The Natural History Museum – fantastic, if not a little misleading!

Last weekend I took a trip down to London to visit a friend. As I haven’t been to the capital in around 10 years this was an ideal opportunity for me to “do the museums”. By that I mean the Natural History Museum (NHM) and the Science Museum. In particular, I found the NHM was excellent. Not only did the exhibits cater to the interests of me, a humble Zoology student, but also to the needs of young children and adults. There was a life size (and moving!) Tyrannosaur Rex, a huge collection of mammals and a detailed human evolution section.

I found it commendable that despite some of their taxidermy becoming discoloured, they had no intentions to replace it – to prevent more animals from being killed. The whole museum was alive with children running around fascinated by what they were seeing. Don’t forget, these children are the future of science, potentially discovering things in the future that we can’t even begin to imagine!

HOWEVER, I was a little disappointed when I saw a sign stating that the reason Stegosaurus’ had plates on their back was to regulate body heat.  It is true that some scientists believe this, but there are many other potential explanations for the characteristic plates (such as armour, strengthening of the back for locomotion, or a source of calcium for egg shells and many more). While each of these explanations has evidence to support it, there is no majority consensus. As a result I found it bizarre that the NHM would make such a statement, which was completely misleading to the general public.

But it is not the first time the general public have been mislead or misinformed by the scientific community. I have recently read “The Discovery of Global Warming” by Spencer Weart, and I found the book to be riddled with examples which mislead or confuse the public. It seems to me, the problem is the very fundamental principle of science – debate, and criticism. Theories are constantly being disproved, or rather improved, as our understanding grows. This is how science works. But how are the public meant to have confidence in scientists when they are always changing their mind?

The situation is not helped by the media. A good story is something dramatic and striking, such as a huge volcanic eruption, a 20°C temperature crash/rise, or a 5m rise in sea levels. When the IPCC released their “Hockey Stick Graph” (see below) in 2001, showing there had been a warming of the northern hemisphere of a couple of degrees at the very most, journalists were not particularly inspired to cover the front pages. They found more time for the controversial scientists who predicted extreme changes in weather in the very near future.

The Hockey Stick Graph - Millennial Northern Hemisphere (NH) temperature reconstruction (blue - tree rings, corals, ice cores, and historical records) and instrumental data (red) from AD 1000 to 1999. Smoother version of NH series (black), and two standard error limits (gray shaded) are shown". Adapted from the MBH99 graph which Jerry Mahlman nicknamed the "hockey stick".

So what does this all mean for the relationship between science and the public? The way science works is not going to change. The way the public trust what the media is telling them is also unlikely to change. And the majority of members of the public are not going to pay to access papers from the experts that their colleagues can scarcely understand. So what would solve this problem? I think the journalists reporting on science should be educated, or at least have a background in science. They would therefore be able to give a reasonable version of events and current thinking in the science community. It may not make the front pages, but surely that is better than the public losing all confidence in science.

 

 

Further reading

Internal vascularity of the dermal plates of Stegosaurus by Farlow et al (2010).

Britain’s badgers – is a vaccine enough to stop the cull?

Britain’s badgers – is a vaccine enough to stop the cull? – Another case of too little too late.

 

If you have read any of my previous blogs (if not I encourage you to do so!!) you will be aware that I grew up in the heart of the English Lake District. Well known for its beautiful views and incredible wildlife, the Lake District has been a wonderful place to grow up. However, living in an area with so much wildlife, humans and animals inevitably collide. In my younger years I remember quite clearly seeing road kill and being quite effected by it. It seemed to me that one animal, the badger; I only got to see when it was dead at the side of the road. As I got older I began to understand the issue a little more and even came across rumours that the mysterious badger is not always killed accidently.

Tuberculosis is a global killer usually infecting the lungs and an estimated third of the human population is thought to be infected. In Britain badgers are commonly blamed for transmitting bovine tuberculosis to cattle. To a farmer, any single animal lost to tuberculosis puts pressure on the farmer’s finances and of course reduces the public’s confidence in the British meat market. If a population of badgers become infected, it could only be a matter of time before cattle become infected. My research has found speculation that in extreme cases this leads to farmers not slowing down when they see a badger, but in fact speeding up, and killing these animals to protect their livelihood.

After all the years of seeing badgers at the side of the road it is clear to me that this can’t continue. So what is the solution? There are two options available: cull or vaccine. The first option has been at the fore front of the badger debate for some time. Badgers are protected in the UK, but this proposal would see that ban lifted and permit landowners and farmers to freely shoot any badgers they see. The cull has been debated in government for many years and is always met with strong opposition. The problem with culling is it is neither humane nor particularly effective. The badger is a popular part of Britain’s ecosystem and no one wants to be out on a walk, or driving down a country lane and see people shooting badgers. Secondly, for the cull to be effective every single badger needs to be shot, to stop the disease spreading (regardless of if the badger is infected or not). Furthermore, if even one infected badger from a sett survives, it could move to another previously uninfected region, causing even more devastation. To me this does not seem fair, and regardless of the effect the badgers may have on the farming industry, it feels a little immoral.

Vaccination seems like a much more humane option as opposed to a potential extermination. With culling trials set to start as early as 2012, it is a race against time to prove curing is the answer. On face value it might be difficult to understand why culling is ever preferred to curing, but the badger’s mysteriousness is in this case its downfall. It is one thing to find a badger sett, it is another to then catch and vaccinate all the badgers in that sett. It is certainly cheaper to just shoot every badger, if your morals will allow it. Figures released from Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) state that it costs £2,250 a year to vaccinate a square kilometre, but just £200 per square kilometre a year to kill. Bovine tuberculosis already costs the UK £100 million per year, so the ‘nicer’ more humane vaccination may not be an option financially.

Is there any hope for the badger then? For the vaccine to work I believe there are three things that need to change. Firstly the farmers need to be onboard with the scheme and change their attitude towards badgers. This means no longer killing the badgers, but instead working with the government officials, volunteers and badger experts to find a humane solution to the problem. Another stumbling block for the vaccination option is the price. It is hard to imagine the government choosing to vaccinate the badgers, when it costs 10 times the amount it does to kill them (especially in the current economical climate).  It would be much cheaper to use an oral vaccine but that is not expected to be ready for trials until 2015, which may well be too little too late. Under current proposals it would seem that there is little hope for the badger’s future existence. I would like to think that culling will be a last resort, only used when all other possible methods have been trialled. However I fear that the cost to the tax payer and the farming industry in the UK may sign the death warrant for this species.

A month in the life of a Zoo Keeper – My experience of favouritism and guilt.

A month in the life of a Zoo Keeper – My experience of favouritism and guilt.

For the last month I have been working at a local zoo, looking after 3 very demanding, very hungry female Asian Elephants. The last month has been a rollercoaster of emotions and opinions about the ethics and morality of zoos and I hope to outline those feelings to you now.

When I first applied for the work experience position I had what I would call a “typical scientific opinion” of zoos. That is, I thought zoos have a two prong strategy: to inform the public of the threats facing endangered animals (and hopefully gain some charitable donations), and to take part in breeding programmes to change population numbers for the better. Obviously I thought all this went on with the utmost care and consideration for the animals in question. This was my mind set when I started working at the zoo and in the vast majority of cases I was correct.

The elephants were fantastic. I remember saying on my first day that I wouldn’t have a favourite but that quickly changed when I developed a small soft spot for one of the elephants called Kate. Before I knew it I found myself sticking up for her in arguments, and throwing her that extra slice of melon or pineapple on the sly. After my first week I found myself noticing their hierarchy, day to day behaviour and individual qwerks. By the end of the month they knew my face, trusted my voice and (regardless of whether I was right or wrong) I felt like one of the family.

As well as the elephants I also spent a lot of time around the big cats. Similarly to Kate, I soon developed a soft spot for our Amur Tiger called Zam. Tigers are largely solitary animals, but they do come into contact with other members of their species from time to time. But what happens in a zoo environment? In the wild, Zam at least has the possibility that he might bump into another tiger, (hopefully a female!) but in the zoo, day in day out it is guaranteed he will never see a male or female of his species – no exception. This is where I start to question my opinions. There is no question Zam is a vital part of the Amur Tiger breeding programme, and the zoo continually provide enrichment for him but is he living his life to the full? Should we try and save endangered species for future generations of tigers, regardless of the cost, or burden it may put on the current generation? Zam may be very happy when he gets a scheduled visit from a female, but that female can’t stay with him forever – it isn’t in the nature of Tigers to live in breeding pairs. So for the majority of his time he will be on his own. It upsets me knowing how his life will pan out, with no where new to explore, no females to pursue or males to fight. These were my thoughts half way through the month, and they were depressing. But let us not forget successful breeding programmes do exist, and I believe it would be morally criminal to let these beautiful creatures go extinct without even trying to save them.

So what do I think now after my time at the zoo? Well in the case of the elephants: all 3 of them are too old to breed and 2 of the 3 are from the circus. The other has lived all but one year of her life in captivity. Since none of the elephants therefore possess the skills to live in the wild, I personally think they have a very good quality of life – and undoubtedly better than their life in the circus. In the case of Zam I am not so sure. He has certainly made it clear to me that my opinions on zoos a month ago were quite naive.  I feel for Zam, but at the same time, the sacrifice he is making could be the difference between his species surviving or becoming extinct. I guess the real point here is Zam shouldn’t have to sacrifice his life in the first place. It is neither his nor his species fault. So what is the place of zoos? Perhaps the zoos will eventually manage to right some of the wrongs done to animals, and provide a home to those whom no longer have one. Perhaps they won’t. As I said, it would be criminal not to try and save these beautiful animals. Those of you lucky enough to spend long periods of time with endangered animals as I have will agree: heart strings are pulled, moral stances are questioned and finally a sense of guilt and shame overwhelms. These creatures suffer, and the sad truth is: in the most part it is our own species’ fault.