Arquivo mensal: julho 2013

Bacteria Communicate to Help Each Other Resist Antibiotics (Science Daily)

July 4, 2013 — New research from Western University unravels a novel means of communication that allows bacteria such as Burkholderia cenocepacia (B. cenocepacia) to resist antibiotic treatment. B. cenocepacia is an environmental bacterium that causes devastating infections in patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) or with compromised immune systems.

Artist’s 3-D rendering of bacteria (stock image). (Credit: © fotoliaxrender / Fotolia)

Dr. Miguel Valvano and first author Omar El-Halfawy, PhD candidate, show that the more antibiotic resistant cells within a bacterial population produce and share small molecules with less resistant cells, making them more resistant to antibiotic killing. These small molecules, which are derived from modified amino acids (the building blocks used to make proteins), protect not only the more sensitive cells of B. cenocepacia but also other bacteria including a highly prevalent CF pathogen, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and E. coli. The research is published in PLOS ONE.

“These findings reveal a new mechanism of antimicrobial resistance based on chemical communication among bacterial cells by small molecules that protect against the effect of antibiotics,” says Dr. Valvano, adjunct professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, currently a Professor and Chair at Queen’s University Belfast. “This paves the way to design novel drugs to block the effects of these chemicals, thus effectively reducing the burden of antimicrobial resistance.”

“These small molecules can be utilized and produced by almost all bacteria with limited exceptions, so we can regard these small molecules as a universal language that can be understood by most bacteria,” says El-Halfawy, who called the findings exciting. “The other way that Burkholderia communicates its high level of resistance is by releasing small proteins to mop up, and bind to lethal antibiotics, thus reducing their effectiveness.” The next step is to find ways to inhibit this phenomenon.

The research, conducted at Western, was funded by a grant from Cystic Fibrosis Canada and also through a Marie Curie Career Integration grant.

Journal Reference:

  1. Omar M. El-Halfawy, Miguel A. Valvano. Chemical Communication of Antibiotic Resistance by a Highly Resistant Subpopulation of Bacterial CellsPLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (7): e68874 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068874

Cockatoos ‘Pick’ Puzzle Box Locks: Cockatoos Show Technical Intelligence On a Five-Lock Problem (Science Daily)

July 4, 2013 — A species of Indonesian parrot can solve complex mechanical problems that involve undoing a series of locks one after another, revealing new depths to physical intelligence in birds.

This image shows a cockatoo called ‘Muppet’ solving the bolt-type lock on a puzzle box. Scientists from Oxford University, Vienna University and the Max Planck Institute, have found that Goffin’s cockatoos can solve complex mechanical problems that involve undoing a series of locks one after another. (Credit: Alice Auersperg)

A team of scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute, report in PLOS ONE a study in which ten untrained Goffin’s cockatoos [Cacatua goffini] faced a puzzle box showing food (a nut) behind a transparent door secured by a series of five different interlocking devices, each one jamming the next along in the series.

To retrieve the nut the birds had to first remove a pin, then a screw, then a bolt, then turn a wheel 90 degrees, and then shift a latch sideways. One bird, called ‘Pipin’, cracked the problem unassisted in less than two hours, and several others did it after being helped either by being presented with the series of locks incrementally or being allowed to watch a skilled partner doing it.

Watch a video of cockatoos solving the puzzle box:

The scientists were interested in the birds’ progress towards the solution, and on what they knew once they had solved the full task.

The team found that the birds worked determinedly to sort one obstacle after another even though they were only rewarded with the nut once they had solved all five devices. The scientists suggest that the birds seemed to progress as if they employed a ‘cognitive ratchet’ process: once they discovered how to solve one lock they rarely had any difficulties with the same device again. This, the scientists argue, is consistent with the birds having a representation of the goal they were after.

After the cockatoos mastered the entire sequence the scientists investigated whether the birds had learnt how to repeat a sequence of actions or instead responded to the effect of each lock.

Dr Alice Auersperg, who led the study at the Goffin Laboratory at Vienna University, said: ‘After they had solved the initial problem, we confronted six subjects with so-called ‘Transfer tasks’ in which some locks were re-ordered, removed, or made non-functional. Statistical analysis showed that they reacted to the changes with immediate sensitivity to the novel situation.’

Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, a co-author of the study, said: ‘We cannot prove that the birds understand the physical structure of the problem as an adult human would, but we can infer from their behaviour that they are sensitive to how objects act on each other, and that they can learn to progress towards a distant goal without being rewarded step-by-step.’

Dr Auguste von Bayern, another co-author from Oxford University said: ‘The birds’ sudden and often errorless improvement and response to changes indicates pronounced behavioural plasticity and practical memory. We believe that they are aided by species characteristics such as intense curiosity, tactile exploration techniques and persistence: cockatoos explore surrounding objects with their bill, tongue and feet. A purely visual explorer may have never detected that they could move the locks.’

Professor Kacelnik said: ‘It would be too easy to say that the cockatoos understand the problem, but this claim will only be justified when we can reproduce the details of the animals’ response to a large battery of novel physical problems.’

Journal Reference:

  1. Alice M. I. Auersperg, Alex Kacelnik, Auguste M. P. von Bayern. Explorative Learning and Functional Inferences on a Five-Step Means-Means-End Problem in Goffin’s Cockatoos (Cacatua goffini)PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (7): e68979 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068979

Social Animals Have More Social Smarts (Science Daily)

June 26, 2013 — Lemurs from species that hang out in big tribes are more likely to steal food behind your back instead of in front of your face.

In a series of stills taken from videotaped experiments, Duke undergraduates Joel Bray (left) and Aaron Sandel test a ringtailed lemur’s (Lemur catta) willingness to take food from a watched or unwatched plate. (Credit: Evan MacLean, Duke)

This behavior suggests that primates who live in larger social groups tend to have more “social intelligence,” a new study shows. The results appear June 27 in PLOS ONE.

A Duke University experiment tested whether living in larger social networks directly relates to higher social abilities in animals. Working with six different species of lemurs living at the Duke Lemur Center, a team of undergraduate researchers tested 60 individuals to see if they would be more likely to steal a piece of food if a human wasn’t watching them.

In one test, a pair of human testers sat with two plates of food. One person faced the plate and the lemur entering the room, the other had his or her back turned. In a second, testers sat in profile, facing toward or away from the plate. In a third, they wore a black band either over their eyes or over their mouths and both faced the plates and lemurs.

As the lemurs jumped onto the table where the plates were and decided which bit of food to grab, the ones from large social groups, like the ringtailed lemur (Lemur catta), were evidently more sensitive to social cues that a person might be watching, said Evan MacLean, a research scientist in the Department Of Evolutionary Anthropology who led the research team. Lemurs from small-group species, like the mongoose lemur (Eulemur mongoz), were less sensitive to the humans’ orientation.

Few of the lemurs apparently understood the significance of a blindfold.

The work is the first to test the relationship between group size and social intelligence across multiple species. The findings support the “social intelligence hypothesis,” which suggests that living in large social networks drove the evolution of complex social cognition in primates, including humans, MacLean said.

Behavioral experiments are critical to test the idea because assumptions about intelligence based solely on brain size may not hold up, he said. Indeed, this study found that some lemur species had evolved more social smarts without increasing the size of their brains.

Journal Reference:

  1. Evan L. MacLean, Aaron A. Sandel, Joel Bray, Ricki E. Oldenkamp, Rachna B. Reddy, Brian A. Hare. Group Size Predicts Social but Not Nonsocial Cognition in Lemurs.PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (6): e66359 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0066359

Robo-Pets May Contribute to Quality of Life for Those With Dementia (Science Daily)

June 24, 2013 — Robotic animals can help to improve the quality of life for people with dementia, according to new research.

Professor Glenda Cook with PARO seal Glenda Cook with PARO seal. (Credit: Image courtesy of Northumbria University)

A study has found that interacting with a therapeutic robot companion made people with mid- to late-stage dementia less anxious and also had a positive influence on their quality of life.

The pilot study, a collaboration led by Professor Wendy Moyle from Griffith University, Australia and involving Northumbria University’s Professor Glenda Cook and researchers from institutions in Germany, investigated the effect of interacting with PARO — a robotic harp seal — compared with participation in a reading group. The study built on Professor Cook’s previous ethnographic work carried out in care homes in North East England.

PARO is fitted with artificial intelligence software and tactile sensors that allow it to respond to touch and sound. It can show emotions such as surprise, happiness and anger, can learn its own name and learns to respond to words that its owner uses frequently.

Eighteen participants, living in a residential aged care facility in Queensland, Australia, took part in activities with PARO for five weeks and also participated in a control reading group activity for the same period. Following both trial periods the impact was assessed, using recognised clinical dementia measurements, for how the activities had influenced the participants’ quality of life, tendency to wander, level of apathy, levels of depression and anxiety ratings.

The findings indicated that the robots had a positive, clinically meaningful influence on quality of life, increased levels of pleasure and also reduced displays of anxiety.

Research has already shown that interaction with animals can have a beneficial effect on older adults, increasing their social behaviour and verbal interaction and decreasing feelings of loneliness. However, the presence of animals in residential care home settings can place residents at risk of infection or injury and create additional duties for nursing staff.

This latest study suggests that PARO companions elicit a similar response and could potentially be used in residential settings to help reduce some of the symptoms — such as agitation, aggression, isolation and loneliness — of dementia.

Prof Cook, Professor of Nursing at Northumbria University, said: “Our study provides important preliminary support for the idea that robots may present a supplement to activities currently in use and could enhance the life of older adults as therapeutic companions and, in particular, for those with moderate or severe cognitive impairment.

“There is a need for further research, with a larger sample size, and an argument for investing in interventions such as PARO robots which may reduce dementia-related behaviours that make the provision of care challenging as well as costly due to increased use of staff resources and pharmaceutical treatment.”

The researchers of the pilot study have identified the need to undertake a larger trial in order to increase the data available. Future studies will also compare the effect of the robot companions with live animals.

Journal Reference:

  1. Wendy Moyle, Marie Cooke, Elizabeth Beattie, Cindy Jones, Barbara Klein, Glenda Cook, Chrystal Gray. Exploring the Effect of Companion Robots on Emotional Expression in Older Adults with Dementia: A Pilot Randomized Controlled TrialJournal of Gerontological Nursing, 2013; 39 (5): 46 DOI: 10.3928/00989134-20130313-03

EUA vetam patente sobre gene humano (Folha de S.Paulo)

JC e-mail 4747, de 14 de Junho de 2013.

Suprema Corte decide que empresa não pode ter propriedade sobre genes usados em teste de risco de câncer. Decisão pode levar à redução no preço do exame, o mesmo feito por Angelina Jolie antes de retirada das mamas

A Suprema Corte dos EUA decidiu ontem que genes humanos não podem ser patenteados, o que pode afetar empresas de biotecnologia e baratear testes que se baseiam na procura de certas mutações no país e até no Brasil.

A decisão dos magistrados reverte três décadas de concessões de patentes pelo governo americano. No Brasil, não é permitido patentear seres vivos ou parte deles, o que inclui os genes.

O caso em discussão na Suprema Corte diz respeito ao registro de propriedade intelectual da empresa MyriadGenetics sobre os genes BRCA 1 e 2, cujas mutações indicam um risco maior de câncer de mama e ovário.

O teste que procura essas mutações ganhou maior notoriedade recentemente, depois que a atriz Angelina Jolie, 37, revelou, em junho, ter se submetido a uma cirurgia de retirada das mamas após descobrir ter as mutações que aumentam o risco de desenvolver um tumor.

O exame é recomendado principalmente para as mulheres que têm câncer antes dos 45 anos. É possível também rastrear a mutação em outros membros da família para decidir sobre medidas preventivas, que incluem o uso de remédios, o acompanhamento com exames de imagem e até retirada preventiva de mamas e ovários.

O preço do exame é uma barreira ao seu acesso. Nos EUA, o custo fica em torno de US$ 3.000; no Brasil, ainda que não haja o impedimento da patente, o preço também é alto, chegando a R$ 8.000.

Com a decisão, espera-se uma queda nesses valores. “O reflexo vai ser imediato aqui. As empresas se guiam pelo preço cobrado no exterior”, afirma Maria Isabel Achatz, diretora de oncogenética do A.C. Camargo Cancer Center, em São Paulo.

Para David Schlesinger, geneticista e fundador do laboratório Mendelics, a identificação de genes únicos, como no teste BRCA 1 e 2, já está ficando obsoleta.

“Em vez de procurar genes específicos, agora se sabe que é mais vantajoso fazer um exoma [sequenciamento da parte do genoma que codifica proteínas] e ter um panorama geral do paciente.”


Segundo a decisão, uma parte do DNA que ocorre naturalmente é um produto da natureza e não pode ser patenteado só por ter sido isolada pela empresa.

No entanto, o tribunal deu à Myriad uma vitória parcial, dizendo que o DNA complementar sintetizado em laboratório pode ser patenteado.

O chamado cDNA não acontece naturalmente. Grosso modo, é uma espécie de DNA que exclui as informações que não codificam proteína usada como parte do processo de desenvolvimento de alguns testes genéticos.

Os grupos que pedem o fim das patentes argumentam que a sequência dos nucleotídeos do cDNA segue a ordem imposta pela natureza e, por isso, não devem ser alvo de registros.

Para Fernando Soares, do Departamento de Patologia do A.C. Camargo Cancer Center, manter a patente do cDNA só deve ter impacto em questões de pesquisa e em análise de larga escala.

Envolvido no projeto do genoma do câncer, em 2002, o médico comemorou a decisão. “O genoma é um patrimônio da humanidade.”

Veja também o assunto no Jornal O Globo: Genes humanos não podem ser patenteados, decide Suprema Corte dos EUA.

Juventude “apolítica” reinventa a política (Envolverde/IPS)

02/7/2013 – 09h20

por Fabiana Frayssinet, da IPS

n11 300x225 Juventude “apolítica” reinventa a política

A estudante Stephany Gonçalves dos Santos escreve seu politizado cartaz. Foto: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 2/7/2013 – Com palavras de ordem contra os partidos políticos, as manifestações juvenis no Brasil trazem consigo o paradoxo de uma nova e efetiva forma de fazer política, que consegue respostas concretas dos poderes do Estado. A palavra de ordem nas ruas é “partidos políticos, não”, e a maioria dos manifestantes se declara, com orgulho “apolítica”. “Não tenho nenhum partido”, diz à IPS a estudante Stephany Gonçalves dos Santos.

Como centenas de milhares de estudantes que protestam, convocados por meio das redes sociais, como o Facebook, ela escreve um cartaz para um protesto no Rio de Janeiro, com lápis de cor em uma simples cartolina. E escolhe a frase “Um filho teu não foge à luta”, do hino nacional brasileiro. “Estou aqui por um ideal de país. quero que meu país seja democrático. Mas onde há repressão não há democracia”, argumentou Stephany, referindo-se à dura resposta policial que, longe de aplacar os protestos, estimulou muitos a aderirem a eles.

“O governo quer alienar o povo com o futebol”, acrescentou, ao abordar outro tema de descontentamento: os gastos milionários em instalações para competições esportivas como a Copa das Confederações, a Copa do Mundo em 2014 e as Olimpíadas em 2016. Stephany vive em um país onde diariamente se respira futebol e este é parte de uma cultura popular tão arraigada quanto o carnaval. Mas reclama, indignada, do dinheiro que se deixou de investir em educação e saúde para construir grandes instalações esportivas. “Construíram estádios de primeiro mundo, mas ao redor deles não temos nada. É uma falta de respeito com o povo”, afirmou.

A revolta nasceu de um tema específico: o aumento das passagens de ônibus, serviço já caro e ineficiente. Porém, se estendeu a outras áreas: saúde, educação e a suposta corrupção de muitos dirigentes políticos. “A maioria dos que participam do movimento constitui uma massa de jovens que se sentem muito desgostosos com a atual vida política”, apontou à IPS o especialista político William Gonçalves, da Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro. “Eles repudiam a corrupção e a cumplicidade de forças que se apresentam como progressistas com as que são símbolo do atraso”, afirmou, referindo-se a alianças parlamentares forjadas pelos partidos para governarem.

Pelas dimensões e pela diversidade territorial do Brasil e da sua população, nenhum partido pode assegurar a Presidência e a maioria das cadeiras no Congresso. “Desta forma, temos um parlamentarismo disfarçado, já que todos os partidos que chegam à Presidência só podem governar aliando-se a outros que têm a única ambição de obter cargos em troca de apoio parlamentar”, explicou Gonçalves. “Até o Partido dos Trabalhadores é prisioneiro dessa aliança. A saída seria uma reforma política”, acrescentou.

Tal reforma, largamente reclamada, não saía das gavetas oficiais. E, curiosamente, foi o susto diante da “apolítica” ebulição das ruas que conseguiu em poucos dias que esse assunto entrasse na agenda oficial. Os manifestantes também conseguiram reduzir o preço do transporte público, a aprovação em tempo recorde de uma lei que declara a corrupção crime “hediondo” e a votação de outra lei para destinar royalties do petróleo para a saúde e educação.

Isto é ser apolítico? O dirigente do Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, João Pedro Stédile, acredita que não. “A juventude não é apolítica, pelo contrário. Tanto não é, que levou a política às ruas, mesmo sem ter consciência de seu significado”, afirmou em uma entrevista ao jornal Brasil de Fato. “A juventude está cansada dessa forma de fazer política, burguesa e mercantilista. O mais grave é que os partidos da esquerda institucional, todos eles, se amoldaram a esses métodos. E, portanto, gerou-se na juventude uma repulsa à forma de atuar dos partidos”, ressaltou.

Para o historiador Marcelo Carreiro, da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, “este é um novo dado da história nacional, cujo contexto já era claramente observável no esvaziamento dessas instituições”. Carreiro disse à IPS que “as manifestações confirmam essa caducidade das instituições e mostram, apesar de tudo, que a população pode estar mais politicamente ativa que nunca”.

Os três poderes do Estado tomaram nota e já começam a propor e discutir formas alternativas de incluir a cidadania em mecanismos mais dinâmicos e participativos. A presidente Dilma Rousseff deu um passo nessa direção ao admitir que “estas vozes têm de ser ouvidas” porque “deixaram evidente que superam os mecanismos tradicionais das instituições, dos partidos, das entidades de classe e da própria imprensa”. Uma proposta em debate é estabelecer a consulta popular como instrumento permanente de democracia direta.

Algumas organizações não governamentais propõem, por outro lado, a participação efetiva de diferentes grupos sociais, comunidades e bairros, em decisões sobre onde e como aplicar orçamentos de saúde, educação, infraestrutura, transporte e saneamento. “Tudo o que está acontecendo com estas novas expressões da sociedade em rede – no Brasil e em outros países – aponta para uma reinvenção da política para reinventar a democracia”, opinou Augusto de Franco, diretor da organização Escola de Redes. Os jovens manifestantes atiraram a primeira pedra, e não somente contra a repressão policial.

Protestos no Brasil viram piada em telejornal cômico nos EUA; assista (FSP)

03/07/2013 – 11h21


A onda de protestos que tomou conta do Brasil desde o mês passado virou piada no canal americano Comedy Central.

No programa “Colbert Report”, Stephen Colbert faz uma sátira aos comentaristas de telejornal e diz coisas completamente sem noção sobre o assunto.

“Pessoal, eu não entendo… Estamos falando do Brasil, o lugar mais alegre da Terra”, comenta após exibir imagens de manifestações pelo país.

“A única coisa com o que os brasileiros se irritam é com seus pelos púbicos”, brincou, fazendo referência à depilação brasileira, que faz sucesso no exterior.

Assista ao vídeo aqui.

Has a marine mammal conservation program become too successful? (Slate)

Great White Sharks Are Back

By |Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013, at 4:05 PM

Great white shark.

Today, a great white shark sighting is more likely to elicit curiosity than fear. Cape Cod sharks even have their own advocacy group. Photo by Steven Benjamin/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

When a tourist from Colorado was bitten by a great white shark last summer while swimming off Cape Cod, an excited media made predictable comparisons to the 1975 blockbuster Jaws. The 50-year-old man, who was fortunate to survive with bites to his legs but with all his limbs still attached, was the first human to be attacked by a shark in Massachusetts waters since 1936. As more sighting reports poured in, 2012 became Cape Cod’s “Summer of the Shark.”

We all love a good shark scare, but in this case the coverage wasn’t completely exaggerated. In 1974, when Jaws was filmed just off the cape on Martha’s Vineyard, great white sharks—known to marine biologists simply as white sharks—were rare, with one or two spotted in New England waters each year. In 2012, there were more than 20 confirmed sightings at Cape Cod beaches, and so far this summer two beaches have been closed temporarily after the sharks’ telltale dorsal fins were seen just offshore. Scientists have now tagged 34 great whites off of Cape Cod, and the data show the minivan-size fish sticking to a clear migration pattern—down south or out to sea in the winter and, like the Kennedys, back to the cape every summer.

Jaws aside, these sharks are not hunting unsuspecting vacationers. They’re after seals, which have soared in population in recent years thanks to a national conservation effort that has proven enormously successful—some might say too successful. The shark resurgence comes down to simple food chain economics, but it also shows how wildlife conservation can sometimes have weird and unpredictable consequences.

Seals have a tendency to hang around boats and snatch fish from nets, and for centuries people fishing off New England would kill any seal they saw. Between the late 19thcentury and the early 1960s, the state of Massachusetts offered a bounty of up to $5 for every pinniped slaughtered. By 1972, harbor seals, once common on Cape Cod, were becoming rarer, and gray seals were all but wiped out. But that year Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a law that forbids the killing, capture, or harassment of whales, dolphins, polar bears, manatees, seals, and similar animals—creatures that commercial hunting and other human activity had taken, in some cases, to the brink of extinction.

The act has been a tremendous success. In March 2011, a one-day count of gray seals in Massachusetts waters found 15,756 of them, compared to 5,611 in 1999. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the gray seal population in the Western Atlantic grew annually between 6 and 9 percent during the past three decades. Today, seals haul out and lounge on some beaches in enormous numbers, and it’s common to see them swimming alone or in pairs up and down the Atlantic side of Cape Cod. That’s a lot of shark bait. One recent afternoon at Nauset Light Beach, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, I stood on the sand with a group of beachgoers watching a sleek brown head bobbing just past the breakers. Having been warned by prominent signs not to swim near seals, none of us were going near the water. “Does this mean there are sharks out there?” one woman asked, in a tone that revealed both anxiety and fascination.

Tourism is Cape Cod’s main industry, with domestic visitors spending some $850 million in 2011, and locals worry that if anyone were to be killed or badly hurt by a shark, tourists might start to avoid cape beaches. In an effort to educate people about shark safety, beach authorities have erected notice boards, and towns are using a $50,000 state grant to print brochures with helpful shark safety tips—chief among them, “Avoid swimming near seals.” Looking to South Africa, which has been dealing with great white sharks for years, Cape Cod officials have talked about setting up a system for shark detection, perhaps by using spotter planes or installing more acoustic buoys to track tagged sharks. But so far there isn’t enough funding for a major effort.

Seals are taking the blame for luring sharks, and at the same time the old resentment is flaring up among some fishermen, who say seals are harming the cape’s struggling fishing industry. Gordon Waring, a seal specialist at the NOAA, cautions that marine biologists don’t actually know how seals interact with fisheries, and so far there is no sign that they are eating more than their habitat can support. But it is clear that seals are attracted to fishing boats and piers, and fishermen who watch seals stealing fish from their nets justifiably resent the greedy creatures, which the Marine Mammal Protection Act says can’t even be shooed away (that would be “harassment”). Fish stocks, particularly of cod, are down, and while that’s mostly due to other factors such as decades of overfishing, seals are a visible target for blame. There has even been talk of a seal cull, and a Nantucket-based group calling itself the Seal Abatement Coalition is lobbying Congress to remove gray seals from the list of species covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Seal culls are already a regular occurrence in Canada, which has historically had much larger seal populations.

That might all sound like we’re headed for a return to the era when seals were shot on sight and sharks stalked and killed to protect swimmers, but in truth there are heartening signs that humans’ relationship with ocean life off Cape Cod will be better this time around. While a horror movie starring an animatronic shark could once keep people out of the water all summer, today, a great white sighting is more likely to elicit curiosity than fear. Cape Cod sharks even have their own advocacy group.

Gray seal hanging around at the Chatham Fishing Pier.Seals have a tendency to hang around boats and snatch fish from nets. Courtesy of Amy Crawford

“As tragic as a shark attack is, it would be more tragic not to have sharks in our oceans,” says Cynthia Wigren, who last summer helped found the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a Cape Cod group (with an adorable smiling shark logo) that raises money for education and research. Greg Skomal, a shark biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, has been leading an effort to tag great whites and study their migration patterns. He sees the sharks’ return as an indication that the marine ecosystem off New England is returning to normal, with sharks playing a crucial role as apex predators. That’s great news, ecologically speaking. But as he points out, “That does not take into consideration the negative impacts that can occur with the restoration of a natural ecosystem.”

Sharks are not the brightest animals in the sea. Humans are not a preferred prey animal, but sharks looking for seals sometimes get confused. Given that their primary way of interacting with the world is to use their mouths (in a way, maybe they are the “mindless eating machines” of the Jaws trailer), a shark may give a human swimmer a good “gumming,” Skomal says, before realizing it hasn’t found a seal. “If sharks wanted to eat humans, we’d have a hell of a lot more shark attacks,” Skomal says. “These are instinctive wild animals, and they make mistakes every now and then. It’s extremely rare, but nonetheless they make mistakes.”

While a great white shark’s honest mistake can still be terrifying—just ask that tourist who got bitten last summer—sharks’ public image seems to be evolving as conservationists educate people about the need to protect vulnerable species and as our understanding of nature becomes more sophisticated. We may be learning to adapt to nature, rather than forcing it to adapt to us.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Chatham, a 300-year-old fishing village on the elbow of Cape Cod that has found itself at the epicenter of the wildlife resurgence. InJaws, small town leaders tried to cover up shark attacks, fearing they would be bad for business. But Lisa Franz, director of Chatham’s Chamber of Commerce, says the opposite has been true—at least so long as no one has been seriously hurt. While the local fishing industry is struggling, other businesses are capitalizing on people’s curiosity about sharks and the seals they feast on. Shark T-shirts and stuffed toys are flying off gift shop shelves, and there’s talk of making Chatham an ecotourism destination.

“When the first shark hits the newspapers, we get busier earlier,” says Keith Lincoln, who runs a Chatham cruise business that specializes in seal tours. His “office,” parked recently in a lot at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, is a Honda Odyssey with an inflatable shark strapped to the roof—“a hit with the tourists,” he says. But while passengers might say they want to see sharks, Lincoln is not sure they know what they’re getting into. He has seen great whites swimming near the beach, their huge forms casting dark shadows on the sand below. “We usually don’t tell people,” he says. “They leave here all brave, but when they see a fish that’s as big as the boat, they’re not so brave.”

Then again, he might just need a bigger boat.

Watch Discovery Channel’s joking take on the shark frenzy for seals here.

The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science (Mother Jones)

How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the end of the world.

By  | Mon Apr. 18, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

“A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger [1] (PDF), in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial—the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that—this was the 1950s—and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study [2] in psychology.

Festinger and several of his colleagues had infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens—including one, “Sananda,” who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by Dorothy Martin, a Dianetics devotee who transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing.

Through her, the aliens had given the precise date of an Earth-rending cataclysm: December 21, 1954. Some of Martin’s followers quit their jobs and sold their property, expecting to be rescued by a flying saucer when the continent split asunder and a new sea swallowed much of the United States. The disciples even went so far as to remove brassieres and rip zippers out of their trousers—the metal, they believed, would pose a danger on the spacecraft.

Festinger and his team were with the cult when the prophecy failed. First, the “boys upstairs” (as the aliens were sometimes called) did not show up and rescue the Seekers. Then December 21 arrived without incident. It was the moment Festinger had been waiting for: How would people so emotionally invested in a belief system react, now that it had been soundly refuted?

Read also: the truth about Climategate. [3]. Read also: the truth about Climategate [4].

At first, the group struggled for an explanation. But then rationalization set in. A new message arrived, announcing that they’d all been spared at the last minute. Festinger summarized the extraterrestrials’ new pronouncement: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Their willingness to believe in the prophecy had saved Earth from the prophecy!

From that day forward, the Seekers, previously shy of the press and indifferent toward evangelizing, began to proselytize. “Their sense of urgency was enormous,” wrote Festinger. The devastation of all they had believed had made them even more certain of their beliefs.

In the annals of denial, it doesn’t get much more extreme than the Seekers. They lost their jobs, the press mocked them, and there were efforts to keep them away from impressionable young minds. But while Martin’s space cult might lie at on the far end of the spectrum of human self-delusion, there’s plenty to go around. And since Festinger’s day, an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning [5]” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president [6] (PDF), and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience [7] (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia[8] of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation—a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber [9] of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. “They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” says Taber, “and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.”

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt [10]: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers [11] (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

That’s a lot of jargon, but we all understand these mechanisms when it comes to interpersonal relationships. If I don’t want to believe that my spouse is being unfaithful, or that my child is a bully, I can go to great lengths to explain away behavior that seems obvious to everybody else—everybody who isn’t too emotionally invested to accept it, anyway. That’s not to suggest that we aren’t also motivated to perceive the world accurately—we are. Or that we never change our minds—we do. It’s just that we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one’s sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.

Modern science originated from an attempt to weed out such subjective lapses—what that great 17th century theorist of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, dubbed the “idols of the mind.” Even if individual researchers are prone to falling in love with their own theories, the broader processes of peer review and institutionalized skepticism are designed to ensure that, eventually, the best ideas prevail.

Scientific evidence is highly susceptible to misinterpretation. Giving ideologues scientific data that’s relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store.

Our individual responses to the conclusions that science reaches, however, are quite another matter. Ironically, in part because researchers employ so much nuance and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading and misinterpretation. Giving ideologues or partisans scientific data that’s relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store.

Sure enough, a large number of psychological studies have shown that people respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs. In a classic 1979 experiment [12] (PDF), pro- and anti-death penalty advocates were exposed to descriptions of two fake scientific studies: one supporting and one undermining the notion that capital punishment deters violent crime and, in particular, murder. They were also shown detailed methodological critiques of the fake studies—and in a scientific sense, neither study was stronger than the other. Yet in each case, advocates more heavily criticized the study whose conclusions disagreed with their own, while describing the study that was more ideologically congenial as more “convincing.”

Since then, similar results have been found for how people respond to “evidence” about affirmative action, gun control, the accuracy of gay stereotypes [13], and much else. Even when study subjects are explicitly instructed to be unbiased and even-handed about the evidence, they often fail.

And it’s not just that people twist or selectively read scientific evidence to support their preexisting views. According to research by Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan [14] and his colleagues, people’s deep-seated views about morality, and about the way society should be ordered, strongly predict whom they consider to be a legitimate scientific expert in the first place—and thus where they consider “scientific consensus” to lie on contested issues.

In Kahan’s research [15] (PDF), individuals are classified, based on their cultural values, as either “individualists” or “communitarians,” and as either “hierarchical” or “egalitarian” in outlook. (Somewhat oversimplifying, you can think of hierarchical individualists as akin to conservative Republicans, and egalitarian communitarians as liberal Democrats.) In one study, subjects in the different groups were asked to help a close friend determine the risks associated with climate change, sequestering nuclear waste, or concealed carry laws: “The friend tells you that he or she is planning to read a book about the issue but would like to get your opinion on whether the author seems like a knowledgeable and trustworthy expert.” A subject was then presented with the résumé of a fake expert “depicted as a member of the National Academy of Sciences who had earned a Ph.D. in a pertinent field from one elite university and who was now on the faculty of another.” The subject was then shown a book excerpt by that “expert,” in which the risk of the issue at hand was portrayed as high or low, well-founded or speculative. The results were stark: When the scientist’s position stated that global warming is real and human-caused, for instance, only 23 percent of hierarchical individualists agreed the person was a “trustworthy and knowledgeable expert.” Yet 88 percent of egalitarian communitarians accepted the same scientist’s expertise. Similar divides were observed on whether nuclear waste can be safely stored underground and whether letting people carry guns deters crime. (The alliances did not always hold. Inanother study [16] (PDF), hierarchs and communitarians were in favor of laws that would compel the mentally ill to accept treatment, whereas individualists and egalitarians were opposed.)

Head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.

In other words, people rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views—and thus the relative risks inherent in each scenario. A hierarchal individualist finds it difficult to believe that the things he prizes (commerce, industry, a man’s freedom to possess a gun to defend his family [16]) (PDF) could lead to outcomes deleterious to society. Whereas egalitarian communitarians tend to think that the free market causes harm, that patriarchal families mess up kids, and that people can’t handle their guns. The study subjects weren’t “anti-science”—not in their own minds, anyway. It’s just that “science” was whatever they wanted it to be. “We’ve come to a misadventure, a bad situation where diverse citizens, who rely on diverse systems of cultural certification, are in conflict,” says Kahan [17].

And that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.

Take, for instance, the question of whether Saddam Hussein possessed hidden weapons of mass destruction just before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. When political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler showed subjects fake newspaper articles [18] (PDF) in which this was first suggested (in a 2004 quote from President Bush) and then refuted (with the findings of the Bush-commissioned Iraq Survey Group report, which found no evidence of active WMD programs in pre-invasion Iraq), they found that conservatives were more likely than before to believe the claim. (The researchers also tested how liberals responded when shown that Bush did not actually “ban” embryonic stem-cell research. Liberals weren’t particularly amenable to persuasion, either, but no backfire effect was observed.)

Another study gives some inkling of what may be going through people’s minds when they resist persuasion. Northwestern University sociologist Monica Prasad [19] and her colleagues wanted to test whether they could dislodge the notion that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were secretly collaborating among those most likely to believe it—Republican partisans from highly GOP-friendly counties. So the researchers set up a study [20] (PDF) in which they discussed the topic with some of these Republicans in person. They would cite the findings of the 9/11 Commission, as well as a statement in which George W. Bush himself denied his administration had “said the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda.”

One study showed that not even Bush’s own words could change the minds of Bush voters who believed there was an Iraq-Al Qaeda link.

As it turned out, not even Bush’s own words could change the minds of these Bush voters—just 1 of the 49 partisans who originally believed the Iraq-Al Qaeda claim changed his or her mind. Far more common was resisting the correction in a variety of ways, either by coming up with counterarguments or by simply being unmovable:

Interviewer: [T]he September 11 Commission found no link between Saddam and 9/11, and this is what President Bush said. Do you have any comments on either of those?

Respondent: Well, I bet they say that the Commission didn’t have any proof of it but I guess we still can have our opinions and feel that way even though they say that.

The same types of responses are already being documented on divisive topics facing the current administration. Take the “Ground Zero mosque.” Using information from the political myth-busting site [21], a team at Ohio State presented subjects [22] (PDF) with a detailed rebuttal to the claim that “Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam backing the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque, is a terrorist-sympathizer.” Yet among those who were aware of the rumor and believed it, fewer than a third changed their minds.

A key question—and one that’s difficult to answer—is how “irrational” all this is. On the one hand, it doesn’t make sense to discard an entire belief system, built up over a lifetime, because of some new snippet of information. “It is quite possible to say, ‘I reached this pro-capital-punishment decision based on real information that I arrived at over my life,'” explains Stanford social psychologist Jon Krosnick [23]. Indeed, there’s a sense in which science denial could be considered keenly “rational.” In certain conservative communities, explains Yale’s Kahan, “People who say, ‘I think there’s something to climate change,’ that’s going to mark them out as a certain kind of person, and their life is going to go less well.”

This may help explain a curious pattern Nyhan and his colleagues found when they tried to test the fallacy [6] (PDF) that President Obama is a Muslim. When a nonwhite researcher was administering their study, research subjects were amenable to changing their minds about the president’s religion and updating incorrect views. But when only white researchers were present, GOP survey subjects in particular were more likely to believe the Obama Muslim myth than before. The subjects were using “social desirabililty” to tailor their beliefs (or stated beliefs, anyway) to whoever was listening.

Which leads us to the media. When people grow polarized over a body of evidence, or a resolvable matter of fact, the cause may be some form of biased reasoning, but they could also be receiving skewed information to begin with—or a complicated combination of both. In the Ground Zero mosque case, for instance, a follow-up study [24] (PDF) showed that survey respondents who watched Fox News were more likely to believe the Rauf rumor and three related ones—and they believed them more strongly than non-Fox watchers.

Okay, so people gravitate toward information that confirms what they believe, and they select sources that deliver it. Same as it ever was, right? Maybe, but the problem is arguably growing more acute, given the way we now consume information—through the Facebook links of friends, or tweets that lack nuance or context, or “narrowcast [25]” and often highly ideological media that have relatively small, like-minded audiences. Those basic human survival skills of ours, says Michigan’s Arthur Lupia, are “not well-adapted to our information age.”

A predictor of whether you accept the science of global warming? Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.

If you wanted to show how and why fact is ditched in favor of motivated reasoning, you could find no better test case than climate change. After all, it’s an issue where you have highly technical information on one hand and very strong beliefs on the other. And sure enough, one key predictor of whether you accept the science of global warming is whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. The two groups have been growing more divided in their views about the topic, even as the science becomes more unequivocal.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that more education doesn’t budge Republican views. On the contrary: In a 2008 Pew survey [26], for instance, only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college educated Republicans. In other words, a higher education correlated with an increased likelihood of denying the science on the issue. Meanwhile, among Democrats and independents, more education correlated with greater acceptance of the science.

Other studies have shown a similar effect: Republicans who think they understand the global warming issue best are least concerned about it; and among Republicans and those with higher levels of distrust of science in general, learning more about the issue doesn’t increase one’s concern about it. What’s going on here? Well, according to Charles Taber and Milton Lodge of Stony Brook, one insidious aspect of motivated reasoning is that political sophisticates are prone to be more biased than those who know less about the issues. “People who have a dislike of some policy—for example, abortion—if they’re unsophisticated they can just reject it out of hand,” says Lodge. “But if they’re sophisticated, they can go one step further and start coming up with counterarguments.” These individuals are just as emotionally driven and biased as the rest of us, but they’re able to generate more and better reasons to explain why they’re right—and so their minds become harder to change.

That may be why the selectively quoted emails of Climategate were so quickly and easily seized upon by partisans as evidence of scandal. Cherry-picking is precisely the sort of behavior you would expect motivated reasoners to engage in to bolster their views—and whatever you may think about Climategate, the emails were a rich trove of new information upon which to impose one’s ideology.

Climategate had a substantial impact on public opinion, according to Anthony Leiserowitz [27], director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication [28]. It contributed to an overall drop in public concern about climate change and a significant loss of trust in scientists. But—as we should expect by now—these declines were concentrated among particular groups of Americans: Republicans, conservatives, and those with “individualistic” values. Liberals and those with “egalitarian” values didn’t lose much trust in climate science or scientists at all. “In some ways, Climategate was like a Rorschach test,” Leiserowitz says, “with different groups interpreting ambiguous facts in very different ways.”

Is there a case study of science denial that largely occupies the political left? Yes: the claim that childhood vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism.

So is there a case study of science denial that largely occupies the political left? Yes: the claim that childhood vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism. Its most famous proponents are an environmentalist (Robert F. Kennedy Jr. [29]) and numerous Hollywood celebrities (most notably Jenny McCarthy [30] and Jim Carrey). TheHuffington Post gives a very large megaphone to denialists. And Seth Mnookin [31], author of the new book The Panic Virus [32], notes that if you want to find vaccine deniers, all you need to do is go hang out at Whole Foods.

Vaccine denial has all the hallmarks of a belief system that’s not amenable to refutation. Over the past decade, the assertion that childhood vaccines are driving autism rateshas been undermined [33] by multiple epidemiological studies—as well as the simple fact that autism rates continue to rise, even though the alleged offending agent in vaccines (a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal) has long since been removed.

Yet the true believers persist—critiquing each new study that challenges their views, and even rallying to the defense of vaccine-autism researcher Andrew Wakefield, afterhis 1998 Lancet paper [34]—which originated the current vaccine scare—was retracted and he subsequently lost his license [35] (PDF) to practice medicine. But then, why should we be surprised? Vaccine deniers created their own partisan media, such as the website Age of Autism, that instantly blast out critiques and counterarguments whenever any new development casts further doubt on anti-vaccine views.

It all raises the question: Do left and right differ in any meaningful way when it comes to biases in processing information, or are we all equally susceptible?

There are some clear differences. Science denial today is considerably more prominent on the political right—once you survey climate and related environmental issues, anti-evolutionism, attacks on reproductive health science by the Christian right, and stem-cell and biomedical matters. More tellingly, anti-vaccine positions are virtually nonexistent among Democratic officeholders today—whereas anti-climate-science views are becoming monolithic among Republican elected officials.

Some researchers have suggested that there are psychological differences between the left and the right that might impact responses to new information—that conservatives are more rigid and authoritarian, and liberals more tolerant of ambiguity. Psychologist John Jost of New York University has further argued that conservatives are “system justifiers”: They engage in motivated reasoning to defend the status quo.

This is a contested area, however, because as soon as one tries to psychoanalyze inherent political differences, a battery of counterarguments emerges: What about dogmatic and militant communists? What about how the parties have differed through history? After all, the most canonical case of ideologically driven science denial is probably the rejection of genetics in the Soviet Union, where researchers disagreeing with the anti-Mendelian scientist (and Stalin stooge) Trofim Lysenko were executed, and genetics itself was denounced as a “bourgeois” science and officially banned.

The upshot: All we can currently bank on is the fact that we all have blinders in some situations. The question then becomes: What can be done to counteract human nature itself?

We all have blinders in some situations. The question then becomes: What can be done to counteract human nature?

Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.

This theory is gaining traction in part because of Kahan’s work at Yale. In one study [36], he and his colleagues packaged the basic science of climate change into fake newspaper articles bearing two very different headlines—”Scientific Panel Recommends Anti-Pollution Solution to Global Warming” and “Scientific Panel Recommends Nuclear Solution to Global Warming”—and then tested how citizens with different values responded. Sure enough, the latter framing made hierarchical individualists much more open to accepting the fact that humans are causing global warming. Kahan infers that the effect occurred because the science had been written into an alternative narrative that appealed to their pro-industry worldview.

You can follow the logic to its conclusion: Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what Kahan has called a “culture war of fact.” In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.


The Worst Marine Invasion Ever (Slate)

I could not believe what I found inside a lionfish.

By Christie Wilcox |Posted Monday, July 1, 2013, at 7:00 AM

A Lionfish swims in a display tank in the aquarium on the United Arab Emirate of Sharjah on August 6, 2008.

A lionfish in an aquarium. Photo by Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty Images

“Do you know what this is?” James Morris looks at me, eyes twinkling, as he points to the guts of a dissected lionfish in his lab at the National Ocean Service’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research in Beaufort, N.C. I see some white chunky stuff. As a Ph.D. candidate at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, I should know basic fish biology literally inside and out. When I cut open a fish, I can tell you which gross-smelling gooey thing is the liver, which is the stomach, etc.

He’s testing me, I think to myself. Morris is National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s pre-eminent scientist studying the invasion of lionfish into U.S. coastal waters. He’s the lionfish guy, and we met in person for the first time just a few days earlier. We’re processing lionfish speared by local divers, taking basic measurements, and removing their stomachs for ongoing diet analyses. Not wanting to look bad, I rack my brain for an answer to his question. It’s not gonads. Not spleen. I’m frustrated with myself, but I simply can’t place the junk; I’ve never seen it before. Finally, I give up and admit that I’m completely clueless.

Close-up on the insides of an obese North Carolinian lionfish.

Close-up on the insides of an obese North Carolinian lionfish. Photo by Christie Wilcox

“It’s interstitial fat.”


“Fat,” he says firmly. I look again. The white waxy substance hangs in globs from the stomach and intestines. It clings to most of the internal organs. Heck, there’s got to be at least as much fat as anything else in this lionfish’s gut. That’s when I realize why he’s pointing this out.

“Wait … these lionfish are overweight?” I ask, incredulous.

“No, not overweight,” he says. “Obese.” The fish we’re examining is so obese, he notes, that there are even signs of liver damage.

Obese. As if the lionfish problem in North Carolina wasn’t bad enough.

Though comparing invasions is a lot like debating if hurricanes are more devastating than earthquakes, it’s pretty safe to say that lionfish in the Atlantic is the worst marine invasion to date—not just in the United States, but globally. Lionfish also win the gold medal for speed, spreading faster than any other invasive species. While there were scattered sightings from the mid-1980s, the first confirmation that lionfish were becoming established in the Atlantic Ocean occurred off of North Carolina in 2000. Since then, they have spread like locusts, eating their way throughout the Caribbean and along every coastline from North Carolina to Venezuela, including deep into the Gulf of Mexico. When lionfish arrive on a reef, they reduce native fish populations by nearly 70 percent. And it’s no wonder—the invasive populations are eight or more times as dense than those in their native range, with more than 450 lionfish per hectare reported in some places. That is a lot of lionfish.

These alien fish didn’t just come here on their own. Early guesses as to how the lionfish arrived ranged from ships’ ballast water to the coastal damage caused by Hurricane Andrew, but now scientists are fairly sure that no ships or natural disasters are to blame. Instead, it’s our fault. Pretty, frilly fins made the fish a favored pet and lured aquarists and aquarium dealers into a false sense of security. We simply didn’t see how dangerous these charismatic fish were—dangerous not for their venom, but for their beauty. We have trouble killing beautiful things, so instead we choose to release them into the wild, believing somehow that this is a better option when, in actuality, it’s the worst thing we can do. Released animals rarely survive in the harsh real world, but it’s even worse when they do. Pet releases and escapees have become problematic invaders all over the country, from the ravenous pythons in Florida to the feral cats of Hawaii. In the case of lionfish, multiple releases from different owners likely led to enough individuals to start an Atlantic breeding population. Rough genetic estimates suggest that fewer than a dozen female fish began what may go down in history as the worst marine invasion of all time.

Lots, and lots, of lionfish caught by the Discovery Diving crew on one day.

Lots and lots of lionfish caught by the Discovery Diving crew on one day. Courtesy of Discovery Diving

In North Carolina, the lionfish invasion can be seen at its worst. Offshore, where warm waters from the Gulf Stream sweep up the coast, the lionfish reign. Local densities increased 700 percent between 2004 and 2008. I got to witness the unfathomable number of lionfish firsthand when I dove with the crew of Discovery Diving, a local scuba shop, to compete in North Carolina’s inaugural lionfish derby. I’ve never seen so many lionfish in my life. I didn’t get more than 20 yards from my starting point before I saw hundreds—literally, hundreds. My spear couldn’t fly fast enough to catch them all. On the last day of the tournament, a six-diver team bagged 167 lionfish from one site in two dives, and they didn’t even make a dent in the population on that wreck site. Morris estimates that more than 1,000 lionfish are at this site. Let me tell you, this is what an invasion looks like. An ecological cascade has been set in motion by these Indo-Pacific fish, and scientists are frantically gathering data, learning as much as they can to understand the extent of the damage lionfish will inflict, and figuring out the best responses to protect these fragile marine ecosystems.

Despite the destruction, it’s hard not to be impressed by these colorful aliens. Part of me holds lionfish in the highest regard, with a sort of evolutionary awe. They’re an incredible fish. Given complete creative freedom, I cannot imagine a way to design a marine species more suited to dominance. Sure, they might not be at the top of the food chain like sharks or killer whales, but what they lack in size they make up for in adaptability and reproductive output. The key to their Darwinian success is that they grow fast, mature early, and breed year-round. A single female can release upward of 2 million eggs annually that become larvae capable of floating along currents for more than a month, dispersing for hundreds to thousands of miles. They’ll eat whatever they can get their mouths around, which happens to be any fish or invertebrate just a hair smaller than they are, and they can grow to more than 18 inches long. That means young fish and crustaceans of any species that live where lionfish do are potential targets. And, to top it all off, they are armed with a formidable set of long, sharp venomous spines capable of inducing incapacitating pain. Not surprisingly, nothing seems inclined to eat them. They’re known for their cavalier attitude toward divers, ignoring our presence or possessing the gall to approach us head on, even in the face of a spear. Their cocky resolve is admirable. It’s abundantly clear that these fish fear nothing, not a hungry grouper, not the largest of reef sharks, not even the most effective predators on the planet—us.

Christie Wilcox cutting open a lionfish to remove its stomach.

The author cuts open a lionfish to remove its stomach. Photo by NOAA intern Dave Matthews

Of course, we are perhaps the only animal that lionfish should be fearful of, the only species potentially capable of controlling lionfish populations. Scientists, managers, fishermen, and locals from Venezuela to North Carolina are rallying behind “Eat Lionfish” campaigns. Lionfish tournaments have become annual events in some of the most heavily hit areas of the Caribbean and Atlantic. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation released a lionfish cookbook in 2010 to spur culinary interest and inform fishermen and chefs how to clean and prepare this new delicacy. But even with a serious fishery throughout the invasive range, we will likely never evict lionfish from their new homes. Studies have suggested that we’d need to fish more than a quarter of the mature lionfish every month to stunt population growth, let alone reverse it. Our best hope is to keep local populations low enough to protect key commercial and ecological species, a mission that is proving to be harder and harder as we realize just how much lionfish eat.

We’ve always known that lionfish are formidable predators. As slow-moving fish, they have to be pretty effective hunters to get away with such flamboyant looks. After all, it’s not like their prey won’t see them coming. They practically advertise their presence, waving around their frilly, striped fins with a level of arrogance usually reserved for apex predators. In their native range, young fish run from the sight. But in the Atlantic, native fish have never seen such a bizarre-looking predator. They don’t realize that this colorful display is a warning, not only of their potent venom but also of a nearly insatiable appetite. They don’t flee, and they get eaten. And in North Carolina, the lionfish are eating so well they’ve become fat. No, not fat. Obese.

As James Morris and I measured and sliced 247 fish last month, he explained that we have to monitor their diets to understand how lionfish may impact native fish.

So far, more than 70 different species have been found in the stomachs of invasive lionfish, but detailed data on what they regularly eat in many different areas and throughout the year hasn’t been collected—yet. That’s one of the questions Morris is in the process of answering, and that’s what I helped him with while I was in North Carolina collecting samples for my own research on lionfish venom.

The coast of North Carolina is renowned for its seafood. Cold waters from the north and the warm Gulf Stream converge at Cape Hatteras, creating some of the richest fishing grounds on the Eastern Seaboard. More than 60 million pounds of fish and shellfish are pulled out of its waters every year, worth upward of $1 billion to commercial fishermen. Lionfish are eating a lot of something, and if these gluttons are eating key commercial species, there could be a negative ripple effect on the local economy.

Vermilion snapper pulled from a lionfish's stomach.

Vermilion snapper pulled from a lionfish’s stomach. Courtesy of NOAA

One species Morris is particularly concerned about is the vermillion snapper. One of the smallest of the species often labeled as red snapper, vermilion snapper are the most frequently caught snapper along the southeastern United States. Because of their popularity, vermilion snapper populations are closely monitored, and their harvest has been managed in a variety of ways, including limited entry systems, annual quotas, size limits, trip limits, and seasonal closures. So far, government assessments say that the populations are not overfished, but fisheries-watch organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium aren’t convinced. What we know for certain is that vermillion snapper are among the most heavily managed fish in North Carolina, and all of our efforts will be for naught if the lionfish are getting to them first.

So far, it’s not looking good.

I personally pulled vermillion snapper out of lionfish guts last month, along with tomtates and various other reef fish. It’s estimated that lionfish in the Bahamas eat upward of 1,000 pounds of prey per acre per year. Given that lionfish feed largely on small fishes, this equates to hundreds of thousands of individual fish consumed per year by lionfish per acre. But all the interstitial fat I saw suggests that the North Carolinian fish aren’t just eating until they’re full; they’re overindulging on the rich diversity of seafood that North Carolina has to offer. Though lionfish can go weeks between meals, when they don’t have to, they won’t. Scientists have observed lionfish eating at a rate of one to two fish per minute, and their stomachs can expand 30 times their size to accommodate lots of food. To become obese, fish eat upward of 7.5 times their normal dietary intake, which means the abundant North Carolina lionfish could be eating as much as 7,000 pounds of prime North Carolina seafood per acre every year—seafood that we’d much prefer ended up on our plates instead.

In 2010 scientists named the lionfish invasion one of the top 15 threats to global biodiversity. In the three years since, the invasion has only worsened. The only solution is to fight fire with fire, or in this case, pit our bottomless stomachs against theirs. We really do have to eat them to beat them.

Unfortunately, developing a fishery for lionfish isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. They don’t tend to bite hooks and live in complex habitats like reefs and wrecks that can’t be fished with large nets. To catch them, people have to get in the water and spear them one by one—an expensive and tedious way to fish. For lionfish fisheries to turn a profit, demand will have to be high and constant. So far, only a handful of local restaurants have taken the bait, enticing locavores with a truly sustainable menu option. Their business alone isn’t enough, though, to really drive a market.

That’s even assuming that lionfish are completely safe to eat. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration raised flags about lionfish—but not because of their venom. They are concerned that lionfish may contain ciguatoxin, a common tropical poison that causes somewhere between 50,000 and 500,000 cases of ciguatera fish poisoning every year. Ciguatera isn’t unique to lionfish; the disease occurs in tropical waters worldwide. The small lipid ciguatoxins that cause it are made by dinoflagellates, microscopic algaelike animals that live on and near reefs. Animals don’t really break down ciguatoxin, so it bioaccumulates up the food chain, thus large predators that eat high on the food web are most likely to have dangerous levels of ciguatoxin. In areas where the disease is endemic, species such as groupers and barracuda are simply too risky to consume and are often avoided by fishermen. The FDA is concerned that lionfish should also be included on that list, meaning that in areas such as the Virgin Islands, lionfish would be permanently off the menu. Their press release stated that more than a quarter of lionfish sampled contained unsafe ciguatoxin levels, and it issued a warning against eating them.

To other scientists, including myself, the news is baffling. I haven’t seen the actual data (because the FDA has yet to release them), but such high numbers just seem unbelievable. Thousands of lionfish are eaten every year after tournaments, and there hasn’t been a single case of ciguatera from a lionfish. If so many are dangerous, why hasn’t anyone gotten sick? And even if some areas do have ciguatoxic lionfish, surely other areas are safe. After all, we can still eat grouper and other predators from much of the Atlantic and Caribbean. Lionfish shouldn’t be more ciguatoxic than other reef fish—not unless their diet is very, very different.

One of the tough things about ciguatoxin is that we don’t have reliable, direct tests for it. There is a diverse set of indirect assays, all with different methods, different detection levels, and different specificities. All of this makes it hard to compare studies done by different labs and hard to ensure accuracy. Top that off with a species that has never been tested for ciguatoxin before, and things get really messy. This is where my research comes in.

Lionfish possess potent venom that activates sodium channels on the surface of nerve cells, causing a massive influx of calcium. This leads to the release and depletion of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This happens to be the exact same thing ciguatoxin does. Which, to me, raises a very important question: What if lionfish venom is getting into ciguatoxin assays? Are venom compounds causing false positives? The venom itself, though excruciating in the form of a sting, is harmless on the plate. Unlike ciguatoxin, it’s readily degraded by heat, so if it is venom and not ciguatoxin causing positive tests, lionfish may be safer to eat than the FDA data suggest. Hopefully, the samples I collected on this trip to North Carolina—where ciguatoxin isn’t an issue—will provide some answers.

James Morris pulling a lionfish's stomach for gut content analyses.

James Morris pulling a lionfish’s stomach for gut content analyses. Courtesy of NOAA

Until we know more, though, promoting fisheries is a potentially dangerous management strategy, at least in certain areas. Some governments have stepped in to promote hunting even without a formal fishery plan, in an attempt to protect their reefs’ future. But many of the small, developing countries in the Caribbean simply don’t have the resources to fund large-scale lionfish removal efforts. For them, steady fisheries would be the only way to get fishermen to catch lionfish instead of currently lucrative species such as grouper.

While we wait to see whether we can drum up the demand, the lionfish are making themselves comfortable. They’re embedding themselves in already fragile ecosystems, restructuring food webs, and pushing reefs toward irreversible ecological cascades. They’re exploring new habitats, discovering the rich resources provided by seagrass meadows and mangroves, even travelling miles inland and upstream in Florida. They’re taking over reefs, wrecks, and rocky territory from the surface to more than 800 feet deep, and they’re gorging themselves on whatever young fish happen to live there. They are, quite literally, growing fat off of our inaction.

That’s not to say there is no hope. Yes, we’re going to have to learn to live with the lionfish. We’re going to have to accept their presence in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, but we can use science to arm us against this invasion. In the quiet lab in North Carolina, Morris isn’t just studying fish. He’s preparing us for battle. In this endless war with a formidable foe, knowledge truly is power. The power to predict. The power to pre-empt. The power to fight back and save the species we value most. The power to educate and rally reinforcements to drive back invaders. The more we know about the lionfish, the better our strategies will be to deal with them and future invaders and the better our chances of success. The lionfish caught us by surprise, but Morris isn’t going to let them stay one step ahead. Even if we can’t eradicate these gluttonous fish, we may be able to manage them and minimize the damage they do to our precious marine ecosystems.

Considering it’s our fault that lionfish are here in the first place, it’s really a war against ourselves: against our bad habits, against our casual disregard for the ecosystems that protect and sustain us, against the attitudes and mindsets that led to such a devastating invasion to begin with. It’s a war that, as a nation, as a species, we cannot afford to lose. And one thing is for certain: With so much at stake, it’s going to be a bloody one.

As manifestações populares e as músicas de protesto (Áudio Ativo/UFRJ)

Enviado por  on 28/6/13  

37429a8f3c840dd9f821dc9033e6282cd5e09f8dNa História recente do Brasil, muitas vezes a população  foi às ruas para reivindicar mudanças, denunciar e se manifestar. Através das letras de certas músicas, nos sentimos representados. Há, inclusive, canções que se eternizaram a fim de se tornarem hinos de várias gerações.  Há outras que retratam um momento específico da nossa história. A proposta então desse programa especial é apresentar para os ouvintes uma historiografia do Brasil  diferente…. através das canções de protesto, vamos contar a história das manifestações populares. Para tanto escolhemos quatro datas marcantes do nosso país: 1968, 1985, 1992 e 2013. Entenda o contexto, ouça as principais canções, relembre as palavras de ordem e depoimentos de várias personalidades e especialistas.

Apuração e Reportagem: Rafael Amêndola, Yuri Brito, Marlon Câmara, Antonella Zugliani, Amanda Duarte, Marilise Mortágua, Ana Clara Veloso, Lucas Drummond, Elisa Ferreira, Patricia Valle, Mariana Bria, Gonçalo Luiz. Produção executiva: Taís Carvalho.

Edição de áudio: Sergio Muniz

Coordenação de Jornalismo: Prof. Gabriel Collares Barbosa

Escutar aqui.

Climate change poses grave threat to security, says UK envoy (The Guardian)

Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, special representative to foreign secretary, says governments can’t afford to wait for 100% certainty

The Guardian, Sunday 30 June 2013 18.19 BST

Flooding in Thailand in 2011

Flooding in Thailand in 2011. Photograph: Narong Sangnak/EPA

Climate change poses as grave a threat to the UK’s security and economic resilience as terrorism and cyber-attacks, according to a senior military commander who was appointed as William Hague’s climate envoy this year.

In his first interview since taking up the post, Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti said climate change was “one of the greatest risks we face in the 21st century”, particularly because it presented a global threat. “By virtue of our interdependencies around the world, it will affect all of us,” he said.

He argued that climate change was a potent threat multiplier at choke points in the global trade network, such as the Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s traded oil and gas is shipped.

Morisetti left a 37-year naval career to become the foreign secretary’s special representative for climate change, and represents the growing influence of hard-headed military thinking in the global warming debate.

The link between climate change and global security risks is on the agenda of the UK’s presidency of the G8, including a meeting to be chaired by Morissetti in July that will include assessment of hotspots where climate stress is driving migration.

Morisetti’s central message was simple and stark: “The areas of greatest global stress and greatest impacts of climate change are broadly coincidental.”

He said governments could not afford to wait until they had all the information they might like. “If you wait for 100% certainty on the battlefield, you’ll be in a pretty sticky state,” he said.

The increased threat posed by climate change arises because droughts, storms and floods are exacerbating water, food, population and security tensions in conflict-prone regions.

“Just because it is happening 2,000 miles away does not mean it is not going to affect the UK in a globalised world, whether it is because food prices go up, or because increased instability in an area – perhaps around the Middle East or elsewhere – causes instability in fuel prices,” Morisetti said.

“In fact it is already doing so,” he added, noting that Toyota’s UK car plants had been forced to switch to a three-day week after extreme floods in Thailand cut the supply chain. Computer firms in California and Poland were left short of microchips by the same floods.

Morisetti is far from the only military figure emphasising the climate threat to security. America’s top officer tackling the threat from North Korea and China has said the biggest long-term security issue in the region is climate change.

In a recent interview, Admiral Samuel J Locklear III, who led the US naval action in Libya that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi, said a significant event related to the warming planet was “the most likely thing that is going to happen that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about”.

There is a reason why the military are so clear-headed about the climate threat, according to Professor John Schellnhuber, a scientist who briefed the UN security council on the issue in February and formerly advised the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

“The military do not deal with ideology. They cannot afford to: they are responsible for the lives of people and billions of pounds of investment in equipment,” he said. “When the climate change deniers took their stance after the Copenhagen summit in 2009, it is very interesting that the military people were never shaken from the idea that we are about to enter a very difficult period.”

He added: “This danger of the creation of violent conflicts is the strongest argument why we should keep climate change under control, because the international system is not stable, and the slightest thing, like the food riots in the Middle East, could make the whole system explode.”

The military has been quietly making known its concern about the climate threat to security for some time. General Wesley Clark, who commanded the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war, said in 2005: “Stopping global warming is not just about saving the environment, it’s about securing America for our children and our children’s children, as well.”

In the same year Chuck Hagel, now Obama’s defence secretary, said: “I don’t think you can separate environmental policy from economic policy or energy policy.”

Morisetti said there was also a direct link between climate change and the military because of the latter’s huge reliance on fossil fuels. “In Afghanistan, where we have had to import all our energy into the country along a single route that has been disrupted, the US military have calculated that for every 24 convoys there has been a casualty. There is a cost associated in bringing in that energy in both blood and treasure.

“So to drive up efficiency and to use alternative fuels, wind, solar, makes eminent sense to the military,” he said, noting that the use of solar blankets in Afghanistan meant fewer fuel resupply missions. “The principles of delivering your outputs more effectively, reducing your risks and reducing your costs reads across far more widely than just the military: most businesses would be looking for that too.”

Morisetti’s former employer, the Ministry of Defence, agrees that the climate threat is a serious one. The last edition of the Global Strategic Trends analysis published by the MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre concludes: “Climate change will amplify existing social, political and resource stresses, shifting the tipping point at which conflict ignites … Out to 2040, there are few convincing reasons to suggest that the world will become more peaceful.”

Schellnhuber was also clear about the consequences of failing to curb global warming. “The last 11,000 years – the Holocene – was characterised by the extreme stability of global climate. It is the only period when human civilisation could have developed at all,” he said. “But I don’t think a global, interconnected world can be managed in peace if climate change means we are leaving the Holocene. Let’s pray we will have a Lincoln or a Gorbachev to lead us.”