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Thinking for a cooler world

Ranty Islam | Ideas

Human bowels may hold key to greening the desert

https://www.flickr.com/search/?text=toilet&sort=relevance&license=1%2C2%2C3%2C4%2C5%2C6Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring food security and fighting the spread of deserts are among the biggest challenges facing humanity. But the solution for all of them may literally lie inside humans – as we hope to show in this bog post -pardon – blog post. Human waste has traditionally been used in some parts of the Amazon to create  Terra Preta – black soil rich in nutrients – the result of mixing charcoal and human faeces into otherwise less fertile soil.

This super-rich black soil captures carbon dioxide, stores amazing amounts of water and sticks around for hundreds of years. And, yes, it also works with other types of waste (watch our report about how this works in India). In short: Terra Preta may be a potential one-stop shop for creating sustainable habitats – even in outer space. A bunch of filmmakers thinks that the human colon may help colonize Mars or operate space stations in the future. Here’s the trailer for their complete Terra Preta sales pitch:

Not convinced? Well, to learn more you may have to wait: the makers of the documentary are running a bit low on cash to complete post-production. To help fill their coffers go here.

Date

May 16, 2014

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Klaus Esterluß | Biodiversity & ...

Lost in migration

European robin, photo credit:  © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, wikipedia.com: http://bit.ly/1qD0ThK

European robin, photo credit: © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, wikipedia.com: http://bit.ly/1qD0ThK

We all are creating electromagnetic noise, literally all the time. That’s bad news for birds, a study reveals. According to the work of the University of Oldenburg, migrating birds such as the European robin may lose their way when exposed to the noise of radio signals and other electronic devices. The researchers exposed birds to background electromagnetic noises at the University’s campus which happens to be in a densely populated area with a lot of traffic. During the test the birds, which were in windowless wooden huts could not orientate themselves using their magnetic compass.

The robins’ compass relies on the magnetic field of the earth when they fly from north to south. The field is strong enough to guide birds even when inside a windowless room, if there’s no disturbing noise. To prove the results, the scientists carried out the tests again but with birds in electrically grounded, aluminum-screened huts. These huts are able to block noises between 50 kHz and 5 MHz. Guess what? The birds did not lose their navigation. And again, if the electromagnetic noise was introduced into the aluminum huts, the ability to navigate was lost. The researchers repeated the experiments during migrating seasons for seven years.

Incidentally, the test results, published in the journal Nature, did not apply for mobile phones signals, which have a different frequency.

Date

May 14, 2014

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Klaus Esterluß | Marvel with us

Fears dead whale could burst


Uncertainty and worry are plaguing a small Canadian fishing village: Earlier this week, a blue whale carcass (80-feet long) washed up at the village’s shores. The dead body bloated as it filled up with methane due to decomposition. It’s now already doubled  in size and it’s feared the carcass could explode any time. And no, it’s not funny at all as a Faroe Islands biologist could easily confirm.  In November 2013, Faroese Television showed a clip of a dead sperm whale that had been lying on the beach for two days. When biologist Bjarni Mikkelsen made incisions in the whale’s side, the carcass exploded with a loud sound and released a pungent smell. But, the story doesn’t have to end this way – the gas could also simply seep out just like helium from a rubber balloon.

Date

May 2, 2014

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Klaus Esterluß | Marvel with us

Ever hear of evolution ‘in reverse’?

How do you understand the term “evolution?” It’s synonymous with progress, development, advancement, right? But, sometimes evolution can also change direction.

Astyanax Mexicanus, a blind cavefish. Photo credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Joachim S. Müller/flickr.com: http://bit.ly/1kcBaoO

Astyanax Mexicanus, a blind cavefish. Photo credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Joachim S. Müller/flickr.com: http://bit.ly/1kcBaoO

Evolution is usually associated with developing new features to be able to adapt to environmental changes in certain regions. But, sometimes evolution can also go the other way.  Called “regressive evolution,” the phenomenon describes nothing else but advancing in evolution by losing certain abilities or traits.

Cave-dwelling species, in particular, are affected by regressive evolution. These species have originally lived above ground and later, by geological events, were trapped below the earth’s surface. A very drastic example is Astyanax mexicanus, a blind and almost colourless, transparent fish species living in Mexican caves. It has a surface-dwelling counterpart that looks very much the same, just add a silverish color and, well, eyes. Both are the same species and are able to interbreed. In fact, the cavefish have eyes as embryos, but they never become fully developed. Instead of eyes, cavefish navigate with a tool that all fish have, a sensory system. But compared to thir overground counterparts, the blind fish system is about 50 times more effective.

It’s possible to find other examples in different habitats. Cimicidae (article in german), for example, have lost their ability to fly by regressing their wings during evolution. This also applies  for lice (article in german). Snakes ran around on legs and feet a few million years ago, terrestrial vertebrates once had gills. And here’s another example we all know very well: humans. We lost our proud, ape-like tails during the process of evolution.

Do you see that as a loss? :-)

Date

April 30, 2014

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Sonia Phalnikar | Ideas

India poll workers brave wild animals to reach voters

Braving hungry crocodiles, Asiatic lions, wild elephants and traveling in camel caravans– sound like an Indiana Jones movie? It’s what some election officials in India have faced in recent days trying to do their job.

gir lion bigger This Asiatic lion, along with other wildlife, awaited an election team in the Gir forest in Gujarat (Photo credit: CC BY 2.0: Shaunak Modi)

Pulling off a parliamentary election in the world’s largest democracy is never an easy task. Apart from the mind-boggling logistics this time (814 million eligible voters; over 930,000 polling stations; nearly 6 million poll workers), India’s physical size and topographical diversity trigger an obstacle course for some poll workers. From snow-bound mountains in the northern Himalayas, the deserts of western Rajasthan, tropical jungles to tiny remote islands in the south, some poll officials have to navigate a variety of routes to ensure citizens can cast their votes. And, a few election officials have also had to brave the teeming wildlife that comes with the terrain.

One newspaper report, along with a video, detailed how election officials on the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in the Indian Ocean – home to  more than 550 islands, many of them heavily forested – recently got into canoes and undertook a three-hour journey on a river infested with  crocodiles. Their job was to get to a remote village along with their two voting machines and set up a polling booth. The mission, though harrowing, was eventually successful. But election officer, Biswajit Roy, a veteran of national polls, told the Wall Street Journal: “In all my years, this by far was the toughest.”

There were also reports of officials trudging through tropical jungles inhabited by snakes and traveling in camel caravans to reach settlements in the Thar desert in northwestern Rajasthan. Big animals were also very much on the mind of a polling team that traveled to the Gir forest in the western state of Gujarat – home to the majestic Asiatic lion – to cater to a lone voter in a hamlet there. Election rules in India say there must be a polling station within two kilometers of every residential community.

And, earlier this month, election officials in the northeastern state of Meghalaya had to contend with a herd of wild elephants that blocked the way to two polling stations. They were eventually chased away into the jungle by forest rangers.

Date

April 25, 2014

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