In the Palm of Monoculture

Chyi Chung investigates the place of oil palm monoculture in nature

I grew up in Malaysian Borneo. I remember the long drives to the airport on the outskirts oftown. I remember where the urban sprawl relents to a sea ofprickly green, dominating the car window for the rest ofthe journey. I remember admiring row upon row ofshort, stunted trees with fans for leaves, seemingly reaching beyond the horizon. Having moved away, the oil palm trees are my first sight ofwelcome out ofthe plane window. From this bird’s eye vantage, their monoculture is an impressive mark ofagricultural science in nature. Oil palm (E. guineensis) is native to an area between modern-day Gambia and Angola. It was introduced as a cash crop to South-East Asia by British and Dutch colonialists in the 20th century. A productive perennial crop, it yields up to 3.6 tonnes ofoil annually from the stones ofits kernels—seven times of what soy and rapeseed can achieve per hectare ofland. It exists as a semi-solid state at room temperature (a property associated with more expensive animal fat), hence allowing fractionation for different uses. In 2014, WWF found that halfofthe packaged goods from British supermarkets contain palm oil, an unsurprising statistic considering its versatile applications, ranging from chocolate bars and biscuits, to detergents and cosmetics. The global palm oil market stands at 48 million tonnes; 85% ofwhich comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, the two countries that share Borneo with oilrich, land-locked Brunei. The world’s peatland forests, concentrated in Southeast Asia, harbour masses ofcarbon dioxide. From 1990 to 2010, peat forest cover in the region fell from 77% to 36%, coinciding with the rise of oil palm plantations. To clear land, slash-and-burn is often callously adopted out of ease, despite its illegality.

In 2015, El Niño drove warmer waters ofthe Western Pacific along the equator eastward to accumulate in the coastlines ofSouth-East Asia. El Niño is the term dedicated to a climate cycle beginning in the Pacific Ocean which can have consequences across the globe. This warming effect merely added fuel to the forest fires raging across Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and the neighbouring Sumatra Island, resulting in thick haze smothering the region. In the worst affected areas, residents lived in a sepia-tinted world, where Pollutant Standard Index rose to six-fold above hazardous levels. Water bombs were dropped to cleanse the air by inducing rain. Under international pressure, the Indonesian government imposed a ban on cultivating oil palm on peat, but lifted it within a year, belying their environmental responsibility over commercial interests. The world is ravenous for palm oil, with demands expected to double by 2050. A push for a better industry resulted in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil forming in 2004, which works on a certification system like Fair Trade’s.

But detractors are quick to highlight that the skew in its committee—a third being goods manufacturers with oil producers making up less than a fifth—may just be a smokescreen for multi-national companies to hide behind. From heavy timber logging in the early 1900s to the current palm oil boom, the Bornean rainforest has been shrinking to its core, along with its delicate ecology. Animals indigenous to the island include the pygmy elephant [1], sun bear [2], and orang-utan [3]; all three are at least vulnerable, with the critically endangered orang-utan adopted as mascot for anti-deforestation campaigns. A 2008 ecological study by E.B Fitzherbert, shows that an oil palm plantation only sustains 15% ofits natural forest diversity, in which lies the fallibility ofmonoculture (single crop cultivation). From the Great Irish Famine to the decline ofthe South American rubber trade, leafblights and other diseases have obliterated whole populations ofmonoculture crops in the past. For example, recently, there have been concerns about the susceptibility ofthe Cavendish banana to a new strain ofPanama Disease. Agriculture sustains our ever-growing human population, but monoculture is a short-term solution. Polyculture and different alternatives ofcommodities should be encouraged. Only then can science imposed on nature become more in line with science in nature.

Magnetoreception: Nature’s Invisible Map

Bruce Saleeb-Mousa explores an extraordinary way animals are able to navigate

The ease with which we navigate towns, cities, continents and oceans is owed to our ability to manipulate the laws ofphysics and engineer tools and gadgets that help us reach our destinations. Ofcourse, it wasn’t always this way. Those before us faced the frequent, painstaking task ofplotting a course and constantly getting lost. This is because, as humans, we rely heavily on visual aids and memory to help us navigate, whether it be landmarks or the night sky. The major problem with this, being that, over large distances, landmarks may become indistinguishable, our memory may not serve us well, or simply our navigating techniques may be inadequate. Fortunately for many critters across the animal kingdom, this is not a problem—they can use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate land and sea. This field is generated by the Earth’s liquid outer core. It has characteristics akin to that ofa huge bar magnet placed at the Earth’s centre, oriented at around 11 degrees to the rotational axis. The strength ofthe field ranges from around 25 microtesla at the equator, to around 60 microtesla at the poles.

In comparison, a standard fridge magnet is around a hundred times larger at about 5 millitesla—so Earth’s field is pretty weak. Thus, in order to navigate using the variation in this field, the method ofsensing must be able to resolve small changes ofup to ~35 microtesla. Navigation using the geomagnetic field has been established experimentally for certain animals [1]. Behavioural patterns in migratory birds, for example, suggest that they use magnetic sense to find their way south in autumn, and north in spring. The underlying mechanism involved in magnetoreception, however, is not fully understood. Three main processes may play a part: mechanical reception, where a magnetic field exerts a torque on a ferromagnetic material (the reason why a compass needle rotates); electromagnetic induction, where a change in magnetic field through a conductive material induces a voltage; or chemical reception, where variations in magnetic fields cause changes in the spin states ofcertain molecules. Of these three, most evidence seems to support a chemical reception mechanism [2]. There is debate as to whether humans are able to sense magnetic fields [3]. Theories based on the mechanical reception mechanism suggest that tiny compass-like needles made ofa material called magnetite sit in animal receptor cells, and that these can trigger nerve endings. The same material can be found in humans—unfortunately our ability to manipulate or even sense this seems to have been lost.

[1]SCHULTEN K, FESTKÖRPERPROBLEME, VOL 22, PP. 61-83.
[2]SCHULTEN K, ETAL., Z. PHYS. CHEM, VOL 111, PP. 1-5.
[3]HAND E, DOI:10.1126/SCIENCE.AAF5804

Seahorses: Riding on Myths

Chyi Chung reports on the mysterious and misunderstood seahorse.

Poseidon, god of the sea, rides upon his chariot of hippocampi, fantastical creatures that possess the head and torso of a horse but the belly and tail of a fish. Their name mirrors their physique: a portmanteau of horse (hippos) and sea monster (campus) in Ancient Greek. Aptly so, hippocampus has been adopted as the genus of their real-life inspiration. Continue reading “Seahorses: Riding on Myths”

Return of the Leeches

Philippa Jefferies draws out the truth behind the leech’s comeback in modern medicine.

Usually, when someone mentions leeches and bloodletting, images of medieval physicians forcing leeches on their patients for any ailment are the first to jump to mind. Whilst it is common knowledge now that this is probably not the best way to relieve every symptom, leeches aren’t without their uses in modern medicine. In 2004, the FDA approved the sale of leeches for medical use in the USA and they are vital in many surgeries – particularly skin grafts and reconstructive surgery.
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Chemtrails: Is the Government Trying to Poison Us?

Bethany Rothwell takes to the sky and assesses the supposed impact of jet plane ‘chemtrails’.

It’s a gorgeous sunny day. You hear a plane passing overhead, look up at the sky and what do you think about? The pretty patterns of white streaking across the blue sky? Plans for your next summer holiday? Or the government’s ruse to shower us with psychologically-manipulating or weather-modifying chemical agents?
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Are Pennies Deadly if Dropped from a Skyscraper?

Stephen Ashlee dispells a common misconception and alerts us to the danger of killer pens.

Money falling from the sky seems like everyone’s dream doesn’t it? But I bet opinions would change if it started falling in coins and not notes. It is a fairly popular notion that if someone were to drop a single penny off the very top of the Empire State Building, it would gain enough speed that it could kill someone at the base. But is there any truth to it? If the sky spontaneously started raining pennies, would they be deadly?
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MSG: The Facts

Monosodium glutamate (or MSG as it is more commonly known) has long been slated as a dangerous food additive, having been speculated to cause the famous nausea and headache-inducing ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ that some individuals suffer after eating Chinese food. But, is MSG really as bad as it’s been made out to be?
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The 10% brain capacity myth: separating logic from the popular culture phenomenon

Anna Pitts addresses the pervasive cognitive conundrum head on.

It is a well-known opinion that humans only have access to around 10 percent of their true brain capacity, according to the popular media and urban legend. This idea has had a resurgence of interest in the past few years with the popularity of films such as “Limitless” in 2011 and “Lucy” in 2014. “Limitless” is based on the premise that if science was advanced enough, there could be a nootropic (cognitive enhancing) pill that opens up your brain capacity over the normal level (in this case they cite 20%) for humans.
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The Father of Molecular Machinery: An Evening with Professor Sir J. Fraser Stoddart

An Interview with Professor Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, Joanna Chustecki and Mel Jack with thanks to the EPS Community and Alumni Relations Office.

A cold autumnal night on campus and something incredible is happening in the Haworth building. Hundreds of students, postgrads, old friends, colleagues and members of the public have flocked to this well-established house of chemistry to hear one of the greatest chemists of our time talk. Professor Sir J. Fraser Stoddart to be exact. Within this huge crowd bustling to access the main lecture theatre stands a man who has published over 1,000 scientific papers, is one of the most cited chemists in the world, and has, on the 5th of October 2016, been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry ‘for the design and synthesis of molecular machines’.
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Is ‘Crazy Cat Lady’ A Realistic Fear?

Cat Collins ponders how suicidal attraction theory in rats and cats may lead to schizophrenia, personality changes and car accidents.

Nobody likes to feel like a puppet. The idea of freewill is something that is inherently connected to human nature, so the conflicting suggestion that human behaviour may be due to a number of parasites controlling your brain may disturb some. A rather extreme example of this in the animal world exists through the Lancet liver fluke, a parasite so desperate to access cattle liver it enslaves an ant, forcing it to climb blades of grass and be eaten. Many would like to believe that this is different for humans – human brains are incredibly complicated and could resist the mechanisms of a lowly parasite. Or can they?
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