Category Archives: Issues in science

Just Another Seal? A look at the Northern Fur Seal

Climate change is a looming reality that we are all faced with. We are all aware that the earth is warming, but what you may not have considered, is how animals and their habitats will be affected. In this article we will look at how the results of climate change may influence Northern Fur Seals and their conservation.

So what is a Northern Fur Seal?

Northern Fur Seal

Northern Fur Seals are marine mammals who differ from other seals in that they have a thick fur coat. They eat mostly squid and fish such as pollock, herring, and anchovies. Their habitat ranges in the North Pacific from the coast of California, up to the Bering Sea and over to Russia and Japan. They spend their winter at sea, while during the summer they migrate to islands such as the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea to breed.

In the past the population of Northern Fur Seals has faced many challenges. They were commercially hunted for their fur which resulted in almost wiping out the species. Here an audio clip of our podcast which explains the how Northern Fur Seals were affected by the Fur Trade.

Seal FM Radio Podcast

 As you have heard in the podcast, despite the fact that Northern Fur Seals are no longer hunted, their population is still declining. It has been estimated that since 1998 there was has been an annual decrease in their population by about 6%.  One possible factor which may greatly affect their ability to survive is climate change. Northern Fur Seals are only able to live in a specific temperature zone, without expending energy. This ability to convert stored energy into a warming or cooling mechanism is called thermoregulation. We interviewed Dr. Rosen, a researcher at the UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit to learn a bit more about how thermoregulation works:

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As you have learned from our video, thermoregulation is a factor essential to the survival of Northern Fur Seals. However, in view of the changing climate they may be forced from their natural habitat. This would additionally affect the distribution of their prey, potentially making it much harder for them to obtain food. Can you imagine how difficult it would be if your grocery store kept moving to a new location without you knowing?

Julia, Vishav, David and Rubeen

The Sharp Truth of the Hook

An alien planet lives closer than we ever would’ve expected. Not far beneath the surface of the water lies a mostly undiscovered world, complete with its own set of aliens.

Leafy Dragon (Photo Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons)

Coral reefs may look like they don’t belong on our own planet, but this world is not as isolated as we may think. In fact, our actions, above and below water, can have drastic consequences on their world.


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The Giant Clam is only one of many species being affected by human activity. Coral reefs and their marine inhabitants around the world are in serious danger of being lost forever. Unfortunately, it has already begun to happen. Reefs face

Giant Clam (Photo Courtesy of: Monica Leslie)

many challenges today, including increasing sea temperatures due to climate change as well as increasing ocean acidity. In addition, pollution and larger sediment loads on the reefs are also causing stress to the ecosystem. However, according to Krista Greer, it is overfishing of these reef ecosystems that often push them over the edge. Greer, a researcher for The Sea Around Us Project says:

“There are all sort of outside stresses, [and] maybe the reef can handle one or two of them, but when you also add overfishing, there’s a breaking point.”

We often think of commercial and industrial fishing as being the major cause of overfishing, but even smaller scale fishing practices can impact the ecosystem.  Due to this manner of thinking, many places around the world are unaware that they’re fishing to a point beyond what is sustainable for the reef. This is the case with many island communities, such as Cocos (Keeling) Island.

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Although not every species is affected by human fishing activity, the loss of even a single species can lead to an overall decline of ecosystem health. Overfishing is the final straw that can cause the delicately balanced ecosystem of coral reefs around the world to collapse.

Cocos (Keeling) Island Locals (Photo Courtesy of: Saripedia)

The first step in remedying this situation is implementing appropriate management of fisheries throughout the world. However, it is not enough to simply create laws and policies regarding fishing. Education is crucial, especially in small island communities as the local people need to understand the consequences of their actions. Krista Greer says,

“In order for it to actually work … they need the local population to be on board. They’re not going to be there to watch and regulate and enforce, so they need … the local population to do that.”

A global effort is needed if we are ever to start on the road to recovery. If our current actions don’t change, we risk losing this mysterious and enchanting world forever, before we have a chance to fully discover it.  Can we really live with the sharp consequences that our hooks cause? 

-Monica Leslie, Richelle Eger, Justin Sidhu

Audio Credits:
Sound Effects/Music Courtesy of:  iMovie, Garage Band                                   Narrated By: Richelle Eger

Miracle Material

Carbon. What ideas are associated with that word? Coal? Diamonds? CO2 pollution? Organic Chemistry? How about miracle material?

Carbon in its diamond form
Source: Lac16 on Flickr

Carbon atoms can be arranged in different ways. If they are arranged in a specific way, they are known as diamond. If they are arranged in sheets, they are known as graphite (pencil lead). As you know, there’s a huge difference between diamond and graphite. Diamond is transparent and super hard whereas graphite is soft and black. So how does this have anything to do with miracle material?

A single sheet of carbon atoms is known as graphene. Since it’s an atom thick, it’s the world’s first two dimensional material. Graphene used to be very difficult to make. Scientists had to slowly remove layers of carbon from graphite until it became graphene (known as exfoliation). However, two scientists accidentally discovered a cheap way to make graphene. After cleaning some graphite rock with scotch tape, they found graphene on the tape. Their resulting work on graphene won them the Nobel Prize in Physics.

So what if graphene is 2D? Well being 2D is not the only special property of graphene. A paper published in nature describes how it is super strong, flexible, transparent and super conductive. Graphene is harder than diamond, stronger than steel, and is many, many times more conductive than copper. What does this mean?

Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms
Source: CORE-Materials on Flickr

Due to the many properties of graphene, it can be used in many different ways. Since it is transparent and highly conductive, it can be used to improve touchscreens in our electronic devices. It can also be used in the development of small sensors for detecting glucose levels or cholesterol in the human body. Since graphene can hold electrons, it can also act as a battery that charges in a few seconds. All in all, it has a huge amount of potential. Plus, it’s biodegradable.

Recently, graphene has been found to absorb infrared light. This means that it can function as a night vision light detector. And what’s more, it can be placed into contact lenses! With all of these properties, graphene really deserves the nickname miracle material.

– David Ng

Marijuana and its Green Glory!

Do you ever get the urge to rebel against something your told not to? I’m sure most of you would say “YES”! Most of us do it for the ‘high’ and adrenaline rush that we experience. Ever since we have been children, curiosity grows in us to go against what we are told not too, this continues in to our adult lives as well. Especially, when it comes to ‘drugs’. Those are a big “NO NO” our parents, teachers and elderly would say. So the questions arises, is marijuana really as bad as it is said to be, or are there benefits that make this ‘gateway drug’ a positive addition to our health.

Source: Flickr Commons. Marijuana Plant

Surprisingly, there are 5 health benefits associated with Marijuana:

1) Suppresses Cancer

Source: Flickr Commons. Cancer Cells

A study that took place in 2012, found that marijuana had a compound within it that was able to suppress and kill aggressive cancers such as leukemia.

2) Reduces Blood Pressure

Source: Flickr Commons. Blood Pressure

A study from 2005-2010, showed that users of marijuana compared to non-users, had a 17% reduction in insulin resistance levels.

3) Treatment of Glaucoma

Source: Flickr Commons. Optometry Equipment

When marijuana is consumed orally or by inhalation, it helps to lower eye pressure that leads to blindness with people who suffer from glaucoma.

4) Alleviates Pain

Source: Flickr Commons. Pill

Marijuana has been successful in using its anti-inflammatory properties to treat illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and migraines.

5) Inhibition of HIV

Source: Flickr Commons. HIV

A study conducted with monkeys helped to show that a daily dose of the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, helps to stops the spread of the disease throughout the body.

Source: Flickr Commons. Marijuana Cigar

These are just a few of the benefits that marijuana possess. So if you are on the fence about trying this ‘green bud’, just remember its not as bad as we think it is!


By: Rubeen Sangha

The Age Old Question: “Why is yawning contagious?”

I am sure at one point or another all of us have yawned while watching someone else yawn. I can guarantee that by the time you finish reading this article you will have yawned at least once. So why is it that every time we see, read or hear someone yawning we are inclined to do so as well? In order to answer this question we have to first learn the science behind yawning.

Source: Google Images

Yawning is an involuntary reflex that is commonly associated with relaxation and fatigue. Physiologically, as our jaw drops there is increased blood flow to our neck, face and brain. The air that is inhaled during the yawn cools the blood, which is then cycled back to the brain. Why does cool air to the brain matter? Well studies have shown that a cooler brain may increase alertness and the ability to process information more efficiently.

Aside from the physiological aspect, yawning has a lot to do with the social environment surrounding us. Studies have shown that yawning is linked to empathy, which is the ability to understand what someone else is feeling and share in their emotion. This is the reason why we are happier when surrounded by people who are happy and why we are sad when surrounded by people who are sad. In the same way scientists have found that by the time we are four or five years old, we begin to recognize contagious yawning and partake in it as an emotional response. Additionally, studies also show that we are more likely to catch a yawn from people that we share a strong bond with, like family and friends, versus strangers. Interestingly enough this same behaviour has also been observed in chimpanzees and dogs. In following video, Michael from Vsauce gives a more in depth explanation on both the physiological and social aspects of yawning, as well as why it may be contagious.

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You may wonder why is research on yawning important? The answer to this question lies in the research being done to improve the behaviour of patients diagnosed with autism. Studies have shown that kids with autism are half as likely to yawn and kids with severe cases may not yawn at all. This is because they cannot form the empathetic link that individuals without autism can. This relationship between autism and yawning can be crucial in understanding and diagnosing a cure for autism.

After doing all the research, it was interesting to find that there are many theories about why yawning is contagious. I found that the wide belief is in consensus with Dr. Adrian Guggisberg’s hypothesis. His hypothesis states that  empathy is the main cause of contagious yawning and that physiological effects can be deemed negligible since they are far too subtle to be conserved throughout evolution. So the next you see someone yawn, know that it is only human nature to do so yourself.

Vishav Gill