Monster hunt: using environmental DNA to survey life in Loch Ness


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With the help of environmental DNA, scientists are compiling a census of life in Loch Ness, which should establish if there is any scientific basis to the centuries-old legend of the Loch Ness monster.
Supplied, CC BY-SA

Neil Gemmell

Reported sightings of the Loch Ness monster go back to the Dark Ages, but now our Super Natural History team is using the 21st-century technology of environmental DNA to survey all life in the famous Scottish lake.

The premise of environmental DNA (eDNA) is simple. Life is messy, and living things leave behind skin, hair, feathers, poo, bark, pollen and spores as part of their day-to-day activities.

These traces result in a potpourri of organic material in our soil and water from which DNA can be extracted and sequenced. Our aim is to produce a census of life in Loch Ness and to establish if there is any scientific basis for the centuries-old monster legend.




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Sampling a legend

There have been more than 1,000 registered sightings of the Loch Ness “monster”, including two in the last month. They have sparked various theories. Some say the loch is home to a prehistoric relic, while others believe it’s a giant sturgeon, catfish, or just a log or a boat wake.

Obviously, the hook here is that if Nessie is present in the deep, dark and mysterious waters of Loch Ness (for the record I am not a believer, but open to being wrong) then we might find DNA sequences that will help us figure out its biological basis.

We have now finished two weeks of field work for this project, having collected 259 water samples from various parts of the loch, including its chilly depths, more than 200 metres down.

The team took water samples from several sites on the lake, as well as from deep waters.
Kieran Hennigan, CC BY-SA

Miraculously, for the Highlands, the wind stayed light and the rain stayed away which meant we were able to send teams out to sample right around Loch Ness by car and small boat, as well as several nearby lochs as controls. We have also used the Loch Ness Centre boat to sample up and down Loch Ness, particularly targeting the loch’s depths.

Decoding life

Our days were long, frequently starting as early as 6am and finishing as late as midnight. Our project was also hard on equipment – we broke two of our three sampling devices deploying to depth. Now, with sample collection behind us, we are onto the next phase of work.

The DNA is currently being extracted from our filtered water samples at the University of Hull. From there it will go to French and Swiss laboratories to be metabarcoded and sequenced.

What will we find? Well undoubtedly there will be DNA sequences derived from bacteria, protists, algae, invertebrates, and the traces of fish, birds and other vertebrate life known from the loch.

What we’ll get is a comprehensive survey of the biodiversity of Loch Ness, but whether we’ll find anything unusual, such as a giant catfish, sturgeon or eel, or a species unknown to science, who knows. Nessie believers will have to wait a few more months for the final results.




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It all started with a tweet

About two years ago Darren Naish had just published a book, Hunting Monsters, which included a section on Loch Ness. Over a few tweets I asked him if, in his research for the book, he had stumbled on anyone who was using eDNA to search for evidence of Nessie. The answer was no, but we both thought it a splendid idea.

I was becoming increasingly enamoured with the power of eDNA as a means to monitor the natural environment. Our team at the University of Otago was undertaking eDNA work that demonstrated amazing accuracy at identifying the species that resided in the marine ecosystems we studied.

Based on this, I was already thinking about how we might use eDNA to search for and identify the creatures that live in areas of our planet that are hard to investigate using traditional approaches – deep oceans, subterranean water systems and the like. Loch Ness seemed a perfect fit for that sort of project.

Career killer or opportunity?

As with many science ideas, that tweet ended up going into the “this is quite interesting” basket and there it sat until I got an email from Scottish journalist John Paul Breslin. When his article appeared in early April, many took it for an April Fool’s joke, but the story rapidly spread from Scotland to the rest of the world.

The media interest was overwhelming but I wasn’t sure if this was something I really wanted to do. At the time I was the head of a large department at a respected university, with an international reputation for doing quality work in the areas of molecular ecology and evolution. Some colleagues suggested the idea might be a career killer.

The turning point arrived one morning when I was dropping my son off at school. A large posse of eight- and nine-year-olds told me they thought the idea of hunting for the Loch Ness monster was the coolest thing ever. It resonated with me and led to this opportunity to engage the public, particularly kids, in the scientific process.

Loch Ness expert, Adrian Shine (right), had dredged the deep lake many times and is now helping to sample DNA traces of life.
Kieran Hennigan, CC BY-SA

One of the first stops was Loch Ness expert, Adrian Shine, who had dredged Loch Ness many times with nets and other devices and agreed to provide a boat and skipper. Several other colleagues all agreed to join the project and the team grew as we realised the Loch Ness monster hunt would describe the biodiversity of the lake in unprecedented fashion, add information about the movements of migratory fish species such as salmon, eels and lamprey, and be a hell of a science communication platform.

The ConversationSo, our project is not a simple monster hunt (although wouldn’t it be amazing if we did find something extraordinary during our investigation). Rather it is an amalgam of basic science, linked to major current initiatives, with a strong science communication aspect. Ultimately, we may find no DNA evidence that explains the monster myth, but I doubt that will ever dent belief. As Adrian Shine quips, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and those that wish to will continue to believe in monsters.

Neil Gemmell, Professor of Reproduction and Genomics

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Green is the new black: why retailers want you to know about their green credentials


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Is it really that hard to switch to paper or cloth bags?
Guus Baggermans | Unsplash

Louise Grimmer, University of Tasmania and Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology

Australian supermarkets phasing out single-use plastic bags is just one example of how retailers are fiercely engaged in a race to be “green”. Other examples are dumping plastic straws, buying back used products and reducing unnecessary packaging.

Rather than competing on price or time, green credentials offer a way for retailers to differentiate themselves. Encouraging customers to make overtly good moves also has a psychological effect, allowing them to excuse poor behaviour elsewhere – such as buying a product that may not be ethically sourced.

Having a strong green record also helps create a buffer for when events like plastic bags killing whales or sweatshop abuse hit the headlines.




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Way back in April Woolworths announced the removal of all single-use bags across the country by the end of June. Although, after some backlash, Woolworths has said it will give bags to customers until the 8th of July.

Coles will also ban single-use bags from July 1.

Woolworths has since announced further strategies for “a greener future”. These include reducing unnecessary packaging and linking with “food waste diversion partners”.

However, sustainability is bigger than just food waste and plastics.

Ikea Australia recently announced it will “buy back” used furniture to resell. IKEA has been doing this in other markets, like Hong Kong, for some time.

Buying ‘green’ makes us feel good

The consumer market for green products and services was estimated at US$230 billion in 2009 and predicted to grow to $845 billion by 2015.

While consumers are increasingly engaging in shopping activities that support the environment, such as reusing shopping bags, buying local and supporting local farmers and producers, at the same time many are still tempted by A$4 T-shirts from Kmart.

This behaviour can perhaps be explained by the effect of “moral self-licensing”. This is where consumers do something good to offset their bad behaviour.




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In the context of shopping, a good deed, a customer putting reusable bags in the boot of the car, will be followed by a not-so-good deed, such as driving to the shops in our gas-guzzling 4WD.

In this way, the first choice gives us a positive self-concept, which negates or “licenses” the subsequent more self-indulgent choice.

A slippery (green) slope

The only concern for companies is that they might be accused of “greenwashing” – using marketing to create the perception that their policies, purpose or products are environmentally friendly, when that’s not really the case.

Despite consumer awareness of the practice of greenwashing, the number of companies making green claims has escalated sharply in recent years as organisations strive to meet escalating consumer demand for greener products and services.

According to one advertising consultancy, there were 2,219 products making green claims in 2009 alone, a 79% increase over two years earlier.




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Research shows that when consumers are sceptical about a retailer’s corporate social responsibility practices, this can damage the retailer’s brand, increase sensitivity to negative information and stimulate unfavourable word of mouth.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen exactly these phenomena play out again and again.

Several years ago, Walmart faced scrutiny about its corporate social responsibility claims relating to renewable energy, the industrialisation of food systems and its cheaply made, disposable products.

Starbuck’s green credentials were met with scepticism when it was reported some stores left taps running all day to clear pipes.

Other retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Nordstrom, JC Penney and Backcountry.com have faced fines for making misleading environmental claims.




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Banning the single-use plastic bag alone will not save the environment. Sadly, it is not as simple as that. Research shows lightweight plastic shopping bags make up around 1.6% of litter in Australia or less than 2% of landfill.

However, despite some backlash, banning the bag is certainly a step in the right direct.

The ConversationRemembering to bring reusable shopping bags is a fairly significant change in shopping behaviour, but the practice has been successfully implemented in states such as Tasmania, which banned single use bags several years ago.

Louise Grimmer, Lecturer in Marketing, Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, University of Tasmania and Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Smart city planning can preserve old trees and the wildlife that needs them



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Mature trees have horizontal branches that are attractive to wildlife and birds.
from shutterstock.com

Philip Gibbons, Australian National University

Australia’s landscapes are dotted with mature eucalypts that were standing well before Captain Cook sailed into Botany Bay. These old trees were once revered as an icon of the unique Australian landscape, but they’re rapidly becoming collateral damage from population growth. Mature eucalypts are routinely removed to make way for new suburbs.

Good planning can ensure many more mature eucalypts are retained in urban developments.
Philip Gibbons

This has a considerable impact on our native fauna. Unless society is prepared to recognise the value of our pre-European eucalypts, urban growth will continue to irrevocably change our unique Australian landscape and the wildlife it supports.




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Why are old eucalypts worth saving?

In urban landscapes, many consider large and old eucalypts a dangerous nuisance that drop limbs, crack footpaths and occupy space that could be used for housing. But when we remove these trees they are effectively lost forever. It takes at least 100-200 years before a eucalypt reaches ecological maturity.

Birds use old eucalypts as places to perch or nest.
Philip Gibbons

As trees mature, their branches become large and begin to grow horizontally rather than vertically, which is more attractive to many birds as perches and platforms where they can construct a nest.

Wildlife also use cavities inside ageing eucalypts. These are formed as the heartwood – the dead wood in the centre – decays. When a limb breaks it exposes cavities where the heartwood once occurred.

This is such a ubiquitous process in our forests that around 300 of Australia’s vertebrate species, such as possums, owls, ducks, parrots and bats, have evolved to use these cavities as exclusive places to roost or nest.

Mature trees also support high concentrations of food for animals that feed on nectar, such as honeyeaters, or seed, such as parrots.




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One study found that the number of native birds in an urban park or open space declines by half with the loss of every five mature eucalypts.

How can we keep old trees?

Decaying heartwood in older eucalypts leads to some large branches falling. This is when most eucalypts are removed from urban areas. So we remove trees at the exact point in time when they become more attractive to wildlife.

Plantings around the base of a mature eucalypt discourage pedestrian traffic or parked cars.
Philip Gibbons

A well-trained arborist knows that old — or even dead — eucalypts don’t need to be removed to make them safe. A tree is only dangerous if it has what arborists call a target. Unless there is a path, road or structure under a tree, then the probability of something or someone being struck by a falling branch is often below the threshold of acceptable risk.

Progressive arborists first focus on eliminating targets. For example, they might plant shrubs around the base of dead or rapidly ageing trees to minimise pedestrian traffic, rather than eliminating trees.

Where targets can’t be managed, trimming trees can remove branches that have a high risk of falling. Trees can also be structurally supported (braced) to remain stable. Such trees remain suitable as habitat for many native species.

Developers can plan around old trees.
from shutterstock.com

How to design around trees

The removal of mature eucalypts is, in part, due to urban developers not considering these trees early in the planning process.

I have worked with one developer on the outskirts of Canberra to identify important trees. The developer then planned around, rather than in spite of, these trees.

The outcome has been around 80% of mature trees have been retained. This is much greater than the proportion of mature trees retained in other new urban developments in Canberra.




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The ConversationAustralia’s population is projected to double in 50 years, so our suburbs will continue to infill and expand. This will result in the continued loss of our mature eucalypts unless our approach to planning changes.

Philip Gibbons, Associate professor, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.