Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Nature, Science, Wildlife & Animal Rights

Bacteria Blocks Zika Transmission by Mosquitos

QK_bacteria_blocks-zikaMosquitos are generally considered a nuisance by everyone, but while they’re simply annoying in the Midwest, in Latin America or Africa they can be deadly. Mosquitos are capable of spreading a wide variety of diseases, such as yellow fever, chikungunya, and, most recently, the Zika virus.

The Zika virus, while not particularly dangerous to adults, can cause a variety of birth defects in children if mothers contract the disease while pregnant. Mosquitos are also notoriously hard to control, which means that preventing the disease from spreading has proven almost impossible.

There may be good news on the horizon, though. A team of researchers has discovered that a common bacteria, Wolbachia, which can be found in many insects but not usually mosquitos, can prevent mosquitos from spreading Zika and other diseases.

Mosquitos carrying the bacteria are less prone to being infected with Zika themselves, and even those that get infected aren’t capable of passing the disease on in their saliva. Best of all, females pass the bacteria on to their young, meaning that it wouldn’t take all that many mosquitos with the bacteria to spread it around throughout the population.

This research has been years in the making, as the team had been studying the effects of Wolbachia on other mosquito transmitted diseases in the first place. The team has performed laboratory tests and some field experiments, and were recently approved to do larger-scale tests in Australia. The results are looking quite positive, but it will still be some time before any kind of bacterial infection program can be put into place.

While it might seem like getting the bacteria out there sooner rather than later would be the obvious choice, there are still a lot of testing that needs to be done. We need to find out, for example, if the bacteria can infect humans as well, and what kind of effects that might have on us. When it comes to impacting the ecological balance, safe is always better than sorry.

Nature, Wildlife & Animal Rights

Human Activity Drives Extinction and Development of Species

black rhino endangered species
Human activity could be responsible for the sixth massive extinction on Earth.

Humans have been driving other species to extinction for a very long time. Just since the last Ice Age some 255 species of mammals and 523 species of birds have gone extinct, and most of them due to human activity.

We move species to new regions and domesticate others. All of this can lead to the destruction of a number of unique life forms, so much so that current extinction rates may result in a sixth massive extinction, this one entirely our fault.

All that human activity doesn’t just destroy, though, and in fact a number of species have actually developed because of human activity. More new species of plants exist in Europe than have gone extinct over the last three centuries. The London Underground mosquito can no longer breed with above ground mosquitos, making it a new species (that was certainly an accident, since nobody actually likes mosquitos).

Humans create novel environments in which new species can develop, or we change existing ecosystems enough that species develop significant variation and can branch off into new species.

But these new species can’t replace those we’ve lost. London Underground mosquitos didn’t evolve to fill a niche left by an extinct blood-sucking insect–they just evolved. We can’t replace lost species, because they each had specific contributions to their native ecosystems. Every species is unique, and even when they fill niches similar to other species, they aren’t quite the same niches. Even if we were creating new species as fast as we were driving others to become extinct, it wouldn’t offset the damage; those new species would be square pegs for round holes. Or mosquito shaped pegs for black rhino shaped holes.

Conservation is still important, and essential to preserving existing ecosystems. But knowing that we also drive the development of new species is something we need to keep in mind as we work to preserve already endangered creatures.

A group of customs agents in Hong Kong surround a large shipment of elephant tusks being confiscated as part of a concerted effort to stop international trade in ivory
Business, Sustainability, Wildlife & Animal Rights

Researchers Provide New Tools to Fight Illegal Ivory Trade

A group of customs agents in Hong Kong surround a large shipment of elephant tusks being confiscated as part of a concerted effort to stop international trade in ivory
Customs officers seize ivory tusks, rhino horn and leopard skins, with a street value of around €4 million, at the Hong Kong Customs and Excise headquarters in Hong Kong, China, 08 August 2013. Photo: International Fund for Animal Welfare | Flickr CC.

International efforts to shut down illegal ivory trade and to prevent the poaching of elephants or rhinos to create new products have failed. Ivory is still sold around the world and fetches high prices.

And thanks to the Internet, especially thanks to eBay, tracking down everyone who is buying or selling ivory is nearly impossible.

Determining what products are actually ivory, and which are illegal, takes time and effort, but there generally aren’t enough people working on the problem to keep up with traffic.

However, there is some cause for hope. Researchers at the University of Kent have developed a system, which scans Ebay listings and accurately determines if an item for sale is ivory or not. This search is possible despite most listings don’t use the term “ivory” to describe their illegal items.

This level of accuracy is about the same as a human investigator would provide, but the algorithm doesn’t yet utilize pictures. With further development the 93% success rate could be further increased. And to top it all off, the computer system is much faster than human investigators.

According to researchers at the University of Washington, most of those elephants are being killed in one of two places. The researches used DNA evidence taken from seized illegal ivory to make the determinations, and they learned a lot more about the illegal ivory trade as well.

This is good news for elephants and rhinos, and bad news for poachers. African elephants, of which there are less than 500,000, are being killed at a rate of about 50,000 per year. At this rate, that species is doomed.

Hopefully the international community can make use of this new information to not only put an end to ivory markets, but also prevent poachers from acquiring it in the first place.

Of course, convincing people that pointless decorations aren’t worth the life of endangered animals is the first step toward strangling the ivory market. Educating people about the complex social interactions between elephants is an important step towards increasing awareness of the problem. It’s also an important step toward protecting the world’s ecosystems.

Climate Change, Nature, Science, Wildlife & Animal Rights

Over Generations, Some Fish Adapt to Higher Water Temperatures

Fish in a coral reef
Scientists are looking into what genes make it easier for some fish to adapt to rising temperatures.
Image: Shutterstock

Researchers at James Cook University and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Saudi Arabia) have figured out why some species of fish, principally reef fish, are able to adapt to rising water temperatures. Figuring out how and which species of fish can adapt in such ways will be important as climate change continues to increase the temperature of ocean water.

Researchers discovered that over subsequent generations, some fish can better adapt to increasing temperatures than others. Using a specially-built tank at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, which is located at James Cook University, researchers were able to study the fish over four years and several generations.

They managed to isolate 53 individual genes within the fish that contributed to greater adaptability. By further studying these genes, researchers can figure out what biological processes contribute to temperature adaptability in fish, which may help us determine which species will stand the best chance for survival as the climate continues to change. Understanding these processes in fish could also help us understand them in other animals.

For example, the researchers learned that some proteins that respond to short-term temperature increases, called heat-shock proteins, aren’t useful in the long run. It would stand to reason that heat-shock proteins might be helpful, but they only work for short-term changes in temperature, not multigenerational adaptability. And it’s multigenerational adaptability which is important here, as water temperatures will rise gradually over the course of many generations of aquatic life, and those temperatures won’t be falling any time soon.

This is the first study to reveal the molecular processes that help coral reef fish deal with temperature change. Figuring out which species will have an easier time adapting to climate change, fish or otherwise, could be incredibly helpful in conservation efforts, allowing us to focus our efforts on those animals that can’t keep up.

Climate Change, Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Nature, Wildlife & Animal Rights

Chesapeake Bay Clean Up

crab boat in the Chesapeake Bay
The Chesapeake Watershed Agreement will help combat pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image: Shutterstock

On Monday, June 16, government leaders in the Chesapeake Bay watershed signed the Chesapeake Watershed Agreement, which is a broad agreement to restore the health of its waters. This agreement comes at a time when the blue crab and oyster populations of the area continue to fluctuate and scientists are finding that the toxins in the watershed could be changing the sex of fish, a problem which sea turtles are also facing with rising global water temperatures due to climate change.

This marks the third agreement signed since the 1980s by the six watershed states: Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, as well as the District of Columbia. However this agreement seeks to not only limit the amount of pollution from cities and farms like the previous agreements did but also investigate the effects of chemical contamination and toxins, look at how land use impedes the bay’s improvement, and study the threat of sea-level rise. These plans seek to restore the bay 2025 and, with the watershed covering 64,000 square miles, its recovery is becoming more and more important.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is most crucial to Maryland and Virginia, which rely on the bay’s crab and oyster fisheries and its recreational opportunities. The decrease in crab and oyster populations is thought to be due partially to the poor water quality and could potentially be a blow to their economy. In one of the worst winter die-offs recorded in the bay, more than a quarter of the crabs perished with female crabs being hit the hardest.

Virginia and Maryland researchers, well below the threshold needed to sustain the region’s crab population, counted only 69 million female crabs. However, the bay’s water is starting to see improvement according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2012 State of the Bay report. This improvement is credited to a federal “pollution diet” orchestrated by the Environmental Protection Agency and implemented by watershed governments.

This pollution diet is being challenged through by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which is arguing that this plan should be voided because the watershed is under the jurisdiction of the states. In 90 days, the states and DC are to decide which jurisdiction will take the lead in trying to implement each priority of the agreement: land use, water restoration, and scientific studies. In a year, these officials are expected to show the progress they have made toward those goals. Both of these requirements of assigning jurisdiction and showing progress were not part of previous agreements and will hopefully lead to this agreement being more successful.

Climate Change, Conservation, Environmentalist, Nature, Wildlife & Animal Rights

Climate Changes Affects Sex of Sea Turtles

Warmer sand temperatures increase the likelihood that sea turtles will be born female.
Image: Shutterstock

A recent study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, shows that continual warming climate could cause greater numbers of sea turtles to be born female. The publication warns that when the sands become too warm, the sea turtle eggs grow too warm. Without enough male sea turtle, the entire population could be at risk for extinction.

“Sea turtles are unusual in that the gender of the offspring is not driven by sex chromosomes, as in humans,” said Professor Graeme Hays, one of the lead authors of the study. Rather, the sex of sea turtle’s is determined by the sand’s temperature where the female turtle decides to bury her eggs.

Scientists have long known that the reproductive process in reptiles is extremely sensitive to shifts in temperature. For species of sea turtles, once the temperature goes above about 84 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius), more female turtles are born. At about 87 degrees Fahrenheit (30.5 degrees Celsius), populations become completely female.

“It will be the end of the story without human intervention,” said co-author Graeme Hays from Deakin University in a report by the Sydney Morning Herald. At temperatures higher than about 91 degrees Fahrenheit (33 degrees Celsius), embryos fail to survive. Sand temperature depends strongly on its color, Hays said.

“The darker the sand, the more heat it absorbs from sunlight. So blacker sand would be much warmer than lighter colored sand.”

Climate Change, Conservation, Eco-friendly, Environmentalist, Green, Nature, Sustainability, Wildlife & Animal Rights

A Fierce Green Fire: A New Earth Day Documentary

A Fierce Green Fire interviews eco-crusader Paul Watson.

A new Earth Day documentary, A Fierce Green Fire, talks about humankind’s attitude toward the world’s oceans—which doesn’t have the best history. The documentary shows images of vast floating piles of debris, plastic and discarded junk in the southern Indian Ocean highlighted since the search for missing passenger jet Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. During the search, there was so much junk already in the water that the search effort was constantly sidetracked by false sightings.

This film show’s one interviewee, Paul Watson, is an ecocrusader and whale warrior who says that programs like A Fierce Green Fire open people’s eyes to what’s going on. Watson estimates that more than 100 million tons of plastic is floating in the Earth’s seas.

“Documentaries make a difference,” Watson insists. “It inspires people. Even if it only gets 100 people thinking, it’s done its job. Margaret Mead used to say, ‘Don’t expect government or corporations to do it all.’ Social change comes through people. The people who are involved with the Sea Shepherd (Conservation) Society are there on their own money. You can be involved, and you can make a difference.”

A Fierce Green Fire was inspired by former New York Times environmental writer Philip Shabecoff’s 1993 book, A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement, which gives an overview of the contemporary environmental movement and the political, economic and social forces that shaped it.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mark Kitchell’s film version runs less than an hour. It’s a brisk, fast-paced hour. Watson appears in it only briefly, but he makes an instant impression.