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Why the pine marten is not every red squirrel's best friend

Author: Craig Shuttleworth, Honorary Visiting Research Fellow, Bangor UniversityMatt Hayward, Associate professor, University of Newcastle

The pine marten – cute but cunning.Karen Bullock/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Pine martens are returningto areas of the UK after an absence of nearly a century. Following releases in mid-Wales during 2015, reintroductions are proposed in north Wales and southern England for 2019.

The pine marten is a small native carnivore that inhabits a range of woodland habitats. It’s an excellent climber and often nests within tree cavities. This opportunistic predator has a varied diet including fruit, eggs, songbirds and small mammals.

By the 1920s, pine martens were virtually extinct in the UK after centuries of persecution to protect game birds and poultry. Only a population in north-west Scotland and small numbers in northern Wales and England survived. With UK legal protection, their range has expanded since the 1980s, increasing their encounters with the grey squirrel.

The introduced grey squirrel has caused native red squirrel decline in the British Isles.Vinnikava Viktoryia/Shutterstock

Since George Monbiot penned “how to eradicate grey squirrels without firing a shot” in 2015, the media has courted the charismatic mammal as the saviour for the UK’s embattled red squirrels.

The media message is simple: the return of pine martens will herald thedecline or even eradication of grey squirrels, which, since their arrival from North America in 1876, have caused regional extinctions of the native red squirrel. That’s because pine martens supposedly prefer eating greys, while leaving reds alone.

The optimism around pine martens in the UK originated from research in Ireland and Scotland. In Scotland, scientists studied forests containing pine martens, red squirrels and grey squirrels. The more pine martens they recorded using a woodland area, the more likely they were to find red squirrels and the less likely grey squirrels were to be there. Like earlier Irish studies, this suggested that pine martens suppress grey squirrel populations to the overall benefit of red squirrels.

However, that’s not quite the whole story. There’s a desire in the media to find heroes and villains in nature which simplifies the situation and obscures the potential impact of a returning predator on British wildlife and livestock. Sadly, ecology and conservation are rarely simple and the restoration of pine martens will not always follow a script.

Red squirrels on the menu?

The Scottish pine marten researchers make clear that pine martens sometimes eat red squirrels. In a small number of other studies conducted elsewhere in Europe, reds were in fact a significant seasonal component of pine marten diet – up to 53% in one case.

It’s therefore incorrect to suggest, as some conservation groups have, that dietary studies show pine martens very rarely eat red squirrels. The reality is that predation rates reflect the relative abundance of red squirrels to other prey, encounter rates and local habitat characteristics.

Why grey squirrels have declined in the presence of pine martens remains uncertain. The impact of martens on greys may vary geographically and it’s unwise to simply extrapolate the findings from Scotland and Ireland to the rest of the British Isles without a note of caution. Suggesting the pine marten is the best long-term solution for grey squirrel control in England is premature and requires more research to confirm.

An owl sanctuary in Northern Ireland had an unwelcome visit from a pine marten.World of Owls, Author provided

Pine martens have been absent from much of England for around 100 years, a period of significant agricultural and urban change. Landscapes have altered dramatically and many potential prey species have regionally declined. Pine marten predation upon these could therefore prove to be locally significant.

This should not be a barrier to reintroducing pine martens. Instead, it reinforces the need for informed discussions with all interest groups likely to be affected. We must acknowledge that as a last resort, lethal control of predators may be necessary to conserve rare species such as some ground nesting birds.

As the pine marten becomes more common in the UK and Ireland, inevitably there will be scenarios where lethal intervention is unavoidable. A pine marten predating a seabird colony was shot in 2018 under licence to protect an internationally important breeding population.

Measures to prevent predation of poultry or game birds are frequently recommended where pine marten restoration is occurring. These include the installation of electric fencing, cutting back branches overhanging pens and ensuring that wire netting has no holes martens could get through.

While these management recommendations are useful, many people may find it difficult to implement them. As a result, any negative impacts of a returning arboreal predator will fall heavily upon a handful of poultry owners.

The return of the pine marten may also complicate the conservation or reintroduction of other species. Although the location and other details are confidential, there were concerns that a pine marten was adversely affecting a red squirrel conservation programme after an individual was found to be regularly visiting release enclosures.

As pine martens naturally spread from Scotland into northern England, adaptive and measured responses will be needed to responsibly manage their return. An approach to conservation that’s media-friendly but built on limited evidence rarely works, and certainly won’t in pine marten restoration.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

UK Human Rights Act is at risk of repeal – here's why it should be protected

Author: Stephen Clear, Lecturer in Constitutional and Administrative Law, and Public Procurement, Bangor University


There have long been attempts to “scrap” the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. But while none have gained traction to date, parliamentarians have recently raised concerns that the government could be wavering in its commitment to the act post-Brexit.

The House of Lords’ EU justice sub-committee said in January that it was worried to see the government change the wording of the political declaration it agreed with the EU, which sketches out a non-binding vision for what the UK’s relationship with Europe will look like after Brexit.

In its draft form, the declaration said that the future relationship should incorporate the UK’s “commitment” to the convention. However, by the time the final version was published in November 2018, that had changed to a commitment to “respect the framework” of the convention.

The committee wrote to the government for clarification and received a response from Edward Argar, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice, who stated that the government would not repeal or replace the act while Brexit is ongoing but that “it is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further”.

Responding publicly, committee chairman Helena Kennedy said that this was a “troubling” reply, noting: “Again and again we are told that the government is committed … but without a concrete commitment”.

Critics of the act say that reforms are needed to “restore” the supremacy of the UK courts, by limiting the interference of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in domestic issues, such as voting rights for prisoners. This has long been a key issue for Conservative governments, which have wanted to ignore Strasbourg rulings. The idea is that the Human Rights Act could be replaced with a “British” bill of rights which would allegedly give the UK more control over the laws it implements.

The most cited criticism is that the act protects terrorists and hate preachers, such as Abu Hamza, who, at a time when he was advocating radical Islam and violence within UK cities, initially could not be deported on grounds that doing so would have contravened his right to freedom from torture.

The successes of human rights laws are less frequently celebrated, however. The act was relied upon by Hillsborough families, and the victims’ right to life, in order to secure a second inquiry. Individuals pursuing their freedom to manifest their religion have used it to enforce their right to wear religious symbols at work. Victims of the Stafford hospital scandal used the law to secure an inquiry, which led to major improvements in accountability and public safety. And it has helped those seeking LGBTQ+ equality, as well as British soldiers in their challenge for improved resources.

Dispelling the myths

The problem is that there are several misconceptions fuelling the drive to change the Human Rights Act. First, the ECHR is unrelated to the EU. But mistaken links between the two are causing misplaced animosity towards the convention. The convention and its related institutions were regularly confused as being part of the EU during the referendum debates. Though the UK is due to leave the EU, it is not leaving – and does not necessarily have to leave – the Council of Europe. The council predates the EU, and has a larger membership (47 member states compared to the EU’s 28). While the EU is concerned with matters such as the single market and free movement of people, the council addresses issues in relation to human rights and the rule of law.

Another point causing problems is the notion that the UK needs to move towards a supposedly “more British” and “less European” understanding of human rights. History tells us that in the aftermath of World War II the convention was actually partly written by the British. It was advocated by Winston Churchill and co-written by Conservative MP David Maxwell-Fyfe.

Britain was not just a supporter of the convention, but a leader in co-drafting the rules, and ensuring greater enforcement at a supranational level, via the European court. Furthermore, the UK was the very first country to ratify the convention in 1951. The irony is that the Conservative party is now questioning the role of human rights when it was the one that drafted the convention in 1950.

Even if the Humans Right Act was reformed or repealed now, the UK would still be subject to the convention as a signatory. UK citizens would still have access to the protections that the convention has introduced.

If the act is truly under threat of repeal, lessons must be learnt from Brexit. There needs to be an open and honest debate about what the act and convention actually do, and what they have achieved.

If, in repealing the act and introducing a “British bill of rights”, the UK leaves the Council of Europe, it could cause a dangerous unravelling of the UK’s constitution, and upset the devolution settlement. It could also remove another layer of international protection for the UK’s constitutional values. To do so at a time when much uncertainty remains (following the UK leaving the EU) would have far reaching consequences for protecting citizens’ rights against the state.

The Conversation

Stephen Clear does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Pourquoi les personnes souffrant d’anxiété ont du mal à gérer leurs émotions

Author: Leanne Rowlands, PhD Researcher in Neuropsychology, Bangor University

Certaines personnes peuvent se laisser submerger par leurs émotions, en raison de la conjonction de divers facteurs psychologiques, physiologiques et environnementaux.Fabio Neo Amato/Unsplash

Nous régulons tous nos émotions, chaque jour de notre vie. Grâce à ce processus psychologique, nous pouvons gérer la façon dont nous ressentons et exprimons nos émotions, quelle que soit la situation qui se présente. Mais chez certaines personnes, cette régulation n’est pas efficace. Les sentiments qu’elles éprouvent sont intenses et difficiles à supporter, ce qui les amène souvent, pour leur échapper, à adopter des comportements tels que l’automutilation, la consommation d’alcool ou la suralimentation.

Pour réguler nos émotions, nous avons recours à diverses stratégies, telles que la réévaluation (qui consiste à changer ce que nous ressentons à propos de quelque chose) et le déploiement attentionnel (qui revient à détourner notre attention de quelque chose). Ces stratégies reposent sur des systèmes neuronaux sous-jacents du cortex préfrontal de notre cerveau. Si ceux-ci dysfonctionnent, nous pouvons perdre la capacité à gérer efficacement nos émotions.

Mais la dysrégulation émotionnelle ne se produit pas uniquement lorsque le cerveau néglige d’utiliser ses stratégies de régulation. Elle peut aussi survenir lorsque les tentatives pour atténuer les émotions non désirées s’avèrent infructueuses, ou encore lorsque des stratégies contre-productives d’atténuation sont mises en œuvre, c’est-à-dire lorsque le coût desdites stratégies est supérieur aux avantages à court terme procurés par l’atténuation d’une émotion intense. Décider de ne pas ouvrir ses factures pour s’épargner une crise d’anxiété peut aider à se sentir mieux à court terme, mais se traduit à long terme par une continuelle augmentation de coûts.

Les tentatives de régulation infructueuses et l'emploi d’atténuations contre-productives sont au cœur de nombreux problèmes de santé mentale, tels que les troubles anxieux et les troubles de l’humeur. Mais le chemin menant à la dysrégulation émotionnelle n’est pas toujours le même. En fait, la recherche a trouvé plusieurs causes à ces situations.

Des systèmes neuronaux dysfonctionnels

Dans les troubles anxieux, le dysfonctionnement des systèmes émotionnels du cerveau se traduit par des réactions émotionnelles beaucoup plus intenses que celles qui se produisent habituellement, ainsi que par une perception accrue de la menace et une vision négative du monde. Ces caractéristiques influent sur l’efficacité des stratégies de régulation des émotions. En résulte une dépendance excessive vis-à-vis de stratégies inadaptées, par exemple celles consistant à éviter ou essayer de supprimer les émotions.

Dans le cerveau des personnes atteintes de troubles anxieux, le système sur lequel repose la réévaluation ne fonctionne pas aussi efficacement que dans le cerveau des personnes qui ne sont pas affectées. Lorsque cette stratégie d’atténuation des émotions est utilisée, certaines parties du cortex préfrontal sont moins activées comparativement à celles des personnes non anxieuses. En fait, plus le niveau des symptômes d’anxiété est élevé, moins ces régions du cerveau sont activées. Cela signifie que plus les symptômes sont intenses, moins ils peuvent être réévalués.

De même, les personnes atteintes de trouble dépressif majeur– qui se traduit par une incapacité à réguler ou réparer les émotions, se traduisant par de longs épisodes de dépression – éprouvent des difficultés à utiliser le contrôle cognitif pour gérer leurs émotions négatives et diminuer leur intensité émotionnelle. Ceci s’explique par des différences neurobiologiques, telles qu’une diminution de la densité de la matière grise et du volume du cortex préfrontal. Chez les personnes dépressives, on constate moins d’activation cérébrale et un métabolisme moins élevé dans cette région du cerveau lorsqu’elles accomplissent des tâches visant à réguler leurs émotions.

La fonction des systèmes cérébraux de motivation est par ailleurs parfois moins efficace chez les personnes atteintes de trouble dépressif majeur que chez les autres. Ces réseaux de connexions neurales relient le striatum ventral, situé au milieu du cerveau, et le cortex préfrontal. Ce moins bon fonctionnement pourrait expliquer leur moindre aptitude à réguler les émotions positives. Une difficulté connue sous le nom d’anhédonie), qui se traduit par un manque de plaisir et d’appétit pour la vie.

Des stratégies moins efficaces

Les capacités à utiliser une stratégie de régulation ou une autre varient selon les gens, cela ne fait guère de doute. Mais chez certains, il est des stratégies qui ne fonctionnent tout simplement pas. Il se peut que les personnes atteintes de troubles anxieux considèrent la réévaluation comme une stratégie moins efficace parce que le biais d’attention qui les affecte fait qu’ils accordent involontairement plus d’attention aux informations négatives et menaçantes. Cela peut les empêcher d’interpréter les situations de façon positive – ce qui constitue un aspect clé de la réévaluation.

Il est également possible que la réévaluation ne fonctionne pas aussi bien chez les personnes atteintes de troubles de l’humeur que chez les autres. Les biais cognitifs dont souffrent les personnes atteintes de trouble dépressif majeur peut les amener à interpréter les situations comme étant plus négatives qu’elles ne le sont, et à avoir du mal à éprouver des pensées positives.

Des stratégies inadaptées

Bien que des stratégies inadaptées puissent aider les gens à se sentir mieux à court terme, elles se traduisent à long terme par des coûts dont les conséquences sont la persistance de l’anxiété et des troubles de l’humeur. Les personnes anxieuses comptent davantage sur des stratégies inadaptées telles que la suppression (qui consiste à essayer d’inhiber ou de cacher les réactions émotionnelles), et moins sur les stratégies d’adaptation comme la réévaluation. Bien que les recherches à ce sujet soient encore en cours, on pense que lorsqu’elles expérimentent des émotions intenses, ces personnes trouvent très difficile de se désengager – la première étape nécessaire à la réévaluation – et se tournent donc plutôt vers une stratégie inadaptée de suppression.

Le recours à des stratégies inadaptées comme la suppression et la rumination (au cours de laquelle les gens ont des pensées négatives et auto-dépréciatrices répétitives) est également une caractéristique fréquemment rencontrée chez les personnes souffrant de trouble dépressif majeur.

Il est important de souligner que les troubles de l’humeur ne sont pas uniquement dus à des anomalies neurologiques. Les recherches suggèrent qu’elles résultent d’une conjugaison de différents paramètres. Physiologie cérébrale, psychologie, facteurs environnementaux contribuent ensemble à ces désordres.

Alors que les scientifiques recherchent nouveaux traitements prometteurs, des actions simples peuvent aider les gens à atténuer l’influence des pensées et des émotions négatives sur leur humeur. Les personnes en proie à ces troubles peuvent par exemple vraiment gagner à s’engager dans des actions positives, en exprimant leur gratitude, en faisant montre de bonté envers les autres, et en réfléchissant aux éléments qui constituent des atouts en terme de caractère.

The Conversation

Leanne Rowlands a reçu des financements du Fonds social européen par l'intermédiaire du gouvernement gallois.

Why people with anxiety and other mood disorders struggle to manage their emotions

Author: Leanne Rowlands, PhD Researcher in Neuropsychology, Bangor University

Struggling to be positive.Mangostar/Shutterstock

Regulating our emotions is something we all do, every day of our lives. This psychological process means that we can manage how we feel and express emotions in the face of whatever situation may arise. But some people cannot regulate their emotions effectively, and so experience difficult and intense feelings, often partaking in behaviours such as self-harm, using alcohol, and over-eating to try to escape them.

There are several strategies that we use to regulate emotions– for example, reappraisal (changing how you feel about something) and attentional deployment (redirecting your attention away from something). Underlying neural systems in the brain’s prefrontal cortex are responsible for these strategies. However, dysfunction of these neural mechanisms can mean that a person is unable to manage their emotions effectively.

Emotion dysregulation does not simply occur when the brain neglects to use regulation strategies. It includes unsuccessful attempts by the brain to reduce unwanted emotions, as well as the counterproductive use of strategies that have a cost that outweighs the short term benefits of easing an intense emotion. For example, avoiding anxiety by not opening bills might make someone feel better in the short term, but comes with the long-term cost of ever increasing charges.

These unsuccessful attempts at regulation and counterproductive use of strategies are a core feature of many mental health conditions, including anxiety and mood disorders. But there is not one simple pathway that causes the dysregulation in these conditions. In fact research has found several causes.

1. Dysfunctional neural systems

In anxiety disorders, dysfunction of the brain’s emotional systems is related to emotional responses being of a much higher intensity than usual, along with an increased perception of threat and a negative view of the world. These characteristics influence how effective emotion regulation strategies are, and result in an over-reliance on maladaptive strategies like avoiding or trying to suppress emotions.

In the brains of those with anxiety disorders, the system supporting the reappraisal does not work as effectively. Parts of the prefrontal cortex show less activation when this strategy is used, compared to non-anxious people. In fact, the higher the levels of anxiety symptoms, the less activation is seen in these brain areas. This means that the more intense the symptoms, the less they are able to reappraise.

Similarly, those with major depressive disorder (MDD)– the inability to regulate or repair emotions, resulting in prolonged episodes of low mood – struggle to use cognitive control to manage negative emotions and decrease emotional intensity. This is due to neurobiological differences, such as decreased density of grey matter, and reduced volume in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. During emotion regulation tasks, people who have depression show less brain activation and metabolism in this area.

People with MDD sometimes show less effective function in the brain’s motivation systems – a network of neural connections from the ventral striatum, located in the middle of the brain, and prefrontal cortex – too. This might explain their difficulty in regulating positive emotions (known as anhedonia) leading to a lack of pleasure and motivation for life.

2. Less effective strategies

There is little doubt that people have different abilities in using different regulation strategies. But for some they simply don’t work as well. It’s possible that people with anxiety disorders find reappraisal a less effective strategy because their attentional bias means they involuntarily pay more attention towards negative and threatening information. This can stop them from being able to come up with more positive meanings for a situation – a key aspect of reappraisal.

It’s possible that reappraisal doesn’t work as well for people with mood disorders either. Cognitive biases can lead people with MDD to interpret situations as being more negative, and make it difficult to think more positive thoughts.

3. Maladaptive strategies

Although maladaptive strategies might make people feel better in the short term they come with long term costs of maintaining anxiety and mood disorders. Anxious people rely more on maladaptive strategies like suppression (trying to inhibit or hide emotional responses), and less on adaptive strategies like reappraisal. Though research into this is ongoing, it’s thought that during intense emotional experiences these people find it very difficult to disengage – a necessary first step in reappraisal – so they turn to maladaptaive suppression instead.

The use of maladaptive strategies like suppression and rumination (where people have repetitive negative and self-depreciating thoughts) is also a common feature of MDD. These, together with difficulties using adaptive strategies like reappraisal, prolong and exacerbate depressed mood. It means that people who have MDD are even less able to use reappraisal during a depressed episode.

It’s important to note that mood disorders don’t just come from neural abnormalities. The research suggests that a combination of brain physiology, psychological and environmental factors are what contributes to the disorders, and their maintenance.

While researchers are pursing promising new treatments, simple actions can help people loosen the influence of negative thoughts and emotions on mood. Positive activities like expressing gratitude, sharing kindness, and reflecting on character strengths really do help.

The Conversation

Leanne Rowlands receives funding from EU Social fund through the Welsh Government.

Exercise can fast-track your workplace well-being – here's how

Author: Rhi Willmot, PhD Researcher in Behavioural and Positive Psychology, Bangor University

Working hard.didon/Shutterstock

Exercise has been found to reduce stress, increase positive mood, decrease anxiety and alleviate depression. But you may not know that the emotional well-being associated with exercise is also linked to key attributes that can help us while we work.

One of the most established of well-being frameworks (PERMA) states that of the many ways to experience happiness, five areas are most important: positive emotions, mental engagement, strong relationships, meaning in life and accomplishing goals. At face value, achieving all five may seem a colossal task. But many activities from tennis to triathlons, squash to swimming, can help us clinch all five at once. Evidence suggests that, as a result, we are more likely to avoid job burnout, sleep more easily and be more engaged at work.

1. Positive emotions

The “runner’s high” is at the peak of positive emotion. While this euphoric feeling is most typically linked to pounding the pavements, it can be experienced via any activity which works both muscles and heart.

The high comes from endorphins – the body’s natural painkiller – being made available in the areas of the brain which process mood and emotion. Understood as an evolutionary advantage, the high enables us to keep moving even when our muscles are tired, and even a short burst of this positive feeling can help us feel more energised. So next time you’re feeling low, try squeezing in some physical activity around work. It could give you a morning boost or stave off the post-lunch crash.

2. Mental engagement

Being in the zone is no easy task in a distracting workplace. Scientifically known as “flow”, this engagement level is the optimal amount of challenge required for personal growth. The Goldilocks of arousal, flow occurs when a task is sufficiently difficult to avoid boredom, but not so hard that we become overwhelmed. The flow experience is associated with decreased activity in the posterior cingulate cortex – an area of the brain responsible for our sense of self. So flow literally allows us to lose ourselves in the moment.

Physical activities which provide a just-manageable challenge are great for getting into flow. Even better are water-based sports which prevent the use of distracting technology, like sailing, swimming or rowing. Detaching from work in this way gives us time to recharge, meaning we can return with maximum productivity.

Exercise break.Willow Dempsey/Shutterstock

3. Strong relationships

While competitive sport can seem cut-throat, the shared pain of limit-busting events can stimulate compassion, and the more we suffer personally, the better we empathise with others. This not only strengthens our social skills, but also manifests in directing greater kindness to ourselves. Research indicates that self-compassion is a more effective strategy than self-criticism when we face difficulty. So, practising kind self-talk during sport can enable a more positive response to previously unbeatable workplace challenges.

4. Meaning in Life

A philosophically foggy concept, meaning in life has been scientifically pinned down as having three components: purpose (core goals and aspirations), significance (impact beyond the trivial and immediate), and coherence (understanding own values and life story). Meaning in life can provide a stable foundation when we face adversity, and helps us to make sense of troubling events. Importantly, some studies have found that a stronger sense of purpose is associated with moving more.

5. Accomplishments

The value of feeling competent and successful is well known, but greater attention has recently been devoted to the manner in which we interpret success. Research into growth and fixed mindsets suggests that whether we believe ability can change (growth) or not (fixed) is central to our well-being.

Those with a growth mindset are more likely to work on developing their skills, embrace feedback as an opportunity to learn, and use setbacks to adapt and thrive. On the other hand, those with a fixed mindset fear failure, take feedback personally, and are discouraged by bumps in the road.

But this can change. Researchers have found that a person’s mindset can be influenced by something as simple as greater self-awareness. All kinds of physical activities can objectively show us we can achieve goals that at first seemed out of reach. You might think that you’ll never be able to lift a certain weight, for example, but persist, and you will see how strong – both mentally and physically – you truly are.

You don’t need to be super fit, or even a regular gym-goer to benefit from the well-being perks that come with exercise. Getting active a few times a week can be enough to not only transform your physical fitness, but also boost your mood and performance, in and outside of work.

The Conversation

Rhi Willmot does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

How our unconscious visual biases change the way we perceive objects

Author: Beverley Pickard-Jones, PhD Researcher, Bangor University

Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

As the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But while we can appreciate that others might hold different opinions of objects we see, not many people know that factors beyond our control can influence how we perceive the basic attributes of these objects. We might argue that something is beautiful or ugly, for example, but we would be surprised to learn that the same object is perceived as a sphere by one person but as a cube by another.

The process of visual perception is a best guess scenario. When we look at something, the brain uses visual cues –sensory signals that convey information – to help work out what that thing is. This means that our perception of the world is not a simple reflection of sensory information, it is an interpretation of it.

Along with colour and motion, the perception of depth is very important to help us visually perceive things. Depth helps us to understand the shape of objects and their location relative to ourselves. We need to understand it to move around our environment and interact with objects. Imagine trying to pick something up if you don’t know what shape it is, or crossing the road if you can’t accurately perceive the distance of the cars.

To perceive depth, humans and animals rely on a number of brain processes and visual cues. One of these cues is shading information: we can perceive depth by simply interpreting the patterns of light and dark on the surface of objects, without needing to refer to any other information.

In order to perceive depth from shading patterns, we must either know or assume the position of the light source that illuminates the object. By default, if the light source is not apparent, we assume that the light comes from above the object.

The circle on the left is usually perceived as convex, while the circle on the right is usually perceived to be concave.

Look at the image to the right. The sphere on the left will most likely appear convex (protruding outwards). This is because it is lighter at the top, which reflects the patterns of light and dark that would be produced on a convex object if there was an overhead light source. The sphere on the right usually looks concave (recessed inwards) because it’s darker at the top. Again, if there was an overhead light source, a concave object would be darker at the top because the upward-facing portions of the object catch the light, and the downward-facing portions are obscured.

The light-from-above assumption isn’t very surprising, since we evolved in a world with an overhead light source – the sun. A less intuitive finding that scientists have made, however, is that light is assumed to originate from the upper left-hand side of space. We know this because, in the lab, people are generally faster to detect convex spheres from a group of concave spheres if the convex sphere is lit from the above-left, and they more readily categorise these left-lit objects as convex.

Experiments that measure electrical activity in the brain have also found that left-lit objects are more rapidly recognised than those lit from other orientations. This is demonstrated in the image below. Both the upper and lower rows of circles contain one that is different from the others – an oddball. The oddball in the top row is lit from the above-left and it should “pop out” from the others, which have an exactly opposite shading pattern. The circles in the lower line also have an opposite shading pattern, but the oddball is much harder to detect because its shading pattern does not conform to our above-left expectations.

The oddball sphere should pop out from among the others in the top line, but is much more difficult to see in the bottom line (it is the final circle in the sequence).

However, like the overhead light source assumption, the leftward light source bias exists outside conscious awareness. And not everyone experiences it. For example, people who read from right-to-left (such as Arabic or Hebrew readers) sometimes show rightward biases or smaller left biases than people who read left-to-right. Interestingly, people who have recently suffered a stroke in the right-hemisphere parietal lobe typically demonstrate a rightward light source bias too. This could indicate that the right parietal lobe – which is responsible for perceiving the physical environment and integrating information from the senses, such as sight and hearing – is ordinarily responsible for orienting visual attention to the left side of space, because disrupting the normal function of that region shifts attention rightward.

The honeycomb stimulus: some people perceive the central hexagon as convex, others as concave.

The fact that a person’s culture or brain changes can result in subjective differences in perception means that some people will perceive concavity in certain images, whereas others will perceive convexity. The honeycomb image to the right is one example that we use experimentally to find out how someone perceives depth from shading. Some people will perceive the central hexagon as convex, while others (usually those with a left bias) as concave.

We all assume everyone perceives the world as we do, even if their impressions might be different from ours. It is difficult to imagine that some people might perceive three-dimensional depth differently from ourselves. But if our perception of something as basic as whether an object is convex or concave is not reliably the same across people and populations, how can we begin to judge the subjective experience? Biases in visual perception might explain some differences in aesthetic judgements, but if we can explain why different people have an opposite perception of the same thing, it could, ultimately, further our understanding of human cognition on a wider scale.

The Conversation

Beverley Pickard-Jones received funding from the James Pantyfedwen Foundation in 2017.

Investigating why oak trees are dying is helping scientists understand how infectious diseases work

Author: James Doonan, Postdoctoral Research Officer, Bangor University

Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

British oak trees are under threat from a disease known as Acute Oak Decline. Mainly affecting mature trees, it can kill them within four to five years of symptoms appearing. However, while researchers like myself have been looking into what causes it, and trying to find a way to prevent it, our work has been hindered in part by the fact that we have to follow a set of scientific rules known as Koch’s postulates.

For more than 100 years, scientists have identified which single organism causes a disease according to these postulates. However, more recent research into both plant and animal illnesses has shown that these are too strict, and that we need to start considering how multiple bacteria interact to cause a disease in what is called a “pathobiome”.

A pathobiome is essentially a community of interacting bacteria that together cause a disease in animals and plants. Acute Oak Decline, for example, arises from several bacteria which together degrade the trees’ vascular tissues, preventing transport of water and nutrients to the branches and leaves. We have recently identified two bacteria as causative agents of Acute Oak Decline – Brenneria goodwinii and Gibbsiella quercinecans– while others, including Lonsdalea britannica and Rahnella species, have been detected, although their role is currently unclear.

Alone, the bacteria which form the pathobiome are harmless, or are less severe. But when alongside other organisms the likelihood, incidence and severity of disease is increased. This gives rise to “emergent property”, meaning that the disease causing property is greater than the sum of the combined organisms.

The postulates problem

Prior to the pioneering work of 19th-century German biologist Robert Koch, the causes of disease were unknown. In 1890, building on the work of scientists Louis Pasteur and John Snow, Koch identified his postulates as standardised guidelines to prove disease causation. These are:

  1. The parasite occurs in every case of the disease in question and under circumstances which can account for the pathological changes and clinical course of the disease.

  2. The parasite occurs in no other disease as a fortuitous and non-pathogenic parasite.

  3. After being fully isolated from the body and repeatedly grown in pure culture, the parasite can induce the disease anew.

Robert Koch working in his laboratory at Kimberley, South Africa.Wellcome Collection, CC BY

The postulates were later adapted to incorporate viruses, and the occurrence of asymptomatic carriers – individuals who are infected but present no symptoms, such as Typhoid Mary.

In the 1980s, the postulates were extended again, to acknowledge the discovery that a single gene can be responsible for disease. Pathologists have since exploited this discovery to find that removing a gene from a bacterial cell’s DNA causes it to lose its disease-causing abilities.

Bacterial communities

However, as mentioned above, bacterial diseases in both animals and plants are increasingly being recognised as being caused by a community of bacteria and not a single organism. In Bangladesh, a 2014 study investigated why some people fall dangerously ill with cholera (caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae) while others have much reduced symptoms. It was found that the bacterial species Ruminococcus obeum is highly abundant in those who have recovered from the disease – because it was able to outcompete V. cholerae using a communication system known as quorum sensing.

V. cholerae mass in the human gut by releasing small diffusible molecules, which “talk” to other bacteria and recruit them to the site in large concentrations. But R. obeum disrupts V. cholerae signalling by releasing its own signal, which prevents V. cholerae from reaching sufficient quantities to release toxins and cause disease. This means that the human gut’s bacterial community can dictate whether an individual falls victim to cholera or remains healthy.

Like humans, plants host multiple species of bacteria. They form intricate host-bacterial relationships which can be beneficial, passive or detrimental to plant health. Plants can directly shape their resident bacteria in favour of growth promoting species, by releasing hormones into the soil which encourage colonisation. But unhealthy plants are less able to do this – which leads to a changed community of resident microbes that can contribute to disease.

The opportunistic human and plant pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa PA14, for example, colonises and persists in host environments which would have previously been protected by the immune system or excluded from the environment by resident bacteria. This makes disease causation difficult to prove under the postulates as the passive bacterium can only cause disease in an already compromised host.

Taken together, it becomes clear why we need to start considering the pathobiome as a central factor in disease. Each bacterium can cause different levels of disease according to whether other bacteria are present, and the level of disease can be measured on a scale. Perhaps scientists need a new set of postulates, ones which take into account the accumulated knowledge from the more than 100 years of scientific research since Koch’s original work.

The Conversation

James Doonan receives funding from Woodland Heritage and Forest Research.

Why foraging and gathering are food for the soul

Author: Elisabeth S. Morris-Webb, PhD Researcher, Bangor University

In the past few years, there’s been a resurgence in the idea of foraging for food. The practice of hand gathering plants and animals for bait, money or the table has long taken place, but more recently top chefs have been popularising the idea, while urban foragers have told of the lengths they go to to find wild food in big cities.

But why, in an age where most things we want or need are only a few clicks away, do many seek the thrill of finding their own food? Why do local commercial gatherers choose to pursue these ancient livelihoods when there are less arduous alternative careers?

Humans by nature are hunter gatherers and have always collected food for sustenance. Over the centuries we have found many uses for different species collected both inland and along the seashore, including bait, medicines, fertilisers and soaps. Some research suggests that the Omega-3 fatty acids Homo sapiens gleaned from foraging shellfish on the seashore is what made us more “intelligent” than other human races.

There are clear benefits to wild harvesting in the modern world. Not only does it cut the forager’s own food costs but there may be health advantages too, not least from the exercise involved. Research has found that various activities, such as childhood beachcombing or practising mindfulness at the seaside, can add value to the coast as a “therapeutic landscape”.

However, there is still little published on the personal values of traditional activities such as foraging. A growing body of work on land-based cottage industries, such as wild blueberry and mushroom picking, has found that the wild product trade can empower communities by allowing them to develop new local industries that they can control. It has also been suggested that foraging should be considered an important ecosystem service, due to the cultural benefits that people gain freely from the land. But this research often does not consider the importance of foraging to individuals, and ignores the work of coastal gatherers who collect different things – seaweed, for example – which may be used for more than just food.

Personal meanings

While we are beginning to understand the benefits of people’s interactions with nature, one area that researchers are still looking in to is the meaning of the practices to those who forage. Despite numerous mentions in books and newspapers, there has been surprisingly little research into the non-monetary value of these gathering activities, particularly on the seashore.

In countries where harvesting traditions are proudly practised, communities have begun to express the important meanings that lie behind their wild harvesting, in order to keep cultural practices alive and to protect their target species. The locals who forage on the Puget Sound in Washington, US, for example, have demonstrated that harvesting is key to the sense of place of some shellfish harvesters, and a sense of belonging for some plant and mushroom pickers. Carrying on these traditions brings together family heritage, personal experiences and social connections. And the very act of foraging deeply connects people to their environment, the traditions of the area, and the practices of their homelands too.

Julia and John from Wild About Pembrokeshire and the Really Wild Soap Company.Author provided

In my previous work as a marine ecologist, I worked with bait collectors, cocklers, seaweed pickers, citizen scientists, natural historians, commercial fishermen and recreational anglers across the UK. Every person gathered something different, each passionate about what they did, and all with a story to tell. However, it seemed that the cultural and heritage reasons for foraging weren’t thought about until there was a threat of either wild stocks declining or new management rules.

I am now looking at what gathering means to foragers in a modern world, and seeking participants to take part in the research. As other researchers have asked of other communities around the world, I am looking in to why people in the UK continue to forage from its seashores. Is there an unspoken, deep meaning to foraging that adds something to the gatherer’s well-being? Or is it simply something done for money or food?

In a time when well-being and conservation policy is interested in both the sustainability of society and the environment the modern personal, familial and cultural values associated with the ancient activity of gathering should not be forgotten. We need to tell the stories of gatherers – be they commercial or recreational foragers, young or old.

The Conversation

Elisabeth S. Morris-Webb's research scholarship is funded under the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships (KESS 2) programme, a pan-Wales higher level skills initiative led by Bangor University on behalf of the HE sector in Wales. It is part funded by the Welsh Government’s European Social Fund (ESF) convergence programme for West Wales and the Valley and is part funded by company partner Marine Ecological Solutions Ltd. (Marine EcoSol).

Lynette Roberts: Welsh poet who fused touch and sight into sound

Author: Zoë Skoulding, Reader in English, Bangor University

Cyanite landscape.Coldmoon Photoproject/Shutterstock

The name of Lynette Roberts may not be the first that springs to mind in the history of Welsh writing in English, possibly because her futuristic poetry of World War II still sounds new and strange. In her epic poem Gods With Stainless Ears she imagines postwar humans in a technologised, ecologically damaged landscape: “the white / Electric sun drilling down on the cubed ice; / Our cyanite flesh chilled on aluminium // Rail.” If her poems echo from a retro vision of the future, full of references to minerals, metals and machines, they are also tuned to contemporary environmental realities.

Roberts wrote this extraordinary work in rural seclusion in Llanybri in south Wales, just across the estuary from Laugharne, where fellow writer Dylan Thomas lived intermittently. Her more famous neighbour had been best man at her wedding to the poet Keidrych Rhys in 1939, but Roberts herself was well known in literary circles. T.S. Eliot was her editor at Faber & Faber, while Robert Graves was a friend and mentor. She gives an account in her diary of tea with the Sitwells, in which she describes a conversation about the future of poetry readings and how poems might accompany films as “unseen voice”. Roberts had high ambitions for her writing and its place in a technologically changing world.

However, it is her emotional and political allegiance to Wales that fuels her poetry; Roberts came from a Welsh background although she was born and educated in Argentina. Her writing is sharpened by travel in that every sense impression is recorded as if it is wholly new and unfamiliar. She sees Wales with an outsider’s fresh eyes and hears its bilingual heritage with new ears, but she also brings to it a commitment to belonging, and to constructing a Welsh identity that is all the stronger for being one that she has chosen herself.

Much of Welsh literary culture had previously been focused on London – Thomas may have created the enduring fictional world of Llareggub, but he was arguably as much a Fitzrovian poet as a Welsh one. Roberts had a keener sense of her writing as entwined with daily village life. It was a tough existence, first with a husband away at war and then bringing up her two children, but it epitomised what she describes in A Carmarthenshire Diary as as “good real living”, in touch with the landscape and rural customs.

Listening across languages

It was this setting that formed the backdrop to Gods With Stainless Ears. Her language fuses touch and sight into sound, as in her description of the estuary’s “Saline mud / Siltering, wet with marshpinks”, the dense clusters of sound also suggesting the influence of the Welsh-language poetry she was discovering as she learned the language.

The poem is scattered with quotations in Welsh, from the bardic tradition of poets like Dafydd ap Gwilym to Bible verses. Roberts explains in her notes that she did this deliberately, to draw attention to the “culture of another nation”. For her intended English readership, the inclusion of text in Welsh is a noisy disruption. Roberts’s poetry makes an important claim for Wales’s cultural distinctiveness, and it also shows how listening to an environment with full attention includes hearing the competing claims of perspectives one may not understand.

For Roberts, just as Welsh is strange to the English ear, so English is a noisy interference in Welsh. She notices how “OK saltates the cymric hearth and / BBC blares from Bermondsey tongue”, recognising the questions of power and ownership that are at stake in relations between languages.

Cries of birds echo

Many of her poems listen to the non-human world, and particularly birds. Their cries are echoed in her writing, as in the poem Curlew, in which a bird trapped in a room: “Explodes a chill sky croon // Wail-íngpal-íng… a desolate phantom.”

As here, the cries of birds in her poems often morph into sounds of war. This curlew, with “Europe restless in his wing beat” brings the noise of conflict into local, domestic space. In this sense, Roberts’s ability to listen across different spaces draws on recording technologies and their use in film and radio, prefiguring our own media saturation. Her Welsh locality is inextricable from its European and global relationships.

Headstone for Lynette Roberts in Llanybri churchyard in Wales.J.A.Noel-Tod, CC BY-SA

In the years following the publication of Gods With Stainless Ears in 1951, more conservative tastes tended to dominate British poetry, as Roberts’s dense linguistic experimentation faded from fashion and from view.

Roberts stopped writing poetry and became a Jehovah’s Witness. She died in 1995. Meanwhile, there has been a steady resurgence of interest in her work, although it remained out of print for many years apart from the occasional appearance in an anthology. By the time Patrick McGuinness edited her Collected Poems in 2005, and her Diaries and Letters in 2007, readers were ready for her at last.

The strangeness of her language has not diminished with the passing of time, but remains an invitation to listen to other languages, to other forms of life, and to the emerging sounds of what might be the future.

The Conversation

Zoë Skoulding received an AHRC grant for the research network Poetry in Expanded Translation (2017-18).

Pengasaman laut akan naikkan kandungan yodium rumput laut

Author: Georgina Brennan, Postdoctoral Research Officer, Bangor UniversityDong Xu, Associate Researcher, Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Fishery SciencesNaihao Ye, Professor, Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences

Salad rumput laut.Kongsak/Shutterstock

Semakin banyak bukti bahwa pengasaman laut dan meningkatnya temperatur akan berdampak yang sangat buruk pada organisme dan ekosistem laut. Sebenarnya, hal ini merupakan keadaan yang sedang kita hadapi.

Terumbu karang mengalami pemutihan, sedangkan siput dan organisme laut lainnya yang mengapur kesulitan membuat cangkang, sisik, dan kerangka, serta hewan laut kanak-kanak bahkan kesusahan mencari habitat yang cocok.

Sebaliknya, banyak produsen utama, termasuk rumput laut, diprediksi akan berkembang di perairan laut asam di masa depan–karena mereka membutuhkan CO₂ dari air laut untuk memproduksi energi melalui fotosintesis.

Manusia telah mengonsumsi rumput laut selama puluhan ribu tahun lamanya. Kini miliaran orang, terutama di Asia, menyantap rumput laut hasil budidaya. Namun, sementara kondisi perairan laut di masa depan mungkin meningkatkan jumlah panen rumput laut, kita belum tahu bagaimana perubahan iklim akan mempengaruhi kandungan nutrisi rumput laut. Untuk mencari tahu hal ini, baru-baru ini kami meneliti bagaimana kandungan yodium rumput laut akan dipengaruhi oleh skenario perubahan iklim di masa depan.

Rumput laut adalah salah satu sumber alamiah terbaik untuk yodium, dan mineral ini penting untuk pembentukan hormon tiroid dalam tubuh. Terlalu banyak maupun kekurangan yodium dapat mengubah cara kerja kelenjar hormon tiroid dalam tubuh. Jika perubahan iklim mempengaruhi konsentrasi yodium di dalam rumput laut, maka manusia–dan binatang lainnya–yang mengonsumsi rumput laut sebagai makanan pokok akan mengalami permasalahan kesehatan yang serius.

Pembentukan laut asam

Untuk penelitian ini, kami membuat simulasi kondisi keasaman perairan laut di masa kini dan masa depan, baik di laboratorium dan di luar laboratorium. Untuk melakukan eksperimen di luar laboratorium, kami mengurung sebagian kecil area perairan laut dengan jaring yang berbasis polietana (plastik), sehingga CO₂ dan temperatur dapat dimanipulasi dan hasilnya dapat diamati, tanpa mempengaruhi kondisi alamiah perairan laut di sekitar wilayah karantina.

Rumput laut di Sungo Bay, Rongcheng, tempat budi daya rumput laut terbesar di Cina.Dong Xu, Author provided

Kami menggunakan tiga spesies rumput laut dalam penelitian ini, yakni Saccharina japonica, Undaria pinnatifida, dan Macrocystis pyrifera–serta spesies rumput laut di pesisir pantai seperti Ulva pertusa, Ulva intestinalis, Gracilaria lemaneiformis dan Gracilaria chouae. Spesies M. pyrifera sendiri merupakan jenis rumput laut yang paling banyak dikonsumsi di penjuru dunia–misalnya, sebagai tambahan sayuran di sushi, sup, dan roti rumput laut. M. pyrifera juga dipilih sebagai sumber makanan hewan-hewan invertebrata di laut seperti bulu babi dan kerang abalon, yang biasanya ditanam oleh industri perikanan.

Dalam riset pengasaman laut seperti ini, peneliti di bidang kelautan mengukur tekanan parsial CO₂ di air laut. Angka ini menunjukkan banyaknya konsentrasi CO₂ yang terlarut, yang diukur sebagai bagian per sejuta unit volume air laut (atau μatm), sebagai indikasi keasaman air laut. Panel Antarpemerintah tentang Perubahan Iklim(IPCC) memprediksi bahwa CO₂ akan bertambah lebih dari dua kali lipat pada 2100–bertambah dari 400 μatm menuju 1000 μatm–jika tidak ada aksi mitigasi untuk melawan perubahan iklim.

Kami menciptakan kondisi pengasaman laut masa depan dengan meniupkan gelembung CO₂ kedalam air laut, dan mengukur nilai μatm. Kami kemudian menanam rumput laut di delapan skenario iklim yang berbeda di dalam laboratorium, dan dua skenario iklim di luar laboratorium. Interval skenario ini dimulai dari level CO₂ dan temperatur masa sekarang hingga skenario keasaman laut dan kenaikan temperatur pada masa depan.

Eksperimen di Sungo Bay, Cina.Dong Xu, Author provided

Yodium dan makanan laut

Kami menemukan bahwa rumput laut yang ditanam pada kondisi yang mengikuti prediksi pengasaman laut masa depan mengumpulkan yodium lebih banyak dibanding rumput laut yang ditanam di kondisi perairan laut saat ini. Selain itu, pada skenario yang telah kami uji, meningkatnya temperatur tidak sepenting atau sekuat pengasaman laut dalam menyebabkan penggumpulan yodium di rumput laut. Hal ini berarti bahwa walau kita dapat panen rumput laut lebih banyak di masa mendatang akibat perubahan iklim, kandungan yodium juga akan meningkat, dan dapat berdampak pada nutrisi tubuh manusia.

Kami juga melacak kenaikan kandungan yodium pada organisme yang mengonsumsi rumput laut. Konsumen alamiah rumput laut seperti ikan dan kerang merupakan salah satu sumber kaya yodium bagi manusia. Dengan melakukan eksperimen pemberian pakan ikan di luar lab, kami mengukur efek mengkonsumsi rumput laut di bawah kondisi pengasaman laut di masa mendatang pada jenis kerang yang dapat dimakan dan kerang abalon (Haliotis discus).

Kami menemukan bahwa konsentrasi yodium meningkat di sel jaringan tubuh kerang. Lalu, kami juga melihat bahwa konsentrasi hormon tiroid pada jaringan tubuh kerang berkurang. Penemuan ini memberikan bukti bahwa pengasaman air laut memberikan dampak pada kualitas makanan laut dengan mengubah konsentrasi mineral penting bagi konsumen.

Terdapat risiko dengan terus berjalannya perubahan iklim, mereka yang memakan rumput laut sebagai salah satu makanan pokok kemungkinan besar mereka akan mengonsumsi yodium secara berlebihan, yang dapat menyebabkan banyak masalah kesehatan. Karena rumput laut dan kerang menyumbang nutrisi kepada miliaran manusia di seluruh dunia, maka sangat penting untuk memahami perubahan kandungan yodium dari makanan laut akibat perubahan iklim.

Informasi ini dapat digunakan oleh, misalnya, Organisasi Kesehatan Dunia (WHO) untuk menyediakan rekomendasi tentang level yang pas untuk konsumsi rumput laut untuk mempertahankan asupan yodium harian yang cukup bagi tubuh.

The Conversation

Para penulis tidak bekerja, menjadi konsultan, memiliki saham atau menerima dana dari perusahaan atau organisasi mana pun yang akan mengambil untung dari artikel ini, dan telah mengungkapkan bahwa ia tidak memiliki afiliasi di luar afiliasi akademis yang telah disebut di atas.

¿Hablar con uno mismo es síntoma de trastorno mental? Más bien al contrario

Author: Paloma Mari-Beffa, Senior Lecturer in Neuropsychology and Cognitive Psychology, Bangor University

cShutterstock / Dean Drobot

Sorprenderse hablando consigo mismo puede resultar embarazoso, especialmente si está pronunciando su propio nombre en la conversación. Tampoco sorprende que ese monólogo haga parecer que está alucinando. Se debe, obviamente, a que el propósito de hablar en voz alta no es otro que comunicarse con otras personas. Pero dado que muchos de nosotros hablamos con nosotros mismos, ¿será normal (e incluso saludable)?

En realidad, hablamos en silencio con nosotros mismos todo el tiempo. No me refiero solo al clásico “¿dónde me he dejado las llaves?”, sino a conversaciones profundas y trascendentales en las que nos enfrascamos a las tres de la mañana con nuestros pensamientos como único interlocutor. Esta charla interna es muy saludable, ya que cumple la función de mantener nuestra mente en forma. Nos ayuda a organizar nuestros pensamientos, planear las acciones que queremos llevar a cabo, consolidar la memoria y dar forma a las emociones. En otras palabras, nos ayuda a controlarnos.

Hablar en voz alta puede ser la continuación de la silenciosa conversación interior, y puede estar provocado cuando se activa involuntariamente un comando motor. El psicólogo suizo Jean Piaget observó que los niños pequeños empiezan a controlar sus acciones cuando comienzan a desarrollar el lenguaje. Cuando se acerque a una superficie que quema, el niño exclamará “caliente, caliente” y se alejará. Este tipo de conducta puede continuar en la edad adulta.

Los primates no humanos no se hablan a sí mismos, pero se ha descubierto que controlan sus propias acciones mediante la activación de metas en un tipo de memoria que es específica para la tarea. Si esta es visual, como el emparejamiento de plátanos, un mono activa un área diferente de la corteza prefrontal que cuando relaciona voces en una tarea auditiva. Cuando se llevan a cabo pruebas similares en humanos parecen activar las mismas áreas, sin importar la tarea de la que se trate.

Macaco emparejando plátanos.José Reynaldo da Fonseca/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

En un estudio fascinante, los investigadores descubrieron que el cerebro humano puede funcionar como el de los monos si dejamos de hablar con nosotros mismos, ya sea en voz alta o interiormente. En el experimento, los expertos pidieron a los participantes que repitieran en voz alta sonidos sin sentido (tales como “bla, bla, bla”) mientras llevaban a cabo tareas visuales y auditivas. Debido a que no podemos realizar dos actividades al mismo tiempo, murmurar estos sonidos hizo que los participantes no fueran capaces de decirse a sí mismos qué tenían que hacer en cada tarea. En estas circunstancias, los humanos se comportaron como los monos, activando de manera separada las áreas visuales y auditivas del cerebro para resolver cada tarea.

Este estudio demostró de manera impecable que hablar con nosotros mismos quizá no sea el único mecanismo de control de nuestro comportamiento, sino que es el que preferimos y utilizamos por defecto. Pero esto no quiere decir que podamos controlar todo lo que decimos siempre. De hecho, se dan muchas situaciones en las que nuestro diálogo interno puede resultar problemático. Cuando mantenemos un soliloquio a las tres de la mañana, normalmente intentamos dejar de pensar para volver a dormir, pero al tratar de frenar los pensamientos lo único que conseguimos es que nuestra mente comience a divagar, activando todo tipo de reflexiones (entre las que se incluye la charla interna) de una manera casi aleatoria.

Este tipo de activación mental es muy difícil de controlar, pero parece que se suprime cuando nos centramos en algo. Leer un libro, por ejemplo, debería ser suficiente para cortar la conversación con nosotros mismos de raíz. De hecho, es una de las actividades preferidas de muchas personas para relajar la mente antes de dormir.

Una perorata mental podría ser considerada como un signo de locura.Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

Las investigaciones han descubierto que los pacientes que sufren ansiedad o depresión activan estos pensamientos “aleatorios” incluso cuando intentan realizar alguna tarea que no está relacionada con las ideas que les rondan la cabeza. La salud mental parece depender tanto de nuestra habilidad para activar los pensamientos relevantes para el desarrollo de la labor a la que nos dedicamos, como de suprimir los conceptos innecesarios (el ruido mental). No resulta extraño que varias técnicas clínicas, como el mindfulness, apunten a despejar la mente y reducir el estrés. Cuando la divagación se escapa a nuestro control, ingresamos en un estado de ensueño en el cual mantenemos un discurso incoherente y fuera de contexto que podría ser percibido como una enfermedad mental.

Conversación en voz alta frente a charla silenciosa

Así pues, mantener una charla consigo mismo le ayuda a organizar sus pensamientos y a adaptarlos a los cambios, pero, ¿qué tiene de especial hablar en voz alta? ¿Por qué no nos guardamos nuestras palabras para nosotros si no hay nadie alrededor para escucharlas?

En un experimento reciente desarrollado en nuestro laboratorio de la Universidad de Bangor (Gales), Alexander Kirkham y yo demostramos que hablar alto mejora el control ejercido sobre una tarea, mucho más de lo que lo hace elaborar un discurso interior. Proporcionamos una serie de instrucciones escritas a los 28 participantes y les pedimos que las leyeran tanto en silencio como en voz alta. Medimos la concentración y el rendimiento de todos ellos y ambas mejoraron cuando las instrucciones fueron leídas en voz alta.

Gran parte de los beneficios parecen provenir simplemente de escucharnos a nosotros mismos, ya que los comandos auditivos son, aparentemente, mejores controladores que los escritos. Los resultados que obtuvimos demuestran que si hablamos con nosotros mismos para preservar el control durante la realización de pruebas exigentes, el rendimiento mejora de manera sustancial cuando lo hacemos en voz alta.

Esto quizá pueda explicar por qué tantos deportistas profesionales, como por ejemplo los tenistas, hablan a menudo con ellos mismos durante los partidos para mantenerse concentrados en momentos cruciales, arengándose con expresiones como “¡Vamos!”. Nuestra habilidad para generar autoinstrucciones claras es una de las mejores herramientas de las que disponemos para el control cognitivo, y su efectividad aumenta simplemente cuando se dicen en voz alta.

Pueden creerlo. Expresarse en voz alta siempre y cuando la mente no divague podría ser una señal de buen funcionamiento cognitivo. En lugar de tener una enfermedad mental, puede significar una mayor competencia intelectual. El tópico del científico loco que, perdido en su mundo interior, habla consigo mismo podría ser un espejo de la realidad de un genio que utiliza todos los medios que tiene a su disposición para aumentar su capacidad cerebral.

The Conversation

Paloma Mari-Beffa does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Administrative justice can make countries fairer and more equal – if it is implemented properly

Author: Sarah Nason, Lecturer in Administrative Law and Jurisprudence, Bangor University


There is a little known, but hugely important, justice system which impacts everyone’s life – administrative justice. Made up of various different bodies (including courts, tribunals, complaint handlers and more), it is concerned with the laws surrounding decision-making and dispute resolution of public bodies. In many countries, it deals with more cases than criminal or private civil justice.

The system also ensures that government officials make correct decisions in areas such as housing, education, health and social care, and immigration. These decisions often have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable in society. How a country enables people to seek redress against public bodies is an indicator of its approach to the values of equality and dignity. It is something which becomes crucially evident when an administrative justice system fails, such as in the cases of Grenfell Tower and the Windrush scandal.

For my newly published report, I looked at how improving an administrative justice system can make a nation fairer and more equal. The report, which focused on Wales, concludes that administrative justice is a cornerstone of social justice. It is an alternative means of holding the state to account, particularly when the effectiveness of traditional legal and political accountability methods are questioned.

But in many nations, administrative justice is complex. It can be hard to determine which level of government (federal, regional, devolved or even supranational) has responsibility for different aspects of law and redress. This complexity might be one reason why the system can be “unseen, ignored and unloved” by both policy-makers and the media. Another reason is that redress is seen as a one-off interaction to resolve a dispute. The broader potential to view disputes as symptoms rather than causes of unfairness and inequality can be missed.

The Welsh approach

Across the world, administrative justice systems have not been the product of design. Institutions and procedures have developed bit by bit over time in response to particular public administration problems, and as a consequence of deep rooted social and economic changes. Take, for example, the growth of UK tribunals after establishing a welfare state, or the expansion of ombudsmanry as a non-court based alternative for seeking efficient and effective justice, as well as the other ad hoc redress measures for discretionary welfare payments. This mix can make it hard for people to know what their rights are, and how to seek redress when public bodies make unfair – or just plain wrong – decisions.

There have been some UK initiatives to raise the profile of, and provide research into, administrative justice. A new oversight body has recently been established too. International efforts have meanwhile focused on harmonising general principles of law and good administration that apply to public bodies. However, despite the good work that these initiatives have done, what was actually needed was a consideration of whether the whole system of institutions and procedures is clear and accessible. In Wales, however, things are being handled very differently.

Wales has an emerging legal jurisdiction, and is currently questioning the future of its justice system. A Welsh view is that good administration is good for you, and that all public decision-making – from government ministers down to individual officers in local authorities – should respect principles of sustainability and equality, and the rights of children, older people, the disabled and future generations.

In the areas over which Wales has devolved power, it is beginning to focus on “ways of working” too. This requires public bodies to collaborate with each other to prevent problems occurring. They must also involve citizens throughout the planning and delivery of public services, and in resolving disputes.

Wales doesn’t have a perfect system just yet. It is facing challenges familiar to other legal jurisdictions seeking to ensure laws are properly implemented and checks on power are sufficiently robust. Globally, law and redress procedures are increasingly fragmented across a range of sources and institutions. For example, an array of “integrity” institutions have developed in Wales (and elsewhere), including ombudsmen, auditors, and inquiry processes. While integrity institutions have an important role to play, their work in promoting good decision making is not a substitute for effective legal redress. Yet in some jurisdictions their growth has coincided with significant austerity-related cuts to court and tribunal based remedies.

Across the world, people may have access to more different types of institutions than ever through which to seek redress. But there is still insufficient clarity as to their powers, functions, accountability and how they are supposed to interact with each other. Accessing administrative justice can be a minefield, or as the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has put it: “Opaque justice is no justice”.

Wales is certainly on the right track but its administrative justice system still needs work. I have made several recommendations, including revising and consolidating legislation, ensuring the system is underpinned by a clear and consistent set of principles, and improving National Assembly oversight.

The United Nations describes the Welsh approach to the rights of future generations as “world leading”. Wales also now has an opportunity to lead international best practice in administrative justice.

The Conversation

Sarah Nason receives funding from the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Nuffield Foundation

Psychotherapy can make you richer - especially if you are a man

Author: Noemi Mantovan, Senior Lecturer in Economics, Bangor UniversityGuido Cozzi, Professor of Macroeconomics, University of St.GallenSilvia Galli, University of St.Gallen

In therapy.Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Psychotherapy is good for mental health, but it can be very expensive too. As economists we try to carefully model and evaluate the monetary effects of different actions and policies. So, for our recent study we decided to use our methodologies to look into psychotherapy, and work out how it can affect labour income.

We analysed British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) data collected between 1995 and 2008. This survey observes the characteristics and decisions of 2,943 men and 5,064 women over time. The participants are randomly selected so that they statistically represent a much larger UK population. Using this information, we looked both at the effect of psychotherapy on mental health (measured using the general health questionnaire, which is used to identify common psychiatric conditions) and income. The results are clear and robust: psychotherapy helps people improve not only their future mental health, but also their future income.

However, when looking at the data it soon became clear that results would differ according to gender. In fact, it turns out that men benefit significantly more economically than women from psychotherapy.

The BHPS data shows that men who reported having had stress and mental problems, and consulting a psychotherapist, experienced an income increase of 13% in the subsequent year. For women the income increase was only 8%. Though different, the boost is substantial for both genders and reflects an increase in productivity resulting from psychotherapy, with an associated reduction of poverty. Needless to say, in our analysis we filtered out the effect of several other factors affecting income – such as education, children, marital status, type of occupation, age, and more – to find a direct link between income and therapy.

Women still benefit economically from therapy - but 5% less than men.Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Looking deeper into how and why the results vary by gender, we saw that even with the same level of mental health, women seek help more often than men. In the 13 years of data we examined, an average of 23% of women went into therapy at some point, compared to 15% of men. According to our data, consulting a psychotherapist helps women nearly twice as much as men in terms of mental health (1.2 points versus .5 points on the 36 notch general health questionnaire scale). The logical conclusion of that would be that women benefit more from psychotherapy, but this is not so when looking at income.

The 13% and 8% estimations can also be used to calculate a gender wage gap decomposition. A decomposition is used to explain how factors affect the difference in earnings between men and women. Ultimately here the decomposition shows that psychotherapy accounts for 2% of the 5% difference between men and women’s boost in earnings – even though more women than men seek treatment. To understand why this is so we need to look beyond economics and into psychology: gender discrimination in the workplace is highly correlated with poor mental health. If part of the reason why women suffer from low mental health is due to hostile work environments, then improving their mental health will not have the same effect as for men. Personal psychotherapy cannot solve the problems of a discriminatory workplace.

But our findings don’t mean that anyone should rush out to pay for therapy in the hopes of an income boost. Increasing the provision of free or affordable mental health care is paramount to obtaining a healthy and productive society. A 13% and 8% increase in income per capita is well worth the cost. What’s more, stigmatising social norms and gender workplace discrimination are still huge obstacles to obtain a healthier society that need to be properly addressed. Several steps have been taken by the UK in recent years – including the government’s Five Year Forward View, recommendations for the overhaul of different areas of the NHS, including mental health – but a lot more can be done to remove the stigma, and increase and improve mental health services.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Ocean acidification will increase the iodine content of seaweeds – and the billions of people who eat them

Author: Georgina Brennan, Postdoctoral Research Officer, Bangor UniversityDong Xu, Associate Researcher, Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Fishery SciencesNaihao Ye, Professor, Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences

Seaweed salad.Kongsak/Shutterstock

Evidence is rapidly accumulating that ocean acidification and elevated temperatures will have catastrophic consequences for marine organisms and ecosystems. In fact, it is something we are already witnessing. Coral reefs are bleaching, while snails and other calcifying marine organisms struggle to build their shells, scales and skeletons and juvenile marine animals even struggle to navigate to suitable habitats.

Yet many primary producers, including seaweeds, are predicted to thrive in the acidic oceans of the future – as they use CO₂ from the seawater to produce energy by photosynthesis.

Humans have eaten seaweeds for tens of thousands of years and today the diets of billions of people, especially in Asia, are based on cultivated seaweeds. However, while future ocean conditions may improve the yield of farmed seaweeds, we do not know how the nutritional content of seaweeds will be affected by climate change. To investigate this, we recently looked into how the iodine content of seaweeds will be affected by future climate change scenarios.

Seaweeds are one of the best natural sources of iodine, and this essential mineral is used by the body to make thyroid hormones. But both too much and too little iodine can change the way the body’s thyroid gland works. If climate change were to affect the amount of iodine in seaweed, humans – and other animals – who rely on it as a staple part of their diet may suffer serious health problems.

Creating acid oceans

For this recently published study, we simulated current and future ocean acidification conditions in laboratory and outdoors settings. To conduct the outdoor experiments, we enclosed seawater in cages made of very small mesh polythene nets so that environmental conditions such as CO₂ and temperature could be manipulated and responses monitored, while all other environmental conditions remained the same as the natural environment.

Seaweed in Sungo Bay, Rongcheng, where China’s largest kelp farm is located.Dong Xu, Author provided

We used three kelp species – Saccharina japonica, Undaria pinnatifida, and Macrocystis pyrifera– as well as the coastal seaweeds Ulva pertusa, Ulva intestinalis, Gracilaria lemaneiformis and Gracilaria chouae, for the research. With the exception of M. pyrifera, these seaweeds are widely consumed by humans across the world – for instance, in sushi, soups and in the Welsh delicacy laverbread. M. pyrifera was selected as it is a preferred food source of marine invertebrates, such as sea urchins and abalone, which are harvested by the fishing industry.

In ocean acidification research like this, oceanographers monitor the partial pressure of CO₂ in seawater. This figure reflects the amount of dissolved CO₂, which is measured as parts per million (or µatm) and is an indicator of how acidic the oceans are. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that future CO₂ in the oceans will more than double by the year 2100 – rising from current levels of 400 µatm to 1,000 µatm – if no mitigating action is taken against climate change.

We created these future ocean acidification conditions by blowing CO₂ bubbles into the seawater, and measuring the µatm. We then grew seaweeds in eight climate scenarios in the lab and two climate scenarios in the field. These ranged from current levels of CO₂ and temperature to future ocean acidification and elevated temperature scenarios.

The experiments in Sungo Bay.Dong Xu, Author provided

Iodine and seafood

We found that seaweeds grown in conditions which followed future ocean acidification predictions accumulated more iodine than seaweeds grown in present-day conditions. However, in the scenarios we tested, elevated temperature was not as important as ocean acidification in causing iodine accumulation in seaweeds. This means that while we expect the yield of a very important food crop to increase under future climate change, levels of iodine will also increase, affecting human nutrition.

We also traced elevated iodine content from seaweeds to their consumers. Natural consumers of seaweeds such as fish and shellfish are also a rich dietary source of iodine for humans. Using an outdoor feeding experiment, we examined the effect of consuming seaweeds under future ocean acidification conditions on the edible shellfish, abalone (Haliotis discus). We found that iodine concentrations increased in shellfish tissue after eating seaweeds with elevated iodine concentration. In addition, we saw that the concentration of thyroid hormones in the shellfish tissue decreased. This provides evidence that ocean acidification impacts the quality of seafood by changing the concentrations of an essential mineral with consequences for consumers.

There is a risk that as the world’s climate continues to change, people who eat seaweed as a staple part of their diet may consume too much iodine, which can lead to a wide range of health problems. Since seaweeds and shellfish underpin the nutrition of billions of humans around the world it is essential to understand how the iodine content of seafood will change under global climate change. This information can for instance be used by the World Health Organisation to provide recommendations on appropriate levels of seaweeds consumption to maintain a sufficient daily iodine intake.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Agroforestry can help the UK meet climate change commitments without cutting livestock numbers

Author: Charlotte Pritchard, PhD Researcher, Bangor University

Martin Fowler/Shutterstock

Some 12m hectares of the UK is currently covered by agricultural grasslands which support a national lamb and beef industry worth approximately £3.7 billion. However, proposals have been made that this landscape should undergo radical changes to aid the country’s climate change commitments. A controversial government advisory report recently produced by the independent Committee on Climate Change calls for UK lamb and beef production to be reduced by up to 50%. It claims that by replacing grazing land with forestry the UK will be able to substantially decrease its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The National Farmers Union has responded to the report stating that it has no plans to reduce livestock numbers. Lamb and beef production is an important part of the UK’s cultural heritage, and is vital for supporting rural communities. The lamb and beef industry also provides the country with a supply of high-welfare locally sourced meat. In fact, the UK is the top lamb producer and the third largest beef producer in the EU. And in 2016, the UK was 76% self-sufficient in terms of its own food production. But lamb and beef production is also the greatest contributor to agricultural GHG emissions – the CCC report states that, in 2016, lamb, beef and dairy production combined contributed to around 58% of UK agricultural emissions.

Sheep and cattle grazing is also an integral part of how upland landscapes are currently managed. This is particularly true for Scotland, where managing the upland landscape is important for supporting other industries, such as game bird production. These upland systems have great potential for afforestation – the planting of trees in previously unforested areas – though this doesn’t necessarily have to result in a decrease in livestock numbers.

Woodland integration

Planting trees is a crucial step in the fight against climate change. Trees act as a carbon sink for CO2 and also provide a source of different biofuels products. Previous planting schemes have seen success, for example, between 1990 and 2010 the area of the UK covered by woodland increased from 2.6 to 2.8 million hectares. But grazing land need not be taken away for the sake of this environmental initiative. Afforestation plans can be sensitive to the aforementioned socioeconomic and cultural factors if a balanced approach is taken.

So what can be done? Agroforestry might be a way to meet the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation to release between three to seven million hectares of grassland for afforestation without affecting the UK’s food supply.

Under agroforestry schemes, new woodlands are grown and existing trees are cultivated on farmlands. The aim is to optimise farming systems by incorporating woodland into them rather than replacing grazing land with trees. Planting trees and hedgerows improves grass growth, protects against flooding and topsoil erosion, increases farmland biodiversity and provides a source of natural shelter for livestock. And if the trees are used for biofuel or timber they can provide additional farm income.

A Highland cow enjoys the autumn sunshine.PJ photography/Shutterstock

Agroforestry schemes can improve animal welfare too. The 2018 lambing season resulted in an unprecedented lamb mortality rate. But it has been shown that, by providing a source of natural shelter, lamb mortality rates can be reduced by up to 50% during inclement weather.

Projects like this are already in place, for example the Welsh government’s Glastir scheme. Launched in 2012, this pan-Wales sustainable land management scheme rewards farmers financially for adhering to environmental guidelines. Though it must be noted that while Glastir has proven more effective than previous agri-environmental schemes, it has been criticised for its lack of measureable outcomes and its limited uptake by Welsh farmers.

With Brexit looming, now is the perfect time for agricultural reform as the country revisits current land use policies. As an industry that is currently so reliant on EU subsidies, there is a strong incentive to optimise production methods. Government discussions are already well under way over how to bring together the agriculture and forestry sectors in order to better manage pastoral landscapes. If agroforestry is incorporated in to these new agricultural policies and subsidy schemes there will be huge benefits for farmers, conservationists, the general public and the livestock they rely on.

The Conversation

Charlotte Pritchard receives funding from KESS 2, a pan-Wales higher level skills initiative led by Bangor University on behalf of the HE sector in Wales. It is part funded by the Welsh Government’s European Social Fund (ESF) convergence programme for West Wales and the Valleys.

Madagascar: fear and violence making rainforest conservation more challenging than ever

Author: Julia P G Jones, Professor of Conservation Science, Bangor University

Ranomafana National Park.LouieLea/Shutterstock

People are too afraid to return to the village so they are sleeping in the forest or have left altogether. They have lost their stored grain and all their belongings. I don’t know how they will get by.

These are the words of Riana*, a young woman from Bevoahazo, a tiny village in the eastern rainforests of Madagascar. Bevoahazo sits on the edge of Ranomafana National Park in a UNESCO world heritage site teeming with endangered and endemic species. Security in the area has been deteriorating over the last few years but things have escalated recently.

On November 24, 50 men raided the village stealing stores of rice – vital food reserves for local people who are mostly subsistence farmers – and injuring anyone who tried to defend their property. A few days later the local police chief, Heritiana Emilson Rambeloson, who had come to the area with a small team to investigate, was shot dead.

I spent two years living in Bevoahazo in the early 2000s while researching the sustainability of crayfish harvesting. I have spoken to friends from the village who are are currently staying in the nearby town of Ranomafana for safety, and researchers in the area to get a better understanding of what is happening.

Bandits and biodiversity

Patricia Wright, a professor of anthropology, has spent more than 30 years working in Ranomafana. She directs the Centre Valbio, an internationally renowned conservation research centre situated on the edge of the forest. She said:

The security situation is at crisis point. This is leading to real human suffering in one of the most important places for biodiversity on the planet. The [murdered policeman] was smart, dedicated to his job and was interested in wildlife and the importance of the forest. A genuine friend. We will miss him.

The recent death comes just months after a member of Valbio staff was killed by bandits. Jean François Xavier Razafindraibe was killed when armed men raided his village close to the park entrance in June 2018.

Ranomafana National Park was established by the Malagasy government to protect its globally important biodiversity. As part of the Forests of Atsinanana it is home to a number of critically endangered endemic lemurs such as the golden bamboo lemur and the black-and-white ruffed lemur.

Ranomafana National Park is home to the critically endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur.Daniel Burgas, Author provided

Ranomafana is a popular tourist spot in Madagascar with stunning scenery, rare wildlife and the friendly, sleepy town nearby. So far the insecurity hasn’t influenced tourism. As Wright says:

The bandits steer clear of tourists, but the villagers are living a life of fear.

Gold mining’s dark influence

Miners panning for gold illegally in the forest interior are a source of the insecurity. This has been an ongoing issue for many years but has become much more difficult for the park authorities to control. The miners pollute rivers, clear the rare swamp forest and hunt endangered wildlife for meat.

Illegal gold miners in the forest are thought to be the source of the raids.Ricardo Rocha, Author provided

The situation is complicated. Armed cattle thieves known as dahalo are causing havoc in many areas of Madagascar. A recent estimate suggests they have caused 4,000 deaths in the last five years alone.

In 2017, the mayor of the neighbouring town of Ambalakindresy, Elysé Arsène Ratsimbazafy, was shot dead in what is widely believed to have been a hit. He had run for election on a platform of ridding the town of the bandits and had cooperated with efforts to get the miners expelled from the national park interior.

Mar Cabeza, a professor of biology at the University of Helsinki, returned from the area a few days ago. She said:

The gold mining has escalated in recent years and differs greatly from previous subsistence-related threats. The widespread fear has negatively affected both research and conservation management.

One of Cabeza’s PhD students, Marketta Vuola, was meant to conduct research in the attacked villages recently, but was warned of the danger and moved to another village. Vuola told me

News spread fast, with all villages in the region being afraid. We spent last night hiding, with our day packs ready to escape to the forest.

There has been a robust response to the recent series of attacks. The district quickly sent reinforcements of 80 police. This will hopefully reassure the local population, allowing people to return to their village, and will reduce the immediate threat.

Read more: Animals are victims of human conflict, so can conservation help build peace in warzones?

This reassurance is essential as my old friend Koto* told me over the phone:

People need to be able to get back home to tend their crops; if they can’t do this they will suffer even more.

However the rise in insecurity reflects a wider problem of respect for the rule of law in Madagascar. Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a professor of paleontology at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar, said:

If you focus on what is happening, then you will lose your hope for Madagascar. We must focus on the solutions. Good governance is crucial in order to develop the economy of Madagascar and for saving the irreplaceable biodiversity.

Madagascar will elect a new president on December 19. People in Bevoahazo, and throughout Madagascar, are hoping that the new government can bring the change so desperately needed.

*Names changed to protect identities.

The Conversation

Julia P G Jones does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

¿Cómo será el planeta Tierra cuando se forme el siguiente supercontinente?

Author: Mattias Green, Reader in Physical Oceanography, Bangor UniversityHannah Sophia Davies, PhD Researcher, Universidade de Lisboa Joao C. Duarte, Researcher and Coordinator of the Marine Geology and Geophysics Group, Universidade de Lisboa

Shutterstock / Triff

La capa externa de la Tierra, la corteza sólida sobre la que caminamos, está hecha de partes rotas, algo parecido a la cáscara hecha pedazos de un huevo. Estas piezas, las placas tectónicas, se mueven alrededor del planeta a una velocidad de unos pocos centímetros al año. Cada cierto tiempo, las placas se juntan y forman un supercontinente que permanece durante más de 100 millones de años, hasta que desaparece al dispersarse las placas. Posteriormente, tras un lapso de tiempo de entre 400 y 600 millones de años, el proceso se repite.

El último supercontinente, Pangea, se formó hace unos 310 millones de años y comenzó a separarse hace 180 millones de años aproximadamente. Se cree que el siguiente se formará en 200/250 millones de años, por lo que actualmente nos encontramos en el ecuador de la fase de dispersión del actual ciclo de formación. La pregunta es, ¿cómo y por qué se formará el futuro supercontinente?

Existen, fundamentalmente, cuatro escenarios probables para dicha formación: Novopangea, Pangea Última, Aurica y Amasia. Cómo se pudiera formar cada uno depende de diferentes factores, pero todos están relacionados con el modo en que Pangea se separó y con el movimiento actual de los continentes.

La ruptura de Pangea condujo a la formación del océano Atlántico, que aún se está abriendo y ampliando. En consecuencia, el océano Pacífico se está estrechando. El Pacífico alberga un anillo de zonas de subducción a lo largo de sus bordes (el Cinturón de Fuego del Pacífico), donde el suelo oceánico es subducido bajo las placas continentales hacia el interior del planeta. De esa manera, el suelo oceánico antiguo se recicla y puede penetrar en las columnas volcánicas. El Atlántico, en cambio, tiene una gran cresta oceánica que produce una nueva placa, pero solo alberga dos zonas de subducción: el Arco volcánico de las Antillas Menores, en el Caribe, y el Arco de las Antillas Australes, situado entre Sudamérica y la Antártida.

1. Novopangea

De mantenerse las condiciones actuales, es decir, que el Atlántico continúe abriéndose y el Pacífico cerrándose, tendríamos un escenario en el que el siguiente supercontinente se formaría en las antípodas de Pangea. El continente americano chocaría con una Antártida que se encontraría navegando a la deriva hacia el norte, para posteriormente colisionar con los ya reunidos África y Eurasia. Este hipotético supercontinente recibe el nombre de Novopangea o Novopangaea.

Novopangea.Author provided

2. Pangea Última

La apertura del Atlántico, sin embargo, podría ralentizarse e, incluso, comenzar a cerrarse en el futuro. Los dos pequeños arcos de subducción del Atlántico podrían extenderse a lo largo de la costa este de toda América, lo que llevaría a una nueva formación de Pangea tras la colisión de América, Europa y África, produciendo un supercontinente llamado Pangea Última, que estaría rodeado completamente por un súper océano Pacífico.

Pangea Última, formado por el cierre del océano Atlántico.Author provided

3. Aurica

Sin embargo, si el Atlántico desarrollase nuevas áreas de subducción, algo que podría estar ocurriendo ya, tanto el Pacífico como el Atlántico podrían cerrarse. Esto significa que debería crearse una nueva cuenca oceánica para reemplazarlos.

En este escenario, la grieta panasiática que atraviesa Asia desde el oeste de India hasta el Ártico se abriría para formar un nuevo océano. El resultado sería la formación del supercontinente Aurica. Debido a la deriva actual de Australia hacia el norte, se situaría en el centro del nuevo continente, ya que el Extremo Oriente y América cerrarían el Pacífico a cada lado. Las placas europeas y africanas se reunirían así con América por el cierre del Atlántico.

4. Amasia

El cuarto escenario predice un destino completamente diferente para la futura Tierra. Algunas de las placas tectónicas se están desplazando actualmente hacia el norte, incluidas África y Australia. Se cree que esta deriva es impulsada por anomalías en el interior de la Tierra (en el manto, concretamente) heredadas de Pangea. Debido a esta deriva hacia el norte, se puede imaginar un escenario en el que todos los continentes excepto la Antártida continúen viajando hacia el norte. Esto significa que, al final, se reunirían en torno al Polo Norte en un supercontinente llamado Amasia. En este escenario, tanto el Atlántico como el Pacífico permanecerían abiertos en su mayoría.

Amasia, el cuarto escenario.Author provided

De estos cuatro escenarios, consideramos que Novopangea es el más probable. Obedecería a la progresión lógica de las direcciones actuales que adoptan las placas continentales a la deriva, mientras que los otros tres escenarios necesitarían de procesos adicionales para verse realizados.

Para la formación de Aurica, tendrían que crearse nuevas zonas de subducción en el Atlántico.

Pangea Última solo se formaría con la inversión de la apertura del Atlántico.

Por último, el nacimiento de Amasia dependería de anomalías producidas por Pangea en el interior de la Tierra.

Investigar el futuro tectónico de la Tierra nos obliga a explorar los límites de nuestro conocimiento y a pensar en los largos procesos que rodean a nuestro planeta. También nos lleva a observar el sistema terrestre como un todo, y nos plantea una serie de preguntas: ¿Cuál será el clima del siguiente supercontinente? ¿Cómo se ajustará la circulación oceánica? ¿Cómo evolucionará y se adaptará la vida a su nuevo entorno? Son el tipo de preguntas que ponen a prueba los límites de la ciencia porque hacen lo propio con los límites de nuestra imaginación.

The Conversation

Mattias Green recibe fondos del Natural Environmental Research Council (Reino Unido).

Hannah Sophia Davies recibe fondos de la Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (Portugal).

Joao C. Duarte recibe fondos de la Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (Portugal).

Rare woodland wildlife at risk because of 50-year-old tree felling rules

Author: Craig Shuttleworth, Honorary Visiting Research Fellow, Bangor University

VOJTa Herout/Shutterstock

In the UK it is illegal to deliberately kill or injure red squirrels, disturb them while they are using a nest, or destroy their nests. Yet, although the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act provides these protections, there is a legal anomaly in England and Wales – one that can potentially undermine the conservation of the red squirrel, along with every other rare and endangered forest plant or animal species. Although rare woodland species are protected, the habitat they dwell in is generally not.

Timber harvesting requires a licence – although there are some very limited exceptions where this permission is not needed, for example due to public safety, or where small volumes of wood are being cut. But under the 1967 Forestry Act, applications in England and Wales cannot be refused for “the purpose of conserving or enhancing” flora or fauna (though they can be refused for this purpose in Scotland). Nor can licence conditions be imposed for this reason. No matter how rare, how vulnerable or how much effort has gone into the regional conservation of a species, there are no exceptions to this.

A timber felling licence does not sweep aside the legal protection that animals such as the red squirrel have – and a precautionary approach is advisable when felling in woodlands containing this species. Nevertheless, the possession of a felling licence opens a loophole because the wildlife legislation protecting the red squirrel provides the defence of“incidental result of an otherwise lawful operation”. So, with a licence in hand, woodlands containing this threatened speciescan be clearfelled because tree harvesting is a lawful operation.

Changing the rules

The solution is clearly to amend the Forestry Act to better align timber harvesting and wildlife protection laws. Harmonising UK forestry legislation would allow for better timing, methods and patterns of tree harvesting to be guaranteed in habitats containing any rare species. Additionally, while licensing authorities currently can only assess each felling licence application in isolation, legislative change would enable the cumulative impact of granting a licence to be considered in relation to felling that had previously been approved. This stops management of rare woodland species on specific sites being at the mercy of timber prices and market economics.

Pine trees are felled near Glencoe, in the Highlands of Scotland.lowsun/Shutterstock

Commercially managed forests provide jobs and produce valuable products. As the modernised laws in Scotland show, the forest industry operates quite successfully where timber harvesting licence applications can consider wildlife impacts. Amendment in England and Wales would deliver similar integration.

Consequently, the ethical credentials of the timber harvesting industry would be strengthened. In an age where consumers want confidence that timber products they purchase have not destroyed wildlife populations, this is essential. It is already commonplace for products made of UK-sourced wood to have the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo. The FSC signifies the wood is from sustainable sources managed with a high regard for wildlife conservation. So amendment of the 1967 Forestry Act would give greater consumer confidence in supply chains and also reinforce the credibility of the global FSC forest certification scheme itself.

Balancing priorities

Since the 1980s, the forestry sector has increasingly balanced commercial, societal and environmental imperatives. Consequently there will be times, should the law change, when refusal of a logging license to conserve biodiversity is an unavoidable trade off. Here it is important to stress that the forest industry receives state grants to support crop establishment and protection. The taxpayer therefore has a right to ensure that forests are managed sympathetically for wildlife. We should not forget that commercial plantations can be vitally important for wildlife and without them many species would be much rarer.

On the other hand, some felling will inevitably still be licensed even though operations will adversely affect individual animals of a protected species through habitat loss or alteration. Although such decisions may be unpopular with local people, it is common for wildlife management strategies to focus on population level conservation targets rather than at the individual animal level.

I believe an amendment to the Forestry Act is overdue. Regulatory change will empower authorities with the legal tools to achieve a better balance between often competing forest management objectives. It will benefit wildlife and the UK timber industry too.

The Conversation

Craig Shuttleworth currently works in the Red Squirrels United project EU LIFE14 NAT/UK/000467. He is an advisor to European Squirrel Initiative, Red Squirrels Survival Trust and the Zoological Society of Wales. He is urging Government to amend the 1967 Forestry Act.

Chemsex and PrEP reliance are fuelling a rise in syphilis among men who have sex with men

Author: Simon Bishop, Lecturer in Public Health and Primary Care, Bangor University

Men who practice chemsex are far more likely to not use a condom.nito/Shutterstock

No one is entirely sure about the origins of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. The first recorded outbreak in Europe appeared during the 1495 invasion of Naples, where it led to widespread disease and death, particularly among troops on the French side. Later, disbanded armies helped to spread syphilis, the “great pox”, across Europe, where the disease rapidly became endemic.

Transmitted from person-to-person primarily through sexual contact, the first symptom of syphilis to appear is usually a small, round and painless skin ulcer, referred to as a canker, at the site of infection. This canker will eventually heal and disappear but the bacteria remain, circulating in the blood and potentially leading to severe health consequences, including heart disease, dementia and blindness.

Over the centuries many attempts have been made to treat the disease, ranging from superstitious but generally harmless folk medicine, through to the potentially more effective but dangerous use of mercury and arsenic compounds. However, the discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming changed everything. For the first time the disease became not only treatable but curable. In response to this drug, and increased use of condoms as part of the fight against the emerging threat of HIV, cases of syphilis fell dramatically. By the 1980s the disease was virtually eradicated from the UK.

Unfortunately, this situation was shortlived and syphilis is back and spreading quickly. The UK is now seeing thousands of new cases of the disease every year, rising by 148% since 2008 in England alone. However, what makes the resurgence of syphilis somewhat different this time is that the vast majority of these new cases are being found among men who have sex with men (MSM).

Syphilis’s rapid comeback is ringing alarm bells in the medical

There are a number of factors that may help to explain why the current syphilis epidemic is disproportionately affecting MSM. The growing use of Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs used to prevent the transmission of HIV, has proved to be a very effective tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS among homosexual and bisexual men. However, rather than being used alongside condoms as a second line of defence, these drugs are increasingly being used alone as a condom substitute. While this may be sufficient to prevent the transmission of HIV, the removal of the physical barrier provided by condoms means that other STIs, including syphilis, are still easily transmitted from person to person.

A second factor – blamed by the European Commission for the rising trend – is the growing phenomenon of chemsex. Chemsex refers to the use of recreational drugs, such as crystal meth, during sexual encounters between individuals or in group gatherings. Intended to enhance the sexual experience, evidence suggests that such drug use lowers inhibitions and tends to reduce the likelihood of condom use. For the same reason as an over-reliance on PrEP, failure to consistently use condoms places people at a substantial risk of acquiring STIs like syphilis.

Read more: Chemsex exemplifies much wider issues with drugs and sexual consent

The apparent riskiness of this behaviour is exacerbated further by just how common it appears to be. The 2014 Positive Voices survey found that roughly 30% of HIV-positive gay men in England and Wales said they had taken part in chemsex during the previous year. And that men who practised chemsex were far more likely to engage in anal sex without using a condom. Four years on there is little doubt that practices such as these are fuelling much of the syphilis transmission that we are currently seeing among MSMs.

While rates of syphilis are currently still low compared to other STIs – such as chlamydia, which is currently responsible for around 48% of all new STI diagnoses– the disease’s rapid resurgence has started to ring alarm bells throughout the medical community. Although no longer the terror of the sexually active – a role now occupied by HIV – syphilis is unfortunately too often viewed as being of only minor importance because it is so easily cured. Yet, while the disease still responds well to penicillin there remains the very real risk that it will eventually become resistant to that antibiotic.

Some strains of syphilis have already developed drug resistance to another antibiotic, azithromycin. If the number of cases of syphilis continues to rise, and if penicillin remains the first line of treatment, then there is little doubt that at some point resistance to this drug will appear and then spread. Only by reinforcing the need to use condoms in all casual sexual encounters, and through emphasising the potential hazards associated with chemsex, may syphilis once again be consigned to history.

The Conversation

Simon Bishop does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

What planet Earth might look like when the next supercontinent forms – four scenarios

Author: Mattias Green, Reader in Physical Oceanography, Bangor UniversityHannah Sophia Davies, PhD Researcher, Universidade de Lisboa Joao C. Duarte, Researcher and Coordinator of the Marine Geology and Geophysics Group, Universidade de Lisboa

Planet Earth.Triff/Shutterstock

The outer layer of the Earth, the solid crust we walk on, is made up of broken pieces, much like the shell of a broken egg. These pieces, the tectontic plates, move around the planet at speeds of a few centimetres per year. Every so often they come together and combine into a supercontinent, which remains for a few hundred million years before breaking up. The plates then disperse or scatter and move away from each other, until they eventually – after another 400-600 million years – come back together again.

The last supercontinent, Pangea, formed around 310 million years ago, and started breaking up around 180 million years ago. It has been suggested that the next supercontinent will form in 200-250 million years, so we are currently about halfway through the scattered phase of the current supercontinent cycle. The question is: how will the next supercontinent form, and why?

There are four fundamental scenarios for the formation of the next supercontinent: Novopangea, Pangea Ultima, Aurica and Amasia. How each forms depends on different scenarios but ultimately are linked to how Pangea separated, and how the world’s continents are still moving today.

The breakup of Pangea led to the formation of the Atlantic ocean, which is still opening and getting wider today. Consequently, the Pacific ocean is closing and getting narrower. The Pacific is home to a ring of subduction zones along its edges (the “ring of fire”), where ocean floor is brought down, or subducted, under continental plates and into the Earth’s interior. There, the old ocean floor is recycled and can go into volcanic plumes. The Atlantic, by contrast, has a large ocean ridge producing new ocean plate, but is only home to two subduction zones: the Lesser Antilles Arc in the Caribbean and the Scotia Arc between South America and Antarctica.

1. Novopangea

If we assume that present day conditions persist, so that the Atlantic continues to open and the Pacific keeps closing, we have a scenario where the next supercontinent forms in the antipodes of Pangea. The Americas would collide with the northward drifting Antarctica, and then into the already collided Africa-Eurasia. The supercontinent that would then form has been named Novopangea, or Novopangaea.

Novopangea.Author provided

2. Pangea Ultima

The Atlantic opening may, however, slow down and actually start closing in the future. The two small arcs of subduction in the Atlantic could potentially spread all along the east coasts of the Americas, leading to a reforming of Pangea as the Americas, Europe and Africa are brought back together into a supercontinent called Pangea Ultima. This new supercontinent would be surrounded by a super Pacific Ocean.

Pangea Ultima, formed by the Atlantic closing.Author provided

3. Aurica

However, if the Atlantic was to develop new subduction zones – something that may already be happening– both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans may be fated to close. This means that a a new ocean basin would have to form to replace them.

In this scenario the Pan-Asian rift currently cutting through Asia from west of India up to the Arctic opens to form the new ocean. The result is the formation of the supercontinent Aurica. Because of Australia’s current northwards drift it would be at the centre of the new continent as East Asia and the Americas close the Pacific from either side. The European and African plates would then rejoin the Americas as the Atlantic closes.

4. Amasia

The fourth scenario predicts a completely different fate for future Earth. Several of the tectonic plates are currently moving north, including both Africa and Australia. This drift is believed to be driven by anomalies left by Pangea, deep in the Earth’s interior, in the part called the mantle. Because of this northern drift, one can envisage a scenario where the continents, except Antarctica, keep drifting north. This means that they would eventually gather around the North Pole in a supercontinent called Amasia. In this scenario, both the Atlantic and the Pacific would mostly remain open.

Amasia, the fourth scenario.Author provided

Of these four scenarios we believe that Novopangea is the most likely. It is a logical progression of present day continental plate drift directions, while the other three assume that another process comes into play. There would need to be new Atlantic subduction zones for Aurica, the reversal of the Atlantic opening for Pangea Ultima, or anomalies in the Earth’s interior left by Pangea for Amasia.

Investigating the Earth’s tectonic future forces us to push the boundaries of our knowledge, and to think about the processes that shape our planet over long time scales. It also leads us to think about the Earth system as a whole, and raises a series of other questions – what will the climate of the next supercontinent be? How will the ocean circulation adjust? How will life evolve and adapt? These are the kind of questions that push the boundaries of science further because they push the boundaries of our imagination.

The Conversation

Mattias Green receives funding from the Natural Enviornmental Research Council.

Hannah Davies receives funding from the Portuguese science foundation - FCT

Joao C. Duarte receives funding from the Portuguese Science Foundation - FCT.