Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Alfred Wallace

Forgotten evolutionist lives in Darwin's shadow

- AP Environmental Writer

SANTUBONG, Malaysia -- As he trudges past chest-high ferns and butterflies the size of saucers, George Beccaloni scours a jungle hilltop overlooking the South China Sea for signs of a long-forgotten Victorian-era scientist.

He finds what he's looking for: an abandoned, two-story guest house, its doors missing and ceiling caved in.

"Excellent. This is the actual spot," he yells.

It is on this site, in a long-gone thatched hut, that Alfred Russel Wallace is believed to have spent weeks in 1855 writing a seminal paper on the theory of evolution. Yet he is largely unknown outside scientific circles today, overshadowed by Charles Darwin, whom most people credit as the father of a theory that explains the origins of life through how plants and animals evolve.

Now, in the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, a growing number of academics and amateur historians are rediscovering Wallace. Their efforts are raising debate over exactly what Wallace contributed to the theory of evolution, and what role, if any, the spiritual world plays in certain aspects of natural selection.

Beccaloni, a 41-year-old British evolutionary biologist with London's Natural History Museum, is on a quest to return Wallace to what he sees as his rightful place in history. He and Fred Langford Edwards, a British artist making an audiovisual project about Wallace, are retracing the scientist's eight-year trip around Southeast Asia.

Unlike Wallace, Darwin spent two decades developing his theory of natural selection and had far more evidence to back it up, as presented in his defining work, "The Origin of Species," published 150 years ago. But Wallace reached the same conclusion before Darwin published his findings, and Beccaloni contends that Wallace deserves equal billing.

"The Darwin industry is what has distorted the whole of history," Beccaloni said. "People have just concentrated on Darwin and his life and work but they fail to see Darwin wasn't alone and he fits into a wider picture."

Wallace, a British beetle and bird collector, set off for Singapore in 1854. Eight years and 14,000 miles (23,000 kilometers) later, he returned to England as one of the most celebrated biologists after Darwin.

Often traveling with a lone assistant and enduring monsoons and malaria, Wallace collected more than 125,000 birds, beetles and other animals. Thousands were new to the West, including one he named Wallace's golden bird wing butterfly. He shot 17 orangutans and shipped their skins back to Britain, became a fan of the durian - a fruit known for its thorns and powerful odor - and admired the moral character and mental capacity of the Dyak people of Borneo.

But his biggest contribution to science was his writings in the Malay archipelago on evolution and natural selection, building on an earlier four-year trek to the Amazon.

In 1855, he laid out the Sarawak law - named after the place he wrote the paper, now a state in modern-day Malaysia - in which he described evolution as a branching tree. His forceful argument in support of evolution came at a time when creationism, or the idea that God created man, was the popular school of thought.

A year later, he proposed what became known as the Wallace Line after traveling to the islands of Bali and Lombok, in what is now Indonesia. He noticed that bird species were different on each island and concluded that a deep water trench created a boundary that separated the animal species of Southeast Asia and Australasia.

Two years after that, Wallace came up with the theory of natural selection - or survival of the fittest - while bedridden with malaria on another nearby island.

His theory was presented together with Darwin's by the Linnean Society of London on July 1, 1858. Upon his return to England in 1862, Wallace found himself welcomed into a select club of scientists that included Darwin, Sir Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker and Thomas Henry Huxley.

Wallace became one of the most prominent scientists of his day, publishing more than 800 articles and 22 books over the next 50 years. He was a leading voice in an anti-vaccination movement, a proponent of land reform and the father of biogeography, or the study of the geographic distribution of plants and animals.

"He was a person with a remarkable open mind," said Charles H. Smith, a professor and Western Kentucky University librarian who runs a Web site on Wallace. "He had more concern with science as it related to humankind than practically anyone in his time. That is why he was so interested in social issues."

Wallace died in 1913 at the age of 90. Over the years, he slipped into obscurity, joining a long list - British scientist Patrick Matthews and French scientist Jean Baptist LeMarc among them - whose contributions to evolution theory have largely become footnotes.

The soft-spoken, baby-faced Beccaloni became enamored of Wallace as a graduate student studying the evolution of mimicry in butterflies. He took up Wallace's cause in 1999 after stumbling upon his poorly maintained gravestone in Dorset, England.

Calling himself Wallace's Rottweiler, Beccaloni has barnstormed across England to preserve Wallace homes and other sites. He convinced the Natural History Museum in London to buy the scientist's insect collection, correspondence and books from Wallace's two grandsons.

He also runs a Wallace Web site and is helping British standup comedian Bill Bailey plan a routine based on the scientist. Beccaloni's biggest job by far, however, is defending Wallace's legacy.

He and other scholars claim Darwin conspired to ensure his paper was presented with Wallace's to prevent Wallace from getting sole credit. Roy Davies, the author of the "The Darwin Conspiracy," even accuses Darwin of stealing his ideas from Wallace - an allegation dismissed by other Wallace supporters as unsubstantiated.

But Peter Bowler, a Queen's University of Belfast professor who has spent his career studying evolution theory, contends Wallace's achievements have been exaggerated by his supporters.

Wallace did not have the complete theory and nowhere near the evidence Darwin had compiled - and that was needed to win over a skeptical public, Bowler said. Darwin's evidence included fossil records, animal breeding and heredity, while Wallace relied almost exclusively on biogeography.

"How many years would it have taken Wallace to put together the sort of comprehensive account that would have grabbed people's attention the way 'The Origin of Species' did?" Bowler asked. "Without Darwin, I don't think there would have been a great debate about natural selection in the 1860s and 1870s."

Also controversial is Wallace's support of spiritualism, a popular movement that held seances and believed spirits of the dead can communicate with the living. He upset Darwin and damaged his scientific reputation by arguing that the development of the human mind and some bodily attributes were guided by spiritual beings rather than natural selection, Beccaloni acknowledged.

That has turned Wallace into an unlikely hero among some Christian conservatives opposed to the teaching of evolution. He is also used to support intelligent design, the theory that certain features of life forms are so complex that they must have originated from a higher power.

Michael Flannery, the author of the new book "Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Intelligent Evolution," argues that Wallace was in many ways "the seminal figure in what we consider the intelligent design movement." The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the main supporter of the theory, cites Wallace in its promotional material.

Beccaloni groans when the talk turns to Wallace's spiritualism, noting that he wasn't even a Christian. Christian groups are "grasping at straws," he said, and other academics are using spiritualism to diminish his scientific importance. Beccaloni is trying to keep the focus on his earlier scientific discoveries.

In the Malaysian riverside town of Simunjan, Beccaloni was again on the trail of Wallace. Using Wallace's famous travelogue "The Malay Archipelago" as a map of sorts, he followed a rusted railroad track featured in the book, past paddy fields and palm oil plantations, until the road ended in a peat bog.

That's when Beccaloni began noticing chunks of coal sticking out of the dark soil, a telltale sign of coal works that Wallace described in his book. It was here, Beccaloni surmised, that Wallace spent nine months collecting insects, discovering a strange tree-frog and shooting orangutans.

But nobody would know. The site was unmarked.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Wildlife Faces Cancer Threat

Green turtles around the globe are dying from fibropapillomatosis,

a disease that causes tumors on the skin (pictured here) and internal organs.

(Credit: Cynthia Lagueux)

ScienceDaily (June 24, 2009)

While cancer touches the lives of many humans, it is also a major threat to wild animal populations as well, according to a recent study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

A newly published paper in the July edition of Nature Reviews Cancercompiles information on cancer in wildlife and suggests that cancer poses a conservation threat to certain species. The WCS authors highlight the critical need to protect both animals and people through increased health monitoring.

"Cancer is one of the leading health concerns for humans, accounting for more than 10 percent of human deaths," said Dr. Denise McAloose, lead author and Chief Pathologist for WCS's Global Health program. "But we now understand that cancer can kill wild animals at similar rates."

In certain situations, cancer threatens the survival of entire species. The Tasmanian devil, the world's largest carnivorous marsupial, is at risk of extinction due to a cancer known as devil facial tumor disease. This form of contagious cancer spreads between individual Tasmanian devils through direct contact (primarily fighting and biting). To save the species from this fatal disease, conservationists are relocating cancer-free Tasmanian devils to geographically isolated areas or zoos.

Many species living within polluted aquatic environments suffer high rates of cancerous tumors, and studies strongly suggest links between wildlife cancers and human pollutants. For example, the study cites the case of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River system. These whales have an extraordinarily high rate of intestinal cancer, which is their second leading cause of death. One type of pollutant in these waters—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs)—is a well-known carcinogen in humans, and PAHs are suspected carcinogens for beluga whales as well. Fish in other industrialized waterways, including brown bullhead catfish and English sole, also exhibit high levels of cancer.

Virus-induced cancers can affect the ability of some wildlife populations to reproduce. Genital tumors in California sea lions on North America's western coast occur at much higher rates than previously documented. Oceanic dolphin species, such as the dusky dolphin and Burmeister's porpoise (both found in the coastal waters of South America), are also showing higher rates of genital carcinomas.

Other virus-induced cancers can affect the feeding ability or eyesight of wildlife. Green sea turtles—a migratory species in oceans across the globe—suffer from fibropapillomatosis, a disease that causes skin and internal organ tumors. A virus is suspected as the cause these tumors, and environmental factors such as human-manufactured carcinogens might exacerbate their severity or prevalence.

Monitoring the health of wildlife can illuminate the causes of cancer in animal populations; thereby, better safeguarding animals and humans against possible disease. Evaluating cancer threats in wildlife populations requires the collaborative efforts of biologists, veterinarians, and pathologists as well as the earnest engagement of governments and international agencies. The paper concludes that more resources are necessary to support wildlife health monitoring.

"Examining the impact of cancer in wildlife, in particular those instances when human activities are identified as the cause, can contribute to more effective conservation and fits within the One World–One Health approach of reducing threats to both human and animal health," said Dr. William Karesh, Vice President and Director of WCS's Global Health Program

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Natural Science Lecture: Bats: Whispering Shadows In The Evening Sky

Speaker: Mr Belden Giman

Date: 20th June 2009 (Satturday)
Time: 02.00 pm
Venue: New World 3, Level 5.

The Sarawak Planted Forest (pulp and paper) Project (SPFP), Bintulu Division target is to plant the fast growing Acacia mangium species for the supply of pulp and paper industry. Large forested areas of the SPFP are reserved for conservation of flora and fauna in the project. The Conservation Program for the SPFP is based on cooperative studies with local and international experts on biodiversity, conducting biological inventories with
Conservation Program staff, university students and NGOs. The SPFP Conservation program is supporting awareness program for nature and conservation works besides cataloging the species richness of the SPFP, and to develop an effective long-term biodiversity conservation models for the SPFP.

Speaker Profile:
Mr Belden Giman was formerly graduated from University Putra Malaysia Bintulu Campus in 2004 taking a general Forestry courses for 3 years. He has worked with the Conservation department since January 2005 and dedicated most of his hours of work on mammals in the SPFP. His main interest is emphasizing toward the long-term population of mammals and avifauna (birds) in the SPFP. He is currently working as a research partner with UTAR personnel on the Habitat Suitability of Small Carnivores in monoculture plantation. His main research work now is on mammals’ population trends monitoring in plantation by utilizing remote trip camera. As for bat, data and information collection had just started by doing surveys at several caves and sites within the plantation boundary. This talk provides a platform of exposure for exchanging ideas and methodologies with other expertise.

We welcome all who are interested.

Free Admission

Monday, June 15, 2009

New Chemical Element In The Periodic Table


ScienceDaily (June 12, 2009) — The element 112, discovered at the GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung (Centre for Heavy Ion Research) in Darmstadt, has been officially recognized as a new element by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). IUPAC confirmed the recognition of element 112 in an official letter to the head of the discovering team, Professor Sigurd Hofmann. The letter furthermore asks the discoverers to propose a name for the new element.


Their suggestion will be submitted within the next weeks. In about 6 months, after the proposed name has been thoroughly assessed by IUPAC, the element will receive its official name. The new element is approximately 277 times heavier than hydrogen, making it the heaviest element in the periodic table.

“We are delighted that now the sixth element – and thus all of the elements discovered at GSI during the past 30 years – has been officially recognized. During the next few weeks, the scientists of the discovering team will deliberate on a name for the new element”, says Sigurd Hofmann. 21 scientists from Germany, Finland, Russia and Slovakia were involved in the experiments around the discovery of the new element 112.

Already in 1996, Professor Sigurd Hofmann’s international team created the first atom of element 112 with the accelerator at GSI. In 2002, they were able to produce another atom. Subsequent accelerator experiments at the Japanese RIKEN accelerator facility produced more atoms of element 112, unequivocally confirming GSI’s discovery.

To produce element 112 atoms, scientists accelerate charged zinc atoms – zinc ions for short – with the help of the 120 m long particle accelerator at GSI and “fire” them onto a lead target. The zinc and lead nuclei merge in a nuclear fusion to form the nucleus of the new element. Its so-called atomic number 112, hence the provisional name “element 112”, is the sum of the atomic numbers of the two initial elements: zinc has the atomic number 30 and lead the atomic number 82. An element’s atomic number indicates the number of protons in its nucleus. The neutrons that are also located in the nucleus have no effect on the classification of the element. It is the 112 electrons, which orbit the nucleus, that determine the new element’s chemical properties.

Since 1981, GSI accelerator experiments have yielded the discovery of six chemical elements, which carry the atomic numbers 107 to 112. GSI has already named their officially recognized elements 107 to 111: element 107 is called Bohrium, element 108 Hassium, element 109 Meitnerium, element 110 Darmstadtium, and element 111 is named Roentgenium

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

NSSB visit to Bukit Sarang

On 23-24 May 2009 the NSSB members were invited to visit one of the unique conservation area in Sarawak Planted Forest Project area the BUkit Sarang Conservation Area.

Bukit Sarang is a limestone emergence in kakus. It is a small limestone hill full with small caves suitable for swiflet.

A sustainable harvesting of bird's nest has been implemented here. The visit is mainly to create awareness to NSSB members on the biodiversity that can be found around Bukit Sarang itself besides a learning experience on photography, bird watching and frogging at night.

Here are some lovely photos from my own rack during the visit to share with you all. Enjoy it!

A long way up through a cave called Lubang Pakan to reach to the top of Bukit Sarang

About an hour of climbing will brings you to the peak of Bukit Sarang.

At last...a group photo during the final day of the trip.
This is only the first series of the photographic updates during the visit. I will upload another series of photos during the trip after I am done with editing.

Hopefully the next trip will be more exciting and educating!!