Wildlife

Extinction Looms for Sumatran Rhino

Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhino has died, leaving just one of the rhinos, a captive female, in the entire country, a region that was once replete with the two-horned beasts.

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Global Warming

Fatal Warming

Global warming is wiping out twice as many marine species as land dwellers because they are more sensitive to temperatures and less able to escape the heat, new research finds.

The Rutgers-led study says this could have a major impact on humans who rely on fish and shellfish for food and livelihoods.

“The findings suggest that new conservation efforts will be needed if the ocean is going to continue supporting human well-being, nutrition and economic activity,” said lead researcher Malin Pinsky.

The study says that many land animals can hide from the heat in forests, shaded areas or underground. But this luxury is not available to many sea animals that often live on the edge of dangerously high temperatures.

Environment

Up to 1 Million Species Are at Risk of Extinction

Up to 1 million species are at risk of extinction due to human activity, according to a draft of a U.N. report set to be released on May 6. Preliminary conclusions from the report were obtained by the French news agency AFP.

Human activity, such as overconsumption, illegal poaching, deforestation and fossil fuel emissions, are pushing ecosystems toward a point of no return. A quarter of known plant and animal species are already threatened — and the loss of species is tens to hundreds of times higher than it has been, on average, over the last 10 million years.

Nature is buckling under the pressure, losing clean air, potable water, pristine forests, pollinating insects, fish populations, and storm-buffering mangroves.

What’s more, three-quarters of the land, almost half of marine environments and half of inland waterways have been “severely” changed by human activity, according to the report. These changes will harm humans, especially indigenous groups and those living in the poorest communities.

One-hundred and thirty nations will meet in Paris on April 29 to examine the 44-page report that summarizes a 1,800-page assessment of scientific literature conducted by the U.N.

Wildlife

Australia’s Wildlife in Crisis

A new report, which reveals that record numbers of threatened forest dwelling fauna and many species are heading towards imminent extinction.

Released by the Wilderness Society this week, the report identified 48 federally-listed threatened species of forest-dwelling vertebrate fauna living in areas subject to state-run logging operations.

Four of those species – the leadbeater’s possum, swift parrot, western ringtail possum and regent honeyeater – are among the 20 bird and 20 mammal species most likely to become extinct within 20 years.

It also found that in the last 20 years, since the government allowed logging, 11 forest vertebrate species had been raised to “endangered” or “critically endangered” categories, bringing the total to 24, and none had been lowered. Another 15 species were listed as threatened for the first time.

The report called for an end to exemptions for logging operations from federal environmental laws, an overhaul of those laws, and the establishment of new assessment and regulatory bodies.

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Wildlife

Global wildlife map of ‘cool-spots’ and ‘hot-spots’

A new study maps the last vestiges of wild places where the world’s threatened species can take refuge from the ravages of unregulated hunting, land clearing, and other industrial activities. But the authors warn these refuges are shrinking.

Reporting in the international journal PLOS Biology, researchers from the University of Queensland, WCS, and other groups mapped the distribution of wildlife “cool spots” where wildlife is still thriving, along with “hot spots” where species richness is threatened by human activities.

Of the 5,457 total species, 2060 are amphibians, 2120 are birds, and 1,277 are mammals. Human impacts on these species extend across 84 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface, and many charismatic species including lions and elephants are impacted across the vast majority of their ranges.

Some of the “cool spots” identified include parts of the Amazon rainforest, Andes Mountains, and tundra and boreal forests of Russia and North America. Top “hot spots” were dominated by areas in Southeast Asia where wildlife-rich tropical forests are increasingly threatened by expanding human impacts.

The most impacted biomes included mangroves, tropical and sub-tropical moist broadleaf forests in Southern Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests of India, Myanmar and Thailand.

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Wildlife

Africa’s rare carnivores face threats from disease-carrying dogs

The Ethiopian highlands, which stretch across much of central and northern Ethiopia, are home to some of Africa’s highest peaks. They’re also the last — the only — stronghold of the continent’s rarest carnivore: the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis).

Domestic and feral dogs are frequent carriers of rabies and distemper and can, in turn, pass these diseases on to wild animals. In the highlands, the dogs of herders are semi-feral, used more as an alarm system against leopards and spotted hyenas than as shepherds. They are not spayed or neutered, nor vaccinated, and they are left to their own devices to find food and water. That means they head out to hunt the same rodent prey as the wolves, bringing the two predators into contact with one another.

Diseases like rabies and distemper are particularly problematic for highly social species like Ethiopian wolves. If one member of a pack comes into contact with infected dogs, or with the remains of infected animals, while out hunting, it can spread the disease to the rest of the pack in a matter of days. If that pack encounters wolves from other packs, the disease can spread quickly through the entire population.

Wolf populations are always subject to cyclical crashes and recovery periods as diseases hit and packs rebound. But if another outbreak strikes before a pack has had a chance to recover, it is more likely to wipe out the pack altogether. Scientists worry that the one-two punch of a rabies outbreak immediately followed by a distemper outbreak, like the combination that occurred in both 2010 and 2015, is exactly the scenario that could lead to extinction.

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Global Warming

Australian rodent marks first climate change extinction

An Australian rodent that lived near the Great Barrier Reef has been officially declared extinct, making it the first known mammal killed off by climate change, according to researchers.

The Bramble Cay melomys, a rat-like rodent known to live on a small northern island at the edge of the Torres Strait Islands in Queensland, was relocated from the government’s “endangered” list to its “extinct” list, the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy announced Monday.

Researchers, in a 2016 report released on the critter, said they confirmed that melomys on Bramble Cay were extinct after a “survey in March 2014 failed to detect the species.” Fishermen who visited the area suggested to scientists that the last known sighting of the animal was in late 2009.

The Torres Strait region where Bramble Cay is located has seen “extreme high water levels and damaging storm surges,” the 2016 report stated. These weather events are the “root cause” of the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys, which “point[s] to human-induced climate change,” scientists said.

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Wildlife

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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Wildlife

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.

Wildlife

Aerial Assault

An invasive Asian hornet that has decimated bee populations and killed some humans across the Iberian Peninsula will now be attacked by a fleet of armed drones. Experts are teaching local firefighters how to fill drones with insecticide, then fire the payload into hornets’ nests.

The pest is native to China and has spread southward into Spain at about 20 miles per year since arriving in France two decades ago. Its territory is also expanding elsewhere across Europe.

Stings from the aggressive hornets have killed two people so far in Spain, and the numbers of honeybees and butterflies have plummeted there since 2010.

Victims of Extreme Weather

Increased episodes of severe weather are causing populations of some species around the world to fall, and have even brought on local extinctions, scientists warn.

“The growing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as cyclones, droughts and floods is causing unpredictable and immediate changes to ecosystems,” researcher Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland said.

Writing in the journal Diversity and Distributions, Maxwell and colleagues say that birds, fish, plants and reptiles are under the greatest threat from stronger and more frequent cyclones. Mammals and amphibians are said to be among the most threatened by drought.

But the scientists point out that all kinds of plants and animals can be affected by the weather extremes.

Global Warming

Global warming today mirrors conditions leading to Earth’s largest extinction event: study

More than two-thirds of life on Earth died off some 252 million years ago, in the largest mass extinction event in Earth’s history.

Researchers have long suspected that volcanic eruptions triggered “the Great Dying,” as the end of the Permian geologic period is sometimes called, but exactly how so many creatures died has been something of a mystery.

Now scientists at the University of Washington and Stanford believe their models reveal how so many animals were killed, and they see frightening parallels in the path our planet is on today.

Models of the effects of volcanic greenhouse gas releases showed the Earth warming dramatically and oxygen disappearing from its oceans, leaving many marine animals unable to breathe, according to a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science. By the time temperatures peaked, about 80 percent of the oceans’ oxygen, on average, had been depleted. Most marine animals went extinct.

By this century’s end, if emissions continue at their current pace, humans will have warmed the ocean about 20 percent as much as during the extinction event, the researchers say. By 2300, that figure could be as high as 50 percent.

Global Warming

Global warming increases the risk of an extinction domino effect

The complex network of interdependencies between plants and animals multiplies the species at risk of extinction due to environmental change, according to a JRC study.

In the case of global warming, predictions that fail to take into account this cascading effect might underestimate extinctions by up to 10 times.

As an obvious, direct consequence of climate change, plants and animals living in a given area are driven to extinction when the local environmental conditions become incompatible with their tolerance limits, just like fish in an aquarium with a broken thermostat.

However, there are many elusive drivers of species loss that go beyond the direct effects of environmental change (and human activity) which we still struggle to understand.

In particular, it is becoming clearer that co-extinctions (the disappearance of consumers following the depletion of their resources) could be a major culprit in the ongoing biodiversity crisis.

While the concept of co-extinction is supported by a sound and robust theoretical background, it is often overlooked in empirical research because it’s extremely difficult to assess.

Wildlife

Maritime Noise Pollution

Underwater noise created by shipping and recreational boats is making it more difficult for dolphins to talk to each other, according to a new study.

University of Maryland researchers say the complex whistle calls used by the marine mammals are becoming simplified to make sure they can be understood through the din of maritime traffic.

“It’s kind of like trying to answer a question in a noisy bar and after repeated attempts to be heard, you just give the shortest answer possible,” said marine biologist Helen Bailey. She and colleagues made the discovery by analyzing recordings from microphones on the bottom of the Atlantic.

An earlier Japanese study found that humpback whales stop singing or reduce their songs when near loud noise from passing ships.

EWCOLOR

Mass Extinction

Earth’s wild animal population has plunged 60 percent since 1970, and the rate of extinction is now 100 to 1,000 times higher due to pressure from human activities, a new report warns.

The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) latest Living Planet Index says the global biodiversity needs “life support,” and called on heads of state to step up and fight for the planet.

The group says tackling climate change by advancing renewable energy and boosting environmentally friendly food production would begin taking the pressure off the world’s wildlife.

Wildlife

Global insect populations declining at alarming rate

An article in PNAS (National Academy of Sciences) has highlighted research from around the world that has found that insect populations are declining significantly.

A number of studies indicate that tropical arthropods should be particularly vulnerable to climate warming. If these predictions are realized, climate warming may have a more profound impact on the functioning and diversity of tropical forests than currently anticipated. Although arthropods comprise over two-thirds of terrestrial species, information on their abundance and extinction rates in tropical habitats is severely limited. Here we analyze data on arthropod and insectivore abundances taken between 1976 and 2012 at two midelevation habitats in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest. During this time, mean maximum temperatures have risen by 2.0 °C. Using the same study area and methods employed by Lister in the 1970s, we discovered that the dry weight biomass of arthropods captured in sweep samples had declined 4 to 8 times, and 30 to 60 times in sticky traps. Analysis of long-term data on canopy arthropods and walking sticks taken as part of the Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research program revealed sustained declines in abundance over two decades, as well as negative regressions of abundance on mean maximum temperatures. We also document parallel decreases in Luquillo’s insectivorous lizards, frogs, and birds. While El Niño/Southern Oscillation influences the abundance of forest arthropods, climate warming is the major driver of reductions in arthropod abundance, indirectly precipitating a bottom-up trophic cascade and consequent collapse of the forest food web.

Research from 2014 estimated that in the last 35 years, populations of insects such as beetles and bees have decreased by 45%, and that the number of insects in Europe is in rapid decline. In a separate study published in 2017, flying insect numbers in German nature reserves were found to have decreased by 76% over 27 years.

Global Warming

Bees Affected by Rising Temperatures

The survival of bees is hanging in the balance. Some species are dying off at a record pace, and toxic agricultural chemicals might be to blame. There seem to be many threats to these winged creatures, but climate change may be the final straw for some bee species. If the Earth continues to warm and bees don’t find a way to adapt, some populations could face extinction, according to new research.

A team of scientists found that 30 to 70 percent of mason bees died when they heated up the bees’ environments. This reveals that if temperatures continue to climb, bee populations could begin to die off at faster rates, disrupting ecosystems worldwide, said Paul CaraDonna, an ecologist at Northwestern University.

In the tests conducted in the research, the bees that survived the heat became smaller, lost much of their body fat and suffered from disruptions to their hibernation. These results suggest bees that survived were not healthy and might struggle to find food or a mate.

Local bee populations could possibly substantially decrease or even go extinct in the future because of climate change, according to the research.

Historic Shift Means the Arctic Ocean Could Become Part of the Atlantic

A region in the Arctic Ocean is undergoing a historic identity crisis, as recent climate change has warmed it so much that it might as well be considered part of the Atlantic.

All of the Arctic has been heating up in recent decades, but nowhere is it as dramatic as in the Barents Sea, northeast of Finland. There, temperatures are climbing faster than anywhere else in the Arctic Ocean — not only in the atmosphere but down through the water column, scientists recently reported in a new study.

The northern Barents is also becoming saltier as it warms, mostly because there’s little seasonal melt of sea ice to dilute the water body. These temperature and salinity changes nudge the northern Barents to a state that more closely resembles that of the neighboring Atlantic Ocean, rather than the Arctic, which could have dramatic implications for its marine ecosystems, according to the study.