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Dr John Messenger

News from this site - Mon, 26/09/2022 - 15:58

John Messenger We are very sad to announce that John Messenger died on September 22nd 2022. John studied Zoology here (1956-59) and had a distinguished career as an expert on the behaviour and neurobiology of Cephalopods. After retiring as a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, he came to the Department in 2000, where...

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Pheasant meat sold for food found to contain many tiny shards of toxic lead

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Mon, 22/08/2022 - 19:00

A study has found that pheasants killed by lead shot contain many fragments of lead too small to detect by eye or touch, and too distant from the shot to be removed without throwing away a large proportion of otherwise useable meat.

Lead fragments often form when lead shotgun pellets hit the bodies of gamebirds. The fragments become lodged deep within the meat.

Researchers examined the carcasses of eight wild-shot common pheasants, killed on a farmland shoot using lead shotgun ammunition and on sale in a UK butcher’s shop. They found small lead fragments embedded in every pheasant, in addition to lead shotgun pellets in seven of them.

The researchers found up to 10mg of tiny lead shards per pheasant, all of which were much too small to be detected by eye or by touch.

Lead is toxic to humans when absorbed by the body – there is no known safe level of exposure. Lead accumulates in the body over time and can cause long-term harm, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease and kidney damage in adults. It is known to lower IQ in young children, and affect the neurological development of unborn babies.

“While lead gunshot continues to be used for hunting, people who eat pheasants and other similar gamebirds are very likely to be also consuming a lot of tiny lead fragments,” said Professor Rhys Green in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, and first author of the study.

An earlier study in rats showed that when consumed, more lead is absorbed into the body from smaller fragments than from larger ones.

“It seems to have been widely assumed in the past that a lead shot embedded in a pheasant carcass remained intact, and could be removed cleanly before the pheasant was eaten – removing any health risk. Our study has shown the extent to which this is really not the case,” said Green.

He added: “By eating pheasant, people are also unwittingly eating lead, which is toxic.”

“One pheasant is a reasonable meal for two or three people. Consuming this much lead occasionally wouldn’t be a great cause for concern – but we know that there are thousands of people in the UK who eat game meat, often pheasant, every week.”

Around 11,000 tonnes of meat from wild-shot gamebirds, mostly pheasant, are eaten in the UK every year. Virtually all pheasants shot in the UK for human consumption are killed using lead shot.

The researchers used a high-resolution CT (computerised tomography) scanner to locate the lead fragments in the pheasant meat in three dimensions, and measure their size and weight. The meat was then dissolved, allowing the larger fragments to be extracted and analysed further to confirm they were lead.

An average of 3.5 lead pellets and 39 lead fragments of less than 1mm wide were detected per pheasant. The smallest fragments were 0.07mm wide – at the limit of resolution for the CT scanner for specimens of this size - and the researchers say it is likely that even smaller fragments were also present.

The lead pieces were widely distributed within the birds’ tissues and some of the small fragments were over 50mm from the nearest lead shot pellet.

The results are published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

“It’s rare for people eating game meat to accidentally eat a whole lead shot, because they’re cautious about damaging their teeth and know to check for lead shotgun pellets in the meat. But the lead fragments we found in pheasant carcasses were so tiny and widely distributed that it’s very unlikely they would be detected and removed,” said Green.

There are no UK or EU regulations about the maximum allowable levels of lead in human food from wild-shot game animals. This is in contrast with strict maximum levels for lead in many other foods including meat from cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, and shellfish harvested from the wild.

Steel shotgun pellets are a practical alternative to lead, and their use in place of lead for hunting is recommended by UK shooting organisations. But there is very little evidence of a voluntary switch away from lead being made. The UK Health & Safety Executive is currently preparing a case for banning the use of lead ammunition for hunting in the UK, and the European Chemicals Agency is doing the same for Europe.

Other game including partridge, grouse and rabbit is also mainly shot using lead shotgun pellets, and wild deer are shot using lead bullets. Hunters often remove the guts of deer carcasses to make them lighter to carry, and the discarded guts - which often contain many bullet fragments - are eaten by wildlife, which then also suffer the harmful effects of consuming lead.

This research was funded by The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Reference

Green, R.E. et al. ‘Implications for food safety of the size and location of fragments of lead shotgun pellets embedded in hunted carcasses of small game animals intended for human consumption.’ PLOS ONE, August 2022. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0268089

Eating pheasant killed using lead shot is likely to expose consumers to raised levels of lead in their diet, even if the meat is carefully prepared to remove the shotgun pellets and the most damaged tissue.

By eating pheasant, people are also unwittingly eating lead, which is toxic.Professor Rhys Green Robert Trevis-Smith on GettyPheasant


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Cambridge experts on the UK drought and climate change

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Tue, 16/08/2022 - 10:25

From pollinators to profits, food to fires, here's what Cambridge experts say about the impacts of water scarcity – and what it signals about our changing climate.

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Drought changes the smell of flowers affecting bee visits

News from this site - Mon, 08/08/2022 - 11:10

Pollination in a drier world: Even moderate drought alters floral scent Climate change is everyday more present and dramatic in our everyday life, and 2022 has been no exception: heatwaves, drought, floods. Climate change also affects animals and plants, but more importantly it can have dramatic impacts on species...

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A new systematic map explores the level of research on within-plantation management practices in oil palm.

News from this site - Wed, 03/08/2022 - 11:21

Megan Popkin and other members of the Insect Ecology Group have just published a new systematic map investigating the level of research on within-plantation management practices in oil palm. The article particularly highlights which practices have been researched and/or experimentally tested, as well as research gaps. Each...

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Natural clean-up: bacteria can remove plastic pollution from lakes

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Tue, 26/07/2022 - 16:18

The bacteria break down the carbon compounds in plastic to use as food for their growth.

The scientists say that enriching waters with particular species of bacteria could be a natural way to remove plastic pollution from the environment.

The effect is pronounced: the rate of bacterial growth more than doubled when plastic pollution raised the overall carbon level in lake water by just 4%.

The results suggest that the plastic pollution in lakes is ‘priming’ the bacteria for rapid growth –  the bacteria are not only breaking down the plastic but are then more able to break down other natural carbon compounds in the lake.

Lake bacteria were found to favour plastic-derived carbon compounds over natural ones. The researchers think this is because the carbon compounds from plastics are easier for the bacteria to break down and use as food.

The scientists caution that this does not condone ongoing plastic pollution. Some of the compounds within plastics can have toxic effects on the environment, particularly at high concentrations.

The findings are published today in the journal Nature Communications.

“It’s almost like the plastic pollution is getting the bacteria’s appetite going. The bacteria use the plastic as food first, because it’s easy to break down, and then they’re more able to break down some of the more difficult food – the natural organic matter in the lake,” said Dr Andrew Tanentzap in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, senior author of the paper.

He added: “This suggests that plastic pollution is stimulating the whole food web in lakes, because more bacteria means more food for the bigger organisms like ducks and fish.”

The effect varied depending on the diversity of bacterial species present in the lake water – lakes with more different species were better at breaking down plastic pollution.

A study published by the authors last year found that European lakes are potential hotspots of microplastic pollution.

When plastics break down they release simple carbon compounds. The researchers found that these are chemically distinct to the carbon compounds released as organic matter like leaves and twigs break down.

The carbon compounds from plastics were shown to be derived from additives unique to plastic products, including adhesives and softeners.

The new study also found that bacteria removed more plastic pollution in lakes that had fewer unique natural carbon compounds. This is because the bacteria in the lake water had fewer other food sources.

The results will help to prioritise lakes where pollution control is most urgent. If a lake has a lot of plastic pollution, but low bacterial diversity and a lot of different natural organic compounds, then its ecosystem will be more vulnerable to damage.

“Unfortunately, plastics will pollute our environment for decades. On the positive side, our study helps to identify microbes that could be harnessed to help break down plastic waste and better manage environmental pollution," said Professor David Aldridge in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who was involved in the study.

The study involved sampling 29 lakes across Scandinavia between August and September 2019. To assess a range of conditions, these lakes differed in latitude, depth, area, average surface temperature and diversity of dissolved carbon-based molecules.

The scientists cut up plastic bags from four major UK shopping chains, and shook these in water until their carbon compounds were released.

At each lake, glass bottles were filled with lake water. A small amount of the ‘plastic water’ was added to half of these, to represent the amount of carbon leached from plastics into the environment, and the same amount of distilled water was added to the others. After 72 hours in the dark, bacterial activity was measured in each of the bottles.

The study measured bacterial growth - by increase in mass, and the efficiency of bacterial growth - by the amount of carbon-dioxide released in the process of growing.

In the water with plastic-derived carbon compounds, the bacteria had doubled in mass very efficiently. Around 50% of this carbon was incorporated into the bacteria in 72 hours.

"Our study shows that when carrier bags enter lakes and rivers they can have dramatic and unexpected impacts on the entire ecosystem. Hopefully our results will encourage people to be even more careful about how they dispose of plastic waste," said Eleanor Sheridan in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, first author of the study who undertook the work as part of a final-year undergraduate project.

The research was funded by the European Research Council.

Reference

Sheridan, E.A. et al: ‘Plastic pollution fosters more microbial growth in lakes than natural organic matter.’ Nature Communications, 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-31691-9

A study of 29 European lakes has found that some naturally-occurring lake bacteria grow faster and more efficiently on the remains of plastic bags than on natural matter like leaves and twigs.

It’s almost like the plastic pollution is getting the bacteria’s appetite going. The bacteria use the plastic as food first, because it’s easy to break down.Andrew TanentzapS.G.WoodmanStudy lake in Norway


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Experts predict top emerging impacts on ocean biodiversity over next decade

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Thu, 07/07/2022 - 16:08

An international team of experts has produced a list of 15 issues they believe are likely to have a significant impact on marine and coastal biodiversity over the next five to ten years.

Their ‘horizon scanning’ technique focuses on identifying issues that are not currently receiving widespread attention, but are likely to become important over the next decade. The aim is to raise awareness and encourage investment into full assessment of these issues now, and potentially drive policy change, before the issues have a major impact on biodiversity.

The issues include the impacts of wildfires on coastal ecosystems, the effects of new biodegradable materials on the marine environment, and an ‘empty’ zone at the equator as species move away from this warming region of the ocean.

“Marine and coastal ecosystems face a wide range of emerging issues that are poorly recognised or understood, each having the potential to impact biodiversity,” said Dr James Herbert-Read in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, joint first author of the paper.

He added: “By highlighting future issues, we’re pointing to where changes must be made today - both in monitoring and policy – to protect our marine and coastal environments.”

The horizon scan involved 30 experts in marine and coastal systems from 11 countries in the global north and south, from a variety of backgrounds including scientists and policy-makers. The results are published today in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Several of the issues identified are linked to exploitation of ocean resources. For example, deep sea ‘brine pools’ are unique marine environments home to a diversity of life - and have high concentrations of salts containing lithium. The authors warn that rising demand for lithium for electric vehicle batteries may put these environments at risk. They call for rules to ensure biodiversity is assessed before deep sea brine pools are exploited.

While overfishing is an immediate problem, the horizon scan looked beyond this to what might happen next. The authors think there may soon be a move to fishing in the deeper waters of the mesopelagic zone (a depth of 200m – 1,000m), where fish are not fit for human consumption but can be sold as food to fish farms.

“There are areas where we believe immediate changes could prevent huge problems arising over the next decade, such as overfishing in the ocean’s mesopelagic zone,” said Dr Ann Thornton in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, joint first author on the paper.

She added: “Curbing this would not only stop overexploitation of these fish stocks, but reduce the disruption of carbon cycling in the ocean - because these species are an ocean pump that removes carbon from our atmosphere.”

The report also highlights the potential impact of new biodegradable materials on the ocean. Some of these materials are more toxic to marine species than traditional plastics.

Herbert-Read said: “Governments are making a push for the use of biodegradable materials - but we don’t know what impacts these materials may have on ocean life.”

The authors also warn that the nutritional content of fish is declining as a consequence of climate change. Essential fatty acids tend to be produced by cold-water fish species, so as climate change raises ocean temperatures, the production of these nutritious molecules is reduced. Such changes may have impacts on both marine life and human health.

Not all of the predicted impacts are negative. The authors think the development of new technologies, such as soft robotics and better underwater tracking systems, will enable scientists to learn more about marine species and their distribution. This, in turn, will guide the development of more effective marine protected areas. But they also warn that the impacts of these technologies on biodiversity must be assessed before they are deployed at scale.

“Our early identification of these issues, and their potential impacts on marine and coastal biodiversity, will support scientists, conservationists, resource managers, policy-makers and the wider community in addressing the challenges facing marine ecosystems,” said Herbert-Read.

While there are many well-known issues facing ocean biodiversity including climate change, ocean acidification and pollution, this study focused on lesser-known emerging issues that could soon have significant impacts on marine and coastal ecosystems.

This horizon scanning process has previously been used by researchers from the Department of Zoology to identify issues that have later come to prominence, for example, a scan in 2009 gave an early warning that microplastics could become a major problem in marine environments.

The United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the ‘UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.’ In addition, the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity will conclude negotiations on a global biodiversity framework in late 2022. The aim is to slow and reverse the loss of biodiversity, and establish goals for positive outcomes by 2050.

This research was funded by Oceankind.

Reference

Herbert-Read, J.E. et al. ‘A global horizon scan of issues impacting marine and coastal biodiversity conservation.’ Nature Ecology and Evolution, July 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-022-01812-0

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ The full list of issues identified by the report includes:

Ecosystem impacts

  • Wildfire impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems
  • Coastal darkening
  • Increased toxicity of metal pollution due to ocean acidification
  • Equatorial marine communities becoming depauperate (lacking variety) due to climate migration
  • Altered nutritional content of fish due to climate change

Resource exploitation

  • Untapped potential of marine collagens and their impacts on marine ecosystems
  • Impacts of expanding trade for fish swim bladders on target and non-target species
  • Impacts of fishing for mesopelagic (middle-depth) species on the biological ocean pump
  • Extraction of lithium from deep-sea brine pools

Novel technologies

  • Co-location of marine activities
  • Floating marine cities
  • Trace element contamination compounded by the global transition to green technologies
  • New underwater tracking systems to study non-surfacing marine animals
  • Soft robotics for marine research
  • Effects of new biodegradable materials in the marine environment

Lithium extraction from the deep sea, overfishing of deeper-water species, and the unexpected ocean impacts of wildfires on land are among fifteen issues experts warn we ought to be addressing now

By highlighting future issues, we’re pointing to where changes must be made today - both in monitoring and policy – to protect our marine and coastal environmentsJames Herbert-Read Emma JohnstonMarine ecosystem


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Toads surprise scientists by climbing trees in UK woodlands

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Wed, 06/07/2022 - 19:00

Until now, common toads were thought to be terrestrial. The highest toad in this study was found three metres up a tree – and scientists say there is a chance the toads might be venturing even higher.

This is the first time that the tree climbing potential of amphibians has been investigated at a national scale.

The surprising discovery was made during a survey to search for hazel dormice and bats as part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme and the Bat Tree Habitat Key project. 

The research was led by the University of Cambridge and Froglife, and supported by wildlife charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES). It is published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

Dr Silviu Petrovan, Senior Researcher at the University of Cambridge and Trustee at Froglife, and first author of the study, said: “This is a really exciting finding, and significant for our understanding of the ecology and conservation of common toads - one of the most widespread and abundant European amphibians.”

He added: “We know common toads favour woodlands as foraging and wintering habitat, but it appears their association with trees is much more complex than we had previously thought.”

Common toads are regarded as typical terrestrial amphibians, which spend their time both on land and in water during breeding. To date there have only been a handful of documented sightings of common toads in trees in the UK. 

Consequently, common toads and UK amphibians in general have never been surveyed for in trees, unlike bat and dormouse surveys - which specifically target this habitat. The study highlights the importance of sharing data between conservation organisations representing different species, and shows that there is a lot to learn about wildlife in the UK – even about species believed to be well-known.  

Nida Al-Fulaij, Conservation Research Manager at PTES said: “We couldn’t believe what we found. We’re used to discovering woodland birds and other small mammals in nest boxes but we hadn’t considered finding amphibians in them.”

Over 50 common toads were found during surveys of hazel dormouse nest boxes (located 1.5m above ground) and tree cavities usually used by bats.

Many of the cavities were small or not visible from the ground, so it is unclear how toads are finding them and how difficult it is for toads to climb particular trees.

Toads were not found in boxes or tree holes with other species, however they were found using old nests made by dormice and even birds.

While 50 records is not a huge number, it is comparable to records of other animals known to use trees regularly - such as blue tits. This suggests that toads spend more time in trees than was previously thought. If this is true, it means that common toads could be found in up to one in every hundred trees in the UK in particularly favourable areas, such as near large ponds or lakes.

The discovery suggests that tree cavities might represent an even more important ecological feature than conservationists previously thought. It highlights the importance of protecting our remaining natural woodland habitats, especially ancient trees with veteran features (such as hollows, cracks and other natural cavities) for all wildlife.

Froglife research in 2016 showed that common toads have declined by 68% on average over the last 30 years across the UK.

It is not currently known why toads are climbing trees and using nest boxes. Factors could include searching for food, avoiding predators or evading parasites such as toad fly.

“Future targeted research will enable scientists to better understand the reasons for this tree-climbing behaviour in toads, and how woodland management should take it into account,” said Petrovan.

Froglife is calling on members of the public to record any sightings they have of amphibians in trees on their Dragon Finder App, or to contact them directly

Reference

Petrovan, S.O. et al: ‘Why link diverse citizen science surveys? Widespread arboreal habits of a terrestrial amphibian revealed by mammalian tree surveys in Britain.’ PLOS ONE, July 2022. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0265156

Adapted from a press release by Froglife

Volunteers surveying dormice and bats in trees have made the unexpected discovery of over fifty common toads in nest boxes and tree cavities at least 1.5 metres high

This is significant for our understanding of the ecology and conservation of common toads Silviu PetrovanFroglifeToad in a tree


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Conservation: it’s time to look at the evidence

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Wed, 29/06/2022 - 09:29

Professor Bill Sutherland is leading a conservation revolution to reverse the dramatic loss of global biodiversity

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Intensive farming may actually reduce risk of pandemics, experts argue

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Fri, 24/06/2022 - 14:18

In the wake of COVID-19, many have pointed to modern industrial farms with tightly-packed livestock as potential hothouses for further pandemics caused by "zoonotic" diseases: those transmitted from animals to humans. 

However, researchers now argue that free-range alternatives, which require far more land, would increase encroachment on natural habitats and create ever more potential for diseases carried by wild animals to come into contact with humans and jump the species barrier.         

In a paper in Royal Society Open Science, a team of scientists led by Cambridge University found a lack of sufficient evidence to conclude which way of farming is least risky, and say there is evidence that the move away from intensive farming might actually increase the risk of pandemics. They call for more research to be done before changing policies or incentivising a particular type of farming.

“High-yield or ‘intensive’ livestock farming is blamed for pandemics, but those calling for a move away from intensive farming often fail to consider the counterfactual – the pandemic risk of farming less intensively and particularly the consequences for land use,” said lead author Harriet Bartlett, a PhD candidate at Cambridge's Department of Zoology.

“Low-yield farms need far more land to produce the same amount of food compared with high-yield farms. A widespread switch to low-yield farming would result in the destruction and disturbance of vast areas of natural habitats. This increases the risk of viral spillover by disturbing wildlife that may well host the next pandemic virus and increasing contact between wildlife, people and livestock," Bartlett said.

The researchers point out that, globally, we now produce four times more meat than we did in the 1960s. Most of our meat, eggs and dairy now come from intensive farms, but such farms are thought be risky due to their crowded conditions which increase the chance of diseases ‘taking off’ and spreading rapidly.

However, intensive farms need less land than extensive, or ‘free range’, farms to produce the same amount of food – both to grow their feed and to rear their animals.

Growing demand for livestock products has caused dramatic habitat loss, say the researchers, which means we are now farming in places where livestock and people are coming into frequent contact with wildlife. They say that this contact with increasingly disturbed, stressed, and infected wildlife makes the spillover of zoonotic viruses into people or livestock more likely.

"If we were to switch from the current system to one based on extensive farming, we would need substantially more land to meet demand – resulting in the conversion of habitat roughly the size of Brazil and India between 2009 and 2050," said paper co-author Prof Andrew Balmford. "This could increase the contact between people, livestock and stressed wildlife – including wildlife that might well host the next pandemic virus."

"Intensive farms may have a greater risk of takeoff, but extensive farms may have greater risk of spillover," he said. 

The researchers say that, worryingly, we simply do not know which risk is more important for preventing future pandemics, and so it is currently impossible to determine which types of farms carry least risk overall.

Added Bartlett: "COVID-19 has demonstrated the huge potential impact of zoonotic diseases, and this study highlights that more research is urgently needed to identify how we minimise the risk of another pandemic."

Reference:

Bartlett H, Holmes MA, Petrovan SO, Williams DR, Wood JLN, Balmford A. 2022 Understanding the relative risks of zoonosis emergence under contrasting approaches to meeting livestock product demand. R. Soc. Open Sci. 9: 211573. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.211573

Scientists evaluate the evidence that intensive livestock farming is causing pandemics, and find that intensive farming could actually reduce the risk of future pandemics compared to 'free range' farming.

Those calling for a move away from intensive farming often fail to consider the counterfactualHarriet BartlettGetty images Portrait of young woman farmer holding fresh eggs in hands


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Cooperation between humans and wild animals

News from this site - Tue, 21/06/2022 - 15:28

Cooperation between humans and wild animals People cooperate with many species of animals, such as falcons and sheep-dogs, but most cases involve the human controlling the animal’s actions through domestication and captivity. Sometimes, people and wild animals cooperate without human control and to mutual benefit, but much...

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Intensive farming may actually reduce risk of pandemics

News from this site - Tue, 21/06/2022 - 13:39

Intensive farming may actually reduce risk of pandemics Scientists evaluated the evidence that intensive livestock farming is causing pandemics, with surprising results. They find that intensive livestock farming could actually reduce the risk of future pandemics, compared to non-intensive farming. In a paper, published...

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