Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Panda and Wildcat Walk into a Bar...

Last week UHI held a public lecture: "Scotland and it's 21st century Zoos". The speakers were from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Prof. Chris West, (CEO), Iain Valentine (Director of the Giant Panda Project), and Douglas Richardson (Head of Living Collections at the RZSS’s Highland Wildlife Park). Wonderfully, the UHI Science Society were given the opportunity to meet with the speakers, so Emma, Karen and I went along early to find out more about their work.

Right to left: Iain Valentine, Emma Aitken, Chris West, Karen
Muller, Douglas Richardson, me, and Crichton Lang
UHI's Deputy Principle, Dr Crichton Lang introduced us all to the evening's lectures with a trip down memory lane:  Lang family outings to Edinburgh Zoo in the 1960s-70s. They shaped his interest in biology and later choice to enter veterinary surgery. (I'm sure training with animals is useful at any University!)

Prof. Chris West was the first of the RZSS speakers to take the floor, beginning by asking us where zoos fit into our damaged world. His hypnotically calm voice delivered sobering statistics about climate change and habitat degredation - not to depress us, but to encite us to action. Zoos, he believes, are part of the long term social and ecological solution. They have come a long way since the cigar-smoking chimps in the bare cages of milleniums past. Now they emphasise wildness and conservation, education and research.

There was a great turn out, and lots of questions for the
The RZSS fund a laboratory undertaking various projects in applied genetics. For example they've tested ivory siezed from the black market as part of the international fight against the illegal trade in endangered species. "It's more than just a zoo", he told us. Places like Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife park also attract the broadest socio-economic band of visitors. Unlike art galleries or even museums, you can visit a zoo no matter your age or background.

Iain Valentine laughed awkwardly as he took the stand next, "I'm going to assume you are all fans of the giant panda... you will be by the end of this talk".  His enthusiasm was evident, delving straight into the passion that has consumed him and the rest of Scotland in the last couple of years: pandas, of the giant variety. Over 3 billion people across the globe have been following Tian Tian 甜甜 and Yang Guang 阳光 and their time delighting the public in our capital city - that's three times as many as tuned into the 2012 olympics Iain tells us, with evident pride (although if you could combine the two to create a Panda Olympics, I reckon you could quadruple those figures).

To be honest (though I didn't mention it to Iain) I'm personally not a massive fan of the big two-tone bear. I wish them all the best, but I'm more of a Bagheera Kiplingi girl myself. Better yet, make it a tuojiangosaurus.

Tian Tian got pregnant by artificial insemination in April 2013,
but lost the foetus. This is apparently common in captive
panda breeding. Edinburgh Zoo is hoping next year will bring
Having said that, if it's extinct you want, the panda may be there soon enough. Solitary, elusive creatures, the giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, is well known as a species in trouble, suffering from habitat degredation and the fragmentation of their populations in their native China. What's less well known is that even where they persist, they are no longer living in their favoured habitat but in a harsher mountain environment, lowering their survival rate further. These factors add up to create an unsustainable situation where pandas face extinction in the wild and earn themselves their iconic status as the poster children for the World Wildlife Fund.

  Lastly, Douglas took the podium to tell us about Scottish wildlife ("now that you are all sick of pandas..."). His focus was on the Scottish Wildcat Felis sylvestris grampia, that elusive icon of our wilderness. He bemoaned the equal elusiveness of facts about the feline in the media, where numbers in the wild are quoted anywhere between 30 and 500. The true number he tells us, lies somewhere in the middle.
How to tell  a wildcat from a domestic. 1. Dorsal stripe on lower
back always stops at the root of the tail; 2. Tip of tail blunt and
black;3. Distinct aligned tail bands; 4. Unbroken flank stripes;
5. No spots on rump, stripes may be broken but distinct;
6. Four nape stripes, broad, wavy and unfused;
7. Two shoulder stripes.

The main threat to their survival is breeding with pet and feral domestic cats. Douglas pressed home that captivity was the only place their survival as a genetically pure species was 100% guranteed.

His somewhat grumpy demeanor went perfectly with a no-nonsense attitude and dry wit. "If there's one thing I hate its people walking past the wildcats and saying oh look, it looks just like wee Tiddles at home. I'd like to give them the keys and say: go on, stroke it. I dare you."

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Elsa Biosphere Reserve

I'm setting up my body as a biosphere reserve.

I'm an ecosystem, a walking rainforest with ten times more microbial inhabitants than human cells.

There are 2,264 single-celled monkeys swinging from my nostril branches, and a similar number of prokaryotic tapirs feeding in the foliage behind my ears. Just under 8,000 types of microscopic bug inhabit the moist leaf litter of my teeth and tongue. Most impressive of all, I've got 33,000 species of bacterial caiman swimming the silty rivers of my digestive tract.

It isn't just me: you are a habitat too.

There's barely a tract of you that isn't awash with life forms. Even the insides of your elbows can compete with your nose as sites of special scientific interest.

In fact everyone's meat-sack is now of interest to science.

Welcome to the Human Microbiome Project, dedicated to charting the biodiversity of 18 sites on the human body. The implications for medicine are staggering. We'll no longer be able to view the body as simply ours, to be treated as one being, but as the habitat for an aggregation of bacteria, archaea, eukaryotic microbes and viruses. All of these species are natural and many play important roles in our bodily processes. It's only when they are in the wrong place or numbers that they can become the japanese knotweed of the body.

Why set up an Elsa Biosphere Reserve? Recently my personal ecosystem has been under threat from some invasive species, resulting in time off work and missing a chance to meet Neil Gaiman. This simply will not do.

Dr Lita Proctor, programme director of the Microbiome Project explains "The human genome is inherited but the human microbiome is acquired- that means it has a very important changeable, mutable property. This gives us something to work with ... If you can manipulate the microbiome you can keep a healthy microbiome healthy or re-balance an unhealthy one." (BBC)

We acquire  our microbial biome when we're babies, but this doesn't mean it can't change.

Imagine a future where doctors are the conservationists of your microbiome. They reintroduce endangered species in order to restore balance to the food chain in your body.

We're not talking yakult here, but personalised ecosystem restoration.

Back to the Elsa Biosphere Reserve. In a biosphere reserve, conservation of natural biodiversity is balanced with human economic and social development. The goal is sustainability.

The limit of the reserve will be my skin. I shall attempt to balance the conservation of my natural microbiota with the pesky task of eating, breathing and socialising- all activities that can threaten the healthy functioning of my ecosystem if not done sustainably.

Although microbiome medical treatments are sure to feature in the future of medicine, for now I just have to take some painkillers, rest, and let my microbial allies fight and repopulate my orifices.

"After their designation, biosphere reserves remain under national sovereign jurisdiction, yet they share their experience and ideas nationally, regionally and internationally" (UNESCO)

I will retain sovereign juristiction over myself, but you can be sure I'll continue to share my experiences and ideas to anyone with enough spare time to listen.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Digging Neolithic Orkney - End of week 2

View across Trench T. The island of
Hoy rears impressively in the distance.
What a fantastic week. Orkney has given us a taste of the milder climate of the neolithic; with sun most days, and sunburns to match.*

My lovely teamates in little Trench T, hidden at the back of the main excavation site, have been mattocking, trowelling and recording feverishly. The process is quite satisfying. What's in our trench? Well it's not as sexy as the main site (yet), but there's a wall, lots of midden, and a 'crack of doom' at the top where the ground has split apart. It's only a ~1cm gap, but we're all intrigued. The archaeological theory machine is in full swing.

I tried my hand at 'planning' this week, which is really just drawing very accurately. I'm not knocking it though, it's tough to draw hundreds of stones with precision. I should know, I just drew a hundred or so.

My accurate drawing of a section of Trench T.

I managed to get two blogs on Orkneyjar in the 'View from the Trenches' section below their main dig blog. These cover a little more of my archaeo experiences, including flotation - a rather satisfying if mentally numbing process.

Jennifer and I prepare for flotation.

The 300 micrometre mesh sieve for fine
particulates. Above said particulates
are pieces of pottery and flint we
found in the sample.

Butchering marks on a cattle done from the neolithic.
I was delighted to get a tour of the bone collection at Orkney college, including neolithic cattle bones with butchery cuts where the ligaments and tendons were severed.

More fascinating still was the comparison between the hefty skeletons of neolithic cattle and the comparitively dainty modern highland cow (see pic). This really gives you an idea of the enormity and sturdiness of these animals.

It would be fascinating to utilise the techniques recently used to retrieve and sequence 700,000 year old horse DNA and examine the heritage of the old Orkney neolithic breed.
On the right a modern highland cow tibia.
On the left a neolithic cow tibia

Why stop there? A recent study completed by a team of Oxford scientists found modern Orcadians to have the most unique DNA in the British Isles. If we were to extract DNA from some of the ancient human skeletons found in tombs and cists on Orkney we could shed light both on modern Orcadian ancestry and on the migration of people to Orkney in prehistory.

Anyway, my 2 weeks digging up Orkney are at an end. I don't regret a moment of it. So much food for thought.

*There is no actual scientific evidence that the sun shone most days in the neolithic, nor that neolithic people got sunburnt any more often than modern ones. However, there is evidence to indicate a milder climate, with a richer mix of vegetation to match.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Digging Neolithic Orkney - end of week 1

Ring of Brodgar
This week I've been asking three questions:

1. Should I keep this?

2. How can you prove that?


3. Where are all the fish?

When digging, it can be hard to know whether the lump of orangey hard stuff you uncover in each gentle scrape of the 3" trowel is just another degraded piece of random red sandstone, or a valuable piece of 5000 year old pottery. To add to the uncertainty, this year the Ness of Brodgar excavators are collecting what has been classed as 'foreign stone': stones that are not obviously part of any structure or tool and come from elsewhere (this could be elsewhere on Orkney, or possibly further afield). Collecting such material is unusual in an archaeological dig and adds extra uncertainty and work for diggers and those who process the small finds, but it's part of fascinating work by the on-site geologist, Martha. She's examining stones from Brodgar to find out how far afield the people travelled and what they used such stones for. She is also looking for correlations between settlment patterns and geological formations, such as igneous intrusions.

Beautiful lichens adorn the Ring of Brodgar.
In a way all the rocks at the site are non-local, in the sense that they come from various quarries, none of which are exactly a stones throw from Brodgar. You have to marvel at the effort involved in transporting them here, especially the stones of the Rings of Brodgar and Stenness, which are each many tonnes in weight and have a tendency to laminate.

I'm told that the stones were brought from various areas as tributes from different clans. Someone else says that this area is a procession way from Skara Brae to Maes Howe. Ness of Brodgar was obviously a ritual structure - it was built to break up your journey because you couldn't just go around it. It was a result of hyper-ritualism due to climate change, neolithic people believed in an underworld... had gods, had shamans, took psychotropic drugs, went into trances...

Hearing this all I can think is: how can you prove any of it? It's a slight sticking point for me. The study of science trains you to rigorously stick to facts and evidence. The scientific method involves creating testable hypotheses and then trying and disprove them. Archaeology is tricky because statements of fact can only take you so far. To really understand ancient sites you need to utilise the imagination as well. You can never prove theories about the neolithic mind-set. No one knows what memes were being shared in 3000BC. You can only take the evidence you find - carvings, ornament, placement of structures and methods of building for example - and extrapolate from that. Often these extrapolations venture well beyond any provable ideas. They can be neither proven, nor disproved. Some theories seem more reflective of the cultural background of their proponent/s than of any solid evidence.

Amazing new find at Ness of Brodgar
It makes the scientist in me squirm.

My fellow UHI students don't feel the same - as undergrad archaeologists they embrace the uncertainty and positively enjoy knowing that these are all theories and everyone can hold their own informed ideas with relatively equal legitimacy.

Hmmm, sounds a bit too new-age for me, but I respect their work. The intellectual exercises of imagination are not outwith other scientific disciplines. Indeed, I spent the last two weeks privately postulating on what life-forms might result from evolution in the subsurface oceans of Europa, Jupiter's fourth largest moon. The difference, I would argue, is that one day we may discover the truth about Europa.

We will never know the truth about the Neolithic.

On the rainiest days when digging was called off, we were given demonstrations of flint napping from Hugo and talks on carbon finds such as burnt crab apples, seeds, nuts and pollen grains. Martha talked with us about geology, and on one especially washed out morning the UHI students and students from Willamette University, Oregon, went to the Ring of Brodgar with some knowledgeable site supervisors to examine the stones and talk about their creation and significance in the landscape.

Hugo, an expert flint-napper,
demonstrates his skills.
Using antler, bone and wood, Hugo delivers percussive blows
to create flakes which can become anything from a blade to
an axe.

Hugo created this razor sharp blade.

Hugo's rough axe. Made in under 10 minutes.

I really want to understand the local climate in the neolithic now, as it seems to be a crucial piece in the jigsaw of interpretation in Orkney. There are indications that sea level rise led to inundation of the nearby loch, which may have been a lagoon during the neolithic - possibly an excellent source of food. What effect would losing this food source have had on the local population?

When the people settled here, why didn't they collect any fossil fish? Martha and I puzzled over this together. Surely they would have seen such fossils and recognised them as fish, albeit squished, rocky fish. So why do none turn up among the amber and polished granites, beside the sea-smoothed pebbles and adorning claws and bones - why not a handsome fossil fish beside the fireplace? (I keep mine on a shelf in the bathroom).

Were they frightened by an animal seemingly turned to stone?

One of the supervisors tells me that whereas shellfish are common, fish bones are only rarely found among the middens of neolithic sites in Orkney. Is this because of the preservation properties of their skeletons, or did they seldom eat them? If the latter, this seems strange in a place surrounded by the sea. Like the modern nomads of Mongolia, could there have been a taboo against eating them? If so, could this link to a taboo against collecting their fossilised remains?

Mere postulations. Fuel for the scientific imagination that'll keep me burning for another week.

Monday, 29 July 2013

(Giant Science) Lady of the Lake

Orkney's geology sounds like a work of fiction, the setting for a sci-fi film. An ancient lake at the heart of a supercontinent, fringed with iron-red mountains and deluged by seasonal tropical rains, it's depths stirred by legions of armour-plated fish.

This lake (or series of lakes) was at the equator then, burning up in the full glare of the sun. Hot winds scoured layers from the arid mountains and blew them over the water, where they drifted to the bottom in layers. Fascinatingly, there are patterns in the deposition of these layers related to fluctuations in climate around the lake, and these climate patterns coincide with the Milankovitch cycles - a pattern of earth wobbles, tilts and fluctuating orbit which changes our position in relation to the sun. All this was taking place in the Devonian. What is 400 million years to these islands? That's the time it takes to lay down 5km of sandstone, cover it up, then scour it all back off again. It's the time it takes Orkney to have a facial.

Old man, so Coy
The famous Old Man of Hoy was coquettishly peeking out from under nimbostratus veils as I sailed out of the rain on the mainland, into the rain on Mainland - as the main islands of the Orkney archipelego are known. Did you know the Old Man was still an arch as little as 200 years ago?

Guillemots, fulmars and elegant gannets swooped in and out of the gloom. Best of all, a tiny puffin whirred past. I'd love to rename them sea bumblebees. Inside (where it was drier and warmer) I found a fascinating growth of salt crystals in the gap between the ships glazing.
Salt crystals

But enough of all this, I'm here to dig.

I've made it to the dig partly thanks to the UHI Student Development Fund, who've assisted me meeting the costs. And why am I here? I'm not an archeologist, but I'm fascinated by areas in which archaeological sciences overlap with environmental science. Dating methods, the domestication of animals, how climate influenced the development and collapse of societies - these are just a few fascinating topics.
Brodgar, complete with Baldrick.

Orkney is an amazing place to find out more about this. Neil Oliver (who was filming here last week) apparently tweeted that it's the best neolithic site in the world (or something like that - I don't tweet so I can't quote him verbatum). Tony Robinson turned up today to do some twittering of his own to the camera.

The sun was out all day, re-enacting the Devonian by attempting to lazer our outer layers of skin off. My team got down to some serious trowelling. Raiders of the Lost Ark it was not, but I did find a little flint flake and that's quite alright for a first day.

My team, UHI students doing the excavation module.
I have no reason to be so pleased with myself.
Main excavation site in the background.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Vehicular Orogeny.

My car tried to kill me on Friday.

I'd just finished preparing for a trip to Orkney where I'll be joining an archeological dig with the University of the Highlands and Islands, UHI (my uni). Orkney College is one of the UHI's partner colleges and the hub of it's archeology department. I'd volunteered to join a work team for two weeks, learning the skills of excavation at the UNESCO world heritage site at Ness of Brodgar.

Waterproofs, sunhat, trowel and clothing laid out and ready, I hopped into the car and set off for town, quite delighted with myself. I was zooming out of Muir of Ord, running through final preparations in my head, and that was when Marco (my beloved VW) tried to murder me.

One minute the summer sun was shining on my face, the next, Marco's bonnet was smashing into my windscreen. It was like a vehicular moine thrust.

The bonnet's lock mechanism had failed - by which I mean it disintegrated in a metallic love affair with oxygen - and the bonnet caught the wind like a sail. It had buckled like a child's cheap shoe. I didn't really need a mechanic to tell me the bonnet had to be replaced, as did the windscreen.

And just two days before a 150 mile drive and sail to the northern isles.

Luckily I managed to get the windscreen replaced and the bonnet tied down. It's ugly, but functional. So I'm setting off this morning into the pouring rain.Wish me better luck?

Marco. He's seen better days. What's more appropriate when working on an archeological dig than to arrive driving a relic?