More than half of the world’s wild animals lost in 40 years

Rapid deforestation in west and central Africa by loggers has left forest elephants (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) with just 6% of their historic range, with 60% population decline from 2002-11, primarily due to rampant poaching for ivory.

Photograph: Carlos Drews/WWF-Canon

Since 1970, the Earths population of wild animals has fallen by 52% according to the 10th edition of the World Wildlife Funds Living Planet report.

The Living Planet Index (LPI) is a respected database maintained by the Zoological Society of London. It has been used to track more than 10,000 different populations, or 3000 species of wild vertebrates – mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish – from 1970 to 2010. The LPI is used to gauge the state of the planet’s 45,000 known vertebrates.

According to the LPI, freshwater vertebrate populations have declined by 76%, and the number of vertebrates in the Indo-Pacific region has fallen by 67% since 1970.

Affected animals, some of which can be seen in this picture gallery, include the Hoolock gibbon of Bangladesh, whose numbers fell by more than 50% from 1986-2006 as they lost their forest habitat; the short-beaked common dolphin in the Ionian sea, reduced to just 15 individuals because of overfishing; and the wandering albatross, whose numbers have declined by 50% on Bird Island, South Georgia where they are snared by long line fisheries.

“If half the animals died in London zoo next week it would be front page news,” said the zoo’s director of science, Professor Ken Norris. “But that is happening in the great outdoors. This damage is not inevitable, but a consequence of the way we choose to live.”

As well as counting animal numbers, the Living Planet report also lists the ecological footprint of 152 countries. Australia places embarrassingly high, with the 13th  largest ecological footprint in the world, mostly caused by our heavy carbon footprint. Kuwait tops the list.

Rocket boosters propel us towards Orion’s first flight

All the three core rocket boosters for NASA’s new spacecraft Orion have now been successfully joined together with the launch vehicle, bringing Orion one step closer to its first test flight.

The launch vehicle, called the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket, consists of the three rocket boosters in its first section. In June, the first booster was attached to the centre rocket, while the second booster was attached in August.

The three rocket boosters for Delta IV Heavy were integrated in ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, USA. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

Now that the first section, or stage, has been assembled, the second stage of Delta IV Heavy is ready to be connected to the first stage in the ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF). The next stage consists of an RL 10-B-2 engine, which NASA plans to later integrate with another NASA rocket known as the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built – and NASA will use it for Orion’s first mission scheduled for 2017.

The second stage of the Delta IV Heavy rocket is ready for integration. ULA technicians prepare the second stage of the Delta IV Heavy rocket for integration for the unpiloted Exploration Flight Test-1. Credit: NASA/Daniel Casper

The second stage of the Delta IV Heavy rocket is ready for integration. ULA technicians prepare the second stage of the Delta IV Heavy rocket for integration for the unpiloted Exploration Flight Test-1. Credit: NASA/Daniel Casper

Orion is an exploration vehicle that will allow humans to travel deeper into space than ever before – as well as provide safe re-entry from those missions.

But the first flight test, known as Exploration Flight Test-1, will give engineers the chance to analyse the Delta IV Heavy launch system in preparation for the SLS integration. In addition, the NASA engineers will assess the systems important for crew safety during re-entry, such as the launch abort system, the heat shield and the parachute system.

Exploration Flight Test-1 is a four-hour mission during which Orion will orbit Earth twice from 3,600 miles away. Based on their findings during that time, engineers will be able to confirm the effectiveness of the spacecraft’s designs and determine how to reduce risks and costs for later Orion flights.

Orion is now in its final assembly at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. The flight is scheduled for December 2014 and will be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Hospital may be the wrong place if you have a heart attack

[Credit: iStock]

[Credit: iStock]

A British doctor is questioning the convention of taking heart attack patients to hospital.

"Hospitals have nothing to offer almost all such patients beyond the care that is provided by a well-trained and equipped ambulance service," says Professor of Emergency Care at the University of the West of England, Jonathan Benger.

In Britain, less than 10% of patients admitted with a heart attack survive to be discharged from hospital. 

Professor Berger argues that hospitals might be harmful to the "vast majority" of patients, who are best administered to by emergency staff trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and then taken to a "heart attack" centre for care if they recover.

But the chairman of emergency medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Centre, Bruce Adams, warns not going to hospital could lead to unnecessary deaths. The rules for deciding when to stop resuscitation are fallible, he says, and survival rates vary depending on geography and the quality of care. He says CPR research is advancing "and may change our definition of who is and who is not salvageable". 

What's more, not going to hospital could also possibly lead to a lower rate of organ donations (in the US an estimated 5% of all organs harvested are from legally brain dead patients who received CPR). 

 

Big changes in the Sargasso Sea

A survey of the Sargasso Sea has found a disturbing loss in biodiversity.

Field research in 2011 and 2012 led by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) found that the region of the North Atlantic known as the Sargasso Sea appeared to have suffered a loss in biodiversity since in the early 1970s, which was the last time a detailed study was made of the area.

For example 13 species of animals in different groups - including crustaceans, worms and sea spiders - that had been observed in the past, were missing in recent samples.

The researchers did not have enough data to determine whether the changes were the result of long-term shifts in ocean conditions or due to natural variation. 

A series of follow-up expeditions are planned.

  During three expeditions to the Sargasso Sea, researchers collected Sargassum rafts using a dip net, then counted the animals living there. [Credit: Debbie Nail Meyer © 2011 MBARI] Click here for more information.

 

During three expeditions to the Sargasso Sea, researchers collected Sargassum rafts using a dip net, then counted the animals living there. [Credit: Debbie Nail Meyer © 2011 MBARI]

Click here for more information.

Anti-smoking policies may reduce drinking, too

[Credit: iStock] Rising cigarette prices and indoor smoking restrictions tend to lead to a drop in the consumption of beer and spirits - but not in wine.

[Credit: iStock] Rising cigarette prices and indoor smoking restrictions tend to lead to a drop in the consumption of beer and spirits - but not in wine.

Drinking and smoking are old partners. So perhaps it's not surprising that US research has found that anti-smoking policies and higher cigarette taxes may reduce alcohol consumption.

 A new study has found that rising cigarette prices and indoor smoking restrictions tend to lead to a drop in the consumption of beer and spirits - but not in wine.

The results will be published online in the October issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and can be seen here

The Washington University School of Medicine study analysed per capita alcohol consumption from 1980 to 2009 and smoke-free air policies. It found smokers were more likely than non-smokers to drink alcohol and heavy smokers were more likely to be heavy drinkers. Drinking rates fell as cigarettes became more costly.

The study's results suggest, for example, that a 20% hike in cigarette prices would lead to a 2% fall in alcohol consumption. 

But as for wine, co-author Melanie Krauss, a statistician, said: "People who prefer wine are not only less likely to smoke but are also more likely to have other healthier lifestyle habits."

How will sea level rises affect you?

A screen grab from the New York Times' interactive graphic showing the countries most at risk from see level rises. Click to expand.

The New York Times and Climate Central have combined forces to create an interactive info graphic showing the countries most at risk from rising sea levels and found 80% of them to be in Asia. You can get the full interactive experience here.


In time for the Climate Summit at the UN, The New York Times and Climate Central have  published research on the likely impact of rising sea water levels on coastal-dwelling humans.  

Their conclusion: “if global carbon emissions continue on current trends and sea levels are affected by climate change about as much as expected about 2.6 per cent of the global population (about 177 million people) will be living in a place at risk of regular flooding” by 2100.

But Climate Central, an independent US group of scientists and journalists researching and reporting on climate change, warns these figures “may be two to three times too low, meaning as many as 650 million people may be threatened”. 

The analysis is based on newly available sea-level data. It shows:

•    Eight of the 10 large countries most at risk are in Asia (China, Vietnam, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand, with the Philippines ninth).
•    Of these, the largest group is in China (4% of population or 50 million people exposed).
•    More than a quarter of Vietnam’s residents are likely to experience regular floods by the end of the century. 
•    The most affected country in the world will be The Netherlands, where 47% of the population will be living “below sea or regular flood levels by the end of the century”. But the Dutch also have the world’s most advanced levee system, which means the actual risk is lower.

The analysis points out that the largest carbon emitting countries are not necessarily the ones most at risk from predicted sea-level rises caused by melting snow and ice. The United States, for example, historically the world’s largest carbon emitter, is number 34 on the list of flood exposure with 3.1million people at risk. The US ranks between India and Madagascar.

Australia, one of the highest per-capita carbon emitting nations, escapes relatively lightly, with 383,000 people estimated to be at risk of flooding.

China is the world’s leading emitter and also the nation where the greatest number of people will be exposed to flood risk.

Reuters posts its favourites to win the Nobel Prize

The Golden Hall of the Stockholm City Hall, venue of the Nobel Prize banquet. [Credit: iStock]

The Golden Hall of the Stockholm City Hall, venue of the Nobel Prize banquet. [Credit: iStock]

Media group Thompson Reuters has named its favourites for this year’s Nobel Prize-winners, including three Australian organic chemists working at the cutting edge of plastic and polymer research they began in the 1980s.

This year Thomson Reuters predicted eight possible winners in chemistry, and seven in physics and medicine.  

In Chemistry Melbourne-based organic chemists Graeme Moad, San Thang and Ezio Rizzardo  face competition from Ching Tang of Hong Kong University and American Steven Van Slyke who invented the organic light-emitting diodes now used in smartphones and tablets. 

In medicine, contenders include David Julius of the University of California, who discovered the cellular pain receptor for the hot-pepper molecule capsaicin in the late 1990s; in physics, a possible winner is Charles Kresge of Saudi Aramco who invented molecular sieves in 1992.

Reuters has a good track record as a Nobel tipster, having picked 35 winners in the past 12 years. Its system is to pick authors of papers cited 1,000 time or more, although analyst David Pendlebury warns this varies depending on the field and there are no guarantees.

Dr Rizzardo might stir up some controversy should he win. He was a joint winner of the 2011 Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, and has been critical of his government’s cuts to the science budget.

He has particularly expressed concern about the impact of the cuts on “blue sky” research, saying in the new climate scientists will be under more pressure to deliver quick results.

New crew heads to the space station

A Soyuz TMA-14M rocket is launched, heading for the International Space Station. Click to expand the picture. It's an impressive sight. [Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky]

A new crew blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan this morning on its way to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz TMA-14M rocket.

"Expedition 41" includes Soyuz Commander Alexander Samokutyaev of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Elena Serova of Roscosmos, and Flight Engineer Barry Wilmore of NASA.

Samokutyaev, Serova, and Wilmore will spend the next five and a half months aboard the ISS. Serova will become the fourth Russian woman to fly in space and the first Russian woman to live and work on the station.

Dinosaur family tree shows how birds evolved

A chicken, a Cretaceous bird, and a Velociraptor show their family resemblance. [Credit: Jason Brougham]

A chicken, a Cretaceous bird, and a Velociraptor show their family resemblance. [Credit: Jason Brougham]

Scientists have compiled the most comprehensive family tree of meat-eating dinosaurs (see below) and it's helping them work out how birds evolved.

All the familiar anatomical features of the birds– feathers, wings and wishbones – first evolved in the dinosaurs over tens of millions of years. But once all the parts were in place, evolution of birds was rapid, a team of researchers, led by the University of Edinburgh, found.

The researchers analysed the anatomy of more than 850 body features in 150 extinct species, and used statistical techniques to analyse their findings and assemble a detailed family tree.

The emergence of birds some 150 million years ago appears to have been a gradual process, as some dinosaurs became more and more bird-like, so much so that it is very difficult to draw a dividing line on the family tree between dinosaurs and birds.

But once the line was crossed, the birds' development was very fast indeed, as Dr Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences, who led the study, explains.

"There was no moment in time when a dinosaur became a bird, and there is no single missing link between them. What we think of as the classic bird skeleton was pieced together gradually over tens of millions of years. Once it came together fully, it unlocked great evolutionary potential that allowed birds to evolve at a super-charged rate."

Dr Graeme Lloyd, of the University of Oxford, said: "Our study adds to a growing number of works that approach this problem from different angles, but all seem to confirm that the origin of birds was a truly special event in Earth history. It is particularly cool that it is evidence from the fossil record that shows how an oddball offshoot of the dinosaurs paved the way for the spectacular variety of bird species we see today."

The study is published in the journal Current Biology. 

The most comprehensive family tree of meat-eating dinosaurs shows how they evolved into birds. [Credit: Stephen Brusatte]


Nasa's Curiosity Rover tweets a welcome message to India Mangalyaan

NASA's Curiosity Rover has welcomed India's Mangalyaan probe to Mars, trying out its Hindi in a tweet as it congratulated India on its first interplanetary mission.

"Namaste @MarsOrbiter", the US vehicle tweeted.

"Howdy @MarsCuriosity Keep in touch. I'll be around.", Mangalyaan replied.

Curiosity, has been on the Mars surface for two years. The latest US satellite, Maven, arrived in Mars orbit on Monday.

India is only the fourth nation or group of countries to send a probe to Mars after the US, Russia and Europe. But India succeeded on its first attempt something the Americans, the Russians and the Europeans failed to do.

Previous coverage of Mangalyaan here and here and of Maven's arrival here.