A tern for the better – Irish Examiner, April 2 2018

A hugely successful conservation project has seen an Irish island nominated for a major European award, writes Amy Lewis.

In 1989, a conservation project on tiny Rockabill Island off north Dublin took flight and now it’s in the running for a major European environmental award.

The Rockabill Roseate Tern Conservation project is the only Irish initiative out of 25 finalists in this year’s Natura 2000 awards, a pan-European award which recognises excellence in the management of Natura 2000 sites.

Led by BirdWatch Ireland, this project focuses on conserving one of Europe’s rarest seabirds, the roseate tern, which owing to almost three decades of monitoring and conservation efforts, is now thriving here.

The Rockabill colony has grown from 152 pairs in 1989 to 1,603 pairs in 2017, making the island a nesting habitat for 47% of the European population.

This year marks the first time that an Irish-born project has been shortlisted for a Natura 2000 award.

Commenting on the nomination, senior seabird conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Stephen Newton said that, in the coming weeks, he hopes to drum up support from the public, whose vote determines who will win the European Citizen’s Award.

“We think we have a good project. We have a tiny site with 80% of the biogeographical population of these birds on it,” says Stephen, who coordinates the project which is supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

“It’s of phenomenal importance; every bird is ringed, we know each bird’s mother, father, where it was born and what year they were born in.

“We have built a big database of their movements and survival rates and know an awful lot about them. It’s quite unique.”

It was the departure of the last lighthouse keepers from Rockabill in the late 1980s that prompted BirdWatch Ireland to step in. Up until then, roseate terns had gained protection and nesting spots in the gardens of the lighthouse keepers and it was feared that their absence may cause the already small population to decline further.

In 1988, Rockabill was declared a Special Protection Area (SPA) and the following year, BirdWatch Ireland sent the first pair of wardens to the island. Since then, wardens have resided on the island annually between April and August.

Much of the work involves increasing the area of nesting space for these ground-nesting birds by removing non-native vegetation such as tree mallow and placing down nest boxes.

“The terns like nesting under tree mallow but only around the edges as they like seeing what is going on around them to avoid predators. We essentially remove all that, compost it and put out nest boxes so that we can get far more terns nesting in the same area,” explains Stephen, who says there are currently about 900 nest boxes on the island.

The wardens check each nest daily to monitor the bird’s progress, see how many eggs were laid and when they hatch. All of the chicks are then ringed and monitored throughout their lifespan.

We have four or five hides around the tiny island and we sit in those for a couple of hours at a time to scan and try to read ring numbers of as many animals as we can. Because of this, we have a lot of information on the birds and how long they survive. Our oldest bird is 25 years old.

The ringing system also allows the team to track the whereabouts of the terns post breeding season; occasionally, they receive photographs of them in unexpected locations such as Lake Geneva and the River Seine.

It’s uncertain why the European population of roseate terns declined to globally-threatened status in the years preceding this project.

According to Stephen, it’s likely that persecution by predators and loss of key breeding sites resulted in birds becoming displaced and not breeding for several years. While many of them eventually settled on Rockabill, there are also about 200 pairs at Lady’s Island in Wexford.

Though it has been hugely successful, the Roseate Tern project is not without its challenges. Stephen says that the main hurdle he faces is looking after the wardens who reside on Rockabill in accommodation leased from island owners Irish Lights.

“The main thing is keeping those people alive during these few months! Everything has to be taken out to the island, including food, water, gas and diesel.

“I have to keep a generator running and often I get a call during the night to say it isn’t working. If I can’t fix it over the phone, I have to get out there as soon as I can as we need electricity to power laptops and chargers.”

Ensuring that the project has adequate funding is another challenge; at present, it costs approximately €40,000 a year, much of comes from the EU LIFE programme.

While not involved in the project himself, bird expert Eric Dempsey has been following the work and says it’s an “incredible attraction” for birdwatchers on his guided tours.

“Very few of us are able to go to the island which is the way it should be. Terns are very prone to disturbance; if you disturb them from nesting, gulls can swoop in and take their eggs,” he explains.

“The wonderful thing about this project is that in places like Skerries, the birds are feeding right off of the piers and coastal walkways so I don’t need to bring people to the island.

For people to be able to see the roseate tern catching fish 20 metres off shore, it’s as good as seeing Trinity College or the Rock of Cashel.

“This is unique to Dublin and special to the east coast and we should cherish it.”

Voting closes on April 22 and votes can be cast via natura2000award-application.eu/finalist/3188

(First published in the Irish Examiner on April 2 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/outdoorsandgarden/a-tern-for-the-better-835300.html)

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Leopards that live in cities are protecting people from rabies – New Scientist, March 8 2018

When leopards stray into a city, people often fear them because of the danger they pose. But it turns out these big cats could be valuable neighbours: by preying on feral dogs in Mumbai, they are reducing the risk of people catching rabies.

About 20,000 people die of rabies in India every year. Feral dogs are the main source, as they bite people and pass on the rabies virus.

Christopher O’Bryan and Alexander Braczkowski at the University of Queensland and their colleagues compiled existing data on the diet of leopards living in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, on the edges of Mumbai. They found that 40 per cent of the average leopard’s diet consists of feral dogs.

All told, the 35 leopards in the park probably eat 1,500 dogs per year. Given how often the dogs bite people and how many of them have rabies, the leopards’ kills are preventing about 1,000 bite incidents per year – and 90 potential rabies cases.

“This study is a striking example of a large carnivorous animal providing a direct benefit to humans,” says O’Bryan.

The same could be true of other leopard populations that encroach on cities. The team found 19 studies describing leopards eating feral dogs in Asia and Africa. However, O’Bryan says that they would need to be studied more closely to be sure that they bring the same benefit.

The researchers also emphasise that leopards can  cause harm. In particular, they often kill livestock – leading people to persecute them.

“It’s difficult to weigh up the costs with the benefits with a large cat species that’s known to attack and even kill humans,” says O’Bryan. “We just want to provide an angle that hasn’t been explored before, despite the pieces of the puzzle being in front of us the whole time.”

Journal reference: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, DOI: 10.1002/fee.1776

(First published online by New Scientist. Available online at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2163166-leopards-that-live-in-cities-are-protecting-people-from-rabies/)

Driving Down Pests – The Scientist, August 28 2017

 A computer model estimates that gene-drive technology could wipe out populations of an invasive mammal on islands. 

The government of New Zealand has a goal: to wipe out the most damaging introduced predators in the nation by the year 2050 through the Predator Free 2050 program. At present, rats, possums, and stoats have pushed native species such as the kakapo to near extinction and cost the country NZ$70 million (USD$50.5 million) in pest control measures and NZ$3 million (USD$2.2 million) in agricultural losses annually.
Acknowledging that the existing pest-control methods are not going to be enough for this ambitious project, scientists involved in the program have placed their hopes in engineered gene drives: a technology that involves meddling with the rules of inheritance and increasing the likelihood a deleterious gene will be passed to the next generation of a species. With the advent of the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, which allows scientists to alter DNA at precise locations using a single guide RNA and a DNA-cutting molecule called Cas9, the idea of using gene-drive technology to turn populations on themselves is now within reach.

In a study published August 9 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers at the University of Adelaide have provided modeling evidence that gene drives could indeed be an effective means to wipe out entire populations of invasive vertebrates on islands.

“The most obvious potential advantage to using gene-drive technology for this purpose is species specificity,” says Luke Alphey, a genetic pest management expert at the Pirbright Institute in the U.K. and a cofounder of Oxitec, which is commercializing other genetic-modification methods to control insects. “Genetic approaches are transmitted through mating, so the direct effect is only on the target species.”

“That aspect alone is phenomenally powerful if we are talking about working in an ecologically fragile environment,” notes Alphey, who was not involved in the study. He says the current approach for managing invasive species consists predominantly of “harmful mass poisoning.”

In this recent study, the scientists chose to test gene-drive strategies on a simulated island population of 50,000 mice that they constructed in silico. Invasive rodents are likely responsible for the greatest number of extinctions and ecosystem changes on islands, according to a 2006 study. The house mouse (Mus musculus) in particular has been shown to have a devastating effect on seabird colonies in places such as Gough Island in the South Atlantic and New Zealand’s Antipodes Islands.

“We also focused on islands because in the long term . . . if this technology is deemed a good idea and acceptable by society, islands will be the first place it is carried out as it is easier to control,” explains coauthor Paul Thomas. “There’s a long way to go before we think about using it, but we wanted to conduct this study to see if it could be a possibility.”

Using a mathematical model, the scientists tested four CRISPR-based gene-drive strategies that could be readily developed based on what is within the current literature. The “heterozygotic XX sterility” strategy, also known as the “daughterless strategy,” involves using the gene drive to spread a male sex-determining gene so that all carriers develop as males regardless of their sex chromosomes. As a result, there will be a deficiency of females and the population will eventually crash.

“Heterozygotic XX sex reversal” is a similar technique, but contains additional genetic cargo that enables XX males to transmit the gene drive. “Homozygotic XX sterility” achieves population suppression through the infertility of homozygous females. The final strategy, “homozygotic embryonic non-viability,” causes embryonic fatality through gene mutation. All of these strategies were based on the basic CRISPR-Cas9 system using a single guide RNA.

The heterozygotic XX sterility strategy failed to present itself as a viable method, the researchers found, as carrier XX males are infertile and therefore unable to pass on the gene drive. The paper notes that this method would only prove effective on the basis of a continuous release of gene drives into a population, a process that would be costly and time-consuming.

The remaining three strategies proved capable of causing rapid population decline to the point of elimination. The researchers conclude that a single introduction of just 100 mice carrying one of these gene drives could destroy an island mouse population of 50,000 individuals within four to five years.

The researchers acknowledge that, for all of these strategies, the potential for the formation of resistant genes poses a problem, as has been observed in laboratory studies of mosquito gene drives. However, by conducting further tests that involved targeting several different DNA sequences with more than one guide RNA, they found that the possibility of this resistance is reduced.

Michael Wade, who studies population genetics and mating at Indiana University, is not convinced that this solution to resistance comes without consequence. He says that by using multiple guide RNAs as the authors suggest, one could increase the risk of targeting the genome at unintended sites, which may lead to other problems.

“Release of this type of construct raises the risk of reducing the target specificity of CRISPR-Cas9 and increasing the possibility of it jumping to a different species, possibly an endemic relative of the invader species targeted for eradication,” he writes in an email to The Scientist.

Concerns have been raised by members of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in a consensus study report about the potential consequences of using gene drives for species eradication, including the unintentional spread to other populations, unpredictable negative effects on the ecosystem, and ethical implications. Thomas and his colleagues are “very conscious” of these worries, he says.

“I think this method definitely has potential but we do need to do more studies, have the conversation around whether it is safe to use, and see if the benefits outweigh the risks. We are keen to engage with all members of the community,” he says. His team has now begun conducting a mouse-based gene-drive experiment in the laboratory.

 

T.A.A. Prowse et al., “Dodging silver bullets: good CRISPR gene-drive design is critical for eradicating exotic vertebrates,” Proc Royal Soc B, doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0799, 2017.

 

(First published on The Scientist online on August 28 2017. Available online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50180/title/Driving-Down-Pests/)

What is the best antidote for a jellyfish sting? (Clue: it’s not urine) – The Guardian UK, May 9 2017

What should you do if a jellyfish stings you? Scientists have found that applying vinegar is the best solution, and that popular remedies including urine, lemon juice, and shaving foam could make the situation worse.

A recent study in Toxins, which investigated the efficacy of various remedies for stings from the Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis) concludes that rinsing with vinegar before applying heat is the most effective treatment. The commonly recommended treatment of seawater and ice was found to cause more harm than good.

Dr Tom Doyle, a biologist at NUI Galway and co-author of the paper, conducted research on both the Atlantic and Pacific man o’ war. He said the findings represented a complete U-turn.

“For me it was certainly surprising as we have been recommending seawater and ice for the last 10 years,” he said. “But that’s the nature of science; we have to hold up our hands and say we were wrong. We went back to basics and tested different methods. There’s no doubt about our findings. We are absolutely 100% certain that vinegar does the trick.”

The scientists tested various solutions on sheep and human blood cells suspended in agar. The method of scraping away tentacles was found to increase pressure on the affected area, causing the stinging capsules to fire more venom into the victim. However, applying vinegar was shown to prevent further venom release, allowing the tentacles to be safely removed. Immersing the area in 45C water or applying a heatpack resulted in fewer red blood cells being killed.

In contrast, rinsing with seawater was found to worsen stings by spreading venom capsules further, while cold packs caused them to fire more venom. The infamous urine theory – popularised by an episode of Friends – was also found to aggravate stings. Baking soda, shaving cream, soap, lemon juice, alcohol and cola yielded similar results.

Although vinegar is used for many other jellyfish stings, the man o’ war has long been considered an exception, with many guidelines warning against its use. While it’s true that the man o’ war is different – they are technically a siphonophore and not a jellyfish – the scientists behind this research are now arguing that all stings be treated equally.

Biologist and jellyfish expert Dr Lisa Gershwin agrees that treatment with vinegar works, but expressed concern about the hot water recommendation.

“Hot water does take away the pain but this is a neurological process; it has nothing to do with denaturing the venom,” she said. “Fresh water activates discharge and by applying heat, you are dilating the capillaries and allowing venom to go further into the body.”

The study was prompted by an influx of man o’ war on European coasts last summer and built upon the findings of a study on box jellyfish conducted by the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. The researchers will now turn their attention to the lion’s mane jellyfish to determine if the same conclusions apply.

(First published in The Guardian UK. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/09/vinegar-best-antidote-jellyfish-stings-urine-lemon-juice-make-worse-study)

Parachuting birds into long-lost territory may save them from extinction – Science magazine, May 5 2017

Saving the Spanish imperial eagle was never going to be easy. This enormous bird, which once dominated the skies above Spain, Portugal, and northern Morocco, saw its numbers drop to just 380 breeding pairs in 2014, thanks to habitat loss, poaching, poisoning from farmers and hunters, and electrocution from power lines. Now, a new study highlights a potential way of restoring eagle populations to their former glory: dropping them into long-abandoned habitat.

One common approach for bringing threatened species back from the brink is to reintroduce them to the places they were last known to live. For example, the sea eagle in Scotland—which was hunted to extinction on the Isle of Skye in 1916—was successfully reintroduced in 1975 to Rùm Island near its last known breeding ground. But not all such efforts bear fruit: When scientists tried to release the same bird to its former range in western Ireland in 2007, the newcomers fell victim to the same poisoning that had done them in 107 years earlier.

“The tendency is to think that the last place that an animal was present is the best place for the species, but this isn’t always the case,” says Virginia Morandini, a biologist with the Spanish National Research Council’s Doñana Biological Station near Seville.

So Morandini and her colleagues teamed up with conservation biologist Miguel Ferrer of the Migres Foundation at Doñana to try a different approach. Along with the Andalusian government’s Spanish Imperial Eagle Action Plan, they introduced imperial eagles into a territory they last inhabited some 50 years ago, far from established populations. Their method had some strong theoretical underpinnings because relict populations that have been pushed into small, low-quality habitats—often the “last known address” of threatened species—are thought to have relatively low breeding rates.

From 2002 to 2015, the Doñana team monitored 87 eagles that had been released in the south of Cádiz province of Spain, some 85 kilometers from the nearest established eagles. Meanwhile, the researchers monitored a naturally occurring population of eagles in south-central Spain. When scientists analyzed the breeding success of the two groups—a proxy for how well the eagles might survive over the long run—they found that the relocated population produced nearly twice as many chicks, they reported last month in Ecology and Evolution. Morandini attributes their success to the ready availability of prey and breeding partners, as well as efforts to reduce threats from hunters and exposed power lines.

The results suggest such reintroductions can be helpful in recovering endangered populations, especially when natural range expansion isn’t a possibility, says Doug Armstrong, a conservation biologist at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. But Armstrong, who was instrumental in rehabilitation efforts in New Zealand of a honeyeater-like bird called the hihi, also warns that this method won’t work for every threatened species. Lots of factors can lead to failure: selecting an inappropriate site, unpredictable environmental factors, and stress after reintroduction.

Cornell University ecologist Amanda Rodewald says that—even with its upsides—the approach should be seen as a last resort. “With ongoing climate change and habitat destruction, we are likely to be turning to [reintroduction] methods more and more,” she says. “However, taking proactive conservation steps such as habitat protection before a species becomes critically endangered is always going to be the most cost-effective and successful approach.”

(First published by Science magazine on May 5 2017. Available online at: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/parachuting-birds-long-lost-territory-may-save-them-extinction)

Parents of children with Cystic Fibrosis bring their campaign to the Dail – Enniscorthy Guardian, December 10 2016

Ballindaggin mother Julie Forster left the Dail feeling hopeful last Thursday following a presentation to push for the funding of Cystic Fibrosis drug Orkambi.

Julie was one of 14 parents from around the country to travel to Dublin in a bid to gain government support for the drug, which they believe will improve the quality of life for their children. Armed with photographs and stories of their beloved children, the representative group made a moving presentation to TDs on the reality of living with the illness.

‘We think it went very well. It is hard to say but many of the TDs said that they were very moved,’ said Julie, whose three-year-old daughter Ruth suffers from Cystic Fibrosis. ‘We had a very good attendance which we were happy with. James Browne was the only Wexford representative that I saw but we had many more from around the country.’

Though Julie did not make a presentation herself, Riverchapel mother Claire Merrigan spoke about her son Mason, the severity of his illness and the daily routine that he must endure. Several other parents from around the country, including those whose children are currently on the Orkambi trial, also spoke about their own experiences.

‘Some of the TDs asked some questions, mainly around the Orkambi figures on improvement. We explained that, while the figures don’t always look great, the reality is that a lot of people are doing well on it and a lot of money could be saved on hospital admissions if people were on Orkambi,’ explained Julie. ‘All of them promised that they would go further with it. There is nothing definite but anyone we spoke with afterwards said that they would support us. They agreed that a solution has to be found.’

The meeting took place only days after an exclusive report was published in the Sunday Business Post stating that the HSE drug committee had recommended against funding Orkambi, which has a €159,000 annual price tag per patient. It was reported that the committee did not view the drug to deliver enough benefits to justify its high cost. Julie and many other parents and sufferers around the country learned of the news through a Tweet – something Julie described as ‘disgraceful‘.

‘We are still very disappointed with how the news came out,’ said Julie last week. ‘The HSE still haven’t made a formal statement on it but they aren’t denying it.’

However, in the days following the leak, Minister for Health Simon Harris has reached out to overseas counterparts asking them to work with him to make Orkambi available for patients at a cost-effective price. He has assured patients that the process for accessing Orkambi is not over but said that more discussions and price negotiations with manufacturer Vertex are needed.

In the meantime, the parents group will continue to fight for their cause. On December 7, they will travel to Dublin to participate in a march to the Dail.

(First published in the Enniscorthy Guardian newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.independent.ie/regionals/goreyguardian/news/parents-of-children-with-cystic-fibrosis-bring-their-campaign-to-the-dail-35270351.html)

Enniscorthy’s new social housing will be the first passive house scheme in country – Enniscorthy Guardian, December 10 2016

Enniscorthy will receive €1.5m in government funding to purchase eight new passive homes in what is the first scheme of its kind in the country.

Based in Madeira Oaks in Enniscorthy, the homes have been awarded an A minus BER rating which means that they produce more energy than they require. They were constructed by Michael Bennett of Enniscorthy Passive Developments and will cost €190,000 each.

‘In the past while, we have been looking at ways of addressing the housing supply issue and asked people with ideas to get in touch. Michael Bennett contacted us and we liked his scheme in terms of the way it uses sustainable energy, reduces the need for heating and also addresses the issue of fuel poverty,’ said Senior Executive Housing Officer Liz Hore. ‘We were delighted to get word that we will receive €1.5 m to work with him.’

These homes typically have energy costs of about €200 per year in comparison with the average household bill of €2,500. According to Ms Hore, the first two will be ready to move into in the new year.

She added that the scheme has allowed them to deliver fast-track social housing in Enniscorthy.

‘We have been discussing about the need to accelerate the delivery of social housing. These passive houses are being turned around within eight months.’

This is first time that passive homes have been acquired for social housing in Ireland. According to Ms Hore, they are hoping that their scheme will serve as a demo model for others around the country. She said that passive homes are the way forward, due to their affordability and lower fuel requirements.

‘They are ticking all of the boxes,’ she said.

(First published in the Enniscorthy Guardian newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: www.independent.ie/regionals/enniscorthyguardian/news/enniscorthys-new-social-housing-will-be-the-first-passive-house-scheme-in-country-35270416.html)