Category Archives: Endangered Ecosystems

Mountain plover not warranted for endangered species listing

Nesting mountain plover (Photo/Fritz Knopf)

Here’s some food for thought.

The mountain plover’s populations now range around 20,000 birds left in the world. Across the globe, a very different creature, the saiga antelope, only boasts about 40,000. One of these animals is globally listed as critically endangered, and one was found not qualified for federal endangered species status. Any guesses?

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after a review of the current scientific and commercial information found mountain plover not warranted for listing, citing threats to its habitat as less significant than previously thought.

Mountain plovers are a small ground-nesting bird that rely on short-grass prairies and shrub-steppe environments in the American West for breeding habitat. Land use and habitat loss have been a primary suspect in the disappearance of the plover, an animal so good at hiding, that science is just now starting to get a better idea of how many are left. Recent research shows that rather than being pushed out by agriculture, mountain plovers are actually using farmland as a refuge during nesting season.

I want to take this as good news, but with short-grass prairie and steppe disappearing, swallowed up by energy development and overgrazing, active cropland does not sound like the most stable of refuges for a bird of small numbers, stature and a master of camouflage.  My hope is that not being listed will help avoid animosity of the animal by landowners, and perhaps even foster pride and care of the plover so that farmers will not have to contend with being the harbor of an endangered species.

Saiga Antelope, numbers around 40,000, critically endangered and rightfully so.

How many of an animal is left is not necessarily determinant of whether a species should be protected. Many factors go into the decision. But one has to wonder, what makes a population of 20,000 birds so much more stable than 40,000 of another species?


CAT in WATER Kickstarter Launch!

Support the Kickstarter project to document them in the wild  here.

The fishing cat is up and running! We have 90 days to raise the first round of funds for the CAT in WATER expedition. Check out our Kickstarter project and watch the short video. You can also learn about all the paybacks in store for our supporters. Who wouldn’t want a care package from Thailand and the knowledge they are helping a gorgeous, wild animal in need?



Are you too plastic?

Watch the “Bag It” trailer. It manages to illustrate a hefty environmental and health issue without coming across as overbearing.

 


Potentially new species of lemur found in Madagascar

Close-up of a potentially new species of fork-marked lemur discovered in Madagascar. © Conservation International/ photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

Take a squirrel-sized body, and combine it with big feet, a long tongue, and black-forked markings on the face, and you have the oddly adorable countenance of a species of lemur just discovered in Madagascar.

“This is yet another remarkable discovery from the island of Madagascar…one of the most extraordinary places in our planet” said Conservation International President Russ Mittermeier in a press release, who was the first to spot the animal. Researchers believe the species to be new to science.

Finding this cutie-pie sounds like something plucked from the chase scenes of Indiana Jones. Mittermeier and his colleagues ran through dense forest at night, following the calls of the lemur as it leapt rapidly from treetop to treetop. Catching the lemur in the beam of a flashlight, researchers were able to safely tranquilize it for closer examination.

Close-up of a potentially new species of fork-marked lemur discovered in Madagascar, October 3, 2010. © Conservation International/ photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

Limited geographic range and life in a severely human-impacted environment likely means this species – of the genus phaner – is already endangered or critically endangered, said Mittermeier.

Researchers are now working on establishing the lemur’s genetic uniqueness and learning about its life history and behavior. So far, besides getting a good grip on the lemur’s looks, researchers know that this critter’s diet consists mostly of tree gum and flower nectar, they utter loud, high-pitched calls at night and practice a head-bobbing motion that is unique to this species.

Lemurs are only found in Madagascar, a country that’s lost about 90 percent of its forests and other vegetation.

“Protection of Madagascar’s remaining natural forests should be considered one of the world’s highest conservation priorities,” said Mittermeier in the press release. “These forests are home to an incredible array of species that are a true global heritage.”


Cane toads heart climate change

Cane Toad, AKA Bufo marinus, AKA troublemaker extraordinaire (Photo/ Eli Greenbaum)

Cane toads like it hot, and with climate change poised to raise temps in Australia, this persistent, invasive species could soon be living it up even more.

At least that’s the word coming out of new research from the University of Sydney and presented at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference in Prague.

A lot of what we hear about climate change focuses on habitat loss (cue rising sea levels) or species extinction (sorry red wolf and coral reefs), but here’s another way the pesky, poisonous cane toad can flip the amphibian bird to mankind – warmer climes mean prolific times as far as the toad is concerned.

“The negative effect of high temperature does not operate in cane toads, meaning that toads will do very well with human induced global warming,” said Professor Frank Seebacher from the University of Sydney in a press release.

Many of you reading this are probably familiar with the story of the cane toad, but here’s the quick shake down. In the mid 1930s, Australian biologists, hoping to stem the onslaught of beetles ravaging cane fields, introduced cane toads to Queensland and the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, toads passed on the beetles, instead turning their appetites towards lizards, snakes and other native wildlife. To compound factors, the toads secrete a toxic substance that can do a serious number on just about anything that tries to eat it. So the cane fields now have beetles and bucket loads of poisonous toads. Sigh.

And because of research by Seebacher, we now have a good idea that toads are going to thrive even more as temperatures rise from climate change. Warmer weather makes for stronger, or at least more efficient, heart and lungs in the cane toad, Seebacher found. And if that’s not unsettling enough, the study also states “the cane toad can adapt its physiology in response to a changing environment repeatedly and completely reversibly many times during its lifetime.”

Will nothing temper their proliferation?

Before you totally throw up your hands and say, “Why do I read this if all you’re going to tell me is bad news,” here’s a ray, or sliver, of hope. Maybe, just maybe, this phenomenon will prove true for other toads, ones we actually would like to see stick around. I’ll get back to you when Seebacher conducts that study.


Changing Chesapeake Bay acidity endangers oysters

New research shows that the shell growth of Crassostrea virginica from Chesapeake Bay could be compromised by current levels of acidity in some Bay waters. (Photo/Chris Kelly, UMCES Horn Point Laboratory)

Growing up at the mouth of the Lynnhaven River in Virginia, where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay and the bay meets the ocean, I can’t tell you how many mornings I woke up and looked out my window to see neighbors wading in rubber boots, harvesting oysters from the beds just off our riverbank. For some, like my neighbors, oysters were a way to connect with the land and make a little extra dough. For others it was their livelihood. The act was something that just was. It never occurred to me that the oysters could one day be gone.

That’s why I was especially alarmed to read this new report from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences. Rising acidity levels in the Chesapeake Bay are making it harder for oysters to grow their shells. I’ve heard the news before that rising ocean acidity from sources such as carbon dioxide can spell disaster for marine wildlife, but this new study shows that acidity is rising faster in the Chesapeake Bay than in the ocean and having a measurable impact on Bay wildlife.

“With oyster populations already at historically low levels, increasingly acidic waters are yet another stressor limiting the recovery of the Bay’s oyster populations,” said marine biologist Dr. Roger Newell of the UMCES Horn Point Laboratory in a press release.

But don’t turn around to blame climate change just yet. The story is a bit more nuanced than that, though the source of the problem still has to do with us. In the saltier areas of the bay, the acidity is going up, leading to thin shell growth that makes oysters more vulnerable to predators, including crabs. But in more freshwater portions of the Bay, acidity is actually going down, said the study, which looked at more than 20 years of historical water quality data from the Bay.

The difference seems to be not atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the base of the food chain. In freshwater areas along the upper Chesapeake, sewage and agricultural runoff cause phytoplankton blooms, which consume carbon dioxide and lower acidity, said the study. Sounds good at this point right? Here’s the catch. As phytoplankton drift through the Bay, they are eaten by animals and other bacteria, releasing the carbon dioxide that the plankton so diligently consumed in the first place. This carbon dioxide lingers in the water, leading to spikes in acidity in the saltier regions of the Bay near the ocean.

“While these variations in acidity may improve conditions for shellfish in some areas, they may also magnify detrimental impacts in others,” said lead author Dr. George Waldbusser of Oregon State University in a press release. “What our study indicates is there may be an important shifting baseline and without better measurements we will fail to fully understand impacts on estuarine biota.”

Beyond the science itself, this study highlights how connected and varied our environment is. It lays out a pathway of human-induced consequences to an ecosystem, and teaches that we need to look beyond one-to-one cause and effect. Erin Voigt, an undergraduate student who worked on the study puts it well. “The complex response of oyster shell formation to temperature, salinity, and acidity highlights the need to understand how the entire ecosystem is changing, not just acidity,” she said.

And that ecosystem includes us.

You can view the article online in the journal Estuaries and Coasts.


Sagebrush Ecosystem: Rising from an ancient sea

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Sagebrush country, it kind of makes you itchy and scratchy just looking at it. This is a place where every footstep crackles, and there are no forests to shelter under. You’d never realize that where you’re standing used to lie at the bottom of the ocean.

Look to your feet, the rocks and soil, and you’ll quickly see otherwise. Rocks crumble away revealing more fossil than straight rock. The remains of the ancients run thick through this ground, giving rise to a new ecosystem remarkable for its hardiness and coveted for its carbon.

Here, the faint lemony fragrance of the sage floats in on the breeze. Antelope bolt for the hills, and the  “drip-thoink” calls of male sage grouse echo across the dawn as they try to win the hearts, or at least  reproductive rights, of their ladies.

Nearby Craig, Colo., boasts the largest coal-fired power plant in the state with a 1,304 megawatt capacity. Open pit coal mines and natural gas development serve as a backdrop to rolling hay fields and seemingly endless expanses of sagebrush.

The sagebrush is not endless however. It’s shrinking faster than people know it exists. So here’s my attempt to give it some props. Even if it’s difficult to stand before the sagebrush sea in awe like you would Yosemite and Yellowstone, you can’t help but respect the wilderness that insists on living there.

This isn’t your fluffy, lush Walden Pond wilderness. This is your crawl from a dried up seabed, live where others can’t sort of wild. You fall asleep to shorts and t-shirt kind of weather and wake to 50mph winds and blizzard kind of havoc. But if you have the guts to stop your car and venture out for awhile, you’ll understand that this place fights for every moment of its existence, and it kicks ass.


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