Hidden Science archive

Hidden Science was a mobile phone action – found within the Orange ‘Do Some Good’ app between April 2011-July 2012. Users were asked to submit their burning science questions via the app to have them answered directly by scientists, with all answers posted onto the Future Morph website.

Submitted questions had to related to one of the 16 different themes which included Space, Food, Sport, Medical Science, Earth Science, Computers & IT, Fashion & Textiles, and more!

A selection of the questions submitted to the theme of Nature are shown below. From endangered species to climate change; and deforestation to marine ecosystems, there are so many different aspects of nature, and so many ways that we as a human race are damaging our world, with dramatic consequences. Could you be the person to make a change? Do you have what it takes to promote nature conservation and produce lasting beneficial effects on the environment? You could work with animals and plants, on the land or at sea, carrying out research in a laboratory or diving in the ocean to look at coral reef degradation. Whichever route you fancy to get into nature conservation, you will be able to find it within this theme.

Examine the questions below and find out where your interests lie. Your chosen career could not be too far away…

1. Where can I find out more about pursuing a career related to nature and the environment?

There are lots of websites that can help you look into jobs related to nature conservation. The 2 that I would recommend are the new National Careers Service website. Check out this page for lots of related job profiles from a landscape scientist to an ornithologist and everything in between! Another good place to have a look is the Prospects website.

2. Where can mathematics help in climate change?

The computer models which we use to help us understand how the climate system – the atmosphere, oceans etc, works, are made up of thousands of equations. These models allow us to ask the ‘what if’ questions, and to do experiments that we can’t do with the real world – for example, ‘if we make lots of extra clouds in the tropical atlantic, what effect will that have on the climate’ or ‘if we emit this much carbon dioxide over the next 5 years, what effect will that have on the climate’. The answers the models give us aren’t precise, and again a lot of maths comes into trying to quantify the uncertainty.

3. At what rate is the UK coastline eroding?

I couldn’t find an actual number for you but about 17% of the UK’s coastline (30% in England, 23% in Wales, 20% in Northern Ireland and 2% in Scotland) is currently experiencing erosion. Coastal erosion is set to increase further in the future due to the rise in sea levels and wave condition changes.

4. What is the greenhouse effect?

The greenhouse effect is the process by which greenhouses gases, such as ozone, carbon dioxide and methane, trap the heat radiated by the Earth. Instead of the heat being lost into space, it is re-radiated back onto the Earth’s surface, and so increasing global temperatures.

5. Why do leaves change colour in autumn?

Leaves basically take in sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to create oxygen and glucose via photosynthesis. Chlorophyll, the chemical that makes photosynthesis, is what colours the leaf green. During winter when there is insufficient light/water for photosynthesis the chlorophyll disappears and so leaves start to change colour. The lack of photosynthesis also causes the glucose to stay trapped in some trees – so leaves on trees such as maples turn red.

6. If water levels were to rise by 2cm, what affect would this have on our climate?

Firstly, water levels rise because the climate is changing – as the water gets warmer, it expands. Also, as land ice melts, the extra water causes sea level rise. But then, there are feedbacks – water has a higher heat capacity than land, so takes longer to heat up or cool down. At a global scale, this means that if there is more water, it can take up more heat. At a very local scale, if there are big changes in where the coastline is (if the land is very low lying), there will be changes in weather patterns. You can’t really separate the cause and effect though – changes in water level and climate are inherently linked.

7. Which chemicals make the petals in flowers the colour they are?

The basic colours in petals come from a group of compounds called anthocyanidins. You can read much more about that in a useful article here. However, pigments aren’t the only factor in petal colour – the structure of the cells on the surface of the petals also has a major effect (in the same way that the surface of a CD gives it an irridescent shimmer). There’s a lot of research going on into this in collaboration between plant scientists and physicists at Cambridge University, and you can read about it here.

8. What is the rarest species of animal?

There are lots of very rare species of animal, so it’s very hard to pinpoint the single ‘rarest’. One species that has been in the spotlight recently, and is certainly very rare, is the Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog which comes from the mountains in Panama. In February 2012, a male Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog, which was believed to be one of only two of its species left in the world, died, bringing the population of this Critically Endangered amphibian down to a single remaining individual. There were several factors that led to the decline of this species, including the introduction of a disease caused by a fungus called chytridiomycosis, which is massively reducing amphibian populations globally. For more information on the Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog check out the ARKive blog here and to check out some other Critically Endangered species click here.

9. Do wild cats purr like domesticated cats?

That’s a really good question and has certainly got the team here thinking! As far as we can tell most members of the Felidae family (cats) are able to purr, but there are a few exceptions. These exceptions include some of the most well know ‘big cats’ – the lion, leopard, jaguar, tiger, snow leopard and clouded leopard. It seems that if a cat is able to roar then it is not able to purr. This means that most wild cats are able to produce a noise similar to the purr of a domestic cat – hope that helps. For more information about cats click here.

10. How many different tree species are there in Britain?

There are about 34 native tree species in the UK, but there are many more species that have been introduced from abroad, for example the horse chestnut tree which is from America, and the plane tree which you see in many cities which is a hybrid between an American and an Oriental plane tree. There is no exact number for how many tree species actually grow in the UK, but it is several times the number of natives.