Issue 215 25-31 January 2013
In This Issue
Cats and conservation
Some say he's gone too far, but no one can claim economist Gareth Morgan's Cats to Go campaign failed to stir up debate.
The campaign website, launched this week, provides information about the impact of cats on native wildlife and encourages cat owners to take measures to minimise the potential harm their pets can cause - such as placing bells on cats collars and not replacing pet cats once they die.
But many have criticised its approach as unnecessarily antagonistic. Indeed, it is hard to believe that some of the imagery and language on the site wasn't deliberately chosen to raise the hackles of cat lovers.
"That little ball of fluff you own is a natural born killer," warns the site. "Every year cats in New Zealand destroy our native wildlife. The fact is that cats have to go if we really care about our environment."
The tactic has left some cat advocates
enraged and generated international media coverage,
leading to the site receiving 40,000 visitors in the last 2
An opinion piece from Morgan -- 'Killing people's pets? That's not what I said' -- was published on the NZ Herald site this morning, attempting to refocus the "frantic debate" on birds and biodiversity.
Side-stepping the pro- and anti-cat rhetoric, the Science Media Centre approached experts for a research-based perspective on cats' impact on native wildlife.
Dr Yolanda van Heezik, University of Otago, supported the core message of the campaign, saying,
"I suspect that most people have never given the issue much thought, or they think that the one or two birds caught by their own cat makes no difference. People need to consider that cats exists across cities at a density of about 225 per sq km, and that even though individual cats may catch few birds, cumulatively the total of birds killed is large. "
John McInnes, from Landcare Research, also appreciated the need for control of cats, but warned of unintended consequences if other predators are not simultaneously targeted. He notes,"The research to clarify whether the negative effects of cats on these fauna outweighs the positive effects of their predation on ship rats, Norway rats and mice has not been done...
"When cats, ferrets and
hedgehogs were targeted in Mackenzie Basin braided rivers,
possums and Norway rats then ate the black-fronted terns."
More expert commentary and a round up of media coverage can be found on the Science Media Centre website.
On the science radar...
Squid love, 'Alien' skulls in Mexico, asteroid mining, dung beetle astronomers and the link between lightning bolts and migraines.
Science Media SAVVY returns
Announcing new dates for the SMC's popular media training workshop for scientists: 14 - 15 March in Auckland.
Highlights of the workshops
• Newsroom tour
• Q&A with panel of broadcast and print journalists
• Practical tips to increase your confidence with media
• Advice on handling controversy, uncertainty and risk
• On-camera interview practice and feedback
• 'Pitch your story' session to local and national media - put your new skills straight to the test
Places are limited to 12 participants.
UPDATE: One lucky post-graduate student will have full course fees covered by a scholarship provided by 2011 PM's Science Media Communication Prize winner Dr Mark Quigley. See the application form for more details.
Active researchers and scientists (at any stage of their career) are invited to apply before the closing date: Friday 8 February at 6 PM.
Naming all life on Earth: possible
Naming ALL animal and plant species on the planet is a realistic goal, claim researchers who estimate that all life could be catalogued by the end of the century.
In a review published in Science, Associate Professor Mark Costello, from The University of Auckland, and colleagues rebuff pessimistic suggestions that discovering all of the world's species is impossible.
They estimate that the number of species on Earth today is 2-8 million (whereas some estimates place this number as high as 100 million) and that 1.5 million are already named. They go on to note that species are not disappearing as fast as previous extinction rate estimates assume.
"Over-estimates of the number of species on Earth are self-defeating because they can make attempts to discover and conserve biodiversity appear to be hopeless," said Dr Costello in a media release. "Our work suggests that this is far from the case. We believe that with just a modest increase in effort in taxonomy and conservation, most species could be discovered and protected from extinction."
The effort to name all life won't come cheap though, the authors give an expected cost of US$0.5 to $1 billion per year to increase the global taxonomic effort and describe all species within 50 years.
You can read further media coverage of Dr Costello's review on the Science Media Centre website.
Heading off somewhere
Scientists, are you departing on voyage of exploration?
Conducting field research in an exotic locale? Or running a fascinating project in your own backyard?
Sciblogs is soon to launch a new 'Field Work' blog, featuring real-time write-ups and photos from scientists on expedition to far-flung places, as well as closer to home, as we round out the field research season.
"It's fairly obvious that Morgan's website, with its strange anthropomorphism, was designed to draw headlines and 'start conversations'.
"But what hope is there for
environmentalists in a conversation where our side wants to
take people's kittens away?"
- Dr David Winters (The Atavism Blog) reflects on the Cats to Go campaign.
New from the SMC
Cats to go: A campaign launched by economist Gareth Morgan to raise awareness about the impact of cats on native wildlife has elicited a range of opinions, but what does the evidence say?
Melamine leaching: Taiwanese research has shown that small amounts of the plastic resin melamine may transfer from table ware in to food, but experts are uncertain of the health impact.
Cats and conservation: The Cats To Go campaign has generated numerous news articles (sporting some cat-astrophic puns).
Get 'em all: A New Zealand biologist and colleagues estimate that all plant and animal life could be catalogued in this century.
Making science work: Listen to Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and President of the UK Royal Society, discuss pitfalls and opportunities for how scientific research is funded and undertaken.
Morgan on cats: Gareth Morgan addresses some of criticism directed at his cat campaigns in an opinion piece for the NZ Herald.
Some of the highlights from this week's
Cats to Go - Gareth Morgan's campaign on cats has garnered the attention of both David Winter and Wayne Linklater who have blogged about the impact of cats on conservation.
The Atavism & PolitEcol Science
Can Obama turn rhetoric into action on
climate change? - Peter Griffin bears the
freezing US winter to see Obama's Inauguration speech in
person and muses on whether the words will translate to
Test your Science Literacy
Skills - Know your way around science and
scientific thinking? Take Darcy Cowan's online science
literacy quiz, developed from recently published skills
Cloning neandertals - can we? should we? is
A little incredulity can go a long way, writes Alison Campbell, reflecting on a science story that got lost in translation and blown out of proportion.
A plea to fund a drug - There's
more to drug funding than just sympathy, writes John
Pickering as he dissects a media campaign pushing for
Pharmac to approve a drug.
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Multitaskers deluded: Most
people believe they can multitask effectively, but a new
study indicates that people who multitask the most -
including talking on a cell phone while driving - are least
capable of doing so. The study surveyed over 300 students on
their perceived multitasking ability before putting them
through a battery of tests to see they really were as good
as they thought.
bites: Previous studies have shown that taking
smaller bites helps people eat less. Other research has also
shown that people tend to eat larger meals if eating while
distracted. Now a study has examined the interaction of
these effects by controlling mouthful size in an eating
experiment where participants were distracted by a film.
The authors found that people who ate pre-specified 'small'
bites of food consumed about 30% less of their meal than
those who had to consume 'large' bites, or had no eating
control long game: The 1970 Stanford marshmallow experiment was
famous for showing that children who are able delay
gratification were more likely to have better outcomes later
in life. Now a brain scanning study of some most patient and
impatient participants (now adults) from the original study
shows that there are observable differences between the two
groups in terms of neural signatures of self
for car accidents: Analysis of US traffic collision
data has revealed that the risk of death increases with the
level of driver obesity. In crashes, the most obese drivers
were 80% more likely to die than drivers of normal weight.
While the authors recognise that obese drivers may have more
underlying health issues, they note that car ergonomics may
also play a role and suggest that car designs may need to
change to accommodate larger drivers
Emergency Medicine Journal
Storing data on
DNA: New research has demonstrated how a variety of
information (including Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream'
speech and all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets), can be stored
in synthetic DNA. The authors, who have previously
highlighted this possibility, predict that DNA-based
information storage is to become cost-effective for
long-term, low-access archives within a
Some of the policy highlights from this week:
Callaghan Innovation board: Science and Innovation Minister Hon Steven Joyce has announced the eight-member board to lead the new Crown entity Callaghan Innovation.
Cabinet reshuffle: Prime Minister John Key this week announced a series of changes to Cabinet, replacing minsters for several portfolios including Conservation, Energy and Resources, Food Safety and Primary Industries.
Upcoming sci-tech events
• What's the matter? - Solids, Liquids and Gases Summer Science Show - 26 & 27 January, Wellington.
• Official launch of Callaghan Innovation - 1 February
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.