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.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Green

Judge Says More Environmental Study Needed for DAPL Operation

A federal judge has temporarily blocked the Dakota Access Pipeline, saying that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to redo some of its environmental studies.
A Portland, Oregon Dakota Access Pipeline protest solidarity rally. Photo: Diego G Diaz / Shutterstock.com

On June 14, a federal judge put a temporary block on the use of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline by stating that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to reconsider some of its environmental impact studies.

U.S. district judge James Boasberg said that the corps had failed to take into account the level to which a spill might affect “fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice, or the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.”

Boasberg had previously rejected two of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s appeals—one based on the fact that construction threatened sites of historical and cultural significance to the tribe, and the other that oil in the pipeline under Lake Oahe would damage sacred waters.

“Now that the court has rejected these two lines of attack, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River here take their third shot, this time zeroing in on DAPL’s environmental impact,” Boasberg wrote in his decision. “This volley meets with some degree of success.”

The judge wrote that while the Army Corps of Engineers had “substantially complied” with the National Environmental Policy Act, federal permits issued for the pipeline were in violation of the law in certain ways. “To remedy those violations, the Corps will have to reconsider those sections of its environmental analysis upon remand by the Court,” Boasberg wrote.

Later on, the judge will consider whether the pipeline must halt operations while the additional research is being conducted. A status conference is scheduled for the week of June 19.

Whether the pipeline is shut during the review or not depends on whether the omissions in the Corps’ analysis can be addressed quickly, or whether they’re large errors that might require more study.

“We applaud the courts for protecting our laws and regulations from undue political influence, and we will ask the Court to shut down pipeline operations immediately,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault said in a statement.

Just days after being sworn in, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Corps to do whatever it needed to do to get the pipeline construction underway. In February, the Corps granted the final easement needed to finish the pipeline.

This decision marks “an important turning point,” said Jan Hasselman, attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing the tribes in the lawsuit. “Until now, the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been disregarded by the builders of the Dakota Access pipeline and the Trump administration…prompting a well-deserved global outcry.”

Although the protests by the Standing Rock tribe and its allies were effectively over in February, when the main encampment was cleared and the pipeline completed, this decision by Judge Boasberg shows that the struggle for justice—both for the environment and for the tribe—is not over yet.

Nature, Science

Dutch Toxic Landfill Site Now Capturing and Storing Carbon

The Volgermeerpolder, near Amsterdam, proves that peat bogs can be created artificially.
A peat bog. Photo: Shutterstock

The Volgermeerpolder, located near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is a toxic waste site that was capped with foil and an artificial wetland on top.

According to researchers at Radboud University, six years after the opening of the wetland, it appears that the new site is already forming peat, which can capture and store carbon.

How does this work? Peat contains high levels of carbon, which binds pollutants. There is already a large layer of peat beneath the toxic landfill, which is preventing toxins from leaking from the landfill into the groundwater. That layer of peat has eliminated the need to dig up the entire toxic site at the Volgermeer. Instead, authorities were able to cap the site with a layer of foil.

If the foil were to tear, another protective layer of peat is forming on top of that protective barrier. Growing peat from scratch has never been attempted before, but it appears to be working.

Peat grows at a very slow pace—only about 1 millimeter per year on average—and researcher Sarah Faye Harpenslager says this growth is something that can’t be measured directly.

“That one millimeter falls outside of the margin of error,” she said. “But we can measure whether carbon is being captured and stored by determining the difference in carbon dioxide levels by taking the amount of carbon dioxide that is captured by plants and then subtracting the carbon dioxide that is released when those plans decompose. The less plants decompose, the more peat that is formed. The Volgermeer is indeed capturing and storing carbon, so peat is clearly being formed even though you can’t see it.”

Harpenslager and her colleagues also compared peat formation in ponds with different bottoms—sand, clay, or a layer of organic topsoil. The topsoil was shown to be the more fertile. “In ponds with a thin layer of topsoil, peat-forming plants grow most prolifically and capture the most carbon,” Harpenslager said. “For peat o form, it is essential that peat-forming plants such as common reed, cattail, and water soldiers start to grow here.”

According to the researchers, the results of their study are not just applicable to capping of polluted land. Their research shows that peat could also be important for the capture and storage of greenhouse gases through need peat formation and preventing subsidence.

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.

Nature, Science

Are Insects the Food Of the Future?

Are insects the food of the future?
Edible insects for sale at a street market.

Humans have been eating insects forever, though there are a lot of people who would like to think otherwise. But insects as a food source could be a huge help to the world, especially because unlike cattle, they don’t create methane (a greenhouse gas) or require vast areas to graze in (which destroys indigenous ecosystems). Insects could fill some large gaps in diets around the world, especially because they’re high in protein but low in fat.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has been investigating the value of crickets and mealworms, two of the most commonly farmed insects on the continent, as food. They found that both could be fragmented and used in foods like meatballs or falafel, and can provide a large protein boost. These ground bugs, according to VTT, contain about 65 to 80 percent crude protein, which is a huge payoff compared to many of the animals we normally eat.

On the other hand, a study in the journal PLOS One showed that even though the United Nations has promoted insect eating as a solution to the global problem of lack of access to quality protein, the bugs may not produce that much quality protein after all.

The level of protein in insects depends largely on the diet those insects are fed, the researchers found. In the experiment, they raised two groups of crickets and harvested them after two weeks. One group ate corn-, soy-, and grain-based feed, while the others lived on food waste and crop residue. Nearly all the crickets fed straight food waste died before they could be harvested. Those who ate processed food waste had a protein conversion rate no higher than that of chickens. The most successful crickets ate a grain-based diet, much like the diet of poultry animals, and they too had a protein conversion rate only slightly better than chickens.

“I’m all for exploring alternatives, and I am impressed by the amount of innovation that has sprung up around insect cultivation and cuisine in the last few years,” study author Dr. Mark Lundy of the University of California told Time magazine. “However, I also think we need to be clear-eyed about what the sustainability gains are and aren’t, and focus our innovative efforts and limited resources to where they will have the most lasting impact.”

That said, insects are and will continue to be an essential source of protein, not a trendy novelty, for billions of people all around the world.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards

Hooded Seals Can Pass Contaminants to Nursing Young

Hooded seals can pass contaminants on to their young.
Hooded seal pup. Photo: Shutterstock

Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are man-made chemicals that have found extensive use in consumer products because they repel grease, water, and stains, and they’re heat resistant. They also pose a threat to wildlife. Since that discovery, some PFASs have been phased out of use, but not all of them, and they still work their way into food webs and, subsequently, animals.

The hooded seal is high up in its food web, eating prey that eats prey that eats prey that can get PFASs into their system, increasing the amount of the chemical that gets into the hooded seals. Now, recent research has found that mother seals can pass those contaminants on to their young, both through the placenta and through milk.

While the levels found so far are below the toxic threshold for rodents, and within the expected limits based on findings among other seals, it might be worse for the hooded seals.

Because they only nurse for three to four days, hooded seal milk is extremely rich in lipids, to which PFASs are known to bond. This explains how they manage to pass the contaminants on to their young. Scientists are still not sure what kind of developmental effects these could have on the young seals, who need to put on a lot of weight very quickly in order to survive, because that nursing period is followed by a fasting period.

While the seals seem to be okay so far, that could change, especially as young grow and ingest more prey which are contaminated with PFASs, passing them on to their own offspring. Over subsequent generations the buildup could become quite toxic.

Luckily, by realizing this now, we can begin studying it and, hopefully, learn not only more about the effects of PFASs on animals like the hooded seal, but also how we might be able to mitigate those effects.

Nature, Science, Uncategorized

Researchers Discover “Ghost Snake” in Madagascar

Malagasy cat-eyed snake
The Malagasy cat-eyed snake (Madagascarophis meridionalis) is a relative of the ghost snake. Photo: Shutterstock

It might seem that, by 2016, it would be pretty rare to discover new species of animals. But a team of researchers from Louisiana State University have done just that.

They were looking for specimens of a different species when they found a snake they’d never seen before: Madagascarophis lolo, the ghost snake.

This snake’s very pale coloration and the fact that only one has ever been discovered earned it the name “ghost snake.” Lolo means ghost in the local Malagasy language.

The ghost snake belongs to a group of “cat-eyed snakes,” which have slit pupils like cats and are most active at night. They’re among the most common kinds of snake in Madagascar, but the closet relative of the ghost snake is found about 100 kilometers away, and it has only been known for a few years.

“If this commonly known, wide group of snakes harbors this hidden diversity, what else is out there that we don’t know about?” says Sara Ruane, a post-doctoral researcher at the LSU Museum of Natural Science and lead author of the paper.

The team did genetic testing to determine whether the ghost snake is a separate species form other Madagascarophis species or simply a variant of one that is already known.

“All of the analysis we did supported that this is a distinct species despite the fact that we only have this one individual,” Ruane says.

The trek to get to the recently opened part of the popular Ankarana National Park was made more difficult by the heavy rains the team had to deal with. The rainy season is when snakes and their prey are often most active in Madagascar, so it’s the best time for researchers to look for them. The ghost snake’s activity during the rainy season might have helped it remain a secret, especially in an otherwise well-known region.

All in all, Madagascarophis lolo has certainly earned the name ghost snake.