Conservation, Nature, Science

Home On the Range? Not So Much for Large Carnivores

New research reveals that large carnivores have lost more than 90 percent of their historic range.
Large carnivores like the cheetah have lost more than 90 percent of their historic ranges. Photo: Shutterstock

A recent study from the Oregon State University revealed that the six largest carnivores in the world have lost more than 90 percent of their historic range.

The researchers mapped the current range of 25 large carnivores and compared them with historic maps from 500 years ago.

“Of the 25 large carnivores we studied, 60 percent (15 species) have lost more than half of their historic ranges,” said researcher Christopher Wolf.

“As many carnivores were historically sympatric [descended from one common ancestor] and are at high risk of future range contraction, conservation should be accomplished at the level of whole predator guilds [groups of species that exploit the same resources, or who exploit different resources in related ways] when possible,” the researchers wrote in their report.

What this means is that contracting the range of one species—either through physical barriers like fencing or the widespread use of land for herds of domestic cattle—can have dramatic effects on large carnivores’ ability to survive in their historic ranges.

“This means that scientifically sound reintroductions of large carnivores into areas where they have been lost is vital both to conserve the large carnivores,” Wolf said. “This is very dependent on increasing human tolerance of large carnivores—a key predictor of reintroduction success.”

The researchers also say that reintroduction programs would be most successful in rural areas with low human population density and limited agricultural and livestock-raising use.

“Also, more large protected areas are urgently needed for large carnivore conservation,” said co-researcher William Ripple.

The good news is that it is possible to help these animals by changing human attitudes about them.

“Many large carnivores are resilient, particularly when human attitudes and policy favor their conservation,” the researchers wrote. “This helps to explain the large carnivore recoveries observed in Europe and elsewhere (e.g., gray wolves in the continental United States).”

Additionally, the relationship between increasing agriculture use and range contractions can be limited when predator-friendly agriculture methods are used.

But human exploitation of former large carnivore ranges isn’t the only thing we need to be on the lookout for.

“In the face of newer threats like anthropogenic climate change, it is critical to continue to monitor large carnivore ranges to ensure the future of these species,” the researchers conclude.

Ultimately, the stability of large carnivore populations is highly dependent on human behavior. Whether that involves evolution of agriculture and ranching methods or limiting the effects of climate change, the ultimate success of reintroducing these species in their historic ranges is dependent entirely on us.

Environmental Hazards, Nature

Invasive Carp Jumps Barrier to Great Lakes

A fisherman caught an invasive silver carp nine miles from the Great Lakes. Photo: Shutterstock

A live Asian carp has been caught 9 miles from Lake Michigan.

This is a big deal. These fish “are voracious eaters, able to consume 5 to 20 percent of their body weight each day, leaving far less of the microscopic plant and animal life (phytoplankton and zooplankton) to support native fisheries,” says Fisheries and Oceans Canada. They have been blamed for pushing out native species and lowering water quality.

There are four types of Asian carp that are considered a threat to the Great Lakes: bighead, silver, black, and grass.

Millions of dollars have been spent to construct an electrified barrier designed to keep the invasive carp from entering the Great Lakes. But this carp, weighing 8 pounds and measuring 28 inches long, got past that barrier. It was caught “with a gill net by a contracted commercial fisher,” the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee said in a statement.

“The news of an Asian carp found within nine miles of the Great Lakes is cause for serious concern,” Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman said in a statement. “The fishing industry in the Great Lakes is a $7 billion a year economic engine and it would be severely threatened if Asian Carp are allowed into the Great Lakes.”

This finding comes as the Trump administration considers cutting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a $300 million-per-year program that helps states with environmental projects such as keeping invasive Asian carp out of the lakes.

“Asian carp are a very serious threat to our Great Lakes economy,” Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow tweeted. “The Trump Admin must immediately release the study they have been blocking so we can permanently stop the Asian carp!”

“This is one more reason why we must fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative again. I have fought proposed cuts from both the previous administration and the new one and I will continue to lead efforts in this Congress to ensure this critical initiative is fully funded,” Portman said.

The Illinois department of natural resources and the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee said, “It is important to note that this preliminary finding does not confirm that a reproducing population of Asian carp currently exists above the electric dispersal barriers or within the Great Lakes.”

Nonetheless, the group is launching “two additional weeks of intensive sampling in the area.”

Conservation, Nature, Science

Genetic Study of Elephants Reveals Information Vital to Conservation

New research reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt that African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are two distinct species.
New research reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt that African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are two distinct species. Photo: Shutterstock

Starting 1.5 million years ago, a species of giant elephant roamed across Eurasia until it went extinct about 100,000 years ago.

That species, Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was thought to be most closely related to the Asian elephant. But new research says otherwise.

Researchers at the University of Illinois recently published a paper on the genetic evidence that led to this conclusion.

Since the early 2000s, scientists have been aware that there are two species of African elephants—the African forest elephant and the African savanna elephant. It was thought that the two species of African elephants were more closely related to one another than they were to the two species of Asian elephants. They also thought that P. antiquus was more closely related to Asian elephants than to African elephants.

Despite the scientific evidence, it has been difficult to convince conservation organizations that there are two distinct species of African elephants, which has led to conservation efforts that may not be as effective for one or the other species.

But when scientists looked at two lines of evidence from African and Asian elephants—wooly mammoths and P. antiquus—they analyzed mitochondrial DNA, passed down by mothers only, and nuclear DNA, which is a blend of genes from both parents.

The analysis revealed a surprise: not only was P. antiquus more closely related to African elephants than Asian ones, it was more closely related to the African forest elephant than to the African savanna elephant. A common ancestor of P. antiquus and the African forest elephant lived sometime between 1.5 million and 3.5 million years ago, while their closest shared ancestor with the African savanna elephant lived between 3.9 and 7 million years ago.

“With the new genetic evidence from Palaeoloxodon, it becomes almost impossible to argue that the elephants now living in Africa belong to a single species,” said Professor Alfred Roca, a co-author of the study.

How does this help conservation efforts?

First of all, by differentiating between the two species, conservation plans can be developed that preserve and hopefully boost both species’ populations. Secondly, it allows researchers to see the truth about elephant populations in Africa.

“More than two-thirds of the remaining forest elephants in Africa have been killed over the last 15 years or so,” Roca said. “Forest elephants are among the most endangered elephant populations on the planet.”

Roca added that since some conservation agencies don’t see African forest elephants as a different species, their conservation needs have been neglected.

Hopefully, with these new findings, that will no longer be the case.

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.

Business, Environmentalist, Green

EPA Boots Scientists Off Scientific Review Board

At least five scientists have been removed from the EPA's Board of Science Counselors.
At least five scientists have been removed from the EPA’s Board of Science Counselors. Photo: bakdc / Shutterstock.com

At least five academic scientists have been dismissed from a major review board, according to the New York Times.

J.P. Freire, a spokesman for EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, said Pruitt would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries that are supposed to be regulated by the EPA. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” Freire said.

This isn’t a surprising move, given that Pruitt is a former oil company executive who has questioned human-caused climate change—something that has been agreed on by at least 97 percent of the scientific community—and has been tasked by President Trump to roll back Obama-era regulations on clean water protection and climate change.

The scientists were dismissed from the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors, which reviews and evaluates the research conducted by the EPA’s scientists.

“We want to expand the pool of applicants” for the scientific board, Freire said, “to as broad a range as possible, to include universities that aren’t typically represented and issues that aren’t typically represented.”

Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “This is completely part of a multifaceted effort to get science out of the way of a deregulation agenda.”

“I see the dismissal of the scientists from the Board of Scientific Counselors as a test balloon,” said Joseph Arvai of the University of Michigan, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), a 47-member commission that advises the EPA on areas on where it should conduct research and evaluates the scientific integrity of EPA regulations. “This is clearly very political, and we should be very concerned if it goes further.”

On the other hand, Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said the SAB had become nothing but a rubber-stamp organization that approves all of the EPA’s regulations. He wrote a bill designed to restock that board with more members from the business world.

“The EPA routinely stacks this board with friendly scientists who receive millions of dollars in grants from the federal government,” Smith said. “The conflict of interest here is clear.”

“Today I was Trumped,” Robert Richardson, an environmental economist wrote on Twitter. “I have had the pleasure of serving on the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors, and my appointment was terminated today.”

“I believe this is political,” said Dr. Courtney Flint, a professor of natural resource sociology at Utah State University, said of the dismissals from the Board of Science Counselors. “It’s unexpected. It’s a red flag.”

Nature

Newly Discovered Snail Named After Dungeons & Dragons Character

A new species of land snail has been named after a Dungeons & Dragons character.
An underground river in the Chapada Diamantina cave in Brazil. Photo: Shutterstock

Scientists who study invertebrates for long enough tend to discover new species, because there tends to be a pretty diverse collection of such creatures in any given environment. This is especially true of cave systems in places like Brazil, which tend to be poorly studied. And when teams discover a new species, they get to name it.

Often, species will be named after the person who discovered them, or in homage to Greek and Roman gods, since those mythologies are pretty popular. But a team that discovered a small (only 2mm long!) species of land snail in Brazil has decided to name it after a different kind of deity—one from the geek staple Dungeons & Dragons.

The species is Gastrocopta sharae, named after Shar, a goddess of darkness, caverns, and secrets. “It’s a fitting name for a tiny snail that lives hidden in the dark recesses of a cavern,” the study’s authors said.

This is actually the second time this team has named a snail after a goddess from Dungeons & Dragons. In 2014, they found a tiny snail that lives in deep ocean waters, and named it Halystina umberlee, after Umberlee, a goddess of the ocean connected with the perils of the sea.

Tropical snails in general are still not well understood, but they are one of the most threatened animal groups. Not only that, but cave-dwelling invertebrates don’t receive a lot of attention from researchers, and cave-dwelling snails are even less known.

Unfortunately, the new species is threatened by human activity. “Caverns are known to have very fragile ecosystems and several lack proper protection, so works like ours are an important step for conservation efforts,” the researchers said.

People may think of caves as empty and dank, but they can contain a vast array of different flora and fauna, all of which deserve protection as much as any better known species.

Conservation

Endangered Bumblebees Will Be Okay With Effort On Our Part

The endangered rusty patched bumblebee will be okay, as long as we help out with conservation efforts.
Rusty patched bumblebee. Photo: Shutterstock

For the first time, an American species of bumblebee has been listed as endangered, but according to one entomologist, that’s actually a good thing. While bee populations around the world have been suffering in recent years, listing the rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species will help protect it and, perhaps, bees more broadly.

Bees are essential to a variety of ecosystems, primarily in their role as pollinators but also as part of the larger food web, providing food for birds, fish, and other insects. Recent declines have been attributed to parasites, pesticides, urbanization, diseases, and the introducing on non-native plants into their ecosystems. Even natural disasters like floods and droughts are considered factors in bee population decline.

While the situation seems dire, and there probably are more problems facing bees now that in the past, bee populations have always fluctuated. Fewer crops means more natural habitat for bees, while more crops means less, and higher temperatures mean more bees while colder temperatures see them decrease.

But according to Jeff Whitworth at the Kansas State University, there are a number of ways to help bumblebees. Simple things like cutting the grass or trimming trees less often can make a difference. Beekeeping as a hobby has been growing in recent years, in both rural and urban locations, which can help restart bee populations in various ecosystems.

But placing the rusty patched bumblebee on the endangered species list is probably the single biggest step. The point of listing species in this way is to promote conservation efforts to protect them. In the past it’s made a huge difference for some species, giving governments the motivation to protect them through legislation, pushing scientists to do more research on a species, and getting people to donate more time and money toward helping keep those species around.

Ultimately, Whitworth doesn’t fear for bees’ existence. “Weather and prices vary from year to year, which is simply part of the way systems work,” he said. “I foresee bee populations staying fairly steady for the foreseeable future.”