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New opera highlights the plight of the bumblebee

Detail from Silence of the Bees promo material for Your Expert witness storyExperts from the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway, London, have teamed up with musicians and artists at the departments of music and English to produce a new opera that explores the dangerous decline in bumblebee populations in the UK. The Silence of the Bees: A Science Opera will receive its world première at the university on 17 March and will launch the Royal Holloway Science Festival.

The main inspiration was the work of Dr Mark Brown, who has carried out research into the decline of bees and worked to protect endangered species and reintroduce extinct types back to the UK.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 13 March 2013 14:11


Study highlights extinction threat to reptiles

Nearly one fifth of the world's reptile species are estimated to be threatened with extinction, according to a paper published by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) on 15 February. The paper outlined the findings of a study carried out in conjunction with experts from the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and printed in the journal Biological Conservation.

The study is the first of its kind summarising the global conservation status of reptiles. More than 200 world-renowned experts assessed the extinction risk of 1,500 randomly selected reptile species from across the globe.

Out of the estimated 19% of species threatened with extinction, 12% were classified as critically endangered, 41% as endangered and 47% as vulnerable.

Three critically-endangered species were also highlighted as possibly extinct. One of these, a jungle runner lizard ameiva vittata, has only ever been recorded in one part of Bolivia. With the lizard's habitat virtually destroyed, two recent searches for the species have been unsuccessful.

Levels of threat remain particularly high in tropical regions, mainly as a result of habitat conversion for agriculture and logging.

Lead author of the paper, Dr Monika Böhm, said: "Reptiles are often associated with extreme habitats and tough environmental conditions, so it is easy to assume that they will be fine in our changing world. However, many species are very highly specialised in terms of habitat use and the climatic conditions they require for day-to-day functioning. This makes them particularly sensitive to environmental changes."

Extinction risk is not evenly spread throughout the highly diverse group: freshwater turtles, for example, are at particularly high risk, mirroring greater levels of threat in freshwater biodiversity around the world. Overall, the study estimated 30% of freshwater reptile species to be close to extinction, which rises to 50% when considering freshwater turtles alone, as they are also affected by national and international trade.

Although the threat remains lower in terrestrial reptiles, their often restricted ranges, specific biological and environmental requirements and low mobility make them particularly susceptible to human pressures. In Haiti, six of the nine species of anolis lizard included in the study have an elevated risk of extinction, due to extensive deforestation affecting the country.

Head of ZSL's Indicators and Assessment Unit, Dr Ben Collen, said: "Gaps in knowledge and shortcomings in effective conservation actions need to be addressed to ensure that reptiles continue to thrive around the world. These findings provide a shortcut to allow important conservation decisions to be made as soon as possible and firmly place reptiles on the conservation map."

Philip Bowles, co-ordinator of the Snake and Lizard Red List Authority of the IUCN Species Survival Commission commented: "This is a very important step towards assessing the conservation status of reptiles globally. The findings sound alarm bells about the state of these species and the growing threats that they face globally. Tackling the identified threats, which include habitat loss and harvesting, are key conservation priorities in order to reverse the declines in these reptiles."

Last Updated on Friday, 15 February 2013 15:28

Biofuels production could harm people and crops, researchers say

Picture of poplar trees by Dave Bushell for Your Expert Witness storyThe large-scale production of biofuels in Europe could result in increased human mortality and crop losses, according to research by experts at Lancaster University's Environment Centre. The study, Impacts of biofuel cultivation on mortality and crop yields, was carried out by Prof Nick Hewitt, Dr Oliver Wild and former PhD student Kirsti Ashworth and has been published online in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Biofuels are usually derived from specialist crops such as poplar, willow or eucalyptus and constitute one of the alternative energy sources being advocated as more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. However, many plant species grown for biofuel emit more isoprene – an ozone precursor – than the traditional crops they replace. Isoprene then takes part in chemical reactions in the lower atmosphere that lead to the formation of ozone.

The modelling case study estimated the increase in ground level ozone pollution likely to result from a change to biofuel crops and the associated impacts on human health and agricultural production. The model involved the conversion of enough land area in Europe to meet the EU's 2020 goal for biofuel production to short rotation coppice crops and estimated the effects on human mortality and crop productivity.

Said Prof Hewitt: "Growing biofuels is thought to be a good thing because it reduces the net amount of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, but biofuels could also have a detrimental effect on air quality. Large-scale production of biofuels in Europe would have small but significant effects on human mortality and crop yields."

He later explained, in an interview with the public sector newsletter Science Omega, how ground-level ozone affects people and plants.

"It causes damage both to plants and to the human respiratory system. Essentially, ozone reduces the productivity of crops and is potentially fatal in humans. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 22,000 Europeans die every year because of ozone pollution."

Asked whether that meant biofuel are not a viable energy solution, he replied: "We are not saying that at all. We are simply pointing out that, when assessing biofuel cultivation, policymakers must account for detrimental effects to air quality as well as for climate-related benefits. Whether or not [large-scale biofuel production] is viable is a political decision."

He went on to explain that there are ways of ameliorating those effects, including planting the trees in areas with low levels of the oxides of nitrogen. Another, which is already in development in Germany, is to genetically engineer trees that don't produce isoprene.

Picture of poplar trees © Dave Bushell, from Geograph

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 January 2013 14:55

Defra awards £2m for tackling air pollution

Picture of a foggy road for Your Expert Witness story, courtesy of has announced the award of £2m of air quality grants to 36 local authorities across England. The grants, which have been awarded to those authorities who have demonstrated "innovative plans to tackle air pollution in our towns and cities", will fund 42 projects all over the country.

In particular, funding has been provided to support the investigation of Low Emission Zones, and to help create guidance and tools for local authorities who want to decrease emissions. Money has also been given to authorities who want to develop the way they communicate the message about air quality to their local communities.

Last Updated on Monday, 31 December 2012 18:48


Doha outcome given lukewarm welcome

Doha conference on climate change for Your Expert Witness storyThe Doha conference on climate change ended with an extension of the Kyoto Treaty and a commitment, for the first time, from developed countries to assist developing countries with aid to deal with the consequences of climate change: so-called 'damage aid'.

"Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey said: "This round of international climate change talks was a modest step forward. We always knew they would be very tough after the breakthrough at the same conference in Durban last year.

"We can be pleased that we have maintained the momentum towards a new legally binding agreement for 2020 after the Kyoto Protocol has expired. However, we still need countries to do more and be more ambitious about reducing their emissions if we are going to avoid irreversible climate change and prevent devastating global warming.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 December 2012 16:36