Older Forests Have Irreplaceable Value for Conservation, Study Finds

There’s been a lot of wildlife losses over the past several decades and a tenth of the wilderness has disappeared since the 1990s. This research on forests and birds is a reminder that that there’s still much that needs to be done to get human activities on a better track.

Old, complex tropical forests support a wider diversity of birds than second-growth forests and have irreplaceable value for conservation, according to an Oregon State University-led exhaustive analysis of bird diversity in the mountains of southern Costa Rica.

During their surveys, researchers found similar numbers of bird species in secondary stands compared to stands comprised entirely or in part of old-growth forest. However, the bird community in secondary forest was clearly shifted towards non-forest species, and only old-growth forest stands tended to include rare birds and to benefit biodiversity across the entire landscape. Scientists reported their results this week in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

The findings are important because in some cases, conservation programs have focused on the potential benefits of secondary forests. Although secondary forests do have value for conservation, the study suggests that primary forests are necessary as sources of biodiversity and as a refuge for species that can colonize other sites that are being restored. Thus, these results suggest that a strategy focussing only on second-growth forests may not benefit conservation-relevant species. Indeed, such stands tend to support only a few common species that can survive in highly disturbed areas.

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Effective conservation efforts should include maintenance of large old-growth forest tracts, the scientists wrote, and insure that human activities in the forest do not drive away species that depend on such areas. The results also suggest that restoring forests is likely to be most effective for forest birds if such efforts are performed in the vicinity of primary forest. This is likely because primary forest will provide a source for forest birds that may colonize the restored forest. Relying on secondary forests alone may create “potentially misleading expectations,” researchers wrote, that landscapes significantly modified by people can still accomplish conservation goals.

Biodiversity Losses Increase Risks of Domino Effect of Further Extinctions

This phenomenon is referred to as an “extinction cascade.”

New research shows that the loss of biodiversity can increase the risk of “extinction cascades,” where an initial species loss leads to a domino effect of further extinctions.

The researchers, from the University of Exeter, showed there is a higher risk of extinction cascades when other species are not present to fill the “gap” created by the loss of a species.

Even if the loss of one species does not directly cause knock-on extinctions, the study shows that this leads to simpler ecological communities that are at greater risk of “run-away extinction cascades” with the potential loss of many species.

With extinction rates at their highest levels ever and numerous species under threat due to human activity, the findings are a further warning about the consequences of eroding biodiversity.

“Interactions between species are important for ecosystem (a community of interacting species) stability,” said Dr Dirk Sanders, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall. “And because species are interconnected through multiple interactions, an impact on one species can affect others as well.

“It has been predicted that more complex food webs will be less vulnerable to extinction cascades because there is a greater chance that other species can step in and buffer against the effects of species loss.

“In our experiment, we used communities of plants and insects to test this prediction.”

The researchers removed one species of wasp and found that it led to secondary extinctions of other, indirectly linked, species at the same level of the food web.

This effect was much stronger in simple communities than for the same species within a more complex food web.

Dr Sanders added: “Our results demonstrate that biodiversity loss can increase the vulnerability of ecosystems to secondary extinctions which, when they occur, can then lead to further simplification causing run-away extinction cascades.”

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The loss of a predator can initiate a cascade, such as in the case of wolves, where their extinction on one mountain can cause a large rise in the number of deer. This larger number of deer then eats more plant material than they would have before. This reduction in vegetation can cause extinctions in any species that also relies on the plants, but are potentially less competitive, such as rabbits or insects.

Add this research to one of the many reasons why rigorously addressing climate change — which can destabilize environments — is of paramount importance.

U.S. Consumer Debt at Record Levels

In around the last decade in the U.S., there has been a particular theft of wages into a conversion of corporate profits. From about 1977 to 2007, the main story of income inequality there was upwards redistribution (theft) of income directly to higher-income professions. (See chapter 2 of the book Rigged for further data.) If wages hadn’t been largely stagnant over the last four decades (among other policy failures) for many workers, there wouldn’t be consumer debt of this magnitude. This is because stagnant wages and rising costs (such as U.S. university) force many to borrow more than they’d otherwise have to with higher incomes.

Also, $193 billion is a lot of money, and the reporting would be better if it and other figures were expressed in terms that most people could understand more easily. An increase of household debt by $193 billion is an increase of about $1529 per U.S. household.

Total household debt rose by $193 billion to an all-time high of $13.15 trillion at year-end 2017 from the previous quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data report released Tuesday.

Mortgage debt balances rose the most in the December quarter rising by $139 billion to $8.88 trillion from the previous quarter. Credit card debt had the second largest increase of $26 billion to a total of $834 billion.

The report said it was fifth consecutive year of annual household debt growth with increases in the mortgage, student, auto and credit card categories.

Alzheimer’s Reversed in Mouse Model

It’s certainly a promising development in this area.

A team of researchers from the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute have found that gradually depleting an enzyme called BACE1 completely reverses the formation of amyloid plaques in the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s disease, thereby improving the animals’ cognitive function. The study, which will be published February 14 in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, raises hopes that drugs targeting this enzyme will be able to successfully treat Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

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“To our knowledge, this is the first observation of such a dramatic reversal of amyloid deposition in any study of Alzheimer’s disease mouse models,” says Yan, who will be moving to become chair of the department of neuroscience at the University of Connecticut this spring.

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“Our study provides genetic evidence that preformed amyloid deposition can be completely reversed after sequential and increased deletion of BACE1 in the adult,” says Yan. “Our data show that BACE1 inhibitors have the potential to treat Alzheimer’s disease patients without unwanted toxicity. Future studies should develop strategies to minimize the synaptic impairments arising from significant inhibition of BACE1 to achieve maximal and optimal benefits for Alzheimer’s patients.”

U.S. to Spend Billions on Nuclear Bombs That are a Security Liability

Nuclear weapons — the ongoing existential threat to humanity.

The US is to spend billions of dollars upgrading 150 nuclear bombs positioned in Europe, although the weapons may be useless as a deterrent and a potentially catastrophic security liability, according to a new report by arms experts.

A third of the B61 bombs in Europe under joint US and Nato control are thought to be kept at Incirlik base in Turkey, 70 miles from the Syrian border, which has been the subject of serious concerns.

The threat to the base posed by Islamic State militants was considered serious enough in March 2016 to evacuate the families of military officers.

During a coup attempt four months later, Turkish authorities locked down the base and cut its electricity. The Turkish commanding officer at Incirlik was arrested for his alleged role in the plot.

A report on the future of the B61 bombs by arms control advocacy group the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) , made available to the Guardian, said the 2016 events show “just how quickly assumptions about the safety and security of US nuclear weapons stored abroad can change”.

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However, the NTI report argues they are also serious liabilities, because of the threat of terrorism or accident, and because they could become targets in the early stages of any conflict with Russia.

“Forward-deployed US nuclear weapons in Europe increase the risk of accidents, blunders, or catastrophic terrorism and invite pre-emption. Given these added risks, it is past time to revisit whether these forward-based weapons are essential for military deterrence and political reassurance,” the Obama administration energy secretary Ernest Moniz and the former Democratic senator Sam Nunn, both NTI co-chairmen, argue in the preface to the report.

Flawed NYT Article on Inequality

I definitely don’t agree with all of the analysis in this NYT article, but there are some interesting takeaways from it. The article only mentions political democracy and completely avoids any mention of economic democracy. This is an important point, as a strong political democracy requires a strong economic democracy. I know how counter that truth runs to the standard doctrine of the corporate propaganda system, but it needs to be said.

It’s also particularly jarring that the article assumes the U.S. is a democracy — in reality the country has dysfunctional democratic structures (see gerrymandering, the typical top-down structure of corporations, and voter suppression) and is better described as a plutocracy.

Most recently, Thomas Piketty, a French economist who is the author of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” has come up with a straightforward answer: Traditional parties of the left no longer represent the working and lower middle classes.

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There are those who would like to accept inequality and focus exclusively on issues like gender equality and anti-racism. I would never minimize the importance of combating gender inequality or racism/nativism, but if that means ignoring the policies that have led to the enormous inequality we now see, that is not a serious progressive agenda.

The Common Drug That Can Prevent Type 1 Diabetes

This should help millions of people since diabetes still doesn’t have a cure. It’s nice to see that people at risk for this disease now have the potential to prevent it with medication.

There’s new hope for stopping Type 1 diabetes in its tracks after researchers discovered an existing drug can prevent the condition from developing – and the same techniques used here could also be applied to other diseases.

The drug in question is methyldopa, currently on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential drugs having been used for more than 50 years to treat high blood pressure in pregnant women and children.

By running an analysis of thousands of drugs through a supercomputer, the team of researchers was able to pinpoint methyldopa as a drug able to block the DQ8 molecule. The antigen is found in a proportion of the population and has been implemented in auto immune responses.

It appears in some 60 percent of people at risk from developing Type 1 diabetes.

“This is the first personalised treatment for Type 1 diabetes prevention,” says one of the team, Aaron Michels from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “This is very significant development.”

Based on the supercomputer calculations, the scientists found that methyldopa not only blocked the binding of DQ8 but didn’t harm the immune functions of other cells, which is often the case with drugs that interfere with the body’s immune system.

Overall, the research covered a period of 10 years – after the supercomputer analysis, the drug was tested in mice and in 20 patients with Type 1 diabetes through a clinical trial. The new drug is taken orally, three times a day.

While it’s not a full cure (work on that continues), methyldopa could help delay, or even limit the onset of Type 1 diabetes – a disease that currently starts mostly in childhood.

“We can now predict with almost 100 percent accuracy who is likely to get Type 1 diabetes,” says Michels. “The goal with this drug is to delay or prevent the onset of the disease among those at risk.”

That 100 percent prediction rate is made possible by looking at a variety of genetic and biological markers, including autoantibodies in the blood. Those at risk could now be put on a course of treatment to ward of the development of diabetes.

With diagnosed cases of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes on the rise in the United States – and the Type 1 condition believed to affect around 1.25 million people in the US alone – such treatments could make a huge difference.

Accounting for about 5-10 percent of people with diabetes, Type 1 involves the body’s own immune system attacking the pancreas, stopping the production of insulin and hampering the absorption of glucose and the production of energy.

In Type 2 diabetes, the body can’t process the insulin it does make properly.

Methyldopa is far from the first drug to show benefits in treating health issues other than the ones it was first designed for, but we now have better ways to spot these extra powers: this idea of identifying certain molecules and then applying modern-day computing power to find drugs that block them could work in other situations too.

“This study has significant implications for treatment of diabetes and also other autoimmune diseases,” says one of the researchers, David Ostrov from the University of Florida.

“This study suggests that the same approach may be adapted to prevent autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus and others.”

The research has been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.