Global Warming

Walrus come ashore in Alaska as global warming decimates sea ice

For the Pacific walrus, global warming is undeniable.

An estimated 10,000 walrus have come ashore on Alaska’s northwest coast, the National Marine Fisheries Service reported, as the sea ice the animals normally rely on to rest continues to melt at alarming rates.

Since 2007, government scientists have tracked numerous large walrus “haulouts” in Alaska and this one began last week.

Walrus typically use ice in the Chukchi Sea upon which to rest, and feed on clams and other prey. Over the past decade, however, they have been forced to come ashore more frequently as global temperatures have continued to rise.

As of September 2012, sea ice reached its lowest square area since measurements began in 1979, Physics Today reported, and represented 55% less coverage than was measured in 1980.

According to the Fisheries Service, that’s very bad news for the walrus, whose shift in habitat “will expose all individuals, but especially calves, juveniles and females, to increased levels of stress from depletion of prey, increased energetic costs to obtain prey, trampling injuries and mortalities, and predation.”

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Wildlife

Swarms of hornets in northwest China

A rash of deadly hornet attacks in northwestern China has killed 42 people and injured more than 1,600, local officials said Thursday.

The attacks began in July and have centred on three cities in China’s Shaanxi province: Ankang, Hanzhong and Shangluo. Local authorities believe a particularly venomous species, known as the Asian giant hornet, is behind the attacks.

They say the hornets, which can grow up to 2 inches long, are most active in September and October, when they breed and migrate. But experts quoted by the state-run New China News Agency offered different reasons for the unusual number of attacks this year.

Huang Rongyao, an insect control expert in the worst-hit city, Ankang, said increased vegetation growth was attracting hornets to the area while warmer than usual temperatures were making the insects more active.

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Wildlife

Migrating Monarch Butterflies Disappearing

Clusters of colourful monarch butterflies are now in the midst of their marathon migration southward across a broad swath of North America, but observers warn their numbers have plummeted again this year.

This year’s reports indicate that the decline in monarch numbers over the past 10 to 15 years appears to have been much steeper this summer.

Biologist Jeremy Kerr told the Ottawa Citizen that he thinks numbers are now down by as much as 90 percent.

Loss of habitat and pesticide use due to expanding agriculture is mainly to blame, according to experts.

Last summer’s extreme drought in the U.S. corn belt wiped out huge numbers of milkweeds, which the monarchs need to breed and feed.

Elizabeth Howard of Journey North says that was a fatal blow to many of the iconic fliers.

Monarchs typically live only four to five weeks, except for the generation that emerges in late summer. That’s the one that migrates the entire way southward to the species’ wintering grounds in the Mexican state of Michoacan.

The small number of southward migrants this autumn has caused even more concerns over the long-term future of the world’s longest-migrating butterflies.

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Wildlife

Report Reveals Cause of Massive Madagascar Whale Stranding

Sometimes good science takes time. This week, more than five years after the fact, a report was released about a mysterious mass stranding of whales that made international news in its day, but has since been all but forgotten.

Few will be surprised to learn that the cause was manmade ocean noise, which has now been implicated in a succession of mass whale deaths. And yet the findings were completely unexpected — and raise yet more questions about the sufficiency of existing law to address this growing international problem.

In May-June of 2008, the Wildlife Conservation Society led an international stranding response team to a mass stranding of approximately 100 melon-headed whales in the coastal mangroves of northeastern Madagascar.

On May 30, 2008, a pod of some 100 to 200 melon-headed whales turned up in Loza Lagoon, a large mangrove estuary on the northwest end of Madagascar. The lagoon was, needless to say, an inappropriate place for pelagic whales that tend to spend their lives in deep water. Despite intensive rescue efforts by both local authorities and experts from around the world, including my colleagues at the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Wildlife Conservation Society, the vast majority of the whales in Loza proceeded to suffer, starve and die.

The whole episode bore an uncanny resemblance to a mass stranding of the same species in Hawaii, during a major U.S. Navy exercise in 2004. In that case, an intrepid group of locals managed to lead the whales out of the lagoon using traditional methods — strands of woven vines gently pulled along the water’s surface — but Madagascar was the darker flipside of that event. In Hawaii only a single whale, a calf, is known to have died. In Madagascar, it was a true catastrophe.

But what was the cause? At the time, attention immediately turned to Exxon, which was running exploration activities in the area. The high-powered airguns that companies use to find offshore reservoirs of oil and gas have the power to disrupt marine life on a massive scale, and have raised enormous concern among scientists and conservationists the world over. Yet Exxon hadn’t deployed airguns off Madagascar. Nor was it using any of the other intense human sources of sound that biologists have identified as an environmental threat.

What the report demonstrates is that our understanding of the threat from underwater noise is too narrow. As it turns out, the “plausible and likely” cause of the Madagascar strandings was a seemingly innocuous acoustic device called a multibeam echosounder, which uses fans of sound to produce high-resolution maps of the sea floor.

No one thought to worry about echosounders before now. For years, regulators have focused on industrial and military sounds of lower frequencies, on the assumption that higher-frequency sounds are more quickly absorbed by seawater and do not pose the large-scale threat of an industrial airgun or naval sonar system. And echosounders, which are widely used by fishermen and oceanographers as well as by industry, typically use frequencies so high as to be completely undetectable to any marine mammal.

The echosounder that Exxon employed off Madagascar was, unfortunately, a very different animal. It produces sounds almost as powerful as the Navy sonar systems that have precipitated mass whale strandings and mortalities around the globe; and the sounds it generates are of similar, if higher, frequencies. Perhaps its only saving grace is that, unlike Navy sonar, echosounders are directed downwards towards the ocean bottom rather than directly out to sea, where the noise can spread even further. Even so, the report concluded that the Madagascar device would have ensonified the coast at levels known to disrupt whale behaviour for close to 30 kilometres in all directions.

How widely are these systems used? That remains a mystery. But if there’s anything one can say about ocean noise, it’s that people are constantly underestimating the scale and scope of the problem.

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Wildlife

80 Elephants Poisoned With Cyanide in Zimbabwe Park

The accelerated pace of wildlife poaching across Africa in recent months has resulted in the gruesome slaughter of more than 80 elephants that died of cyanide poisoning in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

According to authorities, a well-coordinated poaching syndicate, targeting the animals’ ivory tusks, laced water and salt licks with the poison at main drinking sites for the elephants.

While the mass killing of the elephants in such a cruel manner is tragic, wildlife advocates say such a poisoning technique threatens many other animals in the park.

“The repercussions are just so big. All the carnivores in the park like your lions, your leopards, the birds, they will all have perished too from eating the elephant meat.” Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force chairman Johnny Rodrigues told SW Radio Africa.

Police say nine suspected members of the poaching syndicate have been arrested since the first elephant carcasses were discovered late last month.

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Wildlife

Ecological Armageddon

A new study has found that mammals vanish entirely from forest fragments after 25 years.

As tropical forests worldwide are increasingly cut into smaller and smaller fragments, mammal extinctions may not be far behind, according to a new study. “Our results should be a warning. This is the trend that the world is going in.”

In 1987, the government of Thailand launched a huge, unplanned experiment. They built a dam across the Khlong Saeng river, creating a 60-square-mile reservoir. As the Chiew Larn reservoir rose, it drowned the river valley, transforming 150 forested hilltops into islands, each with its own isolated menagerie of wildlife. Conservation biologists have long known that fragmenting wilderness can put species at risk of extinction. But it’s been hard to gauge how long it takes for those species to disappear. Chiew Larn has given biologists the opportunity to measure the speed of mammal extinctions.

Tropical forests are regularly cleared for logging, farming and cities. In most cases, the only original tree cover is reduced to isolated patches. Many of the original species of plants and animals may still survive in those fragments, but they experience new stresses. The edges of the fragments are no longer dim and humid, for example. The small size of the surviving populations also creates problems. Over the course of a few generations, a small population can accumulate harmful mutations that make them less fertile or more vulnerable to diseases.

Scientists have hypothesized that many species will gradually decline in forest fragments until they become extinct. Reducing a vast carpet of jungle to isolated patches thus creates a so-called “extinction debt” that nature will sooner or later collect.

Just five years after the dam was built, they could see a difference. Several species were more rare on the islands than on the mainland. Researchers returned to the same 12 islands in 2012 and repeated the survey. The first survey had found seven species of mammals. Traps on the island found only a single species: the Malayan field rat. This was a startling find for two reasons. One was the drastic crash in diversity. The other was that the Malayan field rat wasn’t on the islands when they first formed.

Malayan field rats thrive around villages and farms and other disturbed habitats. The rats trapped must have come from the surrounding rain forests, where they still remain scarce. When they swam to the islands, they found fragmented forests that they could dominate. “I thought, ‘Wow, what if this trend holds?’ And it did.” On most of the islands, all the native species were gone, replaced by the rats. Only on a few islands did some species still cling to existence. All the islands were suffering massive extinctions in about 20 years. “No one expected to see such rapid extinctions.”

“This study confirms for mammals what we’ve long known for birds.” Records of birds from forest fragments in the Amazon show species going extinct at a comparable rate. The fast pace of extinction in forest fragments gives an urgency to conserving the large swaths of tropical forest that still remain. “Our study shows we may need to do that very quickly.”

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Wildlife

Honolulu Molasses Spill

Tens of thousands of fish died in Honolulu Harbour after 1,400 tons of molasses spilled from a leaky pipe as the sugary substance was being moved from storage tanks to a ship. The Hawaii Department of Health said that no endangered species have been identified among the more than 26,000 dead fish, shellfish and other marine life that have been collected.

Officials said the spill was one of the worst man-made disasters to strike Hawaii in recent memory.

“There’s nothing you can do to clean up molasses,” said Jeff Hull, a spokesman for Matson Inc., the shipping company responsible for the leak. “It’s sunk to the bottom of the harbor. Unlike oil, which can be cleaned from the surface, molasses sinks.”

Matson said it would pay for the entire cleanup costs without passing the charges onto taxpayers or its clients.

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Wildlife

Bees Reintroduced in Britain

A species of bee reintroduced to the UK after becoming extinct has nested for the first time in a quarter of a century. The short-haired bumblebee started dying out in Britain in the 1980s and officially became extinct in 2000. A reintroduction project saw queen bees brought over from Sweden.

After two releases of queens at the RSPB’s Dungeness reserve in Kent, offspring worker bees have been recorded there for the first time. Short-haired bumblebees were once widespread across the south of England but declined as their wildflower rich grasslands disappeared. “This is a milestone for the project and a real victory for conservation. We now have proof that this bumblebee has nested and hatched young and we hope it is on the way to become a self-supporting wild species in the UK. It’s been a long journey to get here, from creating the right habitat for them, collecting queens in the Swedish countryside, scanning them for diseases and then eventually releasing them at Dungeness. Seeing worker bees for the first time is a fantastic reward for all that hard work but we still have a long way to go to ensure this population is safe and viable.”

A first generation of queens, which were released last year, struggled in the summer’s cold, wet conditions. But a second release of queens from Sweden bolstered the colony. The reintroduction project has involved work with farmers to create flower-rich meadows in Dungeness and Romney Marsh which have also boosted the numbers of other threatened bumblebees. Further releases are planned to help build the population at Dungeness.

Wildlife

Hyena Terror Grips Eastern Zimbabwe

Hyenas in parts of Zimbabwe are turning from their usual prey to attack humans moving into their habitat

Whereas the animals had previously gone after only livestock, attacks by rabid hyenas in eastern Zimbabwe are forcing residents to remain indoors at night and leaving many too afraid to collect food even during the day.

But an expanding population and development are now bringing humans into contact with the mainly nocturnal predators.

“We used to hear hyenas laughing from a distance, and everyone knew that they would not travel all that way to attack humans,” local man Charles Mukanwa told a Harare-based daily.

“But now the situation is different. We have people who are building their houses where the wild animals used to dominate,” Mukanwe said.

A recent attack took villagers by surprise as one of the apparently rabid animals attacked people sitting in their huts.

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Proposed Antarctic Ocean Reserve Downsized

A proposal to create a marine protected area in Antarctica’s Ross Sea that would cover some 875,000 square miles (2.3 million square kilometres) has been revised to reduce the reserve’s size by about 40 percent. The revisions came after China, Norway, Russia and other countries that are members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources questioned the legality of creating the reserve and balked at blocking off so much of the productive region to commercial fishing.

The original proposal was made by the United States and New Zealand, and environmentalists have accused the two countries of caving to pressures from other nations, the New York Times reported. A coalition of environmental groups called the Antarctic Ocean Alliance called the new proposal a “tactical mistake and a significant retreat for Southern Ocean protection,” the paper reported.

The proposal, along with a separate one to create a network of seven reserves in the eastern Antarctic, will be discussed at a meeting of the commission in Hobart, Australia, next month.

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Wildlife

Butterflies Drink Turtle Tears

The western Amazon is lower in sodium than many places on Earth, because it is more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from the Atlantic Ocean, a prime source of salt, and is cut off from windblown mineral particles to the west by the Andes Mountains.

Dust and minerals make their way into the Amazon from the east, sometimes all the way from north Africa. But much of this material is removed from the air by rain before it reaches the western Amazon.

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Wildlife

1.5 Million Roaches Escape Chinese Breeding Farm

At least 1.5 million cockroaches escaped a breeding facility in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, infesting nearby farmland and homes.

The province’s board of health investigators are at a loss on how to rid the region of the pests.

Wang Pengsheng began raising the insects so their extracts could be used as a traditional Chinese medicine treatment for cancer and inflammation, and to allegedly improve immunity.

He had been raising the roaches on a diet of fruits and biscuits when something destroyed the plastic greenhouses he was using for the enterprise.

Local villagers were reported to be worried that the escaped hexapods would damage their crops and bring diseases.

Local authorities were working to calm those fears.

According to the website YinYangHouse.com, roach parts or extracts can renew “joints, sinews and bones, (heal) contusions, fractures and lacerations” and are also used for a “wide variety of blood stasis such as abdominal masses and amenorrhea, (as well as) numb and swollen tongue.”

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Wildlife

Obama’s Climate Plan: Kill Birds and Bats by the Hundreds of Millions

A newly published peer-reviewed study reports U.S. wind turbines kill 1.4 million birds and bats every year, even while producing just 3 percent of U.S. electricity. The numbers in the study from Wildlife Society Bulletin reveal President Obama’s global warming plan will kill hundreds of millions of birds and bats while doing little if anything to reduce global temperatures.

Even if no new wind turbines are ever built, turbine blades will slice 14 million birds and bats to death in mid-flight during the next decade. However, global warming alarmists say we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50 or even 80 percent. President Obama’s recently announced assault on climate change appears likely to seek such numbers. Given that most global warming alarmists also vigorously oppose hydropower, natural gas power, and nuclear power, reducing emissions by 50 to 80 percent would require increasing the number of wind turbines roughly 25-fold. That means killing 350 million birds and bats in the United States every decade.

Actually, the number of bird and bat deaths would likely be much higher than that. Wind turbines produce power on an intermittent and unpredictable basis, meaning conventional power plants must remain cycling constantly, to fill minute-by-minute fluctuations in wind power. That means electricity produced by wind turbines is far from carbon-neutral.

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Wildlife

Honeybee Collapse May Have Complex Cause

Scientists have been trying to discover why millions of beehives have collapsed and died during the past six years. According to a new study, the reason for the phenomenon — known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) — may be much more complex and disconcerting than researchers originally realized.

CCD has killed off more than 10 million beehives in North America since 2007 alone. Scientists have tried repeatedly to identify the root cause for the beehive collapses — with possibilities ranging from certain classes of pesticides to parasites or nutrition — though the search is complicated by the dozens of different chemical types that may be combining to contaminate the pollen bees collect for their hives.

So academic researchers from the University of Maryland and federal scientists from the Department of Agriculture decided to collect pollen from seven major types of crops along the East Coast where CCD has been especially destructive — where bees had been in serious decline — and fed the pollen to healthy bees .

The collected pollen contained an average of nine types of pesticides and fungicides —one pollen sample contained 21 different anthropogenic chemicals.

According to the study, which appeared in the open-access journal PLOS One, the researchers discovered healthy bees that ate the fungicides — which are supposedly harmless to bees — were actually three times more likely to become infected with a parasite that’s known to cause CCD than bees not exposed to the chemicals.

The study also indicated that there may not be a single cause of the collapse of bee colonies in North America — the deaths may result from the impact of a complex web of chemicals spanning different types and classes of pesticides and fungicides.

Fungicides are used to control things like fungus on apples, and weren’t expected to have an impact on healthy bees. Since the study has shown that bees eating such fungicides are much more likely to become infected with a deadly parasite, USDA may need to change the way it regulates the use of those chemicals around crops and the bee colonies that pollinate them — and the agency may need to change the way it advises farmers and beekeepers about the fungicides’ risks.

Likewise, if CCD is linked to other components of the complex array of anthropogenic chemicals in pollen, it will become even more difficult to protect bee colonies — not to mention the other forms of life subjected to those chemicals as they spread through the food web and the broader environment.

To make things even more complicated, in the recent study, the researchers found that healthy bees they sampled had mostly foraged from weeds and wildflowers — not crops — meaning that bees across North America are likely much more exposed to pesticides than previously thought.

More research is needed about “how honey bees are exposed to pesticides outside the field in which they are placed,” the authors wrote in PLOS One. “We detected 35 different pesticides in the sample pollen, and found high fungicide loads,” they added. “Our results highlight a need for research on sub-lethal effects of fungicides and other chemicals that bees in an agricultural setting are exposed to.”

CCD isn’t just about the bees — food crops and agriculture economies are affected too. Because bee populations are so low in the United States, for example, the surviving colonies are working overtime to pollinate crops in California and elsewhere. More than $30 billion worth of crops in the United States could be seriously at risk if the continuing die-off of honeybees were to reach critical levels .

While the researchers were careful not to directly link the complex web of pesticides found in the pollen samples directly to colony collapse disorder, the inference is hard to ignore.

It’s also just common sense. Something has been causing CCD in different parts of North America, and it would make sense that chemicals designed to kill certain things like pests or weeds might also have unintended consequences when combined and later spread outside crops.

The solution could be as simple as labelling the harmful fungicides. But, it could also be vastly more complicated, and involve tighter regulation of the regions and instances where different sets of chemicals are used in and around crops pollinated by honeybee colonies.

Right now, pesticide labels tell farmers not to spray when bees are known to be pollinating, but those regulations don’t apply to the chemicals used to kill fungus on the crops as those substances were thought to be harmless to bees.

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Feds Investigating Large Dolphin Die-Off on East Coast

An unusually large number of bottlenose dolphins are washing up on the shores of the Mid-Atlantic U.S. Coast, most of them already dead. Federal scientists have declared it an “unusual mortality event” and are investigating the cause. The number of dolphins stranded in July is more than seven times higher than average according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The strandings began at the beginning of July, and have accelerated in the past two weeks, said Teri Rowles, National Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator with NOAA Fisheries.

Higher-than-average levels of dolphin strandings have been seen in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, scientists said. In July, a total of 89 dolphins were stranded in these areas. As of yesterday (Aug. 7), a total of 35 strandings have occurred already in the month of August.

Although the cause is not yet known, the primary suspect is morbillivirus, an infectious pathogen, Rowles said. One dead dolphin has tested positive for this virus, she added.

Only seven of the stranded dolphins have ended up on shore alive, but none of these survived, Rowles said. All of them died on the beach or were humanely euthanized because they were beyond the point of treatment, she said.

Animals can survive exposure and infection to morbillivirus, although it’s not clear what percent do, Rowles said.

Morbillivirus was the culprit in the last large die-off of bottlenose dolphins, which occurred in 1987-1988. In that event, a total of 740 bottlenose dolphins died, according to NOAA figures. If another outbreak is indeed occurring now, there is likely nothing officials can do to stop it. The outbreak would have to end on its own.

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Wildlife

Orca Spotted with Plastic Bag in Mouth

Researchers snapped a picture of a baby killer whale in the Pacific Northwest holding a plastic bag in its mouth, just the latest example of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Last month, scientists from the Centre for Whale Research monitoring orcas in the Salish Sea say they spotted a calf playing with what at first looked like a small scrap of blubber. When the baby whale dropped the item from its mouth, they realized it was actually a plastic bag.

Rogue plastic trash can be a problem when it gets into the mouths of the ocean’s animals like whales, turtles and seals, but it can even harm creatures deep beneath the surface. One group of researchers recently published a database of trash on the seafloor from California to Canada and offshore of Hawaii. They found that most garbage in their catalogue was plastic, and of those items, more than half were plastic bags, some choking corals nearly 7,000 feet (2,115 meters) below.

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Wildlife

New Explanations Sought for Dolphin Strandings

In waters from Florida to the Caribbean, dolphins are showing up stranded or entangled in fishing gear with an unusual problem: They can’t hear.

A study has found that more than half of stranded bottlenose dolphins and more than a third of stranded rough-toothed dolphins had severe hearing loss. The animals’ hearing impairment may have been a critical factor in their strandings. The causes of hearing loss in dolphins aren’t always clear, but aging, shipping noise and side effects from antibiotics could play roles.

Whether the hearing loss is causing the dolphin strandings — for instance, by steering the marine mammals in the wrong direction or preventing them from finding food — remains an open question.

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