Hairs and pigments keep giant herbs hot in the cold

[This story first ran on BBC Earth, 16 December 2017]

For many people, New Zealand sits in a far corner of the world. But if you wish to visit the country’s most remote island, you would have to sail south of the mainland for 600 km into the Antarctic Ocean. At the end of the almost three-day journey, you would reach New Zealand’s southern-most territory, Campbell Island.

The island is cold, wet and windy. Temperatures rarely climb above 10 Celsius; every day is cloudy, and on most days the sun peeks through for less than an hour; strong winds (> 30km/h) sweep the island. The drizzle never seems to end. Although Campbell Island received UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1998 for its unique biodiversity, nobody is offering tour packages.

In other regions of the world where high winds and low temperatures prevail, plants stay small. Insects pollinators are few too, so flowering plants tend to grow plain-coloured flowers and rely on self- or wind-pollination. Some plants on Campbell Island however, buck this general trend.


Robbers Force Leopards Up Trees

[This story first ran on BBC Earth, 24 April 2017]


Many animals, including Africa’s Big Five, roam the savannas of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa. Sometimes, these animals turn up in unexpected places. Such as the young giraffe that game guides found up in a tree—hung over a fork, dead.

A large male leopard straddled the giraffe, its mouth blood red. Apparently, the leopard had hoisted the giraffe several meters up the tree. The cat feasted for a few days, leaving only bones, skin and bits of flesh scattered around.

The giraffe weighed 300 kg, about five times heavier than its killer. To match the leopard’s strength, a man would have to heave almost 2000 Big-Macs[1] up two floors in one go.


[1] Average American adult weighs 80kg; a Big Mac weighs 0.22kg. So, 5*80kg = 400kg ~= 1820 Big Macs.


A Place For Teeth and Claws

[This story first ran on BBC Earth, 17 May 2017]

In late March 1995, Yellowstone National Park, United States of America, received a special delivery. Fourteen gray wolves (Canis lupus), flown in two months ago from the Canadian Rockies, were released into the park[1]. Neighbouring Idaho received fifteen wolves. These forests had not heard wolf howls for sixty years, since wolves were exterminated by 1930s. Scientists had intended to reintroduce and conserve gray wolves in their original habitats. They did not foresee that the wolves, with blood on their teeth and claws, would restore leaves to the trees.

The wolves quickly reclaimed their spot as top predator. Ecologist William Ripple[2] of Oregon State University has been studying the wolves since their return. He found that within a decade of their release, the wolves had cut elk—their main prey—numbers by half[3]. The surviving elks avoided the wolves’ core range and stayed on the periphery. Woody trees like aspen and willow, chewed and trimmed by zealous elks, now grew tall and lush.


[1] Bangs, E.E., and Fritts, S.H. (1996). Reintroducing the gray wolf to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife Society Bulletin 24, 402–413.


[3] Ripple, W.J., and Beschta, R.L. (2012). Trophic cascades in Yellowstone: The first 15 years after wolf reintroduction. Biological Conservation 145, 205–213.

SUPERSEAS Looks At Area-based Management of Southeast Asia Aquaculture

[An edited version of this story first appeared on SciDev.Net, 18 July 2016]

According to FAO, aquaculture volume has been expanding at an average of almost 9% every year since 1980. In 2013, aquaculture contributes 43% of world total fish production with most farmers running small-scale fish farms. But various socio-economic and environmental risks that extend beyond the farm can threaten the sustainability of small-scale fish farms.

A new research project will study how small-scale fish farms can reduce shared risks and improve market access through cooperation and adoption of area-based management.

The project, called “Supermarket supported area-based management and certification of aquaculture in Southeast Asia” (SUPERSEAS), will be carried out over four years (2016-2020) in Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam.

A consortium of universities and agencies concerned with food production leads the project. Wageningen University and Research heads the research while other partners like WorldFish and FAO facilitate and advise operation in the respective countries. The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research funds the project.

The liquid nature of aquaculture where pollution and diseases spread in the water makes risk management untenable at the farm-level, says Simon Bush, Professor and Chair of the Environmental Policy Group at Wageningen University and Research. Bush also leads SUPERSEAS.

“Our previous research on shrimp production (in Southeast Asia) found that various factors like deforestation, salinity, and water temperature affect disease incidence,” says Bush. “But these are not factors you can manage at the farm level. A farmer has little control because these risks go beyond the farm.”

Sustainability could never be achieved by using the farmer as an individual unit of management, says Bush. “You have to look beyond the farm in order to create truly sustainable production systems.”

Switching from farm-based to area-based management should help manage risks in aquaculture, but “we haven’t got the proof of concept,” says Bush. “We don’t have an ideal model (for Southeast Asia) yet.”

Striving to understand how area-based management might work for Southeast Asia aquaculture, SUPERSEAS starts by examining the different forms of existing cooperation among fish farmers. The project will also study how area-based approaches can help fish farmers manage risk via financial mechanisms.

Although small-scale fish farms could access higher value retail markets through certification, the required financial costs and efforts prohibits farm-based certification. Addressing this, SUPERSEAS will also examine the use of area-based approaches to help small-scale fish farms obtain certifications.

“An aggregated approach will tackle some of the environmental challenges as well as level the playing field for poorer farmers,” says Chadag Vishnumurthy Mohan, senior scientist from WorldFish. Furthermore, small-scale fish farmers working together could better negotiate trade and financing deals.

SUPERSEAS “could lead to the development of area-based certification being developed on a commercial basis and ultimately improved trade between Asia and the rest of the world,” says Mohan.