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NASA Invites Media to Opening of Newly-Restored Apollo Mission Control Center

[rNASA Invites Media to Opening of Newly-Restored Apollo Mission Control Center Fifty years ago, an unparalleled team of experts in a mission control center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston landed the first humans on the Moon. Media are invited to join NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine for the reopening of this historic and newly-restored facility at 9 a.m. CDT Friday, June 28. Source: Eurogamer. http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-invites-media-to-opening-of-newly-restored-apollo-mission-control-center

Majority of people return lost wallets – here’s the psychology and which countries are the most honest

Majority of people return lost wallets – here’s the psychology and which countries are the most honest

What would you do? By Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Honesty is one of the traits we value most in others. We often assume it is a rather rare quality, making it important for us to find out who we can actually trust in this selfish world. But according to new research, there’s no need to be so cynical – it turns out most people in the world are honourable enough to return a lost wallet, especially if it contains a lot of cash.

The study, published in Science, looked at how often people in 40 different countries decided to return a lost wallet to the owner, after the researchers handed it in to the institution in which they said it had been found. Surprisingly, in 38 countries, the wallets with higher sums of money were returned more often than those with smaller amounts. This was the opposite of what the researchers had expected, they thought there would be a minimum dollar value at which participants would begin to keep the money.

Overall, 51% of those who were handed a wallet with smaller amounts of money reported it, compared with 72% for a larger sum. The most honest countries were Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands whereas the least honest were Peru, Morocco and China.

So why is this and what does it tell us about the psychology of honesty? To get an idea, I ran a very informal focus group to find out what kinds of things people may ask themselves when making a decision to return a found wallet. A common view was that no one wanted to appear to act in a socially unacceptable way, and nobody wanted to appear to be a thief. And, of course, the more money in the wallet, the greater the crime.

An important aspect of the new study, however, was that the wallets were handed in to people working in the institutions in which they were said to be found. Given that people in one institution may know each other and may start suspecting each other, there was a very real chance of being found out if the wallet was not handed in. This is perhaps different from finding a wallet yourself on public transport when all you may grapple with is your own conscience.

The “found wallet” test has been used in research before but this is the first global study to use it and it involved more than 17,000 lost wallets. In 2009, a researcher carelessly “dropped” a number of wallets all over Edinburgh to see what would happen. He got 42% of the wallets back, but wasn’t not the most interesting finding. It wasn’t only the money in the wallet that influenced whether it would be returned. Where a family photo, an image of a cute puppy, a baby or an elderly couple were included, the chances of the wallet being returned significantly improved.

You may want to cut this out and put it in your wallet. tiarescott/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Impressive advantages

We value honesty and other moral traits higher than non-moral qualities, including intelligence or humour. As honesty has become one of the cornerstones of society, we start eduacting fellow citizens about it from an early age, even in nurseries. Developmentally, we make decisions early on about morality and moral behaviour, such as whether to share a toy. In 1958, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed an entire theory about the stages of moral development.

But doing the “right” thing is often very hard in reality. Recent research shows there is a trade off – acting honestly can significantly inhibit your own desires. Luckily, there are important advantages. One study suggests that there are tangible health benefits from being honest. In one study, researchers compared groups of people who were instructed to be either honest or dishonest, and found that the honest group reported fewer sore throats, headaches and general feelings of sickness during the duration of the experiment.

Being honest may also make people happier. This might be unsurprising when you consider a view in evolutionary psychology that honesty is a marker that encourages trust and cooperation. So being honest gets you more collaborators and greater success, meaning it provides an evolutionary advantage. If we have evolved in this way, then it is hardly surprising that making a dishonest decision may go against our very nature.

The honest individual

Given how socially important honesty is, we often struggle to deal with being dishonest ourselves – it can fundamentally threaten our view of who we are. Indeed behavioural economist Dan Arielly has shown that we often convince ourselves that we are honest even though we may behave dishonestly, as long as those moral lapses are not huge.

The memories of such failures can also become less vivid or even distorted over time. For example, we may attribute reasons for our behaviour that aren’t entirely accurate (“I only kept the found wallet so I could give half of the money to a beggar”) but better support our views of ourselves. Essentially we are all moral hypocrites.

But which people are the most honest? We may be tempted to think it is those who are most trusted in our society. In the past, those in the UK who needed a passport application signed could choose from individuals from a number of trusted professions including bankers, priests, teachers, police officers and members of parliament. You probably smiled when you read that list – we’ve all heard of dishonest politicians, for example. Clearly, honesty is not universal in any profession, or among any one category of people.

We are all human, and as such open to the same psychological pressures and difficult choices when faced with temptation – we arrive at our own threshold of honesty, and these thresholds can change over a lifetime. There is evidence that, as we age, we get more honest as a result of becoming more norm focused – breaking the rules or seeking excitement becomes less common.

But is honesty the best policy? Probably. That said, we will all agree that a “little white lie” here and there may be the best option sometimes. For example, choosing dishonesty over hurting someone’s feelings could in many cases be compassionate and socially acceptable.

Knowing when to lie and understanding the consequences of it is the trick. Easing someone’s distress, or protecting ourselves from harm may certainly be acceptable – and we learn this too from an early age. I’ve concluded, for example, that telling a publisher that you’ve been working non-stop on an article as you rapidly approach deadline is a totally acceptable lie.

The Conversation

Nigel Holt does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Source: The Conversation: Technology http://theconversation.com/majority-of-people-return-lost-wallets-heres-the-psychology-and-which-countries-are-the-most-honest-119118

NASA Television to Cover Departure, Landing of Astronaut Anne McClain and Space Station Crew

[rNASA Television to Cover Departure, Landing of Astronaut Anne McClain and Space Station Crew NASA astronaut Anne McClain and two crewmates on the International Space Station are scheduled to conclude their stay aboard the orbiting laboratory Monday, June 24. Source: Eurogamer. http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-television-to-cover-departure-landing-of-astronaut-anne-mcclain-and-space-station

Parkinson’s disease: scientists find the earliest roots in the brain

Parkinson’s disease: scientists find the earliest roots in the brain

An array of positron emission tomography or PET images. Yok_onepiece/Shutterstock

About 100 people have a rare mutation in a gene called SNCA that puts them at almost certain risk of getting Parkinson’s disease. This makes them ideal subjects for studying the root causes of this debilitating condition. Most of these people live in the northern Peloponnese in Greece, and a handful live in Campania, Italy. We were lucky enough to have 14 of these people agree to travel to London so we could study their brains.

More than 6m people, globally, have Parkinson’s disease; it is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer disease. The symptoms, which worsen over time, include motor symptoms such as stiffness, slowness and shaking, as well as non-motor symptoms, such as memory problems. Researchers have been trying to find a reliable marker for the disease so that people at risk can be identified before the motor symptoms start.

There are no cures for Parkinson’s disease, but symptoms are treated with drugs that restore a brain chemical called dopamine to normal levels. Dopamine has long been considered a prime culprit in Parkinson’s disease as low levels cause problems with movement. But another brain chemical called serotonin has also been implicated in the disease. But we didn’t know how early and to what extent changes in serotonin occur and if these changes are related to disease onset. To help answer this, we needed to study those Greek and Italian subjects with the SNCA gene mutation.

People with a rare genetic mutation that causes Parkinson’s hail from the Peloponnese in Greece.
Lara Irimeeva/Shutterstock

Studying these gene carriers before they develop Parkinson’s disease is a unique opportunity to understand what comes first in the cascade of events that eventually leads to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. This knowledge is critical so that we can develop sensitive markers to track the progression of the disease.

People with the mutation tend to display symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in their 40s or 50s, so we wanted to study subjects in their 20s and 30s to see if there were any brain changes a decade or more before symptoms started.

Seven of our volunteers, who kindly visited our lab for ten days of brain imaging and neurological tests, had no motor symptoms and seven had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. We also examined 25 patients with sporadic Parkinson’s disease (Parkinson’s disease without a genetic cause) and 25 healthy volunteers.

All participant had three brain scans: one to measure dopamine, one to measure serotonin, and another to study anatomical regions in the brain.

We also carried out a series of clinical tests to investigate motor and non-motor symptoms. The volunteers wore an electronic device on their wrist for seven days to pick up any movements associated with Parkinson’s disease – movement that might be too subtle to be detected by a neurologist with the naked eye. These tests confirmed that the seven subjects with the gene mutation who had no motor symptoms were, indeed, Parkinson’s free.

Early serotonin loss

Comparing data from the different groups allowed us to measure the severity of dopamine and serotonin loss at different stages of the disease, from people without symptoms to people with a diagnosis. It also allowed us to compare changes seen in the gene carriers with changes seen in those with sporadic Parkinson’s disease. This helped us translate our findings in the gene carriers into the more common sporadic form of Parkinson’s disease.

We discovered that gene carriers without symptoms had depleted serotonin, while their dopamine neurons appeared to remain intact. So the changes in the serotonin system that we identified are likely to start very early and precede the onset of motor symptoms by some years.

Our study, published in Lancet Neurology, suggests that changes to the serotonin system come first, occurring many years before patients show symptoms. This important finding could lead to the development of new drugs to slow or even stop disease progression.

Our findings also suggest that brain scans of the serotonin system could be used as a tool for screening and monitoring disease progression. But these scans are expensive, so we need more work to develop affordable technology. We also need more research into genetic forms of Parkinson’s which could further unlock the earliest changes underlying this awful disease.

The Conversation

Heather Wilson receives research support from the CHDI Foundation.

Professor Politis research is supported by Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, Edmond and Lilly Safra Foundation, CHDI Foundation, Glaxo Wellcome R&D, Life Molecular Imaging, Invicro, Curium, Medical Research Council (UK), AVID radiopharmaceuticals, National Institute for Health Research, Alzheimer’s Research UK, and European Commission IMI2 fund.

http://theconversation.com/parkinsons-disease-scientists-find-the-earliest-roots-in-the-brain-119030

Six amazing facts you need to know about ants

Six amazing facts you need to know about ants

Katja Schulz, CC BY-ND

Have you have seen ants this year? In Britain, they were probably black garden ants, known as Lasius niger – Europe’s most common ant. One of somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 species, they are the scourge of gardeners – but also fascinating.

The small, black, wingless workers run around the pavements, crawl up your plants tending aphids or collect tasty morsels from your kitchen. And the flying ants that occasionally appear on a warm summer’s evening are actually the reproductive siblings of these non-winged workers. Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Most ants you see are female

Ants have a caste system, where responsibilities are divided. The queen is the founder of the colony, and her role is to lay eggs. Worker ants are all female, and this sisterhood is responsible for the harmonious operation of the colony.

Their tasks range from caring for the queen and the young, foraging, policing conflicts in the colony, and waste disposal. Workers will most likely never have their own offspring. The vast majority of eggs develop as workers, but once the colony is ready the queen produces the next generation of reproductives which will go on to start own colonies.

A female ant’s fate to become a worker or queen is mainly determined by diet, not genetics. Any female ant larva can become the queen – those that do receive diets richer in protein. The other larvae receive less protein, which causes them to develop as workers.

2. Male ants are pretty much just flying sperm

Male ants have a mother but no father. Author provided

Unlike humans, with X and Y chromosomes, an ant’s sex is determined by the number of genome copies it possesses. Male ants develop from unfertilised eggs so receive no genome from a father. This means that male ants don’t have a father and cannot have sons, but they do have grandfathers and can have grandsons. Female ants, in comparison, develop from fertilised eggs and have two genome copies – one from their father and one from their mother.

Male ants function like flying sperm. Only having one genome copy means every one of their sperm is genetically identical to themselves. And their job is over quickly, dying soon after mating, although their sperm live on, perhaps for years. – essentially their only job is to reproduce.

Let them eat cake. Shutterstock

3. After sex queens don’t eat for weeks

When the conditions are warm and humid, the winged virgin queens and males leave their nests in search of mates. This is the behaviour seen on “flying ant day”. In L. niger, mating takes place on the wing, often hundreds of meters up (hence the need for good weather). Afterwards, queens drop to the ground and shed their wings, while males quickly die. Mated queens choose a nest site and burrow into the soil, made softer from recent rain.


Read more: The amazing secrets behind ‘flying ant day’


Once underground, the queens will not eat for weeks – until they have produced their own daughter workers. They use energy from their fat stores and redundant flight muscles to lay their first batch of eggs, which they fertilise using sperm stored from their nuptial flight. It is the same stock of sperm acquired from long dead males that allows a queen to continue laying fertilised eggs for her entire life. Queens never mate again.

4. Home-making the ant way: cooperation, death and slavery

Sometimes two L. niger queens unite to found a nest. This initially cooperative association – which increases the chance of establishing a colony – dissolves once new adult workers emerge and then the queens fight to the death. More sinister still, L. niger colonies sometimes steal brood from their neighbours, putting them to work as slaves.

Slave-making has evolved in a number of ant species, but they also display cooperation at extraordinary levels. An extreme example of this is a “supercolony” of Argentine ants (Linepithema humile) which extends over 6,000km of European coastline from Italy to north-west Spain, and is composed of literally billions of workers from millions of cooperating nests.

5. Queen ants can live for decades, males for a week

After establishing her colony, the queen’s work is not done and she has many years of egg-laying ahead of her. In the laboratory, L. niger queens have lived for nearly 30 years. Workers live for about a year, males little more than a week (although their sperm live longer). These extraordinary differences in longevity are purely due to the way their genes are switched on and off.

6. Ants can help humans and the environment

Ants have a major influence in ecosystems worldwide and their roles are diverse. While some ants are considered pests, others act as biological-control agents. Ants benefit ecosystems by dispersing seeds, pollinating plants and improving the quality of soil. Ants might also benefit our health, as a potential source of new medicines such as antibiotics.

So when you next see an ant, before you think to kill her, consider how fascinating she really is.

The Conversation

Charlie Durant receives funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Max John receives funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the Genetics Society.

Rob Hammond receives funding from NERC, BBSRC, The Genetics Society.

Source: The Conversation: Technology http://theconversation.com/six-amazing-facts-you-need-to-know-about-ants-100478

Six amazing facts you need to know about ants

Six amazing facts you need to know about ants

Katja Schulz, CC BY-ND

Have you have seen ants this year? In Britain, they were probably black garden ants, known as Lasius niger – Europe’s most common ant. One of somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 species, they are the scourge of gardeners – but also fascinating.

The small, black, wingless workers run around the pavements, crawl up your plants tending aphids or collect tasty morsels from your kitchen. And the flying ants that occasionally appear on a warm summer’s evening are actually the reproductive siblings of these non-winged workers. Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Most ants you see are female

Ants have a caste system, where responsibilities are divided. The queen is the founder of the colony, and her role is to lay eggs. Worker ants are all female, and this sisterhood is responsible for the harmonious operation of the colony.

Their tasks range from caring for the queen and the young, foraging, policing conflicts in the colony, and waste disposal. Workers will most likely never have their own offspring. The vast majority of eggs develop as workers, but once the colony is ready the queen produces the next generation of reproductives which will go on to start own colonies.

A female ant’s fate to become a worker or queen is mainly determined by diet, not genetics. Any female ant larva can become the queen – those that do receive diets richer in protein. The other larvae receive less protein, which causes them to develop as workers.

2. Male ants are pretty much just flying sperm

Male ants have a mother but no father.
Author provided

Unlike humans, with X and Y chromosomes, an ant’s sex is determined by the number of genome copies it possesses. Male ants develop from unfertilised eggs so receive no genome from a father. This means that male ants don’t have a father and cannot have sons, but they do have grandfathers and can have grandsons. Female ants, in comparison, develop from fertilised eggs and have two genome copies – one from their father and one from their mother.

Male ants function like flying sperm. Only having one genome copy means every one of their sperm is genetically identical to themselves. And their job is over quickly, dying soon after mating, although their sperm live on, perhaps for years.
– essentially their only job is to reproduce.

Let them eat cake.
Shutterstock

3. After sex queens don’t eat for weeks

When the conditions are warm and humid, the winged virgin queens and males leave their nests in search of mates. This is the behaviour seen on “flying ant day”. In L. niger, mating takes place on the wing, often hundreds of meters up (hence the need for good weather). Afterwards, queens drop to the ground and shed their wings, while males quickly die. Mated queens choose a nest site and burrow into the soil, made softer from recent rain.




Read more:
The amazing secrets behind ‘flying ant day’


Once underground, the queens will not eat for weeks – until they have produced their own daughter workers. They use energy from their fat stores and redundant flight muscles to lay their first batch of eggs, which they fertilise using sperm stored from their nuptial flight. It is the same stock of sperm acquired from long dead males that allows a queen to continue laying fertilised eggs for her entire life. Queens never mate again.

4. Home-making the ant way: cooperation, death and slavery

Sometimes two L. niger queens unite to found a nest. This initially cooperative association – which increases the chance of establishing a colony – dissolves once new adult workers emerge and then the queens fight to the death. More sinister still, L. niger colonies sometimes steal brood from their neighbours, putting them to work as slaves.

Slave-making has evolved in a number of ant species, but they also display cooperation at extraordinary levels. An extreme example of this is a “supercolony” of Argentine ants (Linepithema humile) which extends over 6,000km of European coastline from Italy to north-west Spain, and is composed of literally billions of workers from millions of cooperating nests.

5. Queen ants can live for decades, males for a week

After establishing her colony, the queen’s work is not done and she has many years of egg-laying ahead of her. In the laboratory, L. niger queens have lived for nearly 30 years. Workers live for about a year, males little more than a week (although their sperm live longer). These extraordinary differences in longevity are purely due to the way their genes are switched on and off.

6. Ants can help humans and the environment

Ants have a major influence in ecosystems worldwide and their roles are diverse. While some ants are considered pests, others act as biological-control agents. Ants benefit ecosystems by dispersing seeds, pollinating plants and improving the quality of soil. Ants might also benefit our health, as a potential source of new medicines such as antibiotics.

So when you next see an ant, before you think to kill her, consider how fascinating she really is.

The Conversation

Charlie Durant receives funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Max John receives funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the Genetics Society.

Rob Hammond receives funding from NERC, BBSRC, The Genetics Society.

source: The Conversation: Environment

Coverage Set for NASA Tech Missions Launching on SpaceX Falcon Heavy

[rCoverage Set for NASA Tech Missions Launching on SpaceX Falcon Heavy NASA Television coverage is scheduled for an upcoming prelaunch activity and first nighttime launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which will be carrying four agency technology missions to help improve future spacecraft design and performance. Source: Eurogamer. http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/coverage-set-for-nasa-tech-missions-launching-on-spacex-falcon-heavy

Why people in a flooded British town were told to stop flushing the toilet

Why people in a flooded British town were told to stop flushing the toilet

The British town of Wainfleet in Lincolnshire is underwater. After two months rain in two days, the River Steeping burst its banks, and 580 homes were evacuated. Curiously, the advice to the town’s remaining residents is to avoid flushing the toilet or using the washing machine whenever possible – advice that is more usually associated with drought rather than flood.

The request suggests that Wainfleet’s sewer system is dangerously close to capacity. Using the loo and washing machine not only puts a demand on the water supply system, but it also adds to the flows in the local sewer, which is likely to be very full.

Like most towns in Europe, Wainfleet’s town centre was constructed before the 1950s, and will be served by a “combined sewer” that takes both the waste water from toilets and showers, and the rainwater from roofs and roads. This resulting dilute waste water then needs to be treated before it is discharged into the environment. If the volume of water is too much for the treatment plant to handle then a “combined sewage overflow” will release dilute sewage into rivers and oceans. It is because of combined sewage overflows that it’s not a good idea to bathe in rivers or beaches after there has been rainfall.

During dry weather (and small storms), all flows are handled by the publicly owned treatment works (POTW). During large storms, the relief structure allows some of the combined storm water and sewage to be discharged untreated into an adjacent water body.
EPA

An additional problem in Wainfleet (and many low-lying areas like London, much of the Netherlands or New Orleans in the US) is that the sewer system is lower than the level of the river or sea. This means that the wastewater/rainwater combination does not just need treatment, but it also needs pumping. If there is too much water for the treatment works or pumps to process at any one moment, then water from streets or homes will be unable to enter the sewer system, and dirty water, including dilute sewage, can overflow into rivers, streets and homes.

A dramatic example of this happened in Hull in 2007. Just like in Wainfleet, heavy summer rainstorms put pressure on treatment systems and pumps. More than 8,000 homes were flooded, and some people were out of their homes for over a year. Such flooding causes huge physical disruption and challenges people’s mental health. Imagine unexpectedly losing most of your possessions, simultaneously needing to find a new place to live for an unpredictable length of time, having to manage the family routines from a different location, and meanwhile having to negotiate with insurers and builders about the renewal of your home.

Careful …
New Africa/Shutterstock.com

As climate change threatens to bring more sudden rainstorms, many places are becoming more vulnerable to problems like those in Wainfleet and Hull. One way to address these problems is to slow down the flow of rainwater. The hard surfaces of roads, pavements and pipes, for example, speed up the flow of water. Some agricultural drainage practices may also encourage water to flow rather than waterlog the land. What this all means is that all the water from the rainstorm arrives at the treatment and pumping facilities at the same time.

We can address these problems – in Wainfleet as elsewhere – but it will take many small changes to the way people manage their water.

Wetlands and rain gardens

All over the world, local authorities are exploring how they can repurpose parks and other open spaces to help to store the water from heavy rainfall. In Firs Farm Park in the London borough of Enfield, for example, playing fields have been raised and others transformed into wetland to hold back the water and prevent flooding downstream. This work has helped to stimulate the involvement of local people in maintaining the park, while the wetlands provide a nature resource for schoolchildren.

Similar projects are being explore as far apart as Bergen, Norway, and Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

On a smaller scale, water can be held back in street rain gardens. These small patches of planting combined with dropped kerbs offer opportunities for infiltrating water and greening the streets. Residents may have to sacrifice some local parking spaces, but such investments can make a neighbourhood more pleasant for everyone, as well as reducing the flows downstream.

Asphalt-covered cities are hardly drainage-friendly.
Lals stock/Shutterstock.com

The request to minimise household inputs to the sewer system is one small immediate way to mobilise local residents to help address the threat of flooding. But residents with a garden can help in other ways too. Most UK houses have gutters that discharge directly to the sewer. Depending on the local geology, garden soakaways (stone-filled ditches which can soak up water if it rains), retain the water so it drains more slowly to the ground or the sewer.

Another way to accomplish this task is with a raintank. Most people think of raintanks (or water butts) as a way to protect against droughts. But as long as a tank has some space in it, it also has the potential to provide added protection for a neighbourhood from flooding. My research team is currently exploring whether we can make “leaky raintanks”. The idea here is that as well as storing water for use in the garden, the tank will also have a space which is able to fill up in a storm and then drain slowly into the sewer. If every household in a neighbourhood had a “leaky raintank”, it could make a significant difference to the amount of water storage during a storm.

A garden raintank (barrel) – good for floods and droughts.
Richard Pratt/Shutterstock.com

Whether helping to replan the local park, participating in discussing which parts of the street can form a rain garden, or through managing a soakaway or raintank on your private land, water management is increasingly seen as something which is too big and too important to leave just to technical experts. We are all part of the water system, and those that manage water are recognising that people are able and willing to undertake actions to improve the water system.

Meanwhile, technical experts more widely need to recognise that water is part of lived in and natural landscapes – and this must be reflected in sewers and streets. In a time in which water-related threats are worsening, society needs to look beyond isolated problems of floods or droughts, and to consider how wise water management can deliver local benefits as well as a more resilient landscape for everyone.

The Conversation

Liz Sharp receives funding from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EP/N010124/1), the EU's Intereg funding for the North Sea Region (https://northsearegion.eu/begin/) and the UK Research's Climate Resilience fund (NE/S016589/1). Her work on climate resilience in Hull is also supported by in kind contritions from the Living With Water Partnership, incorporating Yorkshire Water Services, Hull City Council, East Riding Council and the Environment Agency.

source: The Conversation: Environment

Birds: we studied 4,000 ‘alien introductions’ to find out why some were successful

Birds: we studied 4,000 ‘alien introductions’ to find out why some were successful

Parakeets from South Asia have established themselves in London. Guy RD / shutterstock

Species introduced by humans to areas where they don’t naturally occur are a worldwide problem. These “alien species” can cost a lot of money to deal with, and they’re the number one driver associated with recent extinctions worldwide. The rate at which new populations of alien species are establishing is increasing rapidly, and ideally we’d like to stop the process in its tracks.

But first we need to answer two key questions: firstly, what features of species make them good at becoming alien? For instance why has the Indian myna bird managed to establish itself across the world while its relative the crested myna has not? And, secondly, what is it that makes some locations more susceptible to aliens establishing there? While we have made progress in answering the first question, we haven’t done nearly so well with the second.

Myna birds are invasive pests in Australia.
PapilionemK / shutterstock

The reason for this is that the environment is very complicated and so many elements of it might be important for an arriving alien species. For instance the climate at a new location is likely to matter, not just in absolute terms, but in how well it matches what the alien is used to back home. Climatic extremes may be as or more important than averages in this regard.

Which species are already present at the location is also likely to be important. Too many and the alien may get easily outcompeted or eaten, too few might mean there wasn’t enough food in the area. Again, the identity of the alien matters in these regards. Habitat will matter, as will the extent to which humans have modified it. Finally, all of these features of the location vary over space and time, and which species get introduced as aliens also is not random, all of which introduces a range of complications.

In collaboration with colleagues in Australia and the US, my research group set out to attempt a rigorous global analysis of why some locations are more susceptible to alien establishment. We first assembled a catalogue of more than 4,000 alien bird introductions, featuring everything from Australian magpies in New Zealand to Southeast Asian zebra doves in Hawaii.

We then overlaid it with information on features of the local environment, species traits, and how many individuals got introduced (important because small founding populations can easily fail by accident), and used complex statistical methods to assess the impacts of all these different factors.

Egyptian goose in Regent’s Park, London. First introduced on country estates, the birds have now lived in the UK for centuries.
By Martin Pateman-Lewis / shutterstock

Our results are now published in Nature. Overall, we found that environmental features were the most important, particularly human impacts on the environment – how many other alien species groups were already present, for example – and how well the new environment matched what the species was used to from its native range.

The matching effect is not surprising – introduce a tropical parrot to the Arctic and it’s probably not going to do very well – but it is reassuring, as it gives us confidence in our analysis. This makes the anthropogenic effects more worrying though, in particular that alien birds are more likely to establish populations in areas that already have more aliens of other sorts. This is consistent with the “invasional meltdown” hypothesis that previous invasions help facilitate future alien arrivals.

The meltdown result does not simply reflect general environmental disturbance, as we also found that alien birds are more likely to establish themselves in less disturbed habitats – for example, areas where lots of habitat had been converted to cropland in the run up to the introduction.

Another sort of disturbance that matters is bad weather – a big storm in the period immediately following introduction can cause the alien population to disappear. There was already anecdotal evidence for this – for example, the initial extinction of the alien house crow population from Mauritius following a storm – but our analysis shows that this is a general effect.

We did find some evidence that lots of native bird species meant alien birds were less likely to establish themselves, but alien birds do slightly better in areas with at least some similar native species rather than none. This makes sense – for example, an alien bird that eats insects might be expected to do better in areas where native insectivores live, as long as there aren’t too many for the aliens to make a living. Overall, however, the types of native plants and animals had a relatively weak effect on alien bird establishment success.

While the environment explained most variation in alien bird establishment overall, we also found large effects of species traits and number of individuals introduced. Founding population size needs to be large enough (more than about 50 birds) to avoid the alien population failing simply by chance (the same reason we worry about very small populations of threatened native species). Assuming there are enough birds, then it helps if they breed fast but don’t die too young. It also helps if they are not too fussy about what they eat or where they live.

Taken together, our results show how features of the environment, the species, and the founding population size have all influenced the global history of alien bird establishment. They also suggest reasons to worry. The world is showing signs of a global invasion meltdown, while ever more alien species are being introduced to new locations and getting the chance to test their environmental matches. Increasingly, the future is looking alien.

The Conversation

Tim Blackburn's research was supported in part by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust.

source: The Conversation: Environment