Recently in The Message behind Rockford's Rock Opera Category

More Creatures' Secrets - A Moth with Amazing Ears

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From New Scientist:

The greater wax moth is flapping gently through the dark, looking for a mate, when it suddenly hears a high-pitched click. The sound is well outside the range of human hearing, but the moth has no problem picking it up. It swerves to the right - and escapes the jaws of a predatory bat by inches.

Greater wax moths have hearing like no other animal we know of. They can hear sounds that are so high-pitched that no known bat can produce them.

In the evolutionary race for survival, this moth has a head start.

Put simply, greater wax moths are a pest. Their larvae often live inside honeybee nests, where they survive on a diet of little more than beeswax. They have a particular taste for the brood combs where the bee larvae live, and can quickly trash the nest.

Adult moths only leave the hive to mate. Males gather on nearby trees and,shortly after sunsetbegin making calls to females, at frequencies above the range of human hearing.

Higher-pitched still are the calls of their predators: bats. While the male moth's calls range from 90,000 to 95,000 hertz, bats echolocate using sounds often closer to 110,000 Hz.

Evolution has pushed moths to keep up, so although they can't produce calls in the same range as bats, they can hear them coming. One North American moth can hear sounds up to 150,000 Hz - good, but not good enough to escape all bats, whose calls can reach 212,000 Hz.

I can hear you!

Enter the greater wax moth. Hannah Moir and colleagues at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK tested the hearing of 20 adult moths by playing them a wide range of sounds and measuring both the vibration of their tympanal membrane - the moths' "eardrum" - and whether a signal was transmitted down their auditory nerve.

Each sound was at 90 decibels, which is about as noisy as heavy traffic but not quite as loud as most bat echolocation calls. All the moths' tympanal membranes vibrated strongly to sounds at a frequency of 300,000 Hz, and 15 out of the 20 also showed strong neural signals.

Incredibly, that means the moths can hear a sound that no known animal makes.

Moir says there are two possible explanations. "It could be that the bats are producing higher frequencies than can be recorded," she says. Microphones struggle to record sounds higher than 150,000 Hz, and bat calls can be particularly difficult to capture.

Alternatively, the moths' sensitivity to high-pitched sounds could be an evolutionary accident, Moir says. The moths need to detect bat calls quickly to take evasive action. The physics of sound means that any sensor that can pick up a wide range of frequencies will also have a fast response time. So their sensitivity to a wide range of frequencies could be a fringe benefit of the ability to pick up the bats' calls faster.

Bats may eventually evolve higher-pitched echolocation calls to help them hunt those moths that can listen in on their existing calls. But this won't help them catch the greater wax moth: it is several steps ahead of them.

Despite their outstanding abilities, there doesn't seem to be anything special about the greater wax moth's ears. Moir says its tympanal membranes look pretty much like those of other insects, the only difference being that they are unusually thin - which would make them more sensitive to high-pitched sounds. So, as incredible as it seems, the moths' hearing may not be unique, says Moir.

Giant Sponge Returns!!

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We're glad to report that a bathtub-sized marine sponge rediscovered after a century of extinction.

Not found alive for over a century the evocatively named Neptune's cup sponge (Cliona patera) has been rediscovered off the shores of Singapore. Researchers with the environmental consulting DHI Group found the species during a routine dive. Although the specimen they found was small, the goblet-shaped sponge can reach nearly 5 feet (1.5 meters) high and the same in diameter.

"When we came across the sponge, we knew immediately that this was something very different," marine biologist Karenne Tun from DHI said in a press release.

First described in 1822, full-grown Neptune cups were used as bathtubs for children. Overharvesting for the magnificent organism, however, led to its near extinction. The sponge was last sighted in 1908 in Indonesian waters and believed to be extinct since then. However, dead Neptune's cups were found in dredge samples from northern Australia in the 1990s, providing hope that the species was still around.

"Basically, little is known about the Neptune's Cup, as it was never found alive," adds Tun. "Now we have the opportunity to study the biology and ecology of this impressive sponge and learn about its life cycle. [...] We've already had the first surprise: The Neptune's cup was thought to be a very slow growing species. However, between our last visits in April and August, respectively, it had grown several centimeters."

Evolving over 150 million years ago, sponges anchor themselves to the marine floor, feeding on plankton and other small marine animals as water passes through their filtering bodies.

This story originally appeared in

The Sharks have a Secret

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Noticed a report in the Daily Mail about how an antibiotic found in sharks could be used as drug to treat human viruses and revolutionise medicine.

Anyone who's listened  to Rockford's Rock Opera audio book and apps will know that 'Creatures Secrets' are fundamental to our story; how losing creatures to extinction is ridding the world of potentially world changing discoveries. Perhaps now, at last, we'll begin to see sharks not a killers, but life savers?

More about sharks' secrets.

The compound, found in the liver of sharks, could be used as a new type of drug to treat a broad spectrum of diseases from dengue and yellow fever to hepatitis B, C and D.  
The antibiotic, squalamine, is already known to be safe for use in humans as an antiviral agent.  

Breakthrough: A compound found in sharks could protect humans from a range of diseases
Dr Michael Zasloff, from Georgetown University who led the study, said: 'To realise that squalamine potentially has broad antiviral properties is immensely exciting, especially since we already know so much from ongoing studies about its behaviour in people.'
They found that in both lab and animal experiments squalamine produced antiviral activity against the human pathogens found in the diseases such as some forms of hepatitis which cannot currently be treated. 

Along with offering medical advances this discovery may solve the mystery of how sharks with primitive immune systems can so effectively fight viruses that plague all living creatures. 
Dr Zasloff said: 'I believe squalamine is one of a family of related compounds that protects sharks and some other "primitive" ocean vertebrates, such as the sea lamprey, from viruses.
'Squalamine appears to protect against viruses that attack the liver and blood tissues, and other similar compounds that we know exist in the shark likely protect against respiratory viral infections, and so on.
'We may be able to harness the shark's novel immune system to turn all of these antiviral compounds into agents that protect humans against a wide variety of viruses.
'That would be revolutionary. While many antibacterial agents exist, doctors have few antiviral drugs to help their patients, and few of those are broadly active.'
Dr Zasloff discovered squalamine in 1993 and it has already been used in clinical trials to treat cancer and several eye disorders. 
'I was interested in sharks because of their seemingly primitive but effective immune system. No one could explain why the shark was so hardy,' he said.

Water interesting discovery: The study may solve the mystery of how sharks with primitive immune systems can so effectively fight viruses that plague all living creatures
When he started to 'play' with the compound he found that it inhibited the growth of rapidly growing blood vessels, such as those found in tumour growth and certain retinal diseases. 
Since 1995 it has been synthesised in the laboratory rather than taking any natural shark tissue. 
Dr Zasloff remained interested in how the natural cholesterol type molecule, which has a net positive electrical charge, acted as an immune agent in sharks.
When it enters cells, and it can only access certain cells including those in blood vessels, capillaries and the liver, squalamine 'kicks off' positively-charged proteins that are bound to the negatively charged surface of the cells inner membrane.
Some of these displaced proteins are used by viruses to replicate and without the protein a virus's life cycle is disrupted, the microbe is rendered inert and the cell containing it is destroyed. 
This means that squalamine seems to be designed to fight certain viral infections, Dr Zasloff claimed. 
He said: 'To me, the key to squalamine is that once in the body it times its action to match the life cycle of most viruses.
'Most viruses take hours to complete their life cycle, the same time period that squalamine renders tissues and organs viral resistant after administration. 
'In addition, it acts fast to stop viral replication, clearing the body of these predators within hours.
'Furthermore, because squalamine acts by making the host's tissues less receptive for infection, rather than by targeting a specific viral protein, the emergence of viral resistance would not be anticipated.'
In tissue culture studies squalamine was shown to inhibit the infection of human blood vessel cells by the dengue virus and human liver cells infected with hepatitis B and D, which can cause liver failure and cancer.
In animal studies, scientists from across the USA discovered that squalamine controlled infections of yellow fever, Eastern equine encephalitis virus, and murine cytomegalovirus, and in some cases cured the animals.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition online.

Original Story:

The Creatures Have A Secret

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This story, reported by the BBC and many others, highlights a recent report regarding the Earth's species and, highly relevantly to Rockford's Rock Opera - the ecological musical audio book - it states that many species may become extinct before we even discover them. Poor us....

Here's the story.

The natural world contains about 8.7 million species, according to a new estimate described by scientists as the most accurate ever.

But the vast majority have not been identified - and cataloguing them all could take more than 1,000 years.

The number comes from studying relationships between the branches and leaves of the "family tree of life".

The team warns in the journal PLoS Biology that many species will become extinct before they can be studied.

Although the number of species on the planet might seem an obvious figure to know, a way to calculate it with confidence has been elusive.

In a commentary also carried in PLoS Biology, former Royal Society president Lord (Robert) May observes: "It is a remarkable testament to humanity's narcissism that we know the number of books in the US Library of Congress on 1 February 2011 was 22,194,656, but cannot tell you - to within an order of magnitude - how many distinct species of plants and animals we share our world with."

Now, it appears, we can.

"We've been thinking about this for several years now - we've had a look at a number of different approaches, and didn't have any success," one of the research team, Derek Tittensor, told BBC News.

"So this was basically our last chance, the last thing we tried, and it seems to work."

Dr Tittensor, who is based at the UN Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre (Unep-WCMC) and Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, worked on the project alongside peers from Dalhousie University in Canada and the University of Hawaii.

The vast majority of the 8.7 million are animals, with progressively smaller numbers of fungi, plants, protozoa (a group of single-celled organisms) and chromists (algae and other micro-organisms).

The figure excludes bacteria and some other types of micro-organism.

Linnaean steps
About 1.2 million species have been formally described, the vast majority from the land rather than the oceans.

Continue reading the main story
The natural world in numbers

Animals: 7.77 million (12% described)
Fungi: 0.61 million (7% described)
Plants: 0.30 million (70% described)
Protozoa: 0.04 million (22% described)
Chromists: 0.03 million (50% described)
The trick this team used was to look at the relationship between species and the broader groupings to which they belong.

In 1758, Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus developed a comprehensive system of taxonomy, as the field is known, which is still - with modifications - in use today.

Groups of closely related species belong to the same genus, which in turn are clustered into families, then orders, then classes, then phyla, and finally into kingdoms (such as the animal kingdom).

The higher up this hierarchical tree of life you look, the rarer new discoveries become - hardly surprising, as a discovery of a new species will be much more common than the discovery of a totally new phylum or class.

The researchers quantified the relationship between the discovery of new species and the discovery of new higher groups such as phyla and orders, and then used it to predict how many species there are likely to be.

"We discovered that, using numbers from the higher taxonomic groups, we can predict the number of species," said Dalhousie researcher Sina Adl.

"The approach accurately predicted the number of species in several well-studied groups such as mammals, fishes and birds, providing confidence in the method."

And the number came out as 8.7 million - plus or minus about a million.

Muddied waters
If this is correct, then only 14% of the world's species have yet been identified - and only 9% of those in the oceans.

The rate of species discovery has remained about even ever since Haeckel compiled his Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature) a century ago
"The rest are primarily going to be smaller organisms, and a large proportion of them will be dwelling in places that are hard to reach or hard to sample, like the deep oceans," said Dr Tittensor.

"When we think of species we tend to think of mammals or birds, which are pretty well known.

"But when you go to a tropical rainforest, it's easy to find new insects, and when you go to the deep sea and pull up a trawl, 90% of what you get can be undiscovered species."

At current rates of discovery, completing the catalogue would take over 1,000 years - but new techniques such as DNA bar-coding could speed things up.

The scientists say they do not expect their calculations to mark the end of this line of inquiry, and are looking to peers to refine methods and conclusions.

One who has already looked through the paper is Professor Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation programmes at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

"I think it's definitely a creative and innovative approach, but like every other method there are potential biases and I think it's probably a conservative figure," he told BBC News.

"But it's such a high figure that it wouldn't really matter if it's out by one or two million either way.

"It is really picking up this point that we know very little about the species with which we share the planet; and we are converting the Earth's natural landscapes so quickly, with total ignorance of our impact on the life in them."

Dinosaurs become extinct... again!

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Spotted this sorry and thought I should share it with fans of Rockford's Rock Opera!

Certain dinosaurs may soon go extinct from the record books because they are duplicates of animals already on the books.

John Horner, a paleontologist at Montana State University in the USA, and others suspect that at least 50 dinosaurs on the record books now have been incorrectly identified.

Paleontologist Michael J. Benton at the University of Bristol in the UK said that up to 51.7% of all dinosaur species are mis-categorised.

H This means that more than half the species of dinosaurs ever named were in error!

Horner added that at present, "new" dinosaurs are discovered and named at a rate of one every two weeks. Thousands of dinosaurs are now on record, with many of them probably being duplicates of animals already on the books.

Horner, who has two dinosaurs named after him, is proposing that paleontologists follow a rigorous set of procedures known as the Unified Frame of Reference (UFR) when attempting to identify fossils.

The UFR will take into account microscopic analysis of the fossils, which uses technologies not available in the past.

It will also require detailed analysis of where the remains were found, how they appeared when first observed pre-excavation, how they compare to existing species, and more.

"The proposals by Horner are very important as a reminder of a problem paleontologists are aware of, but we still don't know if it will provide a 100% watertight solution that means we will never make mistakes about dinosaur species ever again," said Benton.

The study was reported in Science journal.

An Audio Book for Earth Hour

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As you may know, at Rockford's Rock Opera, we're supporters of the work of the World Wildlife fund. And one of the WWF's biggest annual events is Earth Hour - a chance to switch off for an hour.

Now, as the globe prepares to switch off for Earth Hour, cities across the world are leading the drive to take Earth Hour 2011 beyond the hour by committing to lasting environmental actions including:

• Sydney, Australia where actions include switching to LED lights in parks and streets
• Medellin, Colombia where long term water protection and tree planting initiatives form part of a commitment that goes "beyond 60 minutes"
• Shenyang, China where 38,000 hectares of land will be reforested
• And a race among Sweden's cities to be named the Earth Hour capital.

Earth Hour is well worth supporting and knowing more about. For more information visit

Stephen Hawking on Extinction

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I spotted this story today and, since a version of this famous scientist appears in Rockford's Rock Opera, ecological musical audio book I felt I should share it.

According to astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, the human species faces the ever-growing threat of extinction unless efforts are made to successfully colonise outer space within the next 200 years.

During an interview with website Big Think, Professor Hawking cited the 1963 Cuban missile crisis - when Russia and the United States teetered on the verge of nuclear war - as a prime example of the sort of self-destructive danger we face as a species.

He also said the frequency of such perilous threats is only likely to increase in the future and, as a race, humans will need to seek "great care and judgement" in order to dodge complete extinction.

"It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million," he warned. "Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space."

"But I'm an optimist," he added during the interview. "If we can avoid disaster for the next two centuries, our species should be safe, as we spread into space."

Adding to the weight of his convictions, Professor Hawking said Earth's finite resources and mankind's booming population growth are making life on the planet increasingly dangerous - potentially destructive issues that can only be quelled by seeking out other inhabitable worlds within our own galaxy.

While glitzy Hollywood sci-fi might suggest galactic colonisation is well within mankind's grasp, scientists will first need to significantly increase propulsion capabilities if escaping extinction is to be achieved.

Specifically, the nearest neighbouring star to our own sun is Proxima Centauri, which would take 4.2 years to reach if travelling at the speed of light (almost 300 thousand kilometres per second). If we were to travel there with current rocket technology, the journey would likely take somewhere in the region of 50,000 years.

A Relative of Ick Facing Extinction

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Everyday you hear stories about new creatures facing extinction. But this website, featuring a top 10 list of creatures facing extinction (and posted in 2007) highlights a distant relative of Britain's Cocklebur Ick (star of Rockford's Rock Opera's adventure)  : (

Take look at the link and wonder at the cute ickyness of the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat...

But it's not just about the cute and the magnificant animals. Every creature, not matter how small and insignificant, deserves to live and plays its part in the delicate balance of life on Earth. Take this opportunity to learn from an audio book about dogs, dinosaurs and lots more.
Take a look at the information pages on Rockford's Rock Opera and find out how you can make a difference to the planet and to the  Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat too

Rockford's Rock Opera on BBC Radio London

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I've said it before and I'll say it again. I'm a rubbish blogger. Sorry.

Anyway. Rockford's Rock Opera, in the form of Steve Punt and me, were on the Robert Elms Show today on BBC Radio London. It was part of the publicity for our live show at the Museum of London this coming Sunday (28th June). It's in support of, and thanks to, The Open University (OU) which is celebrating '40 years of inspiring learning' with, I'm very happy to say, two performances of Rockford's Rock Opera.

Robert Elms was very nice and interested and we also met Danny Baker who seemed like a very nice chap too - I think he know Steve from a previous life.

It's always nice doing radio interviews and I do really enjoy doing them with Steve - we've known eachother for so many years now there's lots of common ground and good stories to tell... like the time (although we had done NOTHING wrong) we were stopped by the Police very late at night coming home from a gig. It was a young Policeman (they really are getting younger and younger these days...) who, when faced with two young men with a car full of musical gear at 2.30am in Redhill, and claiming to be called 'Sweetapple' and 'Punt'! decided to arrest us... until, with the help of bank cards and calls to parents (very rock and roll), we managed to prove to him that those really were our REAL names and we were innocent!

Anyway. Free downloadable stories for children and mp3 stories for kids can get you a long way these days. Including BBC London.

Rockford's Rock Opera Live at the Museum of London

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Rockford's Rock Opera will be live at the Museum of London
on Sunday 28th June 2009.

There will be two 40 minute performances, one at 12.30pm, another at 2.45pm.


Featuring Steve Punt, Sweetapple and Jess Pendall, it's also be your chance to meet us,
ask questions about the show and to see the fascinating Museum of London.

The performance is being brought to you courtesy of the Open University who
are celebrating their 40th anniversary and the Story of London with a series
of events and talks at the Museum.

        Meet London
's extinct creatures!

Poetry with Radio 4
's Matt Harvey
Hands-on activities around the Museum of London
Open University tutors will offer advice and guidance on all aspects of study,
        and details of
their new curriculum which includes many new ecologically
        based courses.

Click below for details of how to get to the Museum of London which is at
the Barbican and can be reached easily by car or public transport.

Once again, if you can't make it to London. Sorry...

About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries in the The Message behind Rockford's Rock Opera category.

The Making of Rockford's Rock Opera Audio Book is the previous category.

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