First Mammal Made Extinct by Manmade Climate Change

YWQ4NzExMzNjNyMvbExMbWZqTEg5NUxOckZBUFdTaldMTDE1c1prPS8weDM6OTAweDQ0OC85MDB4NDQ2L2ZpbHRlcnM6cXVhbGl0eSg3MCkvaHR0cDovL3MzLmFtYXpvbmF3cy5jb20vcG9saWN5bWljLWltYWdlcy92d3JhZ2FsZ2psbndwcDRmY29zMGN5cDZwb2FlZ2d6dmRmdHRyN29ocSource: Queensland Government

Queensland, Australia environmental researchers reported that the Bramble Cay melomys, a rodent species found on a small island in the eastern Torres Strait, appears to have been completely eradicated from its only known habitat. Also called the mosaic-tailed rat, this tiny creature marks the first mammal that has disappeared due to human-caused climate change, though experts warn it will likely be the first of many: a 2015 report noted that ⅙ of the world’s species are in danger of climate change-based extinction.

This melomys was the only mammal species native to the Great Barrier Reef, and in 1845 European sailors first noticed the rats living in high density around Bramble Cay, a small coral cay on Queensland’s north coast. The island is a significant wildlife hotspot, and remains the most important breeding ground for green turtles and several seabirds within the Torres Strait.

In 1978 the melomys population was estimated at several hundred, though they were last seen in 2009, leading to an extensive 2014 search for the creature. Since then, a report led by Ian Gynther from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, in partnership with the University of Queensland, has recommended the species be labelled extinct.

As part of their search, researchers laid 150 traps on the island over six nights, and thoroughly examined the vegetation they typically inhabit for signs of life. After no evidence that any Bramble Cay melomys’ remained, the report’s authors concluded that extensive flooding due to rising sea levels was the “root cause” of the extinction, killing many animals and destroying 97% of their habitat from 2004 to 2014. Around the Torres Strait, sea levels have risen at twice the global average between 1993 and 2014. “For low-lying islands like Bramble Cay, the destructive effects of extreme water levels resulting from severe meteorological events are compounded by the impacts from anthropogenic climate change-driven sea-level rise…Significantly, this probably represents the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change,” the authors noted.

The Queensland government website suggests that attempts to restore the population are futile. “Because the Bramble Cay melomys is now confirmed to have been lost from Bramble Cay, no recovery actions for this population can be implemented,” it says. However, the report’s authors hold out hope that there might be an undiscovered population of the creatures in Papua New Guinea. They posit that several melomys may have initially arrived at Bramble Cay by floating over on debris from the Fly River region of New Guinea. Thus, the authors recommend surveying Papua New Guinea to see if the rodents or their close relatives could be living there.

Ecologist John White of Australia’s Deakin University said this extinction marks the beginning of a long battle for wildlife conservationists: “I am of absolutely no doubt we will lose species due to the increasing pressures being exerted by climate change,” he said. “Species restricted to small, low lying islands, or those with very tight environmental requirements are likely to be the first to go…Certainly, extinction and climatic change has gone hand in hand throughout the history of the world,” he said. “So, if this is one of the first, it is more than likely not going to be the last.”

3d653a26-0746-4ed6-8347-abc2db35753e-1920-1080Source: CAMERON DEJONG/FLICKR/CC2.0

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Are Animal-Friendly Films Actually Harming Our Animals?

The long awaited sequel to Disney Pixar’s Finding Nemo is finally here, but many are questioning whether Finding Dory will pose the same threat to exotic fish as happened after the release of Finding Nemo.

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Finding Nemo, released in 2003, followed the story of a young fish named Nemo who was captured by divers and separated from his Dad. The mega-popular film’s main message focused on the danger and cruelty of keeping animals in captivity and separating them from their natural habitats. Ironically, that message did not reach many viewers who were so fascinated by the beauty and color of the clownfish that they wanted a “Nemo” of their own for their home aquarium. The movie even created the memorable line “fish are friends, not food.” Pet and aquarium stores everywhere saw the sale of exotic fish, especially the clownfish, skyrocket following the popularity of the movie. Sales grew an estimated 40% as a result of the film, and clownfish became the fifth most important species into the United States.

Many other animal-friendly films, including The Wild Thornberrys and Free Willy emphasize important lessons about the cruelty of captivity and harm of keeping animals in small, enclosed tanks. However, somehow these messages are getting lost. Just like with the sale of clownfish following Finding Nemo, there was an increase in sales at parks like SeaWorld that held captive Killer Whales, and an increase in popularity of having monkeys as pets.

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So, while it is entertaining and exciting to catch the animal-friendly, heart-warming movie that is Finding Dory, it is also important to keep in mind that these fish are wild animals and they need to be protected. Wild, exotic fish like the clowfish and the blue tang fish are not meant to be aquarium fish. The increasing demand for these fish is even starting to affect their role in their natural environments. The capturing of blue tang fish is even more dangerous than clownfish because blue tangs cannot be bred in captivity. This means capturing these fish could completely eliminate their role in the environment, and have an extreme threat to their population size.    

As a precaution to this threat, Disney has worked with animal-rights groups, pet stores such as PetSmart and Petco, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium to advise people on home aquariums in hopes of conserving blue tangs.

Source: Lang, Brent. “Finding Dory Could Lead to Dangerous Demand for Blue Tangs as Pets.” June 22, 2016.

Bardroff, Jenna. “ Why Animal-Friendly Fiction Films Might Not Be Friendly to Real Animals.” October 9, 2014. 

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How Sunscreen is Killing the Coral Reefs

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Beautiful, complex, and fragile, coral reefs house close to one million species of fish, algae, and invertebrates and play an integral role in the richness of our coeans. However, these hotspots for biodiversity are in critical danger (80% of Caribbean reefs were lost in the past 50 years) and sunscreen play a huge role in their destruction. In fact, researchers estimate that the chemicals sunscreen-wearing swimmers bring into the oceans have placed 60% of the planet’s coral reefs at risk.

Reefs, which cover around one percent of the ocean’s floor, are highly sensitive to their environments. Coral reefs consist of many small soft-bodied polyps, which are kept alive by colorful algae plants living inside them. When algae undergoes photosynthesis, the process create food for the polyps and allows them to form entire attached communities, branching out into structures that coat the ocean’s bottom and house unique forms of life found nowhere else.

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Oxybenzone, a UV-blocking ingredient in many sunscreen brands, weakens coral, which then expels the algae that keep it healthy and vibrant. This process, known as bleaching, often leads to death for reef populations. The chemical also deforms young coral, changing its DNA so that it encloses itself in its own skeleton, preventing algae from entering; this will have severe impacts on coral’s ability to replenish itself in future generations. With millions of global beachgoers slathering on even a small amount of sunscreen, the US National Park Service estimates that 4000-6000 tons of sunscreen reach coral reef areas each year, dangerous levels for the algae that sustains reefs.

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So what are the solutions? The National Park Service notes that checking your sunblock’s ingredients and switching out products with oxybenzone for those with titanium oxide and zinc oxide, which have not been found to endanger coral reefs, is one way to protect yourself from rays while protecting reefs from damage. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group has published a list of coral-friendly sunscreens for reference on its website. Finally, as an alternative to sunscreen, try a wetsuit that covers your full body on for size. Remember, it’s not just the reefs, but their impossibly numerous, fascinating, and dynamic inhabitants, at stake.

Source: Lima, Natalia. “Why is Sunscreen Bad for Coral Reefs?” Care2. 9 June 2016.

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NOISE POLLUTION THREATENS MARINE LIFE

We frequently hear about warming ocean temperatures, waste pollution, and habitat loss in marine environments, but little attention is given to another large issue affecting marine life: noise pollution. Noise pollution is beginning to show a major physical and behavioral affect on marine species ranging from whales, sea turtles, and sea birds to carbs, shrimp, and invertebrates. The pollution is mainly coming from the explosive sounds made by cargo ships, sonar guns, and air guns used by the U.S. Navy and during gas exploration. One species in particular, the Blue Whale, is drawing more attention to the issue because of how they’re affected by the noises.

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Noise pollution can be harmful in multiple ways. Species of whales and dolphins rely heavily on sounds while communicating with each other, hunting prey, escaping predators, and finding mates. The loud noises made during human activity can mask the sounds made by the marine organism, causing it to become lost or separated from its family, or interrupting its role in the food web. Noise pollution can also physically harm marine organisms depending on the size of the vibrations caused by the sound.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has attempted to eliminate this issue on a case-by-case basis, preventing the use of the sonar guns or cargo ships when an organism is present in the nearby distance to the source of the noise. NOAA has now spent 6 years drawing an Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap to deal with noise pollution and bring more attention to this issue. Not only are endangered species being watched closely, but also the entire effect from noise pollution is being researched to determine how whole marine environments are being altered.

Source: Goldman, Laura. “A Plan to Mute Ocean Noise for Marine Life.” Environmental News Network. 15 June 2016.

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What Does it Mean That More Endangered Species Than Ever are Being Delisted?

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Since Obama took office, 15 animal and plant species have been removed from the endangered species list, more than the total combined number of species removed under all previous administrations since the Endangered Species Act became active in 1973. These include the Louisiana black bear, the Virginia northern flying squirrel, and the Lake Erie water snake, and Brian Hires, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) believes several more species could be removed from the list, which currently numbers 2000, before the next president is sworn in this January, from the Hawaiian hawk and Gray wolf to certain Humpback whale populations.

However, many species continue to be newly added to the endangered species list, with help from groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, who regularly litigate the government when severely threatened animals remain unprotected for years or decades. Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director for the wildlife protection nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity says his group sues when the USFWS does nothing to save imperiled species from plights such as trafficking, climate change, and habitat destruction: “If the Service were to complete its mandates on time and proactively protect species at the verge of extinction, we would not have to sue them repeatedly. They hold their own destiny in their hands.”

Nevertheless, conservative lawmakers have worked to make it easier to delist endangered or threatened species in order to appease various groups, from ranchers and farmers to fossil fuel industry companie, who feel the ESA wildlife conservation efforts they would need to undertake would eat into their profits. Attempting to resolve these conflicts, the Obama administration has negotiated several agreements for landowners to merely volunteer to preserve endangered animals on their land, allowing them to bypass the ESA’s stricter preservation policies.

Hires notes that delisting species is a complex process, as many of the species in question inhabit both private and public lands, often crossing state and even international borders. “Successfully preventing the extinction of a species and recovering it so it no longer requires the ESA is a real team effort,” he says. “It requires intensive coordination and collaborations with state wildlife agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, industry, other federal agencies, and more.” For a species to be removed from ESA protections, the USFWS first examines the current state its habitat, likelihood of disease or predation, and other natural or manmade factors, and then decides whether the species would be able to successfully survive in the wild.

Hires also says that climate change will require conservationists to rethink the way they have traditionally managed endangered species, perhaps by focusing on preserving entire landscapes and ecosystems rather than specific species. “Impacts of climate change include increased size and number of wildfires, insect outbreaks, pathogens, disease outbreaks, and tree mortality,” said Hires. Rising sea levels and temperatures, as well as extreme weather associated with climate change will likely have big impacts on conservation efforts.

Hartl believes that most of the approximately 60 delisted species have fared well “because state management is done in good faith and the species are still protected in a science-based fashion. It only falls apart when states act in bad faith,” he said. “Wolves are a good example—as soon as ESA protections were lifted in Montana and Idaho, wolf populations were reduced due to unregulated hunting and trapping.”

Recently, the USFWS announcement that grizzly bears around Yellowstone National Park could be delisted led to controversy. The proposal would transfer grizzly management to states surrounding the park and would likely initiate grizzly bear hunting seasons. The Yellowstone population has grown from 136 animals to between 700 and 1000 since the species’ inclusion on the endangered list in 1975. However, groups like the Humane Society feel that Yellowstone grizzly bears “are far from recovered.” Humane Society’s President & CEO Wayne Pacelle notes that human-caused grizzly mortality rates are up and that the “bears are facing a range of threats to critical food sources, including white bark pine nuts and lake trout.”

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Similarly, for years wildlife groups have argued over the status of the greater sage-grouse, an imperiled bird whose natural habitat cuts across central states whose economies rely heavily on fossil fuel production. In May the oil and gas industry challenged drilling restrictions imposed by the Obama administration to protect the sage-grouse, even though the current restrictions are still a compromise from more stringent ESA rules. Says Hartl of the complex and often politicized conflicts that conservation efforts can spark, “Questions about when to protect species must be based solely on science in order to avoid parties trying to game the system, at the expense of species themselves.”

Regarding the 15 delistings under Obama, Hartl said “it is a victory and credit goes to the heroic efforts over the last 30 years. It is not the achievement of the Obama administration alone because these successes took years to build up to.”

Source: Phillips, Ari. “The convoluted life of an endangered species—and why more are being saved now than ever.” Fusion. 19 May 2016.

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Can Big Data Help Save the Red-Legged Frogs?

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For years, Gary Kittleston has searched swamps for endangered red-legged frogs, waiting just after sunset. The environmental consultant now searches Watsonville Slough, a swamp east of Santa Cruz, California, with a headlamp and waders. Known by his nephews as “the frog whisperer,” Kittleston says that some years he’d be thrilled to find just one or two.

This marsh is a key habitat for red-legged frogs, who are an Endangered Species Act threatened creature due to overdevelopment of their habitats and over-hunting for their legs. A local land trust hired Kittleson to count the frogs to see if their population is growing or shrinking over the years.

This work is far from simple, however. Kittleson seeks out frogs within thick brush and listens for their low bellows amongst high-pitched cries of chorus frogs. Though the average listener would find the task nearly impossible, Kittleston has trained himself to hear red-legged frogs even while he’s speaking, searching for the telltale pattern of their call. “Chuck, chuck, chuck. It was three pulses,” he notes, determining one sound to be that of a red-legged frog.

Kittleston uses the traditional way of counting endangered animals, but this  takes up significant time and manpower, providing only a small slice of data for the time periods Kittleston or consultants like him can stand in each swamp. This is why the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County recently partnered with Conservation Metrics, a data company seeking to streamline the process of measuring endangered frog counts. Kittleson helped the company put up song meters around Watsonville Slough; each little green box has a microphone to capture the frogs’ chorus all night long. Conservation Metrics employees then load each night’s recordings into a computer and create algorithms that sift through hours of audio to pick out red-legged frog calls. This process allows one person and a computer to do what would normally require an entire team of field biologists, notes CEO Matthew McKown. “Our whole point is to make conservation better, so we are trying to make it as cheap as possible,” he says.

McKown created Conservation Metrics three years ago, hoping to help environmentalists keep more accurate records of threatened populations. He says that big data is now a hot tool in conservation that can help biologists study endangered animals and threatened habitats.”What you’re going to start having is cameras, acoustic sensors, satellites trained on these important parts of the world,” he says.

Meanwhile at the Watsonville Slough, Kittleson stands waist deep in swamp water. Night has fallen and he shines his headlamp around the marsh, searching for the piercing glare of frog eyes. One frog meets his gaze. “Beautiful. Adult red-legged frog,” Kittleson says. The frog perches atop a log that floats by the water’s edge. Though Kittleson isn’t hopeful about the future of this species, he says good data is the only way to tell if conservation efforts are making progress.

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Source: Harnett, Sam. “Using Algorithms To Catch The Sounds Of Endangered Frogs.” KUNC. 31 May 2016.

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