Tag Archives: nature

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?


Protecting common species more important than saving endangered ones, new research suggests

Atlantic Cod, the importance of the ordinary animal

The once common Atlantic cod

In wildlife conservation, people tend to pay closer attention to the disappearing creatures. There is a sense of urgency, and rightfully so, to save the few, but new research indicates that it is the common things that need protecting. For if they go, all the ways that they influence the nature of the world will be so disturbed that even the rare will have nowhere left to go. Let’s face it. If things get so bad that even common critters aren’t around anymore, we’re in deep doo-doo.

The research, led by Kerstin Johannesson with the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, looked specifically at marine systems. Johannesson found that a vast number of species in the oceans are so rare, it’s difficult to find even  a few individuals anymore. “Committing most resources to saving individual species is not just an expensive business – it would also risk destroying the foundation for ecosystems,” states a press release on the study.

Common species, found Johannesson, create habitat for other species, so by protecting them, it’s possible to protect the rare animals as well.  Johannesson uses the once common cod in the fjords of the Bohuslän coast as an example of this phenomenon. Their numbers have virtually disappeared.

“Without the big predatory fish, the sea-grass meadows become clogged, with the result that the shallow bays no longer act as larders and nurseries for inshore fish,” Johannesson stated in a press release.

I don’t know if Johannesson’s conservation strategy is the right way to go, moreso than concentrating on endangered species, but who’s to say that we shouldn’t really implement both tactics? Regardless, I have no doubt that we need to understand better the value of the common creatures. After all preventative conservation, sure does sound a heck of a lot smarter and potentially easier than waiting to clean up a mess.

What are your thoughts?

Lead Researcher:

Kerstin Johannesson of the University of Gothenburg


Kerstin Johannesson, Kerstin.Johannesson@marecol.gu.se, 465-266-8611

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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?

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.

Dosed: Livestock scavenging vultures consume cocktail of veterinary drugs

A griffon vulture soars through canyons of the Douro River in Portugal. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Griffon, their name conjures images of legend and mythology, but in the skies above Spain and Portugal, thousands of real life griffon vultures survey the earth looking for their next meal. And to a griffon, nothing says “yummy” quite like a fresh pile of pork carcasses – well, maybe sheep.

Don’t knock it. They are one of nature’s best cleaner-uppers. But it turns out that griffon vultures and at least two other vulture species are ingesting something not on their carrion menu, drugs and lots of them.

Vulture numbers have soared in Europe since the 1980s, thanks in part to the common practice of carcass dumping of dead livestock, also called muladares, which provide vultures with a ready and reliable supply of chow. But in cattle, drugs abound. And lunch at a muladar promises a chemical cocktail of veterinary medicine as well as protein.

A griffon vulture soars in the skies above the Douro River in northeastern Portugal. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

A new study by Guillermo Blanco with Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid showed that the proportion of vulture nestlings testing positive for antibiotics rose from 0 percent in 2001 to 70 percent in 2006, and now scientists are seeing a triple threat. Blanco found griffon, Egyptian and cinereous vultures, contained combinations of antibiotics, anti-parasitics and non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, in their system, a never before seen combination in a wild animal, according to the researchers.

Scientists are still studying what this chemical cocktail could spell for the vulture, and the three species did show variance in the amounts and types of drugs found in their systems, possibly due to the differences in how they feed. But Blanco and his colleagues do mention possible reasons for why and how the drugs are building up in the birds’ bodies.

Vultures typically split mealtimes between muladares and “vulture restaurants,” scavenging from the carcasses of free-ranging livestock. Drugs abound in both food sources, but reside in much greater concentrations and types in the bodies of farm-raised cattle – farm-raised livestock require more drugs due to their compact living quarters. Recent European Union regulations aimed at curbing the spread of mad cow disease made it illegal to abandon carcasses of free-roaming cattle in the countryside. As an unintended consequence of the rule, this practice eliminated one key source of food for the vulture, concentrating food in the veterinary drug-laden muladares. The regulation has also been reputed to be a probable contributor to the vulture’s decline since 2003.

Side-effects could include increased disease, due to exposure to immuno-suppressants, changing delicate bacterial communities in the vulture’s system and a rise of infection or transmission at feeding sites.

One remedy would be to allow for carcass abandonment to resume according to the study. “There is no evidence of BSE [mad cow] transmission risk due to the abandonment of unstabled livestock carcasses in the countryside,” wrote the study authors. “Therefore, this traditional practice in the Mediterranean regions should be legally permitted in order to increase availability, dispersion and quality of food for scavengers.”

You can read more about Blanco and his colleagues’ findings in the December 2009 issue of the journal Animal Conservation.

For endangered butterfly, beavers make best friends

American Beaver, (Photo/Steve in Washington D.C., Wikipedia)

A St. Francis' satyr butterfly (Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Bambi and Thumper best move over. There’s a new BFF dynamo in the animal kingdom – the ever-industrious beaver and a rare butterfly fluttering dangerously close to extinction. But the gig’s not up for the butterfly just yet if the beaver has anything to do with it.

St. Francis’ satyr butterfly is appallingly rare. Somewhere between 700 and 1,400 individuals exist in the wild, scattered in a few small pockets of wetland meadow around North Carolina. But new science reveals that the well-known engineering nature of the American beaver has the bonus application of creating food and habitat for the vulnerable butterfly. The study is the first of its kind to demonstrate the combined benefits of an ecosystem engineer fostering biodiversity and abundance of plant species vital to the survival of a critically endangered species.

Lead-author of the study Rebecca A. Bartel, ecologist and post-doctoral student at the University of Georgia, looked at 48 sites on the Fort Bragg Military Reservation in south central North Carolina that ran the gamut of beaver occupation. She and her colleagues surveyed vegetation and butterflies between 2005 and 2006, and found that where beavers stirred things up with their beavering ways, plants species thrived, more than 180 species, several of which were imperative to the butterfly’s survival.

The relationship is not so cut and stacked, situations are optimum when habitat has a combination of different stages of beaver renovations. But Bartel’s results indicate that fostering native ecosystem engineers can not only improve species diversity, but help conserve habitat for critically endangered species. It’s a potentially powerful tool for conservation and managers.

At the very least, Bartel’s results spell a little bit of hope for St. Francis’ satyr butterfly, and another reason to up the awe factor of beavers and butterflies. And who doesn’t like that?

You can find the study in the journal Oikos.

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