Sunday, June 27, 2010

Fanciful Fungi #4: Fungi love the Rain

Fungi like the rain! This year is supposed to be exceptional for fungi. With the rain in the earlier months and the cool weather (but not too cold!) we are now lucky to see some rare and beautiful fungi. Dr Andrew Claridge, a mycologist (fungi doctor) in NSW Parks and Wildlife, goes out every Friday for a truffle hunt with his wife and various other truffle lovers. They have found at least one new species of fungi each week! Some of the fungi have laid dormant over the dry years, and popped up during good conditions. Only now we are able to see and classify them. Just goes to show how little we know about fungi.

I decided to do some of my own fungi detection work this week up on Mt Ainslie. All of these beauties were found on the path between my house and the summit. I wonder if any of them are a new species?

Angus spotted this bright orange fungi on a log just as we started walking up the hill. We found it several more times on other decaying and dried logs. It mainly followed cracks or filled holes. I think it is part of the Basidiomycota family, and a type of Tyromyces, possibly T. merulinus. It is a woody pore-fungi, which prefers dead wood (like this log), and often colonises in patches.

Two in one! As I went to take a photo of the green toadstools, I noticed the tiny fungus on the wood; the size of a finger nail! What a lucky find!  The green toadstool is a Basidiomycota, and possibly a Cortinarius species. They were hidden under a rotting log. The cute fungi on the log is a woody pore-fungi. Nether are in my book! Maybe they are new...

These cute toadstools were everywhere on the walk; they liked places with thick leaf litter! There tops were about the size of a twenty-cent piece, and the old ones dried to a cream colour. Their stem and gills were also a cream colour. Unfortunately, my book was unable to help! They are a Basidiomycota, but no idea of the genus or species. I think I need to start taking samples to give to a Mycologist.

This white porous fungi looked like it had been kicked out of the ground and dumped where I found it. No idea on its natural growing location makes it hard to identify. However, I think it is either a coral fungi or a woody porous-fungi. Given its dirty bottom, I would think that it emerged/grew through soil. Given this, it is more likely to be a coral fungi. I searched through my book, thinking it wasn't there (another one unidentified *sigh*) and realised it is actually a bracket-fungi! It is a Laccocephalum mylittae or Native Bread. It emerges from the ground with an enclosed brown fruiting body, and white pores inside. It is these white pores that you can see in the photo. It is also edible, and is eaten by Indigenous Australians!

With the damp weather, it is the best time to spot magical fungi. Try hunting for fungi in your local area. You never know when you might find a new species! 

For more facts on fungi and truffle spotting, check out this article at ABC Science: Native Truffles are Fun Guys

Friday, June 25, 2010

We Can't Eat Coal: Some of the Potential Benefits of Mining Tax in Australia

What will 11-month old Alexander see, eat and breath in 30 years time?

It was my first drive through the beautiful Hunter Valley when I saw the mines, the power plants and the dust haze in the sky. Only a few weeks ago, I drove from Canberra to visit my old friend Jules and her son, Alexander. They live in the Upper Hunter, and mining is part of their daily routine. I noticed the slag heaps, mounds, holes and piles of coal. Questioning people, I discovered some interesting facts and concerns about the industry in the area. People were concerned about mining in rich agricultural regions, like the Liverpool Plains. They were worried about water and air quality. The people of Broke were concerned about the Gas Plants proposed for the middle of their town. As I drove back to Canberra, past the vineyards facing the mines, it got me thinking about the long-term implications of mining and the potential benefits of the Mining Tax.

Can we fix that hole in the ground?

Mining results in changes to the environment, such as holes and mounds, and it is difficult to fix these changes. Current legislation requires strict environmental management and reporting of mining operations. This includes mine rehabilitation bonds; money which is kept until the site has been repaired after mining has finished. Only one mine in Australia has had its bond returned as a result of successful rehabilitation. This demonstrates that mines are responsible for repairing the land and looking after the environment. This is reflected in the work by various parties, such as Goldfields Environmental Management Group. However, mining causes irreversible environmental change, and there has only been limited research by industry and independents to understand some of these changes. Some of my own research is focused on improved understanding of rehabilitation after mining. In particular, determining methods to rehabilitate under extreme mine conditions and frameworks for rehabilitation (Drake et al. 2010). However, more research is needed to determine effective long-term rehabilitation of mine sites for multi-purposes, including agricultural production and conservation.

Does mining impact on agriculture and food security?

Mining is impacting on high agricultural production areas, and this has the potential to reduce food security. The Hunter Valley and Liverpool Plains are two of the most agriculturally productive regions in Australia. Both are also mineral resource rich. There is concern that mining in these high agricultural areas will reduce land available for food production, and thus decrease food security. In July 2009, ABC news looked into the issue of mining on the Liverpool Plains. They found that 'The area produces massive quantities of wheat, corn, sunflower seeds, canola, and sorghum along with sheep and cattle. The soil there is so good the locals say you can grow anything - even in drought'. Should we be mining in areas that are so fertile and support us during drought? How will this affect future food supplies? Not only is there concern about food production, but if the land after mining will ever produce food again. There has been some international research into restoring closed mines back to agricultural land. This includes looking at the impact of mine wastes (heavy metals and toxins) in the food chain and production agriculture. However, there is a lack of Australian specific case-studies regarding the use of post-mined land for agricultural production. Therefore, restoring agricultural systems post-mining, and the impact that mining may have on food security needs to be better understood.

It is a non-renewable resource! 

One day, the resources will run out and the profiteering will be over. Minerals are non-renewable resources. This means that once they are dug up and used, they are gone. You can only use coal once. This means that we only have the ability to profit from these resources once. There are many concerns about what will happen once the mines are gone. Towns, like Broken Hill, which were once booming with minerals and wealth become ghost towns. Once the minerals are gone there are no jobs, no money and no services. Mining non-renewable resources creates wealth in a short period of time, but also has long-term repercussions once gone. More research and investment needs to go into long-term economic and social issues concerning mine closure. Could the Mining Tax be used?

How can we use the Tax for the future? 

Mining can cause impacts on the environment, and has the potential to impact on our social, economic and agricultural systems. We need to know more about the impact mining may have on our future and how to deal with it. Should we consider using  part of the Mining Tax to improve understanding of these issues and invest in our future?

One way of dealing with the future impact of mining is an investment fund using a proportion of the Mining Tax. The Mining Tax could be used to tackle some of the problems that may occur from mining. It has already been stated that part of the Tax is to be used for super contributions, which will help to secure our future. It could also be used to invest in other future economic, environmental and social securities. This could include schools, health care, alternative income sources at mine closure etc. The tax could also fund research directly related to mining, including: improved understanding of environment and rehabilitation, food and water security, social and economic futures, alternative/renewable energy and technologies. Investing in researchwill help us understand how to deal with some of the issues of mining and secure our future.

Future Funds?

Future Funds have been created by many countries to invest in the future of their nation. Future Funds come under the banner of Sovereign Wealth Funds, which are used to invest in the future of the country. Each country will have a different source of funding and different objectives for the fund. For example, Norway have the Government Pension Fund which is funded from oil profits. Australia already has a future fund, and is appropriately titled the Future Fund. The money sourced for the Future Fund is non-commodity (not from mining) and is used to benefit superannuation, infrastructure, healthcare and education, among other objectives. Could we consider investing some of the Mining Tax into the Future Fund? Perhaps they could broaden the goals of the fund to include investment in mining related research and future securities? 

How the Mining Tax will be spent or used as part of a Future Fund will determine the benefits of the Tax for the Australian people and environment. How do you think we can spend the Mining Tax to secure the future of Mining in Australia? A fund for our future? What do you want to wake up to in 30 years time? What do you want Alexander to wake up to in 30 years time?

Love to hear your ideas and opinions. Please leave them below.

For more on mining in our food-bowl, see: Landcare Liverpool Plains. I am also happy to send a copy of any of my papers upon request.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Are you game?

It is the new Farmville! Catchment Detox has been going viral, with players of all varieties getting hooked. The best thing is, it teaches sustainable catchment management practices with every turn.

Catchment Detox (CD) is an innovative way of teaching the public about sustainable land and catchment practices through real-time gaming. CD was a joint development between CSIRO, e-Water CRC, ABC, National Science Week and The Australian Government.

'CD is based on a model developed by CSIRO Division of Land and Water and e-water Co-operative Research Centre. Modelling the impact of activities in a catchment is complex science. While Catchment Detox is a game and not a scientific model, it is based on today’s scientific understanding of water and catchment management issues'.

It works in a similar way to other real-time games (such as Farmville), where you can make decisions about your farm and each turn which will then affect subsequent turns. Unlike Farmville where the result of a turn is subjective and unrealistic, the result of taking a turn in CD is quite realistic! This means that all the turns you make are based on science and the outcome is directly a result of your actions. As an example, if you decide to produce a lot of food (and use a lot of water) in a turn when there is also a drought, your next turn will result in poor environmental outcomes. However, if you decide to conserve your water during a drought, your environmental outcomes in the next round will improve. The player learns what is good or bad management in their catchment from the result of each turn. The object of the game being that the player will succeed in positively managing their catchment.

Alternative media for education on complex environmental issues is a great way to get younger generations interested. It is also a great educational resource, and can be used in the classroom. There is additional educational material available on the site.

Have a go! You know you want too...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fanciful Fungi #3 : Truffles in your Backyard

Fungi in my own backyard! Edible? Maybe. Thousand-dollar truffles? Unlikely. However, you never know when you could find a delicious truffle in your own backyard.

This beautiful specimen was in one of my experiments. The soil for this experiment is from Lake Cowal, NSW and is covered with locally sourced woodmulch. The mulch is made from both native and introduced species. This means the fungi could be Australian or from elsewhere. This tiny fungi was found in a cluster underneath the woodmulch. Each were about 1cm long, with brown stem and a lighter coloured top. I was unable to find anything in my book, but it could be a stem-puffball or some sort of coral fungi. My supervisor, John Field, was hopeful it was the early stage of an edible truffle. Maybe I can make some truffle money to help run my experiments???

These beauties were found in my backyard. They popped up under a conifer after some cold-wet weather. I believe they are a Basidiomycota (toadstools and mushrooms), a Cortinarius species. There are about 2000 species of Cortinarius, making them difficult to identify. However, there is a list available on Wikipedia. These are definitely not truffles. Cortinarius species can range from edible, to magic, to deadly. You have to be careful before you eat!

Believe it or not, Australia has its very own truffles. Trees, Truffles and Beasts talks about forests and fungi in Australia, including truffle species found in our native forests. We don't eat these truffles, but there is a movement to commercialise Australian truffle species. Currently, Australia produces the same species that are favourable in France; T. melanosporum. This requires tree species that are native to European conditions (hazlenuts and oaks). If we consider our own native truffle production, we can also improve remnant forest conservation. A movement towards native truffle production will have many positive benefits for the environment. Landholders may be more likely to look after remnant forest or may even replant native forest to produce truffles. This means improved biodiversity, water quality and soil in our landscape.

However, there is still alot of research needed regarding Australian truffles before commercialisation.  Researching truffle growing, tree and truffle species, and even if they are edible (tasting!!) is important information to help support an industry. Trees, Truffles and Beasts do talk about animals which eat the truffles. Perhaps we can use tour native animals as culinary guides?

Next time you are digging around in your backyard and you find a funny mushroomy lump it may be a truffle! (just be careful about eating it... )

For information on the truffle industry in Australia, see the Australian Truffle Grower's Association Website or Truffles Australis.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Newsflash: Soil Science Education needs a new Superhero

Tony Stark aka Iron Man would have made it to my 'Coolest Scientist' list if he were real.

Perhaps he should make it onto my list anyway. Superheroes are a great opportunity to promote science. Even though superhero fiction sensationalises science, parts of it are real and kids love it! Perhaps utilising superheroes and other fiction characters, we can promote education in soil and other sciences.

The bump to the head I took on Saturday has filled me with super-unusual ideas. When do you hear a scientist bringing fiction into their lab? However, you can blame concussion and an entire week at home for this idea. Having very little to do (and my partner getting cross each time I hopped on my laptop), I spent the week watching all the movies made in the last 2 years! Well that would be exaggerating slightly; a few released in the last two years. One of these movies was Iron Man. Even after it finished, I couldn't shake the cool techno-science-genius in the movie. It got me thinking about how awesome it is to be a scientist. However, the science is somewhat sensaltionalised and I wondered if it sparks interest in non-scientists?

Superheros rely on science for many of their cool stunts. Tony Stark was a scientist before he was a superhero. As a boy, he started tinkering with electronics and engines. Later a robotics degree, and then head of company at 21. After many years in the weapons industry, he started to invent in the pursuit of good (and to counteract his previous inventions of mass-destruction) only to become Iron Man. Spark's obsession to create the Iron Man is parallel to what a scientist really does: think, create, trial and invent. The movie merely sensationalises what happens in a real laboratory. Many scientists would worry about using sensationalised media as an education tool. Have no fear! The science is real(-ish)!

There has been research to show that the science behind superheroes is real. Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg have spent their time studying and writing about the Science of Superheroes. Weinberg's work aims 'to separate scientifically believable comic book characters from those who are literally incredible' (National Geographic News, Nov 12, 2004). The authors go on to demonstrate the real science behind superheroes and the science that is still ahead of us. So perhaps sensationalising of the science isn't so bad, especially if it recruits new minds. Does real and fictitious science get youth interested in studying real science?

Andrew Zimmerman Jones blogs about superheroes and science education. He talks about a physics seminar given by Jim Kakalios (author of The Physics of Superheroes) to a wide audience (students, film writers etc). He uses superheroes as case studies. Whilst 'the writers indicate that while they do their best to get the science as correct as feasible, storytelling is the ultimate determining factor and it trumps the scientific accuracy', the lecturer found that 'it motivates the students to ask questions ... and in fact, it motivated one student to consider how long it would take The Flash to use up all oxygen molecules in the Earth's atmosphere.' 

This demonstrates that even with the sensationalising of superhero science, it still helps develop real interest in science and can be used as tool in science education. Perhaps this is because superhero science is daring and fantastical; a scientists day-dream. However, soil science does not have cool-physics stuff like lightning, vanishing, speed, weapons and lasers. All of these physics tricks are important in the superpowers of many superheroes. It is these superpowers which invoke awe and interest by the public. So, how can we create a superhero that promotes soil science?

The Mud Maiden could be the superhero of soil science. The Mud Maiden stands 6ft tall, she has dark brown hair made of twigs and leaves, a light brown face and a yellow to red body (just like a soil profile). Her superpowers are:
* making plants grow really quickly (could be useful for escape routes or stopping villians),
* she can both increase and decrease salt presence in living organisms (thus dehydrate or rehydrate),
* she can make himself 'runny' for a quick getaway (get through cracks, under doors etc) and
* can throw wet clay that dries very quickly (for a whole number of reasons).
Unfortunately she may not have the special-effect coolness of the physics superheroes, and possibly doesn't have Hollywood potential. But there is comic book potential, right? Maybe I should ask my students...

What do you think her superpowers could be?

For more information on using Superheroes to teach and promote science, check out some of the links below:
Andrew Zimmerman Jones' Blog
The Physics of Superheroes
The Science of Superheroes

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Interactive Online Soil?

What type of grub is that? Do only worms eat rotting leaves? Do soil bugs help to make soil healthy? All these questions (and more) can be answered online. 

Interactive online media is becoming more important for education. It can reach anyone, anywhere and provides opportunities for those who do not have access to formal education. Zoe sent me this great little website by the University of New England: Living Soils. I also found another one by UNE on general Oz Soils.

The Living Soils website takes you through an interactive journey of soil biology. It includes the food web, nutrient cycling, decomposition, soil formation and other fun soil biological things! Click through and learn about different soil biota and what they look like.
Oz Soils goes through all the components of soil science: chemistry, biology, morphology, hydrology, nutrient cycling etc. It too is a great interactive website, that you can click through and discover what soil is all about!

The UNE in Armidale, NSW Australia has just refurbished their soil science facilities. They also recently hosted the ASSSI Regional Forum for Soil Science. You can check out their programs at: Soil Science UNE.