How to help sustain our Blue Planet

By Simon Moore & Simon Hoyte

In the wake of Blue Planet II you might be wondering what you can do to have a positive impact on our oceans. How can you help sustain those jumping fish taking birds out of the sky, stop the oceans from rising or the corals from bleaching, and ensure turtles don’t go extinct on our watch?

Leatherback turtle on the beach

If you haven’t been watching (where’ve you been?), David Attenborough has just showcased the incredible life inhabiting our oceans in seven glorious episodes, but under the surface of each story humans are causing damage to the great blue.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problems we face with our oceans (and in nature more generally), after all, they’re massive and individual actions feel like just a drop in the ocean. And there’s always plenty more fish in the sea, right? Well, no, not at the rate we’re going.

But there is plenty of reason to have hope – people all across the world are fighting to protect the natural world. And every single person can make an enormous difference, as long as each of us ensures we are part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Here are five easy things you can do to make a positive difference to help sustain our Blue Planet:

  1. Use less plastic! Refuse plastic as much as possible, and avoid plastic straws, microbeads, disposable plastic bottles and plastic-wrapped vegetables
  2. Know your seafood! Ensure your food is sourced sustainably through Marine Stewardship Council certification, and buy food locally where you can see exactly how it’s produced
  3. Fight climate change! One of the easiest ways to do this is to eat less meat and animal products, but also walk more, use public transport, fly less, improve your household energy efficiency and switch to a renewable energy supplier
  4. Support good conservation charities! Join and donate to campaigns by organisations such as SeaShepherd, Greenpeace and Fauna & Flora International, who devote their lives to defending the seas and the wider natural world
  5. Vote and get active! Vote for people who share your concern for the environment, tell your MP what you care about, join communities of likeminded individuals and try to promote conservation issues however and wherever you can

This article also appears on Simon Hoyte’s blog Hunt and Gather

A video version of this article appears on Matthew Shribman’s Science in the Bath

Photo by JuliasTravels

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The BlueSi Radio Show

BlueSci Radio logoI’ve taken on the role of Head of Radio for BlueSci, a science communication society at the University of Cambridge. We have a different guest on every week and discuss their research and a bunch of other science that takes our interest – hopefully it will take yours!

There’s two ways to listen:

– On the BlueSci website here

– On the iTunes Podcasts app – just search ‘BlueSci’ and hit Subscribe

Hope you enjoy,
Sincerely,
BlueSi

 

Simon Moore, Tom Jameson & Simon Hoyte after recording Ep 8
Simon Moore, Tom Jameson & Simon Hoyte after recording Ep 8

Did Men Create Gender Inequality?

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 20.12.47
I wrote a piece for the BlueSci magazine blog. They’re a student run magazine at the University of Cambridge, and I’m their new Head of Radio. I shall be bringing you a science radio show in the next week or two – how exciting!

Did Men Create Gender Inequality?
Jessica Valenti would have us believe that “Gender inequality is a problem men created – now they have to help fix it.” I agree it’s a problem men must help fix, but I believe there is a fundamental biological reason behind gender inequality – that men are not responsible for creating the problem. And pointing fingers like that isn’t going to help the situation.

Have a read.

http://www.srcf.ucam.org/bluesci/2016/02/did-men-create-gender-inequality/

Animals of an Indonesian Island

Animals of an Indonesian Island

Here is a selection of awesome animals I saw around Pulau Weh, an island just north of Sumatra, Indonesia:

• A flying lizard with a yellow skin flap on it’s neck and fan-like wings tucked away under its body. No known lizards have powered flight, so this flying lizard like all others was a glider, but some can travel hundreds of metres while losing only a couple of metres in height. The male had a blueish head and yellow neck which it was extending, possibly to display to the less impressive, but very well camouflaged, female that was slightly lower on the tree. A similar lizard from Bogor Zoological Museum

• Millions and millions of baby, translucent crabs migrating up the river, where we walked to find a waterfall on Pulau Weh. I’m not entirely sure why they were migrating, but we followed them as they crawled across the rocks (and each other) on either side of the river. Occasionally the stream of crabs hopped into the water and swam for a short while before clambering back onto a rock as the water became too fast and choppy.

 Crabs, crabs, crabs

• Monitor lizards swimming in the clear, aqua-marine ocean in front of our hut and basking in the sun. Then one chasing a rival off the rocks and into the sea as it asserted its authority over a territory.   Monitor lizard showdown

• Fruit bats flying between islands during and just following a storm. From our kayaks we saw around a dozen over a couple of hours. Soaring above us with a wingspan of around a metre, they flew between trees and then started munching on some fruit as they hung beneath the branches. With over 12,000 different species discovered so far, bats make up a fifth of the total number of mammal species on Earth! This they owe to their almost exclusive access to the large, nocturnal-flying niche. 

The last common ancestor of all living mammals* was a nocturnal insectivore that looked something like a shrew and lived alongside the dinosaurs around 140 million years ago.   Maybe it looked a little like this shrew I saw in West Java

This mammalian ancestor scraped by, living in the shadows, at a time when dinosaurs – reptiles – ruled the planet. But the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction 65 million years ago wiped out all of the dinosaurs, except the ancestors of modern birds. This allowed the mammalian clade to undergo massive diversification and to dominate the planet as it does today. 

The bat lineage separated from the rest of the mammals around 80 million years ago and, with the aid of flight and echolocation, has enjoyed huge success in colonising the world. Most bats use echolocation to navigate in the dark – they emit high-frequency sound which bounces off the environment and is detected by their ears, giving them a sound scape, a mental ‘image’ of the scene. Despite the saying, most bats are not blind, and many have very large eyes which they use instead of echolocation. Our fruit bats on Pulau Weh were frequently spotted in the late afternoon navigating by sight, which they exclusively use.

Unfortunately, I’ve since learnt that some local Indonesians fly barbed wire kites to bring down these majestic fliers to put them in a soup. Across Asia, many bat species have been pushed close to extinction through human hunting activity, though smoking out caves is a more common method of capture. This illustrates one of the biggest difficulties in conservation biology – educating and convincing local people to care for the long-term survival of a species, rather than over-exploiting it to extinction (as we’ve done time and time again across the continents).

*excluding the five species of monotremes, the egg laying mammals (echidnas and platypus of Australia), which diverged earlier, maintaining their reptilian oviparity.

• Moray eels, lobsters, octopus, barracuda, sting rays and more on two scuba dives off Pulau Weh. Plus countless numbers of other fish swimming in every conceivable direction around us. And the occasional tiny sting of a jellyfish, barely visible to the naked eye. 

• Cats, damn cats! On Pulau Weh in our 5 day visit we had the misfortune of seeing cats toy with and kill a praying mantis and a frog. 
 
 A similar, dead praying mantis

Domestic animals reach remote islands by deliberate and accidental introduction. And domestic cats are one of the most harmful alien species you can take to a remote island, especially in places that have no large mammals of their own. This is because the native community of species are not used to living alongside such predators. Without the strong selective pressure of mammalian predators, endemic island species are able to thrive while being relatively defenceless. But throw in a handful of cats and they can quickly eat their way through a huge proportion of the naive local species. 

Other invasive species that typically do serious damage to island fauna are rats, snakes, rabbits and toads. Not to mention the foreign parasites and diseases they bring with them, to which the local species have no immunity. It requires huge operations to try to rid an island of an invasive species, and often the efforts are in vain. Hence why there are such strict customs regulations in countries like Australia, where Johnny Depp recently took two un-quarantined, illegal-immigrant Yorkshire Terriers. 


All pictures from this article were taken by me, except the crab photo, which was taken by my travelling companion Samuel Holdway. 

The Goals of a Gene: Should We Help Our Selfish Genes?

You’ve probably heard that genes want to make copies of themselves, and try to ensure survival and reproduction of their host so they make it into the next generation. These anthropomorphic phrases are useful shorthand for biologists, as most genes act as though they selfishly wish to reproduce, and it is easier for us to think about them if we imagine that they have intentions. However, it can be misleading and warp some people’s ideas of evolution if they believe genes are literally selfish, for example.

Genes have absolutely no desires, and therefore no will to get themselves replicated. It would be just as accurate (or inaccurate) to describe genes as wanting to cease to exist and have no further copies of themselves made. In reality, the reason the genes we see today are here is because of the fact that they are good at building survival machines and reproducing. It is simply the case that those genes that were most successful in reproducing became more common and survived this far, and it now appears as though those genes actually want to continue to reproduce into the future. What appears to be purposeful design (genes that are good at replicating themselves indirectly via survival machines) is actually just the result of billions of years of cumulative evolution that has favoured the best replicators, generation after generation.

There is a big difference between genes, without any motives, and individual survival machines, which follow goal-driven patterns of behaviour in order to (ultimately) reproduce. Genes are made up of a sequence of DNA, a code which can be read and translated into functional proteins that build up and create a working organism. Without a nervous system and capacity to think, it is clear that genes cannot truly have motives or goals. However, genes programme organisms to have proximate goals such as eating, mating and surviving. Emotions as we know them are our genes motivating our minds to do (or not to do) something. But genes are given no motivation and being successful is just something that occurs if their effect is to encode a survival machine that is well suited to reproducing in its particular environment.


It is interesting to be a human being, and ponder about our evolutionary past and its effects on our behaviour. We know that most of our actions exist to increase the spread and therefore success of our genes, but we have no qualms about thwarting them. Our genes don’t have a sense of happiness so we needn’t feel bad about doing it. But it seems inescapable to conclude that our genes created us to propagate them as much as possible. So are we somehow misbehaving or overruling them when we use birth control or adopt children?

The distinction to be made is whether we view genes as wanting to do something in future, or simply as the result of evolutionary history. Our genes did not create us so we could aid their replication. They created us because their lineage happened to be highly successful at replicating since life began on this earth! And they were successful because they had the effect of building appropriate survival machines. We needn’t try to help them, as they aren’t trying to do anything themselves. They simply exist due to the past successes of their lineage.

Genes drive our behaviour in ways that generally increase their chances of replication. However, we are not precisely motivated to replicate our genes – if we were there’d be long lines for donating to sperm banks and we wouldn’t use contraception. We’re actually motivated to find happiness by eating tasty foods, having sex with attractive partners, having friends, finding love, raising happy children and to have fun, satisfy our curiosity and find meaning in our lives. We’re programmed by our genes but we don’t seek to replicate them, we instead follow our human desires and goals wherever they may lead us.

The Problem With Incest

Humans find the idea of incest disgusting and thus avoid mating with close relatives. Most people have a vague understanding that children born to closely related parents are likely to have physical or mental abnormalities, like the royal family of years gone by and some of that dodgy village down the road. This is known as inbreeding depression. But why does it occur? Surely it is beneficial to give children not only half of your set of genes, but also some that your sibling or parent shares with you, thus passing more than 50% of your genes to the next generation. Inbreeding ought to allow you to maximise the proportion of your genes in the next generation, the ‘goal’ of reproduction. Unfortunately, for most animals on this planet there are severe problems with inbred offspring that outweigh any benefits in terms of propagating their genes.

To understand inbreeding depression you must first have some basic knowledge of errors that occur when genes are copied or repaired incorrectly, called mutations. Every time cells divide they must copy all of their genetic material using microscopic ‘machinery’, and these are subject to the occasional error, which can result in a new version of a gene. Additionally, mutations can arise due to environmental damage through radiation, heat or chemical agents. These mutations become permanent features in the genetic lineage of a given cell, hence those that appear in the germ line (egg and sperm cells) are passed from parent to offspring eternally down the generations.

Within a single cell a mutation happens at a completely random point in the genome, effecting any of the ~25,000 genes. In most cases the mutation is not expressed, as there are two copies, called alleles, of each gene. And mutations usually result in a recessive allele, meaning it is submissive and masked by the ‘normal’, dominant allele, which works as usual. Therefore, any person with a random recessive mutation is unaffected and a ‘carrier’ for the genetic disorder associated with faults in that particular gene.

Most individuals inherit between 3-5 random recessive mutations and when they mate with an unrelated person in the population there is a very low probability that they are both carriers of the same mutation. This means that their children are pretty much guaranteed to inherit at least one healthy, working version of each gene. However, when closely related people mate they are likely to share mutations they’ve inherited from a common ancestor, meaning each of their children would have a 1 in 4 chance of receiving both faulty versions of a particular gene, giving them a genetic disorder. As most people carry multiple mutations (and these are likely to be shared by related parents) the chance that their child will have genetic abnormalities becomes seriously high.

So that is inbreeding depression: the accumulation of faulty versions of genes in descendants of closely related sexual partners, where they are shared through common ancestry.

Note: Not all mutations are harmful; most are in fact neutral, producing no effect on the protein and function of the gene. And while some mutations are harmful, a small but important subset result in improved function of a gene, and this is a crucial way in which new adaptations can arise.

Guest Post For Nature’s ‘Eyes On Environment’ Blog

Eyes on EnvironmentJust had my first guest blog post published on one of Nature’s Scitable blogs called ‘Eyes on Environment’.

Unique and Alone on the EDGE of Existence
How to maximise biodiversity when resources are limited: calculating priority species in conservation.

Have a read!

http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/eyes-on-environment/unique_and_alone_on_the?isForceDesktop=Y