News Article | April 17, 2017
Habitat: Endemic to the rainforests of São Tomé island, Gulf of Guinea, West Africa Deep within the rainforests of São Tomé, an odd-looking bird with burnished brown feathers and a grey, outsized, parrot-like beak lives in the canopy, making occasional forays into the world below for a fruit snack. The setting – inaccessible forest on a small volcanic island that is one of the wettest places on Earth – only increases the mystique around this bird, which is one of the least observed of them all. Now it turns out the species was also misidentified, and it is actually the largest canary on the planet, 50 per cent heavier than the next largest species. Although it is small for a bird, being only about 20 cm long, the size of a common or European starling, the canary is a giant compared with other members of its genus, which are slightly smaller than house sparrows. It is found only on São Tomé and is critically endangered. In 1888, Francisco Newton, a Portuguese naturalist, collected the first three specimens. The bird then vanished from popular record until 101 years later, when a couple of birdwatchers chanced upon it. Its size, strange flattened head and large beak caused confusion among ornithologists. As a result, it was placed in a separate genus, Neospiza, which simply means “new finch”. Over many years of fieldwork on the island, Martim Melo from the University of Porto, Portugal, collected four new specimens. Genetic analysis now shows beyond doubt that the grosbeak is a canary (genus Crithagra). Its closest relative is a seedeater, Crithagra rufobrunnea, that is found on São Tomé and the neighbouring island of Príncipe. Accordingly, Neospiza concolor has been renamed Crithagra concolor. The two Crithagra species diverged from a common ancestor about 1 million years ago. “Probably the grosbeak was already slightly larger and selection favoured the increase in bill size, allowing it to explore resources that are inaccessible to the smaller Crithagra rufobrunnea,” says Melo. Very little is known about the natural history of this enigmatic bird. “Such a large bill is certainly linked to its diet, probably to deal with one or a few specific food items,” says Melo. There are more than 140 bird species on São Tomé and Príncipe. Of these, 20 are endemic, including three giants – the grosbeak, a sunbird and a weaver bird, all of which are the largest in their respective families – and one dwarf, the smallest of the world’s ibis species. The island’s only native mammal species is also tiny: an endangered and elusive São Tomé shrew. “It is an interesting phenomenon that islands can cause bird taxa to become much bigger, but also much smaller than the species from which they derive,” says Nigel Collar of conservation partnership BirdLife International. “I think it has to do with adaptations to local environments in the absence of other competitors or in the presence of particular resources not found on the mainland.” Read more: Smallest perching bird’s long-lost family revealed by genetics; Minimals: Meet the smallest critters of all; Biggest ever flying bird and the beast that dwarfed it
Agency: GTR | Branch: NERC | Program: | Phase: Research Grant | Award Amount: 583.88K | Year: 2015
Terrestrial biodiversity is declining globally because of human impacts, of which land-use change has so far been the most important. When people change how land is used, many of the species originally present decline or disappear from the area, while others previously absent become established. Although some species are affected immediately, others might only respond later as the consequences of the land-use change ripple through the ecosystem. Such delayed or protracted responses, which we term biotic lag, have largely been ignored in large-scale models so far. Another shortcoming of much previous work is that it has focused on numbers of species, rather than what they do. Because winners from the change are likely to be ecologically different from losers, the land-use change impacts how the assemblage functions, as well as how many species it contains. Understanding how - and how quickly - land-use change affects local assemblages is crucial for supporting better land-use decisions in the decades to come, as people try to strike the balance between short-term needs for products from ecosystems and the longer-term need for sustainability. The most obvious way to assess the global effects of land-use change on local ecological communities would be to have monitored how land use and the community have changed over a large, representative set of sites over many decades. The sites have to be representative to avoid a biased result, and the long time scale is needed because the responses can unfold over many years. Because there is no such set of sites, less direct approaches are needed. We are planning to scour the ecological literature for comparisons of communities before and after land-use change. We can correct for bias because we have estimates of how common different changes in land use have been; and we will model how responses change over time after a land-use change so that we can use longer-term and shorter-term studies alike. There are many hundreds of suitable studies, and we will ask the researchers who produced them to share their data with us; we will then make them available to everyone at the end of the project. We will combine data on species abundances before and after the land-use change with information about their ecological roles, to reveal how - and how quickly - changing land use affects the relative abundances of the various species and the ecological structure and function of the community. Does conversion of natural habitats to agriculture tend to favour smaller species over large ones, for instance, and if so how quickly? Is metabolism faster in more human-dominated land uses? These analyses will require new compilations of trait data for several ecologically important and highly diverse arthropod groups; to produce these, we will make use of the expertise, collections and library of the Natural History Museum. In an earlier NERC-funded project (PREDICTS: www.predicts.org.uk), we have already compiled over 500 data sets - provided by over 300 different researchers - that compared otherwise-matched sites where land use differed. The PREDICTS database has amassed over 2,000,000 records, from over 18,000 sites in 88 countries. The database contains more than 1% as many species as have been formally described. Our analyses of this unprecedentedly large and representative data set indicates that land-use change has had a marked global impact on average local diversity. However, because PREDICTS data sets are spatial rather than temporal comparisons, they are not well-suited to analysing the dynamics of how assemblages respond to land-use change. More fundamentally, PREDICTS assumption that spatial comparisons are an adequate substitute for temporal data now needs testing. This proposal will deliver the necessary tests, as well as producing the most comprehensive picture of how land-use change reshapes ecological assemblages through time.
Agency: European Commission | Branch: FP7 | Program: CSA-SA | Phase: SiS-2010-1.0.1 | Award Amount: 7.48M | Year: 2011
GAP2 is about making a difference to an issue of significance to the whole of society; the wellbeing of the marine environment and the sustainability of fisheries upon which society depends for food. It builds on the relationships, processes and plans arising from GAP1 by enabling Mobilisation and Mutual Learning (MML) actions that promote stakeholder participation in the debate on and development of research knowledge and structures relevant to emerging policy on fisheries and the marine environment. A broad range of stakeholders will participate, including actors from civil society organisations, research institutions, universities, national and regional ministries and media organisations. Their work will involve: participatory research actions that integrate the knowledge of stakeholders and scientists and render it useful for management and policy development, critical evaluation of the participatory processes and incorporation of the lessons learned into systems of research and decision making. Global networks will be developed to enable trans- and international cooperation on comparing and establishing good practice. The actions of the participants and the outcomes from GAP2 will provide a concrete realisation of specific Science in Society objectives for engaging the public in research, enabling effective two-way communication between scientists and other stakeholders, and helping to make policy based on scientific evidence and research knowledge. It will contribute to the aim of the Science in Society programme to enhance democratic debate with a more engaged and informed public, by providing better conditions for collective choices on scientific issues relating to sustainable management, conservation of ecosystem integrity and biodiversity of the marine environment.
Agency: European Commission | Branch: FP7 | Program: CP-IP | Phase: ENV.2008.4.1.1.1. | Award Amount: 7.91M | Year: 2009
EuroGEOSS demonstrates the added value to the scientific community and society of making existing systems and applications interoperable and used within the GEOSS and INSPIRE frameworks. The project will build an initial operating capacity for a European Environment Earth Observation System in the three strategic areas of Drought, Forestry and Biodiversity. It will then undertakes the research necessary to develop this further into and advanced operating capacity that provides access not just to data but also to analytical models made understandable and useable by scientists from different disciplinary domains. This concept of inter-disciplinary interoperability requires research in advanced modelling from multi-scale heterogeneous data sources, expressing models as workflows of geo-processing components reusable by other communities, and ability to use natural language to interface with the models. The extension of INSPIRE and GEOSS components with concepts emerging in the Web 2.0 communities in respect to user interactions and resource discovery, also supports the wider engagement of the scientific community with GEOSS as a powerful means to improve the scientific understanding of the complex mechanisms driving the changes that affect our planet.
News Article | April 21, 2016
To prevent a new mass extinction of the world's animal and plant life, we need to understand the threats to biodiversity, where they occur and how quickly change is happening. For this to happen, we need reliable and accessible data. A new study published in Science today reveals those data are largely missing. We are lacking key information on important threats to biodiversity such as invasive species, logging, bush meat harvesting, and illegal wildlife trade. Over the past two years a consortium of 18 organizations, including UNEP-WCMC, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Luc Hoffmann Institute, a research hub at WWF International, and BirdLife International, compiled available global data on biodiversity threats. They reviewed almost 300 data sets and marked them on five attributes required for conservation assessments. Datasets should be freely available, up to date, repeated, at appropriate spatial resolution, and validated for accuracy. Only 5% of the datasets satisfied all attributes. "We were surprised that so few datasets met all of the five attributes we believe are required for 'gold standard' of data," says Lucas Joppa who leads environmental research at Microsoft and was lead author on the study. "We live in the age of Big Data, but are effectively flying blind when it comes to understanding what is threatening biodiversity around the world." "This analysis can help pioneer a new approach to mapping and measuring the threats facing endangered species and ecosystems," says Jon Hutton, Director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute. "This is critical if we are to understand why some populations of, for example, tigers or elephants are doing better than others." In some cases, the data needed for effective conservation policy already exists but are not accessible due to associated costs, commercial considerations or intellectual property arrangements. "Agreements between conservation organizations and private companies can help address this," says Brian O'Connor, Programme Officer for UNEP-WCMC's Science Programme. "For example, an agreement between UNEP-WCMC and IHS Company provides detailed and comprehensive data on oil and gas activity worldwide for use in biodiversity assessments." Governments are another valuable future source of information. "Open Government Initiatives such as those in the UK and US have made more than 200,000 datasets freely available, including several that are relevant to environmental conservation," says Piero Visconti, Postdoctoral Scientist at UNEP-WCMC. "We encourage more initiatives of this kind." This work has already started to have an impact on conservation. "We are working with TRAFFIC and UNEP to analyse legal and illegal wildlife trade to address one of the critical knowledge gaps we identified in this study," concludes Neil Burgess, Head of Science at UNEP-WCMC. The authors of the study stress that filling these data gaps need not start from scratch. Several existing datasets, such as those dealing with invasive species on islands around the world, can be scaled up if appropriately resourced. Explore further: Scientists identify the world's most irreplaceable protected areas
Agency: European Commission | Branch: H2020 | Program: IA | Phase: SC5-17-2015 | Award Amount: 5.73M | Year: 2016
Currently within the EUs Earth Observation (EO) monitoring framework, there is a need for low-cost methods for acquiring high quality in-situ data to create accurate and well-validated environmental monitoring products. The aim of the LandSense project is to build a far reaching citizen observatory for Land Use and Land Cover (LULC) monitoring that will also function as a technology innovation marketplace. LandSense will deploy advanced tools, services and resources to mobilize and engage citizens to collect in-situ observations (i.e. ground-based data and visual interpretations of EO imagery). Integrating these citizen-driven in-situ data collections with established authoritative and open access data sources will help reduce costs, extend GEOSS and Copernicus capacities, and support comprehensive environmental monitoring systems. New LandSense services (LandSense Campaigner, FarmLand Support, Change Detector and Quality Assurance & Control) will be deployed in three demonstration cases that will address critical LULC issues in the areas of urbanization, agricultural land use and forest/habitat monitoring. Policy-relevant campaigns will be implemented in close collaboration with multiple stakeholders to ensure that citizen observations contribute to EU-wide environmental governance and decision-making. There will be numerous pathways to citizen empowerment via the LandSense Engagement Platform, i.e. tools for discussion, online voting collaborative mapping, as well as events linked to various campaigns involving public consultation. Simultaneously, to improve Europes role in the business of in-situ monitoring, LandSense will create sustainable business models to support market uptake and innovation of its novel added-value products and services.
Agency: European Commission | Branch: H2020 | Program: RIA | Phase: EO-2-2015 | Award Amount: 2.67M | Year: 2016
EO4wildlife main objective is to bring large number of multidisciplinary scientists such as biologists, ecologists and ornithologists around the world to collaborate closely together while using European Sentinel Copernicus Earth Observation more heavily and efficiently. In order to reach such important objective, an open service platform and interoperable toolbox will be designed and developed. It will offer high level services that can be accessed by scientists to perform their respective research. The platform front end will be easy-to-use, access and offer dedicated services that will enable them process their geospatial environmental stimulations using Sentinel Earth Observation data that are intelligently combined with other observation sources. Specifically, the EO4wildlife platform will enable the integration of Sentinel data, ARGOS archive databases and real time thematic databank portals, including Wildlifetracking.org, Seabirdtracking.org, and other Earth Observation and MetOcean databases; locally or remotely, and simultaneously. EO4wildlife research specialises in the intelligent management big data, processing, advanced analytics and a Knowledge Base for wildlife migratory behaviour and trends forecast. The research will lead to the development of web-enabled open services using OGC standards for sensor observation and measurements and data processing of heterogeneous geospatial observation data and uncertainties. EO4wildlife will design, implement and validate various scenarios based on real operational use case requirements in the field of wildlife migrations, habitats and behaviour. These include: (1) Management tools for regulatory authorities to achieve real-time advanced decision-making on the protection of protect seabird species; (2) Enhancing scientific knowledge of pelagic fish migrations routes, reproduction and feeding behaviours for better species management; and (3) Setting up tools to assist marine protected areas and management.
News Article | March 21, 2016
The study, titled "Invasive mammal eradication on islands results in substantial conservation gains," examined how native species responded to projects that eradicated invasive mammals from islands. The researchers found 596 populations of 236 native species on 181 islands benefitted from these eradications. The study is scheduled for publication the week of March 21, 2016 in the online Early Edition of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We've known that invasive mammal eradications are a powerful conservation tool, but this is the first time the benefits have been quantified at the global scale," said lead author Holly Jones, assistant professor in biological sciences and the Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability, and Energy at Northern Illinois University. "Twenty one billion dollars (US) are spent globally each year on nature conservation. A small fraction of this goes to eradication of invasive species, yet this relatively simple, cost-effective conservation intervention is benefitting hundreds of native animals and endangered species. This is fantastic news in the race to prevent extinctions." "These island restoration projects are a proverbial silver bullet for biodiversity conservation," said co-author Nick Holmes, director of science for Island Conservation, a non-profit organization with a mission to prevent extinctions by removing invasive species from islands. "For any conservation intervention, it is rare to find a body of global evidence measuring the outcomes for native species. These results are a testament to the value of these types of projects and the practitioners advancing them around our world." The research team conducted a large-scale literature and database review along with expert interviews to estimate the benefits to native species of removing invasive mammals found on islands. The researchers documented positive responses, including population increases, recolonization and successful reintroductions. Four species that qualified for down-listing to a lower category of extinction risk on the IUCN Red List, in part due to invasive mammal eradication, were the Island fox (California), Seychelles magpie robin (Seychelles), Cook's petrel (New Zealand) and Black-vented shearwater (Mexico). Once introduced to islands, invasive mammals—primarily rodents, feral goats and feral cats—represent key threats to native species through predation, competition and habitat loss. "Humans have introduced non-native, invasive mammals (accidentally or intentionally) to 90 percent of the world's island archipelagos," said co-author Don Croll, a biology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz. "These mammals have devastating consequences for ecosystems because island species evolved in isolation without these mammalian predators. They have little to no defense against invasive mammals." Islands with invasive species pose a unique biodiversity conservation challenge and opportunity. Islands occupy less than 6 percent of Earth's land area, yet are home to 15 percent of terrestrial species. Islands represent 61 percent of recorded extinctions with invasive species implicated in the majority of those. Thirty-seven percent of all Critically Endangered Species on the IUCN Red List are found on islands. "Invasive alien species are causing an extinction crisis on the world's islands, but our research shows that this is one problem for which we have the tools to tackle, and the results can be spectacularly successful," said co-author Stuart Butchart, head of science at BirdLife International, the world's largest partnership of nature conservation organizations. The researchers' noted examples of responses included: The New Zealand storm-petrel, thought extinct for more than 150 years, was recently found breeding on Little Barrier Island following cat and rat eradication. The Scripps' murrelet is no longer a candidate for listing on the U.S. Endangered Species Act following rat eradication on Anacapa Island. The California Channel Islands' endemic Island fox has been proposed to be removed from the Endangered Species Act following intensive conservation efforts, including a feral pig eradication on Santa Cruz Island. Documented beneficiaries of invasive mammal eradications are likely underreported because of a lack of monitoring, the researchers added. Biologists have long been aware of the damage that can be done at the hands of invasive species. In February 1894, in New Zealand, one of the Stephens Island lighthouse keepers' pregnant house cats escaped, went feral, and the population rocketed. By March 1895, cats were largely responsible for driving the Stephens Island wren to extinction. On the Pacific Ocean's Kiritimati Island, cats and rats wiped out the Christmas sandpiper in the late 1800s. Cats on Guadalupe Island, Mexico, drove the Guadalupe storm-petrel to extinction in the early 1900s. There are hundreds more stories like this. In recent decades, eradication programs have gained traction even on more populated islands. More than 1,100 attempts at eradication of invasive mammal populations have occurred. "Many eradication techniques were first developed in New Zealand, so much so that it's been commonplace to 'call the Kiwis' if you want to eradicate mammals," Jones said. "Now, more and more conservation organizations worldwide are embracing this conservation intervention." Jones hopes the study's results will help conservation practitioners see where they can make further strides to curb extinctions and protect native species. "While we can't bring back the species that have gone extinct, our analysis shows that removing invasive mammals can help us undo some of the damage we've caused," she said. Explore further: Introducing species to change ecosystems is a balancing act More information: Invasive mammal eradication on islands results in substantial conservation gains, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1521179113
News Article | November 9, 2016
The world’s most respected database of endangered species is underestimating—sometimes severely—the risk of extinction to many animals around the world. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which finds that, by failing to incorporate new technologies like satellite and aerial imaging, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species has misclassified the threats to hundreds of animals. As a result, conservation groups may be missing numerous species at risk of disappearing. The study’s overall approach is sound, says Stuart Butchart, head of science for BirdLife International in Cambridge, U.K., an organization tasked with tracking birds for IUCN. But he says the study’s authors misapplied their findings and mistakenly reclassified many of the animals—a charge the authors dispute. The IUCN Red List, created in 1964, labels species on a scale ranging from “Least Concern” to “Extinct” with several gradients in between. The database relies upon studies by scientists and conservationists, as well as data from tens of thousands of volunteer and professional naturalists. IUCN officials plug those observations into an algorithm that considers factors such as habitat loss and population trends, and then ranks where the species fall on the Red List. “It’s the international standard,” says Stuart Pimm, the senior investigator on the new study and a conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “And it’s not living up to its full potential.” The problem, Pimm says, is that IUCN’s criteria for assessing species are outdated. The organization relies upon old maps drawn by experts for its habitat data, and it has not incorporated satellite and aerial imaging to better detect deforestation and encroaching human settlement. As a result, he says, the IUCN Red List’s assessments are missing subtle geographic features such as patchy deforestation and variations in elevation that can limit where species can live within a given range. For the study, Pimm, along with study lead author Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela and colleagues, looked at 586 species of birds (the team is composed primarily of bird researchers) currently on the IUCN Red List from six bird-rich regions around the world, including the Western Andes of Colombia, Southeast Asia, and Brazil. Of those species, the list designates 108 as at risk for extinction. Pimm’s team analyzed the birds’ habitats using remote-sensing data on forest coverage and elevation. The researchers calculated how much viable habitat remains for each of the species, then reran IUCN’s risk assessment algorithms based on these new habitat estimates. The bad news: 210 birds would be reclassified with a higher threat level—“threatened” or worse for the vast majority, the team reports today in Science Advances. For example, the grey-winged cotinga is currently listed as “vulnerable” with a habitable range of some 3300 square kilometers in the forested mountains northeast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The bird is only found at elevations between about 1200 and 1800 meters. Pimm’s team found that only about 100 square kilometers meet the bird’s habitat requirement. That would shift the bird’s threat level to “critically endangered.” Though this study only analyzed birds, Pimm says the results should generalize to mammals and amphibians, as well. Encouraging IUCN to adopt better mapping and remote sensing techniques is a laudable goal, writes Walter Jetz, an ecologist at Yale University, in an email. The main need, he adds, is for more habitat and biodiversity data to complement and expand on the IUCN Red List, rather than relying on the Red List as a singular authority on extinction risk. Butchart says the researchers used the wrong parameters when recalculating the birds’ extinction risk and overestimated the species’ extinction risk. But the authors defend their approach. As to the larger study’s suggestion that the Red List focus on viable habitat within a species’ range, Butchart writes that IUCN is planning to do just that in future iterations of the list. *Update, 9 November, 3:51 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that Stuart Pimm is the lead investigator on the new study.
News Article | June 9, 2015
A bird that was once one of the most abundant in Europe and Asia is being hunted to near extinction because of Chinese eating habits, according to a study published on Tuesday. The population of the yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola) has plunged by 90% since 1980, all but disappearing from eastern Europe, Japan and large parts of Russia, said the study, published in the Conservation Biology journal. Following initial population declines, China in 1997 banned the hunting of the species, known in the country as the “rice bird”. However, millions of these birds, along with other songbirds, were still being killed for food and sold on the black market as late as 2013, said the study. It said consumption of these birds has increased as a result of economic growth and prosperity in east Asia, with an estimate in 2001 claiming 1m buntings were consumed in China’s southern Guangdong province alone. The birds breed north of the Himalayas and spend their winters in warmer southeast Asia, passing through eastern China where they have been hunted for more than 2,000 years, according to the conservation group BirdLife International. At their wintering grounds, they gather in huge flocks at night-time roosts, making them easy prey for trappers using nets, the group said. The songbird, which nests on the ground in open scrubs, is distinctive for its yellow underparts. The paper in Conservation Biology drew parallels between the migratory bird and the North American passenger pigeon, which became extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting. “The magnitude and speed of the decline is unprecedented among birds distributed over such a large area, with the exception of the passenger pigeon,” the paper’s lead author, Dr Johannes Kamp from the University of Munster, said in a statement released by BirdLife International. “High levels of hunting also appear to be responsible for the declines we are seeing in yellow-breasted bunting.” Yellow-breasted buntings have since 2013 been classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as an “endangered” species due to rapid population decline from trapping outside their breeding grounds. “To reverse these declines we need to better educate people of the consequences of eating wildlife. We also need a better and more efficient reporting system for law enforcement,” said BirdLife International’s senior conservation officer Simba Chan.