Tag Archives: biodiversity

Scientists identify zoo animals using solely DNA sucked from the air — and this could forever change how we monitor biodiversity

Credit: Journal Biological Conservation, Philip Francis Thomsen et al.

Our planet is teeming with life — and it leaves traces everywhere it goes. These include conspicuous markings such as pawprints or abandoned nests, but also other traces invisible to the naked eye such as DNA. In the past decade, biologists have had great success identifying animal species and their abundance using environmental DNA (eDNA) gathered from the aquatic environment. Now, two different research groups using two different methods have independently shown that it is possible to do the same with eDNA sucked out of the air.

The blueprint of life is everywhere, even in the air you breathe

Biology fieldwork can be incredibly thrilling, but it’s always exhausting. Measuring fish, collecting insects, catching snakes, you name it — on and on for weeks or even months. That may be a blessing if you’re the kind of scientist who loves nature and the great outdoors, but it’s terribly frustrating when you have to work in very remote areas on the lookout for elusive species — and this is exactly where environmental DNA can come in to save the day (and your Ph.D. thesis).

Environmental DNA — essentially genetic material obtained directly from environmental samples (soil, sediment, water, etc.) without any obvious signs of biological source material — has emerged as an invaluable tool for monitoring past and present biodiversity. The method was first employed in sediment, revealing DNA from extinct and extant animals and plants, but has since been obtained from various terrestrial and aquatic environmental samples. However, air samples have been rarely used for proper eDNA analysis due to the inherent challenges dealing with a medium so prone to contamination and, well, in a constant flow of motion — that’s until now.

Two independent groups of researchers, one led by Assistant Professor Elizabeth Clare from York University in Canada, the other led by Associate Professor Kristine Bohmann from the Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen, have provided the most robust evidence thus far that air eDNA can be a reliable tool for assessing biodiversity.

“My research group does lots of fieldwork in remote areas with difficult and elusive species. We were motivated partly because we face the challenge of monitoring these animals all the time. We also have a history of working to develop new methods for biodiversity monitoring. I was mainly motivated because I was asked to write a report for one of the UK government agencies on how we can best use DNA in future biomonitoring. I got to writing about sources of eDNA and realized that air was a largely unexplored area, particularly for animals. I decided to take up that challenge myself,” Clare told ZME Science. “The really exciting thing about this is just how well it worked. Both teams independently tried to do this, and use different approaches… but both were highly successful. This is really good evidence that this is a viable method. That it will work on a large scale.”

“In my group, we work with different aspects of environmental DNA analyses, including exploring novel eDNA sample types. One such novel sample type is air. Air surrounds everything and we set out to explore whether it is possible to filter animal DNA from the air and use it to detect them. If this was indeed possible we would not only push the boundaries for what can be done with environmental DNA but also demonstrate a novel and non-invasive tool to complement existing methods for monitoring terrestrial animals – something of great importance to inform conservation efforts,” Bohmann told ZME Science.

Zoos: the perfect testing ground for airborne eDNA

Both research teams selected local zoos as their sampling sites, which proved to be the perfect testing grounds for this ambitious undertaking. Zoos have an exact headcount of all the animal species and individuals they house. They also have exotic species that are impossible to find in the local urban environment or even the wild in their respective countries. “We knew that if we detected Tasmanian devils then the likelihood of that being anywhere else in Copenhagen would be slim,” Bohmann said.

Bohmann and doctoral student Christina Lynggaard collected air samples from three different locations at the zoo using three different sampling devices (a commercial water-based vacuum and two blower fans with filters attached). They sucked and filtered air from the okapi stable, the Rainforest house, and outside between the different zoo enclosures.

Elsewhere in the UK, at Hamerton Zoo Park, Clare’s team used vacuum pumps to collect more than 70 air samples from various locations around the zoo, both inside animal sleeping dwellings and outside in the general environment.

Better than camera traps

Associate Prof Kristine Bohmann of the University of Copenhagen collects air samples. Credit: Christian Bendix.

Clare’s study identified 25 different species of animals, 17 of which were zoo species such as tigers, lemurs, and dingoes. Some of the zoo animals they detected lived hundreds of meters away from the testing sites, despite the sizable drop in concentration, but this showed that the method can monitor species over a large surface area from a single whiff of air.

Bohmann detected 49 species from 40 samples, ranging from mammals and birds to reptiles and fish. These included two-toed sloths, boas, rhinos, ostriches, and guppies in the nearby pond. “We were absolutely amazed by the taxonomic range of the animals that we detected – from mammals to birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. And we were blown away by the number of detections: we detected no less than 6-21 animal species per sample,” she said.

The monitoring surface area could actually be much greater for air eDNA than anyone dared to believe. Both groups detected species that weren’t kept at the zoos but were native to the surrounding area. Although they live outside Hamerton Zoo, the scientists found evidence of the Eurasian hedgehog, a species endangered in the UK. The air samples from Copenhagen Zoo contained DNA belonging to the water vole and red squirrel. They also found DNA from chickens, cows, horses, and fish — which all makes sense since these are common food items for zoo animals.

But these remarkable results required more preparation and due diligence than other eDNA sampling methods. Obviously, air surrounds everything so the researchers had to take special precautions to avoid contaminating their collected filters both on route and inside the lab. This included sampling the air inside the lab itself, whose readings acted as a control.

“We set up a completely new lab dedicated to this project and this for us unknown eDNA sample type. Here we employed very strict guidelines known from ancient DNA workflows and we even sampled the air in the lab to be sure we did not have any contaminating DNA in the air. We also employed different negative controls and importantly positive controls of species not known to be in the zoo or surrounding area. This enabled us to trace whether there was any contamination between samples, simply because we would then see the positive control species appearing in our samples,” Bohmann said.

In the UK, Clare had to also deal with COVID restrictions besides the challenges of working with air samples. But it was all well worth it in the end — luckily the adorable zoo animals lent a helping paw.

“I was the only person allowed at the zoo during most of the collection and I traded off with my student and technician Frances. It was mid-winter and there was some light snow. That was actually really fun. The animals were super excited to have visitors and deeply curious about what we were doing. I had some equipment stolen by a curious tyra. I had lunch watching maned wolves wander around. That was special,” Clare said.

Biodiversity monitoring might never be the same again

Air sampling seems poised to change environmental monitoring and conservation for the better, joining the ranks of tried and tested eDNA methods like aquatic and terrestrial.

“The field of aquatic eDNA biomonitoring was kicked off over a decade ago and since these first proof-of-concept studies, it has grown tremendously. Having demonstrated air as a novel eDNA sample type for vertebrate monitoring is of course something we can do because we stand on the shoulders of all these technological developments and I think that is also what will enable us to adapt this tool to natural environments – and I can’t wait to get started!” Bohmann said.

“On land, we use eDNA from many sources. It’s been collected from soil, honey, snow, rain even from spraying leaves and collecting the runoff water. But we don’t have a real general approach the way the aquatic community does. We really need to look at how that technology has developed to guide the next steps in refining the technique for air. We have the advantage that we can model our approaches after theirs,” Claire said, adding that “the really nice thing is that now that the idea is out there we are seeing this growing fast. There are studies emerging collecting airborne DNA from plants, insects, birds… it’s going to develop quickly and that’s exciting.”

And the groundwork has been laid out not by one but two different research groups independently. How the two research teams thought of the same study at right about the same time is another story in itself.

“I think at first we were both shocked! Our research teams have known each other for a long time, and have collaborated before. It was a total surprise to find out we were both doing the same study. It was more shocking to find we were both doing it the same way at the same time and had even written and submitted papers within a few hours to the same location! I’ve only heard of that happening once before,” Claire said. “We were extremely lucky that Current Biology saw that very significant advantage as well and while the papers were treated independently and fully peer-reviewed like any other, they agreed that both would be on the same timeline. We are extremely excited that they will appear together and at this example of scientific cooperation. More of this needs to happen!”

“I cannot wait for the day where we can meet at a conference over a large beer and celebrate our achievements and talk about the journey we have been on together,” Bohmann added.

References:

  1. ‘Measuring biodiversity from DNA in the air’ Elizabeth L. Clare, Chloe K. Economou, Frances J. Bennett, Caitlin E. Dyer, Katherine Adams, Benjamin McRobie, Rosie Drinkwater, Joanne E. Littlefair Current Biology (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.11.064
  2. ‘Airborne environmental DNA for terrestrial vertebrate community monitoring’ Christina Lynggaard, Mads Frost Bertelsen, Casper V. Jensen, Matthew S. Johnson, Tobias Guldberg Frøslev, Morten Tange Olsen and Kristine Bohmann Current Biology (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.12.014

Illegal wildlife trade is much more damaging than we think

Species are targeted around the globe by illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade, leading to biodiversity loss and extinction. So far, nothing new — but the effects of trade on targeted species are actually the tip of the iceberg, with repercussions that affect ecosystems and society in more ways than we thought, a new study warns.

“Illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade is growing at a global level, pervading our daily lives, and affecting our well-being. It threatens targeted and non-targeted species, promotes the spread of invasive species, the loss of ecosystem services, the spread of diseases across geographic areas and taxa, and disrupts local to global economies,” the researchers wrote.

Image credit: Flickr / Hari K Patibanda.

Implications of trade

The main consequence of trade on species is population depletion, the researchers explain. About 60% of traded birds, mammals, and reptiles show a decline in abundance — they’re being exploited unsustainably. The rarer a species becomes, the higher its price often becomes, creating an increased incentive for wildlife trading.

This comes at a huge cost for the species. FOr instance, increasing market value for fish has had devastating effects on some populations, especially those relying on spawning aggregations, leading to loss of healthy populations. The legal and illegal shark finning has led to a decline in shark species that were previously abundant, while the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) is extensively fished for its swim bladder, considered a delicacy in China.

Bycatch, incidental capture of non-target species, accounts for 80% of marine catches, either dumped or sold illegally. Fishing can have a negative effect on diverse species from mammals to jellyfish. For example, the vaquita, (Phocoena sinus), has seen a decline of 98.6% of its population between 2011 and 2019 due to bycatch in gillnets intended for the totoaba. 

Plants are also not spared — about 15,000 species frequently used and traded as medicinal as now threatened with extinction.

With trade, comes a set of incidental effects on other species within impacted ecosystems, the researchers wrote. Overharvesting of wildlife can disrupt ecosystem structure and species composition, functioning, and services, such as pollination. In marine fisheries, for example, bottom trawling affects species composition, most non-targeted. This means that exploiting one species can have cascading effects across the ecosystem.

“Wildlife trade can also impact the area where traded species are introduced. Invasive species cost up to an estimated US$162.7 billion per year,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Wildlife trade-facilitated invasions include snakes introduced in Florida, trout species around the globe, and pine trees in many austral countries.”

Not only does illegal trade have ecological consequences, but it’s also negative for societies as it weakens the rule of law. People engage in wildlife crime for many reasons, from profit and sports to social and cultural reasons. Despite the impacts, some governments still see illegal trade as just a conservation problem, and not as a truly criminal activity. 

Meanwhile, some local communities rely at least in part on wildlife trade for subsistence, either as a food source or for income. In China, for example, wildlife farming is valued at US$8 billion and helps to alleviate poverty. Hunting is also a significant food source in many countries. Nevertheless, wildlife trade as an economic activity is still unreliable, the researchers argued. 

Global legal trade generated annual revenue of US$2.9 to US$4.4 trillion from 1997 to 2016. Meanwhile, the revenue estimates for illegal wildlife trade widely vary from US$4 to US$23 billion up to US$48 to US$216 billion if illegal logging and fishing are included. Governments lose up to US$12 billion annually in potential revenues from illegal wildlife trade. 

The researchers highlighted a set of approaches and tools available to curb the illegal trade, including setting up bans, protected areas, and quotas as well as creating. awareness and education programs. Adam Toomes from the University of Adelaide, a study co-author, called for policy and enforcement that considers the livelihoods and communities that depend on trade. 

“Trade regulations that do not take this into consideration could increase vulnerability and poverty in certain areas that depend on it for food and income,” Toomes said. “With large differences in legislation, cultural drivers of trade and availability of species, there is no one-size fits all strategy. Each unique context warrants a variety of disciplines and actors dedicated to ensuring trade occurs sustainably.”

The study was published in the journal Biological Conservation. 

Indigenous and local communities are key for nature conservation

Effective and long-term conservation of biodiversity can benefit greatly from empowering and supporting indigenous and local communities around the world, a new study has found. Researchers reviewed the outcomes of 169 conservation projects and found that more than half were successful when local communities were involved in the process. 

Image credit: Flickr / CIFOR.

While discussions over what proportion of the land marine environment should be protected are quite common, we don’t talk about how nature should be conserved and by whom nearly enough. This undermines important debates on how biodiversity conservation should be done, by whom and with what outcomes. In other words, we’re only talking about one aspect of nature conservation, and leaving the others in the background — that’s not good.

With this in mind, a group of 17 researchers from diverse universities decided to explore how governance, the role that decision making plays in conservation efforts, can affect biodiversity and the well-being of indigenous communities. To do so, they reviewed 169 publications that referred to conservation projects around the world. Turns out, involving local communities offers a great boon to most conservation projects.

To the researchers’ surprise, 56% of the studies mentioned positive outcomes for both communities and for nature when a local control is implemented. Meanwhile, when projects were externally managed, only 16% referred to positive outcomes. More than a third of cases also had conservation problems due to conflicts with communities.

“It is time to focus on who conserves nature and how, instead of what percentage of the Earth to fence off,” Neil Dawson, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Conservation led by indigenous peoples and local communities, based on their own knowledge and tenure systems, is far more likely to deliver positive outcomes for nature.”

Conservation efforts

After the blessing of a water spring, a mother with a child returns home in Guangaje, Ecuador. Image credits: Azzedine Rouichi.

Locally-controlled conservation produces better outcomes because it fosters active and collective stewardship of the environment, the researchers said. Such approaches can establish a shared vision for the landscape communities inhabit and mobilize people to preserve, restore and defend it while adapting to any threats or changes.

But it’s not that simple. Local institutions can also be as complex as the ecosystems they govern. Just giving control of the land to the communities doesn’t automatically guarantee conservation success. There has to be social inclusion, effective leadership, shared knowledge and community cohesion too. The key is a mixture between the locals and external support and knowledge.

Conservation organizations and governments are usually the ones behind most conservation projects around the world but they tend to exclude or control local communities, the authors argue. This ends up creating a level of resistance from the people on the ground, who feel excluded from what’s going on in their own communities.

That’s why it’s highly advisable for indigenous leaders to be part of conservation efforts, with support from outside such as policies that recognize their knowledge systems and values, the study concluded. Approaches that affirm local rights are most likely to be successful in the long-term, while exclusive ones are no longer justifiable. 

“Conservation strategies need to change, to recognize that the most important factor in achieving positive conservation outcomes is not the level of restrictions or magnitude of benefits provided to local communities, but rather recognising local cultural practices and decision-making. It is imperative to shift now towards an era of conservation through stewardship,” Dawson said.

The policy message is then to transition to more equitable and effective conservation. The currently ongoing biodiversity negotiations, with an upcoming meeting later this year, have to ensure that the role of indigenous communities in biodiversity conservation is recognized. If not, ecological decline and social harms are set to continue, the authors said. 

The study was published in the journal of Ecology and Society. 

Spending 0.1% of global GDP would avoid a collapse of ecosystems, UN says

Tackling the interlinked climate, biodiversity, and land degradation crises requires the world to quadruple its annual investment in nature conservation, according to a UN report. This would mean spending 0.1% of the global GDP every year to restore forests, manage pollution, and protect natural areas and ecosystem services. 

The State of Finance for Nature report, produced by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative (ELD), found that a total investment of $8.1 trillion was required between now and 2050 to maintain the natural habitants that are vital to human civilization.

The authors urged governments, financial institutions and businesses to overcome the investment gap by putting nature at the center of economic decision-making. They stressed the need to accelerate capital flows to nature-based solutions, making nature central to public and private sector decision-making related to societal challenges.

Spend money to make money

The report comes after the warning of scientists in January that the planet is facing a “ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals” that threaten human survival because of ignorance and inaction. People still haven’t grasped the urgency of the biodiversity and climate crises, the 17 experts warned. 

“Biodiversity loss is already costing the global economy 10% of its output each year. If we do not sufficiently finance nature-based solutions, we will impact the capacities of countries to make progress on other vital areas such as education, health and employment,” UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said in a press statement. 

The authors found that annual investments in nature-based solutions will have to triple by 2030 and increase four-fold by 2050 from the current investments into nature-based solutions of USD 133 billion. Nearly two-thirds of that is spent on forest and peatland restoration, regenerative agriculture and pollution-control systems.

Structural transformations are needed to bridge this financing gap, which may involve repurposing the billions of dollars that are now allocated every year for damaging agricultural and fossil fuels subsidies. Nature only accounts for 2.5% of projected economic stimulus spending in the wake of Covid-19, the UN estimated. 

The UN called for a steep increase in annual investment of the private sector in nature-based solutions and to couple investments in restoration action with financing conservation measures. This could result in forest and agro-forestry (combination of food production and tree growing) area increases of 300 million hectares by 2050. 

“The dependency of global GDP on nature is abstract but what we really mean are livelihoods, jobs, people’s ability to feed themselves, and water security,” Teresa Hartmann, the WEF lead on climate and nature, told The Guardian. “If we don’t do this, there will be irreversible damages to biodiversity that we can no longer fix.”

The upcoming summits on climate, biodiversity, land degradation and food system later this year could provide an opportunity to harness political and business momentum to act on biodiversity, climate and land degradation, the UN said. A new global framework for biodiversity is expected as well as more ambitious climate pledges.

Biodiversity loss, fueled by human activity, could take millions of years to recover

Biodiversity loss is one of the most concerning issues facing us today. The rate at which species are going extinct is comparable to — and sometimes higher than — the rates seen during mass extinction events of the past. A new paper analyzing this issue in the context of freshwater ecosystems reports that it would take millions of years to undo the damage caused by human activity.

Image via Pixabay.

We are going through a period of incredibly high biodiversity loss rates, so much so that our modern times are often called the 6th mass extinction. A large part of the problem, like it or not, is human activity. We’re simply so successful as a species, taking up so much space and resources, that other forms of life are struggling to fit into the world today. Habitat destruction, climate change, overexploitation of natural resources, pollution, and invasive species are some of the leading causes of extinction right now.

A new study looking at extinction rates in freshwater ecosystems explains that species are disappearing faster today than they did during the end-Cretaceous extinction, the one that killed the dinosaurs. The damage we’re witnessing would take millions of years to undo, they add.

No room to share

“Losing species entails changes in species communities and, in the long run, this affects entire ecosystems. We rely on functioning freshwater environments to sustain human health, nutrition, and freshwater supply,” says lead author of the study, Dr. Thomas A. Neubauer from the Justus Liebig University Giessen.

“Even if our impact on the world’s biota stops today, the extinction rate will likely stay high for an extended period of time. Considering that the current biodiversity crisis advances much faster than the mass extinction event 66 million years ago, the recovery period may be even longer. Despite our short existence on Earth, we have assured that the effects of our actions will outlast us by millions of years.”

For the study, the team — an international group of evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, geologists, and modelers — compared today’s crisis with the previous, 5th mass extinction event, which was produced by the impact of the dinosaur-killing asteroid 66 million years ago. That event wiped out an estimated 76% of all species on the planet, including whole groups, such as the dinosaurs.

The authors focused their study on freshwater species, which are among the most threatened in the world. A large dataset was put together, containing 3,387 fossil and living snail species of Europe from the past 200 million years. Based on this, they estimated the rates of speciation (new species evolving) and extinction (species disappearing) over the 200 million year span, and proceeded to compare these to the rates seen today.

One of the most interesting findings is that the extinction rates estimated for the 5th mass extinction were much higher for freshwater biota than previously assumed. What’s worse, however, is that even this higher estimated rate is dwarfed by what the team believes we’ll be seeing in the future. On average, they estimate that the future rates of extinction will be three orders of magnitude higher than those observed during the time the dinosaurs went extinct. Such a pace is completely unprecedented and wasn’t reached even during the most intense extinction crises of the past.

By 2120, they add, a third of freshwater species living today will have died off.

One final and worrying implication of the research is how long nature seems to need in order to heal itself. Although the 5th extinction crisis was caused by an asteroid impact — a blink of the eye in geological terms — extinction rates remained elevated for around 5 million years and the Earth took around 12 million years to go back to normal extinction rates.

Such an extremely long timeline suggests that today’s extinction crisis could have immense consequences for wildlife in the future, taking millions of years to fix.

The paper “Current extinction rate in European freshwater gastropods greatly exceeds that of the late Cretaceous mass extinction” has been published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.

It will take millions of years for biodiversity to recover from the crisis we caused

Scientists say it will take millions of years to undo the damage humanity is currently causing on the world’s biodiversity, described as a 6th mass extinction. A new study found that the rate of biodiversity decline in freshwater ecosystems outcompetes that during the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event, which wiped out the dinosaurs.

Image credit: Flickr / UN

Biodiversity in freshwater ecosystems is disproportionally high. Although they cover only 1% of the Earth’s surface, these ecosystems account for about 10% of the global species richness. But these environments are currently experiencing a massive deterioration, with an alarming decline in regional species richness and individual abundance.

This biodiversity crisis is widely considered the onset of a major extinction event, the so-called 6th mass extinction. It resembles in several aspects the 5th mass extinction at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary 66 million years ago, caused by an asteroid impact. Globally 76% of all species are estimated to have gone extinct back then.

An international group of evolutionary biologists, paleontologists and geologists compared the previous crisis to the current one, driven by human activities and greenhouse gas emissions. Focusing on freshwater biota, they gathered a dataset with 3,387 fossil and living snail species of Europe covering the past 200 million years.

The scientists estimated rates of speciation and extinction to assess the rate at which species come and go, as well as to predict recovery times.

The results of the study are alarming. While the extinction rate during the 5th mass extinction was higher for freshwater ecosystems compared to other ancient ecosystems, it’s overshadowed by the predicted future extinction rates.

The researchers found that the predicted rate of the 6th mass extinction was three orders of magnitudes higher than during the time the dinosaurs went extinct. By 2120, a third of the living freshwater species may vanish from the planet. We are losing species at an unprecedented rate that hasn’t been reached any time in the past.

“Losing species entails changes in species communities and, in the long run, this affects entire ecosystems. We rely on functioning freshwater environments to sustain human health, nutrition and fresh water supply”, Dr. Thomas A. Neubauer, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. 

Despite the 5th mass extinction was a short event in geological time scales, the extinction rate remained high for approximately five million years. Afterwards followed an even longer period of recovery of 12 million years. The researchers think that’s how much time we need now, even if the impact on the world’s biota stops today. 

Neubauer said that the effects of the biodiversity crisis will continue for an “extended period of time.” It’s all happening much faster than in previous extinction events and it will require a longer recovery period. “Despite our short existence on Earth, we have assured that the effects of our actions will outlast us by millions of years,” he added. 

Meanwhile, action to stop the biodiversity crisis is so far lacking. A UN report showed last year that world leaders have failed to meet a set of important biodiversity goals known as the Aichi targets – the equivalent to the Paris Agreement on climate change. New targets are currently being negotiated and should be agreed upon later this year. 

The study was published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. 

Only 2-3% of Earth’s land is ecologically intact, study finds

While wilderness areas are increasingly recognized as important for biodiversity conservation, few areas of the world remain with outstanding ecological integrity. A new study found that only 2.8% of the world’s land surface remains ecologically intact, meaning it still has an undisturbed habitat and populations of all of its original animals.

Image credit: Flickr / Hanming

Wilderness areas were identified as important priorities over 30 years ago, but more recently there have been attempts to be more explicit about what is being measured when referring to wilderness, with a focus on quantifying intact habitat. Previous studies have estimated that 20-40% of Earth’s surface is under low human influence.

Nevertheless, the researchers behind this new study argued that while forests, savannah, and tundra can appear intact from satellite observations, vital species are actually missing on the ground. Elephants, for example, spread seeds and create important clearings in forests, while wolves can control populations of deer and elk.

“Much of what we consider as intact habitat is missing species that have been hunted [and poached] by people, or lost because of invasive species or disease,” Andrew Plumptre, the lead author of the study, told The Guardian. “It’s fairly scary, because it shows how unique places like the Serengeti, which actually have functioning and fully intact ecosystems, are.”

Instead of focusing on human impact, the researchers made a review of the Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) Criterion for C sites. These state that, in order to be considered as being an intact ecological community, an area must have the full complement of species known to occur in a particular site in their natural abundances, relative to a regionally appropriate benchmark. 

The authors chose the year 1500 as a benchmark, as this is the baseline date for assessing species extinctions within the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They assessed habitat intactness, faunal intactness (areas without any loss of biodiversity), and functional intactness (no loss of animal densities below a level that would affect the healthy functioning of an ecosystem).

Applying these three measures of intactness reduced the number of sites that might qualify under KBA Criterion C. Only between 2% and 3% of Earth’s terrestrial surface qualifies if Criterion C is defined as sites that are functionally intact, 10 times lower than previously estimated. Worryingly, only 11% of the analyzed sites are covered by protected areas. 

Many of the identified areas coincide with territories managed by indigenous communities, who play a crucial role in maintaining them. Areas identified as functionally intact included east Siberia and northern Canada for boreal and tundra biomes, parts of the Amazon and Congo basin tropical forests, and the Sahara Desert, according to the authors.

However, it’s not all bad news. Up to 20% of the planet’s land surface could be restored to faunal intactness through reintroductions of a few species into remaining intact habitats, the researchers found. Identifying areas under KBA Criterion C can also help focus attention on these sites for conservation and restoration.

“It has been shown that intact habitat has important benefits for both wildlife and people and as a result needs to be a critical target. Recognition of these special places within intact habitat, where you have full functional intactness, is needed and plans to focus restoration in areas where ecological integrity might be recovered,” said Plumptre in a statement. 

As well as a climate crisis, the world is also facing a biodiversity crisis, with many wildlife species, from lions to insects, struggling because of the destruction of their habitat for farming. Researchers have argued that a sixth mass extinction of life on Earth is beginning, with serious consequences for our sources of food, clean water, and fresh air.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers. 

Shade from solar panels makes for more and more diverse flowers

Solar panels make for very good real estate — if you’re a flower. A new paper reports that the partial shade these panels generate can increase the abundance of flowers and create a delay in their blooming time, which could help improve our agricultural output. The authors explain that extending bloom times is important for pollinators, as it provides them food later in the season.

Image credits Berkan Küçükgül.

New research at the Oregon State University could have important implications for managers of land under solar panels, farmers, and those concerned with the plight of pollinators such as bees. According to the findings, these devices do impact the plants living in their shade, but that’s not to say they have a negative impact. In fact, the shady areas beneath solar panels increase flower density.

Shady places

“The understudy of solar panels is typically managed to limit the growth of plants,” said Maggie Graham, a faculty research assistant at Oregon State and lead author of the paper. “My thought coming into this research was can we flip that? Why not plant under solar arrays with something beneficial to the surrounding ecosystem, like flowers that attract pollinators? Would insects even use it? This study demonstrates that the answer is yes.”

The team says their study is the first to look at how solar panels impact flowering plants and insects. The findings come just after some states, including Minnesota, North Carolina, Maryland, Vermont, and Virginia, have implemented statewide guidelines and incentives meant to support pollinator-focused solar installations.

Pollinators are an essential lynchpin of virtually every ecosystem on Earth. They’re directly involved in the reproduction of 75% of flowering plant species and 35% of crop species globally, and their services are valued at an estimated 14 billion USD annually. Which is a lot!

That being said, they’re also struggling. One of the most pressing issues they’re facing is a global decline in habitat due to urbanization, agriculture, and other types of land use. Climate change is also having a negative impact on these insects and further impacting their available habitat.

But solar panels — of which there are increasing numbers in the US — could help. Agrivoltaics is the approach of installing solar energy production on agricultural land, such as cropfields or grazing areas. The authors have previously studied agrivoltaics and its potential, finding that it could provide 20% of total electricity generation in the United States with an investment of less than 1% of the annual U.S. budget. It would also slash around 330,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, create jobs, and have a minimal impact on crop yields.

Those findings spurred the current research. The team wanted to better understand how these panels impact plant life around them, so they collected data on pollinators and plant populations in the US from seven, two-day sampling events from June through September 2019. These samplings corresponded with the post-peak bloom times for flowers. The collected data pertained to 48 species of plants and 65 different insect species. The study sites were broken into three categories: full shade plots under solar panels, partial shade plots under solar panels, and full sun plots (not under panels).

Among the most important findings, the team reports that flowers were most abundant in partial shade, where 4% more blooms were found compared to full sun and full shade plots — but there was no difference in the number of (flower) species between the plots. Plots with partial shade had 3% more pollinating insects on average than full-shade or full-sun plots. Partial-shade plots had more insects, and more insect diversity, than full-sun or full-shade spots. Finally, the team didn’t find any difference in the number of insects per flower among the plots.


“Unused or underutilized lands below solar panels represent an opportunity to augment the expected decline of pollinator habitat,” Graham said. “Near agricultural lands, this also has the potential to benefit the surrounding agricultural community and presents an avenue for future study.”

“Solar developers, policymakers, agricultural communities and pollinator health advocates looking to maximize land-use efficiency, biodiversity and pollination services might want to consider pollinator habitat at solar photovoltaic sites as an option.”

The paper “Partial shading by solar panels delays bloom, increases floral abundance during the late-season for pollinators in a dryland, agrivoltaic ecosystem” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Want to avoid new pandemics? Preserving biodiversity is step one, research argues

A growing body of evidence is already showing that preventing new pandemics like COVID-19 will require addressing biodiversity loss from human activities such as deforestation and agriculture. Now, a new study has synthesized the current understanding of how biodiversity affects human health and why it’s so important to preserve and protect it. 

Image credit: Flickr / Ali Rajabali.

Felicia Keesing, a Bard College professor and lead author of the paper, says it’s a myth that wild areas with high levels of biodiversity represent hotspots for diseases. The more animal diversity, the more pathogens — the myth goes. But this is plain wrong, Keesing says. Biodiversity itself isn’t a threat, quite the contrary: it protects us from the species that carry pathogens. 

Zoonotic diseases such as Ebola, SARS, and COVID-19 are caused by pathogens that jump to humans from other species. A pathogen might travel from one host to another in droplets or aerosols from coughs or sneezes; through bodily fluids; through fecal material; or by being transferred during the bite of a vector. It’s never easy to figure out how the next virus may jump.

Cross-species transmission results from a complex interplay between the characteristics of the pathogen, the original host’s infection, behavior, and ecology, how the pathogen is shed into and survives in the environment, how humans are exposed to the pathogen, and how susceptible those humans are to infection. So it’s not that more species directly means more risk — it’s more about how we interact with those species, and how they interact with each other.

Natural biodiversity (and its loss) can affect this pathway at multiple points, potentially affecting the probability that a new pathogen will become established in humans. But do diverse communities of host species serve as sources for new pathogens? Recent research seems to suggest that’s not the case.

“Research is mounting that species that thrive in developed and degraded landscapes are often much more efficient at harboring pathogens and transmitting them to people. In less-disturbed landscapes with more animal diversity, these risky reservoirs are less abundant and biodiversity has a protective effect,” Rick Ostfeld, co-author of the paper, said in a statement.

The researchers argued that innate biodiversity can reduce the risk of infectious diseases through a dilution effect, in which species in diverse communities dilute the impact of host species that thrive when diversity declines. This happens when the transmission of a pathogen increases as diversity declines, as has been demonstrated for a number of disease systems.

Despite abundant evidence for the dilution effect, the more general idea that biodiversity can reduce human disease risk has been controversial, in large part because biodiversity was thought to be a source of new zoonotic pathogens via spillover. This is why we need to reconcile the effects of biodiversity on the emergence and ongoing transmission, Ostfeld and Keesing said.

Human impacts like land-use change have been linked to emerging infectious diseases of humans in many studies. When this happens, long-lived and larger-bodied species tend to disappear first, while smaller-bodied species with fast life histories tend to proliferate. Bats, primates and rodents have been highlighted as the ones more likely to transmit pathogens to humans. 

“When we erode biodiversity, we favor species that are more likely to be zoonotic hosts, increasing our risk of spillover events,” Ostfeld said. “Managing this risk will require a better understanding of how things like habitat conversion, climate change, and overharvesting affect zoonotic hosts, and how restoring biodiversity to degraded areas might reduce their abundance.”

The researchers argued we debating the importance of one taxonomic group or another and instead focus on the host attributes linked with diseases transmissions. Getting a better understanding of the features of effective zoonotic hosts such as their habitat preferences and resilience to disturbance will be essential to protect public health, they argued. 

The study was published in the journal PNAS. 

Climate change is turning the Eastern Mediterranean into a completely new ecosystem

As global warming intensifies, the Mediterranean are feeling the heat. Some mollusk populations in the eastern areas of the sea are buckling the waters they call home have become too hot to survive in, new research shows.

Image via Pixabay.

The waters around the coast of Israel are some of the hottest in the whole Mediterranean. But they’re rapidly becoming even hotter, as average temperatures have risen here by 3° Celsius over the last four decades. Today, water temperatures here regularly exceed 30°C (86°F) which, alongside invasive species coming through the Suez Canal from the Red Sea, are putting local mollusk populations under a lot of pressure.

Wipe-out

“My expectation was to find a Mediterranean ecosystem with these ‘newcomers’,” said Paolo Albano from the University of Vienna’s Department of Paleontology, lead author of the paper, for the AFP.

“However, after the first dive, I immediately realised that the problem was another one: the lack of the native Mediterranean species, even the most common ones that you would find everywhere in the Mediterranean.”

Albano initially set out to study the differences between native and non-native populations along the Israeli shelf in the eastern Mediterranean but was stuck by the dearth of local species in the area.

The team gathered over 100 samples from the seafloor, using these to gauge the characteristics of local mollusc populations, such as which species were present, their numbers, and so forth. These were then compared to historical data on the same topic. Only around 12% of the shallow-sediment molluscs noted in the historical records were still present today, the paper reports. In rocky reef environments, that figure dropped as low as 5%.

Furthermore, the researchers estimate that 60% of the remaining local mollusc populations are below their reproductive size, meaning they’re shrinking over time.

Albano says that there are many factors contributing to this collapse, most notably pollution and the pressures from invasive species. But warming waters are playing the main part in driving local mollusk populations into the ground.

“Tolerance to temperature is what really matters here and most of the native Mediterranean species are in the easternmost Mediterranean Sea at the limits of their tolerance to temperature,” said Albano.

Populations of invasive species, however, are thriving in the area. In effect, these changes are setting the stage for a “novel ecosystem“, the team explains, as species moving in from the Red Sea stand poised to effectively replace local ones. Albano says the Eastern Mediterranean is “paradigmatic of what is happening in marine ecosystems due to global warming: species respond to warming by shifting their ranges and in some areas, this means local eradication of species.”

The paper “Native biodiversity collapse in the eastern Mediterranean” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Better make room: Man-made stuff now outweighs all other living things on Earth

Since the Industrial Revolution kicked off, we’ve built a lot of stuff. That’s just part of humanity most would probably say, from roads and homes to all sorts of vehicles, we need things. But we may have gone a bit over the lin here.

According to a new study, human-made objects now weigh about as much as all of the living beings on Earth and could even exceed it this year.

Image credit: Flickr / Alexandre Macedo

Humanity has gradually become a dominant force in shaping the face of Earth. Its impacts have been so abrupt and considerable that it has been proposed that the current geological epoch, the Holocene, be renamed the Anthropocene. The word comes from the Greek words Anthropos, for “man,” and cene for “new” — so we’ve basically ushered in a new geologic age through our actions.

This led researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science to wonder how much material human activities have output, and how this compares to the overall natural biomass. They had already published an estimate of the amount of biomass on Earth and now decided to take it a step further, looking at artificial objects and comparing it with natural mass.

“The study provides a symbolic and mass-based quantitative characterization of the Anthropocene,'” two of the study’s authors, Emily Elhacham and Ron Milo, told Scientific American. “Given the empirical evidence on the accumulated mass of human artifacts, we can no longer deny our central role in the natural world.”

For the study, the researchers divided all the human-made objects into six main categories: concrete, aggregates (including materials like gravel), bricks, asphalt, metals, and “other” materials, which includes plastic, wood used for construction, paper, and glass. They didn’t consider waste in their calculations, which means the total man-made mass is already even higher than the researchers’ calculation.

They found that all the man-made objects weigh in at approximately 1.1 trillion metric tons. This is equal to the combined dry weight of all plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, archaea, and protists on the planet.

For this comparison scale, mankind works on both ends: it’s not just the construction of man-made objects, but also the destruction of natural landscapes. Since the first agricultural revolution, humanity has roughly halved the mass of plants, from approximately two teratons down to the current value of approximately 1.1 teratons. The total mass of domesticated crops is vastly outweighed by the loss of plant mass resulting from deforestation and other land-use change — obviously, a healthy forest with tall trees heavily outweighs the same size covered by wheat or other agricultural plants.

This is also not the end of it. The year 2020 could be when human-made mass surpasses the overall weight of biomass, the researchers estimate. Human-made mass is produced at a rate of 30 gigatons per year. This means materials outweighing the bodyweight of every person on the planet are being produced each week.

“The impacts of human activities have been so abrupt and considerable that it has been proposed that the current geological epoch be renamed the Anthropocene. Our study rigorously and quantitatively substantiates this proposal. In parallel, it adds another dimension to this discussion—a symbolic quantitative demarcation of the transition to our epoch,” the researchers wrote.

Despite the scientists describe the finding as symbolic, they argue the milepost provides humanity with a chance to review how we got here and what the future looks like. It’s a strong message to everyone and brings attention to how modern societies can grow sustainably in the upcoming future.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Lenders are ‘bankrolling extinction’: businesses linked to biodiversity destruction took $2.6 trillion in loans last year

The world’s largest banks invested more than $2.6 trillion last year in sectors which are the primary drivers of biodiversity destruction, according to a new report. The financial sector is bankrolling the mass extinction crisis, while undermining human rights and indigenous sovereignty, the authors argued.

Credit Flickr Lauria Jacques

The report ranked 50 lenders involved in sectors that pose the greatest threat to wildlife, including Wall Street giants such as Bank of America, Citigroup, and JP Morgan Chase. They are providing services to sectors driving biodiversity loss worth more than the GDP of Canada in 2019.

“Imagine a world in which projects can only raise capital when they have demonstrated that they will contribute meaningfully and positively to restoring the planet’s bounty and a safe climate for all. That’s the future this report envisions and builds towards,” Kai Chan, an environmental scientist, told Reuters.

None of the banks assessed have put sufficient systems in place to monitor or measure the impact of their loans on biodiversity loss, nor do they have comprehensive policies to halt it, the findings showed. To revert this, banks should disclose and reduce their impact on nature instead of financing activities such as fossil fuel extraction.

The Bankrolling Extinction report was penned out by portfolio.earth, a new initiative led by finance, economics, and environmental experts to better understand the role of the finance industry in the destruction of the natural world. They aim to amplify the “incredible pressure” mounting upon the finance industry.

In the report, experts matched the sectors identified by the United Nations as the main drivers of biodiversity with the financial services provided by investment banks. They identified $2.6 trillion of loans and underwriting services as being linked to mass extinctions and the collapse of life-sustaining ecosystems.

Some of the sectors include infrastructure, tourism, logistics, transportation, food, forestry, mining, and fossil fuels. They were all identified as drivers of biodiversity loss by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the United Nations’ scientific body on nature.

On average, each of the 50 banks included in the research were linked to finance with biodiversity risk to the tune of $52 billion each. This ranges from more than $210 billion for the largest investor to $1.3 billion for the smallest. The top three of the 10 banks with the largest exposure to biodiversity risks were headquartered in the US.

“Bank by bank, the report authors found a cavalier ignorance of – or indifference to – the implications, with the vast majority unaware of their biodiversity impacts, or associated balance sheet risks,” Robert Watson, former chair of IPBES, told The Guardian. “In short, this report is a frightening statement of the status quo.”

The report called on banks to improve disclosures and reform how they assess possible environmental damage their services might support. Governments need to stop protecting banks’ role in biodiversity destruction and rewrite the rules of finance to hold banks liable for the damage caused by their lending, its authors wrote.

Following the Paris Agreement on climate change, a growing number of investment banks have set restrictions on activities such as coal, Arctic oil and gas exploitation, and tar sands extraction, following pressure by environmental groups.

Bank of America and Citigroup declined to comment on the report, referring to existing sustainability pledges. BNP Paribas said the authors had not contacted it or shared their methodology, so it could not comment. HSBC pointed out that it had teamed up in August with climate change advisory firm Pollination Group.

Countries are failing to protect nature in their COVID-19 recovery plans

While many scientists and politicians have been making a case for a sustainable COVID-19 recovery, there has been much less attention on how to include biodiversity in such transitions, according to a new study. The findings come from a paper that explored what changes would be needed to shift away from activities that harm ecosystems.

Credit Flickr Laura Supalla GilChrist

A group of economists, anthropologists, and environmental scientists from three continents argued that concrete policies to promote better management of biodiversity haven’t been prioritized in most economic recovery packages that countries around the world are proposing after the pandemic. When they do include the environment, they mainly focus on climate.

Only a few countries have identified nature-based investments or policies in their stimulus proposals, and even there, they generally receive well under 10% of total funding. A number of countries, the US and China among them, have allocated essentially zero stimulus funds to biodiversity or ecosystem management.

“We still see huge amounts of financial support for harmful practices, such as subsidizing overfishing or fossil fuel production or building infrastructure that will harm ecological integrity. Only a small number of countries are addressing the biodiversity crisis in the serious manner it deserves,” said Pamela McElwee, co-author.

Still, there are a number of steps and policies that would aid economic reconstruction while at the same time addressing many of the root causes of biodiversity loss and the source of zoonotic diseases. With that in mind, the researchers suggest several ways of transforming economies to reduce pressures on natural systems.

  • Shift from harmful subsidies to beneficial ones:
    In an era of rising fiscal red ink, environmentally-harmful subsidies make neither economic nor ecological sense. Governments spend millions subsidizing fossil fuels, agriculture, and fishing. The amount of money put towards preserving biodiversity is outweighed by harmful subsidies by a factor of ten. The team suggests that pre-existing positive subsidies (that support biodiversity) could be improved and expanded upon. These include support to farmers who conserve and foster ecosystem health on their lands, for example.
  • Expand new taxation policies for environmental harms:
    Environmental policy has a long history of applying taxes to reduce pollution and increase resource use efficiency. However, very few direct or indirect taxes have been designed specifically to preserve biodiversity. A wide range of ecosystem-related taxes could be increased and expanded such as taxes applied to resource extraction and pesticide use.
  • Guide recovery to support biodiversity and do no harm:
    In the short term, as the private sector seeks grants and loans to shore up payrolls and ensure longer-term viability, governments can seek to prioritize support for those businesses that do not harm biodiversity. In 2009, former President Obama conditioned a bailed out of the automotive sector on increased fuel economy standards. Similar conditions could be required for businesses receiving COVID-19 bailout funds, including having biodiversity risk mitigation plans.
  • Fund ecosystem-focused work programs and income support:
    In the immediate aftermath of the economic crisis, government-supported work programs can be essential in reducing widespread unemployment. Conservation jobs, in particular, can be scaled up rapidly. Jobs in ecological restoration and green infrastructure could be a source of both employment and ecological benefits.
  • Rethink production and supply chain models:
    Shorter and more localized supply chains are likely to be inevitable in a post-COVID-19 world. Many already saw the systemic risks inherent in tightly connected yet fragile supply chains and the overreliance of businesses on ecosystem services. There’s a need to be proactive in maximizing positive ecological impacts and minimizing negative welfare impacts of supply-chain changes.
  • Rethink ways to reduce excess consumption:
    Consumption is a major driver of unsustainable production. That’s why researchers suggested improving standards, systems, and relevant regulations aimed at internalizing the external costs of production, extraction, and consumption. The pandemic may accelerate trends towards reduced consumption, given massively reduced travel and rethinking of what counts as a good quality of life. However, many immediate stimulus measures that have been proposed focus on increased consumption.
  • Shift fiscal policies to reflect environmental values:
    Currently, governments have a great deal of concern about how they will balance budgets and manage long-term fiscal stressors. In light of these challenges, ensuring that state fiscal policies continue to reflect environmental values is important, and financing can help subnational areas balance their budgets. Ecological fiscal transfers, for example, are a policy instrument used to redistribute tax revenues among public actors based on ecological or conservation-related indicators.
  • Incentivize the financial sector on nature-related risks:
    For the financial sector, including banks, wealth and pension funds, private equity, insurance companies, and others, a mix of regulations and incentives can encourage investments in industries and technologies that reduce pressures on nature. The FIRE sector (finance, insurance, and real estate) is increasingly implicated in biodiversity loss.
  • Ensure continued international conservation funding:
    Although governments will be financially strapped for the foreseeable future, there will still be a need to support global funding for conservation and sustainable development initiatives, both in the immediate short- and long-term. Currently, most countries spend only a fraction (less than 1%) of their GDP on biodiversity-related activities.
  • Address inequality in sustainable recoveries:
    Economic inequality is problematic on its own, but it also generates poorer environmental outcomes. Income inequality is associated with excessive consumption and higher carbon emissions among richer classes and more unequal countries also tend to have higher rates of biodiversity loss.

For the researchers, we now have a unique opportunity to seize the moment and consider the economy we want and need for a sustainable, just, and equitable future in a post-pandemic world. Societies now have to decide if they try to get back on the previous development path, or define a new one.

The study was published in the journal One Earth.

Maple species face a growing threat of extinction

More than one in five species of maple trees, known for the vivid colors on their autumn leaves, are at high risk of extinction. A new report calls for more conservation measures and the inclusion of maple species in botanic gardens and seed banks.

Credit Stanley Zimny Flickr

Maples are a very well known, diverse, and versatile group of trees and shrubs. They draw millions of visitors each year to the natural maple woods in North America and East Asia but also to gardens and arboreta worldwide. Maples range across the northern hemisphere from North America to Japan and are especially diverse in China.

The “red list” for maples, published by the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, showed that 36 out of the 158 known species, some 23%, are at high risk of extinction in the near future in the wild. They are facing pressure from a loss of habitat due to urban development and increased agriculture, while also buckling under climate change and forest fires.

“Maples are some of our most familiar trees, particularly in autumn when they give us those wonderful displays of yellow, orange, red and purple colours,” conservation manager Dan Crowley told BBC News. “And whilst they are common in some of our open spaces, spaces where they are highly valued, several species are also highly threatened in the wild.”

The report, part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species, contributes to a global tree assessment and analyzes the status of all known maple species. It showed there are seven species critically endangered, the highest level of risk, while 14 are endangered and 15 are vulnerable to extinction.

Two of the closest relatives to the North American sugar maple, which produces maple syrup, are listed as critically endangered. That includes a maple from Mexico recently discovered as a new species and at risk from climate change. China holds the largest proportion of maple species, many of which are endangered, the report showed.

While the situation doesn’t look favorable, the report has some suggestions on how to move forward in protecting maple trees. Conserving at-risk species in their natural habitat is the best option, as is expanding collections in botanic gardens and seed banks. There are currently 14 species absent from these collections, four of which are endangered.

“We still have an opportunity to save species from extinction, but it will take expertise and resources, and the coordinated, collaborative efforts by the world’s botanical gardens to make it work,” said Douglas Justice, associate director at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, Vancouver, in a statement.

The world didn’t meet one single biodiversity target set out a decade ago

World leaders have failed to meet a set of important biodiversity goals, meaning ecosystems are still experiencing severe difficulties as a consequence, according to a United Nations report. In fact, not one single biodiversity target has been met ten years after they were proposed. Still, it’s not too late to act, with the UN calling for urgent action and to make major changes before the collapse of the natural world becomes inevitable.

Flickr UNDP

The Global Biodiversity Outlook, published by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CDB), showed the progress the world has made in meeting the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets, which were set 10 years ago with a deadline to meet them by 2020. They are the equivalent to the Paris Agreement on climate change but on biodiversity.

We have now reached the deadline and the world has collectively failed to fully achieve a single goal. If we keep following the same path amid the climate crisis, biodiversity will continue to deteriorate, driven by “unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, population growth and technological developments,” the report said.

The 20 targets are further divided into 60 elements, of which 13 had no progress or moved in the opposite direction. Habitat loss and degradation are still very high, especially in forests and tropical regions. Wetlands are declining and rivers are fragmenting, which represents a threat to freshwater diversity. Pollution is still extensive, with plastic all over the oceans.

But that’s not it. We have entered into the sixth mass extinction, with wildlife populations dropping more than two thirds since 1970 and continuing to decline in the past decade, according to the report. Meanwhile, governments are falling short on the funding to protect biodiversity, spending globally between $78 and $91 billion a year, below the hundreds of billions that are actually needed.

David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity for the UN, said governments have earned a C or D grade for their lack of action. “Whether this is the degradation of forest ecosystems or degradation of rangelands and agricultural ecosystems, the overall situation is continuing to deteriorate,” he told Associated Press.

It’s not all bad news

Of the 20 goals, six have been partially achieved. There are: preventing invasive species, conserving protected areas, access to and sharing benefits from genetic resources, biodiversity strategies and action plans, sharing information, and mobilizing resources. Governments have said a third of national targets are on track to be met.

The number of protected natural areas, both on land and in the sea, has significantly expanded, the report showed, as a result of more conservation measures that have been introduced. At the same time, global deforestation has dropped a third compared to the previous decades and a number of places have successfully eradicated invasive species.

It’s an encouraging list of achievements, which shows it’s possible for governments to take unified actions with concrete results. But it’s nowhere near enough. Urgent action is needed as the devastation of the biodiversity will affect us all, especially indigenous and local communities and the world’s poor and vulnerable, as they rely on nature for their wellbeing

The report outlined eight areas where we need to transition to sustainability. These are land and forests, agriculture, food systems, fisheries and oceans, cities and infrastructure, freshwater, climate action and an integrated global framework. With specific steps laid out for each area. For example, more green spaces in cities and promotion of local food production.

The Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated “the link between our treatment of the living world and the emergence of human diseases,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the report. “Stepping up action to safeguard and restore biodiversity, the living fabric of our planet and the foundation of human life and prosperity, is an essential part of this collective effort,” he added.

Almost two-thirds of the global wildlife population has disappeared since 1970

The population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have declined an average of 68% between 1970 and 2016, according to World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Living Planet Report 2020, a biannual assessment of wildlife. Latin America and the Caribbean were the most affected, with an average decline of 94%.

Bela Vista Farm, Sao Paulo. Credit WWF

The report pointed to humanity as the underlying cause of the deterioration of nature and the decline in the wildlife population. The increase in consumption, population, trade and urbanization in the last 50 years means we now use more of Earth’s resources that can be replenished. And this has a tremendous impact on biodiversity.

“This report reminds us that we destroy the planet at our peril—because it is our home. As humanity’s footprint expands into once-wild places, we’re devastating species populations. But we’re also exacerbating climate change and increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases,” said WWF CEO Carter Roberts in a statement.

The report measures the size of vertebrate populations. This is different from identifying threatened or extinct species, which may indicate little about the overall health of an ecosystem and, consequently, the natural services provided to people. The finding shows nations haven’t been doing their homework to protect biodiversity.

Freshwater biodiversity is declining much faster than that in our oceans or forests. The 3,741 monitored populations in the Freshwater Living Planet Index have declined by an average of 84%, equivalent to 4% per year since 1970. Most of the declines are seen in freshwater amphibians, reptiles and fishes.

The main direct driver for biodiversity loss is land-use change, according to the report, specifically the conversion of native habitats such as forest and grassland into agricultural systems. Climate change isn’t the main driver yet but WWF anticipates it will become as important as the other drivers in the coming decades.

Despite nature is being destroyed at a whopping rate, the declining trends could be flattened and reversed with urgent and unprecedented actions, the report’s authors argued. This includes changing food production and consumption, tackling climate change, and investing in actions that truly conserve, protect, and restore nature.

But that’s not all. WWF also highlighted the importance of changing our economic system in order to reflect the natural capital that supports our economic prosperity. In sum, it’s a call to global leaders to treat biodiversity conservation as an investment to preserve human health, wealth and security.

“While the trends are alarming, there is reason to remain optimistic,” said WWF Global Chief Scientist Rebecca Shaw in a statement. “Young generations are becoming acutely aware of the link between planetary health and their own futures, and they are demanding action from our leaders. We must support them in their fight for a just and sustainable planet.”

More mammal species face extinction by 2100 if further action isn’t taken soon

If conservation efforts don’t step up, the number of mammal species going extinct could reach 558 by 2100, according to a new study, which estimated the number based on fossil evidence of past extinctions.

Unlike previous extinction events, however, humans are largely to blame for this one, researchers argued.

Credit k_t Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The current diversity of mammals consists of approximately 5700 species, with at least 351 that have gone extinct since the Late Pleistocene 12 thousand years ago. These increasing trends of extinctions are matched by similar trends in other animal groups, which have lead scientists to declare the current events as a planetary biodiversity crisis for which our very own species is to blame.

The human impact in the most recent extinctions is undeniable, previous studies showed, with researchers concerned over the effect that elevated extinction rates will have on future mammalian diversity. Human activity has led to decreases in population sizes and species ranges for a large fraction of mammalian species, while global warming places additional stress on all species

Tobias Andermann from the University of Gothenburg and his colleagues compiled scientific literature the most recent fossil occurrences for all 351 mammal species that are known to have become globally extinct since the beginning of the Late Pleistocene. They estimated the times of extinction using computer-based simulations, finding that the extinction rate has accelerated. Even worse, it seems to continue accelerating.

“According to these models, the extinctions that have occurred in the past centuries only represent the tip of the iceberg, compared to the looming extinction of the next decades. Our human impact has led to several species extinctions in the past but additionally has severely decimated the population sizes and habitats of many more,” the researchers wrote.

Andermann and his team predict that by 2100 all areas of the world will have entered the second wave of extinctions of mammal species. Their simulation results indicate that this additional wave of anthropogenic extinctions may be much greater than the currently increased rates, by several orders of magnitude.

Australia and the Caribbean in particular have already entered the second extinction wave, the researchers argued, based on the extinctions that have occurred during the past decades. This shows that, although our predicted future rates and associated biodiversity losses are shockingly high, they are within a realistic range.

Current extinction rates are around 1700 times higher than those at the beginning of the Late Pleistocene. The 351 global mammal species that have gone extinct since then would have gone extinct within only 810 years under the current extinction rates.

On a global level, the researchers predicted 558 more mammal species to be lost by 2100 based on the current extinction rates. The most affected areas would be Africa, the Americas, and Eurasia, since current extinction rates for these continents are still at a comparatively moderate level, yet many species are severely endangered so there is plenty of bad news looming on the horizon.

“For all these continents, we also expect large biodiversity losses based on expected human population size increases, leading to significantly higher rates compared to the present. Therefore, human population size increases will undoubtedly pose a serious challenge for the future conservation of biodiversity in these areas,” the researchers wrote.

The scenario might seem bleak but there’s is still a window of opportunity to prevent many species extinctions by improving conservation efforts, the study showed. Even by not increasing future threats hundreds of predicted mammal species extinctions could be prevented, the researchers argue, “hoping” their predictions will lead to further conservation action.

Worldwide, populations of vertebrate animals such as mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have diminished by 60% between 1970 and 2014, according to the Living Planet report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The rate of species extinction is currently 1,000 times higher than before humans dominated the planet.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

Scientists urge UN to tackle biodiversity loss and stop new pandemics

The world needs to tackle biodiversity loss and urgently reduce deforestation rates if it wants to avoid new and more deadly pandemics. That’s the message scientists will tell country delegates at an upcoming UN summit on biodiversity, scheduled for next month in New York.

Credit Craig ONeeal Flick (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The UN summit will seek to provide political direction and momentum to the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, as the current one ends this year. The new framework was supposed to be agreed upon this year, but the whole process was delayed due to the pandemic.

“There is now a whole raft of activities such as illegal logging associated with international trades in bushmeat and exotic pets that have created this crisis,” Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation at Duke University, told The Guardian. “Covid-19 has cost the world trillions of dollars and already killed almost a million people.”

There’s now clear evidence of a strong link between the emergence of pandemics like COVID-19 and environmental destruction. Deforestation, the expansion of the agricultural sector, and the exploitation of wild species as sources of food are creating avenues for diseases to spillover from wildlife to people, experts agree.

The HIV virus is a common example, as it spread in the 20th century from chimpanzees and gorillas to humans and since then has caused the death of more than 10 million people. Other examples are the swine flu epidemic in 2009, the Ebola fever and now COVID-19, believed to have passed from bats to humans.

“When workers come into rainforests to chop down trees they don’t take food with them,” Andy Dobson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, told The Guardian. “They just eat what they can kill. So that exposes them to infection all the time.”

In a paper published last month, researchers proposed creating a program to protect biodiversity by monitoring wildlife, reducing spillover, and stopping illegal logging. This would cost between $22.2 billion and $30.7 billion a year, which might seem a lot, but is much cheaper than the $8.1 trillion so far spent in the current pandemic.

Moreover, more spending on biodiversity would be almost canceled out by another benefit of the action — namely, it would cut carbon dioxide emissions and help prevent climate heating. The world has already warmed by 1ºC and this would be just the start of our problems if we continue under the current scenario.

A new biodiversity framework

The Convention on Biological Diversity – or CBD – is an international agreement that was reached at the United Nations Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992. It has three objectives: the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

As part of the CDB, countries created the Aichi biodiversity targets in 2010, considered equally as important as the Paris Agreement on climate change. They are a group of 20 ambitious objectives to conserve biodiversity that range from preventing the extinction of species to reducing deforestation rates.

Countries had to comply with them by this year, when a new biodiversity framework was supposed to be adopted. Nevertheless, the world has largely failed to fulfill the Aichi targets. The goal now is to reverse that lack of action with new and more ambitious targets.

Worldwide, populations of vertebrate animals such as mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have diminished by 60% between 1970 and 2014, according to the Living Planet report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The rate of species extinction is currently 1,000 times higher than before humans dominated the planet.

This is the secret behind biodiversity hotspots

Biodiversity hotspots are regions around the world significant for their biodiversity but threatened with destruction. They’re packed with species because they have been ecologically stable for a long period of time, which has allowed evolution to continue undisturbed, according to a new study.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

To be considered a hotspot, a region needs to have at least 1,500 vascular plants as endemics, and retain only 30% or less of its natural vegetation. In other words, they need to have a lot of plants that are found only in that area, and be threatened by human activity. There are 36 areas around the world that meet the strict criteria, representing 2.4% of the Earth’s land surface but supporting more than half of the world’s plant species as endemics.

Researchers have long been trying to understand why some areas of the planet are so biologically diverse. These hotspots provide crucial ecosystem services for human life, such as the provision of clean water, pollination, and climate regulation, so their conservation its highly important.

An international group of researchers mapped the distribution of the 9,400 plant species found in the Cape Floristic Region in South Africa. This is a non-tropical heartland of biodiversity that has ten times as many native plant species as the United Kingdom, concentrated in an area smaller than Belgium.

“Our research focused on the incredible diversity of the Cape Floristic Region because the competing theories of stability versus productivity can’t be untangled in the tropics, where both are true. Exceptions often clarify the rule and our research shows that the environmental history of a place is important to its levels of biodiversity,” said Colin Beale, co-author, in a press release.

The team found that the richness in biodiversity in the region can be explained by the lack of major changes in its climate over the past 140,000 years. Other studies had argued that productivity, defined as the energy flow through an ecosystem, explained these hotspots — but this only played a minor role in the Cape Floristic Region.

The authors also highlighted the threat posed by climate change to the biodiversity hotspots and the importance of giving nature the protection it needs to bloom. The impact of a warmer world will be greater on areas that have been stable for a long period of time, they argued.

“Our study shows that the environmental stability of south-western South Africa, in conjunction with the region’s rugged topography, explains diversity gradients in the region. The same hypotheses can explain tropical diversity; there is no need to invoke productivity,” said Richard Cowling, co-author, in a press release.

Biodiversity, usually defined as the variety of all living things in the planet, has been declining at an alarming rate in recent years, mainly due to human activities such as land-use changes, pollution, and climate change. A UN report in 2019 said one million species are threatened with extinction.

Preventing the next pandemic would cost just 2% of the COVID-19 economic damage

Want to save a lot of money and a lot of lives? Protect the wildlife, a new research concludes.

By investing only 2% of what the COVID-19 pandemic is costing us, we could protect biodiversity and prevent the next big one from happening.

Credit Flickr Nik Anderson (CC BY 2.0)

Implementing the necessary protection measures would cost somewhere between $22.2 billion and $30.7 billion, the study finds, noting that such efforts are currently severely underfunded. This seems a lot of money, until you put it into perspective. It doesn’t really seem that much when you compare it to the whopping $8.1 trillion in losses resulting from the current pandemic.

Moreover, the larger spending on biodiversity would be almost cancelled out by another benefit of the action — namely, it would cut carbon dioxide emissions and help prevent climate heating. The world has already warmed by 1ºC and this would be just the start of our problems if we continue under the current scenario. Environmental protection measures would be doubly useful, the team adds, especially as the risks are piling up.

“It’s naive to think of the Covid-19 pandemic as a once in a century event,” Professor Andrew Dobson at Princeton University in the US, who led the analysis, told The Guardian. “As with anything we’re doing to the environment, they’re coming faster and faster, just like climate change.”

The researchers are calling for an improvement for the regulation of the wildlife trade, reducing deforestation in 40% in key locations such as the Amazon rainforest, ending wild meat trade in China and disease surveillance and control in wild and domestic animals, among other actions. An estimated budget on how this could be accomplished is presented.

Image credits Dobson et al., (2020), Science

They argued there’s a clear link between the emergence of the novel coronavirus and deforestation, as forest bats likely acted as the reservoirs of Ebola, SARS, and Covid-19. Tropical forests are a “major launchpad” for new viruses that infect humans, they added, claiming new epidemics tend to appear every four or five years. Essentially, protecting forests would serve as a buffer between humans and potentially dangerous viruses.

“Postponing a global strategy to reduce pandemic risk would lead to continued soaring costs. Given the barrage of costly emerging diseases in the past 20 years, we urge that stimulus and other recovery funding include the strategies we have laid out to reduce pandemic risk. Society must strive to avoid some of the impacts of future pandemics,” the researchers wrote.

The study included examples in which monitoring health, wildlife, and the environment in collaboration have shown promise. Central Africa saw outbreaks of the Ebola virus in the late 1990s and early 200s as hunters ate infected meat. Programs were then established to monitor the health of wildlife and the people in several countries. Nevertheless, such programs aren’t persistent enough, the researchers argued. A new outbreak of Ebola was declared in the Democratic Republic of Congo on June 1 by the World Health Organization, just weeks before a previous outbreak in another region of the country was finally over.

The analysis comes after many claims from experts for governments to address the destruction of biodiversity and prevent future pandemics. A previous UN report said the world was only treating the symptoms of the current pandemic but not the environmental cause.

“As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, economic priorities may shift to deal with soaring demands from unemployment, chronic diseases, bankruptcies, and severe financial hardship of public institutions. Nonetheless, there is substantial evidence that the rate of emergence of novel diseases is increasing,” the researchers wrote.

The study was published in the journal Science.