Archive for the ‘November 2013’ Category

And speaking of poo…

In November 2013 on November 30, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Kirsti honeydew Ultracoelostoma Noble text

Kirsti: Earlier this week, Mia wrote about POO POWER! I too have a story about the science of poo.

Lots of insects feed on phloem, a.k.a. plant sap. And just as we excrete waste from an omnivorous diet as a conglomerative breakdown of those foods, sap-sucking creatures such as scale insects, aphids, psyllids and others  poo honeydew, the waste from the sugar-rich foods they ingest.

Even further down the food chain exist microbial communities that survive on the honeydew (poo) that makes its way down onto the surface of leaves, which are little ecosystems in their own right. If you live there, you live in the phyllosphere!

We don’t know that much about life in the phyllosphere. But recently some scientists in New Zealand looked at fungi from the phyllosphere of native beech forests in New Zealand. Endemic scale insects that live on these trees produce up to 4500 kg  dry weight/ha/year of honeydew.

The insects use an ingenious method to keep themselves clean and minimise fungal growth on their bodies:  the honeydew is flicked off the end of an anal wax-tube (as shown in picture).

Together, all the excreted sugary delights from these creatures  fuel the growth of an abundant mould. The mould appears black and kind of powdery from afar, with human eyes. But look closer – a LOT closer, down a scanning electron microscope then even closer at their genes – and you will see a circus of species, a kaleidoscope of colour, most of which cannot be identified!

The study that identified these fungi communities in New Zealand emphasises that despite the sooty mould being such a ubiquitous element in the scale insect-beech system, we know very little about the microbial diversity. The conference I have just been at highlighted the same gap in knowledge for ecology in general.

So people, let your imaginations run wild! Poo of all sorts of species powers communities, even if it’s a microscopic one in the phyllosphere.

Oh, if you’re interested in microbial communities supported by your own body, I’d highly recommend reading The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn, a fantabulous science writer from North Carolina State University.

[image thanks to David Noble]


Poo for good and not evil

In November 2013 on November 27, 2013 at 11:25 am


Sarah: When the kids and I walk to school, it’s not rare for us to encounter dog turds along the neighbourhood streets. As I casually drop a ‘look out for the poo’ warning, immediately all three come running.

“Where’s the poo?”

“Can I see the poo?”

“Ewww, it’s all white. And long.”

You get the picture.

But all is not lost. Now we have the chance to channel that poo obsession for good instead of for maternal frustration. All will be explained in the following guest post by Mia Cobb from the Anthrozoology Research Group, and recent winner of I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! in Australia.

What happens when you combine Poo Power! (as covered by Sarah back in February) with a zone winner of I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! (that’s me) and a canine science blogger (that’s also me).

You get the Poo Power Global Challenge!

Some might say it’s a joke or April Fool’s Day material, but we’ve never been so serious!

Students and classes will be pitched against each other to see who can identify the most and largest dog waste ‘hotspots’ in their local neighbourhood in the ‘Poo Power! Global Challenge’. Participants use a GPS-enabled iPhone to download the free Poo Power! App from the App Store. Their task is to identify and map dog poo ‘hotspots’ in dog parks and public spaces from their neighbourhood from Monday 25 November 2013.

For this project I’m working closely with Duncan Chew from Poo Power!. The collected information will be uploaded onto the Global Poo Map and provides a platform for students to discuss the scientific, social and environmental issues of dog waste. The students are then encouraged to write a letter to their local Government representative of their findings and recommendations.

Here’s what Duncan had to say on the matter:

“From our research only 3% of Australians see uncollected dog waste as an environmental concern.”

“When it rains, uncollected dog poo gets washed down drains, effecting water quality and habitat for native animals, as well as making rivers and creeks unpleasant for us to visit.”

From my point of view, I see the project as a great way to utilise my prize money from winning the I’m A Scientist – Get Me Out of Here! competition, to raise awareness of new sustainable energy sources, environmental issues and responsible dog ownership, and all the while increasing student engagement in a unique citizen science activity.

The collated information has the poo-tential to identify sites for biogas-powered lights for parks as proposed by the Melbourne-based project, Poo Power!, currently in development. The methane that is released from the dog waste as it breaks down inside a ‘biogas generator’ can be used as a viable renewable energy source. Competition prizes and giveaways are up for grabs for students who participate with photo submissions received between 25th November and 9th December 2013.

After this initial competition period closes, the project will continue to run, collecting ongoing hotspot data worldwide.

Full instructions on how to participate via or available here.

For classroom applications, teachers can download the Poo Power! Study Guide. For each competing class, teachers will receive a copy of the ‘Dog Poo – The Truth At Last’ on DVD.

[image thanks to Steven Pam]

A-Z of conference survival

In November 2013 on November 20, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Kirsti conference

Kirsti: I’m gearing up for my first two ecology/conservation conferences in 5 years. Yee gads. I’ve been to science communication conferences and other small ones in the meantime, but since child rearing started for me, this coming fortnight sees me back in more familiar territory in Auckland and Fiji.


So needless to say I’ve been thinking about what makes a successful [scientific] conference, and I thought I’d share my A-Z of how I approach such events. It has proven a good reminder list for me in the past, and I’m hoping for the next fortnight too.

A – Abstracts. Get them in before the deadline.

B – Bus. Make sure you get on the one that will take you to the venue, not to a primary school.

C – Coffee. Find good coffee early. Get to know the barista. Take new friends there.

D – Dinner. Go to the conference dinner. Meet new people. Dance and drink with them.

E – Eat with new friends. It’s all about these social gatherings.

F – Food with friends. See?

G – Go to talks relevant to you, and some that are outside your field but look interesting. You might find a new collaborator.

H – Hotel. Find one close to the venue, preferably directly above the conference itself.

I – Internet. Make sure it’s available and there’s free wi-fi.

J – Juggling. Time with colleagues, new friends, at talks, sleeping, drinking, eating… it’s tough.

K – Keep your program with you at all times.

L – Loos. Know where they are.

M – Map. Have a map of the conference venue and the city you’re in.

N – Networking. This is what it’s all about. I make a point of introducing myself to at least 3 new people a day.

O – Opening plenary. Always go to this.

P – Posters. Grab a drink (if it’s on offer) and talk to people.

Q – Queue. Try not to get stuck at the end of the food queue.

R – Register before the earlybird prices suddenly double.

S – Social media. Tweet good talks. Get content out there. Media can pick up interesting stories in real time.

T – Time. Practice your talk so you don’t go overtime. [Most annoying thing in the world]

U – USB. Have a USB ready for anything. Uploading, downloading, sharing.

V – Vicious. Be prepared for vicious questions. Be calm.

W – Workshops. Keep an eye out; there are often really useful workshops you need to enrol in before the conference.

X – Excursions. They are always better with an ecologist who knows the environment.

Y – You. Keep hydrated (have water with you at all times), smile (seriously), and wear comfy shoes.

Z – Zzzzzzz….. watch for people falling asleep for entertainment during not so fabulous talks.

Then make a resolution to email those people you’d genuinely like to keep in touch with as soon as you return to real life. Hang on, just email them as you’re in their talk on your laptop, phone, tablet….Then tweet their talk. Then link to their blog…..  Like this one….

What are your secrets to a successful conference experience?  Would love to hear them.

[image thanks to caseorganic on flickr]

High five, Doc.

In November 2013 on November 14, 2013 at 9:59 pm

high five

Sarah: I’ve been somewhat of a grump this week.

Recovering from a terrible springtime lurgy whilst battling an undercurrent of daily hayfever makes me prone to having a whinge. Add a sick kid, lack of exercise and accumulated work, argh!

Today, I sensed a change in the wind.

This morning, prompted by a renewed fever and sore throat in my oldest kid, we tried out the new doctor at our local GP clinic. Mounted on his desk was……a thing. A structured, squarish black plastic thing, on which was perched his computer screen and keyboard. Could it be? Yes! A portable modification to make a standing desk!

I’ve written several times previously (Sitting and standingMaking a stand, The walking meeting) on my urge to make the standing desk a part of my working habit. So this discovery made me excited. Very excited!

I quizzed the doctor,

“Where did you get that? How much was it?”

Turns out it’s a prototype, and he’s the ‘Chief Ideas Man’ over at ZestDesk. He and his team have founded a business based on the mission statement:

One of the biggest causes of modern day illness is the fact we spend a third of our lives sitting at a desk. We are on a mission to make people more healthy by giving them a practical alternative to sitting. More specifically, we are building the world’s most beautiful portable standing desk.

Our prototype phase will be complete by the end 2013 and we will then be opening up pre-sales via a crowd funding site. Please support us so we can take it global!

Oh, did we have a good old chat. I’ll be keeping my eye on ZestDesk.

Also, I’ve broken out of my grumpy funk. My kids’ health is fine too. High five on all fronts, Doc.

[image thanks to johnseidman1988 on flickr]

From rotten teeth to fatty liver

In November 2013 on November 10, 2013 at 10:37 pm

Kristi soft drink

Kirsti: During my invasive ant research in the Pacific islands, I lived and worked in a country called Tokelau. It’s an external territory of New Zealand, but essentially a self-governing Polynesian nation. It is literally the smallest nation in the world by land area, the population living on small atoll islets in some cases only 80m wide.

In this nation, there were certainly some fascinating and rather nasty ants that compromised the fabulous outdoor Polynesian lifestyle. But I also noticed other stuff. Like the fact that the mouths of many kids were full of little black spikes for teeth. Seriously. Seven year olds who had been given soft drinks since the age of 1 or 2 had nothing but rotted remains of baby teeth.

It made me think about soft drinks in our diet and I vowed from that day forth that if I were ever to have kids, soft drink was OFF the menu.

Rotting teeth are not the only disastrous outcome of soft drink consumption. From around the 1970’s, sweetened drinks – especially softies – have contained high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as the sweetener of choice (it’s cheaper than glucose alone). The syrup typically contains either 42% or 55% fructose, the remainder made up of glucose. And the proportion of fructose has increased slowly over time.

Now fructose has enjoyed media attention in the past few years because of the rising number of people with fructose malabsorption issues and hereditary fructose intolerances. Irritable bowel syndrome (often thought of as the equivalent of colic for adults!) is also sometimes diagnosed as fructose malabsorption because of such similar symptoms. Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar! website and associated books as well as the rethink sugary drink campaign have labelled sugar as poison. More recently, Dr Kieron Rooney at University of Sydney has declared that Big Sugar is having its tobacco moment.

Even if you don’t have any real problem absorbing or metabolising fructose, it’s clear that if you do drink a lot of soft drink, you are at risk of a suite of lifestyle diseases. Obesity, type II diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and more.

Fructose is metabolised differently to glucose. Where metabolism of glucose is regulated by insulin, the metabolism of fructose in the liver is essentially unregulated, progressing through a number of steps to a point where carbon atoms can be converted to fatty acids in your liver. More fatty acids means increased risk of liver disease and then risk factors for all of the diseases mentioned above. Healthy levels of fructose are beneficial in that they can assist in the disposal of glucose in the liver.

Here’s where I will emphasise that it’s only when you drink A LOT of soft drinks and eat artificially sweetened food that you are at risk. But we know that this is happening for more and more people in Australia. Current estimates of obesity in Australia suggest that 28% of Australian adults over 18 are obese and that, including these obese adults, 63% are overweight.

It seems ironic and incredibly wasteful that the wealth present in Western societies is associated with inducing these lifestyle diseases, and then even more wealth is required to manage and treat those affected. Yes, we should learn more about treating diabetes. I agree it’s a good idea. But surely we can do more with prevention? Can’t we all talk about this, and start to help each other avoid these situations?

Please do it now. Whether it be family, friend or colleague. Give them a buzz and go for a water and a carrot stick. Let me know how it goes.

[image thanks to Elsie esq. on Flickr]

The dead tree bed

In November 2013 on November 4, 2013 at 10:49 am


A guest post by Tiki Swain*

My dead tree bed is a tricky space, an ongoing garden experiment.

The dead tree was once a citrus, but it didn’t survive the droughts Perth endured in the last few years. The old Italian grape vine sprawling over it however managed fine.

My initial idea was to remove the dead structure and make a mini-citrus orchard. But as I studied the garden system as a whole, I realised that plan was doomed to failure. The droughts of the last few years will become the norm within a couple of decades, and as this garden is intended to last for 100 years I have to assume those conditions in all my choices.

The dead tree bed is the farthest corner on my property from water access. I can reach it with a super-long hose if I set the nozzle to “fly high” and point-and-shoot from about six metres away with perfect parabolic angle, but that’s about it.

The adjacent corrugated fence presents a few challenges too. It is a thermal sink – albeit not too large – but on any warm day it’s radiating heat all afternoon. It does give shade, but it’s hot shade when the sun strikes the other side of it. And it makes a huge rain shadow too, given that much of our better rain comes from that direction.

The soil back there is poor even compared to the rest of its surroundings, and – like all of the garden – it’s off-the-scale water resistant, or hydrophobic. (Literally off the scale – I did the test myself and I couldn’t get any concentration of reagent to penetrate).

Put all that together and it’s no surprise the soil, or rather sand, is dry. Bone dry.

The weeds grow thickly in spring, but their stems are so slender and tough compared to their species-mates just four metres away you can see that it’s only the most-dry-loving variants that are surviving, and they’ve got all their epigenetic switches for drought turned to ON. (An epigenetic switch is something that turns genes ON or OFF based on external conditions such as drought, famine, malnutrition, poverty. Which genes are activated or silenced is never the only factor in how something grows, but it has an influence).

The saving grace of this space is the grape vine. Without it, this sand would sunburn. With it, although the ground stays bare and weedless all through summer, it’s not ‘cooked’. The seedbank remains alive. So I can make this area a seasonal meadow. The trick is to use plants that don’t need to germinate in autumn. It takes ‘til midwinter for the soil profile to get enough rain through it for young plants to survive.

I tried autumn sprouters the first year: flax linseed and quinoa, but no success. This year I’ve gone for garlic. This plant sprouts at midwinter, harvested or dies back in late spring / early summer and is done by the summer solstice. So it’s thriving in the light while the grape vine has no leaves, and then sleeping underground through the hot season. The timing is much better.

Of course, the soil is still crap. I have much work to do to make it able to convince plants that they’re not about to die, and even more work to do to replace the weeds I don’t want. So it’s an ongoing project. But we’ll see how it goes this year, and reassess methods and plan next year.

*Tiki Swain is interested in everything and pays attention to as much as possible, especially if it’s food, plants or primitive skills. She is a former science communicator, now studying urban farming and writing about the interplay within agricultural systems at AgriTapestry. You can find her on twitter as @tikiwanderer