Broadcast: June 22, 2004
This is Science in the News, in VOA Special English. I'm Doug Johnson.
And I’m Faith Lapidus. On our program this week: concerns about particles of plastic waste in the oceans.
A hot discovery near Antarctica.
And, a visit to an American zoo to look at a very unusual decision.
Our first story is about two of the largest animals to walk the Earth. Their names are Wanda and Winky. They are Asian elephants. And they are not young anymore. Wanda is about forty-five years old. She has arthritis. Her joints hurt when she moves. Winky is fifty-one. She has foot problems.
Wanda and Winky live at the Detroit Zoo, in the state of Michigan. Recently the zoo decided that they need a better home. Soon they will move to a wildlife refuge somewhere else in the United States.
A lot of people were surprised that zoo officials would do this. You see, Wanda and Winky are the last two elephants in the Detroit Zoo. They are among the most popular animals in the collection.
Yet their health problems are believed to be the result of the limited space they have. Six years ago, the Detroit Zoo expanded their living area. The elephants now have about one-half of a hectare to move around. This is two times as much space as they had before. Zoo Director Ron Kagan says this is still not nearly enough space. In the wild, elephants travel up to forty-eight kilometers a day.
Elephants come from Africa and parts of Asia. They come from areas that are much warmer than places like Michigan. Winters there can be severe.
Ron Kagan also notes that elephants are social animals. They normally live in groups and establish relationships. And he says elephants need lots of physical and mental activity to be happy.
The Humane Society of the United States praised the Detroit Zoo for its decision to stop keeping elephants. The animal protection group has asked other animal parks to do the same. Wayne Pacelle is the chief of the Humane Society. He says even zoos with excellent conditions like the Detroit Zoo cannot provide a good home for elephants.
The American Zoo and Aquarium Association has set new requirements for its members. These include more open space and activities to keep elephants from feeling depressed. But Ron Kagan at the Detroit Zoo notes that the new rules still permit several control methods. He says elephants can still be struck with a metal tool and, in some cases, electric shock devices.
Mister Kagan also says the new requirements do not bar very young elephants from being separated from their mothers. In the wild, elephants stay with their mothers for years. Female elephants stay with their mothers all their lives.
Mister Kagan says zoo and circus elephants often live in smaller groups than the herds that exist in the wild. And he says elephants reproduce with greater ease in the wild. He sees this as another sign that elephants should not be kept in zoos or circuses.
Animal rights activists welcome the idea of ending the use of elephants for public show. But not everyone else does. Many people would agree with the comments of a young mother in Encino, California. She says if zoos and circuses no longer have elephants, her children may never see one.
Many people enjoy circus performances by trained elephants. But Mister Kagan and other experts argue that these actions are unnatural for the animals. They say circus elephants are chained and sometimes treated badly. Some circus animals are said to travel up to fifty weeks a year.
In the United States, millions of parents take their children to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Ringling Brothers has a center in Florida where Asian elephants are born and go to retire. The Center for Elephant Conservation does research and works to increase reproduction.
The circus says it takes excellent care of all its animals. For years, it had the famous animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. He got elephants and tigers to perform together. Now his son works with the animals.
In two-thousand-one, Mark Oliver Gebel was charged with mistreating an elephant. Ringling Brothers said the accusations were made by extremist animal rights activists. A jury in San Jose, California, found Mister Gebel not guilty. But legal problems for the circus did not end there. Three animal protection groups brought a civil action in two-thousand over its treatment of animals. The groups expect a federal court in Washington, D.C., to hear that case next year.
This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English.
Scientists have known for a long time that plastic is harmful to ocean animals. But a new British study shows that plastic may continue to do harm even after it has broken into extremely small particles.
British scientists collected pieces of plastic on seventeen British beaches as well as deep in the Atlantic Ocean. The pieces are so small they can only be seen with a microscope. The scientists found that nine kinds of plastic were common. These included nylon and polyester.
The researchers also examined plankton, very small ocean animals and plants. These had been collected off the British coast during the past forty years. The scientists found particles of plastic in the plankton. They found three times more plastic in plankton from the nineteen-nineties than in plankton from the nineteen-sixties.
Professor Richard Thompson of the University of Plymouth led the study. Professor Thompson says his team will investigate how plastic affects the environment. For example, they want to learn if the plastic in plankton could poison fish and other sea life eaten by humans.
The study appeared in the magazine Science.
A spokesman for the American Plastics Council says a lot of the information from the British study was old. But he says the group will re-examine it. He also says industry must educate people about their responsibility to keep all waste out of oceans.
Professor Thompson agrees that humans need to be more responsible. Plastic is a popular substance for containers and other objects partly because it is not easily destroyed. The professor estimates that plastic lasts from a hundred to a thousand years.
Scientists have found what they believe is an active volcano near Antarctica. The volcano is outside an area known to have volcanic activity.
Eugene Domack of Hamilton College in New York is the chief scientist on the project. He says the volcano stands seven-hundred meters above the sea bottom. It extends to within about two-hundred-seventy-five meters of the surface.
The scientists first suspected the presence of the volcano in January of two-thousand-two. They were in the area on a ship operated by the National Science Foundation in the United States.
The scientists mapped the sea floor with images made from sound waves. These maps first suggested the presence of a volcano. Also, there had been reports in the past from sailors who saw discolored water in the area. Changes in water color are often a sign of an active volcano.
The volcano is in Antarctic Sound, at the northern edge of Antarctica. Mister Domack says there were no scientific records of active volcanoes in this area before.
In April, the researchers returned to the area. They recorded video images of the sides and top of the volcano. They said these images showed a surface heavily populated by organisms that live on the sea bottom.
However, there are also areas of black rock and no life on the edges of the volcano. The scientists say these dark areas show that lava, or liquid rock, has flowed from the volcano. This appears to have happened recently. The scientists also found heated seawater, especially around the freshest rock.
The researchers are from five colleges in the United States and one in Canada. Their discovery was an unexpected part of a trip to investigate a huge area of ice that broke up several years ago. Mister Domack said more research was needed, since no one on their ship was an expert in volcanoes.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Jerilyn Watson and Doreen Baingana. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. This is Faith Lapidus.
And this is Doug Johnson. Listen again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.