Conservation, Nature, Science

River Dolphins and Amazonian Manatees Get New Protection

The pink river dolphin, gray river dolphin, and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law.
The pink river dolphin is one of the species, along with the gray river dolphin and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law. Photo: Shutterstock

Thanks to a newly developed plan, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees in Peru will finally receive protection.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in England worked with Peruvian officials for more than two years to develop that law.

“These species are only found in the Amazon,” said Dr. Joanna Alfaro, formerly of the University of Exeter. “Neighboring countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador already had legislation to protect them, but Peru did not. To bring about this legislation, we worked in lose collaboration with the Peruvian government, with support from [World Wildlife Fund] Peru, and held five workshops with local authorities.

Like other species of dolphins and manatees, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees face threats from climate change, fishing, and loss of habitat, not to mention pollution, noise, and boat traffic.

The new law, the National Action Plan for the Conservation of River Dolphins and the Amazonian Manatee, was approved by Peru’s Ministry of Production. It requires conservation and monitoring of habitats. It is also designed to bring about better management of the species’ habitats.

“We are delighted to have been a part in the development of this law, and we are excited to see the plan in full implementation,” said researcher Elizabeth Campbell. “It was a long process, but it showed how government agencies can work with non-governmental academics, private companies, and others.”

Professor Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter, who supervised the research, said, “We believe this action plan will aid conservation and reduce the threats that dolphins and manatees face in the Amazon today. It is a great example where research was used as a baseline for the legal framework to protect biodiversity.”

The University of Exeter project was funded by the Darwin Initiative, a UK-based grant program that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide. It provides funding to countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives in preserving that biodiversity.

Environmental Hazards, Nature

California Sea Lions Dying Due to Poisonous Algae Blooms

California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.
California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.

In the first two weeks of April, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, recorded 14 sea lion deaths due to poisoning by domoic acid. Another nine are in various stages of recovery.

Domoic acid poisoning occurs when animals eat fish that have been feeding on toxic algae.

Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman Krysta Higuchi told the Los Angeles Times that 10 years ago, the last time the problem was this severe in southern California, 79 sea lions died due to domoic acid poisoning.

“Other rescue facilities are also seeing the same animals,” Higuchi said. They’re “all over the place.”

How does domoic acid poisoning happen? Normally, blooms of single-celled algae occur for about a week in the spring. However, the heavy rains California has been receiving have intensified the blooms by flushing nutrients from fertilizers and other sources into the Pacific Ocean, and this has intensified the blooms. Small sea animals like anchovies, clams, and mussels feed on the algae, and the sea lions then feed on those animals.

“When the sea lions eat these toxic anchovies, they have serious neurological problems,” said Kathi Lefebvre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Seattle. “The sea lions will have seizures, in some cases they’ll die, in some cases they’ll recover but have permanent brain damage.” In addition, many pregnant sea lions miscarry. The pups that do survive until birth often suffer from the effects of domoic acid poisoning.

The Marine Mammal Center in the northern California city of Sausalito has also treated two sea lions it suspects were poisoned by domoic acid.

Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Sausalito center, said that it’s possible more sea lions in northern California may be affected as the water temperatures rise in the summer and fall.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns about what triggers these blooms of algae and what triggers them to become toxic, because not all the blooms are toxic,” Johnson told SFgate. “There’s a lot of research going on to better understand [the causes] so we can better predict when these blooms will happen so that fisheries can be monitored, and for us, so we can be prepared for increased stranding [of sea lions].

California officials have warned consumers not to eat mussels, clams, or whole scallops harvested recreationally in Santa Barbara County. Commercially harvested seafood is typically tested for safety before being distributed.

Climate Change, Nature

Scientists Concerned About Rapid Change in Arctic River Ice

Arctic river ice is melting at an accelerating rate.

The Arctic continues to bear the brunt of climate change’s current effects, with new research showing that Arctic river ice is accruing in smaller amounts and melting earlier in the season.

Arctic groundwater comes to the surface and freezes on top of already frozen rivers, and these deposits of ice grow throughout the season until whole river valleys are covered. Some river icings have grown to over 4 square miles, and as deep as 33 feet. Traditionally, they start melting in the middle of July, which keeps many rivers running long after they would otherwise have dried up, and provides fresh water for many different creatures and habitats.

But over the past 15 years, there has been less of that ice forming, and it’s been melting about a month earlier. This means habitats that rely on that water melting later are getting less water overall, as it melts too soon and there is less of it to melt in the first place.

Looking at 147 rivers icings in the U.S. and Canadian Arctic using satellite data, Pavlesky and Zarnetske discovered that 84 of those are becoming smaller or disappearing earlier in the season. The minimum area of ice also shrank a lot during the study period. In 2000, there were 30 square miles of ice, but there were only 2 square miles in 2010. The minimum ice area has rebounded a little bit: it was up to 3 square miles in 2015.

“This is the first clear evidence that this important component of Arctic river systems—which we didn’t know was changing—is changing and it’s changing rapidly,” said lead author Tamlin Pavelsky of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

The exact mechanisms of how climate change is affecting these rivers is as yet unknown, it could be that higher temperatures are directly affecting the ice, or that it is more subtly impacting groundwater, and how that water interacts with rivers.

“While glaciers tell us about climate in the mountains and sea ice tells us about sea-atmosphere interactions, the processes that control river icing may offer great insight into how groundwater and surface waters are connected in the Arctic and how our headwaters will be connected to the ocean in the future,” said study co-author Jay Zarnetske of Michigan State University.

In the meantime, these rivers and their related ecosystems are going to continue to change as the world’s overall climate warms.

Conservation, Nature, Science

Logging Threatens Leatherback Turtles

Leatherback turtles are under threat from fishing nets, marine debris like plastic, and now it seems that even distant logging activities are threatening the species.
Baby leatherback turtles like this one can become the victims of predators if their way from nest to ocean is impeded by logging debris. Photo: Shutterstock

Leatherback turtles face a number of difficulties, all of which threaten the species as a whole. They are often caught in fishing nets or eat marine debris like plastic. Many of their nesting sites are under pressure from tourism and other human activities. And now it turns out that even logging is a danger to them, despite the fact that it rarely happens near beaches.

The problem is that logging creates quite a lot of debris, which ends up washing ashore on the beaches where leatherback turtles make nests and lay eggs. These turtles have to lay their eggs far enough up the shore that they won’t be flooded by high tide. But that debris can get in the way of mothers building nests, who have to spend more time on that process and have to build their nests closer to the tideline.

Once they hatch, baby leatherback turtles make their way across the sand and down to the water, but that is becoming increasingly difficult in areas subjected to logging debris. The turtles have to navigate around the debris, which requires them to use up more energy and puts them at increased risk of predation. While not every turtle makes it to the water—where they can start eating to replenish the energy spent getting there—with increased obstacles, even fewer are doing so. Over time, this could result in an overall decrease in the leatherback turtle population, which is already struggling.

“Leatherback turtles are already under immense pressure, from fisheries bycatch, and are also one of the species prone to ingesting marine plastic litter,” said Prof. Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter. “Our research clearly indicates that logging presents another threat. It is now paramount that beach cleanup operations are built into logging activities to prevent further damage to the species.”

Luckily, leatherback turtles are a favorite of environmentalists, tourists, and other people with the social clout or budget to try and affect change on their behalf, so the odds are good that they will at least be supported with beach cleanup activities.

“Simple measures could make a real difference, such as repositioning organic waste areas, or salvaging the wood debris as an energy source,” said Dr. Adolfo Marco Llorente of the Doñana Biological Station. “It is also essential that logging practices [which] reduce the impact on the marine environment are implemented.”

Nature, Science

Light Pollution Linked to Immune Problems in Hamster Pups

Light pollution--including exposures to light at night from our tablets, phones, and TVs--can have more serious effects than previously imagined.
Light pollution–including exposures to light at night from our tablets, phones, and TVs–can have more serious effects than previously imagined. Photo: Shutterstock

According to a study by researchers at The Ohio State University, disruptions in sleep schedules are not only bad for the health of animals and people, but they can have effects which are passed on to offspring. What’s more, these problems can also be caused not just by interrupting sleep schedules, but by unnaturally light night.

To do the study, researchers used nocturnal Siberian hamsters. They exposed one group of hamsters of both sexes to a standard light day/dark night cycle, and one group to dim light at night, for nine weeks. They then mated the hamsters in four groups—mothers or fathers with dim-light exposure, both parents with exposure to light at night, and both parents with standard light exposure. After the hamsters mated, the entire group lived under standard light conditions.

The researchers found that dim light exposure had a definite influence on the offspring. Fathers and mothers seemed to pass along genetic instructions that impaired immune response and decreased endocrine activity. But it’s especially important to note that the negative changes were traced to both parents.

“These weren’t problems that developed in utero. They came from the sperm and egg,” said senior study author Randy Nelson, “It’s much more common to see epigenetic effects from the mothers, but we saw changes passed on from the fathers as well.”

While this certainly adds to the ongoing discussions of how screens are affecting us as we use them late at night, it has some other implications too. Light pollution is not a problem that has been taken very seriously in the past, despite the fact that previous research has proven that it has negative effects on animals. It has been known to interrupt animal sleep and activity patterns, and this new research has shown some specific, and negative, consequences of light pollution.

But it’s not just for animals that we should be concerned. Humans are making continued use of screens at night, often in otherwise dark rooms, which seems to be having some negative effects on our bodies. Studies have shown that it interrupts sleep and strains our eyes, but the OSU study shows that it could actually affect how genes are passed on to children.

“I think people are beginning to accept that light pollution is serious pollution and it has health consequences that are pretty pronounced—an increase in cancers, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and anxiety disorders,” Nelson said. “We should be concerned about the increasing exposures to light at night from our tablets and phones and TVs.”

Nature, Science

Researchers Test “Whale Breath” for Microbes

Scientists have found a way to test "whale breath" for bacteria or fungi.
Scientists have found a way to test “whale breath” for bacteria or fungi. Photo: Shutterstock

Recent research has shown that southern resident killer whales, also known as orcas, which range from California to British Columbia, are subject to a variety of bacteria and fungi that may pose a health risk to the whales, and the source of which is still unknown.

Because they range so far, orcas are exposed to a wide variety of pollutants like agricultural runoff, and some of the bacteria show antibiotic-resistant tendencies, perhaps caused by the increased use of antibiotics in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Understanding the health of southern resident killer whales is essential, as they’ve been endangered for some time. In the 1990s alone, their numbers dropped from around 108 to about 70, making it all the more important to protect those who remain.

But giving such animals a checkup has long been very difficult, but the researchers who are concerned about these bacteria and fungi have developed a new way to do exactly that.

They found the bacteria by testing droplets and exhaled breath caught from the blowholes of orcas, allowing them to see what kinds of microbial passengers they have.

“We wanted to find out what sort of bacteria and fungi represent in healthy whales and the potential pathogens they are being exposed to in their environment,” said study lead author Stephen Raverty, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia. “In some circumstances, these pathogenic microbes could pose a threat to the animals and contribute to clinical disease.”

This technique allows researchers to study the health of the whales now instead of waiting until they beach themselves or are otherwise found dead, after which a necropsy can be performed. While necropsies can tell us a lot about the dead animal, data collected from live specimens can be more important because it can allow us to react to sickness among those animals.

By collecting this “whale breath,” researchers will be able to get a better handle on what disease threats these whales face in the wild. Unlike more obvious dangers like depleted prey or increased water traffic disrupting their sonar, microbes are hard to detect in the first place, so it can be hard to keep them from causing harm.

“Assessing whether animals are healthy or sick is virtually impossible to do for live animals as big as whales,” said UBC professor Andrew Trites, who was not involved in the study. “Raverty and his colleagues found a way to assess health by collecting microbiota and pathogens when the whales exhaled between dives. It is an ingenious way to give whales a checkup.”

Nature, Science

Nanoparticles Containing Bee Venom Toxin Kill HIV

A toxin found in bee venom has been found to kill HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Photo: Shutterstock

By now, we’re all aware that bees have a huge impact on agriculture by pollinating plants, but it turns out they might also be able to help us deal with one of the most dangerous diseases on the planet: HIV. According to research at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, a toxin found in bee venom can be used to kill HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

It works like this: nanoparticles loaded with melittin, the toxic agent in bee venom, come in contact with HIV or other viruses and, pokes holes in the protective envelope that surrounds those viruses. They don’t harm normal cells because those cells are too large to fit through the “bumpers” on the nanoparticles, but the HIV particles are small enough to get through.

What’s more, the same process might be useful against other diseases too. Nanoparticles like these have been shown to kill tumor cells, and might work against hepatitis B and C, viruses which have protective bubbles similar to HIV. And these aren’t the only diseases with this feature.

Unlike existing HIV drugs, which prevent the virus from reproducing, this actually kills the virus, allowing it to work as a preventative to HIV in the first place. But it can also function as a treatment for those who already have HIV, especially if the strain they are infected with is drug-resistant.

One advantage of using the nanoparticle method is that the virus can’t adapt to become resistant to it. “We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” said Joshua L. Hood, MD, PhD, one of the researchers. “Theoretically, there isn’t any way for the virus to adapt to that. The virus has to have a protective coat, a double-layered membrane that protects the virus.”

This finding is an important step in the development of a vaginal gel that can be used to perhaps prevent the spread of HIV. “Our hope is that in places where HIV is running rampant, people could use this gel as a preventive measure to stop the initial infection,” said Dr. Hood.

That an element of bee venom is capable of doing this is amazing. But the simple fact is that nature is highly varied and capable of some pretty startling things. The more we learn about the world and the creatures we share it with, the more we’ll be able to do for ourselves and the world around us.

Washington University notes that no bees were harmed in this study because researchers used a synthetic version of the bee venom toxin.