Russia’s Arctic plans add to polar bears’ climate woes

Last month’s visit by roaming polar bears that put a Russian village on lockdown may be just the beginning.

For as Moscow steps up its activity in the warming Arctic, conflict with the rare species is likely to increase.

More than 50 bears approached Belyushya Guba, a village on the far northern Novaya Zemlya archipelago, in February. As many as 10 of them explored the streets and entered buildings.

Local authorities declared a state of emergency for a week and appealed for help from Moscow.

Photos of the incident went viral, with some observers blaming officials for ignoring a sprawling garbage dump nearby where the animals feasted on food waste.

But polar bear experts say the main reason the Arctic predators came so close to humans was the late freezing of the sea. It was this that kept them from hunting seals and sent them looking for alternate food sources.

And as Russia increases its footprint in the Arctic, pursuing energy projects, Northern Passage navigation and strategic military interests, experts expect more clashes between humans and bears.


Nature – Images

Interesting Images

Sunfish in California

Researchers were surprised when they found a dead hoodwinker sunfish on Sands Beach in Santa Barbara County on Feb. 19, so far away from the fish’s native swimming grounds in southeastern Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and perhaps Chile, the first time a sunfish has been found in the northern hemisphere. Because the sunfish is so rarely found, it took researchers a few days to identify the creature.

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Seaweed Invasion

Mexico dispatched resources from three branches of government to fight a record plague of sargassum seaweed that has been piling up on stretches of Caribbean resort beaches.

The influx has spread across the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to as far north as Florida since 2011.

While scientists have yet to pinpoint the exact cause, they agree that the phenomenon is not entirely natural.

Floating mats can harm marine life such as the sea turtles that struggle to surface beneath the weight of the invading plants.

Mexico is looking at ways to collect the seaweed before it reaches the shore, then transport it to facilities that dry and compress it for potential commercial use.

Flamingo Rescue

About 2,000 infant flamingos have been rescued in South Africa after a drought forced the parents to abandon their chicks.

The protracted dry spell combined with water mismanagement by local authorities has all but dried up a reservoir that has been one of southern Africa’s largest flamingo breeding sites.

Some conservation experts question why nature was not allowed to take its course. But Leslie Ernst of the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds told reporters: “I think we all feel very motherly toward (the flamingos).” Additionally, the crisis was partly human-caused.

The group is working to find enough room for the rescued chicks to run and exercise their legs before eventually being released back into the wild.


Nature – Images

Interesting Images

Swimming in the open ocean entangled this loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) in a dangerous trap posed by a discarded fishing net. Luckily, photographer Eduardo Acevedo encountered the turtle near the Canary Islands, and released her from the net after capturing this striking image.

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This tiny sea slug, the Cyerce nigra was photographed near the Philippines. This photo allows us to enjoy the visual feast of a creature too small to appreciate with the naked eye.

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Poaching Pangolins

Conservationists are concerned over the rate at which a group of unique African and Asian scaly mammals called pangolins are being trafficked and hunted for their meat.

It’s estimated that 21 pangolins are taken out of the wild every hour and about a million have been removed from their natural habitats in the last decade.

In mid-January, Hong Kong seized more than eight tonnes of pangolin scales and nearly two tonnes of ivory. Two weeks later, Ugandan authorities seized 762 pieces of ivory and 423 kilograms of pangolin scales bound for Vietnam.

Just a few days later, a shipment of close to 30 metric tonnes of both dead and live pangolins, pangolin scales and pangolin meat was seized in Malaysia. The shipment also included two legs of a sun bear. The seizure in Hong Kong alone would have been supplied by hundreds of elephants and thousands of pangolins. All of these animals were illegally poached and trafficked by transnational organised criminal networks.

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Right Whale Baby Boom

Scientists are expressing hope for the recovery of the endangered Atlantic right whale population after seven of the species’ calves were spotted off Florida this winter.

Only about 450 North Atlantic right whales are believed to remain after whaling drove the species to near extinction before hunting them was banned in 1937.

Right whale mothers typically give birth about every four years. Researcher Katie Jackson of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says about 16 to 18 calves need to be born each year just to maintain the current small population.


World’s Biggest Bee Not Extinct

You’d think that the world’s biggest bee would be hard to lose track of. But Wallace’s Giant Bee — an Indonesian species with a 2.5-inch (6.4 centimeters) wingspan and enormous mandibles — was last seen by researchers in 1981; it was feared to be extinct.

However, scientists finally spotted the rare bee in January, in the Indonesian province of North Maluku on the Maluku Islands. They detected a solitary female bee after investigating the region for five days, and a photographer captured the first-ever images of a living Wallace’s Giant Bee (Megachile pluto) at the insect’s nest in an active termite mound.

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Locust Swarms

U.N. officials warned that a locust outbreak is spreading along both sides of the Red Sea from Sudan and Eritrea to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

They report that heavy rains from two tropical cyclones in 2018 triggered the breeding of locust swarms, with the insects also spreading as far away as Iran.

“The next three months will be critical to bring the locust situation under control before the summer breeding starts,” Food and Agriculture Organization locust expert Keith Cressman said in the statement.

One small swarm of the insects can chomp through as much plant food in a single day as 35,000 people.

Monarch Realm Expands

A small, secluded colony of monarch butterflies has been found after years of searching by park rangers and conservationists.

Rumors of a possible colony around Mexico’s Nevado de Toluca volcano had spawned numerous searches. But a handful of communal landowners stumbled across the tiny colony just before Christmas.

News of the discovery came as officials announced the wintering population of monarchs in 15 acres of their main habitat in the mountains of Michoacan state had increased by 144 percent over the previous year.

The location of the newly discovered colony is being kept secret and will be patrolled by paid conservation workers.


Reindeer Cyclones Are Real

Vikings hunting reindeer in Norway were once confounded by “reindeer cyclones”; a threatened herd would literally run circles around the fierce hunters, making it nearly impossible to target a single animal.

Faced with this spinning reindeer stampede, any predator — wolf, bear or human — would have a very tough time targeting and overpowering a single reindeer, making this a formidable defense strategy.



Huge muddy plume of water seeps into Great Barrier Reef

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Images show Australia’s Great Barrier Reef being hit by an “extremely large” patch of muddy flood water that experts say could harm the world wonder. The polluted floodwater is flowing out as far as 60 kilometres from the Queensland coast following weeks of heavy rain.

It’s thought that around 600km of the reef’s outer edges have been affected by the dirty water. Scientists say that the water is likely to contain nitrogen and pesticide chemicals that could potentially kill coral and seagrass should it stay around for some time.

Smart Swimmers

A lowly reef-dwelling fish known as the cleaner wrasse has been elevated into an exclusive club in the animal kingdom whose members have the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror.

Other than humans, only great apes, killer whales, Eurasian magpies and bottlenose dolphins had demonstrated that ability. The trait is viewed as an indication of self-awareness.

The cleaner wrasse had previously been observed living complex social lives where it formed allegiances and even demonstrated the capacity for deception. “These fish are fascinating in their breadth of cognitive abilities – and underappreciated,” said Alex Jordan, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute and the study’s lead researcher.


Worldwide Catastrophic Decline Of Insect Species

Nearly half of all insect species worldwide are in rapid decline and a third could disappear altogether, according to a study warning of dire consequences for crop pollination and natural food chains.

“Unless we change our way of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” concluded the peer-reviewed study, which is set for publication in April.

The recent decline in bugs that fly, crawl, burrow and skitter across still water is part of a gathering “mass extinction,” only the sixth in the last half-billion years. “We are witnessing the largest extinction event on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous periods,” the authors noted.

The Permian end-game 252 million years ago snuffed out more than 90% of the planet’s life forms, while the abrupt finale of the Cretaceous 66 million years ago saw the demise of land dinosaurs.

“We estimate the current proportion of insect species in decline – 41% – to be twice as high as that of vertebrates,” or animals with a backbone, Francisco Sanchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney and Kris Wyckhuys of the University of Queensland in Australia reported. “At present, a third of all insect species are threatened with extinction.” An additional one percent join their ranks every year, they estimated. Insect biomass – sheer collective weight – is declining annually by about 2.5% worldwide.

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Nature – Images

Interesting Images

Some finalists in the 2019 Sony World Photography Awards

Fluffy-looking bunch of penguins in a huddle.

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Pacific salmon during their annual migration in Taiwan.

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Eagles squabbling over prey in Canada.

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‘Grieving’ Dolphin

New Zealand officials advised boaters to steer clear of a grief-stricken bottlenose dolphin that had been spotted carrying around her deceased calf for days. It’s believed the calf was stillborn in the Bay of Islands.

“The mother is grieving and needs space and time to do this,” senior ranger of biodiversity Catherine Peters said in the statement. The sighting was reminiscent of a mother orca whale off the coast of British Columbia last July who carried her dead newborn calf for more than two weeks.



Humans Are Eating Most of Earth’s Largest Animals to Extinction

It’s hard to argue that the world is not made more interesting by singing whales the size of school buses, dinosaur-footed bird monsters that can leap clean over your head or slimy, cannibal salamanders that grow as large as crocodiles.

Giant animals like these are known as megafauna. Beyond being awesome in every sense of the word, these mammoth species are crucial to keeping their respective ecosystems balanced — and, according to a new study, about 60 percent of them are hopelessly doomed.

In new research published today (Feb. 6) in the journal Conservation Letters, scientists surveyed the populations of nearly 300 species of megafauna around the world, and saw some troubling trends emerge. According to the authors, at least 200 species (70 percent) of the world’s largest animals are seeing their populations dwindle, and more than 150 face the risk of outright extinction.

The primary threat in most of these cases appears to be human meat consumption.

“Megafauna” is a broad biological term that can apply to any number of large animals, equally apt for describing a chunky Australian codfish as a long-dead T. rex. To narrow down things in their new study, Ripple and his colleagues defined megafauna as any non-extinct vertebrate above a certain weight threshold. For mammals, ray-finned and cartilaginous fish (like sharks and whales), any species weighing more than 220 lbs. (100 kilograms) was considered megafauna. For amphibians, birds and reptiles, species weighing more than 88 lbs. (40 kg) made the cut.

This left the researchers with a list of 292 supersize animals. The list includes a cast of familiar faces like elephants, rhinos, giant tortoises and whales, as well as some surprise guests like the Chinese giant salamander — a critically endangered, alligator-size amphibian that can weight up to 150 lbs. (65.5 kg).

As humans got better at killing from a distance over the past several hundred years, megafauna have started dying at an increasingly quick rate, the authors wrote. Since the 1760s, nine megafauna species have gone extinct in the wild, all thanks to human over-hunting and habitat encroachment.

Today, most of the threatened megafauna species face a lethal cocktail of human-induced dangers, including pollution, climate change and land development. However, the researchers wrote, the single biggest threat remains harvesting — that is, being hunted and killed for their meat or body parts.

“Meat consumption was the most common motive for harvesting megafauna for all classes except reptiles, where harvesting eggs was ranked on top,” the researchers wrote in their study. “Other leading reasons for harvesting megafauna included medicinal use, unintended bycatch in fisheries and trapping, live trade and various other uses of body parts such as skins and fins.”

According to the researchers, establishing legal barriers to limit the trade and collection of megafauna products is an essential step toward slowing this mass-extinction-in-progress.


Shark-eating killer whales move into Cape Town

Scuba divers diving along a popular site inside Table Mountain National Park discovered a broadnose sevengill shark graveyard within a protected area known to be home to an exceptionally large group of the sharks.

At any given time, divers in this area typically come across roughly 70 sharks in an hour-long dive, this is the only noted place in the world that is as populated by such a large concentrated number of sevengill sharks.

The cause of the mass deaths remained a mystery at first due to the inability to recover shark bodies for examination, and suspicions fell on great white sharks, humans and killer whales, or orcas.

Months later scientists managed to examine shark carcasses and determined that the culprit was indeed orcas.

After reviewing information on orca behavior, dietary specialisation and population delineation both globally and locally, it was decided these attacks might be due to the arrival of a different sub-group of killer whales that feed specifically on sharks.

At the same time as the dead sharks were first discovered, a local whale-watching charter documented the arrival of two new killer whales in the bay in January 2015. These individuals were easily identifiable by their characteristic bent dorsal fins, and were nicknamed “Port” and “Starboard”. They were sighted near the sevengill aggregation site at the time of both incidents of mass shark deaths in 2015 and 2016.

It is suspected that these same two orcas were also responsible for the deaths of five great white sharks further up the coast in Gansbaai in 2017.

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Massive Fish Die Off

Australia’s record heat and severe drought this Southern Hemisphere summer have led to the deaths of more than a million fish in some drought-stricken areas.

Residents along New South Wales’ Darling River report seeing a “sea of white” as dead fish blanketed the waterway near the Outback town of Menindee. Low water levels, toxic algae and oxygen depletion are said to be the main causes of the die-offs.

Australia’s back-to-back heat waves in recent weeks have pushed the endurance of humans and animals, as well as the country’s power grid, to the limit. Many Australians, used to broiling summers, say the season seems to be growing hotter.

Britain’s Hares Dying

Britain’s wild brown hares are being made ill and killed by a pathogen found to be the deadly rabbit hemorrhagic disease type 2.

Numbers of the beloved animals, which have a special place in British folklore, have plummeted by about 80 percent in recent decades, manly due to a shift to intensive agriculture that has destroyed their habitats and food supplies.

Members of the public who come across dead hares are asked to contact biological scientist Diana Bell of the University of East Anglia so the bodies can be tested for disease. She says the hemorrhagic disease is only one of two pathogens being found in dead hares.


Vanishing Stars

The once abundant sunflower starfish that lives along the Pacific coast of North America is disappearing at an alarming rate due to a combination of warming waters and infectious diseases.

A new US study found that the population of the species declined by 80 to 100 percent in the waters from Alaska southward to California during the three years beginning in 2013.

Researcher Joseph Gaydos, of the University of California, Davis, says the ravenous manhole-cover-sized starfish are important to the seabed ecology because they keep the sea urchin population under control.