Presence of observers prevents fur seal attacks

December 8, 2010

Further to the recent attacks on fur seals in Kaikoura, comes a timely study just published in Conservation Biology.  Alejandro Acedevo-Gutierrez and Lisa Acedevo of Western Washington University, and Laura Boren, DoC’s national marine mammal coordinator, found that the presence of an official-looking volunteer stationed at a popular seal viewing areas was enough to deter tourists from harassing seals. 

The researchers carried out their study at Ohau stream waterfall, Kaikoura, near the location of the recent attacks that saw 23 animals bludgeoned to death.  Over a period of 9 months they recorded the behaviour of tourists in the presence or absence of a volunteer observer who was wearing a neon vest and made to look “official”.  Tourists were deemed to be harassing the seals when they approached the animals to within a few metres or threw an object at them.  They found that harassment dropped by two-thirds when the observer was present – from 38.4% down to 13% of groups with at least one person who harassed the seals  – even if the observer said nothing to the tourists. 

Viewing of fur seals is regulated by the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1992, but the researchers had previously found that simply having a sign up stating these regulations does nothing to ensure that tourists actually comply.  Having an actual person wearing a neon vest is far more effective at preventing harassment, even if this person is a volunteer with no authority to actually enforce compliance with the regulations. 

The researchers point out that using volunteers in this way is a cheap and effective way of managing tourist-wildlife interactions at popular wildlife viewing areas, and has the added bonus of observers being able to educate tourists about the animals. They found that approximately half the tourist groups approached the observer and asked questions about the behaviour of the seals, and all of them had misconceptions about how to behave around young seals.

Other posts on sciblogs about the fur seal attacks are here and here


Acedevo-Gutierrez et al.  Effects of the Presence of Official-Looking Volunteers on Harassment of New Zealand Fur Seals.  Conservation Biology. Article first published online: 3 DEC 2010 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01611.x


Dangerous scientists?

June 28, 2010

The Guardian UK Science Blog has a interesting report on a recent European survey on public attitudes towards science. The Eurobarometer survey for the European Union found that hearteningly, 80% of Europeans are interested in science, but somewhat more worryingly, that 53% think scientists are “dangerous” .  Scientists from universities and government organisations were more likely to be regarded as qualified to explain scientific and technological developments than either scientists working in industry or newspaper journalists.  The survey also found that a majority of people think that scientists don’t put enough effort into informing the public about new developments in science.

The full article is here.

A plea for exploratory research

June 8, 2010

On more than one occasion I’ve been asked what the commercial applications of my research are, usually by people who have no background in science themselves. When I tell them I do basic research in evolutionary genetics that doesn’t have any commercial application there often follows outrage that the government actually gives out money to pursue this research (and of course I would argue that there isn’t nearly enough funding to do this type of research).

In this TED talk, Brian Cox makes the case for curiosity-driven research.  Although his examples come from physics and astronomy, there are countless similar examples in biology.  I particularly like the quote from British chemist and inventor Humphrey Davy that he ends with:  “Nothing is more fatal to the progress of the human mind than to presume that our views of science are ultimate, that our triumphs are complete, that there are no mysteries in nature, and that there are no new worlds to conquer.”

In tough economic times, our exploratory science programs — from space probes to the LHC — are first to suffer budget cuts. Brian Cox explains how curiosity-driven science pays for itself, powering innovation and a profound appreciation of our existence.

When is a gene really an allele?

May 18, 2010

The way some sections of the media use the word “gene” has become a bit of a pet peeve of mine.  Here’s an example from ScienceDaily:

Tibetans Developed Genes to Help Them Adapt to Life at High Elevations

Researchers have long wondered why the people of the Tibetan Highlands can live at elevations that cause some humans to become life-threateningly ill — and a new study answers that mystery, in part, by showing that through thousands of years of natural selection, those hardy inhabitants of south-central Asia evolved 10 unique oxygen-processing genes that help them live in higher climes.

Closer inspection of this research, which was published in Science last week, reveals that Tibetans don’t actually have 10 genes that are missing in the rest of humanity, what they have are different variants of the same genes.  These variants are called alleles, or haplotypes (there is a subtle difference between these two terms which I won’t go into here – but they both basically refer to different forms of the same gene or chromosomal region).  When geneticists refer to genetic variation in a species or population they are referring to the changes in the DNA sequence that results in multiple variant forms (alleles) of any given gene, the stuff that natural selection works on.

This study found that the Tibetan population have DNA changes in 10 genes that appear to be the result of natural selection.  Two of these genes, EGLN1 and PPARA have haplotypes that are significantly associated with the “decreased hemoglobin phenotype”, which is thought to be an adaptation to high altitude living.  These haplotypes appear to be selected for in the Tibetan population.  We all have EGLN1 and PPARA, but the Tibetan populations have unique haplotypes of these genes that help them live in higher climes.

This sort of incorrect usage of the word gene is pervasive in the popular media.  The phrase “the gene for” seems to be everywhere – the gene for breast cancer, the gene for schizophrenia, the gene for diabetes etc etc.  This gives the wrong impression of what these studies actually show, and is just plain incorrect.  What is actually being referred to in these studies is an allele or haplotype of a gene that we all have, and usually it is an allele that is correlated with a slightly higher incidence of the disease, not necessarily one that causes the disease.  Perhaps its time for for biologists to be more clear about what they mean by the word “gene”, and for journalists to incorporate the word “allele” or even just “genetic variant” into their vernacular.

If you want to read more about the Tibetans, the original paper is here, and an excellent summary of it by Razib Khan at Discover Magazine is here.

Play your genes

April 14, 2010

Ever wondered what your favourite gene would sound like if it was a melody? Well here’s a website where you can find out. 

Basically what it does is take the DNA sequence, convert it to amino acids, and assign each amino acid to a musical note (with some modifications to make it more musical, described here).  There is also a complicated way of assigning rhythm. 

Gene2music is the brainchild of Rie Takahashi, Jeffrey Miller, and Frank Pettit at UCLA. this week: science and morality, and the open data project

March 25, 2010

A couple of interesting videos are out on this week:

In the first, Sam Harris argues that science can answer moral questions, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life. See here for Open Parachute’s take on this talk.

And in the second, Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the world wide web) demonstrates what can be achieved when scientists, governments and institutions make their data publicly available on the web.  He mostly talks about mapping applications and it was particularly impressive to see how quickly publicly available map data was used in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

New Zealand’s favourite plant

January 15, 2010

Hot on the heels of Forest and Bird’s “Bird of the year” competition comes the NZ Plant Conservation Network‘s 2009 favourite plant poll.  The winner was announced just before Christmas but I must have missed it in the Christmas rush.  While voters in the bird of the year poll managed to display a stunning lack of originality in picking kiwi as their favourite, plant of the year voters were somewhat more creative, voting Pingao as their favourite native plant for 2009. 

Pingao (Desmoschoenus spiralis, or the golden sand sedge) plays an important role in stabilizing sand dunes so its likely to become increasingly important in the face of climate change.  Who’d have thought it has so many fans? The shadowy and mysterious Pingao Pressure Group was obviously busy lobbying for votes while Pohutukawa advocates were looking the other way.   

Here’s a picture:

(Photo by John Sawyer, NZ Plant Conservation Network)

Others in the top ten include the tree nettle (Ongaonga) at number 2, Chatham Island speargrass, some traditional favourites like Southern rata, Chatham Island forget-me-not and Kakabeak, and the plant with the best name of all, the fish-guts plant.