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Planet Earth News

Find out what exciting developments are happening from around the world by researchers working with the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC)

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    Tiny fossils reveal how shrinking was essential for successful evolution

    Scientists have discovered that mammals successfully evolved over the years by getting smaller in size.

    The origin of modern mammals can be traced back more than 200 million years to the age of dinosaurs. But while dinosaurs evolved to become some of the largest land animals, for the following 150 million years the ancestors of all modern mammals pursued an entirely different strategy – getting very small.

    Modern mammals are unique in having a lower jaw consisting of just a single bone that bears teeth. In contrast, all other vertebrates possess complex lower jaws formed by at least five or more bones joined together. In the course of evolution, fossils show that the lower jaw of mammalian ancestors became simplified and a new jaw joint was formed, while some of the other bones moved into the middle ear to aid in hearing. The team of scientists, from the UK and the US, wanted to find out how it was possible for mammals to simplify and restructure their lower jaws, while maintaining the ability to feed and hear. Using modern computer analysis to scan fossil skulls and lower jaws, they looked at what happened to the skeleton of our tiny mammal ancestors.

    Their results showed that the small size of the fossil mammals significantly reduced the stresses in the jaw bones when feeding, while still being powerful enough to capture and bite through prey, such as insects.

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    New technology models cities’ air quality in under 10 minutes

    Dr Nicola Masey has found that a new system can accurately model air quality in large cities like London in minutes, within five metres of any given location using just a standard office computer.

    Air pollution monitors are stationed in cities and towns across the UK, but they only report pollution once it has happened. That means they can’t predict when air quality might change. Also, they only monitor a specific location, while air quality can vary substantially over small areas.

    The new RapidAir® software, developed by a company called Ricardo, can predict what air quality will be depending on various factors. To find out if it was accurate, Nicola looked at historic pollution records from 86 sites across London and compared them to estimates from RapidAir. The software’s results matched records, showing that it was a good predictor.

    Her research, which ran in parallel to the development of the RapidAir model by Ricardo, investigated the use of well-known mathematical equations to simulate the concentration of pollutions on built-up roads – sometimes called ‘street canyons’. She compared these with concentrations estimated with another method that estimates how densely built-up an area is.

    For example, urban designers often look at things such as the amount of sky that can be seen, hill shade and wind effect to assess warmth and shade, but until now these factors have not been widely used in air pollution studies.

    NERC Associate Director, Operations & Research Careers, Robyn Thomas said:

    Air pollution is a pressing issue in the UK and internationally. We fund high-quality scientific research and innovation to advance our understanding of the sources and impacts of poor air quality, including funding researchers working with industry, business and government. As part of her NERC CASE studentship, Dr Masey’s work with Ricardo will help cities and people plan their air pollution exposure to minimise risks to health.

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    NERC scientists measuring emissions from Greater Manchester Moors Fires

    Scientists flew through the plumes of smoke rising from the Greater Manchester moor fires to sample pollution levels.

    Operating the UK’s specially-adapted research aircraft, a team of NERC-funded scientists have measured and sampled the air pollution released from the moorland fires at Winter Hill and Saddleworth.

    The recent heatwave has left the UK’s peaty moorlands vulnerable to burning, contributing to global warming in the same way as burning fossil fuels. The blazes broke out on the moors in late June during hot, dry weather and have continued throughout the heatwave despite ongoing efforts from the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service.

    Samples from the fire plumes taken on Thursday by researchers from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) on board the NERC and Met Office aircraft know as Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM). The team has previously used the airborne laboratory to measure methane levels from tropical fires in Africa, but are now using the same techniques to understand the UK moorland fires.

    The samples are being analysed to identify gases like methane coming from the burning peat and will identify the other pollutants being released.

    This work is part of Project MOYA – the global methane budget, which is a major project funded by NERC.

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    Why is the UK’s honeypot shrinking?

    An innovative monitoring scheme could provide a better understanding of the factors that impact on the size and health of honeybee populations, and on honey yields.

    As part of its new National Honey Monitoring Scheme, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is asking amateur and professional beekeepers to send in honey samples on a regular basis for comprehensive analysis using advanced techniques, including DNA barcoding and mass spectrometry.

    Using these techniques, the scientists will identify the types of pollen and pesticide residues present in the honey samples, as well as some of the diseases that bees are exposed to.

    Beekeepers in the UK have seen several poor seasons in a row for honey production. Weather is a decisive factor in honey production but urban development, agricultural impacts, including the widespread loss of wild flowers and pesticide use, plus climate change and an increase in disease are believed to impact negatively on both wild and managed bees and their productivity.

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    Securing the UK’s natural carbon storage

    The UK’s spectacular scenery attracts millions of visitors from around the world. Iconic heath, peatland and sea lochs don’t just look beautiful though. They are shaped by the changing climate.

    As they change, they create a picture of the impact of global warming that can help scientists find solutions. The landscape also plays a key role in climate change by storing carbon so it is not released into the atmosphere.

    But just how the processes link together, and how plants and soils respond to global warming, remains unclear. NERC is funding research to find out how land and sea could be managed to safeguard its carbon stores, as well as the people and wildlife relying on it for survival.

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    Sea robots and Arctic climate change


    Underwater robots have uncovered new evidence about life in the Arctic and, for the first time, revealed the moment the region’s marine ecosystem springs into life after the dark winter season.

    The unique data was gathered by autonomous ocean-going ‘gliders’ and will help marine scientists understand more about the so-called ‘Arctic spring bloom’, which kick-starts the ecosystem and is crucial in providing food for animals in the region.

    Gliders work around the clock for months on end, taking measurements such as ocean temperature, oxygen levels and salinity. Researchers from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) have been able to observe seasonal changes as they happen in the Arctic, thanks to a continuous glider presence in the Barents Sea between January and July this year.

  • Skin of the Earth

    It might be easy to dismiss the earth beneath our feet as just so much dirt. But without it humankind would not exist.

    As former US president Franklin D Roosevelt once said:

    “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

    He was speaking in the 1930s after years of severe drought and relentless winds turned states across America into the ‘dust bowl’. The notorious disaster wiped out crops and livestock and forced countless families across America to abandon their farms.

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    Helping species on the move

    Phillip Whelpdale of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust admits to being tongue in cheek with his bold, questioning reference to cult science fiction comedy The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, in which a supercomputer mysteriously calculates the meaning of life as 42.

    But working out where species will thrive in future, as global warming pushes them north seeking cooler places, and key habitat is lost as industries and housing spread, is a serious problem.

    The programme pulls in data from conservationists’ understanding of where wildlife is now and where animals might move in future.

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    How cities draw the heat

    It is 15 years since the UK sweltered in the record-breaking 2003 summer heatwave. While the sunshine was welcome to many, it also brought deadly consequences, with more than 2,000 people across England and Wales dying in the stifling heat. Some 800 of those deaths were due to air pollution.

    The death toll spurred the government to improve a nationwide heatwave warning system using scientific research from NERC. The new system provided more accurate predictions of growing smog as temperatures soared.

  • Carousel Saiga Calf

    Sudden death of 200,000 antelopes in Central Asia

    In May 2015 the sudden death of more than 200,000 saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan baffled the world.

    In just three weeks, entire herds of tens of thousands of healthy animals died of haemorrhagic septicaemia. The deaths took place in the Betpak-Dala region of Kazakhstan, across a landscape equivalent to the area of the British Isles, and the number dead represented more than 60% of the species’ global population.