Friday, October 31, 2008

British holiday jet skids off runway near Lanzarote beach

A plane carrying dozens of British holidaymakers skidded off a runway as it landed today.

The Air Europa jet, with 74 people on board, went off the end of the landing strip moments after touching down in Lanzarote in the Canaries.

It came to a halt close to the airport perimeter fence and down a small embankment, close to a beach.

The plane, which had set off from Glasgow at 3am, ended up at right angles to the runway.

Holidaymakers had to be evacuated from the aircraft following the dramatic landing at around 7am.

But local police confirmed no one had been hurt in the incident. Passengers were taken to their hotels to carry on their holiday.

Nora McNair, 80, from Orkney, who was on board with her disabled husband Archie, 84, said the plane began rocking after it landed.

She told the BBC Scotland website: 'We seemed to make a very good landing, and then we were coming along a bit fast and the next thing we knew the plane was rocking from side to side and then they had to slam on the brakes and we just landed a few inches from a wall and the sea.'

She said the wheels were 'absolutely smoking when they put on the brakes'.
A spokesman for Air Europa said: 'The runway was wet and the plane skidded off its normal trajectory.

We have had rain here all night and the ground was wet.

'The plane is fine, it can fly but I don't know if it will fly again today.

'There were 74 passengers on board and they were able to leave the plane in the normal way, walking down the steps.

'There were no doctors at the scene because there were no injuries.

'Many passengers are already at their destinations now.'

Arrecife Airport was closed for several hours as a result of the accident.

The modern Boeing 737 aircraft was chartered by Thomas Cook.

A spokesman for Thomas Cook said: 'We can confirm that an Air Europa flight (AEA196), which was charted by Thomas Cook, was involved in a runway incident at Lanzarote's Arrecife Airport this morning.

'Thomas Cook staff were on hand at the airport to assist all passengers and can confirm that all guests are now en route to their holiday hotels.

'Thomas Cook has called on Air Europa and the airport authorities to provide a full explanation.'

A spokesman for Air Europa said: 'There was a problem on landing. All the passengers left the plane and are fine and are being taken to their hotels.'

Air Europa was founded in 1986 and is based in Palma, on the Spanish island of Majorca.

Its service include flights from Europe to holiday resorts in the Canary Islands and Balearic Islands.

And it operates domestic scheduled flights and long-haul services to North America, South America and the Caribbean.

Its fleet comprises of 32 modern Boeing aircraft and an Airbus A340.

Passengers later told Spanish journalists at the airport that the Boeing 737 had landed 'at great speed' and that when it touched down they noticed 'strong vibrations of the wings'.

The Spanish national newsagency EFE quoted Air Europa sources as saying that the accident had been caused by 'aproximation destabilization' as it landed which could have been caused by atmospheric conditions and not by human error, although the precise cause was not yet known.

Lanzarote airport was reopened after the aircraft was towed away without difficulties two hours after the incident.

Today's scare came only two days after emergency services mounted a simulated air crash at the airport as an exercise.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scientists believe 5,300-year-old mummified 'ice man' belonged to unknown branch of human family tree

A 5,300-year-old mummified "ice man" unearthed in the Alps belonged to a previously unknown branch of the human family tree, scientists have discovered.

No trace of the lineage appears to remain today, meaning that the "ice man" - dubbed "Oetzi" - is unlikely to have any descendants.

Oetzi's mummified remains were found in September 1991 in the Eastern Alps near the Austro-Italian border.
He was about 46 years old when he met his violent death. Examinations revealed that he had been wounded by an arrow and possibly finished off with a mace blow to the face.

Since 1998 he has been on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

Scientists have now built up a complete picture of Oetzi's mitochondrial DNA, which is always passed down to future generations by mothers. This is DNA in the mitochondria, tiny power plants in cells that generate energy.
The team had a surprise when they tried to determine which genetic branch of the human family tree Oetzi belonged to.

Although he fell into a subgroup called K1, his lineage did not match any of the three known K1 "clusters".

Professor Martin Richards, from the University of Leeds, said:

"Our analysis confirms that Oetzi belonged to a previously unidentified lineage of K1 that has not been seen to date in modern European populations.

"The frequency of genetic lineages tends to change over time, due to random variations in the number of children people have - a process known as 'genetic drift' - and as a result, some variants die out.

"Our research suggests that Oetzi's lineage may indeed have become extinct."

The findings appear in the journal Current Biology.

The pelican that tried to eat the dog who stole his supper

Ever heard the one about the dog and the pelican? In one of the most unlikely power struggles of the animal kingdom, these extraordinary images show the moment when a one-year-old exotic bird bit off more than it could chew.

Captured by Roland Adam at his exotic bird farm in Germany, they show how Petri the pelican and Katijina the Rhodesian Ridgeback played out an improbable contest for a free meal.

'I was preparing food for the birds in our outdoor kitchen, when I noticed Petri at my side looking for a snack,' explained 38-year-old Roland.

'I decided to feed her one of the chicks I had been preparing when Katjinga raced in, caught the frozen bird mid-air and gobbled up Petri's dinner.'

Confused and slightly miffed at losing out on a free meal, Petri decided to search every inch of Katjinga in search of the discarded chick.

'It was hilarious,' laughs Roland.

'We have so many animals on the farm that they are very tame and at ease with each other.

'Katijinga is no different and she was more than happy to allow Petri to come in for closer inspection.'

Roland, who runs an exotic bird farm in Hoerstel near Osnabrueck, which houses everything from ostriches to flamingos, said: "You see a lot of things on my farm but I have never seen anything like this before and I just had to get my camera to prove it was real,' he says.

'But I suppose when it came down to it, Katijinga was just too quick!'

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wildlife 'dying out at fastest rate since the dinosaurs' because of human impact on planet

Mankind is responsible for the greatest extinction of wildlife since the end of the dinosaurs, conservationists have said.

Their warning came after a report revealed that populations of animals and plants have plummeted by a third over the last 35 years as a result of hunting, overfishing, habitat destruction and the changing climate.

Humans are increasingly living beyond their means and the world is heading for an 'ecological credit crunch', according to the Living Planet Report.
Prepared by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London, the report is designed to be a health check for the Earth.

It looked at the fortunes of 1,686 species of animal and plant since the 1970s, based on around 5,000 ongoing monitoring projects.

The report found that populations of all the species fell by 30 per cent between 1970 and 2005.

The number of land animals fell by a quarter between 1970 and 2005, while freshwater animals were down by 29 per cent.

Mark Wright, of WWF, said: 'The report shows that populations are dramatically declining. There is no doubt we are in a period of mass extinction comparable to those from millions of years ago.'
Dinosaurs were wiped out 65million years ago when a comet crashed into the Gulf of Mexico sending dust into the atmosphere that blocked out the sun.

As well as charting the decline of species, the report looked at each country's 'ecological footprint' - the amount of land and sea it needs to provide its natural resources and absorb its waste.

WWF said that if pressure on water, land and wildlife and the output of carbon emissions continue to rise at the current rate, we will need two planets by the 2030s to maintain our lifestyles.

Jonathan Loh, of the ZSL, said: 'We are acting ecologically in the same way as financial institutions have been behaving economically - seeking immediate gratification without due regard for the consequences.'

Pictured: Rascal, the spaniel who got too close to a paper shredder

Curiosity may have killed the cat - but Rascal's story shows it doesn't do the dog much good either.

The springer spaniel needed emergency surgery after peering into a paper shredder and setting it off.

The machine's metal jaws bit into the 11-month-old puppy's ear and dragged it in, shredding it like a sheet of paper.

Rascal's horrified owner Jackie Wells managed to switch off the power supply, but not before more than an inch of the dog's right ear had been chewed up.

Mrs Wells, 49, an exam invigilator, from St Albans, Hertfordshire, was shredding bills at home when the accident happened.

She said: ' To my horror the machine latched on to his ear and began to grind.

'The shredder has a sensor that switches it on whenever something, usually paper, hovers above it. There must have been a fault with the safety device. As soon as I saw Rascal was stuck I immediately disconnected the machine and called the vet.

'I couldn't believe it, the poor little devil.'

With the help of her son Robert, 25, a commercial pilot, Mrs Wells rushed the dog to the vet with the shredder still attached.

Rascal was given local anaesthetic and painkillers before the vet, Leonard Cooper, could untangle the shredder from his ear.

Mr Cooper, from the Cayton Veterinary Surgery in nearby Smallford, removed the teeth from the electric motor, which enabled him to manually reverse the blades.

However, there was no choice but to amputate part of Rascal's ear. Mr Cooper said: 'It was hard to get the ear out, it was held tightly in place.

'It was a bit gory. The flesh to the ear had, as you would imagine, been cut into tiny strips, just as if it was paper. Fortunately, no harm has been caused to Rascal's hearing and once the hair on his ear has re-grown his ears may be a little lopsided but the injury shouldn't be visible.'

Mrs Wells said yesterday that Rascal was bandaged but making a good recovery at home.
She said: 'He really does live up to his name. He's a nutter, but an adorable dog with a lovely nature.

'He was in shock, but seems unfazed now.'

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Credit crunch cuisine: As Lidl unveils £4.99 lobster, here's how you can create three-course gourmet meals for four... for £10

The dinner party is back. That sentence filled me with dread. It's not that I don't love entertaining - I do, it's great fun - but it's the sheer cost and fiddle.

Yes, we all used to do impressive menus of horribly expensive ingredients and difficult menus, but when my friends decided dinner parties were way too much like hard work - plus they all had jobs in banks and law firms, so they had money to burn - and started eating out in fancy restaurants, frankly it was a relief.

So the news that, as a consequence of these uncertain financial times we live in, we have to have dinner parties at home again - my home, too - made me fear the enormous cost of it all. But then it was revealed this weekend that Lidl is selling a cooked lobster for a sensational £4.99.

It seems we can all afford to have a little glamour at the dining table even during a credit crunch. And it's not just Lidl doing great deals. There are half-price offers and special mark-downs all over the place.

Even M&S is selling its gorgeous wild salmon at half price - that means £6 for four fillets. You could serve it plain grilled with a salad and anyone would be impressed. Aldi has some great deals too - two whole bream or bass for £6, and baby vegetables at £2 for two packs.

If you want cheap wine, the place to go is Asda. Its La Comida Spanish red and white wines are £2.21 a bottle and very drinkable, or you can choose any three from a huge selection of bottles for £10.

If you end up with one you don't much like, use the white for spritzers and the red for mulled wine - well, it's nearly Christmas! My favourite secret (or so I thought) purchase is a side of salmon from the huge warehouse wholesaler Costco.

A filleted side, skinned, costs about £10. In the summer I'd barbecue one and serve it with salads, now I cut it into smaller pieces when I get home, and roast them with new potatoes, olives, cherry tomatoes, anchovies and green beans, to make a delicious hot salmon nicoise (thanks, Jamie).

Keep things simple, don't try to be flashy - aside from anything else, it's just not the done thing these days, when conspicuous austerity is what's considered appropriate.

Maybe you need to leave the receipt for your Lidl lobster somewhere it can be seen. That way, the boss you've invited round for dinner won't worry that she's paying you too much.

Here are some menus which will knock the socks off your guests, yet cost very little - I have assumed you have got store cupboard basics. They each serve 4.

Prawns and Salmon

Prawn cocktail using Tesco Raw Peeled King Prawns, 300g, on offer for £2.62


350g prawns
1 iceberg lettuce, finely shredded
Juice of 1 lemon
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tsp tomato ketchup


1. First cook the prawns in boiling water, then cool and refrigerate.

2. Mix the lettuce with lemon juice and cayenne pepper. Take four large wine glasses or ice cream sundae glasses and half-fill with the lettuce.

3. Now mix the mayonnaise and ketchup together, and stir in the prawns.

4. Top the lettuce with the prawn mixture.

Mediterranean Salmon with couscous using M&S wild salmon - £6 for four fillets


4 salmon fillets
175g couscous
2 medium courgettes, sliced
1 red onion, peeled and sliced
125g mushrooms, sliced
1 large red pepper, sliced
2tbsp olive oil salt and pepper handful of fresh chopped dill and basil
2 tbsp ready made French dressing


1. Prepare couscous by following instructions on packet.

2. Preheat the oven to 220C. Toss the vegetables in half the oil. Season and roast for 15 minutes, turning once.

3. Put the vegetables to one side.

4. Brush the salmon with the remaining oil, season and roast for ten minutes, turning once.

5. Add the herbs, dressing and roasted vegetable to the couscous and toss well.

6. Serve the vegetable cous cous topped with the salmon.

Pears with Parmesan using half a punnet of ASDA red pears - £1.27 a punnet(so 63p) and half a block of Aldi Specially Selected Parmagiano Reggiano, £2.29 for 200g (ie £1.14).

Slice the pears on to plates and arrange attractively with long shavings of Parmesan. Serve immediately.

Antipasti and lamb

Antipasti plate Using Aldi Traditional Italian Ham, 100g for £1.24, no added water


100g prosciutto or other dried ham
Handful of olives
Handful of sun-dried tomato
Foccacia bread, cut into cubes


Arrange everything on a large plate in the centre of the table and invite guests to serve themselves.


Roast leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic using Aldi half leg of lamb, £4.99 a kilo


4 cloves garlic
sliced fresh rosemary sprigs
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste half leg of lamb (approx 1kg)


1. Defrost the lamb.

2. Cut slits in the top of the leg of lamb every few inches, deep enough to push slices of garlic down into the meat.

3. Season with salt and pepper generously all over the top of the joint, place several sprigs of fresh rosemary under and on top of it.

4. Roast at 180C, until the lamb is cooked medium to well done - around 45 minutes.

Serve with boiled new potatoes and steamed broccoli and sugar snaps

Profiteroles with chocolate sauce £1.19 for 20 from Aldi. Serve with coffee!
TOTAL: £7.42

Lobster and crab cakes

Lobster mousse using lobster from Lidl, £4.99 for 375g cooked lobster


375g cooked lobster meat
2 tbsp mayonnaise
juice of 1 lemon
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp Tabasco
175g butter, melted
6 sprigs dill


1. Mix the lobster meat with the mayonnaise, lemon juice, pepper and Tabasco.

2. Spoon into ramekins.

3. Top with melted butter and a sprig of dill.

4. Serve with triangles of brown toast.

Crab cakes using large Irish crab from Lidl, precooked £2.99 for 400g.


225g white and dark crabmeat
225g cooked mashed potato
half a small onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp of freshly chopped parsley
1 tbsp chopped chives
1 tbsp of lemon juice
1 pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
2 eggs, beaten
55g dry breadcrumbs
vegetable oil for frying


1. Mix the crabmeat with the mashed potato, onion, parsley, chives, lemon juice, cayenne, salt and pepper.

2. Add one of the beaten eggs and mix well, to bind.

3. Flour your hands and make eight cakes from the mixture.

4. Beat the other egg in one bowl, and in another pour the breadcrumbs and season with salt and pepper.

5. Dip each crab cake into the egg, and then coat with the breadcrumbs.

6. Heat some oil in a frying pan and gently fry the crab cakes, turning once, until they are brown on both sides.

7. Serve two hot crabcakes to each person, with salad or steamed vegetables and mayonnaise.

Eton Mess, using Aldi frozen raspberries £1.29 for 300g and meringue nests, ASDA 99p for eight.


300g frozen raspberries
1 tbsp icing sugar
570ml double cream
8 meringue nests


1. Puree half the raspberries with the icing sugar, then sieve until smooth.

2. Whip the cream until it holds soft peaks and smash up the nests.

3. Stir in the raspberry puree to create a swirled effect, add whole raspberries and smashed meringue nests.

4. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pictured: The tattooed Leopard Man of Skye trades his island lair for a comfy retirement home

The so-called 'Leopard Man of Skye' has ditched his feral lifestyle in the wild for a cosy new retirement home.

For 20 years Tom Leppard - whose entire body is covered in leopard-spot tattooes - lived in a ruined shelter on the Scottish island of Skye under a roof made from pieces of plastic sheeting.
He had no electricity, no furniture and had to canoe three miles for his weekly shopping.

The Leopard Man shot to fame after becoming the world's most tattoed man - a crown he held until recently.

But now at 73, the hardy eccentric who spent £5,500 on tattooes, has been forced to abandon the wild side and has recently moved into a one-bedroom terraced home in Broadford, on Skye.

Last night he revealed how he is coping with using electricity and sleeping in a bed for the first time in years.

Relaxing in his comfy new leather sofa, the Leopard pensioner said: 'It's certainly very strange being surrounded by four walls and a roof but I'll get used to it.
'I'm getting bits of furniture together all the time and I'm getting used to sleeping in a bed at night - it's certainly more comfortable than I'm used to and electricity is very convenient.

In his crumbling previous home, perched on a remote stretch of shoreline near Kyleakin, ex-special forces soldier Tom cooked on a gas stove and slept on a bed made from blocks of polystyrene and foam.

He added: 'I learned to live so simply over there that I really don't need much in the house - I would cook a curry on my stove and that would last me for days.

'I'm certainly not going to do much cooking because I live in a house - I'll just get what I need from the shop.

'I was perfectly happy in the bothy [basic shelter] but I'm like everyone else - I'm getting too old for that kind of life.
'I had to canoe to Kyle once a week for shopping and it was getting too hard for me - I was one big wave away from disaster. It's a pretty nasty stretch of water.

'About six weeks ago a friend with a boat offered to take me off and I just decided there and then to go.

'I packed what kit I could into black bin liners and that was it. I've just accepted that I couldn't carry on living like that anymore.

'When I had made my decision I just wanted it done and luckily I was given this house in Broadford.

'I was previously in the forces so I'm used to adapting to different surroundings - I'll just get used to the house.

'I've never had a TV or radio and I'm not going to start now - it's all rubbish anyway. A newspaper was my only reading material in the bothy so I'll stick with that.'
London-born Tom, whose crown as the world's most tattoed man has been claimed by Australian Lucky Diamond Rich, insists he has no regrets about his hermit lifestyle.

He added: 'I've loved every minute and when you're covered in leopard tattoes you certainly get noticed - I became a bit of a tourist attraction on Skye.

'But all I want now is peace and quiet and just to relax a bit more. I can walk to the local shop instead of canoeing.

'I'm still pretty fit so I can walk wherever I want. I came to Scotland as a young man on holiday and as soon as I saw the mountains I knew I could never go back to England.

'I have fallen in love with the place and when I had to give up the bothy it never even came into my head to leave Skye.

'Everyone's been very friendly since I moved in and I'll just settle for the quiet life now.

'I might go back to the bothy one day for a look around if somebody offered me a lift but it would be just out of curiosity - those days are behind me now.'

Sunday, October 26, 2008

They can run, climb and even have their own Olympics: A new book reveals the surprisingly sporty side to hedgehogs

What is it about hedgehogs - those snuffling, little bundles of prickles - that inspires such passion, even obsession, in the British psyche?

For more than 20 years, I have held a deep-rooted affection for these spiky creatures - a love, my wife says, that borders on the unhealthy.

Trained as an ecologist, I have spent the past two decades travelling across the world - from the fields of Shropshire to the islands of Scotland, from hedgehog hospitals across Britain to the International Hedgehog Olympics in the U.S. - on a quest to understand our devotion to a universally known, yet little understood, animal.

My mission was to answer all our questions about the humble hog - from the mundane to the sublime.

Let's begin with what a hedgehog is. The spiny little visitors that rummage around in your garden after dark are placental mammals. This means they have fur, give birth, and feed the young with milk from mammary glands.

They are among the earliest mammals and can be traced back 70 million years, to the last days of the dinosaurs. This may explain why they developed a prickly exterior. An adult has as many as 7,000 of these spines - and even their young are born with them.

How then, you might wonder, do the females cope with giving birth to such spiny babies - especially when they give birth to four or five at a time?

Well, this is the really clever bit. When it is born (which is usually in June or July, by the way) a baby hog's skin is inflated with fluid, which keeps the prickles beneath the surface. Only after birth, when the fluid is reabsorbed, do the spines emerge.

These spines, of course, are the hedgehog's trademark feature. But did you know that there are none on the animal's face, throat, chest, belly and legs? It makes them really quite strokeable.

In fact, when a hedgehog is in the right mood, even the spines, which lie flat during affectionate moments, are pleasant to stroke.

It is only when a hedgehog becomes displeased that the muscles at the base of each spine contract, causing it to become a hedge of prickles - a bit like when our hair stands on end when we are startled.

The hog's other great defence is to roll into a ball. And they can do this at super-fast speed.

If you ever want to take a picture of a hedgehog, you will have to do so on a very short exposure, or the hog will react to the click of the camera and transform itself into a ball faster than the shutter can open and close.

Check your bonfire for hedgehogs before lighting it

And did you know that hedgehogs can climb? They can negotiate precipitous wood piles in their search for a plump slug.

They also have their own personalities: some are grumpy, some are cheerful; some bold, some shy.

Indeed, given all their very human attributes, no wonder literature is littered with hedgehog references, from Beatrix Potter's Tale Of Mrs Tiggywinkle to odes penned by Ted Hughes and Pam Ayres.

For me, the attraction is their wild side. Few animals allow us to get as close to them - yet they can't be tamed.

Injured hedgehogs are happy to be nursed by humans, but they will always yearn to return to their natural habitat. Which doesn't seem to bother those who go out of their way to look after them.

Incredibly, there are an astonishing 600 carers registered with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and one, St Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital in Buckinghamshire, claims to be the busiest wildlife hospital in the world, tending to a staggering 10,000 patients a year.

While many might think I'm a little crazy when it comes to hogs, I have nothing on the fanatics I met across the Pond at the International Hedgehog Olympic Games, or IHOG.

On the richly patterned carpet of the function room of the Doubletree Hotel in Denver, I watched astonished as the plastic track was laid for athletic events featuring hedgehogs brought from far and wide.

Before each race, male and female hedgehogs have to be separated. The males are easily distracted if there is the merest hint of an attractive female hog in the air.

But then it's down to business. First, the sprint, during which the hogs are placed in plastic exercise balls (larger version of the balls hamsters play in) and sent hurtling off around the track.

The hurdles are a little more complex. For this, the hogs must climb through a series of holes, each slightly higher off the ground than the one preceding it. Grubs, maggots and worms are all fair game for owners to encourage their competitors through the holes.

But the real champions are those that can master the floor exercises, when the hogs are given two minutes to impress the judges with their mastery of a see-saw, a tunnel, a plastic horse and a ball.

Strategic territory marking is highly regarded, although defecation can cost a contestant vital marks.

On my visit, there was one clear winner: Buttercup, a strange-looking, blonde hedgehog with prominent ears typical of African species.

Everyone had had fun, and there hadn't been any trouble with hedgehogs taking performance-enhancing drugs!

To celebrate, there was a lavish banquet, a rendition of The Phantom Of The Opera theme tune, Music Of The Night - in honour of the hog's nocturnal nature - and a few words from a woman who claims to be able to talk to them.

But despite the glitz, the event left me a little cold, as it was about transforming hedgehogs into pets. Which is ridiculous.

Despite their charms, they are wild animals - and, quite frankly, emit a truly devilish pong.

They can also harbour as many as 1,000 fleas each, although they are not all fleabags.

We should learn to respect their feral nature, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't look out for them.

They certainly need our help. Their numbers are declining rapidly in Britain, falling 20 per cent in the past decade alone. Habitat destruction (larger fields mean fewer hedgerows and fewer hedgehogs) is probably the main reason for this.

If there is one tip I could give you to encourage more hedgehogs, it would be this: do less gardening. The clue is in the name: 'hedge' hog.

They love piles of decaying leaves, in which they can feast on slugs and snails.

And I would also urge a ban on bonfires. Hedgehogs love setting up home in piles of wood. So if you must have a bonfire, always make sure you move the wood to another location first, just in case there is a dozing hedgehog inside.

On a similar note, if you use garden netting, make sure it is at least 30cm off the ground to avoid hogs getting entangled in it - and always cut up the plastic rings that hold multi-packs of beer and soft drinks together.

They can easily get stuck around a hedgehog's belly, and can cut through the skin, making it vulnerable to infection.

You should also keep drains and ponds covered to prevent them from falling in and drowning, and don't use slug pellets, which can poison hedgehogs

The Wider View: Is it a bird... or a tree?

At first glance it appears to be the bark of a tree, but look a little closer and you will spot a beak, razor-sharp talons and a pair of feathery ears.

This is an African Scops owl resting on the branch of a camelthorn tree in Namibia.

It doesn't need its camouflage when hunting insects and spiders at night.
But, when resting during the day, this tiny owl, which measures just 6.5in in length, is at risk of being attacked by other birds.

So it perches tightly pressed against a tree trunk, its streaky brown and grey plumage rendering it almost invisible.

It can also elongate its body and lean sideways to make it look even more like the surrounding branches.

Were the bird to open fully its large, bright orange eyes, its disguise would be ruined.

But it did peek with one eye at wildlife photographer Thomas Dressler just 'to see what I was doing'.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pictured: The Polish white van man who followed his sat-nav too closely and ended up in the middle of a lake

A Polish white van man who was too sure of his sat-nav ended up neck-deep in a lake after ignoring road signs warning of a dead-end ahead, Polish police said today.

The road hasn't been used for a year after it was flooded out when an artificial lake was created.

It was dark and the un-named driver had been drinking, but he still managed to miss three signs warning him there was a lake ahead.
Police said the driver had 'The man took a road that was closed a year ago when the area was flooded to make an artificial lake serving as a water reservoir -- he ignored three road signs warning of a dead-end,' said Piotr Smolen, police spokesman in Glubczyce, southern Poland.

'It was still night time and he didn't notice the road led into the lake. His GPS told him to drive straight ahead and he did.'

Mr Smolen added that the driver had been under the influence of alcohol.
The road ran straight downhill into the lake. The Mercedes mini-van was nearly entirely submerged and was unable to back out on its own after being inundated with water.

The driver and two passengers escaped unharmed from the submerged vehicle and waited on its roof for police and fire rescue crews.

The driver placed the first call to emergency services while still inside the sinking van.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pictured: Death-defying workman climbs out of 16th floor window to fix air-conditioning unit

In Britain workman aren’t even allowed to stand on the roof of a house without first fitting scaffolding and reading a raft of other safety regulations.

But in Russia, men are free to fit air-conditioning units on the 16th floor of a block of flats by hanging out the window with no safety net.

Wearing only shorts, this man first lowered the unit out of the high-rise apartment before coolly launching himself from the window and hugging it tightly.
The thin metal brackets luckily held and he managed to scramble back inside without falling to his death.

And the fun is not just confined to Russia – in Egyptian capital Cairo another picture shows a man being dangled by his legs as he repairs another air-conditioning unit.

The contrast with Britain could not be greater.

Here, any work done on even houses higher than two stories requires scaffolding, according to Health and Safety Executive guidelines.

And when climbing a ladder, three parts of the body must be in contact at all times.
There has been growing anger in Britain about alleged health and safety killjoys clamping down on innocuous activities.

But the Health and Safety Executive insists it is not seeking to ban everyday activities and says there are myths surrounding its business.

‘There have been many reports of the HSE banning all sorts of things – flip-flops at work, knitting in hospitals, sports days, and even cuddly toys on dustbin lorries,’ a spokesman said.

‘This is simply not true.’

Meet Mr Green Genes - the world's first glow-in-the-dark cat

His eyes glow ghoulishly in the right light, just like any other cat's - but so do his nostrils, gums and tongue.

Mr Green Genes of New Orleans in the U.S. is the country's first 'glow in the dark' ginger tom.

In daylight he looks normal, but put him in a darkened room and switch on an ultraviolet light, and his face will beam out a bright green.
The six-month-old cat was created by scientists who are trying to combat a range of diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

They modified his DNA to see if a gene could be introduced harmlessly into an animal's genetic sequence.

To track where the gene went, they decided to use one that glowed under ultraviolet light.

The particular gene in question, known as green fluorescence protein, is likely to express itself in mucous membranes - hence his freakish mouth and ears.
Betsy Dresser, at the Audubon Centre for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans, said the gene that was added to Mr Genes has no effect on his health.

She said: 'Cats are ideal for this project because their genetic make-up is similar to that of humans.

'To show that the gene went where it was supposed to go, we settled on one that would glow.'

The long-term goal of this project is to develop what has been dubbed a 'knockout gene' to combat the cystic fibrosis gene and other diseases.

The fluorescence gene will go alongside the cystic fibrosis gene and make it easier to spot for scientists.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was this month awarded to the three scientists who had discovered the glowing gene through working with jellyfish.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Shake a tail-feather: Scientists reveal the pigeon-sized dinosaur that is birds' earliest ancestor

A strange pigeon-sized dinosaur that roamed the planet more than 150 million years ago was the oldest known relative of birds, say scientists.

The new species 'Epidexipteryx hui' had large teeth that could rip prey apart and a strange anatomy including long, ribbon-like tail feathers - suggesting the plumage was purely ornamental rather than for flight.
Like the flamboyant peacock, Epidexipteryx may have displayed its tail plumage to attract mates

Dr Fucheng Zhang, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said: 'The feathers could potentially have played a role in displays intended to attract a mate, scare off a rival, or send a warning signal to other individuals of the same species.

'This is very exciting indeed, since it gives us a window into a stage of avian history just preceding the appearance of the classic "first bird".'

Its remains were uncovered by farmers from the hills of Inner Mongolia, China, almost a year ago and date back 152 to 168 million years - making the creature slightly older than Archaeopteryx, the most primitive bird yet discovered.

Epidexipteryx is a theropod, a group of two legged animals that includes the
Tyrannosaurus rex. The creature had a mixture of bird-like and dinosaur features. Its body was covered in feathers and part of its skeleton resembled those of present day birds, but it had teeth rather than a beak which were much larger at the front of the jaws.'
Dr Zhang, who describes the creature in Nature, said: 'It is typical for different parts of the body to evolve at different rates, so that some bits end up looking very specialized whereas others remain primitive.'

Epidexipteryx lived in the middle to late Jurassic period in a lush, well vegetated area that was rich in salamanders and other possible prey.

Dr Zhang said: 'One can certainly imagine the teeth being used to snatch at small prey such as lizards, small mammals or even insects.'

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pictured: The mystery pink light that appeared over London

While a pink sky at night might be a shepherd's delight, London residents were left scratching their heads last night as a mysterious pink cloud drifted over the city.

Bemused bystanders in Mayfair craned their necks to witness the strange alien-like cloud that appeared for just under an hour at around 8:30pm.

It hovered over buildings before breaking up and slowly disappearing.

But after dismissing theories of UFOs and atmospheric phenomenons, the Met Office said the blob was likely to be nothing more than the lights of the city reflected in a cloud.

A spokesman said: "If you have very high cloud, as we did last night, you tend to get odd splodges of low cloud that will reflect the pink or sometimes orangey-pink lights of the city from all angles and stand out from the darkness of the sky.

"It can be truly spectacular to witness."

Did you see the mystery pink light? Let us know by leaving a reader comment at the bottom of the story.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Quackers! The bizarre tomato that's shaped like a duck

John Owen has been gardening for 40 years, but the sight that greeted him in his greenhouse recently was a definite first.

When the pensioner went to check on his vegetables, he was stunned to find a duck-shaped tomato staring back at him.

The retired farmer, 70, said: 'I've not seen one like it before, that's for sure.

'I went out into the greenhouse to check on my vegetables and I saw this strange little tomato looking back at me.

'It was hanging upside down so didn't quite see the duck-like features until I pulled it down and put it on the table.

'It's amazing and I have no idea how it has ended up looking like this. It is a complete freak of nature and I don't think it will ever happen again.

'I had to check I wasn't living next to a nuclear testing site.'

The deformed tomato has given him plenty of laughs and has become a bit of a celebrity on his street, with dozens of neighbours coming round to have a look.

Rather than putting the tomato into the frying pan and adding it to his full English breakfast, Mr Owen, from Brownhills, Staffordshire, has decided to keep it as a souvenir - until it rots away.

It is not the first time he has caused a stir with his green-fingered exploits.
In 2004 he became the proud owner of a pumpkin measuring a gargantuan 6ft following what was his first ever attempt at growing the traditional Halloween fruit.

Duck-shaped fruit and vegetables may not be as rare as Mr Owen thinks, however.

Earlier this month, Patricia Bragg from Essex found a mallard-shaped courgette - which bore an uncanny resemblance to Beatrix Potter character Jemima Puddleduck - nestling among leaves in her allotment.

Monday, October 20, 2008

It's called "buckypaper" and looks a lot like ordinary carbon paper, but don't be fooled by the name or flimsy appearance. It could revolutionize the way everything from airplanes to TVs are made.

Buckypaper is 10 times lighter but potentially 500 times stronger than steel when sheets of it are stacked and pressed together to form a composite.

Unlike conventional composite materials, though, it conducts electricity like copper or silicon and disperses heat like steel or brass.
"All those things are what a lot of people in nanotechnology have been working toward as sort of Holy Grails," said Wade Adams, a scientist at Rice University.

That idea — that there is great future promise for buckypaper and other derivatives of the ultra-tiny cylinders known as carbon nanotubes — has been floated for years now.

However, researchers at Florida State University say they have made important progress that may soon turn hype into reality.

Buckypaper is made from tube-shaped carbon molecules 50,000 times thinner than a human hair. Due to its unique properties, it is envisioned as a wondrous new material for light, energy-efficient aircraft and automobiles, more powerful computers, improved TV screens and many other products.

So far, buckypaper can be made at only a fraction of its potential strength, in small quantities and at a high price.
The Florida State researchers are developing manufacturing techniques that soon may make it competitive with the best composite materials now available.

"If this thing goes into production, this very well could be a very, very game-changing or revolutionary technology to the aerospace business," said Les Kramer, chief technologist for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, which is helping fund the Florida State research.

The scientific discovery that led to buckypaper virtually came from outer space.

In 1985, British scientist Harry Kroto joined researchers at Rice University for an experiment to create the same conditions that exist in a star. They wanted to find out how stars, the source of all carbon in the universe, make the element that is a main building block of life.

Everything went as planned with one exception.
"There was an extra character that turned up totally unexpected," recalled Kroto, now at Florida State heading a program that encourages the study of maths, science and technology in public schools. "It was a discovery out of left field."

The surprise guest was a molecule with 60 carbon atoms shaped like a soccer ball. To Kroto, it also looked like the geodesic domes promoted by Buckminster Fuller, an architect, inventor and futurist. That inspired Kroto to name the new molecule buckminsterfullerene, or "buckyballs" for short.

For their discovery of the buckyball — the third form of pure carbon to be discovered after graphite and diamonds — Kroto and his Rice colleagues, Robert Curl Jr. and Richard E. Smalley, were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996.

Separately, Japanese physicist Sumio Iijima developed a tube-shaped variation while doing research at Arizona State University.
Researchers at Smalley's laboratory then inadvertently found that the tubes would stick together when disbursed in a liquid suspension and filtered through a fine mesh, producing a thin film — buckypaper.

The secret of its strength is the huge surface area of each nanotube, said Ben Wang, director of Florida State's High-Performance Materials Institute.

"If you take a gram of nanotubes, just one gram, and if you unfold every tube into a graphite sheet, you can cover about two-thirds of a football field," Wang said.

Carbon nanotubes are already beginning to be used to strengthen tennis rackets and bicycles, but in small amounts. The epoxy resins used in those applications are 1 to 5 percent carbon nanotubes, which are added in the form of a fine powder. Buckypaper, which is a thin film rather than a powder, has a much higher nanotube content — about 50 percent.

One challenge is that the tubes clump together at odd angles, limiting their strength in buckypaper. Wang and his fellow researchers found a solution: Exposing the tubes to high magnetism causes most of them to line up in the same direction, increasing their collective strength.

Another problem is the tubes are so perfectly smooth it's hard to hold them together with epoxy. Researchers are looking for ways to create some surface defects — but not too many — to improve bonding.
So far, the Florida State institute has been able to produce buckypaper with half the strength of the best existing composite material, known as IM7. Wang expects to close the gap quickly.

"By the end of next year we should have a buckypaper composite as strong as IM7, and it's 35 per cent lighter," Wang said.

Buckypaper now is being made only in the laboratory, but Florida State is in the early stages of spinning out a company to make commercial buckypaper.

"These guys have actually demonstrated materials that are capable of being used on flying systems," said Adams, director of Rice's Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. "Having something that you can hold in your hand is an accomplishment in nanotechnology."

It takes upward of five years to get a new structural material certified for aviation use, so Wang said he expects buckypaper's first uses will be for electromagnetic interference shielding and lightning-strike protection on aircraft.

Electrical circuits and even natural causes such as the sun or Northern Lights can interfere with radios and other electronic gear. Buckypaper provides up to four times the shielding specified in a recent Air Force contract proposal, Wang said.

Typically, conventional composite materials have a copper mesh added for lightning protection. Replacing copper with buckypaper would save weight and fuel.

Wang demonstrated this with a composite model plane and a stun gun. Zapping an unprotected part of the model caused sparks to fly. The electric jolt, though, passed harmlessly across another section shielded by a strip of buckypaper.

Other near-term uses would be as electrodes for fuel cells, super capacitors and batteries, Wang said. Next in line, buckypaper could be a more efficient and lighter replacement for graphite sheets used in laptop computers to dissipate heat, which is harmful to electronics.

The long-range goal is to build planes, cars and other things with buckypaper composites. The military also is looking at it for use in armour plating and stealth technology.

"Our plan is perhaps in the next 12 months we'll begin maybe to have some commercial products," Wang said. "Nanotubes obviously are no longer just lab wonders. They have real world potential. It's real."

Having a mare: The horse who got its head stuck in a tree

This was the bizarre sight that awaited Jason Harschbarger when he heard his horse making noises on the hill above his house in Pullman, West Virginia.

The silly young filly, called Gracie, had to be cut free with a chainsaw after getting her head caught in a tree.

Mr Harschbarger, who took the picture before cutting her loose, says she suffered only minor injuries.

He said: 'She has a few cuts on her face and ear. Last I heard her jaw was a little dislocated but I think it is healing up and she can eat on her own again.'

I guess that's what happens when you start horsing around!

Meet my very flexible friend: Jane Fryer meets a contortionist who can squeeze through the head of a tennis racquet

Captain Frodo is a very disconcerting figure. It could be his semi-naked and very white body, bulging eyes, tattooed back, or perhaps the 2in black pegs skewered through his nipples that do it.

Or maybe it is the small fact that he is currently squeezing his body through a 10in diameter tennis racquet - strings removed.

Oh yes, and to speed things along a bit, he's now dislocating one joint after another, leaving spaces where shoulders should be and white limbs flopping and flapping in all the wrong places like a rag doll gone wrong.
'It's very straightforward, you just pop your arms through and sort of squeeze one shoulder through at a time - it helps if you can dislocate them,' he adds, twirling his left forearm above his head like a rotor blade and hitting himself in the face again with a loose dangly hand. 'This gives new meaning to tennis elbow, ha ha!'

Indeed. It also gives a new meaning to entertainment. Because after performances everywhere from Sydney to New York, Edinburgh to Ireland, Captain Frodo, 32, is taking London's West End by storm.

He's a contortionist in La Clique, a circus that also features juggling, sword-swallowing, strong men acts, acrobatics - indeed, pretty much everything but the bearded lady.

And today, on stage in the Hippodrome, Leicester Square, he is very kindly giving me a masterclass in tennis racquet contortion. Or, more accurately, making friendly, but not terribly helpful suggestions, as I stand trapped, sore and claustrophobic inside a graphite loop.

'It's difficult to explain exactly how - it's just sort of natural. Try wiggling a bit more . . . '

Great, thanks. It's like an extreme version of Twister, but with a tennis racquet instead of the slippery plastic mat.

I've always been pretty bendy, but Frodo certainly has the edge on me. And not just because he's spent years climbing in and out of tennis racquets. Frodo also suffers from the rare genetic affliction Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which means that the collagen in the body which should act as a connective protein doesn't function properly. Luckily for La Clique, this means greater flexibility for Captain Frodo.

'There are three different types of EDS and some are deadly, so I tend to refer to it as muscular elastosis in my show, so I don't offend anyone. I have it only very mildly with no side-effects, so rather than handicapping me, it has given me an opportunity. It's a great way to make a living.'

Frodo Sandven was never going to be a lawyer or an accountant. Entertaining was always in his blood. As, it seems, is talking. He is extraordinarily chatty and, despite his unconventional appearance, very engaging.

It all started when he was nine, living in the small town of Haugesund in Norway, and touring with his magician father, the Great Santine.

'In the beginning I was more of an assistant, in matching hat, bow tie and tails, but soon I was doing magic - vanishing handkerchiefs, balloons that popped with cards inside . . .'

And white rabbits? 'Oh yes, and doves - but it was difficult to take the animals on tour as you don't really want to be popping your rabbits and doves in and out of quarantine all the time.'

And the bendiness? 'Oh yes . .. we'd always known I was bendy, so we thought we'd make it part of the act. So my dad and I ordered a straitjacket from the Humane Restraint Company in New York. They usually supply mental institutions and police stations.

'I was only 12, so you'd think it'd be a little awkward when someone calls up and orders a children's-size straitjacket for private use - but they sent it straight away and we started using it as the finale in the show. My dad would strap me in and chain me up and I'd escape and the audience loved it.'

Tennis racquets were a natural progression.

'If you're a contortionist, people are always asking "Can you squeeze into a box?" or "What's the smallest thing you can squeeze though?" So why not a racquet?'

Why not indeed. Though there's more to squeezing yourself through a tennis racquet than meets the eye.

The shoulder bit isn't too bad - happily I'm a good deal smaller than 11st 2lb Frodo, so I narrowly avoid having to dislocate both shoulders and, after a wriggle, a grunt, a good bit of bruising and a mouth full of racquet I'm through, and listening to his chatter again.

'For me, it's less about the strict dimensions and more about entertaining and being funny,' he continues.

'Some of the things I do are so visceral that people find it very challenging to watch - some have to look away, or they faint. So I try to turn it into more of a slapstick cartoon, and in my act I fall about a bit and get tangled up with the microphone, to lighten things up a bit.'

And grotesque though it sounds, it makes compelling viewing, and as Frodo twists and turns and gurns, and gets tangled in his microphone, and a stool, and two tennis racquets during the show, it's side-splittingly funny. He's a natural comedian.

It's no surprise to hear that Buster Keaton was one of his heroes. Legendary escape artist Harry Houdini is another.

'I followed the same path - first Houdini was King of Cards, then he was King of Escapes.'

Frodo, however, has gone one further. He also plays the accordion, and the saw - yes, one of those big tree-cutting blades which apparently make a nice mournful sound when bowed.

He can juggle expertly and swallow a 21in sword: 'Anyone can learn, but there's a massive factor of uncomfortableness that can be hard to overcome. It takes years to train yourself to control your internal gag reflex, as well as learning to open the different sphincters to get it all the way down into the pit of your stomach.'

Just as the pit of my stomach is beginning to feel a bit odd, Frodo adds: 'Oh yes, and I'm a human blockhead.'

Which is . . .? 'It's when you put a nail or something else up your nose.'
Of course. 'I usually use a spoon - it's very hard training yourself not to sneeze, so it takes enormous self discipline.'

It goes without saying that Frodo has always been different.

'In my home town, I always stood out a bit. But being different is just about the context of where you are.'

Which is where La Clique comes in - an extraordinary group described as a mixture of cabaret, burlesque, vaudeville and freak show.

They have temporarily replaced their glamorous, red and gold mirrored tent to take a place in the Hippodrome - which opened in 1900 as a 'water circus', playing host to elephants, polar bears, sea lions and an enormous pool, and later Harry Houdini, Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey.

'La Clique is the one place where the more different you are, the better you fit in,' he explains.

'It's about everything that's hidden getting flaunted or celebrated. Just as church is a place of worship, La Clique is a place where you celebrate life. And you get it in both its beautiful and its ugly parts.'

Frodo's certainly done his utmost to stand out from the crowd. For starters, there's the enormous tattoo on his back.

'It's the king of escapes - a man wearing a crown and a straitjacket - and above is an extract from the ancient Norwegian calendar.'

And, dare I ask, the nipple things? 'They were painful at first, but what's a little pain when you want to look beautiful?'

No comment. But, for all the tattoos, piercings and popping sockets, Frodo couldn't be more pleasant company, or a more patient tutor - I'm only glad I'm not trying sword swallowing, or we'd be here for years.

'Perfecting any of this involves enormous self-discipline. We spend as much time on our occupation as anyone, but we're not learning to be a doctor, or a lawyer, we're learning how to swallow a sword.'

And has he suffered many injuries? 'I fall off the stage now and then, and I had a tear in my shoulder's rotator cuff a couple of years ago which was quite painful - it took 18 months to heal properly.'

And the big question - has he ever got stuck in his racquet?

'Never on stage - my weight doesn't fluctuate that much. But I have once been wedged in a racquet. Fortunately there was a strongman handy and he grabbed it and sort of shook me out.'

And, affairs of the heart - has his bendiness been a bit off putting?

'Oh no . . . I suppose with anything that's new and foreign it might seem a bit full on when you first see it, but it soon becomes normal and my girlfriend Miranda loves my act. I think she's proud of me doing my thing.'

And, with apologies for the rather indelicate question, does it help in other areas . . .?
'Well, we don't get the racquets out, but it certainly adds a dimension.'

And with that, we've both gone rather pink and move back to more serious questions, such as what's the point of spending years perfecting these skills?

'In some regards - apart from the actual performance - it's totally useless,' he says, cheery as ever. 'But it depends on how you look at it. Everybody's into different things and for me, standing up here and performing in front of an audience and making them laugh and gasp, is an amazing feeling.'

Back with our racquets, things are going pretty well. The chest bit's fine - if a bit of a snug fit - and I'm feeling confident.

'You're doing very well, but don't worry, it gets worse,' he says cheerily.

And it does. With the hips. 'This it the hardest bit - it's just one big bone that doesn't have any joints, so you have to sort of angle your way through it one bit at a time. Now tuck one foot in and basically flip it over.'

There is no flipping for me. I can't get my foot anywhere near the racket head and everything is screaming in pain. So with that, I call it a day.

After all, some things are better left to the experts and Captain Frodo is undoubtedly a comedy and contortionist genius.

I, meanwhile, will stick with tennis.

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