April 2021                Hauptseite

A hard nut to crack: Britain’s grey squirrel problem

WILDLIFE Grey squirrels are damaging the UK’s forests and could make the native red squirrels go extinct.

1 BOTH HAVE bushy tails and beady eyes, which makes them look rather cute. But while Britons love their native red squirrels, their grey American cousins are not so popular. The UK wants to reduce the grey squirrel population because they are replacing native red squirrels and damaging forests.

Grey squirrels are native to North America. They were first brought to the UK in the 19th century by Victorian landowners who kept them as pets. But they spread across the UK and are now the dominant species in most of Britain. While there are only around 140,000 red squirrels left in the UK, there are about 2.7 million grey squirrels there now. The Red Squirrel Survival Trust says that red squirrels could become extinct within the next ten years.

Grey squirrels can outcompete their British cousins when it comes to food. The two species do not directly fight over food, but the grey ones are better at getting the nuts, seeds and berries that they both eat – sometimes even in an unfair way: by eating red squirrels’ winter store.

Grey squirrels also carry diseases to red squirrels which weaken and kill them. A parasite that grey squirrels can transmit to red squirrels makes them less active so they forage less and don’t get enough food. That makes them smaller and less likely to breed. Even worse, the grey squirrels carry a virus, known as squirrel pox, to red squirrels. The grey squirrels are themselves immune to it, but it kills the reds.

Grey squirrels also damage trees, especially young ones, stripping off their bark and eating their seeds. Planting new forests has become almost impossible in many places. Because grey squirrels cause so much trouble for red squirrels and trees, people are looking for solutions.

One idea is to move red squirrels to protected islands and just let grey squirrels take over the British mainland. But red squirrels are so popular that not many people would support such a plan.

A more natural solution to the grey squirrel problem would be pine martens. They were almost hunted to extinction, but they are making a comeback. And where there are pine martens, grey squirrel numbers go down. Pine martens prey on grey squirrels more than they do on red ones. But pine martens avoid cities, where grey squirrels thrive. Because it is unlikely that pine martens will spread all over Britain, and because they are also dangerous for other wild animals and domestic animals like chickens, they won’t be the only solution.

Another idea is oral contraceptives. They can be put in feeders that only grey squirrels can get to. The contraceptives can be hidden in hazelnut spread. Putting them in hazelnut spread and not in nuts makes sure that no other animals find them buried somewhere and eat them. Research has shown that around 90% of squirrels in an area can be treated using this method. Seen as more humane than other methods, the UK government supports the plan, so it could soon be used.

However, there are still some ethical concerns because scientists do not know what physical and psychological effects an inability to breed will have on the grey squirrels. Nor do they know what effects it will have on predators that eat squirrels treated with contraceptives.

10 Although they are not well-loved, Jason Gilchrist, an ecologist at Edinburgh Napier University, points out that, “Greys did not come over here of their own accord and did not ask to be introduced. Neither do they have any control over the pox they carry”.

11 Hopefully, a mix of different humane solutions will reduce grey squirrel numbers in the UK so that red squirrels and forests there can recover.

Mai 2021                 Hauptseite

Africa’s Great Green Wall

ENVIRONMENT • AFRICA A 7,000-kilometre wall of trees will help to create jobs and prevent drought in one of the poorest parts of the world.

AN AMBITIOUS PROJECT to plant a forest all the way across Africa’s Sahel region just south of the Sahara could improve the lives of millions of people affected by climate change. Around 20 million Africans in the area are threatened with drought and food shortages. But the Great Green Wall (GGW) project has given them hope.

The goal is to grow 100 million hectares (that is one million km2) of new trees by 2030. The project should create up to 10 million jobs. The GGW will be more than 7,000 kilometres long, but will only be about 15 kilometres wide.

It will be the world’s biggest reforestation initiative and is being coordinated by the United Nations’ Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The initiative had been under discussion for over 30 years, but the planting didn’t start until 2007.

Once the wall is completed, it will be three times bigger than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, making it the largest living structure in the world, according to the Great Green Wall Organisation.

Billions of trees will provide shadeshelter and new topsoil, which will allow the ground to store more water. By the time the trees are fully grown, they will also take up around 250 million tonnes of carbon. This will hopefully work against the drought in the Sahel and improve the climate, not only in Africa but throughout the world.

About 18 million hectares of land have already been regreened across the region, creating around 400,000 jobs so far. More than 5 billion seedlings  from 50 native tree species have been planted in Ethiopia alone and millions more in neighbouring states. But over 80 million hectares still have to be planted before the 2030 deadline.

The project still needs more money to reach its goal. At least another 4 billion dollars are needed to complete the GGW. But a bigger problem is monitoring how many of the trees that were planted have actually survived. At the moment, each country along the route does its own monitoring.

And the project itself also has its critics: some farmers and foresters believe that it would be better to grow grasslands rather than forests in parts of the Sahel because it is a very dry region.

So, the project’s goal may become to regreen the Sahel with a mixture of trees and grasses. This compromise would give millions of people a chance to improve their lives not only through forestry, but also through herding.

10 The Covid-19 pandemic has been bad for the GGW initiative, but it has also shown that Africa needs to become more self-reliant to feed its growing population. According to UN estimates, there will be around 2.5 billion people living on the continent by 2050. The GGW may be a step in that direction.

Juni 2021                Hauptseite

Clever cuttlefish pass the Marshmallow Test

Wildlife These clever members of the octopus family can make smarter decisions than some young humans.

1 THE MARSHMALLOW Test was developed by psychologists at Stanford University, USA, in the 1960s. Researchers wanted to find out whether young children had enough discipline to delay an action if waiting gave them greater benefits.

2 For the experiment, a group of six-year-old kids were given two options: they could have a marshmallow immediately, or they could have two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes. Having the discipline to wait for something which will give you greater benefits is called delayed gratification.

3 The researchers who did the experiment said that the children who could wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows went on to have good careers because of their higher levels of discipline. Delayed gratification is typically found in humans, but primates and some very smart birds, like parrots, also know that waiting can be worthwhile.

4 Scientists used to think that the ability to wait for a reward had to do with social behaviour in highly developed species. Now, however, a group of aquatic loners from prehistory has proven them all wrong: cuttlefish. Experiments conducted by a team of scientists under Dr Alexandra Schnell, of Cambridge University, have shown that cuttlefish have extraordinary brain power – just like their cousin, the famously clever octopus.

5 Cuttlefish are not social animals. However, much like some highly developed social species, they, too, can learn to wait for their favourite food rather than eat what’s going. Cuttlefish don’t like marshmallows, of course, so the scientists had to use seafood instead.

6 For the test, Dr Schnell’s team built a glass-walled machine that let a group of young cuttlefish choose between grass shrimp, their favourite snack, and king prawn, which they don’t like as much. The test was set up so that the king prawn would be released immediately. However, the tastier grass shrimp was placed on delayed release, so the cuttlefish had to wait longer before they could eat it.

7 The smartest cuttlefish waited patiently for their preferred dinner. The researchers thought those cuttlefish were the smartest because they had done well in memorising games earlier. The researchers think this shows that there’s a direct link between being able to delay gratification and brain power.

8 Cuttlefish only live to a maximum of three years, but this species belonging in the cephalopod family has been around for between 66 and 145 million years. This means they’re not as complex as later species such as birds or mammals. However, they don’t seem to be any less smart for it.

9 Dr Schnell and her team don’t know for sure why these ancient creatures are so clever, but they do have a theory: cuttlefish are soft animals that have no natural protection against predators. This means they have to hang around until their camouflage changes whenever they want to go hunting for food. In other words, they have to be patient and intelligent to survive.

10 Our species has been around for a much shorter time, so perhaps we can learn a thing or two from these smart’n’ squidgy molluscs who outlived the dinosaurs.

Juli 2021                 Hauptseite

The Friendship Bench

Africa • mental health A programme in Zimbabwe helps people with mental health problems by having them sit on a bench with elderly women.

 DIXON CHIBANDA a psychiatrist in Zimbabwe, wants to make sure that more people with mental health problems can get the help they need. That’s why he started the “Friendship Bench” programme at health facilities in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. There, people can sit down on a wooden bench with an “ambuya utano”, a “community grandmother”, who talks to them and helps them find a solution to their problems.

Chibanda is one of only 14 psychiatrists in all of Zimbabwe, a country of more than 16 million. In sub-Saharan Africa, there aren’t many mental health professionals: there is only one psychiatrist or psychologist for every 1.5 million people. And many people don’t have the money to get help from a psychiatrist.

Chibanda wanted to make the situation better. But because there was no money or staff, he had to work with what was there: elderly ladies in their 60s to 80s who were already working as community volunteers. They hadn’t done mental health counselling before. But because they are from the same communities as their patients, they could draw on their own experiences to help.

When someone visits a friendship bench, the grandmother screens that person using a questionnaire. If the person needs help, they get six sessions of one-on-one evidence-based talk therapy. And it’s all for free. The grandmothers listen and help their patients find solutions to their problems. Between sessions, the patients get text messages to help them stick to their plans.

The grandmothers are trained in cognitive behavioural therapy and problem-solving therapy. But the grandmothers also brought in their own ideas, like using concepts from local culture to talk to their patients instead of using only Western medical terms. In the local language Shona, depression, for example, is best described by the word “kufungisisa”, which means “thinking too much”.

After the one-on-one talk therapy, patients join a peer-led support group, the Circle Kubatana Tose, which means “joining hands together”. There they can talk about their problems with other patients. It helps them to meet others with similar problems who can understand them and can listen with empathy.

Because many problems are caused by poverty and unemployment, patients produce things they can sell in the support groups. They crochet baskets, purses and placemats out of recycled plastic bags. As well as making them some money, the work also helps them to feel productive and takes their mind off things.

In 2016, Chibanda’s team wanted to prove scientifically that the programme improves well-being, so that friendship benches would get set up in more places. And a study showed that the programme really is effective.

In a randomised controlled trial, patients were put in two groups. The group that saw the grandmothers had lower symptoms of depression than the control group that was given standard therapy.

10 So far, Chibanda and his team have trained over 600 grandmothers who help in more than 70 communities in Zimbabwe. In 2018 alone, the friendship benches helped more than 40,000 people.

11 The programme has been such a success it has been taken up in other countries: Malawi and Zanzibar have started friendship bench programmes. As did New York City. And there are friendship benches being planned in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

12 With the programme spreading around the world, Chibanda’s team just may reach one of its goals: to have “a friendship bench within walking distance for all.”

August 2021              Hauptseite

The woman who walked the world alone

HUMAN INTEREST After an epic journey around the world, Angela Maxwell shares her joy of living simply with others back home.

1 BACK IN 2013, Angela Maxwell, a young artist from Bend, Oregon, was enjoying life and running her own business. There was nothing wrong as things were, but something was missing.

2 Then she heard about a man who had walked around the entire world, and she was fascinated. Nine months later, she had sold everything she owned and took off on the journey of a lifetime.

3 After a few weeks of training, Maxwell set off. She took nothing but a handcart with 50 kilos of camping equipment, dried food, and clothes. Six years and 20,000 miles later, she returned to her hometown with many stories to tell and a new outlook on life.

4 Maxwell’s journey took her across the whole of the United States and then to Europe. There was no grand plan – just the desire to walk and to get closer to nature. So, for instance, after meeting some nice people from the Netherlands while in Scotland, she simply went to that country next.

5 In the course of her travels, Maxwell had many different experiences, some good and some bad. She suffered from dengue fever in Vietnam and got a heatstroke in Australia.

She worked with camels in Mongolia and helped a farmer to fix his house in Sardinia. On mainland Italy, she even met a woman who wanted her to become godmother to her daughter.

Then something terrible happened. On her trek through Mongolia, a nomad broke into her tent and raped her.

8 This traumatic experience could have been the end of her trip, but Maxwell wanted to be strong. She felt she was not only doing this for herself, but for all women, so her project, simply called “She Walks the World”, became a statement of sorts: if she could do it, other women could too.

9 Maxwell uploaded videos of herself walking and used those to campaign for female empowerment throughout the world. These videos attracted a lot of attention and helped her raise well over $30,000 for good causes.

10 Maxwell also learned to live on only a few dollars a day and to appreciate little things in life, like spending the night in a poor woman’s cottage in Vietnam.

11 Now back at home she gives inspirational lectures to teach people the joys of leading a simple life. She also plans to write a book about her experiences.

12 For now, Maxwell is happy to stay in Bend, Oregon, but she also said she’s ready to take off for a new adventure anytime.

September 2021          Hauptseite

Zero-Covid: the corona pandemic strategy in Australia

CORONAVIRUS • AUSTRALIA Australia has had lower infection rates than other countries, but more and more people think the country’s goal of having no cases of Covid-19 is impossible.

1 SINCE THE start of the coronavirus pandemic, Australia has pursued a zero-Covid strategy. And it has had success. The country has long managed to keep Covid-19 case numbers low. There have been around 40,000 cases and 965 people have died, far fewer than in other countries.

2 But Australia’s zero-Covid strategy means that as soon as a single Covid-19 case crops up, there is a snap lockdown. Every contact person is traced and put in quarantine until cases are at zero again. Some places have lived through many lockdowns. However, between these lockdowns, Australians can lead relatively normal lives, going to work and school, to restaurants, nightclubs and theatres.

3 Another important part of the country’s zero-Covid strategy are closed borders. For more than one and a half years now, since March 2020, Australians haven’t been allowed to leave the country. And the government says borders won’t be opened until 80 per cent of Australians are fully vaccinated, which could be sometime next year. Although this has been criticised – for instance, Australians have not been able to care for sick or dying loved ones living in other countries – until now, most people have supported the closed-borders strategy.

4 But the ongoing Covid-19 threat is putting Australia’s strategy – and its citizens’ patience – to the test. The highly contagious Delta variant has made its way into the country and now more than 60 per cent of Australians are living in lockdown, the highest number since the national lockdown at the start of the pandemic.

5 Many Australians are frustrated that they are still having lockdowns seven months after vaccinations started. And that the government is now even using the military to enforce those lockdowns – soldiers were sent into Sydney to crack down on rule-breaking.

6 But Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that “no country has got their pandemic response 100 per cent” and that Australia has managed to keep infections low compared to other nations. However, he later apologised for the slow vaccine rollout: only around 18 per cent of people over 16 had been fully vaccinated by the beginning of August, 2021. Australia ranks as one of the last OECD countries in the vaccine rollout.

7 One reason the rollout was slow is because the Australian programme concentrated on the AstraZeneca vaccine and didn’t have much supply of other vaccines. But after hearing the reports about AstraZeneca’s blood-clotting risk, many people cancelled their vaccine appointments. The government then said only people over 60 could get the AstraZeneca vaccine. It has since reversed its policy and younger people can now get AstraZeneca. But some are still worried: every third Australian doesn’t want to get vaccinated.

8 Some Australians don’t see any urgency because infection rates are so low. General practitioner Brad McKay said Australia is a “victim of its own success”. Many people think they can just wait it outIn response, the government has made jabs for aged care workers mandatory.

9 The government also plans to open more vaccination centres, drive-through vaccination clinics, and set up workplace vaccinations. And Australia’s vaccination programme will be helped by 40 million doses of BioNTech/Pfizer the country will receive this year.

10 Speeding up its vaccination programme is important because more and more Australians are saying the zero-Covid strategy isn’t working anymore. They believe it’s not possible to eliminate the virus completely, that Australia can’t keep isolating itself.

11 Tim Soutphommasane from the University of Sydney says that Australia cannot stay closed without high costs to society, culture and the economy. In an article, he and his colleague Mark Stears wrote: “[Covid-19] will be with the world for at least the foreseeable future. Experts tell us it will become endemic. The challenge then is to learn to live with the virus effectivelyprotecting public health while restoring freedoms and reconnecting with each other.”

Oktober 2021             Hauptseite

November 2021           Hauptseite

Mining with plants

TECHNOLOGY • ENVIRONMENT Phytomining uses plants to get useful minerals and metals out of the ground.

FOR THOUSANDS OF years, humans have been drilling holes into the earth to find the metals and minerals they need to make things like pots, pans, and cars – and now mobile phones and computers. Without mining, we would still be living in the Stone Age.

However, even the best mining technology can still damage the environment because it takes lots of energy and chemicals to extract minerals and metals. And the ground normally has to be dug up, which often destroys entire regions.

But there are about 700 plants known as “hyperaccumulators”, that we might be able to use to get minerals and metals out of the ground in a process called phytomining. This kind of mining is better for the environment because it does not involve diggers and heavy machinery.

A team of researchers working under Alan Baker, Professor of Botany at the University of Melbourne, Australia, has discovered that some plants on the island of Borneo can accumulate metals.

One example is the Australian tree called Pycnandra acuminata which can contain up to 25 per cent nickel citrate in its sap. The reason for Pycnandra’s “nickelmania” is not known, but scientists believe that the tree may be using the toxic metal to protect itself against parasites.

Pycnandra’s nickel hoarding could prove useful to humans as well. Nickel is needed to make all sorts of products, especially batteries, and a few hectares of such trees would allow farmers in the region to collect around 500 kilos of nickel per year.

Different “mining” plants store minerals and metals in different parts of their anatomy. Analysing that part of a plant tells scientists what kind of elements are below the surface. The eucalyptus plant, for example, will store gold in its leaves if gold is in the soil. The plant’s roots grow deep down into the ground to reach the water it needs. That water is laced with minerals which show up in the plant’s leaves.

But hyperaccumulators have other environmental benefits as well. Large amounts of metals and minerals such as zinc, cobalt and even copper are toxic to most species – but clearly not to the plants that need them. Phytomining could therefore help us to extract important resources from mining waste. This method may reduce the need for building new mines while helping to regreen contaminated areas. Over a period of twenty years or so, hyperaccumulators can even pull out all traces of toxins from the ground so well that other plants can grow there again.

The first person to use plants to look for certain metals and minerals in the soil was a German scientist who called himself Georgius Agricola (Latin for Georg Bauer). He lived during the Renaissance and became known as the “father of modern mineralogy”. However, the term “phytomining” was invented in 1983 by the American agronomist Rufus Chaney, who used to work for the US Department of Agriculture.

10 Soon we will hopefully be hearing more of this eco-friendly new mining method that could improve the environmental footprint of mining operations worldwide.

Dezember 2021           Hauptseite

The nutcracker ballet, a holiday tradition

WHO CAN hear the tinkling notes of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” without thinking about the crisp, cold Yuletide season? Like mince pies and images of Santa Claus, the Nutcracker ballet says it’s Christmastime again.

In the weeks before and just after the holiday, you can’t open an American newspaper or entertainment website without seeing an ad for the ballet. And in Britain, there will be 31 performances of the Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House in London alone.

The Nutcracker is the story of a young German girl, Clara, who is given a nutcracker as a gift from her godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, on Christmas Eve. Later that night, Clara dreams that there is a battle between the house mice, led by the dreadful seven-headed Mouse King, and her brother’s toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker.

During the battle, Clara kills the Mouse King with her slipper and thereby saves the Nutcracker’s life. This breaks the magical spell that had turned the Nutcracker from a boy into a toy. He becomes a real boy again – the Nutcracker Prince.

magician in Clara’s dream, takes Clara and the Nutcracker Prince off to the Kingdom of Sweets, where they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and other dancers. The next morning, Clara’s adventures seem to have been more than just a dream.

The Nutcracker ballet started life as a fairy tale called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by ETA Hoffmann, a German author who wrote fantasy and Gothic horror stories. Later Alexandre Dumas, the French writer famous for swashbuckling books like “The Three Musketeers”, rewrote Hoffmann’s story, making it lighter and less frightening. Tchaikovsky used Dumas’ version of the Nutcracker to compose the music for the now famous ballet.

Tchaikovsky’s ballet was first performed in Moscow a week before Christmas in 1891. The first performance outside of Russia was in England in 1934. But it would be many years until the ballet would become the holiday staple it is today. That happened thanks to George Balanchine.

George Balanchine was the founder of the New York City Ballet. The Georgian-born Balanchine had danced in the Nutcracker in St Petersburg when he was 15 years old and he wanted to choreograph the ballet himself. His Nutcracker, performed in 1954, was popular from then on.

As the Encyclopaedia Britannica writes, “the Nutcracker has become the most frequently performed of all ballets and has served as an introduction to classical music for many young people”.

10 The ballet also now serves as a Christmas tradition for many families – whose holidays wouldn’t be complete without hearing Tchaikovsky and seeing the Sugar Plum Fairy do her dance.

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