Another rare bird sighting


On Thursday last week I was fortunate enough to spot a particularly rare bird, the Australsian Bittern or matuku (Botaurus poiciloptilus). Along with the matuku I also had a brief sighing of a Fernbird, the topic of a previous post.

The matuku is a large wetland bird (it was much larger than I expected it to be) native to Australia and New Zealand. It is, like so much of New Zealand's wetland biota, in decline because of clearing and draining of wetlands for farming. According to the IUCN Red List the matutku numbers fewer than 1,000 individuals in Australia, and an estimated 580-725 individuals in New Zealand according to a report from 1980. That means that there are less than 2,000 individuals left placing it on the IUCN 'Endangered' list. Interestingly, however, the 1980 New Zealand estimate is possibly an underestimate because much of the habitat suitable for the matuku is on private land. That means that population counts have excluded these areas which may harbour many small populations. This possibility provides some hope but unfortunately the discontinuous, fragmented nature of wetland habitats in New Zealand is problematic.

The issue of habitat fragmentation has long been known be a significant threat to biodiversity. In a effort to remedy fragmentation, many people advocate the use of wildlife corridors or green belts. Interestingly, despite the pragmatic assumption that corridors are 'good' there is apparently little evidence that large corridors (over one mile) are, and if they are, what is 'good' about them. A couple of conservation biologists are hoping to answer this using a global dataset of large, long-term corridors. If you know of any potential useful sites (see the link for criteria) you could win cash for suggesting it as a study site.

Insulting intelligence or just not having any

The 'natural' medicine industry is a huge market. For some reason or another, more and more people are seeking alternative or complementary treatments. The most common reasons seem to stem from a distrust of conventional medicine (said medicine, see video below). Unfortunately this distrust is most likely a result of a lack of understanding of the scientific method and how it is applied to clinical science. It is not unusual to hear people accuse pharmaceutical companies of only wanting to line their pockets. Of course one would have to be ignorant to assume that pharmaceutical companies are angels, but one would have to be equally ignorant to assume they are only focused on profit. Any logical person can make the simple observation that products produced by pharmaceutical companies save lives. It is really that simple. Furthermore, if we consider the implications of producing products that don't work, or worse yet, cause harm, the companies that produce them would held accountable. That is the bottom line.

Yet despite the clear evidence, both that which everyone can observe on their own, as well as the scientific evidence required before a product can be sold as medicine, people still want alternatives. A pet peeve of mine is the 'natural' vs 'synthetic' argument wheeled out by skeptics (said denialists just like the climate change ones). The fact that a huge proportion of medicine (the stuff that works) is either directly derived from natural sources or synthesised from naturally occurring compounds makes that argument redundant. I personally think that it is ironic that advocates of 'natural' treatments and supplements accuse pharmaceutical companies of dubious practices rarely have any evidence that the 'natural' products do what they claim to.

Here is a perfect example of how 'natural' advocates tend to shy away from evidence. I recently found pamphlet from safe, a 'natural' products company in Australia. The front page of the pamphlet has a brief section entitled Essentials of Informed Choices. It goes on about how we are in charge of our own health which can involve the use of supplements. Supplements are a tricky subject and depend entirely on what the supplement is and what health benefits they are supposed to have, and of course if it has actually be shown to do what it says it does. However, in the "[seven] factors to consider when looking for a quality health supplement" provided, not one of them suggests that you should actually find out if it is indeed effective at improving health. See the advice below.

  • Is it organically grown?
  • What temperature is used during manufacture?
  • Does it contain any sugars, artificial sweeteners, colours or additives?
  • Is it manufactured in Australia or overseas?
  • Does the label offer comprehensive contact details?
  • Is the company sustainably focused?
  • Is it manufactured/packaged in registered premises?

The first point is fine but there is no evaluation of what is good about being organic. What if it is a mineral?
Second point is again vague and you are given no indication of the importance of temperature. I know that temperature can affect certain compounds such as, proteins. But, how in a general sense does it matter?
I love anti-sugar 'naturalists'. Sugar (and other carbohydrates) are an essential source of energy for our bodies to perform metabolic tasks. Sure, an excess of sugar is not great if we don't use up the energy it provides, but sugar is not the evil substance as made out by so many. Like all things, it is best in moderation. Artificial sweeteners are again not as evil as some make them out to be. Claims about cancer have generally been shown to be false. Moreover, it is very unlikely, in the developed world at least, that you will get fed toxic doses of anything because of strict food control agencies. Ironically, the 'natural medicine' industry is often exempt from these controls. I see this as problematic and contradictory to claims about 'western' medicines which are subjected to scrutiny.
The fourth point is odd and again there is no advice given on how to make a judgement based on where the product is made. Presumably they mean that Australian products are the best ones. I suspect that that is untrue.
The fifth point is probably the most useful in terms of finding out the efficacy of the product because if contact details were provided you could ask the manufacturer. Although I imagine that they would spin some woo webs.
Sustainability is important, but again not useful in terms of my personal and immediate health benefits that may or may not be gained from the product.
Finally, a registered premises is important, but rather than giving confidence in the products efficacy you can be confident that it won't harm you. That's good.

So all in pretty useless advice if you want to know if something actually works or not.

Note: I have place the term 'natural' in scare quote throughout. See here for an explanation.