Hungry maggots, voracious cats & greedy planets

Biodiesel requires little or no modification to vehicle engines or fuelling infrastructure, and its greater lubricity may reduce maintenance costs.

March 22, 2007 | | Back Issues | Countryside Digest | Departments | Environment | Spring 2007

Killer Cats

“How many birds and other wildlife do domestic cats kill each year in the U.S.? Exact numbers are unknown, but scientists estimate that nationwide, cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks, each year. There are more than 90 million pet cats in the United States. A 1997 nationwide poll showed that only 35 per cent are kept exclusively indoors, leaving the majority of owned cats free to kill birds and other wildlife at least some of the time. No one knows how many homeless cats there are in the U.S., but estimates range from 60 to 100 million.” From

Old Cook’s Tales

“Is it true that pears turn red in covered copper pans lined with tin? Do you always have to whip cream in the same direction? Does the skin of suckling pigs really get more crackling when the head is cut immediately after roasting? What of the old French wisdom that mayonnaise, a delicate emulsion of oil and water, will fail when prepared by menstruating women?” No, no, yes, and no. From Martin Enserink’s profile of the French molecular gastronomist, Hervé This, in Science, Nov 24/06.

Big Sleep

“Scientists at the Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex, U.K., have coaxed sprouts from South African seeds that have lain dormant for two centuries. The seeds were collected by a Dutch merchant en route home from China in 1803. He stored 40 small packets in a notebook, which was taken when the British navy seized his vessel. The seeds, from 32 species, were rediscovered this year in the National Archives in London by a visiting Dutch researcher. MSB reseachers cut the seeds’ hard outer shells and, because wildfires followed by rain are an important natural growth trigger, they soaked the seeds in water through which they had bubbled smoke. Most were duds, but bright green shoots erupted from three of them.” From Science, Sept 29/06.

Greening of Niger

“Tree planting has led to the re-greening of as much as three million hectares of land in Niger, enabling some 250,000 hectares to be farmed again. The land became barren in the 1970s and early 1980s through poor management and felling of trees for firewood, but since the mid-1980s farmers in parts of Niger have been protecting them instead of chopping them down. Trees create a virtuous circle of benefits. Fruit provides food, fodder and organic matter to fortify the soil. More livestock means more manure, which further enriches the soil enabling crops to be grown, and spreads seeds so new trees grow.” From New Scientist, Oct 14/06.

Maggot Juice

“It’s not a treatment for the fainthearted. Now it seems that not only do maggots eat away the dead tissue from wounds and allow healing to begin, they also secrete a fluid containing enzymes to speed up the healing process.” A team at the University of Bradford, UK, “hopes to produce wound dressings impregnated with purified maggot extracts, which would protect the wound and speed up healing without the yuck factor of the maggots.” From New Scientist, Oct 14/06.

Paper Promises

“Trade is an ancient practice that depended for a very long time on barter. But sometime between 9000 and 6000 BCE, the pluses of a medium of exchange emerged, and cattle became the first form of currency. Better, but still awkward (‘Say, do you have change for a Holstein?’). The quest for even greater convenience continued, and between 640 and 630 BCE the Lydians, a people native to Asia Minor, literally coined the first modern form of money by fashioning metal disks from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. Paper money (as a circulating medium of exchange) was invented in China between 806 and 812 CE. Unlike precious-metal coins, which have intrinsic value, this important conceptual innovation involved a relatively worthless piece of paper that represented a ‘promise to pay’ backed by stores of valuable metals or other commodities, and led eventually to the invention of modern banking in medieval Italy.” From Worldwatch, Nov–Dec/06.

Pip Culture

“If kiwi fruits are dully predictable – the entire industry relies on one cultivar – apples provide instant relief from such monotony. The UK alone boasts 2,000 varieties. The Story of the Apple …describes the quest to find the apple’s origin, which turns out to be in the ‘heavenly mountains’ of China’s Tien Shan. Bears, horses and humans have all shaped the apple’s evolution. Grafting may have set us on the road to standardization, yet the apple is fighting back: along many a roadside you’ll find rebellious wildings from discarded cores.” From Gail Vines’s review of The Story of the Apple (Timber Press) by Barrie E. Juniper and David J. Mabberly, in New Scientist, Nov 25/06.

Biodiesel Alternative

The Region of Peel has begun pilot testing biodiesel as an alternative diesel fuel on a number of its vehicles with the aim of improving air quality and public health. The biodiesel will be tested for a six-month period on its fleet of snowplows, dump trucks, backhoes and pickup trucks. Tailpipe emissions will be monitored to assess the merit of adopting biodiesel as a permanent fuel source for the entire diesel fleet. Biodiesel requires little or no modification to vehicle engines or fuelling infrastructure, and its greater lubricity may reduce maintenance costs. Region of Peel news release, Jan 12/07.

Biofuel Appetite

“Are the planet’s non-energy resources – soils, land, water – capable of indefinitely supporting billions of humans dependent on biofuels? Each year, humans consume an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of the planet’s annual net primary productivity – what plants produce using the sun’s energy. This is in addition to our rapid drawdown of the planet’s ‘savings account’ of fossil fuels.

Dr. Jeffrey Dukes, assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, estimates that transferring our fossil fuel dependence entirely to plant sources would demand more than a quarter of our planet’s annual plant growth, meaning that humans would be gulping down more than half of the planet’s primary productivity each year.” From Biofuels: Revolution or Ruse, by David Max and Richard Engel, in Homepower, Oct–Nov/06.

Scientific Endarkenment

“Oftentimes science does more to endarken than enlighten. As Mark Twain famously put it, ‘The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that if they continue we shall soon know nothing at all about it.’ The underlying cause is that the science that shows up in the public process almost invariably is in areas where the results aren’t in, or where new areas are just opening up.” From Paul Craig’s letter to the editors of American Scientist, Jul–Aug/06.

About the Author More by Douglas G. Pearce

Douglas G. Pearce is a retired scientist who lives in Mono, you can read more miscellany in other issues of Countryside Digest.

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