just think of these as OРand SРbecause even when I say them in my head I trip over the -ischi-).


You are well on your way to being a dinosaur expert!

The last node we are going to discuss in the evolution of dinosaurs is the theropods.  The word itself means beast feet and it is the last taxonomic word you can use to accurately describe both T-Rex and turkey.  Theropods are a terrifying group of creatures, laying claim to speedy velociraptors, vicious ceratosaurs, and of course, the King, Tyrannosaurus Rex.  They evolved fairly early on (~230 million years ago) and include most carnivorous dinosaurs and their descendants.

My favourite extinct dinosaur is Ankylosaurus magniventris, an armoured tank of a creature with a club-tail that definitely meant business.  On the other hand, my favourite non-extinct dinosaur is probably Meleagris gallopavo, a colourful but mean-looking dino best served with potatoes and cranberry sauce.

0 comments on “Fracking: The Collision of Science and Politics”

Fracking: The Collision of Science and Politics

by James Riley

Policy decisions are rarely made on scientific evidence alone. In fact, science has only a small part to play in the convoluted world of policy. In this light, perhaps it is unsurprising that even though we have seen vehement anti-fracking protests across the UK in recent months, it looks like the controversial process will be going ahead as planned.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process by which hundreds of gallons of pressurised water, chemicals and sand are blasted into the ground to open up trapped deposits of gas. In the current controversy the focus is on shale gas extraction, although fracking can be used to extract various gases for use as fuel. The process is nothing new. It made its first appearance in 1947 and was first commercially implemented in 1949.

Fracking process

(Illustration of the hydraulic fracturing process. Image Credit: US Environmental Protection Agency)

Recent events have sparked public opposition to fracking, with many perceiving the risks outweighing the benefits. In 2011, two earthquakes struck Lancaster following prospective fracking exercises by Caudrilla Resources (the main company with fracking contracts within the UK), resulting in a nationwide moratoria while a formal investigation into fracking’s dangers took place.

However, the risks of fracking stretch beyond the chance of mild earth tremors. And it is these environmental concerns which activist groups like Greenpeace are desperately trying to bring to the public’s attention.

In their recent publication, ‚ÄúFracking: What‚Äôs the Evidence?‚ÄĚ, Greenpeace set out the wealth of environmental consequences aligned to this extraction technique. Greenpeace says about its report:¬† ‚ÄúFrom water pollution, to gas flares, to seismic activity to property prices, the report takes an in-depth look at what fracking involves, and the key social and environmental risks that should be taken into consideration as the UK Government attempts to open England up to this new form of extreme energy.‚ÄĚ

One major concern raised over the fracking procedure is the contamination of groundwater, and the possible contamination of drinking water. In the USA this has indeed taken place, although the Geological Society has said that with proper regulations in place, the contamination of groundwater should not be an issue. Another consideration is the fact that fracking uses a large amount of water and some groups claim the water supply couldn’t take the strain. In reality fracking in the UK should only require the use of around 0.01% of the current usage.

But even without these various local environmental concerns, it would still be true that one of the major risks of fracking is our continued dependence on fossil fuels, and the inability to cut our emissions; therefore the inability to halter the seemingly glacial march of climate change. This is one of the biggest concerns anti-fracking groups can urge, and it is almost an uncontested one from the supporters of fracking. Some politicised points about shale gas producing less greenhouse emissions than coal have been made however, along with the claim that it is a ‚Äúgreener alternative‚ÄĚ to traditional fossil fuels.

The UK government has agreed to a number of targets aimed at decarbonising the home economy. This includes the Kyoto Protocol, which promises an 80% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050. The Kyoto Protocol gave rise to the Climate Change Act 2008, which makes it the duty of the Secretary of State to adhere to cutting the greenhouse emissions laid out within the Kyoto agreement. Although large original signatories, such as the United States and Canada, have since not ratified the agreement and subsequently dropped out, the protocol is still taken seriously within European governments.

Our reduction promises are one point which anti-fracking campaigners have cited in opposition to fracking. In a world where we are committed to reducing our greenhouse emissions, should we not be more focused on alternative forms of energy such as wind farms, solar panels and tidal generators? These technologies have benefited other European economies, whilst continuing to honour the Kyoto agreement. Germany, for example, which boasts Europe’s leading economy, now produces over 25% of their energy from renewables in this way.

frack protest

(Fracking protest south of Balcombe, 18 August 2013. Image Credit: © Copyright Robin Webster and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

On 27th September, 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its fifth Assessment Report and in response to this comprehensive collection of climate change science, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change, Edward Davey acknowledged:

‚ÄúThe message of this report is clear – the Earth‚Äôs climate has warmed over the last century and man-made greenhouse gases have caused much of that global warming. The gases emitted now are accumulating in the atmosphere and so the solutions must be set in motion today. The risks and costs of doing nothing today are so great, only a deeply irresponsible government would be so negligent.‚ÄĚ

This is where the intersection of politics and science is greatly evident. Quite obviously, shale gas will be contributing to climate change. Quite obviously, it is not a green alternative. And, quite obviously, the solutions are not being ‚Äúset in motion today‚ÄĚ. Yet it seems like the government are set to launch full-scale shale extraction within the UK.

On the 24th January, 2014, David Cameron said to the World Economic Forum (Davos): ‚ÄúGovernments need to reassure people that nothing would go ahead if there were environmental dangers. But if this is done properly, shale gas can actually have lower emissions than imported gas. We should be clear that if the European Union or its member states impose burdensome, unjustified or premature regulatory burdens on shale gas exploration in Europe investors will quickly head elsewhere.‚ÄĚ

From Cameron’s focus on loss of investors over the environmental consequences, it is quite obvious that there are more factors in this decision than solely the scientific evidence of environmental damage and climate change contribution.

For some time now the UK, like a lot of European countries, has been trying to decouple its energy dependence from Russia. With current Ukrainian crisis highlights the fragility of the West’s relationship with the old Soviet state. Although the UK’s gas imports from Russia are now only around 1%, we still import over 40% of our coal and solid fuels from the nation.


(Russian oil and gas pipelines to Europe. Image Credit: US Department of Energy)

Russia’s power on the world stage comes mainly from its abundance of energy resources. These are resources which Russia has exploited for power in the past. Even despite the West’s efforts to reduce our dependence on Russian power, statistics from 2010 show how Russia’s energy exports were more than twice as much as any other OECD country, and represented a massive 40% of the total OECD energy exports.

With the recent events in the Ukraine, giving fracking the go ahead seems to makes more and more political sense. Even though there may be water contamination, even though there may be earthquakes, even though it will not be a step in the direction of fulfilling our Kyoto Protocol obligations, there is a sense that somehow the scientific facts of the dangers are going to give way to possible political dangers of not acting. This is not a certainty, but it seems likely.

When calculating the risks of such a decision, it is a fine balance of deciding between two possible futures. One in which your obligations to reducing greenhouse gases helps to curb insidious climate change, which may for the most part be irreversible; and the other option, the reduction of dependence on the energy exports of a country vying for power, a country which has used its position as an energy provider for geopolitical influence and intimidation before, and could easily choose that path again. When presented as two options it becomes clear how the waters of policy can become muddied by much more than just science’s view the world. Not that these two futures are the only possible options, there is the truly green alternative. Is it not time we start to take renewable energy more seriously?


P Bolton (2013) Energy Imports and Exports. House of Commons Library. Social & General Statistics. 30th August 2013

D Cameron (2014) World Economic Forum (Davos): Speech by David Cameron. Cabinet Office. 30th January 2014

K Cumming (2013) Fracking: What’s the Evidence? Greenpeace. Available at: | http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/fracking-evidence-report. Accessed 10/03/2014

E Davey. (2012) New controls announced for shale gas exploration. Department of Energy and Climate Change. United Kingdom Government: Published 13th Dec 2012.

E Davey, (2013) Response to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5): The Latest Assessment of Climate Science. Department of Energy and Climate Change. United  Kingdom Government. 27th Sept 2013.

Royal Society (2012) Shale Gas Extraction in the UK: A Review of Hydraulic Fracturing. Royal Society Policy Projects. June 2012