Ancient bird preen glands uncovered!

The following is a news piece from UCD that features my latest paper on fossil preen (uropygial) glands and associated lipids preserved in a 48-million-year-old Eocene bird. Links to other media coverage are feature below this news piece.

Researchers have shown that a well-preserved preen gland in a 48-million-year-old bird fossil contains its original fat molecules.

The fossil is from the famous Messel locality in Germany, well known to preserve birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects and leaves with exceptional details, including stomach contents and original colour.

“Animal soft tissue fossils are rare discoveries but, when found, provide exquisite insight into past biological diversity and fossil formation – that is why Messel is so special” said Dr. Shane O’Reilly, UCD geochemist and lead author on the study.

The study came about after co-author Gerald Mayr – an ornithologist from the Senckenberg Natural History Museum who has studied birdfossils from Messel for over two decades –  and the Messel field crew unearthed a bird fossil that appeared to contain intact preen glands.

The preen gland, also called the uropygial gland, is an important gland in modern birds that produces a waxy oil birds use for waterproofing and maintaining the health of their feathers.

Dr. Mayr and his colleague, Dr. Jakob Vinther – a palaeobiologist from the University of Bristol and also co-author on the study – had been waiting for such a find for a number of years.

“Usually, only melanin is preserved in these sorts of fossils; all the keratin and other proteins are lost” said Dr. Vinther.

“Previously collected fossils have all been transferred to a plate of resin and covered in varnish, which would complicate any analysis of the organic composition of the glands” he added.

Jakob and Gerald quickly contacted Professor Roger Summons, a geochemist in MIT and global expert in studying molecular fossils in petroleum and sedimentary rocks, to look at chemical composition of the wax material.

“I was a postdoctoral researcher working with Roger and jumped at the opportunity to get involved” said Dr. O’Reilly.

“For decades, organic geochemists have been studying molecular fossils in petroleum and sedimentary rocks and making important discoveries about the history of life on Earth. Surprisingly, we have paid relatively little attention to preservation of organic molecules in vertebrate bone fossils and soft tissues fossil” said Dr. O’Reilly.

Using a technique called mass spectrometry to look at the chemical composition of a tiny amount of the fossil wax, the geochemist found distinct fat, or lipid, molecules preserved within the gland that were very different to the surround sediment and other parts of the fossil.

“By studying the fossils within the fossil, and picking out the molecules coming from the algae and plants that made up the sediment, we could clearly see that a portion of the original waxy molecules that make up preen oil were preserved in the fossil gland” said Dr. O’Reilly.

“Finding the intact preen glands and the fat molecules within them is a milestone in our understanding of fossil formation as it shows that fat molecules can preserve well and are important for preservation of certain animal soft tissues” he added.

When asked about what next, Dr. O’Reilly said: “This research raises exciting new questions and research directions. How far back in time can we find fossil preen glands? What other fat-rich animal tissues are preserved at the molecular level? Did feathered dinosaurs also engage in preening?”



‘Preservation of uropygial gland lipids in a 48-million-year-old bird’ by S. O’Reilly, R. Summons, G. Mayr and J. Vinther in Proceedings of the Royal Society B


Sven Tränkner, Gerald Mayr, Sonja Wedmann, Michael Ackermann


Shane O’Reilly,


Additional media coverage of this research:

Nature Research Highlights

Discover Magazine

Science Daily

MIT news


Humans are causing one of the worst mass extinctions in Earth history

Humans are the root cause of the ‘biological annihilation’ of life on Earth, according to a study published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The study – conducted by a team of scientists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Stanford University – studied population and distribution trends for 27,600 vertebrate species across the globe and found that 32 per cent are decreasing dramatically in both numbers and geographic range.

This study adds to the burgeoning evidence that we are not only witnessing one of the planet Earth’s worst mass extinction events but that we all collectively have blood on our hands.

How do we know that the situation is so serious and that most species will not simply soldier on?

To fully appreciate the scale of this tragedy, we can place the past few centuries within the context of what we know about life during Earth’s 4,543 million-year long history.

Biodiversity in Earth’s ancient past

Generations of scientists from different disciplines – palaeontology, geology and geochemistry, for example – have devoted their lives to reconstructing how life and environmental conditions have changed and become intertwined over time.

A similarly devoted cohort of ecologists and other scientists have been studying modern day species, habitats and ecosystems, looking at the rate of loss of species over time.

Ecologists measure extinction directly in the field, while palaeontologists and other geoscientists do so by digging fossils and extracting evidence from geologic layers of known ages.

Although they use different methods and data, both fields focus on similar questions – What species are present? How many? How do they interact? What causes species to migrate, boom and die off?

The ‘Big 5’

Mass extinction events – the widespread loss of life on our planet in a short period of time – are quite unusual when compared to the gradual ‘background’ extinction rates from the likes of ecological competition, predation and other gradual changes.

We now know that five major extinction events have disrupted the course of life on Earth over the past 600 million years.

The so-called ‘Big 5’ were the end-Ordovician extinction event 443 million years ago (Ma); the Late Devonian event between 370 and 365 Ma; the end-Permian event 252 Ma; the end-Triassic event 201 Ma and the end-Cretaceous event 66 Ma.

Based on the fossil record before and after these events, it is estimated that each of the ‘Big 5’ killed off at least 75 per cent of all life at that time.

These mass extinction events span intervals ranging from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of years, a blip in geologic time.

The end-Cretaceous event is the most well understood, thanks in large part to the work conducted by the Nobel Prize winning scientist Luis Walter Alvarez and his son Walter.

Along with colleagues, they identified an ‘extraterrestrial’ iridium layer in sedimentary strata from deposits of this age at sites around the globe.

The story became clear when scientists stumbled upon a large impact crater at the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico – the end-Cretaceous MEE and the last days of the non-avian dinosaurs were brought about by an asteroid impact and the ensuing chain of events.

The Great Dying

The end-Permian extinction, aptly nicknamed ‘The Great Dying’ was the largest and most catastrophic of the ‘Big 5’.

It caused the staggering loss of 95 per cent of marine species and 70 per cent of terrestrial species in a geologic heartbeat – about 20,000 years – according to 2011 study published in Science.

The ‘Great Dying’ resulted from runaway climate change – with global temperatures 8°C warmer than previous – caused by the release of large amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

The exact trigger is still debated but it seems likely that massive volcanic eruptions in what is now Siberia and methane released from destabilised deep sea gas hydrates are the primary culprits.

The combined effect would have been a complete change in atmospheric composition, with CO2­ concentrations probably about four or five times higher than today, depletion of oxygen in the oceans and massive sea level rise.

Humans on par with asteroids and mass volcanism

While there have likely been numerous other mass extinction events prior to 600 Ma, the last 600 million years documents the rise and evolution of animal and plant life and all of the trials and tribulations faced with living on Earth.

So how do the ‘Big 5’ compare with extinction since humans have been on the scene?

There is abundant fossil and archaeological evidence that humans have been a primary cause of animal extinction ever since we moved out of Africa between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.

According to a 2017 study in the journal Nature, the widespread extinction of large terrestrial species has coincided with historical human migrations.

Terrestrial animal extinctions continued unabated to the point that by about 3,000 years ago, it is estimated that 50 per cent of large mammal species and 15 per cent of birds were extinct.

Since 1500 AD extinction rates accelerated as the Age of Exploration brought us to vast new lands.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now estimates that 338 vertebrate species have gone extinct since 1500 AD.

A 2015 study in the journal Science Advances puts vertebrate extinctions at as much 100 times greater than the calculated background rate of 2 per 100 years.

The IUCN Red List – containing a database of described species and their conservation status – currently contains 80,000 species and almost 30 per cent are threatened with extinction.

Forty-one per cent of amphibians, 34 per cent of conifers, 33 per cent of reef-building corals, 25 per cent of mammals and 13 per cent of birds are currently threatened.

The spread of agriculture is the main driver for most of these losses, followed by the spread of urbanisation, logging, mining, the loss wildlife transport corridors, hunting and water pollution.

Hundreds of species and countless populations are being lost each year as a result of human activity and since countless species have yet to be described, much more are also likely threatened or threatened with extinction.

The Anthropocene and the Sixth Mass Extinction

The greatest mass extinctions in Earth history brought complex life to the very brink of existence in as little as a few thousand years.

Historical and modern pressures from human activity have driven large proportions of species to extinction or to the brink of extinction in a similar, if not more rapid, timeframe.

Scientists may debate whether we are on the cusp or in the middle of the sixth mass extinction and when exactly the Anthropocene geological epoch – where humans have left behind a global identifiable record in the geologic record – began.

Either way, the plight of most species on Earth has reached crisis level and is set to escalate in the coming years as the human population potentially balloons by another four billion by the end of the twenty-first century and climate change will play an increasingly greater role in species extinction.

Urgent conventional and proactive conservation approaches are needed, together with an unprecedented degree of engagement between stakeholders, scientists and policy makers.

 A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 21st, 2017.

Serious dangers of BPA recognised by leading chemical safety agency

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) – responsible for implementing chemical legislation in the EU – has officially recognised the endocrine-disrupting properties of bisphenol A, also known as BPA.

The update was made to the ECHA Candidate List of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC), which contains substances that may have serious effects on human health or the environment.

The list forms part of the EU Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH).

The update was made after a proposal from France and following consideration by the ECHA Member State Committee (MSC).

Endocrine disrupting chemicals

BPA is one of the most studied and well understood endocrine disrupting chemical (EDCs).

EDCs are natural or synthetic compounds that alter endocrine function within the body by mimicking or blocking hormones.

BPA is also one of the most common EDCs found in manufactured products and in the environment.

The convenient, industrialized world that we live in today has led to our essentially continuous exposure to these types of chemicals.

BPA is used in the manufacture of polycarbonate, as a hardener for epoxy resins, in polyvinylchloride (PVC) production and in thermal paper production.

Many studies have shown that EDCs cause significant harm to animals, with the most serious harm caused during fetal and early life exposure.

The sources and pathways of exposure are myriad, but industrial and agricultural run-off making its way into drinking water and direct leaching from food and beverage containers are the most common for humans.

Studies have shown that aquatic life exposed to BPA have increased female-to-male ratios, longer hatching times for young, reduced body weight and deformities.

recent review of the literature also highlighted that BPA affects immune cells and can exacerbate inflammatory conditions.

An important step

The ECHA has also added endocrine disruption to the hazardous properties of four other chemicals on the SVHC list.

All four of these chemicals belong to a group called phthalates, which are used in the manufacture of plastics to increase the flexibility, durability and longevity of the final product.

While BPA was originally included in the ECHA candidate list in January in recognition of its toxicity for reproduction, the latest update for BPA and phthalates is an important step towards phasing out the use of EDCs in Europe and will help limit future health and environmental impacts.

The inclusion of a substance in the Candidate List creates legal obligations to companies manufacturing, importing or using such substances.

Importantly, any product that contains an SVHC in concentrations more than 0.1 per cent by weight will be given the same level of concern as the substance itself.

SVHCs on the Candidate list may be included in an ‘Authorisation List’ and if so, such substances cannot be placed on the market or used unless an authorisation is granted for their specific use, or the use is exempted from authorisation.

Importers and producers of products containing SVHCs have six months from the date of its inclusion in the Candidate List to notify ECHA.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 14th, 2017

Three years and six goals to meet targets in the Paris Climate Agreement

A grouping of climate change experts has published six goals that must be achieved by 2020 in order to meet the targets set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

In a letter published in the journal Nature, the authors and co-signatories – represented by eminent scientists, business leaders, economists and NGO representatives – declared we must “overcome the risks of climate change” and “act boldly together”.

To meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the experts identified six key goals to be met by 2020:

  1. Renewable energy should make up 30 per cent of global electricity supply and no coal-fired power plants should be commissioned
  2. Three per cent of building and infrastructure stock should come from near-zero or zero-emission buildings each year
  3. Electric vehicles should make up 15 per cent of annual car sales, as well as a 20 per cent reduction in aviation emissions and 20 per cent increase in efficiency of heavy duty vehicles
  4. Policies should be enacted to shift land use from deforestation to reforestation and traditional agriculture to sustainable approaches. In doing so these lands would switch from being carbon sources to carbons sinks by 2030
  5. Carbon-intensive heavy industry should have plans in place to increase efficiency and be on a path to halve emissions by 2050
  6. $1 trillion dollars should be set aside annually for climate action initiatives

The authors choice of 2020 is significant for two reasons.

Firstly, with current global CO2 emissions at a staggering 41 gigatonnes per year, the goals of the Paris Agreement become essentially unattainable if emissions continue at this scale by 2020.

Secondly, 2020  marks the year when a country can formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, as President Trump has already announced that the US will do.

Although the authors recognise that their goals are “idealistic at best [and] unrealistic at worst” and that the “political winds are blustery”, they remain optimistic.

“We are in the age of exponential transformation and think that such a focus will unleash ingenuity,” the letter reads.

For the first time in history there is almost unanimous international agreement that the risks associated with climate change are too great to ignore and that we must work urgently and collectively.

In many cases, solutions already exist and the transition to low-carbon technology is well underway in many sectors.

The global expansion of wind and solar energy will continue and the global sales of electric vehicles appear to be on the cusp of a rapid global expansion.

The past three years mark the first time that global emissions have stagnated while global GDP has grown, indicating that measures already adopted are beginning to have an effect.

While the recent G20 summit highlights the political and civil tension that exists at present, one clear positive outcome from the weekend’s meeting was the reaffirmed commitment to the Paris Agreement by the world’s most powerful economies bar the United States.

Although the G20 summit has further isolated the US, optimists will focus on the continuation of the US renewable energy transition and emissions reduction and a continued commitment by states, cities, companies and citizens despite the best efforts of the current administration.

In a recent interview, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson – a signatory of the letter in Nature – struck a positive note in relation to the US stance: “What President Trump has done is put climate on the American agenda in a way that it was never there before, and provoked a dynamic response from communities, business, civil society, philanthropy.”

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 10th, 2017.

Ireland’s worst environmental offenders named and shamed by EPA

Ireland’s environmental watchdog has warned five industrial sites already under its radar for serious breaches of the environmental law to clean up their act or face further sanctions.

The five sites are Arrow Group Limited, Co Kildare; Rosderra Irish Meats Group, Co Offaly; T & J Standish Limited, Co Tipperary; Tipperary Co-operative Creamery Limited, Co Tipperary; and Irish Cement Limited, Co Limerick.

The sites are on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priority Site (NPS) list, which is updated on a quarterly basis.

Although the sites only account for less than one per cent of EPA licensed sites across the country, they account for eight per cent of EPA site inspections completed so far this year. Three of the sites alone accounted for over half of all complaints received to-date in 2017.

Environmental performance is calculated based on the number of complaints, incidents and non-compliance issues over the past six months. The EPA believes that the NPS rating system will encourage compliance and will also provide targets for the EPA for further enforcement.

The EPA will “escalate enforcement action” against both companies and their directors if compliance does not improve, said the Director of Environmental Enforcement, Gerard O’Leary.

Mary Gurrie, Programme Manager in Mr O’Leary’s department added that it was “not acceptable” for licensed sites to cause nuisance or impact on the environment.  “These operators face further enforcement action,” she added.

Irish Cement Limited

Earlier this year, the EPA found the Irish Cement plant to be “in non-compliance” over dust emissions, and opened a formal probe into the firm after identifying a number of other issues at the plant on the edge of Limerick City.

Plans from Irish Cement to burn 90,000 tonnes of industrial waste and used tyres at its plant in Castlemungret, Mungret, Co Limerick was recently flagged in the Dáil by Willie O’Dea, TD. 

Irish Cement is one of four cement plants on the island of Ireland, three of which have moved from burning fossil fuel to burning industrial and toxic waste.

The Limerick Deputy outlined his concern at the plans as there are 25,000 currently living in the immediate vicinity of the plant, which he said has an “appalling safety record”.

“I am advised by people who know a lot more about this than I do, that the burning of toxic waste in a cement plant is infinitely more dangerous to the environment than a traditional incinerator.

“There is a wealth of scientific evidence that shows a very close connection between various forms of cancer and respiratory diseases and proximity to this type of operation.”

Planning permission for an extension to the facility was granted by Limerick City County Council in March, with an appeal currently before An Bord Pleanána. A decision from the planning authority is due in early August.

Environmental enforcement trends

€178,000 in fines and costs were paid out from 11 prosecutions last year, according to the EPA’s Industrial and Waste License Enforcement Report 2016. The report highlighted that the vast majority of environmental complaints against licensed facilities in 2016 related to odour nuisances.

In total, the environmental watchdog conducted over 1,500 inspections last year, most of which were to sites in the waste sector.

Enva Ireland in Laois, Knockharley Landfill in Meath, Ballynagran Landfill in Wicklow, Greyhound and Thorntons Recycling facilities in Dublin and a number of Oxigen Environmental sites accounted for the majority of inspections, 95 per cent of which were unannounced.

A total of 1,542 non-compliances were recorded for 325 licensed sites, with the Food and Drink sector being the least compliant sector.

New licenses granted in 2016 shows that there is an expansion of sites conducting Intensive Agriculture, particularly in Monaghan and Cavan, and further expansion of waste management across the country.

The full report is available on the EPA website.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 12th, 2017.

All new Volvo cars to be electric or hybrid from 2019

Volvo will only produce fully electric or hybrid cars from 2019, making it the first mainstream car manufacturer to commit to a total phase out of cars solely powered by internal combustion engines.

This may well be a landmark moment and one of the clearest a signs yet that traditional petrol or diesel fueled cars may be a thing of the past sooner than many expected.

“This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car,” Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson announced yesterday in a live-streamed press conference.

The Sweden-based company, which is owned by the Chinese car manufacturer Geely Holding Group, plans to release five fully-electric vehicles (EVs) between 2019 and 2021, followed by a range of hybrid-powered cars equipped with petrol or diesel engines.

Volvo envisions that they will have 2 million of their new electrified vehicles on the road by 2025.

Car manufacturers scrambling to comply with EU 7 legislation

Mr Samuelsson said the move is a response to customer demands, although it also coincides with the introduction of EURO 7 legislation to set legally binding carbon emission targets by 2020.

The new legislation will limit CO2 emissions of new cars sold in the EU to 95 grams per kilometer. Emissions from the average EU car was 118 grams per kilometer last year.

In 2015, new diesel cars from Volvo and other manufacturers were found by Europe’s largest motoring organisation, Adac, to emit substantially higher levels of pollution than those revealed in existing EU tests. As revealed in the Guardian, Adac tested the cars using an alternative UN standard set to be introduced by the EU this year.

Other manufacturers, such as BMW, Volkswagen, Jaguar and Land Rover, have laid out ambitious plans to ramp up production of electric cars in order to comply with this legislation.

Renault leads the pack when it comes to sales of EVs in Europe for 2017, followed by Nissan, Peugeot, Kia and the much vaunted Tesla.

EV sales continue to break records, but ending subsidies could spell danger

The global sales of electric vehicles hit a record of 750,000 in 2016 and 2017 is set to far surpass that figure again, with projected sales of over 1 million vehicles. China is the largest manufacturer, accounting for 40 per cent of electric cars sold, with the EU coming in second.

However, the fragile nature of the EV market and its reliance on substantial government tax subsidies was recently highlighted in Denmark, where EV sales dropped 60 per cent in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2016.

This consumer U-turn came as the Danish government announced plans to phase out EV tax subsidies between 2016 and 2020. The government has since reversed this decision, however, consumer confusion still exists and it is affecting sales.

In Ireland, EV owners benefit from a €5,000 grant from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, up to €5,000 vehicle registration tax relief and 800 free charge points dotted around the country.

It is clear that EV technology is coming down the road but it is still unclear at exactly what speed and what obstacles lie in the way.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 6th, 2017.

New project launched to study links between flooding and waterborne disease outbreaks

A new research project investigating the links between flooding events and the incidence of waterborne infectious disease outbreaks in Ireland was officially launched at UCD Earth Institute today.

The multidisciplinary project will involve social scientists, environmental scientists, engineers and public health researchers from UCD, University of Limerick, DIT and Trinity College.

Flood damage to infrastructure receives widespread media attention but the potential public health consequences for society from future increased flooding as a result of climate change has received little consideration.

A major public health concern, according to Dr Eoin O’Neill from UCD Earth Institute and principal investigator of the project, is that more intense or prolonged rainfall events can mobilise viral and bacterial pathogens from agricultural and domestic sources, transmit them to rivers and groundwater and increase the incidence of waterborne infectious diseases.

Previous research conducted by Dr. Jean O’Dwyer, a UL-based collaborator on the project, has already shown that increased rainfall in Ireland increases the likelihood of groundwater contamination with the familiar pathogen E. coli. 

The project aims to quantify the effects of intensive rainfall and flooding on the incidence and severity of pathogens and to identify the knowledge and awareness gaps of well owners and users in relation to drinking water sources and flood awareness and preparedness.

It is hoped that this project will help reduce the occurrence of illnesses caused by waterborne diseases, such as gastrointestinal illness.

The project will provide an evidence base to inform policy and practice and develop guidelines to inform public authorities when responding to extreme weather conditions.

According to Dr Paul Hynds – an epidemiologist based in DIT and a collaborator on the project: “This should be of particular interest to Irish policymakers including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Office of Public Works (OPW) as 800,000 Irish people rely on a private unregulated groundwater source (wells) for daily water consumption, in addition to many holidaymakers.”

The project is funded by the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Irish Research Council.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 28th, 2017.