News Article | May 12, 2017
A huge, bloody, rotting corpse has washed up in Indonesia, and nobody knows for sure what it is. Locals first spotted the 15-meter-long monster (that's nearly 50 feet) off the shores of Seram Island on Tuesday night, and initially thought it was a boat because it was so big. Now people are arguing about whether it's a giant squid, a dead whale, or some other kind of creature. Indonesian media calls it a squid, based on reports from people who saw it actually floating there. If that's the case, 15 meters would be pretty huge. Giant squids are some of the biggest invertebrates on the planet, big enough to tangle with a sperm whale, and can measure up to 65 feet (20 meters), according to a 2016 paper looking at their maximum length. (Fake photos of giant squid washed up on beaches have gone around before, but this thing appears to be real, and there's video.) I emailed the photos to Rob Deaville, project manager of the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme with the Zoological Society of London, and asked him what was going on here. He told me this is "definitely the remains of a baleen whale." Deaville pointed out that, from the images, you can sort of make out the whale's distinctive "throat pleats, adjacent to what may be a pectoral fin." It's also possible to see what looks to be vertebrae in some of the photos, "and squid don't have backbones." What makes it hard to tell, and especially gross to look at, is the degree to which this whale (or whatever it is) has decomposed. Stuff that's been dead in the water a long time always looks absolutely horrible once it surfaces, which is why waterlogged corpses of unidentifiable animals spur tales about mysterious sea monsters washing ashore. Indonesian researchers are now doing tests to figure out exactly what this thing is, and how it died. In the meantime, the only thing I know for sure is it's got to smell absolutely awful. Subscribe to Science Solved It, Motherboard's new show about the greatest mysteries that were solved by science.
News Article | May 13, 2017
The body of Lulu the killer whale was found on jagged rocks on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides last year. A member of the only pod found in British waters, she died after getting entangled in fishing lines. It was a sad discovery, especially as a postmortem revealed Lulu had never had a calf. But a recent autopsy also revealed something else that is alarming marine experts and offers a bleak, damning judgment on the state of Britain’s coastal waters. Lulu’s body had some of the highest levels of a particular type of manmade chemical ever recorded – more than 100 times above the level that scientists say will have biological consequences for a species. Few will have heard of PCBs – or polychlorinated biphenyls. The chemicals were banned in the late 70s amid fears about their toxicity. Recent estimates suggest that Europe produced between 299,000 and 585,000 tonnes of PCBs. The US produced even more. But while industry has stopped using PCBs in the manufacture of everything from transformers to thermal insulation and paints to adhesives, millions of tonnes of the chemicals continue to be in circulation. It is only now that their pernicious impact is being understood, as support for a clean-up, along the lines of successful experiments in the US, takes hold. “If we go back to the late 70s or early 80s, there were major campaigns from organisations such as Greenpeace focused on what they called toxics – which included PCBs,” said Mark Simmonds, senior marine scientist at the Humane Society International. “There was a tremendous effort to get them under control and banned and those bans were effective – the levels of PCBs being detected have clearly declined and so the campaigning organisations packed up their tents and went off to look at something else and we all kind of rejoiced and thought this was a major environmental victory.” But Simmonds now believes the victory was, to some extent, hollow. While PCBs are no longer being produced, they are extremely hardy, given that they were designed to resist extreme heat. Guidance from the US Environmental Protection Agency explains that PCBs do not readily break down once in the environment. “They can remain for long periods cycling between air, water and soil. PCBs can be carried long distances and have been found in snow and seawater in areas far from where they were released into the environment.” “It’s a difficult problem,” said Simmonds. “The PCBs are coming from two places – from buildings and materials that are still being destroyed and dumped, resulting in a new release of PCBs into the environment. And PCBs are also getting recycled into the wider environment through activities such as dredging programmes in estuaries.” Ultimately, PCBs find their way into the food chain. “PCBs on land eventually get into the water course,” said Paul Jepson, a veterinary specialist in wildlife population health at the Zoological Society of London. “Then they get into rivers, then into fish, then into sediment, then into estuaries then to ocean, the ultimate dump. Then they get into crabs and moluscs, then into fish, then into bigger fish and finally into apex predators such as sharks and killer whales at the top of the food chain.” Emerging evidence of the impact of PCBs may explain why there are no great white sharks in British waters. “We should have great white sharks around the UK,” Jepson said. “There’s no reason not to have them. Our seal population has been growing for years, there’s plenty of food and they used to be here; historically they were almost as widely distributed as killer whales. But when did anyone see a great white shark in recent years off the UK or the north-east Atlantic?” Simmonds believes the impact of PCBs may explain the absence of other species from British waters. “As we look around the UK historically, we would have expected to see bottle-nosed dolphins in any of our estuaries,” he said. “We have them in Cardigan Bay and the Moray Firth and a few around Cornwall and Devon – but it’s very much a reduced population from where it should be. There are many different factors affecting them but one of the key things is probably PCBs repressing their reproduction and making them more vulnerable to infection.” Equally vulnerable are polar bears, which ingest PCBs when they feast on seals. And, like killer whales, the bears can transfer PCBs to their offspring through their milk. Killer whales have an 11-month lactation period during which they produce very high-fat milk for their calves. The higher the fat, the easier it is for PCBs to dissolve in it. Unsurprisingly, some of the highest concentrations of PCBs have been recorded in newborn killer whales. Postmortems on six-month-old calves found they had absorbed about 80% of the PCBs that were in their mother. A scientific paper by Jepson and his colleagues, published last year, reveals that PCBs were found in every single one of 1,081 dolphins, porpoises and killer whales they studied. About 55% of the harbour porpoises, most of the striped dolphins and bottlenose dolphins and all the killer whales had high levels of PCBs – levels that were greater than 9 milligrams of PCB per kilogram of their lipid or body fat. It is above this level that races of PCB can have biological consequences for certain species. But many killer whales have far higher concentrations – typically between 10 and 100 times above the 9mg/kg threshold. Lulu had PCBs measuring 957mg/kg lipid. At these levels, species stop reproducing, Jepson said. This probably accounts for why Lulu’s pod produced no calves – the nightmare scenario. Ultimately, if species stop reproducing they become extinct. “You’d put it [PCBs] up there alongside the hole in the ozone,” Simmonds said. “Something that can knock the top marine predators out – that’s a pretty major problem. As an old toxics campaigner, this is something that I thought we’d fixed. And, to some extent we did, but it turns out it wasn’t fixed well enough. There are lessons to be learned from this. We have to maintain vigilance about environmental problems and not rest on our laurels.” Studies coming out of the US are now considering what impact, if any, PCBs may be having on human health. “In the US there is a lot of scientific evidence showing the toxic effects for human health but this approach has yet to be replicated in Europe,” Jepson said. The EPA website acknowledges: “People who ingest fish may be exposed to PCBs that have bioaccumulated in the fish they are ingesting.” Tackling the problem is a daunting prospect. The chemicals can be destroyed only in high-temperature incinerators which are found in only a few countries. There are some 40m tonnes of PCBs known to be in circulation. Estimates suggest that destroying them could cost anything up to $70bn. And this is before old tower blocks and industrial buildings – which contain high levels of PCBs – are demolished, adding to the pile. “Only Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have established procedures for secure disposal or destruction of highly contaminated PCB in joint sealants [a major PCB source in buildings] in Europe,” said Jepson, who is nevertheless optimistic that something can be done. “We are winning this argument. Papers [identifying the problem] have only come out in the last few years in Europe and are new to a lot of people but in the US this is widely accepted. They’ve been dealing with PCBs for decades. Americans have been spending billions and billions of dollars to clean up rivers and estuaries.” Major polluters have been made to pay for the clean-up. One site, in the Hudson river, was largely paid for by industrial giant General Electric. “We urgently need a similar approach in Europe,” Jepson said. “It’s been done mainly to protect human health, but there’s a wonderful side-effect. A lot of wildlife is now slowly coming back including seals, seabirds and bottlenosed dolphins and harbour porpoises. On both the east and west coasts, the great white is also recovering. Only killer whales are still doing badly but if the US carries on the way it has been doing, then I think killer whales will make a recovery as well.”
News Article | May 18, 2017
By deploying green clay caterpillars across six continents, researchers unmasked an important global pattern. Their study will be published in Science on May 19. Their discovery that predation is most intense near sea level in the tropics--in places like their study sites at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama--provides a foundation for understanding biological processes from crop protection and carbon storage to the effects of climate change on biodiversity. Insects drove the trend, not mammals or birds. "As someone who has studied insect biodiversity in the tropics for most of my life, I wasn't surprised that insects were responsible for most of the predation observed," said Yves Basset, leader of the ForestGEO Arthropod Initiative at STRI. The team put out almost 3,000 model caterpillars for four to 18 days at 31 different sites from Australia to Greenland at different altitudes, from zero to 2,100 meters above sea level. Based on characteristic marks left by predators in the clay, they could tell whether the models were attacked by birds, mammals or insects. Tropical sites were the most dangerous. In Greenland, the daily chances of a caterpillar model being attacked by a predator were only 13 percent of the odds at the equator. And for every 100 meters of increase in altitude, the chance of being attacked fell by almost 6.6 percent. At the highest forested site, the daily odds of a predator attack was only 24 percent of the odds of attack at sea level. "Most previous studies that didn't support the conclusion that predation is more intense in the tropics were pieced together from evidence gathered in different ways by different groups of people," Basset said. "My colleagues and I were part of a team of people from around the world who all used the same method at different sites, including a few of the ForestGEO sites. We deployed many replicates of fake caterpillars, modeled after a geometrid moth, and analyzed our results together." "This seems like a very simple experiment but the results are relevant to the way we understand some of the important processes in nature, like the innovation of defenses and how temperature changes may affect biodiversity," Basset said. "The results further emphasize the power of citizen science for simple, yet significant experiments." "Caterpillars eat plants, therefore causing crop damage and forcing plants to create new chemicals in their leaves to defend themselves," Basset said. "Caterpillars also defend themselves from predators. Our finding that predation pressure is stronger in the tropics also suggests that insects in the tropics have to be more innovative in order to defend themselves." The authors of this study represented 35 research centers and universities, including STRI; the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; the University of Helsinki, Finland; the Institute of Entomology, Czech Academy of Sciences; the University of South Bohemia, Czech Republic; the New Guinea Binatang Research Center; the University of California-Irvine; Eidgenossische Technische Hochshule, Zurich; the University of Texas-Arlington; the University of New England, Australia; the University of Alberta, Edmonton; the University of Iceland; the University of Sao Paolo; the University of Hong Kong; the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen; Instituto de Ecología, Xalapa, Mexico; Escuela Politécnica Nacional, Ecuador; the University of Ostrava, Czech Republic; Zoological Society of London, the University of Oxford; the University of Turku, Finland; Chinese Academy of Sciences; the University of Aberdeen; Makerere University, Uganda; Swarthmore College, U.S.; the State Institution of Education, Zditovo, Belarus; Aarhus University, Demark; the University of Tartu, Estonia; the University of Bergen, Norway; the University of Beyruth, Germany; and the University of Lancaster, UK. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Institute furthers the understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems. STRI website: http://www. . Roslin. T., Hardwick, B., Novotny, et al. 2017. Higher predation risk for insect prey at low latitudes and elevations. Science.
News Article | May 24, 2017
With the prospect of a US-Mexico border wall looming, research and reporting on the ecological impacts of walls is both important and timely. Reporting in BioScience on such barriers' known effects on wildlife, science journalist Lesley Evans Ogden describes the potential effects of the proposed structure along the 2000-mile US-Mexico border. "If the wall is completed, it will create a considerable biodiversity conservation challenge--one unlikely to disappear anytime soon," she writes. The threats posed to local populations of species may be dire. Smaller aggregations of animals are often ephemeral and rely on individuals moving between populations to replenish their numbers and genetic stocks. "Local populations blink on and off like Christmas lights," says the University of Arizona's Aaron Flesch, who was interviewed for the article. The concern is that, if a border wall prevents migration, isolated local populations may fail to blink back on again. Research described in the article points to problems even in areas where actions have been taken to allow animal movement. "Even when there isn't a physical wall or much of a barrier, [border agents] are actively engaged in enforcing the law through patrols," explained David Christianson of University of Arizona. These patrols, which may disrupt movement or other animal behavior, often include off-road travel "right in the middle of this endangered species habitat," says Christianson. Preliminary radio-collar and camera-trap data indicate that some species, such as pronghorn antelope, do not frequently travel near the US-Mexico border. Perhaps most significant, some research described by Evans Ogden indicates that hardened border barriers may be ineffective in preventing passage by the species they are intended to impede--humans. Jamie McCallum, a consultant at Transfrontier International Limited, and his colleagues from the Zoological Society of London set camera traps in protected areas where 4- to 5-meter steel barriers are already in place. The traps were used to photographically "capture" the presence of mammals along the border. Animals such as coati and pumas were found in lower numbers near hardened borders, as was expected by the researchers. However, the photographic evidence showed no lower likelihood of finding smugglers or undocumented migrants near border walls. Although more work remains to be done, this could be a sign that walls do little to prevent human cross-border movement. Says McCallum, "I thought it would have at least some kind of trace of an effect, even if it wasn't a statistically significant finding. But it didn't appear to." BioScience, published monthly by Oxford Journals, is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). BioScience is a forum for integrating the life sciences that publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles. The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is an organization for professional scientific societies and organizations, and individuals, involved with biology. AIBS provides decision-makers with high-quality, vetted information for the advancement of biology and society. Follow BioScience on Twitter @BioScienceAIBS. Oxford Journals is a division of Oxford University Press. Oxford Journals publishes well over 300 academic and research journals covering a broad range of subject areas, two-thirds of which are published in collaboration with learned societies and other international organizations. The division been publishing journals for more than a century, and as part of the world's oldest and largest university press, has more than 500 years of publishing expertise behind it. Follow Oxford Journals on Twitter @OxfordJournals
News Article | May 25, 2017
With the prospect of a US-Mexico border wall looming, research and reporting on the ecological impacts of walls is both important and timely. Reporting in BioScience on such barriers' known effects on wildlife, science journalist Lesley Evans Ogden describes the potential effects of the proposed structure along the 2000-mile US-Mexico border. "If the wall is completed, it will create a considerable biodiversity conservation challenge -- one unlikely to disappear anytime soon," she writes. The threats posed to local populations of species may be dire. Smaller aggregations of animals are often ephemeral and rely on individuals moving between populations to replenish their numbers and genetic stocks. "Local populations blink on and off like Christmas lights," says the University of Arizona's Aaron Flesch, who was interviewed for the article. The concern is that, if a border wall prevents migration, isolated local populations may fail to blink back on again. Research described in the article points to problems even in areas where actions have been taken to allow animal movement. "Even when there isn't a physical wall or much of a barrier, [border agents] are actively engaged in enforcing the law through patrols," explained David Christianson of University of Arizona. These patrols, which may disrupt movement or other animal behavior, often include off-road travel "right in the middle of this endangered species habitat," says Christianson. Preliminary radio-collar and camera-trap data indicate that some species, such as pronghorn antelope, do not frequently travel near the US-Mexico border. Perhaps most significant, some research described by Evans Ogden indicates that hardened border barriers may be ineffective in preventing passage by the species they are intended to impede -- humans. Jamie McCallum, a consultant at Transfrontier International Limited, and his colleagues from the Zoological Society of London set camera traps in protected areas where 4- to 5-meter steel barriers are already in place. The traps were used to photographically "capture" the presence of mammals along the border. Animals such as coati and pumas were found in lower numbers near hardened borders, as was expected by the researchers. However, the photographic evidence showed no lower likelihood of finding smugglers or undocumented migrants near border walls. Although more work remains to be done, this could be a sign that walls do little to prevent human cross-border movement. Says McCallum, "I thought it would have at least some kind of trace of an effect, even if it wasn't a statistically significant finding. But it didn't appear to."
News Article | May 24, 2017
At the US-Mexico border at the Coronado National Memorial/Roosevelt Easement. The wall and wide patrol road causehabitat fragmentation, threatening the well-being of many species. Credit: Matt Clark/Defenders of Wildlife With the prospect of a US-Mexico border wall looming, research and reporting on the ecological impacts of walls is both important and timely. Reporting in BioScience on such barriers' known effects on wildlife, science journalist Lesley Evans Ogden describes the potential effects of the proposed structure along the 2000-mile US-Mexico border. "If the wall is completed, it will create a considerable biodiversity conservation challenge—one unlikely to disappear anytime soon," she writes. The threats posed to local populations of species may be dire. Smaller aggregations of animals are often ephemeral and rely on individuals moving between populations to replenish their numbers and genetic stocks. "Local populations blink on and off like Christmas lights," says the University of Arizona's Aaron Flesch, who was interviewed for the article. The concern is that, if a border wall prevents migration, isolated local populations may fail to blink back on again. Research described in the article points to problems even in areas where actions have been taken to allow animal movement. "Even when there isn't a physical wall or much of a barrier, [border agents] are actively engaged in enforcing the law through patrols," explained David Christianson of University of Arizona. These patrols, which may disrupt movement or other animal behavior, often include off-road travel "right in the middle of this endangered species habitat," says Christianson. Preliminary radio-collar and camera-trap data indicate that some species, such as pronghorn antelope, do not frequently travel near the US-Mexico border. Perhaps most significant, some research described by Evans Ogden indicates that hardened border barriers may be ineffective in preventing passage by the species they are intended to impede—humans. Jamie McCallum, a consultant at Transfrontier International Limited, and his colleagues from the Zoological Society of London set camera traps in protected areas where 4- to 5-meter steel barriers are already in place. The traps were used to photographically "capture" the presence of mammals along the border. Animals such as coati and pumas were found in lower numbers near hardened borders, as was expected by the researchers. However, the photographic evidence showed no lower likelihood of finding smugglers or undocumented migrants near border walls. Although more work remains to be done, this could be a sign that walls do little to prevent human cross-border movement. Says McCallum, "I thought it would have at least some kind of trace of an effect, even if it wasn't a statistically significant finding. But it didn't appear to."
News Article | April 17, 2017
Computers are playing spot the difference in the Serengeti. An image-recognition algorithm that can identify different species could make it easier to track animals in the wild. Using a database of 3.2 million photos taken by hidden camera traps in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Jeff Clune at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and his colleagues trained the deep-learning system to distinguish between 48 animal species, such as elephants, giraffes and gazelles. In tests, it correctly identified the species present in an image 92 per cent of the time. Camera traps automatically take pictures of passing animals when triggered by heat and motion. This produces thousands or millions of photographs for ecologists to study, but people usually have to go through and label what each picture shows by hand, says Ali Swanson, who worked on the project while at the University of Oxford. If an algorithm could categorise at least some of the images, it could save a lot of time. In 2010, Swanson set up 225 camera traps in the Serengeti, inviting an army of 70,000 online volunteers to help label the images. When Clune heard about this, he saw a perfect opportunity for deep learning – so he and Swanson arranged to team up on the project. “Right now in AI and deep learning, one of the hardest things to come by is a very good, large labelled dataset,” says Clune. His team started by teaching a neural network to recognise whether an image contained an animal, which 75 per cent of the Serengeti images lack. The researchers then trained it to differentiate between species. The system is much better at identifying the most common animals in the data set, such as wildebeest, says Clune. It has trouble with more rare species like the zorilla, a type of polecat that only appears in the images a few dozen times. Clune says the system could be used to classify most of the photographs and researchers could work on any it wasn’t sure about. It could then be further trained on these hand-labelled images to get better at recognising rarer species. The team also plans to test whether the system can identify animal behaviour in images. “This is very exciting,” says Chris Carbone at the Zoological Society of London. Automatic species recognition could help us learn more about the distribution of species and get a better idea of the impact humans are having on them, he says. An ideal system would provide live tracking information about animals as they pass traps, says Swanson. But the challenge would be transmitting the data from the device in real time for the system to analyse, rather than the current method of using an SD card to store the data on the device until a researcher comes along to collect it. One difficulty is that hyenas and elephants have a habit of damaging the cameras, which are thus kept in heavy-duty plastic cases with no space for an antenna that can transmit data. “And if you do put an antenna on a camera, it won’t last very long at all,” says Swanson. “Something will come along and chew it off pretty quick.”
News Article | May 4, 2017
The sounds of the natural world are being overwhelmed by the blare of human activity, even in protected wildlife areas, new research has revealed. The racket is not only harming people’s enjoyment of natural havens, which are known to have significant benefits for both physical and mental health, but it is also affecting wildlife, with animals less able to escape predators and birds less able to find mates. Scientists used over one million hours of sound recordings from 492 locations in protected areas in the US to calculate that in about two-thirds of places, the noise pollution from human activities was double the background sound levels. A fifth of the protected areas suffered human noise levels that were 10 times background levels, the researchers found. “Next time you go for a walk in the woods, pay attention to the sounds you hear – the flow of a river, wind through the trees, singing birds, bugling elk. These acoustic resources are just as magnificent as visual ones, and deserve our protection,” said Rachel Buxton, at Colorado State University and who led the study published in the journal Science on Thursday. “They make us feel good and are important for our physical and emotional wellbeing,” she said. “We actually have research that shows that natural sounds improve our mood, increase our memory retention and restore our senses.” Animals use noise for many essential functions, such as dodging predators, finding food and mates and maintaining relationships in social groups, Buxton said: “So not being able to hear these sounds has serious consequences.” The impact of noise can cascade across entire ecosystems, she said, even leading to effects on plants as the wildlife that interact with them changes. “Although plants can’t hear, many animals that disperse seeds or pollinate flowers can hear, and are known to be affected by noise,” said Buxton, adding that plant grazers could also become more abundant if noise drives their predators away. The researchers identified the key causes of noise pollution as roads and air traffic, settlements and the extractive industries, such as forestry, fracking and mining. With a tenfold increase in background noise, as found in a fifth of the protected areas, natural sounds that would have been detectable 100m away can only be heard when 10m away. In the areas defined as wilderness, which are meant to entirely to be “untrammeled by man”, according to US law, 12% still experienced a doubling of background noise due to human activities. The problem of noise also seriously affected the habitat of endangered species, such as the San Marcos salamander and San Bernardino kangaroo rat. The researchers note that protected area laws in the US do not include measures to monitor or manage noise pollution from human activities: “This is a conspicuous missed opportunity, as techniques to manage noise pollution are readily available.” Such techniques, already in place in some protected areas, include providing shuttle services to cut back on visitor traffic and confining noise into specific corridors by aligning flight patterns over roads. There have also been moves to cut the noise from motor boats and snowmobiles in Yellowstone national park and to reduce aircraft flyovers over the Grand Canyon. The new research on noise pollution in natural areas is much needed, said Noelle Kumpel, policy programme manager at the Zoological Society of London: “It is a hidden impact that we don’t really think about. We, as humans, value and appreciate peace and quiet and wildlife reacts in the same way. Noise levels are important to that level of enjoyment and what we humans and animals get from nature.” Kumpel said there was evidence of human-related noise harming wildlife around the world, from oil drilling driving elephants away in Uganda to underwater noise causing mass strandings of whales in the Canary Islands. She said a balance needs to be found between ensuring human impacts are limited in the wildest areas and allowing people to experience the joys of nature.
News Article | April 8, 2017
The saiga antelope makes a strange pin-up for the conservation world. With its odd bulbous nose and spindly legs, it is an unlovely looking creature – particularly when compared with wildlife favourites such as the polar bear or panda. But the survival of Saiga tatarica tatarica is important, for it gives hope to biologists and activists who are trying to protect Earth’s other endangered species from the impact of rising populations, climate change and increasing pollution. Once widespread on the steppe lands of the former Soviet Union, the saiga has suffered two major population crashes in recent years and survived both – thanks to the endeavours of conservationists. It is a story that will be highlighted at a specially arranged wildlife meeting, the Conservation Optimism Summit, to be held at Dulwich College, London, this month and at sister events in cities around the world, including Cambridge, Washington and Hong Kong. The meetings have been organised to highlight recent successes in saving threatened creatures and to use these examples to encourage future efforts to halt extinctions of other species. According to the summit’s organisers, there still are reasons to be cheerful when it comes to conservation, although they also acknowledge that the world’s wildlife remains in a desperate state thanks to swelling numbers of humans, climate change and spreading agriculture, which is destroying natural habitats. A recent report by WWF and the Zoological Society of London indicated that these factors have caused global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles to decline by 58% since 1970, and that average annual decreases have now reached 2%, with no sign yet that this rate will slow down. “It is certainly true that biodiversity across the planet is plummeting but we have to ask what the situation would look like if there were no protected areas, if there was no Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and no anti-poaching patrols in Africa,” said Mike Hoffman, of Zoological Society of LondonZSL, one of the summit’s organisers. “The answer is straightforward: it would be a lot worse. The trouble is that the public usually only hears the bad news. Successes get forgotten. As a result, people think there is nothing they can do about wildlife extinctions and that is not true. If it was not for conservation the world would be in a much worse state than it is at present.” This point is backed by EJ Milner-Gulland, professor of biodiversity at Oxford University, who first developed the idea of the Conservation Optimism Summit. “We have got to change our ways and celebrate our successes if we are going to protect endangered creatures. If we are too gloomy about saving wildlife, young people will think there is nothing they can do and that would be tragic – and wrong.” The troubled tale of the saiga antelope provided a crucial example of the successes that could be achieved, she said. Twenty-five years ago there were more than a million saiga – which grow to about 4ft in length –grazing over vast areas of steppe lands. However, after the Soviet Union’s breakup, authority and policing collapsed in many of its former states, and local economies disintegrated, while saiga horn became increasingly popular as a traditional medicine in nearby China. The result was a wave of uncontrolled hunting and poaching that caused the saiga’s population to crash. By 2000, there were fewer than 50,000. A creature that was once ecologically stable was suddenly hurtling towards extinction. “I saw it happen in front of my eyes,” said Milner-Gulland, a world expert on the species. “It was a complete disaster. This was a species that no one knew about or cared about and it was heading for extinction. It could have made us utterly despaired. But it didn’t. My colleagues and I decided something should be done.” Conservationists lobbied to have the species labelled as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and major NGOs started to pour money into projects to save the saiga. UN conservation rules were enacted and the governments of former Soviet states began to take protective measures. Large areas of Kazakhstan were marked as conservation zones. Slowly saiga numbers recovered until there were around 300,000 by 2014 – when the next disaster struck. A mysterious bacterium swept through herds that year and in a few weeks more than 200,000 saiga had died. “It could have been the final blow. However, this time we had a network of people who cared about the saiga,” said Milner-Gulland. “We had sources of funding. We had governments who were committed to saving the saiga. As a result, we have already halted that recent drop in saiga numbers and expect we will soon be able to bring them back up again.” The saga of the saiga’s survival is important, for it shows that although the saving of species is hard, relentless work, it can nevertheless be effective. “The crucial point about any conservation project is that you never stop. You never give up,” said Richard Young, head of Conservation Science at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. “It can take 30 years of sustained effort before you turn things round but it can be done.” Young pointed to the success of the Durrell trust and other conservation groups in saving the echo parakeet. By the 1980s, only a dozen of these vividly plumed birds – which are unique to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean – were left in the wild. Once widespread across the island, Mauritius’s echo parakeet population had been devastated by the destruction of the dense forests in which it lived and the introduction of feral predators that included the mongoose. The echo was heading for extinction until an urgent rescue programme was launched. “Conservationists dealt with the invasive predators, they erected carefully designed nest boxes to protect the echo, launched captive breeding and release programmes, and provided food when the birds faced starvation,” Young told the Observer. “They kept that up for decades. It was an incredible effort but it was worth it. There are now hundreds of echo parakeets in Mauritius. When you go for a walk in a forest there you can see these stunning, vocal birds everywhere you go. They are a fantastic symbol of what is possible in conservation.” The echo parakeet’s story is not widely known outside conservation circles. By contrast, the giant panda remains one of the best known of all the planet’s threatened species and has been adopted as the official symbol of WWF. It is also a conservation success story as was demonstrated last September when it was officially moved off the red list of “endangered species” and put on the “vulnerable species” list after it had been brought back from near extinction by determined conservation work by the Chinese government. Spreading agriculture had seriously depleted the panda’s bamboo food source and so protected reserves were established. As a result, by 2014 the giant panda’s population had risen by 17% in a decade to reach 1,864 animals in the wild. Last week, the Chinese authorities announced they now planned to go even further and would combine existing reserves into a single giant panda preserve that would be three times the size of America’s Yellowstone national park. “It will be a haven for biodiversity and provide protection for the whole ecological system,” said Hou Rong, director of the Chengdu research base for giant panda breeding. Other successes have been achieved with simpler approaches. Consider the issue of ghost fishing, which occurs when fishing nets are lost or dumped at sea. The old net gets snagged on a reef or a wreck and traps fish that die and in turn attract scavengers which get caught in the same net. Tens of thousands of turtles, seals and other marine creatures are believed to perish this way every year. Worse, a ghost net can continue to wreak destruction for decades and they are now considered to be among the greatest killers in our oceans. One of the worst areas for ghost fishing is the Philippines where, in 2012, Interface, a manufacturer of commercial carpet tiles, set up a remarkable project in collaboration with the ZSL called Net-Works. Local people are encouraged to gather their old nets before they are discarded and to sell them, through Net-Works, so that they can be recycled into yarn to make carpet tiles. In several areas, the scheme has brought about significant reductions in the number of ghost nets and made money for local people. “We’ve cleaned up a major source of pollution and helped local communities make a modest income from conservation activities,” said Nicholas Hill, one of the founders of Net-Works. Now the project has expanded to the shores of Lake Ossa, in Cameroon. Nets dumped there have trapped and killed the lake’s young manatees. Their removal, and subsequent sale as a source of carpet tiles, has again boosted local conservation activities and helped protect the manatee. A similar tale is provided by Kirsten Forsberg, whose Planeta Océano organisation began work in 2012 to try to save the giant manta ray, which was being dangerously overfished in the Pacific Ocean off South America. Although mantas can measure more than three metres in length, they mainly eat microscopic organisms. “Ecuador had legal protection but there was none for Peruvian waters and the mantas were migrating into these, where they were being caught and consumed locally,” Forsberg told the Observer last week. For a creature that typically produces a single pup every five years or so, this depletion was serious and was causing numbers to plummet. Forsberg and colleagues began collaborating with fishermen, schools and communities and began pressing the government to ban all manta fishing. At the end of 2015 they succeeded and a ban was imposed for Peruvian waters. Last year, Forsberg was made a Rolex laureate for this work and plans to use her prize money to help local fishermen diversify into tourist trips for divers wanting to see manta rays. “Manta ray watching is a tourist industry that is now worth millions of dollars a year,” she said. “It’s a perfect substitution.” Closer to home, conservationists point to their success in saving the large blue butterfly in Britain, where it became extinct in 1979 but which has been reintroduced from reserves in the rest of Europe and is now established in parts of south-west England. Similarly, in several Middle Eastern nations the Arabian oryx, which was wiped out in the wild in the 1970s, has been successfully reintroduced using animals bred in zoos and private preserves. Conservationists are planning to follow up this success with a programme aimed at establishing a population in Chad of a sister species, the scimitar horned oryx, which is extinct in the wild. Such success stories and ambitious plans are worth keeping in mind for the planet still faces an avalanche of threatened extinctions over the coming decades. Indeed, humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that scientists last year recommended that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – needs to be declared. We are dumping plastics in the oceans, draining wetlands, melting ice caps and destroying forests. Everywhere you turn, the world is being changed by humans and the consequences for wildlife are grim. Fish, mammals and reptiles are being pushed towards extinction. And while conservationists can claim successes, there is still a vast amount that needs to be done. “The real question is: if conservation works, why are things continuing to get worse?” asked Hoffman. “There are two alternative explanations. One is that we are doing the wrong thing. The second is that we are doing the right thing, but we are not doing enough of it. All the evidence suggests that the latter is the right one. When we tackle a conservation problem we tend to get it right. Our approaches may not always be perfect and may need improvement in efficiencies, but the real point is that we are simply not doing enough. We know what to do but we are under-resourced and understaffed.” One recent paper suggested that it would cost around $80bn to achieve a significant improvement in the state of the world’s wildlife. “That sounds a lot but it is only 20% of what the world spends on soft drinks,” said Hoffman. It remains to be seen how long the world will wait before it realises what it is losing and begins to stump up funding on that level. It may never do so, of course. In the meantime, calls for conservation action mount. One particularly exciting prospect is offered by the Tasmanian devil, a carnivorous marsupial only found in the wild on the Australian island. “Since the 1990s, its population has been devastated by a facial tumour that has spread through the species and threatened its viability in the wild,” said Hoffman. “However, about a month ago there was a breakthrough where scientists demonstrated Tasmanian devils could be treated so that their immune systems could start to fight the cancer. It would require major interventions – capturing and treating animals – to do the trick but it is a very hopeful development.” Conservationists’ success in saving the saiga is a reminder of what can be achieved, though there also is a final twist. The antelope has a Mongolian subspecies that until recently had a population of around 12,000. However, scientists discovered a few months ago that thousands of Saiga tatarica mongolica have recently been killed by a viral infection known as goat plague, which has spread to the Mongolian saiga from domestic goats and sheep. “We are expecting the mortality rate to be up to 80% of the whole population,” said Milner-Gulland. “In fact, all of Mongolia’s unique fauna is at risk, including the Mongolian gazelle and goitred gazelle and also carnivores that hunt them, like snow leopards. The disease is also likely to spread through Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries over the next few years, putting other saiga populations at risk.” A straightforward but expensive solution is available, however. “There is an effective vaccine that could halt the disease in livestock but it would be an expensive and logistically difficult operation,” said Milner-Gulland. “The Mongolian government is now considering how best to control the outbreak and conservation organisations like WWF and the Saiga Conservation Alliance are mounting a response. And of course, we have had success in the past. So there is hope.”
News Article | April 19, 2017
A few years ago at a bar in Reno, graduate student John Zablocki was talking about his research on the rediscovery of lost species—those presumed to have gone extinct only to turn up again alive and well—when a stranger chimed in. “What about the Lord Howe Island stick insect?” he suggested, recalling the widely reported 2001 rediscovery of that species on an island in Australia. Recalling the celebrated line from the 1993 movie Jurassic Park, the stranger added: “Life, uh, finds a way.” This is the tantalizing thing—when a species thought to be lost comes back, in effect, from the dead, Zablocki says. It hints at rebirth in an era otherwise dominated by headlines about climate change and mass extinction. Scientists even refer to these rediscovered organisms as “Lazarus species,” after the man said in the New Testament story to be raised from the dead by Jesus Christ. But finding lost species does not take a miracle, according to Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), a small Texas-based nonprofit. The GWC is now launching an ambitious “Search for Lost Species” initiative to rediscover 1,200 species in 160 countries that have not been seen in at least 10 years. The first expeditions will launch this fall in pursuit of the 25 “most wanted” species, says GWC herpetologist Robin Moore, who is leading the effort. Among the top 25: a pink-headed duck last seen in 1949 in India, a tree-climbing freshwater crab last observed in 1955 in the West African forests of Guinea and the world’s largest bee (with a wingspan of 2.5 inches) last sighted in 1981 in Indonesia.* “For many of these forgotten species,” Moore says, “this is likely their last chance to be saved from extinction.” The plan is to work with international partners to put scientists in the field, with an initial fund-raising goal of $500,000. That’s not much—just $20,000 each for the 25 “most wanted” species, which have been missing in action for a collective 1,500 years. But Moore is optimistic, he says, because of his past experience leading a 2010 “Search for Lost Frogs” initiative. That effort, a collaboration between the GWC and Conservational International, rediscovered only one of its “top 10” species in its first six months but found a total of 15 species over its first year as a result of 33 expeditions. In one case in Borneo, local researchers made repeated expeditions over eight months before eventually finding the missing frog higher up the mountain than it had ever been seen. “Some species,” Moore says, “just require persistence.” To improve the odds of success, the plan for the new initiative is to put researchers in the field in places where recent evidence suggests a lost species may persist. For instance, the long-beaked echidna, a spiny, egg-laying mammal, is known from only a single specimen collected in 1961 by a Dutch researcher in Indonesia’s Papua Province. But a 2007 expedition in the Cyclops Mountains there led by the Zoological Society of London spotted burrows, tracks and the sort of holes echidnas dig for worms. Local hunters have also reported sightings of the elusive creature. “We have been in touch with an Indonesian conservation group about setting up an array of camera traps in the area over a longer period,” Moore says, “to see if we can get a photograph.” Other technologies could also make rediscoveries more likely. Sequencing the DNA in a body of water, a technique called environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling, can reveal the presence of certain fish or amphibians. Likewise, sequencing blood from mosquitoes or leeches, known as invertebrate DNA (iDNA) sampling, can reveal which species they have been feeding on. New mapping technologies can also combine high-resolution images from Google Earth with species data to identify an animal’s likely habitat more precisely. Even without modern technology, finding lost species has been a common occurrence. A 2011 study in Trends in Ecology & Evolution documented 351 such rediscoveries over the previous 122 years—an average of about three a year. These include such sensational cases as the 1938 finding of a living coelacanth, a fish that was presumed to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs; the 1966 discovery of Australia’s mountain pygmy possum, previously known only from bones found in a cave; and the 1951 rediscovery of the cahow, or Bermuda petrel, then thought to have been extinct since the 1620s. In northern Australia a research team not connected to the GWC initiative is currently undertaking fieldwork with the equally sensational goal of rediscovering the thylacine, or “Tasmanian tiger,” which has been presumed extinct for the past 80 years. James Cook University ecologist Sandra Abell, who is leading the effort, rates the likelihood of success as “low” but “not impossible.” Even so, Richard Dawkins excitedly tweeted, “Can it be true? … Has Thylacinus been seen alive? And in mainland Australia not Tasmania? I so want it to be true.” The reality of such rediscoveries, says John Zablocki, a biologist at The Nature Conservancy who is not involved with the GWC effort, is that wildlife biology suffers from “a gap in knowledge” about the behaviors and whereabouts of most species. “Our survey capacity is just so limited. Even here,” he says, of properties The Conservancy owns in the Mojave Desert, “we may have an ‘extinct’ vole” that is actually just missing. Zablocki (of the Reno bar conversation) wrote his master’s thesis, “The Return of the Living Dead,” on rediscoveries. The thesis recommended exactly the sort of focused rediscovery effort now being undertaken by the GWC, partly for the potential to engage the public in what amounts to a wildlife detective story. “It’s still kind of tantalizing that we just don’t know what's out there, even with our remote-sensing technology and DNA analysis,” Zablocki says, “and it does give us hope. Conservation is so fraught with doom-and-gloom stories that the opportunity to get things right a second time is also important. The flip side is that it can give people the sense that species can come back from extinction or that the extinction risk isn’t as serious as it really is,” he notes. Both Zablocki and Moore argue, however, the excitement about rediscoveries tends to motivate conservation efforts. For instance, after researchers discovered a remnant population of 24 Lord Howe Island stick insects dwelling under a single bush on an island cliff face, conservationists launched a major captive-breeding program. As a result, the Melbourne Zoo hatched 16,000 eggs in 2016 and established insurance populations of the species at three other zoos. The rediscovery also helped motivate a program to eradicate species-killing invasive rats from the island group. Rediscovery, says Moore, is “a very powerful motivator. The risk of always telling people how bad things are with the environment is that we instill despair. We’re trying to instill that glimmer of hope, to remind people that there is still a lot worth fighting for, and that the world is a wild and mysterious place.” *Editor's Note (4/21/17): This sentence was edited after posting. The original misstated the country where the pink-headed duck was last spotted.