Friday, December 9, 2016

Giant Bat-Eating Centipede

This poisonous centipede seeks its prey in Venezuelan caves

BBC  by Matt Walker  7 December 2016 

Watch the moment when Sir David Attenborough and BBC filmmakers recorded a large centipede embarking on a nocturnal hunt.


Smiling Flowers in a Tunnel

Takashi Murakami's smiley balloons cheer Kumamoto

The Asahi Shimbun  by TAZUKO GOTO/ Staff Writer  December 9, 2016

Artist Takashi Murakami's flower-design balloons are lit up in a tunnel in the Takamori Yusui Tunnel Park in Takamori, Kumamoto Prefecture. (Tazuko Goto)

TAKAMORI, Kumamoto Prefecture--Artist Takashi Murakami's luminous balloons depicting smiling flowers are brightening up a 2,055-meter tunnel in the Takamori Yusui Tunnel Park here.

The installation "Flowers" is meant as a message of encouragement and to wish a speedy recovery to a prefecture ravaged by the series of earthquakes in April.

“I wanted to do what I can in Kumamoto," said Murakami, 54.

Takamori Mayor Daisei Kusamura said he hopes that Murakami's balloon art, which can be seen through Dec. 25, will play a leading role in efforts to resume the quake-damaged Minami-Aso Railway.

The 17.7-kilometer railway runs between the town of Takamori and the village of Minami-Aso, one of the hardest-hit municipalities. While a 7.1-km section from Takamori reopened in July, the rest of the line remains suspended.

Murakami became involved in the concerted effort to support and hearten the region after seeing messages posted on the Internet by Koji Muraoka, 46, the president of pancake maker Ippei, who has been a strong supporter of Takamori.

“I wanted as many people as possible to know that they can visit the Minami-Aso area by spreading the enthusiasm for restoring the Minami-Aso Railway,” Muraoka said.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Mystery of the Dying Antelopes

The sad fate of the saiga antelope from Planet Earth II

The animals died in their hundreds of thousands in the space of a fortnight. Now scientists are trying to find out what happened

BBC  by E. J. Miller-Gulnand, Eric Morgan and Richard Kock  From The Conversation  8 December 2016 

On the remote steppes of central Kazakhstan, a truly extraordinary – and tragic – event unfolded in May 2015.

Female saigas gathered in huge numbers to give birth on the open plain over a period of just 10 days – and a BBC camera crew and the research team they were with watched them die in their hundreds of thousands in the space of just a fortnight. The animals are captured in the latest episode of BBC nature documentary Planet Earth II.

But why did this mass death happen?

Two male saiga antelopes (Credit: Wild Wonders of  Europe/Shpilenok/

By gathering like this, for as short a time as possible, the saigas swamp their main predator, wolves, with food so that each individual calf is less likely to be eaten. The calves are born large and well-developed – in fact, saigas have the largest proportional birth weight of any wild ungulate – so that they can outrun a predator within just a few days. They also need to give birth in a short time in order to coincide with the peak of lush grass before the summer heat of this harsh continental plain dries the vegetation.

This is a time of huge physiological stress for the females, making them prone to disease and birth-related mortality
An example of this incredible spectacle was filmed by another BBC camera crew for their pioneering programme about nature in the former Soviet Union, Realms of the Russian Bear, shown in 1994. 

The enormous herds of the time can be seen here.

But much has happened in the interim. The saiga was poached to near-extinction in the early 2000s for their horns and meat as the Soviet Union collapsed, and was listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2001.

However, by 2015, conservation work by governments, scientists and NGOs was paying dividends; overall numbers had risen from its nadir of an estimated 50,000 in the early 2000s to around 300,000 in early 2015. One central Kazakhstan population, in particular, was responsible for the vast majority of this increase – and this is where the Planet Earth II camera crew headed for their shots of the calving spectacle in 2015.

Three female saiga (Credit: Wild Wonders of Europe/Shpilenok/

They accompanied a research team organised by the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan, which also contained researchers from the Royal Veterinary College, intent on monitoring calving to learn more about saiga ecology.

Soon a vast area stretching over hundreds of kilometres was littered with corpses 

However, the saiga's strategy of intense birth effort, compressed in time and space, comes at a cost. This is a time of huge physiological stress for the females, making them prone to disease and birth-related mortality, and the weather is unreliable and calves often die from exposure.

Most years, things go well, but the ecological history of saigas is littered with mass mortalities from disease in the calving season. In fact, the reason why the student from the Royal Veterinary College was out monitoring calves was because of a large die-off in the calving area of another population only a few years before.

But nothing prepared us, or the camera crew, for what transpired in 2015.

Saiga died in huge numbers (Credit: Wild Wonders of Europe/Shpilenok/

As they gathered to give birth, an increasing number of females became weak and uncoordinated, dying in a matter of hours. Soon a vast area stretching over hundreds of kilometres was littered with corpses. The calves followed soon after; within any given aggregation of tens of thousands of animals, it appeared that every single animal died over a period of a few days.

This mass die-off was a terrible tragedy. It sparked a worldwide search for answers, some more outlandish than others – aliens were mentioned on social media a few times.

Why did these usually harmless bacteria become virulent? 

As saiga scientists, we had mixed feelings; both a sense of personal devastation for the species which we care about, and curiosity to solve a fascinating scientific puzzle. What possible mechanism was there which could kill apparently all the individuals in a herd so very quickly? This is not how infectious disease normally works; infections spread through populations over time, and apart from anything else it is not in the parasite's interest to wipe out its entire host population.

This pointed to some non-infectious route; perhaps an environmental toxin or weather abnormality? But what kind of consistent environmental factor could affect so many animals almost simultaneously over a huge area (168,000 sq km; bigger than England and Wales combined), in an environment that is naturally variable in weather and vegetation at this time of year?

Thanks to a grant from the UK government's NERC Urgency Fund, together with generous donations from conservation charities and from individuals worldwide, we quickly got to work to form an international, interdisciplinary team to study the disease and its causes.

The skull of a Saiga antelope (Credit: Igor Shpilenok/

Led by Richard Kock at the Royal Veterinary College, with colleagues from the Kazakh government's Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems and the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan, the universities of Oxford and Bristol, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, and other institutions, we include ecologists, rangeland scientists, vets and spatial modellers. We sent a team into the field to collect samples from the environment and dead and dying saigas within a week of the first individuals starting to die.

On one level, we have now found the answer; the proximate cause of death was toxicity from infection by opportunistic bacteria found naturally in the animals' respiratory tract – Pasteurella multocida. But the next question is – why did these usually harmless bacteria become virulent? What was the environmental or internal trigger, either reducing the animals' immunity to these bacteria or triggering virulence in the bacteria, or both?

In exploring these questions, our research is a Russian doll; as we take off a layer of explanation we find more questions within. We have gone back to old field notes from the Institute of Zoology in Kazakhstan for 1988 when a similar mass mortality occurred; reviewed research on mass deaths in other species; looked for differences in the vegetation composition between the 2015 die-off and in other years; and built statistical models to explore changes in temperature and rainfall over a range of different temporal and spatial scales.

We also tested tissue and environmental samples for a wide range of toxins, as well as other disease-causing agents, in case some underlying infection was involved. So far, the evidence points towards a combination of short-term but landscape-scale weather variation and physiological stress from calving causing a cascading effect of virulence. There's no evidence for environmental toxins, other underlying infections or (as yet!) alien influence.

A newborn saiga antelope (Credit: Wild Wonders of Europe/Shpilenok/

There has been huge public interest in this event, both within Kazakhstan and globally. People want quick answers and they want us to find solutions so that this will never happen again.

It seems, however, that we won't be able to give the comfort that is wanted; in fact, it is likely that with climate change these types of event will become more rather than less prevalent. However, we do have one clear and strong message: resilient and abundant populations of saigas are required, with strong protection from poaching.

This is a species that lives life on the edge, vulnerable to mass death but able to recover very rapidly. But this means it needs to be in large numbers in open rangelands to survive. This massive, very public, disaster has opened up new opportunities for us as saiga researchers and conservationists to make sure the saiga gets the protection it needs to flourish and keep providing the stunning annual spectacle which drew the BBC crew to its remote steppe home in the first place.

The St. Patrick's Well

Pozzo di S. Patrizio

Amusing Planet  Kaushik Thursday, December 08, 2016

Pozzo di S. Patrizio, or the St. Patrick's Well, is a historic well in Orvieto, Umbria, central Italy, built between 1527 and 1537 at the behest of Pope Clement VII who had taken refuge at Orvieto during the sack of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Fearing that the city’s water supply would be insufficient in the event of a siege, the Pope assigned the task to architect-engineer Antonio da Sangallo, who had worked extensively in Rome during the Renaissance.

Hailed as a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, the cylindrical well plunges down more than 50 meters in a double helix design, carrying two one-way staircases one going up and another going down. This allows people and donkeys loaded with water vessels to move without obstruction. At the bottom is a bridge where people could walk on and scoop out water. Large windows, placed diametrically opposite to each other, light the staircases naturally. This design was unique at the time, because there are no other wells like it anywhere in Europe.

Photo credit: orso/Panoramio

The well was originally named Pozzo della Rocca, or the fortress well, as it is close to the Albornoz fortress, that stands on the hill of St. Elias. It was later named after St. Patrick inspired by the medieval legend of St Patrick's Purgatory, where God revealed to him a pit in the ground telling him that it was the entrance to Purgatory.

Before the well was completed, Pope Clement VII and Charles V reconciled their differences and the town was never besieged. However, the digging continued and in 1537, ten years after work first began, St Patrick’s Well was completed.

Photo credit: James Good/Flickr

Photo credit: James Good/Flickr

Photo credit: James Good/Flickr

Entrance to the well. Photo credit: Gwendolyn Stansbury/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / Ancient Origin /