Warring foxes take top photo prize

By Jonathan Amos
BBC Science Correspondent

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“A Tale of Two Foxes”: Don Gutoski’s picture captures a symmetry in life and death

To the victor the spoils. An image of warring foxes has won the 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

Taken by amateur Don Gutoski, the picture captures the moment a red fox hauls away the carcass of its Arctic cousin following a deadly attack in Canada’s Wapusk National Park.

“It’s the best picture I’ve ever taken in my life,” Don told BBC News.

“It’s the symmetry of the heads, the bodies and the tails – even the expression on the faces.”

The two animals’ ranges overlap at Wapusk, which hugs the shore of Hudson Bay in Manitoba.

And if the larger red catches sight of the Arctic resident, it will try to predate the northern species.

Wildlife guides in the park had spoken of seeing the conflict, but this is thought to be one of the first cases where it has been documented on camera.

Kathy Moran, who sat on the judging panel, said the horror of the scene was surprisingly understated.

“It doesn’t come across as gory at all. If fact, when you first look at the picture – it’s almost as if the red fox is taking off his winter coat.”

Kathy, who is National Geographic magazine’s senior editor for natural history projects, also described it as an image with a powerful message about climate change.

“As it gets warmer in the Arctic and sub-Arctic and the red fox can move further north into the territory occupied by the Arctic fox, you are going to get increasingly these kinds of tensions,” she said.

Don Gutoski was named as Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) on Tuesday, at a ceremony at London’s Natural History Museum. The NHM owns and organises the competition.

The judges sorted through 42,000 entries submitted from almost 100 countries.

“A Tale of Two Foxes”, as the winning image is known, will now feature in an exhibition that will open at the museum on Friday before, at a later date, going on tour.

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This flurry of feathers wins Ondrej Pelánek the title of Young Wildlife Photographer of the year

WPY, which has been running now for over 50 years, is divided into 18 categories, each with its own best in class.

The second big overall prize is the Junior Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

This has gone to 14-year-old Ondrej Pelánek from the Czech Republic for his image, Fighting Ruffs.

The birds are waders and are known for their “rough” behaviour during courting. Ondrej pictured them on Varanger Peninsula in the far north of Norway.

“This is a scene that many adult photographers have tried to capture, and Ondrej has really got it,” said Kathy Moran.

“It’s graphic; the behaviour is all there; every element you would want in a photograph has come together in the moment. And to know that it was taken by one of our young photographers gives it an extra dimension.”

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The “Under Water” winner is Michael Aw (Australia). This is a Bryde’s whale ripping through a sardine “bait ball” offshore of southern Africa’s Transkei republic

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Britta Jaschinski (Germany/UK) wins the “Single-Image Photojournalist” award. These big cats perform at the Seven Star Park in Guilin, China. They have had their teeth and claws pulled out. Britta calls the picture “Broken Cats”

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Amir Ben-Dov (Israel) is the “Birds” category winner. He spent five days shooting these red-footed falcons. This image came from the last five minutes on the fifth day

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“From The Sky”: Pere Soler (Spain) pictures the algal blooms in the wetlands of Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park on the coast of Andalucía

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Richard Peters (UK) wins the “Urban” category for another fox scene. He calls this image “Shadow Walker”

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Edwin Giesbers (Netherlands) pictures a newt from underneath as it moves across the surface of a stream. The picture wins the “Amphibians and Reptiles” category

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These scarlet ibis were photographed by Jonathan Jagot (France), off the island of Lençóis on the coast of northeast Brazil. Jonathan is the category winner in the “15-17 years” of age group

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Juan Tapia (Spain) wins the “Impressions” category. It is a staged scene in which a broken canvas has been placed over a broken windowpane that barn swallows have been using to enter an old storehouse in Almeria, southern Spain

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Poorest farmers ‘need helping hand’

By Mark Kinver
Environment reporter, BBC News

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Many of the world’s poorest farmers are vulnerable to external shocks, such as natural disasters, and risk losing their livelihoods

Society must offer the world’s poorest farmers a helping hand in order to break the cycle of poverty, a key United Nations report has said.

The State of Food and Agriculture 2015 report identified social protection schemes as a “critical tool” to eradicate hunger.

These included measures such as cash transfers and free school meals.

The findings were presented to the media at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) HQ in Rome, Italy.

“We still have 800 million people that remain hungry. This is unacceptable,” FAO director general José Graziano da Silva told reporters.

“The FAO, in 2013, elevated its goal from reducing hunger to eliminating hunger.”

He said the organisation’s goal of “zero hunger” around the world had been adopted by nations in the recently adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These 17 goals are global development targets for 2030 and follow on from the UN Millennium Goals, which expired this year.

The SDGs will form the bedrock of future policies, programmes and projects aimed at improving people’s quality of life around the world.

External shocks

Dr Graziano da Silva explained that among the hungry were family farmers and subsistence farmers who could not even produce enough for their own survival.

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Rising populations are expected to place an increasing strain on the global food system

“For this reason, investing in agriculture and rural areas… is effective in driving down rates of rural hunger and poverty,” he explained.

“Poor families are also extremely vulnerable to external shocks, such as floods, pests, droughts and price volatility.

“With climate change, the shocks happen year after year; it eats away at the capacity of the rural poor to cope with it.

“Social protection offers poor families a kind of buffer to protect them from external shocks.”

Social safety net

While a growing number of societies offered some forms of social protection – such as education, health care or financial support – there were still billions of people that did not have such a safety net.

FAO assistant director general Jomo Kwame Sundaram observed: “Most of the world’s poor and hungry continue to live in rural areas. According to the World Bank, about 78% of the planet’s poor are found in rural areas.

He added that many of these people worked in the informal sector, such as the self-employed or worked for someone who is self-employed, therefore they fell outside outside the reach of social protection schemes, including pensions.

“Also, we know that the state of the world economy is very poor and the prospects for improvement are very bleak, particularly given the austerity measures of many countries,” Dr Sundaram added.

“It is important to recognise that most people in developing countries are not currently covered by social protection.”

The regions with the largest proportion of people living in extreme poverty continue to be sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“Social protection not only protects the poor, it prevents some of the worst forms of human deprivation,” Dr Sundaram continued.

“Social protection can also lead to more investment in the health of the family and the health of the children.

“Farm families can keep their children in education rather than working the land. This has a positive impact for future productivity.”

Generation zero-hunger

Dr Graziano da Silva described the delivering of the UN SDGs as a “huge challenge”, calling for more political commitment and more funds to deliver the goals.

“If you have really have political commitment then we will find more money to fund the programmes and projects that we need to achieve the 17 goals of the 2030 development agenda,” he said.

“I know it is a bold goal to eradicate hunger and to reduce poverty but we have the conditions to do it.

“We already produce enough food for all as we throw out one third of the food we produce, so we can do it and we can be the first zero-hunger generation.”

Brain map makes stable ‘fingerprint’

By Jonathan Webb
Science reporter, BBC News

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Emily Finn

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The researchers compared activity at 268 key locations in the brain

Neuroscientists have found that they can identify individuals based on a coarse map of which brain regions “pair up” in scans of brain activity.

The map is stable enough that the researchers could pick one person’s pattern from a set of 126, by matching it to a scan taken on another day.

This was possible even if the person was “at rest” during one scan, and busy doing a task in the other.

Furthermore, aspects of the map can predict certain cognitive abilities.

Presented in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the findings demonstrate a surprising stability in this “functional fingerprint” of the brain.

“The exciting thing… is not that we can identify people by putting them in an MRI machine – because we can identify people just by looking at them,” said Emily Finn, a PhD student at Yale University who co-wrote the study with her colleague Dr Xilin Shen.

“What was most exciting to me was that these profiles are so stable and reliable, in the same person, no matter if it’s today or tomorrow and no matter what your brain is doing when we’re scanning you.”

Predicting intelligence

Crucially, this fingerprint is based on brain activity – not the organ’s physical structure.

In the the myriad links between our billions of brain cells, and even at the level of a normal MRI scan, we are all physically unique.

But Ms Finn and her colleagues drew a map of each brain purely on the basis of which regions, in each individual, tended to leap into action at the same time. They used data from functional MRI (fMRI), which records subtle ups and downs in the busyness of the brain.

Because it is relatively imprecise, fMRI has not typically been used to compare individual brains. Instead, scientists tend to record from several subjects and average the results.

“We were interested in flipping the traditional fMRI analysis on its head, and not asking what are the commonalities – how do all brains look the same, doing the same task – but rather, does the same brain look the same, regardless of what it’s doing?” Ms Finn explained.

So they took fMRI results from the first 126 subjects of the Human Connectome Project, a huge US initiative to gather data about the brain’s “wiring diagram”. These subjects had all been scanned multiple times, on different days, both while they were resting and while they were occupied by various tests.

Within each of those scans, the researchers looked at what was happening in 268 key spots within the brain: how closely did the ups and downs at this spot match the ups and downs at all 267 other spots?

This produced a profile of the flow of activity in each brain. And that profile was consistent enough that the team could use it to pick out the same individual – more than 90% of the time – from a different set of scans, done on a different day.

They also found that they could use the profile to predict, to a certain degree, how well the subjects did at particular cognitive tests that measured “fluid intelligence”.

This is a type of on-the-spot, untrained reasoning that is measured by some IQ tests. Ms Finn is quick to point out that her technique could never substitute for those questionnaires.

“None of us would recommend a brain scan over an IQ test,” she said. “This is just proof-of-concept that these connectivity profiles are relevant to this very sophisticated cognitive behaviour.”

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Science Photo Library

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Could these new scan-based techniques eventually help assess psychological problems?

If these individual maps show strong associations with psychological phenomena, she added, they could prove useful in the clinic.

“This opens the door to predicting things that are harder to tell just by looking at someone, or giving them a test – like risk for different mental illnesses.”

Ones and zeros

Recently, a different study used a very similar technique to show that these brain maps can predict a range of characteristics, from someone’s vocabulary to their income.

One of its authors, Prof Thomas Nichols, said he was not surprised that Ms Finn and her colleagues were able to distinguish individuals.

“What this is getting at is the very high-quality nature of this data,” said Prof Nicholls, a brain imaging statistician at the University of Warwick. He said the data emerging from the Human Connectome Project, which also formed the basis of his study, is “bleeding-edge, state-of-the-art” stuff.

“It’s really, really good and there’s a huge volume of data on each subject.”

Tim Behrens, professor of computational neuroscience at Oxford University, said he was most impressed by the consistency between the resting and task-based maps in the study.

“What is particularly interesting is that the way the brain connects… at rest, is so similar to how it connects during a task – when it’s doing something interesting. That’s what’s exciting about it,” Prof Behrens told the BBC.

By comparison, he said, you would not expect “the pattern of ones and noughts” in a busy computer to reflect the pattern in a computer that is not doing anything.

“It tells you that something about the function of the brain is fundamentally built into patterns of activity that just live there, all the time.”

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Climate chief hails CO2 progress

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

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Commissioner Canete says the published plans are “astounding”

Europe’s climate change chief says he is astonished at the positive progress by governments towards a global deal on CO2.

Miguel Arias Cañete said it was “quite astounding” that 149 nations have published their plans to curb carbon emissions.

He told BBC News that even six months ago he would not have believed such commitments would emerge.

Nations have been announcing plans ahead of the Paris climate summit.

He warned, though, that nations’ pledges had not yet reached the level needed to prevent potentially dangerous warming.

Mr Cañete said: “There are many, many reasons to be cheerful. The fact that 149 countries to date have presented the United Nations their commitments to fight global warming is astonishing.

“We have countries which together produce nearly 90% of global emissions – so that’s a big effort. If we compare it with the Kyoto Protocol – the first time we tried an international agreement to help global warming – there were only 35 countries and they covered less than 14% of emissions.

“It’s quite astounding. The most important things is that the commitments are not only figures or targets – it shows countries are developing climate policies in a very comprehensive way.”

Top-down target

Mr Cañete said the key was that instead of a UN conference imposing top-down targets, governments were volunteering their own action plans.

“There is no complacency – but we if we had kept on going with business as usual (ever-rising carbon emissions), global temperature would have raised between 3.8 and 4.7C,” he said.

“We estimate that current commitments achieve about 3C maximum. That’s a big step, although clearly it’s not enough.”

The generally agreed maximum “safe” temperature rise is 2C – although some vulnerable nations say this is not safe for them.

Professor Jacquie McGlade, chief scientist of the UN environment programme (UNEP) told BBC News: “I am very surprised in a positive way – the normal procedure for these events has been governments brought kicking and struggling to the table.

“Now I see member states, citizens are willingly pledging for transformational change in society. It’s a participatory progress so you do feel it will stick when we leave Paris (the climate conference next month),” she said.

“When countries saw the big players – the EU, the USA – put their figures on the table, there’s a bit of copycat – which is a good thing.

“Some countries sent in their commitments and having seen other countries, they took them away and came back with more ambition. That tells you this is going to be a race to the top, not the bottom.” Gabon was one example, she said.

Prof McGlade, based in Nairobi, said Africa was suffering the consequences of climate change already and was determined to tackle the problem itself.

“There is a sense that this is a universal problem – the ‘them and us’ is beginning to disappear,” she told BBC News.

“Africa is becoming more and more conscious that it has to be a leader (on energy) if it wants to attract investment. You see Africa approaching this with an appetite, then you see a country like the UK not being pro-active in a way we would have recognised before.”

Charles Sena Ayenu, a Ghanaian solar entrepreneur taking part in the Rabat meeting, said: “There’s still work to be done, but I see a lot of optimism, a lot of excitement and passion – not just from governments but from the private sector like us.”

The positive comments are predicated on the expectation that nations will actually carry out their promises. They contradict the conclusions of a new report from the former UK chief energy scientist David Mackay, which asserts that the UN talks are doomed to fail because nations will do as little as possible.

Mr Cañete stressed that the current wave of commitments should be a starting point, not a finishing point. The EU wants the Paris conference to agree the need for a regular review of climate targets.

Follow Roger on Twitter.

Polar research ship builder revealed

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Natural Environment Research Council

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Work begins next year to build the polar research ship

A £200m polar research vessel is to be built by a shipyard on Merseyside, securing hundreds of jobs.

The research ship for marine science will have floating labs and be able to despatch robotic submarines.

Cammell Laird in Birkenhead competed against international companies to be named as the preferred bidder. Work is due to begin next year.

The project would secure 400 jobs and create 60 apprenticeships. Cammell Laird said it was “fantastic news”.

Discussions with the firm will now take place ahead of the contract being awarded next month.

Cammell Laird was chosen over firms in Singapore, South Korea, Spain and Norway.

Polar research ship

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British Antarctic Survey

  • It will operate in both Antarctica and the Arctic and will able to endure up to 60 days in sea-ice
  • There will be a helicopter-deck and floating research laboratories
  • The UK says it will have the most advanced oceanographic research vessel fleet in the world
  • Robotic submarines and marine gliders will collect data on ocean conditions
  • Airborne robots and on-board environmental monitoring systems will provide information about the environment

Source: Department for Business Innovation and Skills

Cammell Laird was founded in 1828 and is a ship repair and conversion specialist with new-build capabilities.

John Syvret, Cammell Laird chief executive, said: “Being selected as the preferred bidder in a global tender to undertake such an exciting and major infrastructure project is fantastic news for our workforce, the local region and the UK.”

Natural Environment Research Council, which selected Cammell Laird, said the ship would become operational in 2019.

Chief executive Duncan Wingham said the vessel would “help UK scientists continue to lead the world in understanding our polar regions”.

Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson said: “This £200m investment secures the UK’s position as a world leader in polar research and provides a major boost to shipbuilding in the North West.”