Who shot Betty? A murder mystery

When Bowland Betty stopped moving around northern England last summer, ornithologists tracking the rare raptor by radio through a satellite tag feared the worst. A healthy hen harrier does not stay still for long.

Their fears were soon confirmed when Betty, who was born last year to one of England’s last nesting pairs of hen harriers in Lancashire’s Bowland fells, was found dead on a Yorkshire moor. Her demise was a serious setback for conservationists fighting to save the hen harrier as a breeding species in England, where just one pair nested successfully this year (in Cumbria).

The Yorkshire Dales are a “national black spot” for persecution of birds of prey, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; at least 20 raptors have been illegally shot, trapped or poisoned there since 2007. So police and wildlife bodies quickly organised a forensic analysis of Betty’s body.

A post mortem by the Zoological Society of London found a fractured left leg – a fatal injury for a bird of prey. Although X-rays showed tiny metallic fragments within the fracture, suggesting that Betty had been shot, this could only be confirmed by applying a new technique for the first time in a case of wildlife crime.

Experts at the UCL Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science in Stanmore, Middlesex, used “scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray analysis (SEM-EDX)”. They fixed a bit of Betty’s fractured bone in a resin block and very gradually ground down the block, a few microns at a time, until they reached a metal particle. With high magnification and chemical analysis, it was clear that the metal was a fragment of lead shot, which had hit the outside of the leg at high speed.

Now that the shooting has been proved, North Yorkshire Police hope to track down the culprit. The RSPB is offering a £1,000 reward for information leading to a conviction. At the moment there is no evidence to show where Betty was actually shot, because she could have flown for many miles before dying.

Shooting and gamekeeping organisations condemn the illegal killing of birds that prey on grouse, but conservationists insist that shooting, trapping and poisoning account for the rarity of raptors on heather moorland. Bob Elliot, RSPB head of investigations, contrasts the successful comeback in recent decades of hawks, buzzards, red kites and other species over much of lowland Britain with their continuing scarcity on moors where shooting is a commercial activity.

Ecological studies show that England could support 300 pairs of hen harriers in the absence of illegal persecution. The species is more successful in Scotland, where there are about 600 breeding pairs.

A prehistoric pong

People in prehistoric Northern Europe were making cheese more than 7,000 years ago, according to analysis of pottery fragments from archaeological sites in Poland. An international team, led by the Organic Geochemistry Unit at the University of Bristol, analysed fatty acid residues from unglazed pottery pierced with small holes and showed that dairy products were processed in these sieves. Their study is published in Nature.

The shape of the sieves, similar to modern cheese-strainers, “provides compelling evidence that these specialised vessels have been used for cheesemaking”, the researchers say.

Peter Bogucki, a co-author of the study, says “at that time, most humans were not tolerant to lactose. Making cheese is a particularly efficient way to exploit the nutritional benefits of milk without becoming ill because of the lactose.”

Archaeologists have long suspected that perforated pottery from sites along Poland’s Vistula river was used for cheesemaking, but biochemical analysis has only now become sensitive enough to confirm the idea. Milk residues have also been detected from archaeological sites of a similar age in northwestern Anatolia and Libya, but it is not known whether the milk there was used for cheese.

The researchers also found that non-perforated pottery from the same sites contained fats from ruminant carcasses, suggesting that these were cooking pots for meat. Another type of pottery bottle showed traces of beeswax around the neck; archaeologists believe that this was a sealant for vessels used to store or carry liquids.

“It is truly remarkable the depth of insights into ancient human diet and food processing technologies [that] these ancient fats preserved in archaeological ceramics are now providing us with,” adds Richard Evershed, leader of the Bristol team.

A "black marble" image of Earth

The night grows steadily brighter

Forty years after the Apollo 17 astronauts took the famous “blue marble” picture of Earth from space, Nasa has released spectacular “black marble” images of the globe at night, glowing with the light of human activity.

“Black marble” is a composite of cloud-free night pictures taken by an ultra-sensitive instrument on Suomi, a US meteorological satellite launched into polar orbit last year. The sensor can detect nocturnal glow from the atmosphere or light from a single ship at sea.

The observations were made over nine days in April and 13 days in October. Altogether, 312 orbits were needed to acquire a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface, including small islands.

However beautiful the pearls and filaments of civilisation, the patterns on the “black marble” also show how wasteful we are – as the International Dark-Sky Association points out. The world is contaminated with light pollution, the glow of our cities that masks the view of stars from the ground and wastes vast amounts of energy.

“The new ‘black marble’ images of our Earth show that there is still much work that needs to be done in tackling the problems of light pollution,” says Bob Parks, the association’s executive director. “The impact of our lighting at night extends well beyond astronomy.”

Night-time imaging is very useful for weather forecasting, particularly when clouds and fog are moonlit. “The night is nowhere near as dark as we might think,” says Steve Miller, an atmospheric scientist and Suomi researcher at Colorado State University.

How larvae get the message of a massage

The mystery of “gentle touch”, a fundamental but little understood sense in humans and throughout the animal kingdom, is beginning to succumb to scientific investigation.

A team at the University of California, San Francisco, led by Lily Jan and her husband Yuh Nung Jan, have discovered how fruit fly larvae sense gentle touch – a feeling biologically distinct from harsh or painful touch. They believe a similar mechanism is at work in more complex organisms. Their study appears in Nature.

The UCSF researchers used human eyelashes to stroke the soft bodies of the larvae. They found that nerve cells called Type III neurons were responsible for communicating this gentle touch to the larval brain. Another class, Type IV neurons which transmit noxious and painful stimuli, turn out not to be involved in gentle touch.

The team also discovered that a protein called NOMPC, which occurs abundantly at nerve endings, is essential for the process to work in Type III neurons. Without it, larvae are insensitive to eyelash stroking. If NOMPC is inserted into nerves that cannot sense gentle touch, they gain the ability to do so.

The next steps will be to look for the exact mechanism by which NOMPC detects a gentle force on the skin and to identify analogous molecules that confer touch sensitivity in mammals.

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