Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Visit to Binyo-Penyilam Conservation Area

Written by: Mr. CK Tham

Binyio Penyilam is a wetland reserve located along the Sebuah River. A visit was made by several members of the Sarawak Natural Science Society on the 20th and 21st December 2008 to the area on the Society’s first expedition.

Day One
To make this trip, we had to travel upriver from Bintulu along the Sebauh River. Arrangements were made to meet at the Bintulu Waterfront Jetty at 9.30am. A group of twelve was supposed to join the visit. A few of us early birds gathered at a kopitiam to have breakfast. After breakfast we waited at the jetty for the others to turn up. We watched large numbers of swiftlets and swallows circling above us; busy scooping up insects for their morning feast. To our inexperienced eyes, it was not easy to distinguish swiftlets from swallows. Oh, with old age my eyesight is failing. Nearby, in the top floor of the shop lots, swiftlets were being domesticated for their valuable edible nests.
Across the river, there were rows and rows of kampung houses on stilts; houses painted yellow, green, white, orange etc. I had never realised they were so colourful. I quickly took a few shots with my camera. Despite passing by here many, many times, I had not noticed the beauty of these river houses. The time spent waiting was not wasted after all.

Finally, all had arrived after 9.30am. Two speed boats had been arranged. We quickly loaded our backpacks, food, drinking water, fishing gears, net and field gears for insect catching, not forgetting the crates of Tigers , of course.
This is my first time traveling up the Sebauh River. It had been raining for the past few days and the water level was high and the current swift. Floating debris in the river came rushing downstream. This didn't seem to worry our boatmen at all. I was pondering if we needed to have our lifejackets on, just in case. Soon we were passing the Kemena Industrial Area. We could see heaps and heaps of timber logs piled up high, close to the river edge. Sawmills and plywood factories had slowed down due to the economic downturn. These logs, especially the smaller one are going to rot away if left lying in the sun and rain. How much of the forest had been destroyed to lay these logs to waste.
As we travel to Ulu Sebauh, we see more logs piled up along the river edge. More mills had shutdown. Workers had left for their early X'mas and New Year holiday; not knowing when work will start again.

The boats sped by Sebauh Township. In the river, there stood a Taoist temple. What an odd location to have a place of worship. Maybe the local folks want to remind the river god to control the water level. If the water level rose too high, the house of worship would also become submerged.

Two hours upriver, we finally reached RH Joseph. We stopped by to pay the tuai rumah, Encik Joseph a courtesy call as he is the headman of the area. We were invited into the long house. Like most longhouses in Sarawak, not many occupants were around having found work in towns; most will come back for X'mas I guess. As we sat down, welcome drink was served. Soon, I see Lim GM, a student from UPM was getting red in his face. The alcohol must have gotten to his head fast.

Welcome drink at Rumah Joseph

Lonely occupant of longhouse

I didn't drink, scared of getting drunk. I get drunk easily. In my earlier days in Sarawak, I learned a hard lesson during one of my previous trip up river. Not knowing the potency of the welcome drink, I innocently bottomed up the glass. Later, as I was boarding the longboat, I felt dizzy and lost my balance. And the next thing I knew, I was in the chilly river water. Someone quickly grasped me before the crocodiles did.

For the night, we were to stay at the conservation project field centre. This was only a few minutes upstream from RH Joseph along the Sg Penyilam. We had to transfer into longboats as the stream was too narrow and shallow for the speedboats. The newly built field centre is a single storied house located on a small hillock; just high enough above the flood level. There are 4 bedrooms adequate for 16 persons or more. A small petrol generator provides the power that we need at night. It is sited right in the wetland area so there is no shortage of water. Though the surrounding water is brownish colour, it is actually quite clean. If you are game enough, one can make a good cup of tea from the peat water; rich in lignin as in ordinary tea.
A quick survey was made of the surrounding compound. This hillock being slightly higher than the surrounding wetland had been used as a farm by the local folks. But this had since been abandoned. Rubber trees possibly twenty years old and nangka trees were abundant in the compound.
High up in one of the trees, a nesting place 3-4 feet across; consisting of branches and twigs was spotted. With my experience in Sabah at the back of my mind, my immediate response was "orang utan nest". My excitement was dashed when Joanes Ungga our team leader explained that bears are common here. To avoid the flood, bears had learnt to build their sleeping places high up in the trees. Upon closer inspection, paw marks were observed deeply scratched into the tree trunk. Smart adaptation.
The surrounding ground was bouncy to walk on. The thick leaf litters had accumulated into a thick carpet. Though the soil is very acidic and low in nutrient, vegetation growth is tremendous thanks to the abundant amount of water. Standing trees produced a thick layer of roots near the surface to catch whatever nutrient available. Epiphytes such as Asplenium ferns, orchids, etc. growing on tree trunk catch falling leaves. With the help of microbes, the debris is converted to plant nutrient for the epiphytes. Without human disturbance, such situation can sustain a very complex bio-diversity.
Later in the afternoon, we took a boat ride up one of the small streams. We followed the stream meandering through thickets of Pandanus. Oriental darters, black hornbills, black bellied malhokas were startled by the noise of the boat engine. Several species of orchids belonging to Dendrobium, Coelogyne, Bulbophyllum, Trixspermum, Eria etc grew in abundance with other epiphytes like Hoya and Aescynanthus.

Dendrobium spp

As we traveled upstream, the passage amongst the pandanus became narrower; we had to duck our heads to avoid being hit by overhanging branches. Finally, we decide to lie on our back in the longboat; looking at the sky as the day passes by. What a relaxing day. Epiphytes collecting debris

We stopped under some overhanging trees for tuai rumah Joseph to inspect his fish net. This he had set the night before. As he pulled in the net, we could see he had trapped several species of barbs and catfishes.
We headed home after this. On the way, we met the other group that had gone out fishing in another boat. They were not so lucky with their fishing rods. For their contribution to dinner, they were looking for ants. Yes, ants. The red kerangga species. They harvested a few nest full of them, despite being bitten by the fiery ants.
For dinner, we had barbecued freshwater fish and I found the ant wasn't so bad after all; rich in protein anyway.
As night gets dark, the crickets and frogs started to sing. The rain came down and we could not go out to see the luminescent mushroom which we had spotted earlier.
Moths, beetles and other insects were attracted to the light in the veranda and Lim GM was busy with his net and collecting bottles. These were easier to catch than the termites that he used to study; definitely more colorful.
Despite the rain, the night was stuffy and humid. I could not sleep. Tossing and turning, thinking of how to collect the beautiful dendrobium without Joanes knowing.

Day Two
Early in the morning, we were wakened by the call of the Hill Mynas.; loud and crisp through the morning air.
Joanes promised today we get to see more interesting vegetation. But be ready to get wet. We took off by four longboats; meandering through thicker pandanus thickets. “Watch out for overhanging branches”, the boatman shouted. The pandanus were in bloom; yellow flowers arising from the apex and insects attracted to the scented inflorescence. Dr Daisy caught a glimpse of the violet Papilionanthe hookeria, which was rather rare amongst the pandanus. I remind myself that we must stop to catch a closer look on the way back.
Dragonflies flew over our head as we rode into an open area. Blue ones, brown ones, red ones, damsel or dragonflies. They flew so fast that my eyes went blur. I reminded myself to sit still before I lose my balance.
At last, we reached an old camp site. There were more trees and more orchids and other epiphytes. Over the years, the accumulation of plant materials and debris brought down by the river had built up sufficient medium for the trees to grow on. As we moved further inland, we approached a depression that had formed an inland swamp. The vegetation changed. There were plants with pneumatophores; roots with prominent lenticels protruding into the air. We could see Nepenthes gracilis amongst the roots of the trees. The flowing water was brackish. The water was knee deep. The ground was muddy and sticky. But foot walks made of jungle rollers had be laid along the trail for easy movement. But today walking was not going to be easy. The rising water level had submerged the trail. The water was half a meter deep and brackish. We groped our way gently amongst the pneumatophores. It seems endless. Be careful, hang on to low branches to keep the balance. There are no crocodiles here. But you don't want to loose your camera in the brackish water.
Walking through brackish water

At last, we saw some palms nearby. We were on higher ground. R ed stems started to appear everywhere; beautiful Cyrtostachys lakka. More palms caught our eyes as we looked around. Eugenssonia with stilt roots; Pinanga with cluster of scent flowers and orangey fruit; Salacca with 3 inch thorns; Licuala with typical palmate leaves; Dendrocalamus rattan climbing up trees. There were more and many more palms.
Red Palm Cyrtostachys lakka
As we moved forward, we came across the odd Dacrydium tree. And then we came into an open area and felt water again with our feet. Pitcher plants can be seen everywhere. Nepenthes gracilis with reddish pitchers; Nepenthes rafflesia with bulky lower pitches and long slender upper pitchers. Ant plants were common amongst the taller trees. Having satisfied ourselves with the photo session, we proceeded to go back. Nepenthes rafflesia

Termite nest
Joanes showed us a tall tree which had been badly mauled a few feet off the ground. Sign of bears again. This one was probably digging into the tree trunk looking for the stingless bee hive. Bear loves honey.
We moved through the submerged walking boards again; this time nobody fell into the water.
We stopped at a tree next to the jetty. Looking up there was this large clump of Trichostia orchid in flowers. From a distance, they could be mistaken for miniature Dimophochis.
We hopped into the long boats and headed towards the camp.

Dr Daisy, where's the Papilionanthe hookeriana you saw earlier?
I can't remember; the pandanus are all the same. There is no landmark.
No, no. It was around here. Keep looking.
At last, we saw the violet flowers overhanging the pandanus. Quickly, took some photos and off we went.
Papilionanthe hookeriana amongst the pandanus

We went meandering through the thickets of pandanus again. Watch your heads.
The boatman took a corner too fast, lost control and smashed into the pandanus.
I never realised the pandanus leaves were so thorny until I was propelled against a clump and having my hands badly cut.

Soon, the boatman straightened up and we were on our way again.
Back at camp, the river water was fresh and cool. Jerry, Daisy and Ivy couldn't resist the temptation to take a dive off the jetty. Oh how refreshing.

Lunch was ready. But last night, we had devoured the fish we caught and we had to eat sardine for lunch.

It was time to go home. The speedboats that brought us here were waiting. We left without collecting the Dendrobium.
Traveling downstream was faster. It only took us 1 and a 1/2 hour to get to Bintulu.

We said goodbye and hope to see each other again on another trip.
I hope by then, Lim GM is more dexterous with his insect net and catches more dragonflies. To think of it, he needs a bigger net.
I look forward to hear from Dr Bong that he had identified the microbes that attack his termites.
Next trip, I hope there will be more dendrobium to collect.

Though during the trip, we didn't see large mammals. But we are glad to know of their existence. The deer had left droppings and foot prints amongst the pepper plants; the honey bears prominently left his paw marks up the tree and strangely built his nest several meter high in the air; the wild boar had been scavenging under the rubber trees eating up all the fallen seeds and uprooting the farmers' tapioca roots.

Monday, December 22, 2008

NSSB visit to Binyo Penyilam Conservation Area

This is my post for the recent trip to Binyo Penyilam Conservation area.

Binyo Penyilam Conservation area

The boat ride from Bintulu to Rh. Joseph by speedboat.

Arrived at Rh. Joseph and received a warm welcome from the Tuai Rumah himself followed by a special welcoming drink the “Tuak”.

Leaving the longhouse and ready to go to Binyo Penyilam Field Station

After a good meal, went on to the next program that afternoon for a boat ride along Sungai Penyilam

Among the orchids flowering Dendrobium sp

The rare Dendrobium kenepaiense found flowering. First record for Malaysia.

The next day we went upriver through Sungai Penyilam. Sitting on the boat cruising through the black water to Pengkalan Resam

Once at Pengkalan Resam, we began our walk through a swamp

Back to basic of walking? Balancing themselves on small poles laid down under the water

Boots filled with water!

Some interesting fungi along the trail

A tree trunk damaged by sun bear in order to get the honey from the stingless bees inside

Then we reached the Padang vegetation.

Nepenthes rafflesiana var elongate that we observe in the area

An inflorescence of Nepenthes rafflesiana var rafflesiana

A small tree of gymnosperm probably a Dacrydium sp

The ants collecting nectar on the picture plant

Nepenthes rafflesiana var rafflesiana

And lastly..a group photo at the small lake inside the Padang vegetation

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year 2009!

Just want to wish everyone Merry Christmas & Happy New Year 2009! May all of you be bless richfully for this coming of Christ birth celebration.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New Population of Extremely Rare Snub-Nosed Monkey Discovered

ScienceDaily (Dec. 5, 2008) — A new population of the extremely rare Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, so-called because of its unusual and distinctive up-turned nose, has recently been discovered in a remote forested area of northern Vietnam. The exciting finding made by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) provides new hope for the monkey's future.
Believed to be extinct until the late 1980s, only around 200 Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys (scientific name: Rhinopithecus avunculus) are left in the world. As a result, the primate is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. Unique to Vietnam, the species is now known to be present in just two of Vietnam's northern-most provinces - Tuyen Quang and Ha Giang.Villagers reported sightingsThe new finding came about after FFI set out to discover whether any more populations of the rare monkeys existed. While interviewing communities near the Chinese border last year, it emerged that villagers in the Tung Vai Commune had sighted the strange looking monkeys after seeing rare film footage of them that FFI had supplied to a national television network.On the strength of these reports, in April 2008 an FFI-led team of biologists managed to observe 15-20 individuals in the nearby forest, including three infants - an encouraging sign, indicating that this is a breeding population. The monkeys were located in a small forest patch in Quan Ba District, Ha Giang Province, near the Chinese border. While observing this group, the biologists noted that the monkeys were very sensitive to the presence of people, giving warning signs to one another and fleeing the area whenever the team approached. It was apparent that the monkeys associated humans with danger - perhaps due to ongoing threats from hunters.Excitingly, local reports indicate that another - possibly larger - group also exists. During the work, FFI's team managed to take a photo of one member of the new population - capturing a fleeting glimpse of an adult male scampering through the trees. This is the only photographic evidence of Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys in Quan Ba District.Future hope for the speciesThis new population provides hope for the future of this species, as the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey is now known to survive in no more than five locations in Vietnam, and at some locations the populations are probably in decline. Habitat loss and hunting for the bush meat and traditional medicine trades have been pushing the species to the brink of extinction. At this new location, cardamom plantations and logging for the Chinese timber market are clearing the few forest refuges left for this unique primate and it looks as though FFI has arrived in the nick of time to drum up the local and international support necessary to protect it.With urgent funds provided by Twycross Zoo in the UK, the first significant steps have been taken to protect this population and FFI has brought together a range of stakeholders, from provincial officials to village heads, to plan the way forward. Added to the mix is support from the Swiss development charity Caritas, which is working alongside FFI in the same district. They are now planning to provide support to the poor rural communities living next to the monkey's forest, to improve local livelihoods and reduce human pressures on the forest ecosystem, thereby increasing the monkey's chance of survival. Already, cardamom production has stopped expanding in the forest and there has been a government programme to confiscate hunting guns.'All recent indications suggest that we have a fantastic opportunity to secure this population and significantly increase the chances for the survival of this species', said Paul Insua-Cao, FFI's Vietnam Primate Programme Manager. 'Most significant is all the excitement this has generated locally and the support that is coming from the local Vietnamese government agencies and Caritas Switzerland . With almost half the world's primate species under threat from extinction, we must do everything we can.'In 2002, FFI and its partners discovered the largest known population of Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys in Khau Ca forest, Ha Giang Province. With an estimated 70 individuals, and the only population not in decline, this group is now considered the most important for the survival of the species. FFI began working to conserve this group immediately upon finding it and continues to support forest patrols and conduct ecological research, while this year supporting the establishment of a protected area at Khau Ca forest.Conservation biologist Le Khac Quyet, has made a name for himself as one of the few people in the world who can claim to be an expert on this mysterious species and, while working for FFI, is credited with discovering both the new population and the one in Khau Ca in 2002. It is fitting that he should have the last word:'When I saw the Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys in Tung Vai Commune I was overjoyed. This new discovery further underlines the importance of learning more about the Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys' range and distribution. There is still time to save this unique species, but with just 200 or so left and threats still strong, we need to act now.

Rolling "Sea Grape" Rocks the Fossil Record

(Dec. 4, 2008) — A submarine expedition that went looking for visually flashy sea creatures instead found a drab, mud-covered blob that may turn out to be truly spectacular indeed.
See also: Plants & AnimalsMarine Biology Fish Soil Types Science & SocietyOcean Policy Transportation Issues Resource Shortage ReferenceMicroorganism Paleozoic Animal Symmetry (biology) The grape-like animal, tentatively named the Bahamian Gromia, is actually a single-celled organism, fully one inch long. But what makes it really fantastic is that it moves -- very slowly -- by rolling itself along the ocean floor."At first, we assumed they were snails, because they had trails," said Sönke Johnsen, an associate professor of biology at Duke University. But after sucking up a few with the tools aboard the NOAA research submarine Johnson-Sea-Link and having a look, they figured the soft, nondescript blobs were simply some kind of elaborate poop. "We called them doo-doo balls," Johnsen said."We watched the video over and over," Johnsen said. The trails couldn't be the result of currents because they went in several directions at the same spot, and sometimes they even changed course. And they weren't the result of rolling downhill. In fact, one trail was found that went down into a small depression and came back up the other side."We argued about it forever," Johnsen said. "These things can't possibly be moving!" But they are, at a rate too slow to be captured on the sub's video. Johnsen guesses they move maybe an inch a day or less.The distinctive trail that the Gromias leave is identical to mud tracks found in the fossil record, which throws a big wrench into one long-standing argument in biology. The fossil tracks pre-date the so-called "Cambrian explosion" 530 million years ago, which was a blossoming of multicellular life and complex body plans from what had previously just been simple, blobby life forms. Many paleontologists and evolutionary biologists have argued that such a trail couldn't possibly have been made by a simple organism, meaning complex body plans were around before the Cambrian explosion. But the Gromia show that simple blobs can indeed move and make tracks in the light, silty bottom.We're confident that drawing attention to these bizarre mega-protists will provide a powerful new spin to the debate," said biologist Mikhail Matz of the University of Texas at Austin, who is first author on the paper in Current Biology. Matz worked out the genetics of the new creature and found it's a giant amoeba closely related to similar blobs found in the Gulf of Oman, near Antarctica, off Guam, and in the Mediterranean. None of them are known to move.The surface of the cell is covered with tiny ports. Its interior is just a fluid; the important working parts of the cell are all near the surface. Think of the working cell as a very thick balloon, Johnsen said.These sea grapes are almost neutrally buoyant, so they barely rest on the ocean floor 800 meters down. It's possible, Johnsen said, that they're sort of eating and rolling at the same time, pulling new sediment in on one side, and pushing "pseudo feces" out on the other, leaving the distinctive trail.What "eating" they do is pretty rudimentary, he added. If they're like other large amoebas, they're really just relying on resident bacteria to ferment their food for them and living off the byproducts. Unfortunately, the Gromia are too fragile to study in captivity.Johnsen also couldn't guess how the critters reproduce. "They obviously do, because there sure were a lot of them," he said. They all appeared to be about the same size however, so it wasn't obvious if there were any young Gromia.The Gromia were found on a relatively sterile area of sea bottom on the eastern side of the Bahamas, near Little San Salvador Island, where the current is extremely slow. "It's actually kind of a spooky habitat," Johnsen said. The expedition made a series of dives on the area in August 2007, with support from NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Johnsen was chief scientist on the expedition.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Alien-like Squid with "Elbows" Filmed at Drilling Site

Kelly Hearnfor National Geographic News
November 24, 2008
A mile and a half (two and a half kilometers) underwater, a remote control submersible's camera has captured an eerie surprise: an alien-like, long-armed, and—strangest of all—"elbowed" Magnapinna squid. (See photos of Magnapinna.)

See Video at:

PHOTOS: Colossal Squid Revealed in First In-Depth Look (April 30, 2008)
PHOTO: Giant Squid Captured, Filmed for First Time (December 22, 2006)
VIDEO: Giant Squid Dissected in Public (July 21, 2008)
In a brief video from the dive recently obtained by National Geographic News, one of the rarely seen squid loiters above the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico on November 11, 2007.
The clip—from a Shell oil company ROV (remotely operated vehicle)—arrived after a long, circuitous trip through oil-industry in-boxes and other email accounts.
"Perdido ROV Visitor, What Is It?" the email's subject line read—Perdido being the name of a Shell-owned drilling site. Located about 200 miles (320 kilometers) off Houston, Texas (Gulf of Mexico map), Perdido is one of the world's deepest oil and gas developments.
The video clip shows the screen of the ROV's guidance monitor framed with pulsing inputs of time and positioning data.
In a few seconds of jerky camerawork, the squid appears with its huge fins waving like elephant ears and its remarkable arms and tentacles trailing from elbow-like appendages.
Despite the squid's apparent unflappability on camera, Magnapinna, or "big fin," squid remain largely a mystery to science.
ROVs have filmed Magnapinna squid a dozen or so times in the Gulf and the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
The recent video marks the first sighting of a Magnapinna at an oil development, though experts don't think the squid's presence there has any special scientific significance.
But the video is evidence of how, as oil- and gas-industry ROVs dive deeper and stay down longer, they are yielding valuable footage of deep-sea animals.
Some marine biologists have even formed formal partnerships with oil companies, allowing scientists to share camera time on the corporate ROVs—though critics worry about possible conflicts of interest.

The Perdido squid may look like a science fiction movie monster, but it's no special effect, according to squid biologist Michael Vecchione of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who is based at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
In 1998 Vecchoine and University of Hawaii biologist Richard Young became the first to document a Magnapinna, based on juveniles of the Magnapinna pacifica species. M. pacifica was so unusual that the scientists had to create a new classification category to accommodate it: the family Magnapinnidae, which currently boasts four species.
In 2001 the pair released the first scientific report based on adult Magnapinna specimens, as seen via video. The study demonstrated that Magnapinna are common worldwide in the permanently dark zone of the ocean below about 4,000 feet (1,219 meters).
(See "'Weird' New Squid Species Discovered in Deep Sea" [December 20, 2001].)
In 2006 a single damaged specimen from the North Atlantic led to the naming of a second Magnapinna species, M. talismani. And in 2007 the scientists documented two more: M. atlantica and a species based on a specimen from the mid-Atlantic.
That fourth Magnapinna species remains nameless, because its arms were too badly damaged for a full study. "However, it was clearly different from the three known species," Vecchione said.
The Magnapinna species apparently have only slight physical differences, mainly related to tentacle and arm structure in juveniles.
The subtlety of those variations makes it impossible to identify which species is in the oil-rig video, given that at least two Magnapinna species—M. atlantica and M. pacifica—are known to inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, Vecchione said.
Enduring Mystery
Based on analysis of videos not unlike the one captured at the Perdido site, scientists know that the adult Magnapinna observed to date range from 5 to 23 feet (1.5 to 7 meters) long, Vecchione said. By contrast, the largest known giant squid measured about 16 meters (52 feet) long.
And whereas giant squid and other cephalopods have eight short arms and two long tentacles, Magnapinna has ten indistinguishable appendages that all appear to be the same length.
"The most peculiar structure is that of the arms," said deep-sea biologist Bruce Robison of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.
Referring to the way the tentacles hang down from elbow-like kinks, Robison said: "Judging from that structure, we think the animal feeds by dragging its arms and the ends of its tentacles along the seafloor as it drifts slowly above it."
The elbow-like angles allow the tentacles to spread out, perhaps preventing them from getting tangled.
"Imagine spreading the fingers of a hand and dragging the fingertips along the top of a table to grab bits of food," he added.
But NOAA's Vecchione suggests a feeding behavior that is more like trapping than hunting. He speculates that Magnapinna passively waits for prey to bump into the sticky appendages.
Strange Bedfellows?
As oil companies and their ROVs spend more time in the bathypelagic zone, more discoveries are sure to follow, experts say.
Eager for hard-to-come-by deep-sea video and data, some biologists are formally aligning themselves with the companies.
The U.K.-based SERPENT (Scientific and Environmental ROV Partnership using Existing iNdustrial Technology) project, for example, matches oil companies with researchers "to make cutting-edge ROV technology and data more accessible to the world's science community," according to the project's Web site.
Despite such partnerships, Monterey Bay's Robison said, most sightings of the Magnapinna squid have come from research vessels, not oil companies. The November 2007 video, for the record, was captured without scientific involvement.
Some scientists, including Robison, are not entirely comfortable relying on corporations for new data.
Andrew Shepard, director of NOAA's Undersea Research Center, is excited about the potential for new ocean resources, but he does have concerns.
"Oil companies are there to develop hydrocarbons, not find new species," Shepard said.
"These discoveries may, in fact, have a negative impact on very expensive and valuable lease tracts if someone decides a rare species needs to be protected."
But given how expensive and time consuming ROV-based deep-sea research is, scientific cooperation with industry is crucial, SERPENT project oceanographer Mark Benfield said.
"There are relatively few research vessels and far fewer ROVs and manned submersibles capable of working down through [extremely deep regions of the ocean]," said Benfield, who teaches at Louisiana State University.
Research funds are getting scarcer, he added, and "with SERPENT we gain access to sophisticated ROVs for free.
"These systems are based on vessels or rigs that spend months to years at a single location. This allows us to build up a much more complete picture of life in the deep-sea than would be possible with [only] academic ships and deep-submergence vehicles."
NOAA's Vecchione said he has "gotten a lot of interesting observations from the SERPENT project and other petro sources."
But the oil-industry collaborations "should not get in the way of purely scientific exploration," Vecchione said. "We need to be careful about deep-sea conservation."
National Geographic Digital Media researcher Liz Cosby contributed to this report.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Solar Powered Sea-slugs Live Like Plants

ScienceDaily (Dec. 3, 2008) — The lowly sea slug, “Elysia chlorotica,” may not seem like the most exciting of creatures, but don’t be fooled: it behaves like a plant and is solar-powered, says a Texas A&M University biologist who has been studying these tiny creatures for the past decade and, along with collaborators from several universities, has identified a possible cause of their ability to behave like plants.

Biology professor James Manhart is a member of a research group that believes they have identified some of the secrets of the sea slug and its curious plant-like behavior.

Manhart says plants can be compared to solar-powered machines—their cells contain tiny organelles called plastids that trap sunlight and convert it into energy by a process known as photosynthesis. Animals, on the other hand, depend on plants or other animals for their energy needs.

The sea slug, however, works a little differently. Its main food source is a specific type of alga. “It makes a cut in the alga, sucks out the cytoplasm [the material inside the alga] and digests most of it,” explains Manhart.

But there’s a twist—it retains the plastids that trap the solar energy.

These plastids remain in the slug, continue to photosynthesize and provide food for the slug. In effect, the creature becomes a solar-powered slug and is able to make its own food like plants do.

“Photosynthesis needs around 2,000 to 3,000 genes, and animals do not have many of the critical genes,” says Manhart. So Manhart and his co-workers looked into how the plastids consumed by the slug can continue photosynthesizing.

“We found that the slug has at least one gene required for photosynthesis in its nuclear genome, which has never been found in any animal,” says Manhart. “The critical thing is the plastids come from the alga, but the slug nucleus contains at least one, and probably more of the genes required for plastid functioning,” he adds.

“The slug needs the alga to mature and complete its life cycle,” Manhart says. “It is totally dependent on the alga to survive. Once the slug has acquired a sufficient amount of plastids it can survive, like plants, for at least nine months by trapping solar energy and converting it into food.”

That means the “baby” slugs are born with genes that support photosynthesis, but they have to gather their own plastids. Manhart says that if the slug and the alga both brave the ever-changing climatic conditions, the slug might evolve into a truly photosynthetic animal—that is, one born with the plastids. But that might be looking too far into the future. For now, he says, the next step would be sequencing the slug’s genome.

These research findings have been published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Farming and Chemical Warfare: A day In The Life of an Ant

ScienceDaily (Nov. 30, 2008) — One of the most important developments in human civilisation was the practice of sustainable agriculture. But we were not the first - ants have been doing it for over 50 million years. Just as farming helped humans become a dominant species, it has also helped leaf-cutter ants become dominant herbivores, and one of the most successful social insects in nature.According to an article in the November issue of Microbiology Today, leaf-cutter ants have developed a system to try and keep their gardens pest-free; an impressive feat which has evaded even human agriculturalists.Leaf-cutter ants put their freshly-cut leaves in gardens where they grow a special fungus that they eat. New material is continuously incorporated into the gardens to grow the fungus and old material is removed by the ants and placed in special refuse dumps away from the colony. The ants have also adopted the practice of weeding. When a microbial pest is detected by worker ants, there is an immediate flurry of activity as ants begin to comb through the garden. When they find the pathogenic 'weeds', the ants pull them out and discard them into their refuse dumps."Since the ant gardens are maintained in soil chambers, they are routinely exposed to a number of potential pathogens that could infect and overtake a garden. In fact, many of the ant colonies do become overgrown by fungal pathogens, often killing the colony," said Professor Cameron Currie from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. "Scientists have shown that a specialized microfungal pathogen attacks the gardens of the fungus-growing ants. These fungi directly attack and kill the crop fungus, and can overrun the garden in a similar fashion to the way weeds and pests can ruin human gardens."A curious observation was that some worker ants had a white wax-like substance across their bodies. When they looked at it under a microscope scientists discovered that this covering was not a wax, but a bacterium! These bacteria are part of the group actinobacteria, which produce over 80% of the antibiotics used by humans. The bacteria produce antifungal compounds that stop the microfungal pathogen from attacking the garden. This discovery was the first clearly demonstrated example of an animal, other than humans, that uses bacteria to produce antibiotics to deal with pathogens."Research in our laboratory has revealed a number of interesting properties between the bacteria and the pathogenic fungus. The bacteria appear to be specially suited to inhibiting the pathogenic fungi that infect the ants' fungus garden," said Professor Currie.The interaction between the ants and their fungus crop, and the ants and the bacteria is known as a mutualistic relationship. In general a mutualism is established when both members of the interaction benefit from the relationship. In the ant–fungus mutualism, the ants get food from the fungus. This mutualism is so tight that if the fungus is lost, the entire colony may die. In return, the fungus receives a continuous supply of growing material, protection from the environment, and protection from disease-causing pests.So what do the bacteria get out of producing pesticides for the ants? "For starters, they get food. Many species of fungus-growing ants have evolved special crypts on their bodies where the bacteria live and grow. Scientists believe that the ants feed the bacteria through glands connected to these crypts," said Dr Garret Suen, a post-doctoral fellow in Professor Currie's lab. "Also, the bacteria get a protected environment in which to grow, away from the intense competition they would face if they lived in other environments such as the soil.""Interestingly, the tight association between ant, bacteria and pathogen will sometimes result in the pathogen winning. This interplay has been described as a chemical 'arms race' between the bacteria and fungus, with one side beating the other as new compounds are evolved," said Professor Currie. "At the moment, we are beginning to understand the chemical warfare at the genetic level, and it is likely that these types of interactions are more prevalent in nature than previously thought."So how exactly does an ant go about forming partnerships with a fungus and a bacterium? No one really knows. With new advances in molecular and genetic technologies, such as whole-genome sequencing, Professor Currie and Dr Suen hope to discover how these associations were established, and to understand how these interactions resulted in the remarkable fungus-growing ability of the ants.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Natural Science Lecture "Mushrooms Cultivation"

Natural Science Lecture Series

Lecture Title: "Mushrooms Cultivation"

Speaker: Miss Wong Ling Chie

Date: 13th December 2008 (Saturday)

Time: 2-4 pm

Venue: New World Suite 3, Level 5, Park City Mall, Bintulu.

Speaker Profile:

Miss Wong Ling Chie is a graduate student at the University Putra Malaysia. She took her Bachelor of Science in Bio-Industry degree at the same university where she did research and wrote her thesis on the growth performance and quantification of beta-glucan for different species of Ganoderma, commonly know as Lingzhi or Reishi. Ganoderma species are well known to contain various bioactive compounds capable of curing diseases and improving health conditions, some possessing anti-tumours properties. This lecture will cover methods of cultivating Ganoderma species which is also widely used to cultivate other types of mushrooms such as the Pleurotus species (Oyster mushroom) etc, and the key factors determining the optimal production including cultivation conditions, substrate used and selection of the mushrooms.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Natural Science Lecture 14th November 2008 "Swiftlets of Malaysia"

The Sarawak Planted Forest Sdn Bhd and Natural Science Society present the following:

Date: 14th November 2008

Title: “Swiftlets of Malaysia- The Sustainable Management of This Wildlife Resource”

Speaker: Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook

Time: 6.00-7.30pm

Venue: Level 5, New World Suite

Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook's first post-graduate appointment was Technical Assistant to the Curator of the Sarawak Museum, Kuching, in 1956. After a brief period in Indonesia on a post-doctoral fellowship, he was appointed to the Zoology Department of the University of Malaya (1961-1970). Through a subsequent career as biologist and parliamentarian (in the UK House of Lords, 1978 - 1999) he has maintained close links with Sarawak and pursued research in zooarchaeology, wildlife conservation and the ecology of living vertebrates. Among other studies, he has specialised in the cave swiftlets of the Indo-Pacific region, researching over 50 years. He is the author of many scientific papers concerning the field identification of these birds, their breeding biology and echolocation, including a book co-authored with former student Dr Lim Chan Koon, "Swiftlets of Borneo - builders of edible nests", published in Malaysia in 2000 by Natural History Publications (Borneo) Sdn Bhd.

Limited copies of the book "Swiftlets of Borneo" will be available for sale at the lecture, with opportunity to get the books signed by the author.

The Natural Science Lectures are open to the public and admission is free.

Please direct enquiries to : sarawaknaturalscience@gmail.com

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

CO2 Levels Already In Danger Zone

ScienceDaily (Nov. 9, 2008) — If climate disasters are to be averted, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) must be reduced below the levels that already exist today, according to a study published in Open Atmospheric Science Journal by a group of 10 scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

The authors, who include two Yale scientists, assert that to maintain a planet similar to that on which civilization developed, an optimum CO2 level would be less than 350 ppm — a dramatic change from most previous studies, which suggested a danger level for CO2 is likely to be 450 ppm or higher. Atmospheric CO2 is currently 385 parts per million (ppm) and is increasing by about 2 ppm each year from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) and from the burning of forests.
"This work and other recent publications suggest that we have reached CO2 levels that compromise the stability of the polar ice sheets," said author Mark Pagani, Yale professor of geology and geophysics. "How fast ice sheets and sea level will respond are still poorly understood, but given the potential size of the disaster, I think it's best not to learn this lesson firsthand."
The statement is based on improved data on the Earth's climate history and ongoing observations of change, especially in the polar regions. The authors use evidence of how the Earth responded to past changes of CO2 along with more recent patterns of climate changes to show that atmospheric CO2 has already entered a danger zone.
According to the study, coal is the largest source of atmospheric CO2 and the one that would be most practical to eliminate. Oil resources already may be about half depleted, depending upon the magnitude of undiscovered reserves, and it is still not practical to capture CO2 emerging from vehicle tailpipes, the way it can be with coal-burning facilities, note the scientists. Coal, on the other hand, has larger reserves, and the authors conclude that "the only realistic way to sharply curtail CO2 emissions is phase out coal use except where CO2 is captured and sequestered."
In their model, with coal emissions phased out between 2010 and 2030, atmospheric CO2 would peak at 400-425 ppm and then slowly decline. The authors maintain that the peak CO2 level reached would depend on the accuracy of oil and gas reserve estimates and whether the most difficult to extract oil and gas is left in the ground.
The authors suggest that reforestation of degraded land and improved agricultural practices that retain soil carbon could lower atmospheric CO2 by as much as 50 ppm. They also dismiss the notion of "geo-engineering" solutions, noting that the price of artificially removing 50 ppm of CO2 from the air would be about $20 trillion.
While they note the task of moving toward an era beyond fossil fuels is Herculean, the authors conclude that it is feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II and that "the greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable."
"There is a bright side to this conclusion" said lead author James Hansen of Columbia University, "Following a path that leads to a lower CO2 amount, we can alleviate a number of problems that had begun to seem inevitable, such as increased storm intensities, expanded desertification, loss of coral reefs, and loss of mountain glaciers that supply fresh water to hundreds of millions of people."
In addition to Hansen and Pagani, authors of the paper are Robert Berner from Yale University; Makiko Sato and Pushker Kharecha from the NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute; David Beerling from the University of Sheffield, UK; Valerie Masson-Delmotte from CEA-CNRS-Universite de Versaille, France Maureen Raymo from Boston University; Dana Royer from Wesleyan University and James C. Zachos from the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Citation: Open Atmospheric Science Journal, Volume 2, 217-231 (2008)
Adapted from materials provided by Yale University.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Shell's Radical Rig

Jesse Bogan 10.30.08, 6:00 PM ETForbes Magazine dated November 24, 2008

Records are short-lived in the game of global hydrocarbons. The latest contender on the world stage is the Gulf of Mexico’s Perdido Development, which stands to become the deepest offshore oil-and-gas drilling and production hub. Shell, the lead operator, is angling 200 miles from shore in water starting at 7,500 feet deep. The oil in some areas is at least another mile below the seafloor. Perdido’s 50,000- ton hulk is being built so far from the pack that fuel for its helicopters is likened to water in the desert, its engineering to work on the moon. A fourth of the nation’s oil production comes from the Gulf, 1.3 million barrels a day. Perdido, which means “lost” in Spanish, will show how feasible it is to go after pockets of the estimated 3 billion to 15 billion barrels in the Lower Tertiary Trend, a geological play that extends from offshore Alabama to Mexico. Shell won’t say how much Perdido will cost or estimate its reserves down there, but energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie suspects a $6.7 billion tab to develop the three fields adjacent to the platform. Combined, they may hold the equivalent of 500 million barrels of recover able oil. Shell made its first discovery in these waters in 2002, when oil was $30 and 3,000 feet of water was deep. The collapse of oil’s price from $146 to $67 greatly lessens the profitability of deepwater drilling but does not eliminate it. Says Russell Ford, Shell vice president of technology for exploration and production in the Americas: “Shell takes a long-term view on oil prices in its investment decisions. Short-term price volatility will not impact the Perdido project.” When completed, Perdido will look like a giant hat on a 118-foot ( diameter) beer-can-shaped spar that’s tied down to the seafloor and designed to withstand a thousand-year storm. Shell will drill below the spar with spaghetti-like shafts tapping the seafloor in a 250-foot radius. Through subsea tiebacks, the spar will process oil and gas from wells drilled by a mobile unit as far as 9 miles away. The 22 wells directly beneath the spar will be drilled from the spar, which will be built to handle 130,000 barrels a day. First oil is expected around 2010. Out where Perdido floats, the subseafloor geology is like nothing else in the Gulf, so it’s unclear what types of wells will be needed, or how or if the medium-quality crude will flow between multiple fault lines. “We don’t have another next - door neighbor that says, ‘Well, this guy produces this way, so it will produce that way,’” says Bill Townsley, Shell’s development venture manager for Perdido. “Is the reservoir the size of this room or this building?” Shell hopes it won’t have to drill too often to find out if the pockets have mill ions of barrels or tens of millions. Noble Corp.’s monstrous floating machine called the Clyde Boudreaux began drilling wells for Perdido in July 2007. Such work can fetch $1 mill ion a day. Inside a container compartment on the steel island, Clay Groves, a 50-year- old superintendent for Oceaneering International, nears the end of a three-week shift. Sitting before a series of monitors, he “flies” a remotely operated vehicle the size of an elevator along the seabed. The robot is an industrial gofer that can retrieve 900 pounds of equipment, tighten valves with manipulator arms and relay video of progress or setbacks from below. At 9,300 feet the robot sub caught a lone shrimp in its headlights, and the frightened creature flitted out into the darkness, perhaps to avoid being eaten. Groves has seen “gelatinized blobs,” enormous squid and sharks, but he shrugs his shoulders at the latest reaches of the oil industry. “I am sure they will go deeper and deeper.” Extreme weather is one risk; the 2008 Hurricanes Ike and Gustav caused 75% of the oil production in the Gulf to be shut for a month. Technological uncertainty is another, as Shell combines old and untested techniques to get to deeper, more complex reservoirs. “The oil business has always been about taking risk— you just hope it is exploration risk, not project risk,” says Julie Wilson, Mackenzie’s senior analyst for Gulf of Mexico research. “Increasingly operators have to think about project risk and how to mitigate it. Very few have gone without a glitch.” BP’s Thunder Horse, 150 miles southeast of New Orleans, is claimed as the world’s largest floating platform. It is the size of a city block. Sitting on 6,200 feet of water, it is designed to process 250,000 barrels of oil and 200 mill ion cubic feet of natural gas per day. The estimated $8.3 bill ion project opened in June after being delayed three years when the 2005 Hurricane Dennis hobbled the structure. Later subsea welds on the well equipment didn’t hold under the extreme pressure. Chevron’s Tahiti project, also in the Gulf and a $4.7 billion investment, was delayed a year by metallurgical problems discovered after the mooring shackles were set in 4,000 feet of water. Lessons learned there are being applied to Perdido, says Rick A. Wright, deepwater manager for Chevron, which has a 37.5% interest in Perdido, along with Shell’s 35% and BP’s 27.5%. But Perdido hasn’t been immune to mistakes. An enormous blowout preventer broke free of its riser as it was being lowered. It crashed on the seafloor. Logistics are also a bit of a challenge. The 555-foot-long spar, costing perhaps $1.8 bill ion, was set in place in August. Nine polyester mooring lines, each 2.4 miles long, tether it to the seafloor. The spar was built in Finland and then shipped 8,200 miles to Ingleside, Tex., where Peter Kiewit Sons’ is constructing the production platform and living quarters for 150 people. Heerema Marine’s Thialf, the only construction vessel in the world stout enough for the job, will lift the topside in one hoist onto the spar next year. Thialf is off the coast of Africa at the moment. Shell had to get in line three years in advance. The heart of Perdido will be in the darkness of 40-degree Fahrenheit water. There will be enough natural pressure in the wells to move oil and gas to the seafloor but not to the spar. Oil and gas will be separated below, then boosted up top by 1,500hp pumps powered by gas turbines on the spar. The U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) welcomes Perdido because it brings infrastructure to an isolated section of the Lower Tertiary Trend, says Lars Herbst, director of the Gulf region. He expects the development will expedite fut re projects because a new platform won’t be needed. Other companies could link to it several miles away through subsea tiebacks. Williams Inc. of Tulsa is investing $480 mill on, including 184 miles of new oil and gas pipeline, to hook Perdido up to the existing network that brings oil and gas to refineries onshore. Perdido is Shell’s largest effort yet in the Gulf, and a sizable portion of the stress behind its success or failure rests on the back of Ford, the vice president. Inflation in the oil industry has doubled since 2004, but he says Shell is fine with the cost and timing. “The challenge is you are the first one there, but the reward is, you’ll understand more than anybody else.”

Beaker Fuel

Robert Langreth 10.30.08, 6:00 PM ETForbes Magazine dated November 24, 2008

Designer biofuels looked great at $140 oil. How about $65?

Dartmouth college engineering professor Lee R. Lynd hit upon an unlikely source of transportation fuel three decades ago: bacteria from compost heaps. While working on a farm one summer, he became fascinated by how the bacteria could degrade all sorts of plant matter and produce heat. He envisioned creating designer bacteria that could digest fibrous plants and spit out barrels of fuel. But when he tried to convince venture capitalists in the early 1990s to form a company based on the idea, he got nowhere. Gas was cheap and renewable energy, a backwater. One government agency rejected his grant proposal five years in a row. "People said, 'You seem like a bright guy. Why are you in this dead field?'" says Lynd.
These days Lynd's basement lab is bustling with activity as grad students brew plant-eating bacteria in glass fermenters filled with brownish liquid. Another 70 researchers work down the road in Lebanon, N.H. at the biofuels company he founded, Mascoma. It has snagged $100 million in funding from investors including General Motors (nyse: GM - news - people ) and Marathon Oil, plus millions more in government grants, and aims to produce ethanol from wood chips in 2009 using genetically engineered bacteria.
"This will be a transformative technology," boasts Lynd, 50. He foresees a vast network of biofuel farms and refineries spread across the country a few decades from now. Lynd is a practicing acolyte of the renewability religion: He drives a Prius, heats his house with wood he cuts himself and generates most of his home's electricity with photovoltaics.
The limitations of corn-derived ethanol have sent biotech researchers scrambling to devise new biofuels from agricultural waste, algae and other sources that are cheaper, more abundant and don't compete with the food supply. Ethanol producers used 23% of our corn crop last year to make 5% of our car fuel supply. Says gene hunter turned biofuel researcher Craig Venter: "We can't have fuels competing with food. It is already a semidisaster, and it is only going to get worse." People in the corn ethanol business disagree.
Scientists like Lynd are trying to convert any type of plant matter, not just sugar, into liquid fuels. With exotic gene-engineering techniques, they are breeding crops that could thrive on marginally arable land and are contemplating farms of bioengineered algae. Using all of a plant might produce four times as much fuel per acre as current biofuels. With better technology, "One percent of the surface of the Earth could produce all the transportation fuel that the world needs," says biochemist Chris R. Somerville, who heads BP's $35 million (annual budget) biofuels research center at UC, Berkeley. Adds University of Massachusetts microbiologist Susan Leschine: "Biomass is the only source of liquid fuels that can replace petroleum."
Venture capitalists poured $637 million into biofuels in 2007, up from almost nothing in 2004, says PricewaterhouseCoopers. Big companies like Chevron (nyse: CVX - news - people ) and Royal Dutch Shell (nyse: RDSA - news - people ) are investing. Spurring them on is the government, with grants for construction of new biofuel plants, plus big per-gallon subsidies. "There are so many people that this almost feels like the oil land rush of the mid-1800s," says Joe R. Skurla, who is leading a $140 million joint venture between DuPont (nyse: DD - news - people ) and Danisco to produce cellulosic ethanol. Predicts MIT chemical engineer Gregory Stephanopoulos: "This will be a $150 billion industry."
Living up to the hype will require some serious feats of industrial engineering. Making ethanol from sugar is a straightforward fermentation. Converting biomass to fuel is not. Cellulose, the fibrous stuff that holds plants together, resists breakdown into simple sugars. Methods for doing so using heat, acid and enzymes are complex and expensive. No U.S. company makes cellulosic fuel on a commercial scale today.
To find a better way, some biotech researchers are going back to nature to optimize obscure microbes that break down plant matter. Lynd is focusing on Clostridium thermocellum, one of the most efficient cellulose eaters known. This bacterium can quadruple its mass eating cellulose in only eight hours, producing ethanol as a by-product. Lynd wants to supercharge its ethanol yield by subtracting genes that make unwanted by-products. This will be tricky. Genetic engineers have been so focused on medical applications that little work has been done to develop tools to insert genes into anaerobic microbes. But Lynd plans to do it in two years. He has already engineered another bacterium that digests the plant component hemicellulose and spits out ethanol.
Lynd's friendly competitor is U Mass' Leschine, whose group found an ethanol-spewing bacterium near the Quabbin Reservoir a decade ago. She didn't know what she had until, in the lab, it started devouring the filter paper it was growing on. She founded SunEthanol after she couldn't get oil companies interested. It plans build a pilot plant by 2011.
Coskata, a two-year-old company in Warrenville, Ill. whose angel is General Motors, rashly claims it can extract ethanol from garbage for $1 per gallon. This does not represent a gold mine. The figure ignores capital costs, and it is equivalent (given ethanol's lower energy content) to gasoline costing $1.50 a gallon, which is about what gasoline is worth before taxes and markups are added.
Coskata's means of production is a bacterium discovered on the bottom of a pond in Oklahoma. The recipe calls for heating biomass to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, forming a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Cooled gas is passed over the microbe, which converts it to ethanol. It won't be known whether this process is economical until Coskata builds some plants. That is supposed to happen by 2012.
But why bother with ethanol at all? Amyris, a biotech firm in Emeryville, Calif., and LS9, in South San Francisco, aim to engineer microbes that will produce longer-chain hydrocarbon molecules like those found in gas and diesel. What makes this possible is a radical new biotech process called metabolic engineering that replaces whole swaths of genes inside microbes to turn them into tiny chemical factories. A few years ago Amyris engineered yeast to produce a malaria drug now being developed by Sanofi-Aventis (nyse: SNY - news - people ). In the course of this medical discovery researchers realized that one molecule the yeast makes is related to diesel fuel. Since then they have tinkered with dozens of genes to optimize fuel production. The Amyris fermentation lab smells like a bakery. Inside the steel fermenters, puddles of oil float to the top.
Across the bay LS9 has rejiggered the bacterium E. coli to produce a diesel-like product. Both firms aim to produce for $60 a barrel. "We make no-compromise biofuels" that will work in existing cars and pipelines, says Amyris cofounder Neil Renninger. His first plant, under construction with a partner in Brazil, will produce diesel from sugarcane starting in 2010. The method could be combined with future refineries that will turn cellulose into sugar.
Trees and sugarcane aren't the only things that use the sun's rays to turn carbon dioxide into fuel. Algae can do this. Craig Venter's company, Synthetic Genomics, is modifying algae (which naturally produce diesel-like oils) so that the oil is more accessible and more plentiful. The firm has engineered algae that secretes fuel to simplify the collection process. He envisions putting high-tech algae farms next to oil refineries, factories or power plants and diverting the smokestack CO 2 onto the algae. Oil could be continuously extracted. "This is my plan to replace the global petrochemical industry," Venter says grandly.
Range Fuels, a company in Broomfield, Colo., plans to open a plant next year that will use heat and catalysts, but no bugs, to turn cellulose into ethanol. Bio-free approaches might prove to be better, says U Mass chemical engineer George Huber.
High-tech visions like these face daunting hurdles moving into the commodity world of energy. With oil prices plummeting, biofuels firms could be priced out of business before they start. None of the methods have proved themselves commercially, and capital costs of building new plants will be high.
Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel is a perennial skeptic. The biofuel fixation is "a bit foolish" and "just not logical," he says. Why? Biofuels are an inefficient way of harnessing solar energy, given the complexity of processing plant material. When he first studied the matter in 1980, "It didn't add up," he says, "and it still doesn't. At the very best, biofuels will be a minor contributor."
Now it is beginning to dawn on environmentalists that biofuels are a mixed blessing. In an April 2006 FORBES column Peter Huber argued that the discovery of an economic method of turning cellulose into transportation fuel would be a disaster for the world's jungles, since then people living near them would have a powerful incentive to chop them down.
Princeton University research scholar Timothy Searchinger says that when productive land is used for fuels in one place, crop prices will rise, driving others to clear land somewhere else to replace it. Since forests hold carbon, the net effect is to boost greenhouse gases, he calculated in the journal Science, contradicting earlier studies that found ethanol had a lower carbon footprint. "You can make as much biofuel as you want if you are willing to drive up crop prices four- or sixfold" and don't care about global warming, he says. Biofuels come out greenhouse-gas-positive if they're made from waste or grown in unproductive areas, he points out.
Dartmouth's Lynd fights back: "There is a big spectrum between the biofuels on the ground now and the ones that could exist someday," he says. One possibility is dual-use land, with a summer food crop and a winter fuel crop. He figures that between cellulosic technology, high-yield energy crops and more efficient cars, we might one day grow most of our fuel on only 50 million acres, a plot the size of Nebraska.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Turning On Virus Power

Jonathan Fahey, 11.05.08, 12:01 AM ET

The way Angela Belcher sees it, nature could do a lot more, if only given the opportunity.
Belcher, a materials science and biological engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has long marveled at how abalone can spin a little calcium, carbon and oxygen into exquisite and incredibly strong shells. While still at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she did her graduate work with a view of the Pacific Ocean, Belcher wondered if nature could make new materials when given combinations of elements that seldom occurred together.
"I wanted to know if you could get biology to work with the rest of the periodic table," she explains.
The answer is yes.
Belcher and two MIT colleagues, chemical engineering professor Paula Hammond and ceramics professor Yet-Ming Chiang, are coaxing viruses to assemble micro-batteries which are the size of a human cell. They could one day be used to power tiny devices like sensors or medical diagnostic tools.
In every abalone cell, and in every cell for that matter, there are instructions, written in DNA, for how to take elements like calcium, carbon and oxygen and arrange the atoms in certain extremely specific ways to produce something hard. Biology makes the world's best nanomaterials.
Nature worked on this problem for millions of years until finally, about 540 million years ago, the first shell-bearing creatures began to appear at the beginning of what is known as the Cambrian period. (Belcher has founded a company called Cambrios, in Sunnyvale, Calif., to commercialize some of her discoveries.)
Creatures settled on elements like calcium, carbon and oxygen because that's what was abundant. Belcher now runs evolution on fast-forward but under different conditions, trying to make new materials as amazing as an abalone shell that are more useful for humans.
She uses a well-known and simple virus that usually infects bacteria, called M13, and runs experiments on them, 1 billion at a time. She exposes them to the chemical she is interested in, cobalt oxide and gold in the case of her battery work, and selects those viruses that produce proteins with an affinity for the chemical.
Over a period of about two weeks, and thousands and thousands of virus generations, she can produce a strain of virus evolved to do her bidding and then clone it. Her battery-producing viruses cover their entire 880 nanometer-lengths with tiny balls of cobalt oxide and gold, leaving her with nanowires--six nanometers in diameter and 880 nanometers long. These function as the battery's anode.
Trying to make nanowires like this using human-engineered manufacturing processes would be expensive, if not impossible.
Belcher's colleague Paula Hammond, an expert in making highly ordered, self-assembling polymers and other materials, created a pattern of tiny posts, onto which the researchers deposited several layers of polymers that act as the battery's electrolyte.
The electrolyte is designed to be charged in such a way that it can help the viruses--shod in their metal-oxide coats and negatively charged--line up just so. "By harnessing the electrostatic nature of the assembly process with the functional properties of the virus, we can create highly ordered composite thin films combining the function of the virus and polymer systems," Hammond says.
The result is a stamp of the posts that under a microscope looks like a sheet of bubble wrap, each covered with layers of electrolyte and the cobalt oxide anode. The scientists can then turn the stamp over, and "print" their batteries.
Hopefully. They've tested the anode and the electrolyte, but they are still working on the final piece--the battery's cathode--using this same method.
"We'd like to stamp the final cathode on top," says Hammond.
Belcher, who came to MIT in 2002, won a MacArthur "genius" award in 2004 and works out of an office that is littered with more matter, both organic and inorganic, than any living thing could create order from. Hammond's office, meanwhile, resembles one of her self-assembled patterns--nothing is out of place. Together with Chiang, a founder of the lithium-ion battery company, A123 Systems, the three hope they will soon have a power pack for, say, an implantable cancer diagnostic.
It shouldn't take a million years. In fact, Belcher hopes her designs will turn into products within a much more manageable five years' time.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Natural Science Lecture on "Small Mammals"

Sarawak Planted Forest Sdn. Bhd. and Natural Science Society Bintulu

presents a conservation talk:

Title:: “Small Mammals”

By Antony Shadbolt

Date:: 08 November 2008

Time:: 04..00 p..m.. (Registration at 4..00-4:30 p.m.)

Venue:: Conference Room 2, Li Hua Hotel,, Bintulu

The Planted Forest Project (pulp and paper), Bintulu Division target is to plant the fast growing
Acacia mangium species for the supply of pulp and paper industry. A large forested areas (210,000 ha) of the PFZ will be reserved for conservation of flora and fauna in the project. The Conservation Program is based on cooperative studies with local and international experts on biodiversity, conducting biological inventories with Conservation Program staff, university students and NGOs. Conservation program plans to catalogue the species richness of the PFZ, and to develop an effective long-term biodiversity conservation models for the PFP.

Antony Shadbolt is a Landscape Architect/Landscape Ecologist with the Christchurch City Council in the South Island of New Zealand. He is involved in a broad range of landscape planning and design related projects including many which involve wildlife population modeling, species
reintroduction, wildlife management and ecological restoration within the urban and per-urban
environment. Antony is now in the second year of his PhD research investigating these small
mammals, and this year will be Antony’s fourth visit to Sarawak and the Planted Forest Zone.

Antony’s talk will discuss his current research in the Planted Forest Zone, describing the unique
techniques he and the team from the Conservation Program had employed to reveal how small
mammals use and react to fine scale habitat features of the landscape including fallen logs,
haul-trails, forest roads, and Acacia mangium, compartments. The talk will also include the
striking differences between the fauna of Borneo and New Zealand, but will also draw attention
to some unexpected similarities, including parallels with wildlife management in urban areas.

All are welcomed and registration will be done upon arrival. We especially welcomes members of
local NGOs such as the Sarawak Nature Society, Malaysia Nature Society and the Society For
Wilderness to attend and enjoy this talk. Refreshment is provided.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Natural Science Lecture "Swiftlets of Malaysia" by Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook

“Natural Science Lecture” presented by The Natural Science Society

Lecture Title:

"Swiftlets of Malaysia, and sustainable management of this wildlife resource.”

Speaker: Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook

Time: 6-7.30pm

Date: 14th November 2008

Venue: New World Suite Bintulu, Level 5 Meeting Room

Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook's first post-graduate appointment was Technical Assistant to the Curator of the Sarawak Museum, Kuching, in 1956. After a brief period in Indonesia on a post-doctoral fellowship, he was appointed to the Zoology Department of the University of Malaya (1961-1970). Through a subsequent career as biologist and parliamentarian (in the UK House of Lords, 1978 - 1999) he has maintained close links with Sarawak and pursued research in zooarchaeology, wildlife conservation and the ecology of living vertebrates. Among other studies, he has specialised in the cave swiftlets of the Indo-Pacific region, researching over 50 years. He is the author of many scientific papers concerning the field identification of these birds, their breeding biology and echolocation, including a book co-authored with former student Dr Lim Chan Koon, "Swiftlets of Borneo - builders of edible nests", published in Malaysia in 2000 by Natural History Publications (Borneo) Sdn Bhd.

Earth in the midst of 6th Mass Extinction: 50% of all species dissappearing

ScienceDaily (Oct. 21, 2008) — The Earth is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of both plants and animals, with nearly 50 percent of all species disappearing, scientists say.

Because of the current crisis, biologists at UC Santa Barbara are working day and night to determine which species must be saved. Their international study of grassland ecosystems, with flowering plants, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"The current extinction event is due to human activity, paving the planet, creating pollution, many of the things that we are doing today," said co-author Bradley J. Cardinale, assistant professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology (EEMB) at UC Santa Barbara. "The Earth might well lose half of its species in our lifetime. We want to know which ones deserve the highest priority for conservation."
He explained that the last mass extinction near the current level was 65 million years ago, called the Cretaceous Tertiary extinction event, and was probably the result of a meteor hitting the Earth. It is best known for the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, but massive amounts of plant species became extinct at that time as well.
According to the current study, the most genetically unique species are the ones that have the greatest importance in an ecosystem. These are the ones that the scientists recommend be listed as top priority for conservation.
"Given that we are losing species from ecosystems around the world, we need to know which species matter the most –– and which we should pour our resources into protecting," said first author Marc W. Cadotte, postdoctoral fellow at UCSB's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS).
Cadotte, Cardinale, and co-author Todd Oakley, an EEMB associate professor, put together a "meta-analysis" of approximately 40 important studies of grassland ecosystems around the world. They reconstructed the evolutionary history among 177 flowering plants used in these studies by comparing the genetic makeup of the plants.
The scientists found that some species are more critical than others in preserving the functions of ecosystems and that these species tend to be those that are genetically unique. Therefore, they are looking to evolutionary history for guidance in conservation efforts and in understanding the potential impacts of species loss.
Recent studies show that ecological systems with fewer species generally produce less biomass than those with more species. Less plant biomass means that less carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere and less oxygen is produced. So, as the biomass of plants plummets around the globe, the composition of gasses in the atmosphere that support life could be profoundly affected. Additionally, there are fewer plants for herbivorous animals to eat. Entire food chains can be disrupted, which can impact the production of crops and fisheries.
The loss of species that are not closely related to other species in the ecosystem reduces productivity more than the loss of species with close relatives. And the more genetically distinct a species is, the more impact it has on the amount of biomass in an ecosystem.
"Losing a very unique species may be worse than losing one with a close relative in the community," said Oakley. "The more evolutionary history that is represented in a plant community, the more productive it is."
Cadotte explained that the buttercup is a very unique species, evolutionarily. Losing the buttercup, where it occurs in grasslands, would have a much bigger impact on the system than losing a daisy or a sunflower, for example. The latter species are closely related. Each could therefore help fill the niche of the other, if one were to be lost. The daisy and sunflower also have a more similar genetic make-up.
"These 40 studies are showing the same thing for all plants around the world," said Cardinale. "It is not a willy-nilly conclusion. This study is very robust. It includes studies of plants that are found throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia. We can have a high degree of confidence in the results. And the results show that genetic diversity predicts whether or not species matter."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Deatils of Evolutionary Transition From Fish to Land Animals Revealed

Details Of Evolutionary Transition From Fish To Land Animals Revealed
ScienceDaily (Oct. 15, 2008) — New research has provided the first detailed look at the internal head skeleton of Tiktaalik roseae, the 375-million-year-old fossil animal that represents an important intermediate step in the evolutionary transition from fish to animals that walked on land.

A predator, up to nine feet long, with sharp teeth, a crocodile-like head and a flattened body, Tiktaalik's anatomy and way of life straddle the divide between fish and land-living animals. First described in 2006, and quickly dubbed the "fishapod," it had fish-like features such as a primitive jaw, fins and scales, as well as a skull, neck, ribs and parts of the limbs that are similar to tetrapods, four-legged animals.
The initial 2006 report did not describe the internal anatomy of the head, because those parts of the fossil were buried in rock. In the October 16, 2008, issue of Nature, the researchers describe this region and show how Tiktaalik was gaining structures that could allow it to support itself on solid ground and breathe air.
"We used to think of this transition of the neck and skull as a rapid event," said study author Neil Shubin, PhD, of the University of Chicago and Field Museum and co leader of the project, "largely because we lacked information about the intermediate animals. Tiktaalik neatly fills this morphological gap. It lets us see many of the individual steps and resolve the relative timing of this complex transition."
"The braincase, palate, and gill arch skeleton of Tiktaalik have been revealed in great detail by recent fossil preparation of several specimens," said Jason Downs, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Academy of Natural Sciences and lead author on the new study. "By revealing new details on the pattern of change in this part of the skeleton, we see that cranial features once associated with land-living animals were first adaptations for life in shallow water."
"The new study reminds us that the gradual transition from aquatic to terrestrial lifestyles required much more than the evolution of limbs," said Ted Daeschler, PhD, of the Academy of Natural Sciences and co-leader of the team that discovered Tiktaalik. "Our work demonstrates that, across this transition, the head of these animals was becoming more solidly constructed and, at the same time, more mobile with respect to the body." These changes are intimately associated with the change in environment.
Fish in deep water move and feed in three-dimensional space and can easily orient their body in the direction of their prey. A neck, seen for the first time in the fossil record in Tiktaalik, is advantageous in settings where the body is relatively fixed, as is the case in shallow water and on land where the body is supported by appendages planted against a substrate.
Another important component of this transition was the gradual reduction of the hyomandibula, a bony element that, in fish, coordinates the cranial motions associated with underwater feeding and respiration. In the transition to life on land, the hyomandibula loses these functions and the bone becomes available for an eventual role in hearing.
In humans, as in other mammals, the hyomandibula, or stapes, is one of the tiny bones in the middle ear. "The bony part of Tiktaalik's hyomandibula is greatly reduced from the primitive condition," said Downs, "and this could indicate that these animals, in shallow water settings, were already beginning to rely less on gill respiration."
The discoveries were made possible by laboratory preparators Fred Mullison and Bob Masek, who prepared the underside of the skull of specimens collected in 2004. This painstaking process took several years. This work showed the underside of the skull and gill bones "beautifully preserved," said Shubin, "to a degree unlike any creature of its kind at this transition."
Having multiple Tiktaalik specimens enabled the researchers to prepare the fossils in ways that showed the bones of the head in "exceptional detail," Downs said.
The team discovered Tiktaalik roseae on Ellesmere Island, in the Nunavut Territory of Canada, 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Though this region of Nunavut is now a harsh Arctic ecosystem, at the time that Tiktaalik lived, the area was much further south and was a subtropical floodplain ecosystem.
The formal scientific name for the new species, "Tiktaalik" (tic-TAH-lick), was derived by the Elders Council of Nunavut, the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit. The Inuktikuk word means "a large, shallow-water fish." The paleontology team works in Nunavut with authorization from the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth. All fossils are the property of the people of Nunavut and will be returned to Canada after they are studied.
The fossil research in Nunavut is carried out with authorization from the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, Government of Nunavut. All fossils are the property of the people of Nunavut and will be returned to Canada after they are studied.
A cast of Tiktaalik, along with a fleshed-out model of the animal, are on display in the Evolving Planet exhibition at Chicago's Field Museum, where Shubin serves as Provost.
The research was supported by private donors, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Putnam Expeditionary Fund (Harvard University), the University of Chicago, the National Science Foundation, and the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.

Microbes Useful for Environmental Cleanup and Oil Recovery

Microbes Useful For Environmental Cleanup And Oil Recovery
ScienceDaily (Oct. 16, 2008) — A unique, patent-pending collection of microbes that can be used both for cleaning up the environment and addressing our energy needs has earned the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River National Laboratory kudos from a newsletter covering the rapidly expanding field of nanotechnology.

Nanotech Briefs awarded SRNL's BioTiger™ a spot on its fourth annual Nano 50™ list, described as the top 50 technologies, innovators and products expected to revolutionize the industry. Nanotech Briefs will present the awards during the National Nano Engineering Conference, Nov. 12-13 in Boston. For more information, visit http://www.techbriefs.com/nano.
BioTiger™ resulted from over eight years of extensive work that began at a century-old Polish waste lagoon. "DOE had originally funded us to work with our Polish counterparts to develop a microbe-based method for cleaning up oil-contaminated soils," explains Dr. Robin Brigmon, SRNL Fellow Engineer. From that lagoon, they identified microbes that could break down the oil to carbon dioxide and other non-hazardous products. "The project was a great success," Dr. Brigmon says. "The lagoon now has been cleaned up, and deer now can be seen grazing on it."
Recent efforts have shown that BioTiger™ naturally produces chemicals that may have other industrial uses as well. For example, BioTiger™ can be applied directly for cleaning up oil residues on surfaces such as concrete slabs and building foundations.
In addition to its original environmental cleanup uses, BioTiger™ has recently been shown to be highly effective for increasing oil recovery from oil sands without added chemicals. Oil sands (also referred to as tar sands) are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous material. Currently, oil sands represent about 40 percent of Canada's oil production. Approximately 20 percent of U.S. crude oil and refined products come from Canada, and a substantial portion of this amount comes from tar sands.
Oil sands are mined and processed to generate oil similar to that pumped from conventional oil wells, but extracting oil from these sands is more complex and requires more energy than standard oil recovery. Current methods require multiple steps including heating, mechanical mixing, and chemical additions to extract hydrocarbons from the oil sands.
There have been concerns about the environmental impact of these operations, including concerns about the amount of water used in the process, energy cost to operate the systems, runoff from the tailings ponds, wastewater from the facilities, and chemical residues in the water left over from the extraction process. Past efforts have generated large tailings ponds that still contain varying amounts of bitumen indicating that the process did not efficiently extract all of the available oil.
An enhanced oil recovery process using BioTiger™ could provide a means to maximize capacity and minimize environmental impact, while remaining cost effective. The BioTiger™ microbes attach themselves to the oil sands, separating the oil from the sand particles. The microbes make the separation step easier, resulting in more removed oil and, potentially, reduced energy costs.
In a test using oil sands from Ft. McMurray, Canada, BioTiger™ demonstrated a 50 percent improvement in separation over 4 hours, and a five-fold increase at 25 hours.
It may also have potential for other oil recovery initiatives, including oil shale and other underground areas with oil deposits.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

NSS Board of Directors Meeting

Board of Directors Meeting

Date: 15th October 2008

Time: 5.30pm-7.00pm

Venue: 87 Park City Commerce Square

Virgin Birth by Shark

ScienceDaily (Oct. 11, 2008) — Scientists have confirmed the second-ever case of a “virgin birth” in a shark, indicating once again that female sharks can reproduce without mating and raising the possibility that many female sharks have this incredible capacity.
Lead author Dr. Demian Chapman, shark scientist with the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, Beth Firchau, Curator of Fishes for the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, and Dr. Mahmood Shivji, Director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute and Professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, have proven through DNA testing that the offspring of a female blacktip shark named “Tidbit” contained no genetic material from a father. Tidbit had lived at the Virginia Aquarium in the Norfolk Canyon Aquarium for eight years since shortly after her birth in the wild.
In May 2007, Chapman and Shivji were part of a team that made the groundbreaking scientific discovery confirming -– for the first time ever -- a virgin birth in a female shark. That shark was a hammerhead residing at an Omaha, Nebraska zoo and had not been in contact with male sharks for at least three years. That study was published in the journal Biology Letters and captured global media and scientific attention. The DNA-fingerprinting techniques used to prove both cases of virgin birth (scientifically known as “parthenogenesis”) are identical to those used in human paternity testing.
“It is now clear that parthenogenesis occurs in sharks other than just hammerheads,” Chapman said. “The first case was no fluke. It is quite possible that this is something female sharks of many species can do on occasion.”
Sharks’ ability to reproduce alone should not be viewed as an adequate replacement for normal sexual reproduction, Chapman cautioned. For one, the blacktip and hammerhead sharks that reproduced without mating both only produced one pup, rather than an entire litter. Shark litters can contain anywhere from a few to more than a hundred shark pups, depending upon the species. “The revelation that female sharks can reproduce alone shouldn’t stop us from worrying about driving shark populations to very low levels through overfishing,” said Chapman. “It is very unlikely that a small number of female survivors could build their numbers up very quickly by undergoing virgin birth.”
Tidbit was an Atlantic blacktip shark whom Virginia Aquarium biologists believe had only just reached sexual maturity.
“We have never observed her in reproductive behavior or showing typical signs of having been bred,” said Firchau. Scientists did not even know that Tidbit was pregnant until after she unfortunately died and an autopsy (called a necropsy for animals) was performed. “Sadness turned to surprise during the necropsy when we found that she was pregnant,” Firchau said. “There were no male blacktips in the tank for the past eight years!”
The phenomenon of “virgin birth” occurs when a baby is conceived without male sperm having first fertilized the female’s eggs, and has been proven in some bony fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. In the type of parthenogenesis seen in these sharks, known as automictic parthenogenesis, the newly forming pup acquires one set of chromosomes when the mother's chromosomes split during egg development. But instead of uniting with similarly split chromosomes from sperm, as occurs in sexual reproduction, the mother’s set is paired with a copy of itself. This results in offspring of reduced genetic diversity who may be at a disadvantage for surviving in the wild.
“The finding of parthenogenesis in blacktip sharks, which are close relatives of some of the larger predatory sharks in the ocean including the tiger, bull and dusky sharks, raises intriguing questions about how frequently parthenogenesis may occur in the wild in this group of heavily fished sharks,” said Shivji. “It is possible that parthenogenesis could become more common in these sharks if population densities become so low that females have trouble finding mates.” Populations of all of these sharks have declined in the past twenty years due to overexploitation, mainly to supply the shark fin markets.
There have been nearly a dozen reports of suspected virgin births in sharks in recent years, but scientists largely assumed these cases were the result of long-term sperm storage by females after mating with males. Virgin birth is now the more probable explanation, and DNA testing is underway to confirm it in additional sharks. Chapman is currently analyzing the DNA of yet another shark species with Dr. Kevin Feldheim of the Field Museum in Chicago.