Tag Archives: extinction

Credit: Awesci.

Elusive stick insect thought extinct for 80 years is still alive and kicking

A 6-inch-long stick bug with an exoskeleton that looks like a lobster was metaphorically brought back from the dead by scientists. The tree lobster (dryococelus australis) was long thought extinct but thanks to a group of exploring rock climbers and DNA sequencing techniques, scientists have confirmed that the bug is still very much alive.

Credit: Awesci.

Credit: Awesci.

News of its extinction have been gravely exaggerated

In 1918, rats from a capsized boat reached the shores of Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand. It didn’t take too long before hungry, fast-breeding rodents wreaked havoc on the local ecosystem. Within two years, the rats drove several native species extinct. Among them was the tree lobster, which was officially declared extinct in 1986.

There were, however, some hints that the tree lobster might still be around. In the 1960s, rock climbers in Ball’s Pyramid — a great jagged spire rising from the Tasman Sea on a nearby island, 12 miles from Lord Howe — found dead insects that looked a lot like the stick bugs. Then, four decades later, researchers scaled the third-of-a-mile-high cliff and actually found live insects chowing down on a tea tree at night.

This isn't a CGI rendering for some fantasy movie. Ball’s Pyramid (named after a European named Ball who first saw it in 1788) was formed 7 million years ago due to a volcanic eruption.

This isn’t a CGI rendering for some fantasy movie. Ball’s Pyramid (named after a European named Ball who first saw it in 1788) was formed 7 million years ago due to a volcanic eruption.

Both the empty skeletons and live insects, however, looked mysteriously different from the preserved Lord Howe tree lobsters scientists had studied from museums. The legs were skinnier with smaller spines, and the cerci (small stubs sticking out from the abdomen) were offset. The insects were also darker. Naturally, scientists just assumed they were dealing with a very similar but different species, and not the tree lobster itself.

Morphological Differences between Males from Lord Howe Island and Ball’s Pyramid. Credit: Current Biology.

Morphological Differences between Males from Lord Howe Island and Ball’s Pyramid. Credit: Current Biology.

Now,  Alexander Mikheyev, an ecologist at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan, along with colleagues, showed that the genetic differences between Lorde Howe and Ball’s Pyramid insects were within the range of the same species, as reported in Current Biology.

The two islands, though quite close from one another, were never connected by land and tree lobsters can’t swim. But since the new genetic analysis unambiguously shows we’re dealing with the same species, it could be that the environment, diet or inbreeding could explain the different appearance. Birds or debris likely ferried them between the two islands.

Right now, there are thousands of living tree lobsters and their eggs, descended from Ball’s Pyramid populations currently being kept in zoos and museums around the world. Scientists now plan to reintroduce the new population back to the wild on Lord Howe Island as soon as black rats are eradicated. In the breathtaking video below, you can see the how the first tree lobster bred in captivity hatched in the zoo.

The rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. We don’t know for sure how many species die off each year but estimates put a ballpark between 200 and 2,000 extinctions. It’s thus extremely refreshing to report about a species that’s still alive for a change rather than depressingly gone forever.

“In this case, it seems like we’re lucky and we have not lost this species forever, although by all rights we should have,” said Mikheyev in a press release. “We get another chance—but very often we do not.”

You can learn more about the tree lobster and its amazing story of resilience in the award-winning, 20-minute-long documentary ‘Sticky’.

Credit: Pixabay.

Not too big and not too small: when faced with extinction, it pays off to be just the right size

Animals that are either big or small are the most vulnerable to extinction. Vertebrates sandwiched in between a so-called ‘Goldilocks area — not too big but not too small either — prove to be the most resilient to outside threats like climate change, predators or human hunting.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

“Human activity seems poised to chop off both the head and tail of the size distribution of life”

According to Prof Bill Ripple of Oregon State University in Corvallis, US, larger vertebrates are mostly threatened by human hunters while smaller vertebrates are largely threatened by habitat degradation.

Ripple led a team of researchers that compiled a database of thousands of birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, and reptiles at risk of extinction. Investigating the results shows that animals sitting at either end of the scale were disproportionately vulnerable.

“Surprisingly, we found that not only the largest of all vertebrate animal species are most threatened, but the very tiniest ones are also highly threatened with extinction,” Prof Ripple told BBC News.

“Indeed, based on our findings, human activity seems poised to chop off both the head and tail of the size distribution of life.”

You’ll often hear on the news about the desolate poaching of African elephants, lions or rhinos. Indeed, reporting like news of 100,000 elephants killed between 2010 and 2012 is no exaggeration. Many other less popular animals are in a similar situation, though. These include the whale shark, Somali ostrich and Chinese giant salamander, which can be considered the giants of their niche. Meanwhile, frogs and shrews — literally the little guys — get even less exposure.

Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 

Large animals are often apex predators that play an important role in their ecosystem controlling the abundance of species they prey upon. Their impact has a cascading effect that can be felt all the way from food security to the quality of water and soil. On the other hand, small creatures are often vital pollinators of plants and can play a major role in pest control.

The list compiled by Ripple and colleagues totaled 25,000 vertebrate species, of which 4,000 threatened with extinction.

The main threats faced by large animals are:

  • Both legal and illegal fishing;
  • Hunting food, trade or medicines, including poaching.

While those faced by smaller vertebrates include:

  • Pollution of lakes, streams, and rivers
  • Farming
  • Logging
  • Urban expansion.

The findings serve as a wake-up call, signaling an impending sixth major extinction. While the previous five were caused by catastrophic natural phenomena, this one is on us humans.

The last time this happened was 65 million years ago when an asteroid impact killed off the dinosaurs and two-thirds of all life. The most devastating blow came 252 million years ago when the Great Dying snuffed out about 90 percent of the world’s species. A 2015 paper found that while the pre-human rate of extinctions on Earth was about 1 — a “death rate” of how many species become extinct each year out of 1 million species — now that death rate is about 100 to 1,000.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Large carnivores like the lion or tiger lost more than 90% of their range in the last 500 years

Compared to 500 years ago, large carnivores like lions or tigers have lost more than 90 percent of their ranges, a new study found. While this trend is worrying, the good news is that conservation programs seem to work and a few large carnivores like hyenas seem to be doing better than others.

Move along

The team at Oregon State University analyzed maps and historical accounts for the preferred habitat of 25 large carnivores at around the year 1,500 AD. Today, you can find these animals in only a third of the land area they used to occupy 500 years ago. The explanation is quite easy to find: humans. There are 15 times more humans in the area than there were back then. There’s a very strong relationship between the contraction of large carnivore ranges and rural human population density, livestock, and cropland. All of this is taking a toll on the wild cats.

These large beasts depend on ample ranges to find food and to mate. Now that they occupy only a fraction of their former range, they’ve become very vulnerable to extinction. For instance, lion populations have been going down by about 30–50% over each 20-year period of the second half of the 20th century. Though not from the present study, this map that shows the lion’s historic distribution vs present day distribution is most illustrating (note that it’s the historic range for far earlier than 1,500 AD).

The Oregon State researchers found that 15 of the 25 species they studied had lost more than half their range. Large carnivores that have experienced the greatest range contractions include the red wolf (greater than 99%), Ethiopian wolf (99%), tiger (95%) and lion (94%). But not everyone is doing this poorly. The European lynx and Australia’s dingo have only lost 12 percent of their range while gray wolves lost 26 percent. Hyenas have been doing well too, given the circumstances. Striped, spotted, and brown hyenas lost 15, 24 and 27 percent of their range, respectively, as reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Range contraction maps for 25 large carnivores. Regions of persistence (i.e. inside both historic and current ranges) are shown in yellow-orange, while regions of contraction (inside historic but not current range) are shown in dark red. Species are ordered by percentage range contraction with the greatest contractions shown in the uppermost panels. Credit: Oregon State University.

Range contraction maps for 25 large carnivores. Regions of persistence (i.e. inside both historic and current ranges) are shown in yellow-orange, while regions of contraction (inside historic but not current range) are shown in dark red. Species are ordered by percentage range contraction with the greatest contractions shown in the uppermost panels. Credit: Oregon State University.

The study notes that there have been optimistic developments where conservationists have organizes the reintroduction of large carnivorous wildlife. For instance, the return of wolves to Europe and North America is viewed by many as a success story. And, as is often the case when there are big losers, the little guys rise to the limelight. Lead author Chris Wolf told New Scientist that coyotes have seen a major range expansion.

“Ultimately, changes in species’ ranges are ongoing, dynamic processes and, in the face of newer threats like anthropogenic climate change, it is critical to continue to monitor large carnivore ranges to ensure the future of these species. Our analysis serves as a starting point for this by providing an accurate measure of the historic and current status of the world’s largest carnivores,” the researchers concluded.

Previously unknown two-million-year-old marine extinction discovered by geologists

Some two million years ago, a third of the largest marine mammals went through a dramatic event that saw them being wiped out by an unknown event. This not only dramatically affected all marine biodiversity, but seemed to change the way entire ecosystems functioned.

Image via Wikipedia.

A team of scientists analyzed fossils of marine megafauna from the Pliocene and the Pleistocene epochs (5.3 million to around 9,700 years BC). While marine mammals were the most threatened, they weren’t the only ones. Extrapolating from the data, they concluded that a whopping 43% of all turtle species were lost, as well as 9% of shark species.  Some 35% of birds also went extinct. All in all, marine mammals lost 55% of their diversity, never to recover it again, and this cascaded into other species in the ecosystem.

“We were able to show that around a third of marine megafauna disappeared about three to two million years ago. Therefore, the marine megafaunal communities that humans inherited were already altered and functioning at a diminished diversity”, explains lead author Dr. Catalina Pimiento, who conducted the study at the Paleontological Institute and Museum of the University of Zurich.

This wasn’t without consequence, and the entire ecosystem struggled to recover. Pimiento estimates that 17 percent of the total diversity of ecological functions in the ecosystem disappeared and 21 percent changed. Left without their preferred food source, common predators couldn’t adapt and went extinct, while new species emerged, challenging the older ones.

It’s not clear what triggered this extinction, but because large marine mammals were especially affected, researchers believe it was a climate change. Since this extinction wasn’t even known before, more research is needed before the cause can be identified with certainty.

“Our models have demonstrated that warm-blooded animals in particular were more likely to become extinct. For example, species of sea cows and baleen whales, as well as the giant shark Carcharocles megalodon disappeared”, explains Dr. Pimiento. “This study shows that marine megafauna were far more vulnerable to global environmental changes in the recent geological past than had previously been assumed”.

This draws significant similarities to today’s situation. Nowadays, climate is warming once again, but at a much faster rate than it did at any point in at least a few million years — because the cause isn’t natural, it’s anthropic. It’s us. Marine mammals such as dolphins and whales are once again under great threat due to climate change, and it’s quite possible that we’re once again headed for a great extinction.

Journal Reference: Catalina Pimiento, John N. Griffin, Christopher F. Clements, Daniele Silvestro, Sara Varela, Mark D. Uhen and Carlos Jaramillo. The Pliocene marine megafauna extinction and its impact on functional diversity. June 26, 2017. Nature Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0223-6.

Stephen Hawking revises his deadline for humans escaping Earth — it’s now just 100 years

Last November, Stephen Hawking said humanity needs to establish itself on another planet in the next 1,000 years or risk extinction. We probably did something very wrong since then, as Hawking revised his deadline — we’ve got to get out in the next century.

Stephen Hawking in front of sun with coronal mass ejections.

Image credits Lwp Kommunikáció / Flickr.

In a new BBC documentary titled “Expedition New Earth”, which will debut this summer as part of the program’s science season, Stephen Hawking has severely cut down on his initial deadline set in November. From a full millennium, we’re now down to one hundred years, a number disturbingly close to the length of a human lifetime.

So what prompted this change?

“Professor Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive,” an online BBC statement reads. “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.”

“In this landmark series, Expedition New Earth, he enlists engineering expert Danielle George and his own former student, Christophe Galfard, to find out if and how humans can reach for the stars and move to different planets.”

The documentary gives Hawking a chance to detail the evolving science and technology, from rockets to astronomy to suspended animation, that will underpin any attempt to survive on another planet, BBC notes. And to be sure, Earth does have a lot on its plate right now. A spare human civilization somewhere in the Universe would be awesome, but is it feasible?

Uh-oh

Let’s start with “where”. In the Professor’s own words, Mars is “the obvious next target” for colonization but it’s not exactly lush right now. We’re making progress on establishing supply lines on-planet for oxygen and building materials and food, but that’s only scratching the surface of the issue. The fact remains that without its atmosphere Mars has deadly temperature shifts, nothing to breathe, and nothing to shield against radiation. Taken together, all these factors would immensely limit any budding community on the planet, let alone a civilization. Given time to work their magic, scientists and engineers could probably turn Mars into a very welcoming home — just not right now. A colony would require a steady stream of supplies from Earth to function, and that’s not really an option if society breaks down (or under a slab of space-rock) back on good ole Earth.

Mars.

Home…?
Image credits Aynur Zakirov.

The next option is to look farther away. Odds are on our side to find a human-habitable planet somewhere in the galaxy, but with so many to sort through it’s going to take time. Our telescopes can give us a general feel of the planets we look at, but can’t peer on the surface to let us know what to expect down there. And lastly, we need to consider if humanity can make a trip of hundreds of years to a new home.

Can we even build a ship to withstand that in time? Not now. The best ships we have at the moment are intended to carry up to six people on NASA’s mission to Mars. Very nice for their intended role, impressively ill-suited to ferrying humanity somewhere else. The most ambitious ship designs in the works are probably SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport Systems. They’re intended to carry about 100 people on an intra-system journey to Mars so even they are still a very far cry from what we need — ships capable of supporting thousands of people for hundreds of years of trekking to another system.

But even if we did get our hands on a suitable ship, how will generations upon generations of humans be able to survive in a tube in space? We don’t know. All resources will have to be carefully monitored and recycled (we’re very bad at that even down here), any disease would be devastating, and we have no clue what the biological and psychological effects would be. It’s possible our colonists won’t even technically be ‘human’ when we reach our destination. Which segways into the next point: people.

Specifically, the fact that we’d have to shuttle a lot of people to have a shot at a sustainable colony. It’s not only about the risks they will face in transit or on the planet and the unavoidable deaths they will lead to — small populations would have a lot to suffer from inbreeding, so we need to ensure that a wide genetic stock is available from the get-go and can sustain itself over time. And lastly, the moral issue of who goes and who stays.

Do the rich get to go, while the poor are left to go by as well as they can/die off? Do we send our smartest? Do we send our social elites? And whom from these groups do we send? We can barely shuttle six people around. Tens, hundreds — maybe. Billions? Not a chance. Nobody will be happy to give up on the chance to survive — and yet most will have to. Good luck cracking this nut.

No planet for old habits

Dead Tree.

Image credits Colin Kinnear.

During his hour-long talk at the Oxford University Union in November, Hawking expressed his belief that humans have done a lot to hasten the end of Earth as we know it through a rampant and unsustainable exploitation of the planet’s resources. Climate change, antibiotic resistance, economic inequality, social and political unrest — anyone left behind will have to sort this mess or perish. And even if they pull it off, humanity might meet its end when an asteroid decides to pay us a visit — it happens. A lot.

He also approached the subject of artificial intelligence during the talk, where he issued some of the most explicit warnings. He said that humanity’s challenge is twofold: develop the technology that will enable us to leave the planet and start a colony elsewhere, while avoiding the frightening perils that may be unleashed by said technology. Despite the undeniable usefulness of AI, Hawking has said that it represents “our biggest existential threat.”

“Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate,” he warns. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

“I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking told the BBC in a 2014 interview.

Phew.

Bummer of an article, right? Well, you have to keep in mind that while the challenges we face are pretty daunting, we’re also better equipped than ever before to deal with them. We know more than ever before, and we understand the world better than we previously did. In a way, the fact that we can see the edge we’re walking to is a boon because we can at least try to stop.

But we all have to bunch together to make it happen. We’ve had a whole history to learn from. We’ve seen how good men and women, harboring the best intentions for their fellows, made horrifying atrocities possible simply by keeping silent, by not standing up for what they believe in. We’re the ones making history now, each and every one of the choices we make each day add up to shape the world.

If you don’t count asteroids, we’re not faced with an unfair fate, either — we’re mopping up after thousands of years of other people doing well or messing up. And just as we judge those before us, the textbooks schoolkids will be reading one hundred years from — regardless on which planet — will judge or praise us, remember or damn us, based on what we decide and how we live each and every day.

In Hawkins’ own words:

“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

 

Sudan with guard.

The last male white rhino boldly goes on Tinder to save its species

As far as we know, there’s only one male white rhino still alive on the planet — and his name is Sudan. In a bid to ensure his specie’s continued survival, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy group joined hands with Tinder to raise the money required for the ongoin conservation species.

Sudan with guard.

Sudan with one of his guards.
Image credits Make it Kenya / Flickr.

Tinder may just have got its heaviest user ever. Starting today, users on the app will see Sudan’s profile pop up among their choice of potential dates. If you swipe right, you’ll get a message with a link to donate for a worthy cause: all the money will be used to fund ongoing research into Assisted Reproductive Techniques for the species.

“But why not do it the old fashioned way?” you might ask. “That’s the point of Tinder, right?”

Well, yes, but as it happens, 42-year old Sudan, who the app described as “the most eligible bachelor in the world”, currently lives under heavily armed guard at the conservancy in Kenya with two female rhinos, Najin and Fatu. They’ve been unable to breed for a number of reasons (especially old age), but not all is lost as there are 17,000 other potential females to do the deed. But they’re far away and capturing then shipping them to the conservancy is not only expensive, it’s also dangerous for the beasts.

Though to be honest, what lady wouldn’t brave some dangers for a profile this good?
Image credits Tinder.

And even if they get there, success is not guaranteed. So Ol Pejeta needs to raise US$9 million (8.2 million euros) to fund research into assisted reproductive techniques, which will be used to breed a herd of 10 northern white rhinos to stave off extinction. One technique named ovum pick-up, which has been developed on southern white rhinos, will be tailored to Sudan’s species and expanded on for this purpose. The team plans to collect eggs from the females Najin and Fatu, fertilize and re-implant them into surrogate females.

“This represents the last option to save the species after all previous breeding attempts proved futile,” said Ol Pejeta Conservancy CEO Richard Vigne. “Saving the northern white rhinos is critical if we are to, one day, reintroduce rhinos back into Central Africa.

“They contain unique genetic traits that confer upon them the ability to survive in this part of Africa. Ultimately, the aim will be to reintroduce a viable population of northern white rhino back into the wild which is where their true value will be realised”.

The research effort is already underway at various institutions in the US, Europe, and Japan. Right now, what the rhinos need is funding. So if you have some cash burning a hole in your poket take your smartphone and swipe, swipe, swipe for Sudan.

“Financial support remains the biggest challenge to this project. To win this run against time, it is crucial to find major funds as quickly as possible,” said Steven Seet, Head of press and communications at the Leibniz-IZW which is part of the research consortium.

cow chewing

‘Chewing like a cow’ helped early mammals thrive in the wake of dinosaur extinction

We’re generally more interested in what’s on our plate than how we eat it, but here’s an interesting thought you can bring to the dinner table tonight. According to evolutionary biologists from the University of Chicago, the same side-to-side chewing motion that’s familiar across most mammals helped our early ancestors grind food with their molars and opened up access to a more diversified diet. This evolutionary edge may have gone a long way 66 million years ago, during the mass extinction event of the Cretaceous known for wiping out the dinosaurs.

cow chewing

Credit: Pixabay

You’ll often hear aviation engineers use the terms ‘pitch’ and ‘yaw’ to describe the movements of airplanes, where pitch rotation results in basic up and down movement while yaw rotation results in side-to-side, crosswise motion. The same terms are employed by the biologists as well, when talking about the mechanics of motion of various body parts. For instance, almost all modern mammals from deer to kangaroos to humans share similarities in their jaw and muscle structure that enable both pitch and yaw.

David Grossnickle, a graduate student at University of Chicago’s Committee on Evolutionary Biology, wanted to investigate how mammalian chewing evolved. He painstakingly combed through 2D photos of early mammal fossils and 3D data collected from modern mammal specimens by the Field Museum, and eventually spotted some patterns.

The analysis revealed mammal teeth, then their muscles, were increasingly adapting to allow yaw chewing. For instance, species began to develop projections on the upper molars that fit into the basin on the lower counterpart. The development caused changes in the musculature of the jaw which had to adapt to provide more torque required for side-to-side movements. Another important morphological change was around the ears, as a bony attachment between the middle ear elements and jaw became gradually lost.

Eventually, early mammals became able to grind food between the molars like a mortar and pestle instead of cutting it with simple up and down movements like a knife. The whole process can be traced back to as early as 160 million years ago.

“If you have a very specialized diet you’re more likely to perish during a mass extinction because you’re only eating one thing,” Grossnickle said in a statement. “But if you can eat just about anything and 90 percent of your food goes away, you can still live on scraps.”

Credit: Nature.

This adaptation in the jaws and teeth may have been key to the success of early mammals following the great dinosaur extinction. Like dinosaurs, mammals were hit hard by the nuclear-winter-like conditions left in the wake of the giant asteroid impact which hit Chicxulub, Mexico, but due to a combination of factors like small size and high breeding rates, the mammals were able to rebound. Diet and, equally important, chewing motion seem to have played a very important role as well.

“The continued presence of tribosphenic molars in many modern mammalian lineages provides strong evidence of its evolutionary importance. Thus, the concurrent evolutionary changes to jaws, molars, ears, and chewing cycles in early cladotherians may have been an especially significant event in mammalian evolution,” Grossnickle concludes in his paper.

Journal reference: David M. Grossnickle. The evolutionary origin of jaw yaw in mammals. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7: 45094 DOI: 10.1038/srep45094

Half of the world’s species could become extinct by 2100, biologists say at Vatican conference

Welcome to the planet’s sixth major extinction — take a seat.

The tree of life might become a stump, thanks to us. Image credits: Dano Biodiversity.

If you thought mass extinctions are something that’s only discussed in the past tense, here’s a sobering truth: half of all the species on Earth could go extinct in less than a century. Speaking at a conference in Vatican,  biologists warn that 20% of the planet’s species are under threat of extinction today, and that number could grow dramatically by the end of the century.

“The living fabric of the world is slipping through our fingers without our showing much sign of caring,” say the organisers of the Biological Extinction conference held at the Vatican this week.

The main culprit, as it so often happens, is climate change — though habitat destruction, water scarcity, and lack of adequate food are all major threats. Our soaring population, set to reach 11.2 billion people by 2100 is certainly not helping. Basically, it all boils down to one thing: we’re taking too many of the planet’s resources, and there’s not enough left for wildlife.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in California. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”

Old feuds, new friendships

The Vatican is certainly an intriguing place for such a conference. The involvement of the Pope in such issues can only yield positive effects. Image credits: Michal Osmenda

It’s certainly intriguing that these forecasts were revealed at a conference in the Vatican. The conference is part of a series of talks arranged by Pope Francis on ecological issues, which are deemed urgent issues by the pontiff. His 2015 encyclical, called Laudato Si, urges the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics — and everyone else — to protect the environment and spare communities from climate change. This initiative has been applauded by many researchers, who view the talks as a clear sign that centuries-old animosities between science and the church have been definitely stifled. Working together is now more important than ever.

“We need to unravel the processes that led to the ills we are now facing,” said one of the conference’s organisers, the economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, of Cambridge University. “That is why the Vatican symposia involve natural and social scientists, as well as scholars from the humanities. That the symposia are being held at the Papal Academy is also symbolic. It shows that the ancient hostility between science and the church, at least on the issue of preserving Earth’s services, has been quelled.”

But even as this unfolds, signs of significant disagreements are still obvious. Like many sociologists, Ehrlich is a big supporter of population control, advocating birth control as one of the most sustainable solutions to the growing pressure humanity is exerting on the planet.

“If you value people, you want to have the maximum number you can support sustainably. You do not want almost 12 billion living unsustainably on Earth by the end of the century – with the result that civilisation will collapse and there are only a few hundred survivors.”

He argues that in the long run, stabilizing the world’s population around 1 billion would be pro-life, helping humanity as well as Earth’s other inhabitants. Unlike him, most Christians are staunchly against birth control. They even set up a petition, with about 11,000 signatures, to not allow Ehrlich to talk in the Vatican. The pope, however, has not changed his mind.

Does this look OK to you?

We’ll all suffer

The problem with mass extinctions is twofold. For starters, we’re killing off the world’s animals and plants. Certainly, that must count for something in itself, as Pope Francis himself wrote:

“Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.”

The second part of his statement introduces the other problem: if species start going extinct, we’re also in trouble. We’re not an independent species, living in the bubble of our society. Whether we realize it or not, we’re tightly connected to the rest of the world. We rely on other species for food, medicine, materials, and countless other environmental services which we may not even realize yet — and if a species is gone, it’s gone for good. Even worse, when a species is gone, it may trigger a domino effect in its ecosystem, leading to more and more collapses. Professor Peter Raven, of the Missouri Botanical Garden, emphasized that point:

“By the beginning of the next century we face the prospect of losing half our wildlife. Yet we rely on the living world to sustain ourselves. It is very frightening. The extinctions we face pose an even greater threat to civilisation than climate change – for the simple reason they are irreversible.”

We don’t care enough

The emblematic tigers might soon become a thing of the past. Image credits: Keven Law.

The gist of it is simple but bleak. There’s too many of us, there will be even more of us, and we’re using too many resources. We’re emitting greenhouse gases that warm the planet, we cut down forests for agriculture, we pollute the rivers and oceans, we alter soils — we kill animals and plants, directly or indirectly. There’s not a single corner of the world that we haven’t affected and yet we don’t seem to care about it all that much.

Extinctions from popular species make headlines sometimes, but species often go extinct without a single word. There’s literally thousands of studies documenting man-driven climate change and its effects, and yet we’re still debating whether global warming is real or not. The US, the world’s most influential country, just elected a president who doesn’t believe in climate change and wants to promote fossil fuels. China, the world’s most populous country, and the biggest economy, just recently banned the eating of endangered animals — and on the black market, traditional Chinese medicine alone drives species into extinction.

The world seems not incapable but rather unwilling to take the necessary steps to ensure a sustainable future — not for the Earth, but for ourselves. If forecasts are confirmed, and 30-50% of the planet’s species will be wiped out by 2100, we’ll all be to blame. Oh, and we’ll all suffer.

Bumblebee becomes the first endangered bee in continental US

For the first time in history, a bee in continental US has been listed as endangered: the rusty patched bumblebee.

Image credits: Steve Evans from Citizen of the World.

Bees all around the world are going through a dramatic decline, largely due to the effect of pesticides causing a condition called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Two decades ago, the rusty patched bumblebee would have been a common sight in the US but now, it’s endangered with numbers declining in 87% of its historical habitat range.

The proposal was first made in September 2016 and was just now implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. Discussing this decision, Service Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius said,

“Our top priority is to act quickly to prevent extinction of the rusty patched bumble bee. Listing the bee as endangered will help us mobilize partners and focus resources on finding ways right now to stop the decline.”

It’s truly heartbreaking to see such a staple species nearing extinction – and the bumblebee isn’t the only one. Several other bees and pollinators are facing similar issues, although they haven’t yet been listed as endangered. These pollinating species play a key role in their ecosystem, and their demise brings with it incalculable costs. For economically important crops such as tomatoes, cranberries, and peppers alone, it’s estimated that pollinators provide environmental services of $3 billion in the US alone. Bumblebees are especially good pollinators and even plants that self-pollinate produce more and bigger fruit when pollinated by bumble bees.

“The rusty patched bumble bee is among a group of pollinators – including the monarch butterfly – experiencing serious declines across the country,” Melius said. “Why is this important? Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrublands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand.”

The reasons for the decline of the bumblebee are already classic:

  • loss of habitat;
  • disease and parasites;
  • use of pesticides that directly or indirectly kill the bees;
  • climate change, which can affect the availability of the flowers they depend on.

Aside from what officials do, the general public can also take measures to help pollinators. Planting local, native flowers, even in small urban areas can do wonders for the tiny pollinators. The use of pesticides should also be avoided, if possible (or at least limited). Foster natural landscapes and leave grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advises:

“Grow flowers, including flowering trees and shrubs. Have a mix with something in bloom from early spring through fall. Include native milkweeds for monarch butterflies.

Bumble bees and many other pollinators (bees, moths and butterflies) need a safe place to build their nests and overwinter. Leave some areas of your yard unmowed in summer and unraked in fall, in your garden and flower beds leave some standing plant stems in winter.

Provide a pesticide free environment.”

Scientists are closer to bringing back enormous, ancient cow

Scientists are trying to de-extinct ancient cows called aurochs.

Photography of aurochs in a Lascaux animal painting. Image credits: Prof saxx

The aurochs roamed Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa, being the ancestors of modern cattle. Neolithic people domesticated them, but ultimately, their populations faded away, until the last domesticated auroch was killed in Poland, in 1627. Aurochs measured up to 7 ft (2.13 m) tall and weighed around 1,000kg. Since 2009, two research teams have tried to bring them back from extinction and now – they’re pretty close.

Before you get overly excited, this isn’t about cloning or anything like that. Instead, what scientists are doing is a carefully planned out breeding program. They’re using cows which still carry auroch DNA.

The first project, Operation Taurus, has selectively bred 300 calves with auroch DNA via a process called back-breeding. Breeding back is a form of artificial selection by the deliberate selective breeding of domestic animals, in an attempt to achieve an animal breed that resembles an ancestor – usually, an extinct one. Basically, they choose cows which look like aurochs, and each generation gets them closer and closer to the desired outcome. Several auroch-like cow breeds were chosen for this purpose, including the Maremmana from Italy and Podolica and Busha breed from the Balkans.

“They have the highest percentage of aurochs genetic material,” Professor Donato Matassino from the operation told The Telegraph. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to create an animal that is 100 percent like the aurochs, but we can get very close.”

However, even if they do create an animal that does look 100% like an auroch, it still won’t be an auroch – the gene pool of the ancient creatures is still lost.

The most important external features of the aurochs at one sight. Image credits: DFoidl

The other program uses similar techniques. The Taurus Project in Portugal uses different types of breeds to get closer to the aurochs.

Both programs are part of the Rewilding Europe initiative, which aims to reintroduce lost species to the continent. Although this wouldn’t truly bring back the species, it would serve two different purposes: firstly, it would be good for the environment, and secondly, it would boost tourism. Also, it could help generate interest in science and biology.

“Wild cattle are one of the species that shaped the European landscape over hundreds of thousands of years,” Wouter Helmer, founder of Rewilding Europe, told The Telegraph.

“If there are no large herbivores then the forest regenerates very fast. Big grazing animals keep patches of land open and create variety in the landscape which helps many thousands of species of plants, insects and animals.”

 

Sprinting towards extinction: cheetahs number plunge

The world’s fastest land animal and one of the planet’s most popular creatures, the cheetah, is silently moving closer to extinction. Just 7,100 cheetahs remain, largely due to humans destroying their habitats.

Cheetahs face a rocky future. Image credits: Zoological Society of London

The new study led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Panthera and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found that cheetahs have been kicked out of 91% of their historic range. No population has remained unharmed, but those in Asia have been hit the hardest. Just 50 cheetahs remain in an isolated pocket in Iran.

Dr. Sarah Durant, ZSL/WCS lead author and Project Leader for the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dog, said:

“This study represents the most comprehensive analysis of cheetah status to date. Given the secretive nature of this elusive cat, it has been difficult to gather hard information on the species, leading to its plight being overlooked. Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought.”

Authors call for the cheetahs to be up-listed from ‘Vulnerable’ to ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They argue that more conservation measures are needed if we want to save the species.

“We have worked with range state governments and the cheetah conservation community to put in place comprehensive frameworks for action to save the species, but funds and resources are needed to implement them. The recent decisions made at the CITES CoP17 meeting in Johannesburg represent a significant breakthrough particularly in terms of stemming the illegal flow of live cats trafficked out of the Horn of Africa region. However, concerted action is needed to reverse ongoing declines in the face of accelerating land use changes across the continent.”

The felines face a range of problems, all stemming from interactions with society. Aside from kicking them out of their historic range, humans also overhunt their prey, leaving the cheetahs unable to feed themselves. Because the species has such a wide range, it is highly vulnerable to human impacts and to make things even worse, cheetahs have also become popular as “pets.” Even in protected areas and natural parks, they aren’t safe. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers dropped from 1,200 to a maximum of 170 animals in just 16 years, an unprecedented drop in numbers.

The study came as quite a surprise and shows that the situation is much dire than most anticipated. We need to reanalyze thing and come up with concrete solutions – otherwise, next generations will see cheetahs only in history books. Speaking about this, Panthera’s Cheetah Program Director, Dr. Kim Young-Overton, said:

“We’ve just hit the reset button in our understanding of how close cheetahs are to extinction. The take-away from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough. We must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-ranging cats inhabit, if we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever.”

Journal Reference: Sarah M. Durant et al. The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation. PNAS, December 27, 2016 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1611122114

Giraffes are facing a silent extinction – and so are other, undiscovered species

A new report published by the IUCN shows that the emblematic giraffe is facing a threatening decline. The same study reveals that numerous other species of animals are nearing extinction before we even get a chance to study them.

Image credits: Pixabay.

Giraffe decline

Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis), one of the world’s most recognizable animals and the tallest land mammal, is now officially threatened with extinction. The species underwent a dramatic 40% decline since 1985. The main reason, as it so often happens, is humans.

“The growing human population is having a negative impact on many giraffe subpopulations,” the statement said.

Giraffes, widespread in several areas of Africa, are pushed back by human development, and their habitats are threatened by agriculture, mining, civil unrest and illegal hunting.

The IUCN has passed a resolution calling for increased protection of giraffes and okapis. They say that while many people know and love giraffes, they aren’t familiar with the struggles the species faces.

“Whilst giraffe are commonly seen on safari, in the media and in zoos, people—including conservationists—are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” Julian Fenessy of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation said in a statement.

We’re killing them before we even know them

The same report indicates another major issue: we’re wiping out populations of animals before we even know they exist. The IUCN statement describes 700 newly recognized bird species, 11% of which are already threatened with extinction.

“Many species are slipping away before we can even describe them,” says IUCN Director General Inger Andersen. “This IUCN Red List update shows that the scale of the global extinction crisis may be even greater than we thought. Governments gathered at the UN biodiversity summit in Cancun have the immense responsibility to step up their efforts to protect our planet’s biodiversity — not just for its own sake but for human imperatives such as food security and sustainable development.”

Usually, we’d be happy when new animal species are described but this time, it comes with a dire warning: no one is safe from human activity, not one corner of the Earth has remained untouched by humanity. We are threatening animals we haven’t even properly discovered – and some of them, we’re killing off entirely. Thirteen of the newly recognized bird species enter the IUCN Red List as Extinct – and one can only guess how many other species went extinct without us ever knowing.

“Unfortunately, recognizing more than 700 ‘new’ species does not mean that the world’s birds are faring better,” says Dr Ian Burfield, BirdLife’s Global Science Coordinator. “As our knowledge deepens, so our concerns are confirmed: unsustainable agriculture, logging, invasive species and other threats — such as the illegal trade highlighted here — are still driving many species towards extinction.”

Source: International Union for Conservation of Nature.

humpback whale

Selective wipe out of large marine species sets the stage for an unprecedented sixth mass extinction

humpback whale

Credit: Pixabay

The past five mass extinctions known to paleontologists follow no preferential pattern on which marine species were lost. For some time, scientists have warned that wildlife is headed for a sixth major extinction, one that may have already started and is caused primarily by humans. A new study suggests that this mass extinction is unprecedented on a couple of levels, among which the way marine species are wiped out. Namely, larger ones are favorably lost which could disrupt marine ecosystems for millions of years.

A consequential bias

“If this pattern goes unchecked, the future oceans would lack many of the largest species in today’s oceans,” said Jonathan Payne, associate professor and chair of geological sciences at Stanford University.

“Many large species play critical roles in ecosystems and so their extinctions could lead to ecological cascades that would influence the structure and function of future ecosystems beyond the simple fact of losing those species.”

Payne and colleagues note that human activities, particularly fishing, are targeting large species like great white sharks, blue whales, and southern bluefin tuna because these are easier to catch and yield a better return. The danger posed to large species of marine life is, thus, disproportionate as smaller species are less targetted. Losing large marine species could have a cascading effect on the local ecosystem as these keep smaller species in check. Payne cites the loss of tritons, large predator snails, which have made room for the crown of thorns starfish to flourish by eating coral.

To assess how the current species loss compares to previous mass extinction events, Payne and colleagues combed through a database of 2,497 groups of marine vertebrate and mollusc over the past 500 years, then compared extinctions to those from the ancient past using a fossil database.

Unlike today, the researchers could find no pattern in ancient times of discriminatory extinction among large or small species. In fact, over the past 66 million years, the researchers found a small link between a species small body size and going extinct — that’s a strong reversal to the present situation.

“We see this over and over again. Humans enter into a new ecosystem, and the largest animals are killed off first. Marine systems have been spared up to now, because until relatively recently, humans were restricted to coastal areas and didn’t have the technology to fish in the deep ocean on an industrial scale,” said Noel Heim, co-author of the new study published in the journal Science.

Though it was surprising for the researchers not to find any strong link between body size and extinction over the last millions of years, the present situation is anything but. That’s because humans have caused many extinctions of large land animals, which are often the first to go. For instance, there’s the Late Quaternary extinction event which followed in the footsteps of the last ice age and saw humans wipe out many megafauna species like the giant short-faced kangaroo, the wombat-like ‘diprotodon’, or the Genyronis Newtoni bird.

Ending on an optimistic note, Payne says that at least the current of species loss among large marine animals is not at the same level as that of lost large land species. “I think there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the oceans, because we haven’t impacted them much yet,” he told the Washington Post. 

The study couldn’t have been timed better. The U.S. State Department will soon open the door to its third annual Our Ocean conference which gathers heads of state and environmentalists from all over the world in an effort to find the best solution to the ocean’s most complex problems.

Humpback whales bounce back from the brink of extinction

Humpback whales have made an epic return. Nine out of 14 distinct populations have now been crossed off the federal endangered species list. Four populations retain their endangered status, while one is listed as threatened.

Humpbacks frequently breach, throwing two-thirds or more of their bodies out of the water and splashing down on their backs. Photo by Wwelles14.

Conservation efforts do work, at least when they’re done properly. It took 50 years, but international efforts to protect humpback whales have been met with success as the numbers increased steadily decade after decade.

Humpback whales were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th and 20th century, mostly for their meat and fat, which was used much like oil. But a moratorium was passed in 1966, effectively banning whaling – and this was the key turning point for the whales. Now, after almost half a century, they’re finally off the endangered list.

“Today’s news is a true ecological success story,” Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in a statement.

The feeling was echoed by many groups who reported seeing plenty of whales and wanted this change to underline a healthy recovery.

“We just saw a lot of whales. So we thought this is a success in ocean management and we wanted to point that out to the world – that things are good with whales in Hawaii,” said Phil Fernandez, president of the Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition.

The image above, provided by NOAA, shows the 14 newly-identified humpback whale population segments and their migratory patterns.

Angela Somma, chief of NOAA Fisheries’ endangered species division, said “very little will actually change” in efforts to protect whales. According to her, humpbacks will still receive protection and the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling will also remain in place.

“Many of the day-to-day protections and activities will continue to occur,” Somma said in a call to reporters Tuesday. “We will continue to work and maintain their conservation.”

However, not everyone agrees with this. Several biologists and conservationists have asked for continued protection on the endangered list.

According to the Miami Herald, Center for Biological Diversity attorney Kristen Monsell said that humpback whales face significant and growing threats, including getting entangled in fishing gear. She says the protections should stay in place for the whales.

It is true that even without whaling, humpbacks face growing challenges. They are vulnerable to collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gear and noise pollution.

“These whales face several significant and growing threats, including entanglement in fishing gear, so ending protections now is a step in the wrong direction,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

Hopefully, the recovery won’t backfire and humpback whales will enjoy their recovery as time passes on.

Four populations are still considered endangered, including those that frequent waters in the Pacific Northwest, Central America, the Arabian Sea and northwest Africa.

Four out of six great apes are almost extinct because of us

While the situation of pandas is improving, the same can’t be said about great apes. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the governing body of protected species, four of the six species of great apes are Critically Endangered – only one step away from going extinct. The remaining two are also under considerable threat of extinction.

Photo taken by Kabir Bakie at the Cincinnati Zoo July, 2005

Yes, it’s us

The Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei), the largest living primate, has moved from Endangered to Critically Endangered after it lost 70% of its population in just 20 years. Furthermore, Grauer’s Gorilla (G. b. graueri), one subspecies of Eastern Gorilla – has lost 77% of its population since 1994. This decline was brought forth by humans, especially through hunting. These are our closest related animal relatives, and we’re killing them.

“To see the Eastern gorilla – one of our closest cousins – slide towards extinction is truly distressing,” says Inger Andersen, IUCN Director General. “We live in a time of tremendous change and each IUCN Red List update makes us realize just how quickly the global extinction crisis is escalating. Conservation action does work and we have increasing evidence of it. It is our responsibility to enhance our efforts to turn the tide and protect the future of our planet.”

Killing and hunting great apes is illegal, but that doesn’t seem to stop poachers. In 2013, a new report showed that nearly 3,000 chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans are illegally killed or stolen from the wild each year, though the real figure is likely higher. Pair that off with habitat reduction, and survival becomes almost impossible.

“We are driving our closest living relatives to extinction, which is sickening,” said Dr Muttulingam Sanjanyan, vice-president at Conservation International.

According to him, local populations could greatly benefit from keeping the apes alive, but if we can’t do that, future generations will only see great apes in history books.

In many places of the world, especially in the ones richest in biodiversity, habitats are being destroyed at alarming paces, and the habitats of great apes are no exception. For most mammals, habitat destruction is the biggest problem, and this likely won’t stop anytime in the near future.

“Illegal hunting and habitat loss are still major threats driving many mammal species towards extinction,” says Carlo Rondinini, Coordinator of the mammal assessment at Sapienza University of Rome.

Many biologists believe we, as a society, are causing the planet’s sixth major extinction. An analysis conducted by Naturfound that 41% of all amphibians on the planet now face extinction while 26% of mammal species and 13% of birds are similarly threatened. The IUCN Red List now includes 82,954 species of which 23,928 are threatened with extinction.

Global warming and humans — a lethal combination for megafauna

Pleistocene megafauna. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pleistocene megafauna. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Megafauna is an umbrella term for massive ancient mammals like the sabretooth tiger, the woolly mammoth, the woolly rhino and the giant armadillo. These animals were extremely successful for hundreds of thousands of years, having survived many climate change events like ice ages. All of these animals, however, went extinct over the course of 80,000 years, with the last ones being wiped just 10,000 years ago.

Megafauna sandwich

Scientists have debated whether a lone climate event, human hunting or both had been responsible for this massive die off. Mounting evidence seems to point towards the latter.

All across the world, archaeologists have found butchered bones of the supersized mammals, like bears ten times bigger than today’s grizzlies. Some of this forensic evidence comes from Patagonia from 13,000 years or around the time humans started settling the Americas, which sort of fits the narrative that hunters wiped out the megafauna.  Alan Cooper, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, says that this is just one side of the picture. Recent developments suggest humans were in the Americas even 15,000 years ago which can only mean there were periods lasting thousands of years of equilibrium before the species were finally destroyed from the face of the Earth.

Cooper and colleagues turned to ice cores drilled from Greenland and Antartica. Trapped in the ice were telltale signs that the planet’s average temperatures jumped fast around 12,000 years ago. Patagonia warmed by as much as  2°C over 1000 years and all of the species Cooper studied went extinct during this time, as reported in Science Advances. All but one, a lone survivor called the guanaco which is a llama relative and still alive today.

Cooper’s team found a similar extinction pattern following the planet’s warming in Northern America.

Dramatic shifts in climate were common occurrences, yet the megafauna survived them. But not anymore after humans entered the picture, Cooper said. His opinion seems to be backed by a massive study undertaken last year by scientists from  Exeter and Cambridge University. They ran a statistical analysis in which all the possible times megafauna species could have become extinct were scrutinized, then set against the times humans first arrived in various places. The conclusion was stark:

“As far as we are concerned, this research is the nail in the coffin of this 50-year debate — humans were the dominant cause of the extinction of megafauna,” said Lewis Bartlett, from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation, which ran the study. “What we don’t know is what it was about these early settlers that caused this demise.

“Were they killing them for food, was it early use of fire or were they driven out of their habitats? Our analysis doesn’t differentiate, but we can say that it was caused by human activity more than by climate change. It debunks the myth of early humans living in harmony with nature.”

Still many questions are left unanswered. Did humans populations rise rapidly following global warming upping demand for game? Did humans disrupt the migration of species looking for new habitats? We might one day find out, as science inches in on the truth, one question and answer at a time.

Fossil Friday: Helicoprion

Helicoprion bessonovi fossil, housed at The Idaho Museum of Natural History’s Earth Science collection.
Image via imnh

Helicoprion is an extinct genus of shark-like, cartilaginous fish that lived from the early Permian (~290 m.y. ago) all through to the massive Permian-Triassic extinction episode (roughly 250 m.y. ago.)

Their most distinctive characteristic, the lower jaw, baffled scientists for over a hundred years. This “tooth-whorl” structure was the only bony tissue to be found in the animal’s body, and the only part of it that fossilizes under normal conditions — so for all this time, paleontologists didn’t have enough context to describe it beyond “round…thingy. With teeth!”

In 2011 IMNH researchers performed a CT scan on an exceptionally well preserved specimen that contained the elusive jaws. The research eventually led to the first accurate reconstruction of the shark as well as placing in its proper position on the great tree of life.

The CAT scans also allowed a partial reconstruction of the rest of the animal, estimated to have been 3-4 meters (9.8 to 13.1 feet) long, but some potentially grew to almost 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) long. As their jaws aren’t resilient enough to break shells, Helicoprion most likely dined on soft prey, such as mollusks.

World tiger numbers are increasing for the first time in over a century

For the first time in over one hundred years worldwide tiger numbers have increased, but there are still only 3,900 specimens in the wild.

via Pixabay.

To most people, the fact that the world’s most majestic felines are drawing close to extinction would come as a shock, but conservationists have been trying to make this point for decades. We have slowly been driving tigers extinct since the early 1900s, but there may still be hope. In 2010, there were ‘as few as 3,200’ tigers, but their numbers have grown up to almost 3,900. The figure comes from IUCN data and the latest national tiger surveys.

“For the first time after decades of constant decline, tiger numbers are on the rise. This offers us great hope and shows that we can save species and their habitats when governments, local communities and conservationists work together,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International.

via WWF.

The rise in numbers is likely owed to improved surveys and enhanced protection programs, especially in countries such as India, Russia, Nepal and Bhutan. The announcement comes right before what promises to be a crucial meeting, the Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation.

“This is a critical meeting taking place at the halfway point in the Tx2 goal,” said Dr Rajesh Gopal, Secretary General, Global Tiger Forum. “Tiger governments will decide the next steps towards achieving this goal and ensuring wild tigers have a place in Asia’s future.”

However, because this figure is largely based on national surveys, it may not reflect the actual situation, as countries may be overestimating their tiger populations.

India currently hosts more than half of all the world’s wild tigers, an estimated 2,226. Russia comes in at second with 433, followed by Indonesia (371) and Malaysia (250). At the start of the 20th century, there were over 100,000 tigers in the wild, which means that 97% of the population has since been wiped out. Humans were the main contributor for these loses, mostly due to habitat destruction and fragmentation, poaching and killings for usage in traditional Chinese medicine – a growing concern. There are six tiger species still living today, while three species have already been extinct: the Bali, Caspian and Javan tigers. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has played a crucial role in improving international efforts for tiger conservation, but the future of this iconic species still remains in question.

“The global decline has been halted but there is still no safe place for tigers. Southeast Asia, in particular, is at imminent risk of losing its tigers if these governments do not take action immediately,” warned Michael Baltzer, lead of the WWF’s initiative to double the global wild tiger population.

Artist impression of Lystrosaurus. Image: Nobu Tanura/Wikimedia

Live fast, die young: the secret to surviving a mass extinction

The Permo-Triassic mass extinction (PTME) which occurred some 252 million years ago marks the time life came closest to complete annihilation. Almost 90% of animal species went extinct and nearly all trees were obliterated by acid rain and volcanic eruptions in Siberia that triggered climate change. In this massive run for your life cataclysm, those who were quickest to adapt preserved their lineage. There are a couple of things that can help  like morphological disparity, abundance, behaviour and resource availability. Drastically reducing body size and, maybe most importantly, lifespan may have been the most important course of action evolution undertook to preserve some species, paleontologists argue.

Artist impression of Lystrosaurus. Image: Nobu Tanura/Wikimedia

Artist impression of Lystrosaurus. Image: Nobu Tanura/Wikimedia

South African paleontologists at the National Museum, Bloemfontein found that therapsids — precursors to mammals — were able to cross the PTME survival bottleneck by significantly reducing their lifespan.

Scientists can infer lifespan by analyzing growth records preserved in bone fossils. One therapid, called  Lystrosaurus, must have started breeding when they were only juveniles seeing how pre-PTME individuals used to live up to 15 years, but following the extinction event only individual two to three years of age were found.

The reduction in lifespan was accompanied by a significant cut down in size.  Lystrosaurus used to weigh hundreds of kilograms and could grow to several meters in length, but post-extinction it didn’t grow bigger than a large canine.

In the end, these ‘tricks’ paid off. Ecological simulations showed that by making these swift adaptation,  Lystrosaurus increased survival odds by 40 percent.

Some scientists believe that a sixth major extinction, one caused by humans and not natural climate shifts, is looming. For instance, the Atlantic cod has drastically reduced its body size following overfishing. These fish now have to breed as early as possible to survive. Past  research implies that for every 1C added in temperature, a variety of plants lose between 3-17% in size, while fish shrink by 6-22%.

“With the world currently facing its sixth mass extinction, palaeontological research can help us understand how and why some animals, such as those like Lystrosaurus, thrived in the face of disaster,” said National Museum palaeontologist Jennifer Botha-Brink, the lead author on the paper.

 

Europe might lose its ash trees forever

Europe is likely to lose all its ash trees, the largest-ever survey of the species warns. Plagued by both a fungal disease known as ash-dieback and an invasive species of beetle, the emerald ash borer, the tree might be wiped clean off of the continent.

Image credits Jørgen Larsen

Trees have been a symbol for stability, endurance and stoicism in various arts for a long, long time now. So it’s almost hard to imagine that trees, just like other organisms, can be decimated by outbreaks of disease; but it does happen.

“Between the fungal disease ash dieback and a bright green beetle called the emerald ash borer, it is likely that almost all ash trees in Europe will be wiped out – just as the elm was largely eliminated by Dutch elm disease”.

In the 1970s, Europe’s almost 15 million elm trees became afflicted with the Dutch elm disease and were largely wiped out. Now, under pressure from both a highly aggressive species of invasive beetle and a fungal disease, the continent’s ash trees are facing their own extinction scenario. This is the most common hedgerow tree in the UK, with an estimated 60,000 miles of tree lines. It is the second most common tree in the country’s woodlands after oak, and there are countless ash trees planted in towns and cities.

“Between ash dieback and the emerald ash borer, it is likely that almost all ash trees in Europe will be wiped out, just as the elm was largely eliminated by Dutch elm disease,” said Peter Thomas, tree ecologist at Keele University, UK, and author of the study.

“The two together are a double whammy.”

I don’t even know what a double whammy is but it sounds terrifying. Thomas said that the arrival of the emerald ash borer in the UK is inevitable. This bright green beetle, native to Asia, feeds on ash trees and cause little damage to the plants. The real problem are the larvae which bore under the bark and into the wood, killing the tree.

Close-up of an emerald ash borer beetle.
Image credits USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/ flikr

“It is quite a big beetle, originally from Asia, and can fly a long way. In the past, insect diseases have spread very quickly,” Thomas said.

Attempts to halt the beetle’s spread in North America, by baiting male beetles in traps with female pheromones for example, have failed.

“It is only a matter of time before it spreads across the rest of the Europe – including Britain. Our European ash is very susceptible to the beetle and the beetle is set to become the biggest threat faced by ash in Europe – potentially far more serious than ash dieback.”

Ash dieback was first seen in Eastern Europe in 1992, but has since spread over more than 2 million sq km, from Scandinavia to Italy. The first observed case in the UK was reported in 2012 — but, given the large number of areas in which it has been found, it must have arrived earlier. It’s currently spread from Norfolk and Suffolk to South Wales. Also known as Chalara, the disease is caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus and kills the leaves, then the branches, trunk and eventually the whole tree. It takes a few years for a full-grown tree to succumb to the disease, but a worse-case scenario (such as what happened in Denmark) could see 95% of ash trees lost to the fungus.

Image credits BSBI/ Forestry Commission

“We already have lots that are mortally wounded,” Thomas said.

Ash dieback will be virtually impossible to eradicate from the UK as its spores can be carried for more than 10 miles by wind and survive on woodland floors for four or five years.

But there is some hope. Ash trees are pretty genetically diverse, and some of them have developed a resistance to the fungus. Three genetic markers have been identified that encode this natural resistance, and future planting efforts will use trees selected for these markers. They could also be grafted into trees via genetic engineering.

“Natural tolerance to the disease exists and the UK is leading the way on work to identify resistant strains, investing more than £21m in tree health research. Our approach also includes protecting non-infected areas and managing infected trees,” a DEFRA spokeswoman said.

Defra (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has the emerald ash borer listed as a “significant threat” and is working with other EU nations to contain its spread, such as suspending ash tree imports since ash dieback was first identified in the UK.

“If the ash went, the British countryside would never look the same again,” Thomas said.

But this still leaves the plants defenseless against the ash borer. Beyond the loss of the trees themselves, the species is associated with over 1,000 species of animals, birds and plants. In particular, over a 100 species of lichens, fungi and insects would decline or become extinct if the ash was gone. While it may well be too late to save most ash trees, more could have been done sooner.

“It beggars belief that we had known this disease was coming for decades but we didn’t do anything about it,” Thomas concludes.

The full paper, titled “Biological Flora of the British Isles: Fraxinus excelsior” has been published online in the Journal of Ecology and is available here.