Eating our way through Africa

A collection of new studies shows ominous signs that large wildlife in Africa is disappearing not only in general, but from the national parks of all sizes.

Writing in the African Journal of Ecology, Tim Caro from UC Davis and Paul Scholte from Leiden University in the Netherlands say that there are a variety of reasons for the sharp, recent decline in large animals, which all come back to one cause: people.

Shark on show, and in the water

A young great white shark went on display at the Monterey Aquarium in this week. In what was almostYoung shark certainly not a coordinated attempt by sharks to get publicity, another great white bit a surfer in Monterey Bay Tuesday morning. The victim was airlifted to hospital with wounds to the torso and thigh and a story he’ll be telling his granchildren.

“This is about the time they’re returning to the area and there are a lot of people in the water,” says Peter Klimley, a prominent researcher from UC Davis. “The sharks are moving to and from seal colonies and if you happen to be in the wrong place and you are an object at the surface” you risk being attacked.

Have high cigarette taxes lost their bite?

A new study by Peter Franks and colleagues at the UC Davis School of Medicine concludes that high cigarette taxes have lost their effect in discouraging smoking.

The researchers looked at the relationship between pack price and smoking prevalence in different income groups over 20 years, from 1984 to 2004. Smoking declined most in higher income groups, they found.

Franks concluded that while tax increases may have helped in the past, that effect has pretty much disappeared. Moreover, he said, further tax hikes would place an undue burden on the poor — those hit the hardest by increased costs.

Edible films, wrapping food near you

The New York Times has a long story today about new work on edible films for food packaging. Many foods already come coated in some kind of film, such as waxes on fruit, or the glaze on confectionery. The new generation of films are made from things like milk whey (left over from cheesemaking) and crab shells, and may be impregnated with natural antimicrobial compounds or flavors.

Tree-breeding grant from USDA

The US Department of Agriculture has awarded a $6 million grant to develop faster ways to breed trees for the timber industry. They project is lead by David Neale, a forest geneticist at UC Davis.

The Conifer Coordinated Agricultural Project will focus on “marker-assisted breeding” of pine and spruce. They will identify genetic markers for desired characteristics, then use those to pick trees to breed.

USDA press release here.

SciVee: A Youtube for scientists

SciVee logoSciVee is a video website developed by the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego and funded by the National Science Foundation. Leo Chalupa, professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior at UC Davis, is co-director of the project.

According to the press release, SciVee is partnering with the open-access PLoS journals to produce videos that complement papers in those journals.

Scivee previewI looked at a couple of the videos posted on the site so far. They mostly appear to be “talking heads” going over the highlights of their paper. As the author speaks in a box to the left, the paper scrolls by in a larger box to the right with relevant sections highlighted.

Scientists, Corps of Engineers argue about trees and levees

Following up on a story I posted about earlier, today’s Sacramento Bee has a report on a symposium organized by the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps thinks that trees and shrubs should be clear-cut from levees, as they interfere with visual inspection and may damage the levees. But many other experts disagree, arguing that trees and vegetation help protect river levees — arguments supported by recent research by UC Davis and the state Department of Water Resources. Two other UC Davis professors also contributed perspectives to the discussion.

MAGIC finds flaw in relativity?

The MAGIC telescope collaboration last week released results that might show a gap in Einstein’s theories of relativity, and point the way to new theories that tie together gravity and other fundamental forces.

From its mountaintop location in the Canary Islands, the MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov) telescope looks for flashes of light that show gamma rays from deep space MAGIC Telescopehitting the Earth’s atmosphere.

Using MAGIC, the astronomers looked at gamma rays of different energy levels thrown off from a flare in a distant galaxy. According to relativity, the speed of light (and gamma rays) in a vacuum is constant. But the higher energy gamma particles arrived a few minutes later than those at a lower energy.

Andy takes a short break…

I’m taking the next couple of weeks off. In the meantime, some of my esteemed colleagues from the News Service are going to try their hands at guest blogging on Egghead. Please be nice to them.

Normal service — assuming you’re sure what constitutes ‘normal’ — will be resumed August 27.

Plant growth follows the clock

Auxin clockA paper published this in PLoS Biology this week by Stacey Harmer and Mike Covington from Plant Biology shows that circadian rhythms have a profound influence on plant growth, through the auxin system.

Auxin is the chemical messenger in plant shoots that tells the shoot which way to grow: towards light and water, away from the ground, etc. Charles Darwin himself, with his son, Francis, did a series of classic experiments showing that auxin gradients caused shoots to grow in a particular direction.