If you want to help a mammoth, buy them flowers….

By Charlie Whittaker

Mammoths have been in the news a lot lately, predominantly due to the recent discovery of a particularly well preserved specimen. There was talk of good condition blood being found, perhaps facilitating the extraction of DNA and the generation of new, 21st century edition woollies.

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A gift for a discerning mammoth?
Credit Jamiesrabbits

But how did they die out in the first place? Everything from climate change, to comet impact, through to human based overhunting have been bandied as reasons for the loss of the majestic mammoth from the face of the earth. But a new study suggests the answer may be a little more mundane than that.

I am, of course, talking about a grass invasion. Anti-climax I know, but consider this: the primary staple of mammoths and other “megafauna” found in that region of the world at the time were broad leafed, flowering plants called “forbs”. This is a diverse family, including tansies and yarrow, and would have represented a key source of protein for the animals.

This all changed about 10,000 years ago: the composition of the flora inhabiting the Arctic shifted substantially, becoming dominated by grasses.

Past studies have failed to pick up this shift, due to their reliance upon pollen analysis. An exceptionally useful marker of flora presence, fossilised pollen found in permafrost or frozen soil can paint a vivid picture of the diversity and makeup of the vegetation inhabiting a region at a given time. This picture can be skewed however, particularly in the case of grasses, which produce huge amounts of pollen and therefore bias the picture of the landscape painted.

This study looked at plant genetic material found in numerous permafrost samples, as well as analysing the DNA found in the guts of fossilised faeces of 8 animals (4 wooly mammoths, 2 wooly rhinoceroses, 1 bison and a horse) that lived in the Arctic during that period.

All of this showed the forbs to be a stable in the diet of these animals: rich in protein and other nutrients, their continued perseverance in the Arctic landscape is thought to have been essential to continued survival of the animals there.

When these disappeared, 10-15,000 years ago, being replaced with comparatively non-nutritious grasses, the animals there were deprived of a staple foodstuff. This is thought to have massively hastened their extinction.

So, if we do eventually resurrect any woolly mammoths, and you want to be kind, then get on their good side and buy them flowers!

Read the full study here.

Job: Righteous Sufferer or Eco-Warrior?

By Tom Pryce

Approaching a stranger – with no particular Biblical expertise – on the street, asking what the Bible says concerning the natural world, one can anticipate the answer. Having been given the supreme position at the start of the canon, Genesis 1-3 comes to the forefront of their memory. It reminds them of God’s creation in 7 days and that terribly slippery notion of humanity’s ‘dominion’ over the planet. And yet – foregoing the heated debates regarding its place in ancient Israelite faith – creation plays a significant role elsewhere, in oft-neglected corners of the Hebrew Bible. Such passages offer a counter balance to the divinely ordained environmental exploitation committed under the banner of ‘dominion’. They provide a deeper understanding of what it really meant when God made humanity stewards over creation.

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Léon Bonnat’s “Job”

The beautifully constructed divine speeches of Job 38-41 are one such text. After 37 chapters of bitter complaints from the righteous sufferer Job, God bursts onto the scene, speaking from the whirlwind. Belittling rhetorical questions challenge Job’s misguided presuppositions: it is God, not Job, who is the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator and carer for creation. Further, God’s role extends far beyond the individual cares and well-being of Job, or of humanity in general. God cares for the wild ass, beyond human control. God cares for where no humans inhabit, causing rain to fall in an otherwise barren desert. God cares even for the Leviathan, the great Biblical emblem of the chaos that constantly threatens the natural and social order; described by God as a play-mate in the oceans, what to humans is the destructive ‘other’ is to God a rubber duck in the bath.

These speeches are often interpreted as a heartless God, apathetic to Job’s misery, challenging the petty human’s anthropocentrism. I believe something much subtler is going on. In the existential crisis preserved in these passages, Job’s anthropocentrism is challenged, yes. But this induces a tragic sublimity in the fullest sense: with his self-understanding decentred, and his perceptions of the created order shown to be misguided, the rug has been pulled from beneath Job’s feet. God, however, does not do this in a cruel manner, revelling in Job’s suffering. Destroying the categories through which Job understands the world, God intends to elicit self-knowledge from Job. Challenging him to reach a fuller understanding of himself, the tragic sublime knocks Job down, so as to then elevate him to new insight. Job  is challenged by God to a new understanding of what it means to be a steward over creation. Being created in the God’s image, the description of divine providence serves as a reminder to Job of his responsibilities.

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Julius Schnorr von Carosfeld’s “Creation (Day Seven)”

Job is forced to appreciate that ruling over creation does not mean, or even allow, the creation of a hedonistic paradise where all creatures – or at least humans – may have their inner-most desires perpetually satisfied. Instead, it requires care for all of the creatures which inhabit the earth, even if this care requires the self-sacrifice of some. Providence over creation requires that some creatures may suffer, to allow for the general well being of the created whole. This even requires that God allows the eagle prey on the fallen human soldier, so as to feed the young waiting in the nest. God challenges Job to appreciate the nature of divine providence. In doing so God elicits a new self-understanding of Job, who can recognize what his role as the imago deo truly requires of him.

If one were to ask Job – after his dialogue with God – what the Bible has to say about the natural world, I believe that the answer would be quite contrary to that of the stranger on the street. Rather than dominion, I believe the righteous Job would call for responsible stewardship over creation. I believe Job would recognize the value and care which humans, as stewards, should have for creation, even if this is sometimes to the detriment of their personal desires. I believe Job would understand the full sense of what the stewardship given by God to humanity in Genesis 1-3 really calls for.

Defusing the Biosphere: Plants, Explosives and Contaminated Battlefields

by Charlie Whittaker

Toxins and pollutants that are the by-products of industrial processes are one of the most serious environmental issues of the 21st century. They render land uninhabitable, pollute both water supplies and the atmosphere, and can cause a variety of costly and debilitating illnesses along with it. Removing these pollutants, from wherever it may be they accumulate, is usually a very costly and time intensive affair. Most processes rely on physical destruction of the matter they have contaminated. However, a great deal of work is going in to providing other avenues of opportunity for decontamination. One of these is phytoremediation.

Phytoremediation involves using plants to solve these very problems. In doing so, decontamination can be achieved without any need to excavate and transport contaminated material: the entire process of detoxification can be done on site, preventing irreversible destruction of the environment that can occur with other methods as well as reducing cost.

Phytoremediation is not a new idea, and many plants have already been utilised to remove toxic contaminants from the soil. Alpine pennygrass has been in use for a long time due to its ability to hyperaccumulate the poisonous metal cadmium. However, a new direction in the field is to utilise metabolic pathways found in other organisms, and then genetically engineer them into plants, with the potential to vastly increase the types of toxins plants can deal with.

RDX

RDX is a nitroamine based explosive widely used in both military and industrial application and which is far more powerful than TNT. First used during World War II, RDX is still used in the bulk of explosives employed today. Extensive military activity involving RDX over long periods of time has resulted in widespread and severe contamination of the soil with the material. This contamination affects both the land used during the military exercises, but also more concerningly, the groundwater contained beneath it. RDX is toxic; thus, this represents a substantial safety issue.

Natural degradation rates of RDX in the environment are low, and the strategies currently employed (such as incineration and composting of the soil) are incredibly expensive. However, nature has one trick up its sleeve. A number of different bacterial species were found that possessed metabolic pathways resilient enough to process and decontaminate the RDX molecules, rendering them harmless and providing the bacteria with a source of energy.

Credit: Alberto Salguero Quiles

Taking advantage of this, one group of scientists engineered the protein, called XplA/B, responsible for RDX degradation in bacteria, into the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. The plants were transformed, and demonstrated an incredible ability to grow in soils so concentrated in RDX to have killed plants not possessing the protein. The plants were able to take up these toxic explosives, and store them safely.

Ongoing work is looking at introducing these modified plants into decommissioned military operation sites. At the moment the concentrations of RDX in the soil are so high as to have killed off most if not all of the native species present there, as well as rendering the land uninhabitable. The hope is that, through the use of these plants, effective phytoremediation can occur, and the explosives can be removed from the soil.

This article originally appeared in Varsity

Alien invaders or peaceful co-existors? The matter of non-native species in Britain

By Lilian Halstead

With the world becoming ever more connected, people are not the only things taking advantage of planes and boats to get around. Plant species are constantly being introduced, intentionally or otherwise, into places far outside their original range. The term ‘invasive species’ is sometimes used to refer to any of these non-native species. However, it more usually refers to species that are not native to the country they are growing in but that are able to propagate of their own accord and cause both environmental and economic problems. Not all species that aren’t native are invasive: in fact, it is estimated that out of all the new species arriving by human influence, only ten percent of those will survive in their new environment, and only ten percent of those will go on to have any measurable impact. But if you think of the number of plant species in gardens across the UK, that’s still a substantial number.

BeechAttribMost invasive plants in Britain start off as garden plants that spread to the wild either by releasing seeds or through being dumped as garden waste. Surprisingly, many invasive species are still being sold as garden plants despite their known detrimental effects on biodiversity. Parrot’s Feather is a water plant often sold as an oxygenator for ponds that forms thick mats of vegetation, blocking out light and choking waterways so much that they dramatically increase the risk of flooding. Ironically, Japanese Knotweed, now a notorious invasive species that would cost over £1.5 billion to eliminate from the UK, won a gold medal for being “the most interesting new ornamental plant of the year” when it was first introduced.

So introducing species for gardens can lead to invasive species escaping and causing ecological damage by forming monocultures that shade everything else out, and economic impacts such as exacerbating flooding or growing through tarmac. For this reason there are many schemes that act to monitor the species introduced to see if they become a problem and to hopefully prevent them from doing so in the first place.

But given Britain’s geological past, deciding what is native and what is not is a lot harder than it first appears. Many European species either did not make it into Britain before the English Channel cut Britain off, or went extinct soon afterwards, and humans then subsequently introduced many of them. Species that were introduced by humans a long time ago are known as archeophytes, and one such plant is beech, which was probably introduced 2000 years ago because the nuts are edible. For many species it is hard to tell whether they were there to start with or whether they were introduced. For species that were here once but went extinct before humans arrived, and which were then subsequently reintroduced, it’s not clear whether they should be counted as native or not.

KnotweedAttribIn addition to this, it has to be remembered that ecosystems are not static – succession and evolution are constantly changing the species composition, so trying to exclude species to keep things as they are is sometimes in the best interests of biodiversity, but it isn’t natural. Perhaps hybrid ecosystems altered by non-natives may have their own value, if given the chance to develop properly. Especially if further flow from the source location is halted, then the non-natives may speciate to some degree, which would make them worthy of protection in their own right.

Invasive species are a threat to biodiversity and do need to be controlled if native species are to survive. But the impacts of those that are less damaging can be positive, and given that species transfer is unlikely to stop anytime soon, seeing the value of newly emerging hybrid ecosystems may be a better strategy than attempting to maintain a ‘pure’ state, especially here in Britain, where most of what we think of as natural has been heavily shaped by humanity.

For more information, check out the GB non-native species secretariat, which has a database of most of the invasive species in Britain at the moment.