High temperatures send bats swooping in – Irish Examiner, July 2 2018

Bats are harmless and benevolent. Amy Lewis presents a beginner’s guide to spotting these wonderful creatures in Ireland.

As darkness descends on another long summer’s day and we tug our curtains shut, a group of unique creatures are just beginning to emerge in every county across Ireland.

They can eat up to 3,000 insects in one night, have been found to defy some of the usual processes of ageing and have echolocation so finely tuned that they can navigate around a single strand of hair.

While they might sound like something from a sci-fi novel, they’re actually something we are all familiar with: Bats. Ireland is currently home to nine resident species of bat and summer is the ideal time to witness them in action.

“In summer, bats are not long out of hibernation, while it’s also reproduction season. This makes it peak foraging time for them,” says Megan Power, PhD research fellow at the Laboratory of Molecular Evolution and Mammalian Phylogenetics in UCD.

“The weather we’ve been having is ideal for them too. If the weather is good, insect populations will be high.”

Our most common bats are the common and soprano pipistrelles and the Leisler’s bat, also known as the Irish bat as Ireland is a stronghold for the species. Regardless of your location, Paul Scott of Dublin Bat Group and Bat Conservation Ireland says bats are easily found.

“The best place to spot them is somewhere with water and not too much street lighting, so perhaps by canals or in public parks. To see larger numbers, large lakes or canals are best,” says Paul, who adds that anywhere with trees or waterbodies attracts them due to the availability of insects. “The time to look for them is just after sunset.”

When it comes to choosing between rural and city living, bats aren’t fussy. In Dublin, places such as Phoenix Park, and the banks of the Dodder and Tolka rivers are popular bat-spotting sites, while Paul has even witnessed them flying above O’Connell St.

“You find them in strangest of places. They’re not at all bothered with people.”

Bat populations in Ireland can generally be described as stable, according to Dr Tina Aughney of Bat Conservation Ireland, adding that we must be cautious when saying this.

“Bats are very slow reproducing animals and only have one baby per year. You need to get about 25 years worth of data to see what is happening with them before you can really say something about their populations.”

To help in the conservation of Irish bats, Bat Conservation Ireland currently manages four main monitoring schemes: The car-based bat monitoring surveys, the brown long-eared bat roost monitoring scheme, lesser horseshoe bat roost monitoring and the all-Ireland Daubenton’s bat waterways survey. They place a great emphasis on citizen science and offer free training to members of the public who wish to get involved. The waterways survey, which takes place each August, is their most popular.

“We have up to 200 people participating each year. Along with learning to spot various species of bat, it’s great for seeing other wildlife such as badgers foxes and owls,” says Tina.

Volunteers can participate in one of the many two-hour training courses nationwide in July. The survey itself sees every team monitoring ten spots along a one kilometre stretch of waterway, each one for four minutes each. Bat Conservation Ireland will loan bat detectors — devices that pick up ultrasound and convert it to an audible sound — to anyone taking part.

People can also take smaller steps in their locality to help in bat conservation, by erecting a bat box, planting night-scented plants and reducing the amount of light in their garden and community. Additionally, they can take part in a bat walk held by one of the many local bat groups nationwide. Paul currently leads the Dublin Bat Group walks.

“Although it’s a night-time activity, you would be surprised at the number of kids there. Kids will be there until 11pm. because they’re fascinated by bats. When you start to tell anyone the facts, they become fascinated too.”

Paul tries to kick off the walks by dispelling some of the myths about bats. They are more closely related to humans and primates than rodents. Contrary to common belief, bats aren’t blind and they don’t get caught in people’s hair or spread rabies.

“Everyone is afraid of things that creep around in the dark,” he says. “For a long time, people didn’t know much about bats because they’re harder to study so people generated myths around them.”

The true facts about bats are as astounding as the myths. Earlier this year, a team of UCD researchers discovered one reason why certain species of bats have extraordinarily long lifespans relative to their small size. By focusing on telomeres — structures at the end of chromosomes that usually shorten with age and lead to cell breakdown — they found that some species of bat retain long telomeres throughout their lives. Through her research, which is funded through an Irish Research Council Scholarship, Megan is building on these previous findings.

“I’m trying to discover whether bats are regulating their telomeres during stressful life events,” she explains, adding that some bats have been found to live to 41 years of age.

While bats may help scientists to unlock some of the secrets about ageing, they also play other useful roles. “They are a bio-indicator meaning they are good indicators of how healthy our environment is,” says Paul. “Bats are an extremely vital part of our ecosystem,” adds Megan. “They help maintain and regulate insects. They provide key ecosystem services worldwide through the pollination of plants and crops.”

“I always encourage people to have a look at the many species of bat and the different things they do. I may be biased but I think they’re beautiful.”

More information can be found on the Bat Conservation Ireland Facebook page or website.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on July 2 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/high-temperatures-send-bats-swooping-in-852307.html)

Advertisements

Swimming against a plastic tide -Village Magazine, May 2018

Along Ireland’s coastline, you’ll encounter long sandy stretches and wild seas crashing against craggy coastlines. Yet, if we care to look under the surface – literally – it’s clear our seas and coastal habitats are not quite as pristine as would appear.

The global issue of plastic pollution has recently come to the fore, amplified by David Attenborough’s series Blue Planet II. According to a study by the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis Working Group, roughly eight million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans from land, annually; a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.

Ireland apparently became one of the best EU performers for plastic recycling, though most of it has been treated in China where it is difficult to track, and which has now stopped taking European waste. We’re also the EU’s top producer of plastic waste, producing 61 kg per person annually. When not disposed of responsibly, this plastic can cause significant environmental destruction.

While difficult to form statistics on the quantity of plastics in Irish seas, the founder of Coastwatch Europe Karin Dubsky says we have an inkling on the extent of the problem.

“Through coastal surveys, we can see improvements in certain areas, for example there’s less pollution from oil and sewage. However, other problems seem to be persistent. Plastic drinks bottles continue to be the most widely distributed item found on Irish coasts`’, explains Dubsky. “The amount of coastal cleaning has increased but the baseline number of plastic bottles we find remains greater than in countries that have a deposit return scheme. Without this, we rely on telling people not to throw bottles and on cleaning up after those who do”.

Indeed, over 8,800 plastic drinks bottles were counted across 535 sections of Irish coastline in the thirtieth annual Coast- watch survey in 2017 – along with 4,867 cans, 988 plastic bags and over 1,100 tyres – some of which had formerly been used for peeler-crab traps. Inevitably, much of this waste will be swept in and out with the tides if not collected.

Plastic pollution isn’t solely a result of littering. Coastal landfill sites are falling victim to erosion, resulting in leakages of hazardous waste into the sea.

“At the old landfill site in Bray for example, the sea has been causing approximately 1.5 metres of erosion annually. We need these sites to be very secure to prevent this from happening”, says Dubsky. She adds that while a decision has now been made to appoint consultants to place rock armour at the Bray site, it would be more appropriate to remove the ‘band of waste’ altogether.

“It’s mind-blowing how slow it is for action to be taken”. Waste also ends up in our oceans as individuals take coastal erosion management into their own hands.

“We have no national erosion management policy so people decide to do their own thing. They put all kinds of litter in front of their homes but because the area is at risk from erosion, the sea takes it away”, says Dubsky.

Lack of policy surrounding the environmental impacts of new materials and products is having a detrimental effect. “We need a proper screening process so clever ideas don’t go to the market without being screened to ensure they aren’t going to create another litter problem”, she suggests. “Pontoons are one example. The cheapest way to make pontoons is using polystyrene with a concrete surface. During Storm Emma, polystyrene was released from pontoons in Holyhead following a breakage. From April 14 onwards, it has been arriving on our shores”.

Discarded fishing gear, known as ghost fishing gear, is also an environmental concern. According to a recent report from World Animal Protection, it kills over 136,000 seals, sea lions and whales every year, in addition to millions of birds, turtles and fish. An estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are left in oceans annually.

In the coming months, the Ghostfishing foundation will collaborate with local divers and stakeholders to remove discarded fishing gear off Irish coasts. Nic Slocum from Whale Watch West Cork is involved with the project.

“We decided it was important to first find out the extent of the problem”, explains Slocum. “We went to a number of dive companies and they told us that the extent of ghostfishing is not that great along the south coast here. Ghost-fishing is a greater problem further offshore on much deeper wrecks”.

As diving to such depths is challenging and requires specialist skills, the project is currently slightly delayed as organisers assess how they can run it in the safest and most effective manner.

For now, Slocum continues to take part in clean-ups and informs visitors about the environmental dangers of plastic. He has seen it first-hand, recalling incidents of seals getting caught up in nets and a recent occasion when he was alerted to a young whale trapped in fishing gear.

“We do see evidence [of harm from marine waste]: I can’t say daily or weekly but, when we do see it, it’s significant. For example, that whale would have starved to death if we weren’t able to free it”.

Internal harm is less obvious. As Ireland doesn’t have a facility to conduct post-mortems on large marine mammals, it’s impossible to know whether whales washing up on Irish shores have died as a result of plastic ingestion. However, worldwide studies suggest that this could be the case for some of our species, according to Slocum.

“Sperm whales are very prone to plastic ingestion. They feed on squid and often mistake plastic bags for food. Post-mortems have been done on many sperm whales around the world and it has been shown they are full of plastic. There’s no reason why it would be different here”.

While visible waste in our oceans is of great concern, an equally pressing but perhaps more difficult issue to tackle is that of microplastics. This refers to small plastic particles less than five millimetres long that although virtually invisible, can harm marine life. They’re created from the breakdown of larger plastic items, while they also originate from plastic fibres in clothing or microbeads in cosmetic products. Recent research from scientists at NUI Galway showed that 73 per cent of deepwater fish surveyed in the northwest Atlantic had ingested microplastics. The identified microplastics were mostly fibres and their potential sources include microfibres shed from clothes during washing. Lead author of the research Alina Wieczorek says that their studies are continuing as they endeavour to determine secondary effects of this ingestion.

“We have these plastics in our system now, and no way really of taking them out. In fact, it may get worse at first as larger plastics continue breaking down”, says Wieczorek. “The main thing to do is to stop them from entering the environment and move towards a more sustainable society”.

Introducing a deposit return scheme for drink containers and mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments for new products and materials are some larger moves that can be made, according to Dubsky, who also says concerned individuals can speak to politicians, participate in coastal clean-ups and utilise the Coastwatch Microlitter App. Meanwhile, Slocum believes that targeting plastic producers and supermarkets and ‘making plastic their problem’ is key.

This is precisely what happened through a recent ‘Shop and Drop’ day organised by Friends of the Earth and VOICE Ireland. This encouraged people to leave plastic packaging in supermarkets to highlight the need for businesses to act.

According to Coordinator of VOICE Mindy O’Brien, the campaign was a great success and just one of the many ways that individuals can play their part. Ditching single use plastics, buying goods with less packaging and voicing concerns to politicians are others.

“People are getting better with recycling at home; the government needs to bolster our infrastructure so that we can recycle on the go”, she adds.

Looking ahead, Dubsky is hopeful, particularly considering the European Plastics Strategy from the EU Commission; this promises that all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, that consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will be restricted. O’Brien believes that we are making good strides in reducing plastic consumption but worries about historic damage.

“There’s so much in there now, how do we get that out?” she says. “The legacy issue is enormous”.

“We have known about this for twenty years and haven’t done anything about it. There is a movement and greater awareness now but unfortunately, an awful lot of damage gets done before change happens”, adds Slocum.

(First published in Village Magazine, May 2018. Also available online at: https://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2018/05/swimming-against-a-plastic-tide/)

US considers imposing restrictions on Chinese researchers – Asian Scientist, May 8 2018

The White House is considering a proposal to restrict Chinese researchers from carrying out sensitive research in US universities.

A proposal under consideration in the White House to prevent Chinese researchers from performing sensitive research at US universities has sparked concern within the scientific community. The move stems from fears surrounding intellectual property theft between China and the United States. If enforced, it could prove detrimental for many of the estimated 350,755 Chinese students in the country, as well as Chinese researchers.

China is proving to be a rising force in research and technology; the US National Science Foundation reported that in 2016, for the first time, China released a higher number of scientific publications than the US. The nation’s ‘Made in China 2025’ plan—a blueprint aimed at transforming China into a global leader in high-tech industries such as robotics and aerospace—illustrates the government’s intention to continue to advance. This move has not been welcomed by the US, primarily due to fears over theft of US intellectual property.

A probe into China’s policies and practices relating to technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation by the Office of the US Trade Representative, launched in August 2017, found that Chinese theft of American intellectual property costs between US$225 billion and US$600 billion annually. These findings were largely what prompted the Trump administration to announce plans to place tariffs of US$50 billion on Chinese goods, a move that provoked similar retaliation by China and ignited fears of an impending trade war between the nations.

The proposal to restrict Chinese researchers from carrying out sensitive research in US universities is the most recent manifestation of these tensions.

“[This proposal], in conjunction with some of the other policies that the administration has issued with respect to immigration reform and restricting foreign nationals, has raised concerns among academic institutes and scientists in particular that the US is being seen as an unwelcoming nation,” said Ms. Joanne Carney, director of government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine. “Rather than coming here to study, students will go to other places and those nations will benefit from their expertise.”

The AAAS has released an official statement, signed by its Chief Executive Professor Rush Holt, on the travel of Chinese researchers to the US, recommending that the administration “work with the scientific community to assess and develop potential policy actions that advance our nation’s prosperity.” While it remains unclear what kind of restrictions are being tabled, or how much traction the idea is gaining in the White House, Carney noted that universities in the US have been outspoken about their views on the proposal.

“[The universities] recognize that there are concerns and are open to working with the government in order to craft a positive solution that not only helps to protect national security, but still allows for openness and helps to maintain the US as a welcome nation in terms of research,” Carney said.

“Scientific progress depends on the free flow of ideas, openness and transparency. The US in particular has benefitted from the unfettered exchange of information between scientists of many nations. We are very concerned about the possibility of restrictions in terms of science research,” she added.

(First published on Asian Scientist on May 8 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/05/academia/us-considers-imposing-restrictions-on-chinese-researchers/)

The clock is ticking to save the curlew – Irish Times, April 23 2018

The haunting cry of the curlew has long been embedded in Irish literary culture as well as in individual memory. Yet, with the breeding population dropping by a staggering 96 per cent since the 1980s, we are left to wonder whether Ireland’s future generations will have any more than these tales to rely on when learning about this iconic bird.

With the inaugural World Curlew Day held on April 21st, the focus was on the plight of the Eurasian curlew in Ireland, as well as that of other curlew species worldwide.

In 2011, BirdWatch Ireland carried out the first survey in Ireland specifically focused on breeding curlew populations. These were conducted in Donegal and Mayo as part of the Halt Environmental Loss Programme (Help), a cross-Border initiative funded through the EU Interreg IVA scheme. Just eight pairs of breeding curlew were found and it was estimated that there were fewer than 200 pairs nationwide compared to an estimation of 5,000 in the early 1990s. The first national survey was commissioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2015 and 2016. It found numbers to be lower than estimations, with fewer than 150 breeding pairs discovered. Without action, it was predicted that the curlew will be extinct as a breeding species in Ireland within a decade.

This may surprise those who see curlew flocks between late July and early spring. However, these birds are likely to be wintering from Britain and Scandinavia whereas the breeding population can be found between April and early June.

“Without a doubt, the primary cause of population decline is habitat loss and degradation. This mainly occurred in the second half of the last century with things such as widespread agricultural change, drainage and restriction of bogland, loss of marshy pastures and afforestation,” explains Senior Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Anita Donaghy. “As a result, curlew habitats have become more fragmented. This degradation and fragmentation has had a knock-on effect and the population are now more vulnerable to predation.”

BirdWatch Ireland established a year-long “Cry of the Curlew” campaign in 2011 in an effort to raise money to fund nationwide curlew research. Since 2012, they’ve also been calling on the Government to take action. These calls were finally heard in 2017 when Minister Heather Humphreys announced the establishment of a Curlew Task Force aimed at saving the curlew from national extinction.

Independent chairman of the Curlew Task Force Alan Lauder says their primary role is “to bring together all relevant stakeholders involved with curlew conservation across the country”. In total, 30 people attend Task Force meetings, including groups and individuals from farming, turf-cutting, conservation, governmental, research and various other backgrounds.

“Our aim is to form approaches to first, halt their decline and then restore populations as quickly as possible,” says Lauder, who chairs the task force on a voluntary basis.

The Curlew Conservation Programme was established by the NPWS in 2017. This action programme is currently focused on seven areas: Stacks Mountains, Lough Ree, Lough Corrib, north Roscommon, Leitrim, Monaghan and Donegal.

“In each area we have a “curlew action team” with a “curlew champion”. These teams are liaising with local communities and landowners. Most of the people we have employed are local people themselves, with a blend of backgrounds including farming, hurling and tourism,” explains head of the Agri-Ecology Unit with NPWS Dr Barry O’Donoghue, who manages the programme.

Tasks carried out by action teams include field surveys and working with landowners to protect nests from predation. Habitat improvement measures such as the removal of gorse and blackthorn scrub from the Lough Ree area were also carried out.

For such a programme to be successful, O’Donoghue says it must be appropriate for curlew and farmer needs, offer supports to landowners, promote local pride and ownership in our natural heritage and ultimately, lead to results.

Researchers from UCD are currently monitoring the Curlew Conservation Programme to evaluate what measures are positively affecting curlew productivity. The benchmark figure for sustainable curlew population growth is 0.5 chicks per pair.

“Our aim is to ascertain what aspects of land use are leading to success,” explains UCD lecturer in wildlife conservation and zoonotic epidemiology Dr Barry McMahon. “Areas around the lakes such as Lough Ree are showing productive signs but we don’t have the data to go with this yet so it’s too early to say for sure.”

McMahon, who is principal investigator for the research project, says productivity is likely due to the lower levels of predation in these areas. As a ground-nesting bird, curlews are highly vulnerable.

The Department of Agriculture introduced a specific curlew conservation option in the agri-environment scheme Glas in 2015, while a curlew conservation project granted funding under the European Innovation Partnerships (EIP) Initiative will soon commence in Galway.

While praising all positive moves, Donaghy says more needs to be done. This includes the provision of additional resources to establish additional Curlew Action Teams elsewhere, as well as better protection from development for the curlew at a national level.

“BirdWatch Ireland regrets that the government didn’t take action when the problem was brought to their attention in 2012. The curlew population has declined even further since then. Now it makes it very difficult to build a sustainable population,” she adds.

Though not directly involved with the projects, birding expert Eric Dempsey has been keeping a close eye. While fully praising the establishment of the task force, he says it’s “hard not to view the Government’s move with cynicism”.

“It was such a hypocritical thing for Humphreys to do because she was simultaneously pushing the section of the Heritage Bill allowing farmers to burn randomly in the uplands,” he says. “On one hand she was launching a wonderful curlew campaign and on the other, pushing legislation that puts birds on the brink of extinction.”

He adds: “We must stop the Heritage Bill to allow the task force to do its business.”

World Curlew Day

The Eurasian Curlew is one of eight curlew species worldwide. At least three of these are seen as endangered or near threatened, while the Eskimo curlew and the slender-billed curlew are considered likely extinct. To highlight the importance of these birds, manager of the Curlew Conservation Programme Dr Barry O’Donoghue established the idea of a World Curlew Day which took place on April 21st – the idea has quickly taken flight internationally, with events arranged as far away as Australia.

“It’s so important that it is community-led,” explains O’Donoghue. “The aim is to mainstream conservation issues and have them tie in with something that is well known in the locality. One of the key focuses from the day is that local people realise how important their area is on a national and international scale to this bird.”

Events in Ireland included talks, art competitions and even football tournaments such as the Curlew Cup in Stack’s Mountains – all of which are featured on the World Curlew Day Facebook page.

(First published in the Irish Times on April 23 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/the-clock-is-ticking-to-save-the-curlew-1.3470968)

The Eskimo Curlew hasn’t been seen for 55 years. Is it time to declare it extinct? -Audubon, April 22 2018

Scientists hope the plight of this shorebird, once among the most common in North America, will spur conservation for other troubled curlew species.

Victor Emanuel will never forget the day he saw his first Eskimo Curlew. It was around 60 years ago, in Galveston, Texas, when the foot-long, brown-speckled bird poked its down-curved bill through the grass—a rare gem nearly invisible among a field of other mottled shorebirds. At first, Emanuel and several others believed it was a runt Whimbrel. But after checking all possible field marks and consulting guides, they confirmed that what they saw was the rare Eskimo Curlew. They were among the last people to see the species alive.

“There’s a chapter in my memoir in which I call it the bird of my life,” Emanuel says. “For a birder who had seen this bird in field guides, which said it was possibly extinct, it was like seeing a dinosaur. It had a huge effect on me.”

At one point, the Eskimo Curlew may have been one of the most common shorebirds in North America, with a population numbering in the many millions. Flocks once migrated from wintering grounds in South America, through the Great Plains, to breeding territories in Alaska and Canada—and back south off the Atlantic Coast.

For most people today, though, the species is merely a legend, fueled by old stories and the highly regarded 1954 book Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth. Photographer Don Bleitz took the last known photo of the shorebird in Galveston in 1962, and the last confirmed sighting was in 1963, when a lone bird was shot in Barbados. In 1983, a reported sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas stirred up much excitement, but it was not accepted by the state bird records committee.

“It seems quite unbelievable to me that so many birds would show up on a single occasion, and not be seen ever again,” says Jon McCracken, director of national programs at Bird Studies Canada. “It’s like verifying that there are UFOs out there without good solid physical evidence.”

Though most cite the Barbados record as the last true sighting of the Eskimo Curlew, reports are still occurring—but they’re mostly wishful thinking. “Every season starting in June or July, I get a call with someone reporting an Eskimo Curlew,” says Bob Gill, a shorebird biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center in Anchorage who co-authored a detailed account of the species in The Birds of North America. “Invariably they are juvenile Whimbrels.”

What happened to this once-widespread species, you ask? They were hunted in large numbers through the 1800s; hunting migratory birds, except for those species approved by the government, largely ceased in 1918 with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Yet hunting is not the sole cause of decline, Gill says.

“Was it a contributing factor? Absolutely. Was it the only factor? No way,” he says. “As this bird was being hunted, the prairies were being plowed under and a principal food source, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, was going extinct.” These grasshoppers once had population booms in the billions; in 1875, they formed the largest recorded locust swarm: 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, blanketing Plattsmouth, Nebraska for five days. As grasslands were converted to cornfields, the locusts vanished—and grassland birds, like the curlew, did, too.

“Hunting is an easy thing to blame,” Gill continues. “I just hope people can be more objective and look at the big picture.”

That’s particularly important given the threats to the seven other curlew species. This genus of wading migratory shorebirds, distinguishable from others by their down-curved bill and mottled plumage, faces threats in regions across the globe. The Eurasian Curlew, for example, has seen its European breeding population decline by at least one-third in 30 years due to loss of its grassland habitat, and significant declines have also been recorded in central Asian populations. The Bristle-thighed Curlew, with 7,000 individuals, is currently classed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with drops in numbers largely attributed to predation by introduced predators on its wintering grounds in tropical Oceania; considering that more than 50 percent of adults are flightless during autumn molt, they are particularly easy targets.

Then there’s the Far Eastern Curlew, with a population of 32,000 birds in 2006, according to Wetlands International estimates. Habitat loss on the Yellow Sea staging grounds is considered the primary threat to the species and, with the rate of intertidal habitat loss averaging over 1 percent annually, this trend is expected to continue. While the Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, and Little Curlew are not currently a cause for concern, due to their relatively stable populations and wide range, ongoing climate change and habitat degradation could threaten them in the future.

Finally, there’s the Slender-billed Curlew, which hasn’t been spotted since 1995. Similarly to the Eskimo Curlew, historical hunting and habitat loss are believed to be key to their disappearance.

The Eskimo Curlew has not been declared extinct—yet. It is currently considered “critically endangered (possibly extinct)” by the IUCN. The latest report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada again declared the bird endangered in 2009. In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a five-year status review of the bird, which upon completion continued to list it as endangered.

Despite there being no confirmed sightings since 1963 and no evident breeding in more than 100 years, it’s difficult to definitively say whether the Eskimo Curlew is extinct.

“It’s a case of trying to prove a negative; absence of evidence isn’t proof of absence. If you can’t prove an absence, is it extinct or not?” says McCracken, who authored Canada’s 2009 report. “I personally believe that it probably, almost certainly, is extinct, and I think that’s the general consensus.”

Canada plans to reassess the Eskimo Curlew’s status in 2020, with no confirmed date yet for the U.S. review.

Regardless, circumstances remain dire for other curlews and birds that breed or migrate through landscapes that have been transformed. And based on the lack of optimism Gill hears at shorebird meetings, he’s not sure how much can be done to reverse the damage. For decades, scientists have sounded the alarm about the wildlife impacts of land fragmentation and the conversion of prairies and forests to farmland. At this point, he says, it might be too late. The changes people have made are vast; there’s no converting all of that farmland back to grassland.

Still, Gill maintains some hope that people might be convinced even quirky birds like curlews are worth the effort. And the story of the Eskimo Curlew could help.

“If we declare this bird extinct, let’s use it to our advantage and prevent others from becoming extinct,” he says. “I think anything we can do to raise public awareness will help [to protect other species]. We need to get people to get in touch with their concerns they may not have even known that they had.”

(First published on Audubon on April 20 2018. Available online at: http://www.audubon.org/news/the-eskimo-curlew-hasnt-been-seen-55-years-it-time-declare-it-extinct)

Bringing AI To The Masses – Asian Scientist, April 22 2018

Keen on picking up the fundamentals of AI? A community-driven movement known as AI Saturdays can give you a leg up.
It’s often said that knowledge is a form of wealth; in the face of a rapidly changing world, a new global initiative aims to equip people from all backgrounds with such riches. AI Saturdays, also known as AI6, is a community-driven, non-profit movement established to offer education on artificial intelligence (AI) to the masses. Through structured study groups, lectures and project work, the organizers aim to teach everybody how they can use AI in their everyday lives.
With the first chapter established in December 2017 in Singapore by Nurture.AI CEO Mr. Yap Jia Qing, followed by the second soon after in Kuala Lumpur, it could be said that the AI6 movement is in its infancy. Yet within a few months, the initiative has grown to include 103 chapters across six continents, including 47 in Asia. At time of writing, there are over 5,000 participants worldwide, from Kathmandu to California.
A worldwide classroom
AI Saturdays stemmed from a simple realization by the people at Nurture.AI, according to Mr. James Lee, AI research fellow at Nurture.AI and the co-head of AI6.
“Nurture.AI maintains a web platform for discussing academic AI papers. However, we realized that reading academic papers was not an activity that could be easily accessed by many. We created AI6 to help enable people to be comfortable with the technologies behind AI, as well as to build a community.”
Many distinguished universities, including Stanford and Harvard, offer open-source learning material on AI. Through AI6, the founders hoped to give people the opportunity to experience what it’s like to sit in one of these classrooms—from anywhere in the world.
“We didn’t expect to do anything big with it. We just thought we’d get people together to learn some AI by going through the materials available online. Initially this was for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and it spread from there,” explains Lee, who is also one of the ambassadors of the Kuala Lumpur chapter.
Just like with AI technology itself, the direction of a meeting can be hard to predict, and is often dependent on the preferences of chapter members. However, all chapters center their Saturday lectures around open-access course material from universities like Stanford and Berkeley. The first session, ‘Practical Deep Learning,’ sees participants watch and code along with materials from fast.ai, a free deep learning course. In session two, ambassadors are asked to focus on either computer vision, reinforcement learning or natural language processing. Finally, in the third session, members go through Stanford’s Stats385 course and participate in open forum-style discussions. Group project work is also strongly encouraged throughout the course of these Saturday sessions.
“One of the things we do is encourage every chapter to have a milestone, to tell members to take what you have learned so far and produce something,” explains Lee. “In the Kuala Lumpur chapter for example, one guy took ten years of stock prices and made an algorithm that predicts whether they will go up and down in the next month. Others made a Trump tweet simulator. They downloaded Donald Trump’s tweets and tried to create a neural network that replicates the style.”
AI as a basic skill
Becoming an AI6 ambassador doesn’t require a significant amount of prior knowledge; instead, curiosity is key. Ambassador of the Delhi chapter Mr. Divyansh Jha says it was his interest rather than his experience in AI that led him to get involved in the movement in December 2017.
“I’m from an electronics background, but recently I developed a huge interest in deep learning and AI. For the last year, I’ve been taking steps to learn more and doing projects in this area,” he says, adding that becoming an ambassador has helped him to develop leadership skills that make him more employable.
Expanding his knowledge of AI is of great importance to Jha; why does he think others should learn?
“I think AI should become a basic skill, because within ten or twenty years, everything will involve AI. People should learn this skill so they can move forward,” says Jha, who while happy to share knowledge, says he doesn’t believe in forcing anyone to get involved.
For some, the rapid expansion of AI and machine learning is a source of fear. Indeed, in a 2017 global study conducted by independent consumer research agency Northstar, 22 percent of some 4,000 participants said they felt society will become worse due to increased automation and AI. Yet new technology doesn’t need to be fearsome, says Jha.
“The people who know about the current state of AI aren’t fearful. It is people who don’t know about these things who are very fearful,” he says. “I think the AI singularity is very far from today; I don’t see it grabbing jobs from people in the next ten or twenty years. AI is something that will help humans improve.”
Reaping the rewards
Ambassador for the Taipei chapter Mr. Kuo Ruey-shen echoes these views, adding that one must find a scenario suitable for AI in order to fully understand its benefits.
“You have to know the purpose of AI and why you are using it, and then you decide what type of algorithm and deep learning can help you. It’s a tool to help us do a lot of jobs, not a tool to replace you. I think it will allow you as a human to start to live again, but only if you use that in the right way. A lot of the reports write about the wrong way and make people afraid,” he says.
 AI6 ambassadors help people to understand these benefits. At the same time, troubleshooting and problem solving is done through international collaboration over online platforms. This networking may soon become something bigger as a large-scale international AI6 initiative is in the pipeline for July 2018.
Meanwhile, participants such as Ms. Seema Goel are reaping the rewards. Goel was teaching herself AI and machine learning when she was invited to join the AI6 Bangalore chapter in January. She says that joining the group has helped her to progress with her learning and overcome obstacles she faced while learning alone.
“This meetup helped me in every possible way, be it understanding the concepts, technical glitches, and providing inspiration,” she says. “For me the group is meeting all expectations.”
Delhi chapter member Mr. Rohit Singh has similar views.
“The experience has been phenomenal,” he says. “Some members and especially the ambassador, Divyansh [Jha], do a great job at making the experience enriching for everyone. They go through the material, sharing their experience and clarifying doubts for everyone in a setting that’s quite informal and yet focused and driven.”
(First published on Asian Scientist on April 22 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/04/features/artificial-intelligence-saturdays-asia-ai6/)

We depend two times more on animal feed than our neighbours – Irish Examiner, March 15 2018

Ireland is renowned for rolling green pastures and sought-after food products.

But annual imports of 3.47m tonnes (mt) of animal feed are also part of the picture. Ireland is especially dependent on feed imports because of our high proportion of livestock production compared to tillage area.

About two thirds of the animal feeds marketed here are imported, compared to 37% in the UK, 27% in France, and 26% in Germany.

The main commodities imported are maize and maize byproducts, soyabean meal and soya hulls, and rapeseed meal. Up to 90% of the soyabean and maize products are imported from Argentina, Brazil, and the USA.

Our pig, poultry, and dairy sectors are particularly dependent on imports of GM soybean and GM maize by-products. Almost 1.7mt of soya and maize genetically modified (GM) products were imported into Ireland for animal feeds in 2017, constituting approximately 50% of total feed imports.

Significant quantities of non-GM maize and oilseed rape meal are also imported, from continental Europe, including Ukraine.

About 5m EU farmers raise animals, requiring 450mt of animal feed annually.

Recognising the EU’s over-dependency on imported proteins for animal feed, the EU Commission will publish a plan by the end of this year, with proposals to reduce over-reliance on imports.

Apart from dependence on getting feed from around the world, and the pollution and emissions associated with its transportation, soya is a particular cause for concern.

The worldwide growth of the soybean crop has caused large scale loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitat in already vulnerable places such as the Amazon rainforest.

The World Wildlife Fund recently focused on “hidden impacts that animal feed has on our planet”, and concluded that a reduction in meat consumption could alleviate these impacts. That is a shock for farmers, and others whose livelihoods are rooted in agriculture. But what role can they play?

Soybean production isn’t possible in Ireland, but growing other protein crops on our home soil can reduce demand for imported feed.

Ireland’s EU-funded Protein Aid Scheme, introduced in 2015, subsidises farmers for growing beans, peas, and lupins. Last year, the payment rate was set at €215 per hectare, and 1,200 people applied.

“The area of pulses, primarily beans and peas, grown in Ireland is 12,500 hectares. This is up from 3,500 hectares in 2012,” says head of crops science at Teagasc John Spink. “In terms of bean production, they would be grown on existing tillage land in a rotation with cereal crops.”

“From an environmental standpoint, they provide an important flowering crop of value to bees. They also fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil.”

However, as noted by animal and grassland researcher at Teagasc Laurence Shalloo, growing these crops domestically can only get us so far.

“In terms of potential production, we could only produce a fraction of the protein requirements of our livestock industries. If we absolutely maximised bean production on our existing tillage area, we could produce 360,000 tonnes per annum.”

Increasing the number of grazing days for livestock could be a way of further bringing down the reliance on imports, says Shalloo.

“Grazed grass obviously has sufficient protein to meet the requirements of dairy and beef animals and sheep. Maximising the grazing days in livestock production systems will reduce supplemented protein requirements.”

Co Cork dairy farmer Peter Hynes operates a grass-based system. But the 90 tonnes of animal feed he uses annually contains soya, something he’s trying to change.

“One of the big issues we are all well aware of is that the price of soya can fluctuate greatly, and can drive up the price of dairy rations overnight, so we definitely need to steer away from it,” he says.

The fact that most imported soya is genetically-modified (GM) is another incentive to seek out alternatives, according to Hynes, who says there is growing consumer demand for GM-free products in some of Ireland’s biggest dairy markets, such as Germany.

When it comes to reducing soya imports, he says this is likely to be a greater source for concern to Irish farmers than deforestation abroad.

“I do think we need to look at the carbon footprint of our milk, and that includes what we put into the feed, the haulage process and everything else,” he adds. “We can’t discount where our feed comes from. The carbon footprint of soya is huge, and it’s only going to get bigger.”

Professor emeritus of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Alan Matthews does not regard our reliance on imported soya as a large worry, and has no personal worries about the safety of GM soybeans. However, he does recognise the reality of “asynchronous approval” problems.

“A high share of soybeans are GM. In the EU, there’s no legal problem with that, except that each particular GM needs to be approved, before it can be brought in. This is quite a complicated and time-consuming process.”

Matthews says that this can be problematic if a supplier country introduces a new GM variety of soybean that has yet to be approved in Europe.

“They may try to ensure that shipments to Europe are separate, but it’s inevitably going to get contaminated somewhere along the line. You end up in a situation where you have a shipment from somewhere with this new GM variety, it’s detected at entry and then refused,” he says.

“That’s a concern for the European livestock sector, that they could find themselves inadvertently unable to import feed.”

Matthews believes that growing more protein crops in Ireland may have other consequences, saying we will either have to substitute other forms of production or clear more land to facilitate it.

“Are you therefore protecting the environment, by increasing the area granted to protein crops in Ireland, if the objective is to reduce land usage overall?”

However, he also recognises that deforestation and biodiversity loss occur elsewhere. In order to conquer this, he says we should “use our market power as an importer” to insist on the countries we get the feedstuffs from protecting their vulnerable habitats and raising their standards.

Secretary of the Irish Pig Health Society Shane McAuliffe, from McAuliffe Pig Farms in Co Kerry, has worked with nutritionists from Cargill to reduce the amount of soya protein in his pigs’ diets by 20%, subsequently reducing his pigs’ ammonia emissions by 15%. He also incorporates seaweed into the diets, which he says is reducing his costs and need for antibiotics, while maintaining the health and growth-rate of his animals.

As technology advances, he’s positive we can “significantly reduce” our reliance on imported feed. “Science and technology are moving forward rapidly and more sources of feed are available. It’s up to the government to provide incentives and make policy to use more sustainable practices,” adds McAuliffe, who says he sees promise in new feed sources such as algae and insect protein.

 

PANEL

There has been much abuzz about the potential for insect protein to feed the humans and animals of the future and a pair of Meath-based innovators are getting involved.

The brainchild of Alvan Hunt and John Lynam, Hexafly was established with the aim of developing sustainable feed for the agriculture and aquaculture industries using insects. Using biomimicry techniques, Hexafly takes black soldier flies into the lab, breeds them and hatches the larvae. The larvae are then fed with by-products from the brewing industry which they convert to a higher quality protein source before being used in feed.

“I looked at the production figures several months ago and on a per tonne basis, our method produces 90 per cent less greenhouse gases than one tonne of soy for example,” explains CTO and co-founder John Lynam. “In terms of space efficiency, on a good year on a soya farm you get one and a half tonnes of soya protein per acre. We are using one third of an acre and can produce 2,000 tonnes within one year.”

Hexafly is currently finalising the completion of their commercial pilotfacility and soon after will begin exporting their product. At present, EU legislation only permits the use of insect protein in the aquaculture industry and as Ireland has no compound fish feed manufacturing facilities, they will be focusing on exports in the beginning. However, once they receive the green light to supply to the pork and poultry industries, they envision being able to provide a local feed source to farmers on their home turf. “While we may not be able to replace traditional feed completely, we will be able to produce insect meal in addition to soya and fish meal to ease the demand on the food supply chain,” says Lynam.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on March 15 2018. Also available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/farming/we-depend-two-times-more-on-imported-animal-feed-than-our-neighbours-832683.html)