BBC BLOGS - Gregory's First Law

Archives for June 2012

Help track a tern

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David Gregory | 16:20 UK time, Friday, 29 June 2012

Sooty terns on Ascension Island

Tracker device for sooty tern. It is the size of a sugar lump

Where do sooty terns go when they're not breeding on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic? The young can fly away for five years at a time before returning to start a family.

By using the very latest tracking technology the University of Birmingham has begun to answer that question. They attached tiny tracker chips about the size of a sugar cube to the legs of twenty sooty terns. These trackers can sense sunrise and sunset and that's enough information for the scientists to work out where the birds are.

So far the team has only recovered three of the trackers and they are sharing the data produced with us. As you can see the tracked birds spent up to 200 days out at sea travelling 25,000km. It's likely the birds spent almost all that time on the wing even sleeping while flying.

To keep the trackers as small as possible the data isn't transmitted back in real time. Instead the researchers have to find the birds they have tagged on their return to the Ascension Islands. It's a bit like looking for a needle in a very remote, smelly and noisy haystack.

This sort of technology is revolutionising our knowledge of all sorts of wildlife and the team from the University of Birmingham would like to buy more trackers to track more terns. Sadly the trackers are one-use only devices as they are tightly sealed to protect against the elements and being repeatedly dunked in the sea.

Trackers cost around £250 and if your school or wildlife group would be interested in helping this work and buying a tracker for the researchers to use then you can email the scientists in charge Dr Jim Reynolds at the University of Birmingham by clicking here.

None of this work would have been possible without the help and support of the Army Ornithological Society or AOS. You can read more about them here. At the moment we can see where just three birds have gone but with more trackers the researchers can build up a comprehensive picture of the behaviour of sooty terns. Which will tell us more about the birds and about the wider health of the South Atlantic ocean.

Tracking data showing location of sooty tern over 200 days in South Atlantic

An engineering victory fit for the Olympics!

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David Gregory | 16:03 UK time, Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Students from Church Stretton School

A team of student engineers from Church Stretton School in Shropshire have triumphed in a UK wide competition to design a "rehydration station" for walkers competing in a race.

They beat 240 other schools all taking part in the national Faraday Challenge Day Competition winning £1000 for their school.

Church Stretton School Student

In a demonstation of practical engineering skills the school created a system that filled up cups of water and pushed them to the front of a table for passing atheletes to pick up and drink. Their invention managed this without spilling any water and timing each stage of the process perfectly.

The judges were also impressed by the quality of a video produced by the school about the project as well as their answers to questions from the judges.

You can find out more about Faraday Challenge Days on the Institution of Engineering and Technology website here.

Are the Greens anti-science?

David Gregory | 16:06 UK time, Thursday, 7 June 2012

That's what I'll be asking in a piece for The Sunday Politics this weekend.

It's a very hot topic amongst the "geekerati" (for want of a better word) and everything really seems to have come to a head with a GM crop trial based in Rothamsted.

You can read all about the research and the protestors plans to disrupt it here on the BBC website. Basically scientists want to see how a new form of GM wheat grows in the open. They've added a gene that occurs naturally in other plants to make the wheat smell bad to insect pests. The end result is wheat that needs less pesticide so is cheaper to grow and better for the environment.

Well that's the theory, but of course to see if the new wheat can grow in the real world you need to do the experiement. But given the aims it all sounds pretty green. As one researcher says in our report "are you really against this? Because it could have a lot of environmental benefits"

What the BBC report perhaps doesn't touch on is how many people with an interest in science were also present at the Rothamsted protest. Their aim to debate with the protestors. Both Tom Chivers in the Telegraph and Martin Robbins in The Guardian have interesting articles on this fight back by the science literate.

In these days of coalitions and protest votes it is possible the Green Party may well become an louder political voice in local and national politics. So their position on evidence-based policy is important.

There's no doubt the anti-GM protests of the last decade have had a crushing impact on the science in the UK and Europe. Indeed in its 2010 manifesto The Green Party said it would push for a Europe-wide ban on GM food.

As science fights back I'm starting to hear that approach may well be evolving. Tune in to BBC One at midday to find out more.


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