A quick post to blow my own trumpet… The Best Australian Science Writing 2014 has included a piece I wrote at the beginning of the year — The CAVE artists. I’m understandably chuffed, and I’m also in great company with Jo Chandler (this year’s winner), as well as Frank Bowden, Tim Flannery, James Mitchell Crow and Bianca Nogrady, to name a few. I’m slowly making my way through the fabulous selection. You can check out my piece here [paywall], or listen to an interview on RRR’s Einstein-A-GoGo with the editor, Ashley Hay, here. And you can also buy the book, of course…
A couple of months ago I travelled to Kakadu National Park in Australia’s top end to join a team of ecologists monitoring mammal numbers in the park. I was there to report for Science [paywall] on why many of northern Australia’s small mammals are in precipitous decline, despite being in an area of largely intact tracts of vegetation. Tellingly, in the time I was there, and the 2 weeks that followed, just 3 small mammals were trapped. In the late 1980s, 30-40 per night would have been the norm.
The declines aren’t just occurring in Kakadu — right across Australia’s north, quolls, bandicoots, and native rodents are facing almost inevitable extinction unless the causes for their falling numbers are identified and addressed. The key culprits, it turns out, are feral cats and poor fire management.
Here’s the summary [full article is behind paywall]:
In northern Australia, mammal populations are in free fall. Over the past 2 decades, scientists have documented sharp declines in quolls, bandicoots, and other native fauna. The plight of these animals has grown so desperate that in July, the Australian government appointed the nation’s first threatened species commissioner, Gregory Andrews, a Department of the Environment staffer now tasked with devising broad approaches to stem the tide of extinctions. The solutions are not obvious, but mounting evidence points to the arch villain: feral cats, aided and abetted by fire. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy estimates that every day in Australia, an astounding 75 million animals fall prey to roughly 15 million feral cats.
When it comes to mental health, conditions like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often come to mind. But does this mean that being without mental illness is the same as being mentally healthy? In an article for ABC Health & Wellbeing, I took a look at what it means to be mentally well, and what you can do to improve your mental wellbeing. Check it out here.
You don’t have to look far to find stories of species or ecosystems under threat. Whether it’s the critically endangered black rhinoceros in Africa, or the local wetlands under threat from urban sprawl, our collective failure to protect the world’s natural heritage can seem exasperating.
But in a world where resources to put toward protection are limited, making decisions about where to direct our efforts, or how to prioritise our donations, can be equally as frustrating. And it’s not just individuals who struggle with these choices — governments too are often faced with difficult decisions.
So how do we go about placing a value on our natural heritage? Should we even try to weigh the relative merits of saving one species or one ecosystem over another? And how can government policies help to guide us through the murky waters of environmental decision making?
To answers some of these questions, I was joined on Up Close recently by Brendan Wintle, a conservation ecologist who has been working with economists and policy makers to improve environmental decision making. Brendan is based at the School of Botany, at the University of Melbourne, and he’s also Deputy Director of the National Environmental Research Program Environmental Decisions Hub.
If I were to say the word ‘protein’, you’d probably think of a juicy steak, or perhaps a muscle-building protein shake. But in our bodies, proteins give us far more than just muscular bulk. They’re the enzymes that carry out cellular reactions — the microscopic sensors that allow us to detect the smell of a rose, or the pain of a burn. They’re the cement that connects our cells together, give our nose cartilage its rigidity and our skin its elasticity. And they serve all of these incredible functions in organisms from the lowly bacterium, to the majestic sequoia, and everything in between.
But proteins, in their myriad forms, could not exist without a complex piece of cellular machinery known as the ribosome. As important as it is, the ribosome — unlike the proteins it makes — is hardly a household name.
A few weeks ago on Up Close, I spoke to Ada Yonath, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for her pioneering work on the structure of the ribosome. She is now the Director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
Our genetic make-up determines a lot about who we are – it determines whether we have blue eyes or brown, what blood group we have, or whether we’re predisposed to cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anaemia. But we’re beginning to learn that we’re far more than the sum of our genetic parts. Our genes only tell part of the story of who we are.
Just as important as what genes we’ve inherited from our parents, is how those genes are switched on and off throughout our lifetime. This complex system of genetic regulation has been the focus of the burgeoning field of epigenetics.
I was joined on Up Close recently by geneticist Marnie Blewitt. We chatted about epigenetics and her work on one of the coolest areas of epigenetics – X inactivation. Marnie heads a lab that studies epigenetics at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.