translating biophilia into a love of life

Floral X-rays

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Sometimes the line between science visualization and art is a blur.  Brendan Fitzpatrick’s series of floral X-rays is a perfect example, where a scientific technique that relays structural information about the subject is also incredibly beautiful.  Below are my favorites; many more images can be found on Brendan’s website.

Tulip (via Brendan Fitzpatrick Photography)

Orchid (via Brendan Fitzpatrick Photography)

Calla (via Brendan Fitzpatrick Photography)


Written by morethangray

March 20, 2012 at 11:46 am

Lions of the Masai Mara, captured by a BeetleCam

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Male lion and kill (via Burrard-Lucas Photography)

A striking, close-up, photo of a wild lion eating his prey is just one of many treasures that resulted from an innovative project by Burrard-Lucas Photography, a two-brother team from the UK.  Will and Matt Burrard-Lucas built a pair of remote controlled buggies designed to capture on-the-ground images of wildlife, dubbed BeetleCams.  One BeetleCam was equipped with an armored, lion-proof  carapace and the second with more advanced capabilities including HD video recording, wireless live-view and remotely operated camera tilt.

Will and Matt Burrard-Lucas with 2011 BeetleCams (via Burrard-Lucas Photography)

Their newest project captures unique, ground level photographs of African wildlife — specifically the lions of the Masai Mara in Kenya.  You can read an account of their journey and see a selection of BeetleCam images on their blog (and even more images through a directory found here).  A selection of my favorites:

BeetleCam surrounded by 4 lion cubs (via Burrard-Lucas Photography)

Lion cubs photographed by BeetleCam -- love the belly-up cub on the far left! (via Burrard-Lucas Photography)

Photobomb (via Burrard-Lucas Photography)

Written by morethangray

March 19, 2012 at 10:32 am

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Could a vaccine aid in conserving great apes?

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Infectious disease has recently joined poaching and habitat loss as a major threat to African apes, especially because they are increasingly restricted to ever-smaller populations.

Apes are subject to “naturally” occurring pathogens like Ebola and Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) as well as some diseases we humans transmit.  Both types of disease are important sources of mortality in wild chimpanzees and gorillas.

In a paper published in PlosOne (December 2011), Dr. Sadie J. Ryan and Dr. Peter D. Walsh present their findings based on an analysis of the consequences of non-intervention for infectious disease in African great apes.  In short: wild great ape recovery from disease is slow, and a single outbreak can devastate a population.

We found that the predicted recovery time for this specific gorilla population from a single outbreak ranged from 5 years for a low mortality (4%) respiratory outbreak, to 131 years for an Ebola outbreak that killed 96% of the population. This shows that mortality rates comparable to those recently reported for disease outbreaks in wild populations are not sustainable.

Given the grave impact a single infectious disease outbreak may have on ape populations, the researchers evaluate how to best impede such outbreaks from occurring.  Both non-interventionist actions, like limiting tourist access to apes and community health programs, as well as more direct actions like vaccination were proposed as ways to protect great apes from disease:

Based on our research here, we suggest that the great ape conservation community should pursue and promote treatment and vaccination, as weapons in the arsenal for fighting the decline of African apes. This should include rigorous assessments of both safety and cost-effectiveness, and should emphasize program sustainability, with particular attention to the training of African veterinary personnel.

Written by morethangray

March 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm

My handsome seahorse

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Short-snouted seahorse (via LTR Photography)

Let’s face it, we can never see too many stories about male animals that gestate their young and give birth. — Catherine de Lange

The handsome fellow pictured above is a short-snouted seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus).  In addition to his good looks, this guy will carry and birth hundreds of babies on the behalf of his mate.

Male seahorse giving birth (via

Unfortunately, our handsome seahorse is endangered due to pollution, fishing, and use in eastern medicine.  The number of adults is dwindling, as are the number of surviving babies that once maintained the population.  H. hippocampus reproductive success is relatively low — of the 1000 young released by male seahorses, less than 0.06% survive.  Like almost all other fish species, seahorses don’t care for their young after birth.  Instead, infants are susceptible to predators or ocean currents which wash them away from feeding grounds or into temperatures too extreme for their delicate bodies.  Given the new threats the animals face, this reproductive strategy has left the short-snouted seahorse at a disadvantage.

One approach to bolster the numbers of endangered animals is captive breeding with subsequent release into the wild.  Scientists are doing just that for H. hippocampus, with some amount of success: a record-breaking 918 baby short-snouted sea horses were born at London Zoo’s Aquarium in 2010.  You can watch a video about the seahorses and the captive rearing program at New Scientist.  Next step for science: successful release of the wee-horses.

Written by morethangray

March 15, 2012 at 11:49 am

Why we must protect endangered animals

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Rapid loss of sea ice is the major threat to polar bear survival

In the article, “Let the polar bears die, liberals: It’s only your beloved evolution at work” author S.E. Cupp argues that if polar bears (or any other single species) are on track for extinction, we should not interfere.  At one point Cupp asserts that protecting an endangered animal would be meddling with evolution:

“The crass and sometimes violent coming and going of species proves evolution’s central logic. So why, then, do polar bear activists insist that another species – that would be us – tamper with Darwin’s grand design and swoop in to save an animal that simply wasn’t fit enough to make it in the cutthroat world of biological survival?”

I disagree with Cupp that we should forgo the protection of endangered animals in favor of allowing threatened wildlife to become extinct.  Further, the argument that wildlife conservation intrudes on evolution is fallacious, and exposes Cupp’s fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, natural selection and artificial selection.

To take a step back, understanding the difference between evolution, natural selection and human-caused (or artificial) selection is crucial before considering whether to conserve wildlife.  Natural selection and evolution are not synonymous.  Simply put, evolution occurs when a population changes over time in response to pressure from the environment.  Natural selection is how changes can accumulate in an evolving population.  As a result of natural selection, individuals with certain traits survive and reproduce at the expense of their peers.  Evolution by natural selection happens very slowly, as living things respond to their environment over hundreds to thousands of years.

Artificial selection in dogs produced the giant Great Dane and the diminutive Chihuahua

Artificial selection in dogs produced the giant Great Dane and the diminutive Chihuahua

Artificial selection, also known as selective breeding or human-caused selection, was first described by Charles Darwin to distinguish the process from natural selection.  As opposed to natural selection, in which the environment acts as a sieve through which only certain variations can pass, in artificial selection humans favor specific traits and direct their persistence.  Artificial selection — which Cupp mistakenly refers to as “evolution” — is not the result of random, unpredictable events like weather or natural disasters, but is a direct result of our behavior.

Humans have drastically altered the appearance of animals and plants within a few generations by way of artificial selection. Consider the creation of hundreds of distinct dog breeds selected and maintained by humans within the past 150 years or the directed transformation of teosinte into modern cultivars of corn for food.  The rapid evolution of such radical changes in structure and function are unheard of with natural selection.

While it’s true that we have loaded the atmosphere with an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide and global temperatures are changing as a result, it is not true that we have no control over the situation.  Further, the extreme changes in the composition of atmosphere have taken place within the past 2oo years — a pace exclusive to artificial selection.  When humans accelerate change with artificial selection, the participants of natural selection can, understandably, not keep up.

As humans we have the ability to understand cause and effect.  We are able to think about consequences, make responsible choices about how to behave and when to change the way we do things.  The same cannot be said for nature with its weather and natural disasters.  As sentient beings with a conscience and the ability to make premeditated decisions, it is our responsibility to maintain our planet for future generations — both human and animal.


Written by morethangray

December 22, 2010 at 11:39 am

International tiger protection forum held in St. Petersberg

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The International Tiger Conservation Forum (also called the “Tiger Forum”) kicks off today!  Between 21-24 November, leaders from 13 countries will assemble in St. Petersburg to attend Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Tiger Forum. The goal of the summit is to finalize a plan to double the wild tiger population by 2022.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and government leaders from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam will sign the St. Petersburg Declaration affirming their resolve to save wild tigers from extinction.

Held in the United Nations Year of Biodiversity and the Asian Year of the Tiger, the Forum will endorse a Global Tiger Recovery Program of urgent and comprehensive national and international actions to double the number of tigers across their range, from 3,200 today to 7,000 by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger.

Many would say it is now or never for wild tigers. In the past century, tiger numbers plummeted from 100,000 to about 3,200 and continue to fall. In an organized transnational illegal wildlife trade, criminals earn large profits feeding illicit consumer demand for tiger parts and products; they take advantage of poor people living around tiger reserves to recruit poachers. People hunt the prey tigers need to survive. Adverse human activities, including commercial agriculture and infrastructure development, have replaced vast expanses of the tiger’s habitat and threaten to take it all.

Typically in most countries, the responsibility for wildlife conservation belongs to a single ministry or agency that is often underfunded. But counteracting the diverse threats to wild tigers will take the additional participation of many others, including those devoted to finance, the criminal justice system, land-use planning, and infrastructure development. Public support for protecting tigers and their landscapes is also essential. Thus, the Forum is important because it will signal to officials that political will and commitment exists at the highest level to eliminate these threats before the wild tiger’s extinction become inevitable.

(From Global Tiger Initiative)

Written by morethangray

November 21, 2010 at 12:25 pm

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Closing a Deadly Gateway

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Tiger skin displayed and for sale at one of the many retail outlets for tiger products in Mong La, Myanmar, June 2010 – Adam Oswell/TRAFFIC

Black markets along Myanmar, Thailand and China’s shared borders play a crucial role in facilitating the deadly illicit trade in tigers and other endangered species, according to a new World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and TRAFFIC report in the lead up to the Global Tiger Forum taking place November 21-24 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The report, The Big Cat Trade in Myanmar and Thailand, documents black market sales of large wild felines. Hundreds of tiger and leopard parts, representing over 400 individual animals, were observed during nearly a decade of investigations in Myanmar and Thailand. Live big cats, including endangered tigers and a rare Asiatic lion were also observed in trade.

The report is accompanied by a short documentary, Closing a Deadly Gateway, which illustrates the illegal trade described in the report. The film features interviews with poachers as well as alarming footage of butchered tigers.

“With as few as 3,200 wild tigers worldwide, the ongoing large-scale trafficking documented in this report is having a disastrous impact on tigers and other big cats. Lack of good governance goes hand in hand with the corruption that is allowing this illegal trade gateway to act like floodgates, spilling out the lifeblood of the forest,” said Crawford Allan, director TRAFFIC North America. “Wildlife laws in Myanmar and Thailand clearly prohibit trafficking in tigers and other big cats. These areas need enforcement crackdowns to clean up this criminal mess and bring the full weight of the law to bear upon traffickers.”

Provincial markets and retail outlets located in the Myanmar towns of Mong La, near the China border, and Tachilek, on the Thai border, were found to play a pivotal role in the large scale distribution of big cat parts including whole skins, bones, paws, penises, and teeth. The products are transported by road and sea into China and Thailand, or sold to Chinese nationals who cross the Myanmar border to gamble and to consume exotic wildlife.

“The area is struggling with governance, and tigers are easy money for everyone from mafia types to anti-government opposition groups,” said TRAFFIC Southeast Asia Director, William Schaedla. “Some of these players should be countered with direct enforcement actions. Others might be receptive to work through regional agreements and international bodies in order to address the problem.”

(From Big Cat News)

To download the report visit:

High-res photos from the report visit:

Closing the Deadly Gateway on You Tube (this is the full documentary with narration and subtitles):

Clips from the film Closing the Deadly Gateway (this is the full documentary with no narration or subtitles, natural sound:

B-roll footage of tigers and tiger trade:

Written by morethangray

November 20, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Posted in videos

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