Dry winter helps butterflies, but long term trends bad

The Daily Democrat, which seems to be turning into the Woodland Daily Entomologist, carries a feature by Art Shapiro on his observations of butterflies in our region. Shapiro has been systematically counting butterflies in Northern California for thirty years, building one of the world’s largest databases of information on butterfly population trends.

And the trends are down. In 1999, Shapiro realized that several common species were in trouble, and things have got worse since.

The dry winter of 2006-7 has been good for local butterflies, with several species reappearing in greater numbers. But Shapiro thinks that this short-term improvement is masking longer-term problems.

Tanker fire causes East Bay freeway collapse – KCRA

The crash of a fuel tanker early Sunday morning took out a chunk of freeway leading to the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. To say that today’s commute in the Bay Area is going to be “the most problematic in recent times,” to quote Mayor Gavin Newsom, is probably an understatement.

Mel Ramey, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering, was able to join KCRA in the studio last night to add a bit of informed comment.

Everybody’s getting into olive oil

A small college in Southern California — apparently they work on rockets, or something — is following UC Davis’s lead in the olive oil business. Olive trees are shady, but their fruit makes a mess. A couple of years ago Sal Genito of the UC Davis Grounds Division hit on the idea of collecting the olives and pressing them into oil.

The 2007 vintage was launched a few weeks ago, along with a new line of wine vinegar and other campus consumables. The oil is available through the UC Davis Bookstore.

Dalai Lama to visit Sacramento, maybe UC Davis in 2009

The Sacramento Business Journal reports that the Dalai Lama is to visit Sacramento in Fall, 2009. A visit to the UC Davis MIND Institute is a “possibility,” the report says, noting that the Tibetan leader is interested in neuroscience.

I think that’s more likely to mean the Center for Mind and Brain, which carries out research on perception and cognition, than the MIND Institute, which works on autism. Maybe he could take in the Center for Neuroscience, too.

Psychology professor Phil Shaver attended a conference at the Dalai Lama’s compound in Dharamsala, India in 2006 and met His Holiness, who he described as ” an unusually light, kind, gentle, funny, naturally laughing person.”

“Mathematical ecologist” to give Senate’s Distinguished Research Lecture

Alan Hastings, who applies math to ecology, will give the Academic Senate’s Distinguished Research Lecture May 1. News Service intern Erin Loury has written a profile for this week’s Dateline. The Distinguished Research Lecture is the highest award given by the faculty to one of their own members.

Still running: Collapsing bees, toxic pet food

The story about disappearing bees continues to rumble along. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker rounds up some of the recent coverage, including incidents as far away as Taiwan. They’ll be missed: UC Davis entomologist Eric Mussen tells the LA Times California Garden columnist that we are dependent on bees to produce the majority of our fruits and vegetables. Elsewhere in the LA Times, UCSF researchers are on the trail of viruses and fungi that might (or might not) have something to do with the problem.

Lee Iacocca’s Long View: Plug-in hybrids

Speaking on NPR this morning former Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca says, “I’ve become real fan in the past year of plug-in hybrids… that’s the wave of the future.”

Seems like the world is catching up to what Andy Frank and his students have been doing for years.

Tomatoes once tasted like cucumbers?

Japanese scientists have found that wild relatives of the domestic tomato contain genes that would have made them taste more like cucumbers. Tomato flavors come from a class of compounds called C6 aldehydes, while cucumbers and melons make both C6 and C9 aldehydes. In other fruits and vegetables, C9 compounds give an “off” flavor. By cross-breeding domestic tomatoes with a wild strain (supplied by the C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center at UC Davis), they found that the wild plant could make C9 aldehydes. The C9 genes might have been lost during domestication, they propose.

LA Times picks up PCBs story

The Los Angeles Times picks up yesterday’s UCSF press release on a type of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) causing brain development problems in rat pups. The changes could be similar to those seen in autistic children, according to the researchers. Isaac Pessah of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health and the UC Davis MIND Institute is quoted.

Debate as old as fossils: What were T. rex’s arms for?

Scientific American’s ‘Ask the Experts’ column takes on the question of what T. rex’s weedy arms were for. (Though I doubt that anyone at the time was going to say that within her hearing.) Previous explanations have ranged from copulation to “meathooks” to acting as a sort of prop to push the animal off the ground if it fell over.

T. rexNew research is telling us more about T. rex’s arms, says Florida State palaeontologist Gregory Erickson. The arms were quite strong and could have curled about 400 pounds, but had a limited range of movement — they could not extend much beyond 90 degrees. So the “push-up” theory seems unlikely. Birds get up quite easily without having useful forelimbs, he points out.