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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


Could a proposed EU ban on discarding bycatch threaten seabirds?

Northern gannet picture taken at bird colony of Helgoland, North sea, German Bight, May 2002. (Photo/ Michael Haferkamp)

You know the scene. A commercial fisherman hoists a net roiling with flip-flopping fish. Clouds of seabirds swarm and fill the air with a greedy squawking, their beaks hungry for unwanted catch.

That raucous chorus may get a little quieter soon as birds are forced to seek their feast elsewhere. In a move aimed at curbing the devastating environmental consequences tied to commercial fishing, the European Union looks to consider new restrictions that would ban the discard of unwanted fish. The rule could be a win for fisheries conservation, but in a twist of good intentions, could also risks endangering the gannet, a seabird that thrives on bycatch tossed overboard.

Fisheries have dealt more than one blow to seabird populations as birds compete for resources or risk becoming ensnared in equipment. One of the few successful species, the gannet, has adapted to exploit the leftovers of commercial fisheries, swooping in on fish and other creatures thrown aside and left behind.

Dr. Keith Hamer, a researcher with Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences is leading a team of researchers that will study the gannet and assess the possible consequences of imparting a ban on discarding unwanted catch. “Although discards should be stopped to protect marine biodiversity, research is needed on the impact of a ban, so policy makers can understand the best way to implement it,” said Hamer in a press release.

The study will especially look to better understand how gannets rely on bycatch for raising chicks. Past research indicates that breeding pairs may prefer different menus with some birds relying mostly on discards from fishing boats and others seeking out sand eels or diving for mackerel and herring. “We think gannets have different aptitudes and specialities and for some, that skill might be finding and following fishing boats,” said Hamer.

So if gannets feel like they’re being watched, they’re not so far off. Researchers plan to catch and tag breeding pairs from 12 colonies throughout the United Kingdom. Hamer along with scientists Stephen Votier of the Marine Biology & Ecology Research Centre at the University of Plymouth, and Stuart Bearhop, with the University of Exeter, will keep tabs on the birds’ locations, diving patterns, diet and nests.

“Although the long-term benefits of a ban will be positive, we need to accurately predict short-term impacts as well,” said Hamer. “If gannets have specialised to the extent we believe, rather than cut off a crucial food source overnight, a gradual phasing in of the ban would allow them time to retrain to find food elsewhere.”

Hopefully this thinking ahead will help prevent a new conservation crisis from cropping up even as the EU takes steps to solve another.


Saving snails: an invasive species becomes an unlikely hero

A land snail (Photo/ Petr Kratochvil)

Now, I know snails don’t come with the same poster-child charisma factor of more fuzzy, wide-eyed creatures  like pandas or baby tigers. But I hope you’ll imagine a tiny, high-pitched, “Help me!” issuing from the leaf litter at your feet, and stick with these little guys for a minute.

With that said, I’d like to tell you a story of a rat, a snail and a tree. They all live on the tiny island of Anijima, one of several in a chain of islands off the southeastern coast of Japan. The snail is critically endangered. The rat and tree are invasive species. You know those bullies of the natural world, the unwelcome visitors, the home wreckers of entire ecosystems. But before you go, “Oh here comes another invasive species story,” here’s the kicker – one of these encroachers, the tree, is actually in a sense the hero of this story, buying time for the snail and those trying to save it. The study, published online in the journal Conservation Biology, offers conservationists a new framework for restoring native ecosystems.

Anijima is part of the Ogasawara Island chain, a remote group of islands off Japan nominated for World Heritage listing. It’s also snail central. These islands are home to more than 100 species of land snail, 94 percent of which are endemic to those islands. Many of the snails have disappeared over the years, thanks in part to habitat loss and introduced predators.

Anijima was the exception. No one has lived there since the 1830s, and until recently, the environment looked much like it did 100 years ago. But a plant, the Casuarina tree has taken over the mid-western part of the island, converting natural forestland into a monoculture of dry coniferous forest. This delivered a significant blow to the land snails, as the snail’s home was turned into less ideal living quarters. Another blow came with the introduction of black rats in the 1930s. These voracious predators, gobble up the slow-movers, and since about 2006, have enjoyed an unprecedented population boom on the island, likely due to the eradication of goats – a competitor for food – and of feral cats – the rat’s main predator. In short, things weren’t looking good for the snails.

One might think, “Well, if you want to save the snails, just go in there and clear out the invasives.” But not all invasive species are created equal, and one scientist, Satoshi Chiba, with Tohuku University in Japan, has figured out that the Casuarina tree is actually helping the snail weather the rat boom.

Chiba looked specifically at the Ogasawarana genus of snails, a critically endangered group of snails considered a “natural monument” by the Japanese government. They are the only group of snails on the island still living on native vegetation on the island. Chiba surveyed plots in both Casuarina-laden habitat and native habitat, clearing sites of leaf litter, counting and identifying snail species and then returning everything to its place. Chiba also checked for rat carnage, and found that while initially, the tree causes a decline in snail populations, once the rat population went crazy, the Casuarina tree actually provided the snail with a better refuge from the predator than the snail’s native habitat.

The ground litter in the Casuarina habitat is deeper and denser than the snails’ natural environment. Black rats like to forage at the surface, and thus, the snails stand a better chance of avoiding a rat’s tooth and claw in the debris of a Casuarina forest.

The lesson here is not that an invasive species is necessarily good, but that there is an order to things when it comes to restoring an environment impacted by multiple non-native species. For Anijima Island, and the Ogasawarana snails, if they are to be saved, it’s likely that the black rats need to go before the invasive trees.

So, do you care a little more about a tiny mollusk? I don’t know, but at the very least, the story has a rich history, and just think how many other species suffering from a similar tale this study could help.


Trouble in love town for the faithful Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog

Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog. (Photo/Devin Edmonds)

Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog. (Photo/Devin Edmonds, http://www.amphibiancare.com)

Most people consider loyalty an admirable trait, but for the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, faithfulness to a compromised breeding ground just might spell doom for the species. In many places, the frog’s habitat is drying up or swarming with ravenous introduced trout. A new study released by the USDA Forest Service in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences details the extent of this troubled relationship, and provides insights key to giving the frog a chance at survival.

Mountain yellow-legged frogs, (of which there are two species), adapted to live in high alpine lakes, in environmental extremes too cold and harsh for most amphibian species. This specialty helped the frogs thrive, but in the past century, the once common Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog has disappeared from more than 90 percent of its range. In 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the mountain yellow-legged frog “warranted” endangered species listing, but was precluded due to the need to list more high priority species.

Likely culprits for the frog’s decline include the usual suspects like disease and contamination, but new research shows that the periodic drying up of habitat and predation from introduced trout coupled with the frog’s loyalty to specific breeding spots is pushing the animal ever closer to extinction.

Yellow-legged frogs need up to four years for their tadpoles to mature. So if a pond dries up, the species could lose up to four year-classes of offspring, issuing a serious blow to that particular population. The study also found that for some of the best ponds left for the frog, introduced trout then threaten the species. Offer a trout a yellow-legged frog and it won’t turn you down, no matter what the life stage of the dangling amphibian.

Kathleen Matthews and Haiganoush Preisler, scientists with the USDA Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Center, conducted a 10-year study to measure the fidelity of yellow-legged frogs in Kings Canyon National Park, east of Fresno, Cali. They used mark-recapture techniques, and observed frog tendency to return to lakes even for locations that tended to dry up in low snowpack years, or where frogs had previously encountered predatory fish.

Fish removal appears to be a strong restoration technique, and projects underway show a rebounding in the order of tens of thousands of frog and tadpole populations in lakes where non-native fish have been eradicated. There may just be a little bit of hope yet for the garrulous hoppers, especially if restoration efforts incorporate knowledge of site fidelity into their tactics.

You can learn more about the natural history and restoration efforts behind this little frog at MYLfrog, or download the USDA Forest Service study here.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 39 other followers

%d bloggers like this: