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Ellstrand N.C.,Center for Conservation Biology | Kaus A.,Institute for Mexico | Lubinsky P.,U.S. Department of Agriculture | McDade L.A.,Claremont Graduate University | And 6 more authors.
BioScience | Year: 2010

Hybridization in the wild between closely related species is not unusual. In some cases, hybridization may prove beneficial for a rare taxon. Under certain conditions, however, a rare taxon can be driven rapidly to extinction by hybridizing with a more common taxon. This problem is urgent because human activities are increasingly bringing together cross-compatible species that were previously geographically isolated. US conservation policy has yet to address how to deal with hybrid-derived individuals whose ancestry includes an endangered species. Developing sound science-based conservation policy that addresses hybridization requires cross-disciplinary social-science and life-science research to address the following two questions: (1) How do human decisions with regard to species protection, trade, transportation, land use, and other factors affect the opportunities for, and rates of hybridization between, rare species and more common relatives? and (2) How do the positive or negative perceived values regarding hybrids and hybrid-derived individuals compare with values regarding their nonhybridized counterparts from social, cultural, economic, and environmental perspectives? In this article we explore the ways to inform such policy using a multidisciplinary approach. © 2010 by American Institute of Biological Sciences. All rights reserved.

News Article | April 19, 2016

The results of the survey, which was conducted by scientists from the University of California campuses in Riverside, Berkeley and Davis were just published in the journal BioScience. The survey coincides with a shift in ecology away from teaching and research rooted in natural history and toward modeling, laboratory and theoretical research, which tend to attract more grant funding and publications in higher-impact academic journals. This shift is occurring despite the cross-disciplinary connections natural history research creates among species, habitats and ecosystems. For the survey project, which was led by Cameron Barrows, an associate researcher at UC Riverside's Center for Conservation Biology, the researchers questioned 185 professionals at 31 universities in California. Building on previous citizen science research by Barrows, the researchers argue that citizen science may be the key to keeping natural history relevant in the 21st century and keeping pace with the direction of modern ecology. They write: "Modern natural historians are in a unique position to act as a bridge between science and nonscientists and should capitalize on the inclusion of the public in ways that will empower them to make societal changes to combat looming environmental and conservation issues." Explore further: Natural history must reclaim its place More information: Cameron W. Barrows et al. At a Crossroads: The Nature of Natural History in the Twenty-First Century, BioScience (2016). DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biw043

News Article | November 9, 2016

Feisal Mohammed Ali, a prominent member of the Kenyan business community, was convicted last July of trafficking two tons of elephant ivory found in a Fuji Motors parking lot in Mombasa. The landmark ruling came after two years of drama: Feisal’s flight to Tanzania, his capture and repatriation, the disappearance of nine vehicles that were major evidence in the case, and accusations of evidence tampering. The landmark wildlife crime verdict – and 20-year sentence for Feisal – in part came down to political will, courtroom monitoring by NGOs, and police work. Also key, experts say, was the ability to use genetic tests to tie the illegally trafficked elephant tusks from different shipments to the cartel headed by Feisal. “When we linked tusks genetically, we were able to say that there was a one-in-quadrillion chance that those two shipments came from a random individual, [rather than from the accused],” explains Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, who consulted with Kenyan prosecutors on the Feisal case. “That is directly usable for courtroom prosecutions and is becoming more and more so.” In the last several years, technical progress in human forensics – genetic, spectrographic, chemical, analytical – has spilled over into wildlife and plant forensics and research. In 2013, the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (Cites) recognized the importance of wildlife forensics, and in September, at the most recent Cites meeting in Johannesburg, forensics hit the mainstream. Several conference workshops and NGO seminars sought to teach airport officials and police different wildlife forensic techniques, such as how to take tissue samples, gather intelligence, and use genetic evidence. The parties also passed a resolution that encourages Cites members to create and maintain reference collections of wood samples that forensic scientists might use when analyzing wood they suspect has been illegally traded. Experts also presented the first-ever global survey of wildlife forensic labs. Until recently, wildlife crime investigators largely focused on seizing contraband, identifying the species in a seized shipment, and prosecuting those caught red-handed – usually poachers lower down the criminal food chain. The developing science of wildlife forensics, however, makes it possible for investigators to perform tests that were just dreams a decade or two ago. Separating out genetic and chemical markers from physical samples such as rhino horn or a piece of rosewood, forensic scientists can often tell the age of the sample, exactly where the animal or plant came from, what its parentage might be, and how this relates to other seized shipments. Sometimes, forensic scientists can even shed light on the structure of the criminal networks behind the trade by showing where poached animals and plants are killed, and what ports are used to transport them. In recent years, trade in endangered wildlife has soared. Some scientists estimate that 40,000 African elephants are killed for their tusks each year, nearly 10% of the estimated wild population of 400,000. Only 5,000 black rhinos and 3,900 tigers remain in the wild. Rhino poaching deaths have quadrupled since 2010. And those are just the most charismatic of the thousands of illegally traded species: Proboscis monkeys, rosewood, pangolin (an armadillo-like mammal), and many others suffer similar pressures. In many countries where endangered wildlife are poached or traded, forensics is just beginning to gain traction. Experts universally lament the lack of funding, equipment, and international cooperation. But there are hopeful cases that show how the field could have a profound impact: • Wasser led a team that created a genetic database from 28 large seizures of ivory tusks between 1996 and 2014. By statistically matching the genotypes of known elephant populations to 16 loci on genetic samples from seized tusks, Wasser’s team was able to show in a 2015 paper that most elephants were killed in just four areas of the African continent. And most of the major seizures came from just two regions: savanna elephants poached in south-eastern Tanzania and neighboring Mozambique, and forest elephants in Gabon and neighboring areas of Congo and the Central African Republic. “How many of these cases get prosecuted?” Wasser asks. “Hardly any. Nobody is digging deeper, and that has to change. This is transnational crime, and our approach certainly changed for narcotics. Things need to change for wildlife crime as well.” • Tiger populations have been mapped in Nepal and in south-east Asia, using genetic information from scat. Since only 40 to 50 viable populations of wild tigers remain worldwide, conservationists hope to use this information to better allocate resources to fight poaching. Tigers are naturally solitary and hard to track. By knowing where the populations are, and how they’re related, rangers can better predict where the poachers will be as well. Last April, the World Wildlife Fund announced that tiger numbers are increasing for the first time in 100 years, and credited these improved surveys as being partly responsible. • Shark fins, used to make the coveted Chinese delicacy shark fin soup, can be difficult to identify once separated from the shark, skinned, and processed. A landmark 2015 study used genetic markers to show that even in places where the soup is legal, it contains shark fins traded illegally – that is, from shark species protected by Cites. Similar genetic data has been used in prosecutions in the US, Australia, and other countries. • In South Africa, the University of Pretoria has compiled a genetic database of DNA samples from black and white rhinos throughout the country. Based on a human database used in American law enforcement, called the Offender Data Information System (ODIS), the university created a rhino database, “rhODIS.” It can help match recovered rhino horn to individual rhinos and poached rhinos, by comparing the genetics of the seized horn to the samples in the database. In 2012, data from this rhODIS helped put a Zimbabwean trafficker behind bars for 10 years, when prosecutors proved that three horns found in his possession were genetically linked to a poaching incident in which a white rhino female and calf had been killed. • The Gabon park system, at the center of one of the continent’s poaching hotspots, is compiling a database of poached elephant DNA that park officials hope will be useful in prosecutions. • Thailand last month announced a DNA registration system for all domesticated elephants so that they can be distinguished from their wild counterparts, which traders sometimes illegally pass off as those used for domestic purposes. Yet for all the promise of these advances, the first international survey of wildlife forensic capability, presented at the most recent Cites meeting, paints a sobering picture. “[There is] still insufficient capacity for conducting wildlife forensic casework, particularly in regions with the greatest need for the identification of Cites-listed species in trade,” the report states. The review, prepared by the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, tallied 110 questionnaire responses from 39 countries. The investigators found that only one-third of labs cooperated internationally, only one half operated according to any quality assurance standard, only one-quarter reported being involved in actual legal cases, and only six wildlife forensic labs in the world have been audited by any external accrediting agency. The report does point out that standardization in the field remains in its infancy, and expresses hope that these numbers will increase in the next five years. But many issues – data sharing, lab and sample collecting standards, budgets – need to be worked out for wildlife forensics to reach its potential, experts say. In 2013, Cites formally urged countries seizing elephant tusk shipments of more than half a ton to turn over samples within 90 days. “At this stage we receive samples several months or years after seizure and the matches are merely a matter of interest and to give an indication of the movement of the products, rather than evidence in prosecutions,” says Cindy Harper, director of the Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory that manages the rhODIS database at the University of Pretoria. She said it was vital to rapidly link all wildlife product seizures with international databases. In the last five years, many countries have begun to invest in wildlife forensic labs, including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Botswana, Kenya, and South Africa. The Society for Wildlife Forensic Science now has approximately 150 members in 60 labs around the world, and has begun to circulate an international test for certifying laboratories. Meanwhile, new methods are coming out of forensic labs all the time. Confronted with a pallet of wood from Asia, it’s now possible to tell which of the logs or boards came from protected wild trees, and which from tree plantations, grown to take the pressure off endangered wild forests. A DART-TOF technique – zapping wood samples with superheated helium to create particulates with a chemical signature that can be measured by spectrography – allows samples to be quickly tested. It has recently been used to identify various types of oaks, eucalypts, and rosewoods. Researchers say they hope it will be useful in future prosecutions of timber poachers. A new technique presented at the last Cites meetings enables law enforcement officials to measure isotopes in ivory, dating the age of seized tusks. Atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s released carbon-14 that was taken up by plants worldwide. That carbon-14 remains, gradually decreasing by a known amount each year. When elephants eat plants, some of that carbon-14 travels to their tusks, and scientists can pinpoint the year of an animal’s death by measuring the amount of carbon-14 in a tusk. If a tusk dates from after 1989 – when the global ivory trade was banned – it’s probably illegal. Though this method has been used in a few cases, it is not widespread. More technical advances are in the works. Next generation sequencing (NGS), a method that makes it fast and relatively inexpensive to sequence the whole genetic code of an organism, might make it possible to identify individual animals more quickly and cheaply, scientists say. A company in Oxford, England, is developing MinION, a hand-held gene sequencer. Experts say that it could be useful, making it possible to quickly identify a poached species, or even an individual, in the field. But it’s expensive, and you need training to use it. Wasser was just awarded a grant from the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge for a project that will use NGS to track trade in pangolins, an armadillo-like animal prized as a culinary delicacy and ingredient in traditional medicine. He plans to use NGS to create a map of pangolin-poaching incidents similar to the one he compiled for elephants. Given the dire epidemic of wildlife poaching, forensic experts say tools such as genetic analysis must be used to help turn the tide in the battle to save elephants, rhinos, tigers, and other species. “We … need more awareness that there is tech out there which can help answer these sorts of questions,” says Eleanor Dormontt, who works on illegal timber trade issues at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

Melis C.,Center for Conservation Biology | Basille M.,Center for Conservation Biology | Basille M.,University of Lyon | Basille M.,University Claude Bernard Lyon 1 | And 9 more authors.
Ecoscience | Year: 2010

The extent to which large carnivores compete with hunters for harvestable populations of wild ungulates is a topic of widespread controversy in many areas of the world where carnivore populations are recovering or are reintroduced. Theory predicts that predation impacts should vary with prey density and environmental conditions. To test this prediction, we analyzed trends in an index of population abundance of roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) over 9 y in 144 Norwegian municipalities. The municipalities span a wide range of landscapes and climatic conditions and were associated with a varying degree of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) presence. There was a wide variation in trends of roe deer abundance (estimated long-term average ranging from 0.69 to 1.23) among municipalities. Roe deer population growth rates were lower in the municipalities with lynx and harsh climatic conditions than in municipalities with mild climatic conditions and/or without lynx. Thus, lynx presence appears to be having a negative impact on roe deer populations; this was especially evident in areas with unfavourable environmental conditions. Our finding that estimated long-term average values of were less than 1 in many municipalities indicates that roe deer populations in Norway may not be able to sustain current combined mortality from hunters and lynx, especially in marginal areas.

Certain G.,Norwegian Institute for Nature Research | Certain G.,Norwegian Institute of Marine Research | Skarpaas O.,Norwegian Institute for Nature Research | Bjerke J.-W.,Norwegian Institute for Nature Research | And 17 more authors.
PLoS ONE | Year: 2011

The magnitude and urgency of the biodiversity crisis is widely recognized within scientific and political organizations. However, a lack of integrated measures for biodiversity has greatly constrained the national and international response to the biodiversity crisis. Thus, integrated biodiversity indexes will greatly facilitate information transfer from science toward other areas of human society. The Nature Index framework samples scientific information on biodiversity from a variety of sources, synthesizes this information, and then transmits it in a simplified form to environmental managers, policymakers, and the public. The Nature Index optimizes information use by incorporating expert judgment, monitoring-based estimates, and model-based estimates. The index relies on a network of scientific experts, each of whom is responsible for one or more biodiversity indicators. The resulting set of indicators is supposed to represent the best available knowledge on the state of biodiversity and ecosystems in any given area. The value of each indicator is scaled relative to a reference state, i.e., a predicted value assessed by each expert for a hypothetical undisturbed or sustainably managed ecosystem. Scaled indicator values can be aggregated or disaggregated over different axes representing spatiotemporal dimensions or thematic groups. A range of scaling models can be applied to allow for different ways of interpreting the reference states, e.g., optimal situations or minimum sustainable levels. Statistical testing for differences in space or time can be implemented using Monte-Carlo simulations. This study presents the Nature Index framework and details its implementation in Norway. The results suggest that the framework is a functional, efficient, and pragmatic approach for gathering and synthesizing scientific knowledge on the state of biodiversity in any marine or terrestrial ecosystem and has general applicability worldwide. © 2011 Certain et al.

Martin J.,University of Lyon | Martin J.,Norwegian University of Life Sciences | Martin J.,University of Witwatersrand | Martin J.,University Claude Bernard Lyon 1 | And 9 more authors.
Journal of Animal Ecology | Year: 2013

Movement is fundamental to individual and population dynamics, as it allows individuals to meet their basic requirements. Although movement patterns reflect interactions between internal and external factors, only few studies have examined the effects of these factors on movement simultaneously, and they generally focused on particular biological contexts (e.g. dispersal, foraging). However, the relative importance of these factors in driving individual routine movements might reflect a species' potential flexibility to cope with landscape changes and therefore buffer their potential impact on fitness. We used data from GPS collars on Scandinavian brown bears to investigate the relative role of these factors, as well as an additional factor (period of the year) on routine movements at two spatial scales (hourly and daily relocations). As expected, internal factors played a major role in driving movement, compared to external factors at both scales, but its relative importance was greater at a finer scale. In particular, the interaction between reproductive status and period of the year was one of the most influential variables, females being constrained by the movement capacity of their cubs in the first periods of the year. The effect of human disturbance on movement was also greater for females with cubs than for lone females. This study showed how reciprocal modulation of internal and external factors is shaping space use of brown bears. We stress that these factors should be studied simultaneously to avoid the risk of obtaining context-dependent inferences. Moreover, the study of their relative contribution is also highly relevant in the context of multiple-use landscapes, as human activities generally affect the landscape more than they affect the internal states of an individual. Species or individuals with important internal constraints should be less responsive to changes in their environment as they have less freedom from internal constraints and should thus be more sensitive to human alteration of the landscape, as shown for females with cubs in this study. © 2012 The Authors. Journal of Animal Ecology © 2012 British Ecological Society.

The first phase of Operation Woodpecker went off without a hitch, but it's too early to call it a success. Bryan Watts explained that the point of the exercise is to establish a breeding population of red-cockaded woodpeckers within the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. It would be the second population of the endangered birds in Virginia. A closely watched group of the birds have been doing well in the Piney Grove preserve in Sussex County. Watts is the director of the Center for Conservation Biology. The CCB collaborated in the operation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, North Carolina Department of Transportation and J. Carter and Associates. Biologists captured four male and four female birds from healthy populations in the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina and in the Palmetto-Peartree Preserve in North Carolina. The collaborators identified individual birds for the translocation, selecting birds that had hatched this year and therefore would disperse this fall. The birds were caught in the evening of Oct. 22, just after they entered their nesting cavity for the night. Birds were captured using telescopic net poles that cover the cavity entrance. The boxed woodpeckers were driven to their new home in the Great Dismal, where 32 artificial cavities had been installed in trees there. Each bird was placed in a new home, and the cavity opening was covered with a screen. "At dawn, we pulled the screens off, and let the birds disperse," Watts said. The relocation technique for these birds is not new. The CCB used essentially the same process in the early 2000s to boost the woodpecker population in the Piney Grove habitat. "It worked really well," Watts said. "The retention rates have been similar to the natural retention rates—birds that have hatched in that population have stayed at a similar rate to ones that we brought in." CCB biologist Mike Wilson noted that the relocated woodpeckers joined an existing population at Piney Grove and had no trouble mingling with the resident birds. "That translocation to Piney Grove was really important," Wilson said. "Twenty-five birds were moved up; five of those birds became breeders." Watts explained that before their habitat was lost to clearing and logging, red cockaded woodpeckers were fairly plentiful—but probably not common—south of the James. Virginia is at the northern fringe of the species' range, and until the relocation, Piney Grove had Virginia's only breeding population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. The birds are doing quite well in their Sussex County home, Watts said. "But they are all in one place," he added. "That makes them vulnerable to catastrophic impacts like a hurricane, which could flatten Piney Grove. And that would be that." The translocation was a major undertaking, with a slate of logistics that wouldn't be unfamiliar to Seal Team Six. Watts explained that the red cockaded woodpecker is a species that needs a number of special conditions to thrive. In the first place, he said, the birds are cavity nesters and quite selective about the trees they choose. "This species requires live pine, and older-age live pine," he said. When it comes to nest, they have a preference for a mature pine that's 80 years old or more. Watts explained that the woodpeckers are the only bird in North America that excavates cavities in live pine trees. "It's a very unusual strategy," he said. "The birds choose trees that are infected with red heart disease, which softens the heartwood of the tree." It takes a red-cockaded woodpecker months to hammer out a home, Watts explained, so the group prepared the Great Dismal site for woodpeckers by constructing artificial cavity boxes that were fitted into the trunks of appropriate trees. A total of 32 cavities were prepared for the eight birds. Watts said that the cavities were separated into eight separate neighborhoods, or "recruitment clusters," to accommodate woodpecker lifestyle preferences. "When these birds are released, they may settle within that cluster or they may leave altogether or they may mix up," he explained. "So we don't know who is going to like whom and what areas they're going to like." Good red-cockaded woodpecker habitat also has a clear understory; the brushy undergrowth is usually kept to a minimum by fire, Watts explained. Piney Grove is kept in top shape by regular controlled burns, but he said the peaty soil of the Great Dismal precludes such a management technique for the relocated population. "Once you get a peat fire going, it's almost impossible to put out," Watts said. "So they're going to have to keep the understory clear by other means." The birds also have a complex social structure and are one of the few North American bird species that are cooperative breeders: Young birds often help to raise the new chicks. "This behavior evolves in species with very restricted habitat," Watts explained." When the young reach a certain age, there's often no place to go, because the habitat is bottled up." He noted other birds with similar parenting behavior include brown-headed nuthatch, purple gallinule and the Harris hawk. Wilson said that when it comes to forage, the red cockaded woodpeckers are known as "ant specialists," especially when young. They move up to wood roaches as adults. In winter, when the bugs are scarce, the birds get by on pine nuts. Their eating habits also affect habitat preferences, he said. "Each group, or cluster, generally requires anywhere from a quarter- to a half-mile radius foraging zone," Wilson said. "Definitely a larger area than a red bellied or a red headed woodpecker." Watts explained that the establishment of a second population of Virginia's red-cockaded woodpeckers has been a goal of several conservation groups for a decade. But, he said, the yardstick of the success of Operation Woodpecker will be in the reproduction. "It's a milestone," Watts said. "But we need to keep in mind the distinction between introducing birds, like we did last week, versus birds establishing a population, which we won't know until we see breeding in the spring."

News Article | April 7, 2016

Since the early 2000s when Research Associate Shawn Padgett pioneered the use of video cameras on nests to read bands, the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) and other groups have used camera traps to identify breeding adult peregrine falcons.

News Article | November 30, 2016

It's a sparrow-sized marsh bird. It hardly ever flies, and gets around by creeping through dense wetland vegetation. The black rail is a blank spot on many a life list and even most of the sightings are really "hearings," the birder identifying the species by its call—which often comes from a dark swamp in the dead of night. "Most people haven't seen one. Most birders haven't seen one," Bryan Watts said. "It's one of those species that beats birders." Watts, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology, has assembled a report called "Status and distribution of the eastern black rail along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of North America." The report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is part of a 15-year effort spearheaded by the CCB to get the black rail on the federal register of endangered and threatened species. It's the definitive document on the state of this endangered bird in the eastern U.S., but even this definitive document contains a large amount of uncertainty, largely because the black rail has been flying below the radar of professional ornithologists and birders alike since Audubon's day. The study area covers the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal states from Maine to Texas, plus Vermont, West Virginia and Tennessee. The report gives a wide range in estimated black rail population in the area—455 to 1,315 breeding pairs. Just three states, South Carolina, Florida and Texas, account for three quarters of the overall total. Watts said that Florida and Texas population estimates carry a high uncertainty rating, because of the large expanses of likely, but unsurveyed, black rail habitat in those two states. "There has been all this mystery around black rails because birders just can't get onto them," Watts said. "They occur in all these places that are away from where birders have access to." Black rails were discovered breeding in Philadelphia more than 150 years ago, but today there are huge blank spots in even the most basic knowledge about the birds. Watts says that all of the information on the population existed in bits and pieces scattered throughout more than 100 years of journals, museum specimens and unpublished observations. "People ask, 'What's in the literature?' Well, what's in the literature is little, tiny bits and pieces," he said. "The literature goes back to the beginning, which was 1836 in North America." Spoiler: We don't know much about this bird Watts began by compiling a bibliography of black rail observations, wading through more than 6,000 journal issues, checking out museum collections and downloading black rail records from e-bird, the online birding checklist run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Watts summed up his findings of looking through decades of ornithological research: Naturalists have never had a good handle on the black rail. There's never been a status assessment on the species, he said, because there isn't much survey data. "You go back to the very beginning; they didn't know anything about this bird," he said. "You come up to the present; we still don't know anything about this bird. It's because of how secretive it is." The birds spend their lives deep in tussocky marshes, making them an extremely challenging species to study. Very few black rails have been banded and their breeding habits are imperfectly understood. Black rails are not even particularly birdlike: Watt's report contains a quote that describes them as "a feathered mouse." "And that's the way they behave, too," he said. "They rarely take flight. They just scurry around. People get little, tiny glimpses of them scurrying between the vegetation. Rails are that way in general, but black rails are off the charts when it comes to how secretive they are." The black rail situation illustrates the degree to which the Center for Conservation Biology and other professional ornithologists rely on the reports of amateur birders. Their secretive habits, preference for out-of-the-way habitat and comparative rarity make the black rail a challenge for recreational birders. Very serious birders will go out of their way to list a black rail, but the black rail is not the least bit charismatic and not particularly attractive. So once a birder checks Laterallus jamaicensis off a life list, he or she is unlikely to go out of the way to look for more black rails. The habits of the birds, combined with the habits of birders, create a perfect drought of information. "We know the distribution of a lot of bird species because birders are good at documenting their location," Watts explained. "There are some exceptions to that, and the black rail is one, because they are so challenging and many birders aren't up to that." Watts said the CCB began its campaign to bring the black rail out of ornithological obscurity about 15 years ago. "We started the Eastern Working Group—I think it was in 2009—meeting with biologists throughout the range, trying to get momentum going," he said. "This particular effort was to compress 150 years of literature and bring us up to the present, so we can stop looking back and hopefully look forward." Despite the challenges posed by gathering patchy evidence on a secretive avian subject, Watts' report arrives at some pretty solid conclusions. Most importantly, he says, the black rail is in trouble as a species. "It looks like they're falling off a cliff," he said, adding that northern populations have experienced a particular crash in numbers. Overall, Watts said, the outlook isn't good for black rails anywhere in their range: The last record of a black rail observation in Virginia dates to 2014. Getting flooded out by sea level rise Secondly, the report notes that much of the bird's preferred habitat—or what's left of it—is doomed, mostly by sea-level rise. Watts said that black rails are known to use a variety of marshy areas, including inland wetlands, ponds, grassy fields and coastal prairies. But 60 percent of the documented sites in the study were classified as tidal salt marsh. To be precise, Watts said, black rails prefer high tidal marsh areas. "They don't like standing water," Watts said. "Now, a Virginia rail will build its nest right above standing water. Black rails won't do that. They want to have moist soil, but not be in the water. They occupy such a narrow hydrologic band of habitat." Watts said that rising sea levels will inundate the black rails' narrow hydrologic band, the area that's normally dampened by only the highest lunar tides. As the narrow band narrows further, the birds are forced out. In fact, Watts notes that much of the black rail's habitat has been long gone. Black rails were first discovered in 1836 by Thomas Rowan on a farm near Philadelphia. Rowan sent his specimens to one Titian Peale, who passed them along to John James Audubon himself. Those first-discovered birds were the basis of the black rail plate in Audubon's Birds of America. "That farm, where Rowan first discovered the species? It's now the Philadelphia airport," Watts said. It's just one example of the extensive loss of wetlands done in post-Civil War period in the name of reclamation, mostly for agricultural use. A crashing population and disappearing habitat make the black rail's prospects rather dim, and Watts acknowledges that the ornithological community and regulators are late in getting the bird's plight under serious consideration. Watts said that the CCB's report will give Fish & Wildlife the information they need to move forward with a designation as per the federal Endangered Species Act. He said he believes the black rail merits a "threatened" designation, denoting a species that is not at the brink of extinction, but is likely to be at the brink in the near future. After the black rail goes on the protected list, Watts said the next step would be to prepare a management plan to maintain the population. In the meantime, the black rails that remain in the east will have to rely on their old defense of extreme secrecy. Explore further: Sandy blows in rare birds (and brings out the birders)

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