Category Archives: Biodiversity

Both Caribou and Monarch Butterflies in Canada Threatened

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On December 4, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (Cosewic), a group of scientific experts, classified both Canada’s caribou and its monarch butterfly populations as endangered. “Caribou are, sadly, very sensitive to human disturbances, and we are disturbing caribou more and more,” said committee member Justina Ray. “These stressors seem to be interacting in complicated ways with rapid warming in the North.”

The committee’s report notes that: “Many of the great northern caribou herds have now fallen to all-time lows, and there is cause for concern that they will not rebound in the same way they have before.” The group is responsible for classifying wildlife species at risk of extinction, and recommending potential protective actions to the Canadian government.

In order to determine whether caribou herds were at risk, Cosewic examined two different caribou populations: the tundra herd, deemed to be “threatened,” as well as the smaller population of Torngat Mountain caribou which dwell in northeastern Canada, and which were found to be at an even greater risk of extinction. This group was thus labelled “endangered,” and was noted to be facing “imminent” extinction. The report also highlights both habitat encroachment, due to increased forestry and mining, and Arctic global warming as grave threats to Canadian caribous’ continued existence. This October the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) rang alarm bells over Canadian caribou herds’ rapid decline over the past thirty years, and the committee’s findings sadly lend support to this conclusion.

In the same report, Cosewic classified monarch butterflies as endangered, noting that the “remarkably tiny wintering grounds where monarchs congregate continue to be chipped away by habitat loss.”

These migratory creatures regularly fly 4000km south from Canada to Mexico to remain warm as winter approaches. The committee strongly recommends that the butterfly’s habitat in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, all be proctected to ensure the insects have a place to rest each step of their migration.”Otherwise, monarch migration may disappear, and Canada may lose this iconic species,” it concluded.

Lending support to this call, this June, 200 American, Mexican, and Canadian scientists, artists, and academics appealed to the leaders of the three nations to ban illegal logging and mining in the Mexican reserve where monarchs outlast the winter. They also called for a ban on pesticides used to diminish milkweed, which serves as the only food source for monarch caterpillars. For its part, Cosewic called out the use of an herbicide used on genetically modified corn and soybean, which has been detrimental to monarchs as well.

Actions such as those recommended by the committee will go a long way in helping preserve two Canada-dwelling species that rely heavily on diminishing habitats.

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Source: “Canada caribou and monarch butterfly ‘endangered’”. Phys.org. 6 December 2016.

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The Epic Battle Against Invasive Lionfish

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First reported near Florida in the 1980s, lionfish have since spread throughout southeastern U.S. waters, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea, taking over coasts from New York to Brazil. These brightly-striped ornamental fish, native to the Indo-Pacific, were believed to have been let loose in U.S. waters by the aquarium trade.The problem: with insatiable appetites (they’ve been found to eat over 70 fish/invertebrate species) these invasive creatures have since wreaked havoc on coral reefs and fisheries, eating both other species’ prey and grazers that clean algae from reefs. Plus, no predators have stepped in to gobble up the strange species, allowing the fish to reproduce relatively unchecked.

Still, scientists and environmentally-minded entrepreneurs alike have been taking action against ballooning lionfish populations, creating and testing everything from underwater robots to fish traps loaded with special recognition software, all designed to drastically lower the lionfish headcount. “It’s the inverse of every fisheries management plan you’ve ever heard of,” says marine biologist Corey Eddy, who focuses on lionfish near Bermuda. “Usually we’re trying to minimize the pressure on fish populations so they can rebound. Now we’re saying, let’s start wiping them out.”

Though strategies like hosting spearfishing tournaments and giving out special lionfish culling permits can help individuals nab hundreds of lionfish in a day, this is nothing compared with the two million eggs a female lionfish could spawn every year. Add that to the fact that they can lurk below 130 feet, too deep for average divers, and scientists have speculated that robots may be better than humans at controlling lionfish populations.

Colin Angle, cofounder of iRobot, had this same thought while diving in Bermuda, only natural since his company has created robots from the Roomba to radioactive nuclear waste cleaners. Inspired by the idea to employ robots in lionsih control, Angle and his wife, biochemist Erika Ebbel, began nonprofit Robots in Service of the Environment (RISE), with the goal of creating an affordable autonomous underwater robot that lethally shocks lionfish by early next year. RISE members feel that lionfish could ultimately become the next popular delicacy, a demand that would vastly help limit lionfish populations. “Ultimately the way this becomes a success is by creating a market and the interest of consumers in eating lionfish,” says John Rizzi, executive director of RISE. “The best way to challenge the sustainability of a species is for humans to eat it. Whether that’s good or bad, in this case that will benefit the environment.”

Similarly, recreational divers Bryan and Anna Clark were inspired to start a nonprofit environmental group called Coast Watch Alliance, which works to simultaneously protect reefs and battle lionfish. Bryan Clark is working on a prototype to suck up the fish with a vacuum-like gulp. He’s also developing a “hunting ROV” (remote-operated vehicle) with a camera to seek out the fish before diving down. He feels that both technology and financial motives will help decimate the lionfish. “Some people are going to harvest lionfish because it’s great for the environment, others will do it because it’s fun to do while they’re diving. But a lot of people are going to do it because they’re going to make some money taking lionfish to the market,” he says.

It just so happens that lionfish have already unwittingly stepped into the spiny lobster fishery commercial market, as 20 percent of lobster traps end up catching lionfish as well. “lf the lionfish are showing up in those traps, uninvited and unintended, then why not get them to show up intentionally?” notes diver Bob Hickerson, who’s putting his contractor skills to good use by designing a better lionfish trap. The “Frapper Trap” (from the French word meaning “to strike down”) will implement a pattern recognition program to seize lionfish, and let other species free. Along with his wife, Maria, his father-in-law, and volunteers from Team Frapper, he hopes to have a trap ready to test in the next six months. “We can’t stand back and watch our reefs being taken over by lionfish,” he says.

Nevertheless, even with such a broad range of arsenals being developed, experts believe that total destruction of lionfish is impossible, though creating a strong commercial market for selling the species to diners could prevent them from devastating entire ecosystems.

“I think commercial incentive will be a big part of the solution, supplemented by spearfishing in shallow water and some of these other things,” says Stephen Gittings, science coordinator at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “Some of these might sound like crazy ideas, but you never know until you try.”

Source: Gaworecki, Mike. “The lionfish invasion: a call to arms?” Mongabay. 14 December 2016.

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Endangered Species Face 12-Year Wait to be Listed

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A new study in journal Biological Conservation uncovered that the average time it takes a species to be officially classified as endangered is 12 years, six times longer than scientists say it should be to promote the health and survival of these species.

When Congress first passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, the process for a species to be added to the “endangered” list entailed being labelled as endangered or threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1982 Congress added an amendment laying out an entire two-year timeline for the process, from a petition submission in favor of the species being added to a final rule being created in the Federal Register.

However, the reality is a bit more complex. “While the law lays out a process time of two years for a species to be listed, what we found is that, in practice, it takes, on average, 12.1 years,” says Dr. Emily Puckett, a recent Division of Biological Sciences graduate at the University of Missouri. “Some species moved through the process in 6 months but some species, including many flowering plants, took 38 years to be listed—almost the entire history of the ESA.”

The study analyzed the length of time it took for the 1,338 species listed for ESA protection between January 1974 and October 2014 to move through the listing process. Researchers also examined if a species grouping affected the speed with which it was listed, and found that vertebrates moved on to the list significantly more quickly than did flowering plants and invertebrates. This finding prompted the study’s authors to conclude there may be a bias in the listing process that undermines the ESA’s official listing policies. “While the [US Fish and Wildlife] Service can account for species groups in its prioritization system, it’s not supposed to be mammals versus insects versus ferns but, rather, how unique is this species within all of the ecological system,” Puckett says. “However, our findings suggest some bias that skews the process toward vertebrates.”

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Long delays in ESA listing have real and severe impacts on endangered species. In fact, the study’s authors cited documentation of several species that went extinct while the lengthy process unfolded. In contrast, species that were listed quickly and had strong conservation plans put in place had greater chances to recover and thrive. For instance, the island night lizard took a mere 1.19 years to be listed, while the prairie fringed orchid took 14.7 years to be listed. In the meantime, the lizard population has been restored and it has been removed from endangered status, while the orchid is still a threatened species.

“The whole point of putting species on the list is they already have been identified as threatened or endangered with extinction,” Puckett says. “Without being on the list, we run the risk that these populations will go locally or globally extinct and there will be nothing to save.”

Sossamon, Jeff. “”Endangered Species Wait 12 Years to Get on the List.” Futurity. 12 August 2016.

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British Town Recruits Dedicated “Hedgehog Officer” to Protect Local ‘Hog Population

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The Suffolk Wildlife Trust was recently flooded with applications after posting a two-year position for Ipswich Hedgehog Officer, salaried at £24,000 annually. This role comes on the heels of Suffolk’s year-long “Going the Whole Hog” campaign, intended to reverse a decline in these shy, nocturnal creatures. The Heritage Lottery Fund and British Hedgehog Preservation Society provided funds to create the role.

The position drew international interest from countries as diverse as Russia, Taiwan, Poland, Spain, Germany, and Hungary, and a trust spokeswoman said they were “overwhelmed” by the global attention. “We thought we would get a good response, but we were overwhelmed by the numbers who responded and the international reach. Applications have closed now and we’re really excited to go through them, and to start the interview process next week. The person we’re looking for will have an inspirational, and quite unique mix of skills, which will make the face of hedgehog conservation in Ipswich.”

The role was created after a Suffolk Wildlife Trust survey revealed hundreds of Ipswich locals had seen hedgehogs, both dead and alive, in their area. Conservationists feel that having an officer dedicated entirely to preserving these tiny, spiny mammals will maintain the town’s standing as a hedgehog hotspot. “The response to our hedgehog survey was fantastic,” said Simone Bullion from the trust. “What was particularly evident is that our urban areas are very important. Hedgehogs still look to be hanging on in our towns, so it is imperative we do all we can to keep them there and make conditions even more hedgehog friendly.”

In the past two years, nearly 12,000 hedgehogs have been spotted in the county, with about 2,500 in Ipswich alone. The trust notes there is a “rich natural network” for hedgehogs across Ipswich, “including its beautiful parks as well as the cemetery, allotments and churches”. However, more measures must be taken to ensure that hedgehog numbers remain stable. Once hired, the new officer will raise community awareness of how individuals can make their yards and gardens into hedgehog havens. Simple actions such as leaving gaps in fences, preserving areas of garden “litter” like dead leaves, and putting out fresh water and food (pet food, minced meat, and boiled eggs are favorites) will encourage hedgehogs to feel at home. Even small efforts can have a big impact in helping these adorable creatures to thrive in urban spaces, allowing Ipswich to safeguard their well-loved ‘hogs for years to come.

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Sources: “Ipswich hedgehog officer post gains worldwide interest.” BBC News. 16 July 2016. “Ipswich proves to be a hotspot for hedgehogs.” BBC News. 5 March 2016.

 

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First Marine Protected Area in Cambodia Announced

schooling-fish-801x600M’Pai Bai jetty with school of fish. Photo by Paul Colley / Fauna & Flora International.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries recently declared a 156-square mile region of the Koh Rong Archipelago the nation’s first marine protected area. The Marine Fisheries Management Area (MFMA), located by the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem, houses diverse species of sea turtles and seahorses and protects their fragile nursery and breeding sites.

In addition to preserving wildlife, the plan still allows for human activities in the area: “The MFMA will help to drive sustainable fishing activities of the community, protect biodiversity and promote ecotourism, all of which contribute to achieving the goal of the fisheries sector,” said Ouk Vibol, director of Cambodia’s Department of Fisheries Conservation, who pushed for creation of the protected area. “This is a good management model, as many stakeholders — including development partners, the private sector, local authorities and the local community — are working together to manage the fisheries resource for sustainable use.”

Blue-spotted-rays-902x600Blue-spotted ray. Photo by Paul Colley / Fauna & Flora International.

For the past five years, local groups such as the Song Saa Foundation and Save Cambodian Marine Life have worked alongside non-profit Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration to help the MFMA come to fruition. FFI’s Coastal and Marine Project Manager Kate West said that between 60 and 80% of local communities around the archipelago rely on fishing and tourism, making it critical that the new MFMA ensured “that the waters around Koh Rong can continue to support not only marine life but also local livelihoods long into the future.”

The Song Saa Foundation has further pushed the initiative forward by providing baseline research on the health of local coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrasses. “The establishment of this MFMA is a major step towards protecting biodiversity of key marine fauna and habitats in the archipelago, as well as the communities that rely upon them for their well being,” noted Ben Thorne, a Song Saa Foundation project director. “We are hugely proud of our collaborative efforts over the past five years to establish this protected area, ensuring successful conservation of fisheries resources, whilst supporting local communities, for many years to come.”

Source: Gaworecki, Mike. “Cambodia declares first-ever marine protected area.” Mongabay. 24 June 2016.

Flabellina-nudibranchFlabellina nudibranch, a colorful sea slug. Photo by Paul Colley / Fauna & Flora International.

 

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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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First Chicks Born in Captivity for Highly-Threatened Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

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This May, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that Florida grasshopper sparrow chicks were successfully hatched for the first time in captivity. The chicks, born at the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, Fla, go one step forward in helping protect this highly endangered subspecies, one of North America’s most threatened birds.

With only an estimated 150 Florida grasshopper sparrows left in the wild, conservationists began a captive-breeding program in 2015, collecting five chicks from two different clutches in the wild, as well as two juveniles who would “tutor” the nestlings as they matured. In April 2016, the birds began to couple off, and a female hatched four nestlings on May 9. However, things are still less than rosy for these non-migratory, ground-dwelling birds, whose nest success rates are low (10-33%) to begin with.

Audubon Florida reported that 85 percent of the dry prairie land the sparrow depends on has been destroyed, mainly through conversion into pasture land. The exciting births come at a vital time, as experts are not optimistic about 2016 population counts for Florida grasshopper sparrows. “This breakthrough is great news because the Florida grasshopper sparrow couldn’t be more vulnerable,” said Sandra Sneckenberger, an FWS biologist helping lead the bird’s recovery effort.

Frequent Florida storms have taken a toll on the birds as well. As Sneckenberger noted in her May 11 statement: “Unfortunately, last week’s storms flooded most of the wild birds’ first nest attempts of the season. That brought the need for this captive-breeding program into even sharper focus. The four hatchlings are hopeful signs that bode well for producing options for recovery.” Let’s hope the joyful news of the recent hatchlings portends a newly positive direction for this threatened population of tiny creatures whose songs sound much like the grasshoppers they are named for.

Source: Discovery News. “Endangered Florida Sparrow Chicks Hatch in Captivity.” 19 May 2016.

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