Artist Takashi Murakami's flower-design balloons are lit up in a tunnel
in the Takamori Yusui Tunnel Park in Takamori, Kumamoto Prefecture. (Tazuko
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.
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/naturepl.com)
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
The skull of a Saiga antelope (Credit: Igor
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
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.
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
Wikipedia / Ancient Origin / www.inorvieto.it