Tag Archives: habitat

Parrots are facing extinction, and only policymakers can save them

Parrots may not be very long for this world — and it’s on us. New research finds that parrot species around the world are threatened with extinction due to wide-spread habitat destruction. Current protected areas can’t mitigate these losses, the team adds.

Image credits Will Zhang.

Pressures from human activity is putting parrot species at risk of extinction all around the world. As such, the future of these birds is firmly in the hands of policy makers in Australia and other areas where parrots are endemic, the authors explain. Agriculture and logging are the biggest culprits that the team identified, but other events (such as the Australian wildfires of last year) are also contributing to the problem.

Parrotn’t?

“In a previous global evaluation of parrots with scientists from BirdLife International we showed that they are among the most threatened bird orders, with higher extinction risk than other comparable bird groups,” co-author Dr. George Olah, from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, said.

As their current range experiences significant habitat destruction, parrot species are struggling to adapt all over the world. Those areas that are currently designated as protected are much too small to serve as alternative home for them.

The study is a product of a collaboration between parrot ecologists at The Australian National University (ANU) and spatial ecologists from the National University of Córdoba, Argentina. It looked at and compared the conservation status of parrots in different areas of the planet in order to come up with a wide-scale picture of the threats they face.

Over half of the world’s critically endangered species of parrot live in Australia, Asia, and the Pacific area, the team explains. Apart from habitat destruction, wildlife trade is further pushing parrot species towards extinction here.

The team explains that temperate forests in Australia (which house many species of parrots) were already showing signs of heavy degradation in 2020 due to human-modified landscapes. They project that this trend will continue and worsen the health of these ecosystems by 2050.

“We predicted that agricultural expansion will have a further negative effect on the conservation status of parrots, pushing many of their species to the edge of extinction in the near future,” co-author Dr. Javier Nori said.

The team identified four hotspots of parrot biodiversity, two in the Neotropics and two in Oceania, noting that each faces “different degrees of threat in regard to current habitat loss and agricultural trends”. They add that the findings “suggest the future of the group is subject to policymaking in specific regions, especially in the northeastern Andes and the Atlantic Forest”.

Deforestation, fueled by the need for arable land, remains a dire threat for parrots. These birds are “highly dependent on forests,” the authors explain, and could be pushed “to the edge of extinction in the near future” as more land is cleared. Policymakers can help protect the birds’s habitat and expand on current protected areas, or even set up new ones in the hotspots.

The paper “Global trends of habitat destruction and consequences for parrot conservation” has been published in Global Change Biology.

Silica aerogel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Human outposts on Mars could be sheltered by a thin layer of ‘frozen smoke’

Silica aerogel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Silica aerogel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a lot of talk about putting boots on Mars but hype aside here’s one important thing that this conversation is often missing: Mars is extremely inhospitable.

The atmosphere is thin and unbreathable and the temperature on Mars can get down to nearly minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit (-128°C). In order to make the planet more bearable, some have even proposed extreme solutions such as terraforming Mars. However, there are more realistic solutions. Recently, a group of scientists has proposed using an insulating material called silica aerogel — often called “frozen smoke” due to its appearance — like a blanket to warm plant life growing beneath it.

Building a tiny Earth underneath a dome

Silica aerogel is the most common and most studied form of aerogel. It’s lighter than air and is transparent enough to let visible light pass through while blocking harmful ultraviolet rays. In a new study, researchers at the Harvard University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and the University of Edinburgh investigated whether a thin layer of silica aerogel could be used to mimic Earth’s greenhouse effect.

The research team simulated the Martian environment in a lab. They simulated light hitting the surface in Mars-like conditions and used a layer of silica approximately 3 cm thick as an insulator.

The researchers then measured the temperature and the amount of UV radiation that passed through the aerogel layer, with very promising results. The temperature difference between the top and bottom layer was more than 50 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). Raising the temperature permanently above the melting point of water and filtering ultraviolet radiation are essential properties required for plant life — and the aerogel can achieve both, all without the need for any internal heat source.

“This regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification,” said Robin Wordsworth, Assistant Professor at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “Unlike the previous ideas to make Mars habitable, this is something that can be developed and tested systematically with materials and technology we already have.”

“Mars is the most habitable planet in our Solar System besides Earth,” said Laura Kerber, Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But it remains a hostile world for many kinds of life. A system for creating small islands of habitability would allow us to transform Mars in a controlled and scalable way.”

The researchers sought inspiration in the Martian polar ice caps. Unlike those on Earth, which are made of frozen water, the Martian polar ice caps are made of frozen water and frozen CO2. The interesting thing about frozen CO2 is that it allows sunlight to pass through while trapping heat, creating a sort of greenhouse effect during the summer, allowing warm pockets to form. Silica aerogel is a lot like frozen CO2 since it allows light to move through the material while trapping infrared radiation in its interconnecting nanolayers of silicon dioxide. Its excellent thermal insulating properties are the reason why aerogels are widely used in many space applications, including NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers.

In the summer, frozen carbon dioxide creates pockets of warming under the ice, seen here as black dots in the ice. Credit: Harvard SEAS.

In the summer, frozen carbon dioxide creates pockets of warming under the ice, seen here as black dots on the ice. Credit: Harvard SEAS.

By combining their experiments’ results with modeling, the researchers concluded in the journal Nature Astronomy that a thin layer of this material could be used to envelop a small area of mid-latitude Mars to achieve Earth-like temperatures.

“Spread across a large enough area, you wouldn’t need any other technology or physics, you would just need a layer of this stuff on the surface and underneath you would have permanent liquid water,” said Wordsworth.

So, rather than terraforming an entire planet — something which is physically impossible with today’s technology — this approach essentially involves terraforming just a small, manageable patch of Mars. The researchers envision a huge habitation dome built out of silica aerogel, where plants could grow underneath.

Of course, there are still many engineering challenges that need to be addressed. The aerogel dome wouldn’t be able to raise the atmospheric pressure, which right now hovers at around a pitiful six millibars — tiny compared to the one bar at sea level on Earth. According to a study previously reported by Bruce Jakosky at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Christopher Edwards at Northern Arizona University, we would need something like a million ice cubes of carbon dioxide ice that are a kilometer across in order to do get to one bar. However, there’s only enough carbon dioxide in the Martian polar ice caps, dust and rocks to raise the pressure to 20 millibars at most. Martian storms, such as the one that shut down the Opportunity Rover last year, can also be very intense and strong. It would be not easy to make an aerogel dome that could brave Martian sand storms.

Wordsworth also points out that there are ethical considerations when building habitats on Mars.

“If you’re going to enable life on the Martian surface, are you sure that there’s not life there already? If there is, how do we navigate that,” asked Wordsworth. “The moment we decide to commit to having humans on Mars, these questions are inevitable.”

Chernobyl has turned into a thriving habitat for hundreds of species

Without disruptive human activity, the ‘exclusion zone’ of Chernobyl has become a green oasis teeming with life. Defying expectations, the heavily irradiated area has become a vibrant wildlife hub.

In a way, Chernobyl is one big tragic science lab. Image credits: Yasemin Atalay/Unsplash.

A tragic accident

The fateful day of 26 April, 1986, will forever remain in history as the date of the disastrous Chernobyl explosion. The largest nuclear accident in history, the Chernobyl explosion emitted more than 400 times the radiation from the bomb dropped over Hiroshima during World War II. It’s unclear just how many people were killed directly and indirectly by the event, but the kill count is huge. More than 350,000 people were evacuated from the site and never returned.

The environment was also dramatically affected by the explosion. The infamous “Red Forest” was closest to the nuclear plant, and took the brunt of the radiation. Almost all its trees were killed by the radiation, with the leaves turning red (hence the name). All but a handful of animals were also killed, and the survivors all had taken high doses of radiation. Most scientists believed that the area would be abandoned by wildlife, becoming a ‘desert’ for centuries.

They were wrong.

Just 33 years after the explosion, the area is inhabited by over 200 species, including bison, brown bears, lynxes, horses, and countless birds. Even with all the radiation, the lack of human activity was enough to spur a thriving ecosystem.

Defying the odds

European bison, boreal lynx, moose and brown bear photographed inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). Image credits: Proyecto TREE/Sergey Gaschack.

The area around Chernobyl is not exactly a safe space. There’s still a dangerous amount of radiation, and spending more than a day or two can be quite risky. However, several groups of scientists were curious to see how the wildlife at Chernobyl was faring. After all, it’s a rare chance to study a unique environment, with conditions that aren’t present anywhere else in the world.

In Portsmouth, England, about 30 researchers from Europe met up to present their results on the wildlife in Chernobyl. It all pointed to the same thing: the environment seemed to have recovered greatly and life there had started to develop adaptations to living in high levels of radiation. For instance, researchers studying amphibians, one of the more delicate groups of creatures, have observed well-established communities in the area, which are showing some signs of adaptations, such as turning darker.

Motion cameras installed in the area have also captured images of large mammals such as bison, wolves, moose, and even horses (Przewalski horses, the world’s last free horses), which seem to be doing fine and increasing in numbers despite the radiation levels in the exclusion area.

However, that’s not to say that the radiation doesn’t have a negative effect. Insects tend to have a shorter lifespan in the area, and some birds are showing higher rates of albinism and physical malformations.

Images taken with some of the camera traps reveal stunningly active animal communities.

It’s not exactly clear why the animals around Chernobyl are doing so well, although researchers have a few theories. The first one is that animals are simply more resilient to radiation than anticipated, or they are developing adaptations much faster than expected. This would be great news — but the other theory isn’t nearly as optimistic.

Simply put, what makes Chernobyl different nowadays is the presence of radiation and the absence of humans. If the animals are doing better than in other parts of the world, it could mean that the environmental pressure generated by humans is larger than a nuclear explosion — a revealing vision of the type of impact we’re having on the world.

The future of Chernobyl

It’s not exactly clear what will happen to the area now. It’s still a contaminated area, but in recent years, interest regarding Chernobyl has spiked from more than one group. Scientists are interested in studying it because it serves as a natural laboratory. The site has also developed into a bit of a tourist attraction, for small groups interested in a different kind of experience. Officially, some 70,000 tourists have visited the area in 2018 alone, though the real number is likely much higher. There are also plans for developing a solar panel field in the area, as well as expanding forestry. Last year, there was even an art gallery and a techno party inside of Pripyat, the now-abandoned city which hosted Chernobyl.

As weird as it sounds, in the long run, we might have to think of ways to conserve the thriving wildlife in Chernobyl and ensure that this unlikely oasis continues to survive without human interference.

Chimpanzees grooming.

Human interference is destroying chimpanzee culture, a new paper reports

Chimpanzees stand out among other non-human species for their diverse behavior and culture. But, that may not keep true for long, as human activity is essentially destroying that culture, a new study reports.

Chimpanzees grooming.

Young chimpanzees grooming one another.
Image credits Tambako The Jaguar / Flickr.

All great apes, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) included, are feeling immense pressure as a result of human activity destroying their habitats. Tropical rainforests and savannas (prime habitats for many of these species) are especially-taxed, as they’re being cleared away to make room for croplands, infrastructure, or real estate.

So, it’s not surprising that loss of wildlife is mostly looked at through the lens of biodiversity loss — the decline in the overall number of species or genetic diversity in an ecosystem. However, that’s only part of the picture, a new paper explains. We should also look to what toll our activities take on behavioral diversity in the wild, which is a rarely-looked-at facet of biodiversity.

How chimps are faring

The team, led by Hjalmar Kühl and Ammie Kalan of the Department of Primatology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), worked with a dataset detailing the behavior of 31 chimpanzees from 144 different social groups or communities spread across the ape’s entire geographic range.

Part of this data was available from previous research, and the rest was recorded by the team at 46 locations over the last 9 years, as part of the Pan African Programme (not to be confused with the EU’s Pan-African Programme). The data focused mainly on extraction and consumption of termites, ants, algae, nuts, and honey, tool use, along with the use of stones, pools, and caves for shelter among several other factors. Such activities, the team writes, are passed down socially in chimpanzee communities and vary from group to group, essentially forming a ‘cultural’ background.

The occurence of each type of behavior was analyzed in regards to an overall measure of human impact at each site. This figure aggregates several factors (such as human population density and, road, river, and forest cover) that indicate the level of disturbance and the degree of habitat change caused by human activity.

“The analysis revealed a strong and robust pattern: chimpanzees had reduced behavioral diversity at sites where human impact was high,” explains Kalan.

“This pattern was consistent, independent of the grouping or categorization of behaviors. On average, chimpanzee behavioral diversity was reduced by 88 percent when human impact was highest compared to locations with the least human impact.”

Population size and integrity play a key role in the maintenance of cultural traits in humans, the team writes. It likely functions the same way in chimpanzee groups, they add. Another possible cause for the observed reduction in behavioral diversity may stem from the chimps avoiding conspicuous behaviors that may draw in hunters, such as nut cracking.

Habitat degradation (and its associated resource depletion) may also limit opportunities for social learning in chimpanzee communities — which would prevent them from passing down traditions between generations. The team also cites climate change as a likely cause, as it may influence the growth cycles of the chimps’ food resources, making them unpredictable.

However, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the observed effects are caused by a combination of these factors.

“Our findings suggest that strategies for the conservation of biodiversity should be extended to include the protection of animal behavioral diversity as well,” says Kühl.

“Locations with exceptional sets of behaviors may be protected as ‘Chimpanzee cultural heritage sites’ and this concept can be extended to other species with high degree of cultural variability as well, including orangutans, capuchin monkeys or whales.”

The paper “Human impact erodes chimpanzee behavioral diversity” has been published in the journal Science.

Mussel bed.

“Ecological air conditioning” keeps species cool for now, but it won’t last

Natural habitats play a key role in insulating plants and animals from heat stress, a new paper reports. The finding raises concerns regarding our predictions of how resilient the biosphere will prove to be in the face of climate change, as loss of cornerstone species will have a cascading effect throughout whole ecosystems.

Mussel bed.

Mussels are among the animals that maintain comfortable conditions for other species. If they go, the whole ecosystem collapses.
Image credits Richard Kirk.

The research focused on the rocky shorelines stretching from the Channel Islands, California, through to Washington’s Olympic National Park. Because of the shallow waters, marine wildlife in this area is exposed to much higher temperatures than farther away from the coast, putting them at risk of suffering from heat stress.

If so, why haven’t the inhabitants of these beaches moved to deeper waters, where temperatures are comfortable round the clock? One team of researchers, led by Laura Jurgens, a postdoc researcher with the Temple University and Smithsonian Institution, say it’s because the local ecosystem itself protects species here from the excess temperature.

Natural air conditioning

Just as trees support habitats that birds and chipmunks thrive in (thus forming the cornerstone of the ecosystems), so too do species like mussels and seaweed maintain optimal habitats for other coastal species. They also keep overall temperatures in check, so that members of the same species living in southern California ultimately see no difference in heat stress compared to their counterparts in northern Washington.

It’s very good news for beach-dwelling critters everywhere, but it also raises an immediate concern — when the cornerstone species become overtaxed and can’t maintain ecosystem status quo any longer, all the species relying on their efforts will be left without a home and with precious little time to adapt.

“We might take for granted some of the resilience of our ecosystems because we don’t realize how much they depend on these habitats,” said lead author Laura Jurgens, who was a Ph.D. candidate at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory at the time of the study. “For creatures that live in mussel beds and seaweed beds, it’s like having a house with air conditioning at low tide. You can tolerate a lot of what goes on outside if you have air conditioning. But if you’re looking at a future with more intense heat waves, and you don’t have air conditioning anymore, you wonder, ‘Where can I go?'”

“For these species, they could make a big move north, but it won’t help — they still need these habitats to keep the heat in a tolerable range.”

The authors explain that plants and animals that occupy habitats serving as “ecological air conditioning” won’t need to relocate as temperatures start increasing. It’s a “deceptive” resilience, however. Cornerstone species will be increasingly strained over time, making them vulnerable to sudden events like warm ocean fronts or heat waves, diseases, and extreme storms. When they get overwhelmed, the whole ecosystem will go down with them, the authors warn.

Scientists have observed some plants and animals leaving lower latitudes for cooler ones under stress by climatic changes. The authors explain that the effect ecosystems play in regulating temperature is, in fact, much more pronounced than that of latitude.

Overall, the study raises some immediate concerns regarding the health of our ecosystems. On the one hand, their effect might have made us underestimate the full effects of climate change on different species of plants and animals. Secondly, it showcases just how important habitat integrity is to the well-being of species at large (on which humans also ultimately depend on), reinforcing the benefits of conservation efforts.

“If you’re an octopus living in a mussel bed, the most important thing to keep your body temperature survivable is that mussel bed around you, not whether you live in Southern California, where it’s warmer, or Washington,” Jurgens said.

“People are really big compared to most organisms on the planet,” she adds. “We’re enormous, and it’s hard for us to understand what it’s like to be in these habitats unless you imagine yourself in a place like a forest you walk into on a hot day. If that temperature is what you need to survive, that forest better be there.”

Finally, the team writes that their findings have implications for other habitats like grasslands and rainforests as well, which support millions of smaller species. The worst case scenario we’re looking at is this – habitat failure begins slowly, imperceptibly, in isolated pockets, and then cascades as the ecosystems that relied on those habitats crack under the strain – it’s a truly terrible chain reaction. Destroying habitats, no matter where they are found (which make no mistake, we are doing right now) will severely damage climate resilience. Restoring, nurturing and conserving them can help maintain biodiversity – and ultimately, our wellbeing – as the climate warms.

The paper “Physical effects of habitat-forming species override latitudinal trends in temperature” has been published in the journal Ecology Letters.

Giant Panda Eating.

Increasingly fragmented habitats may spell doom for the giant panda

Giant pandas are making a comeback — but their habitat is still taking a beating, satellite data reveals.

Giant Panda Eating.

Image credits Chen Wu.

Back in 1988 giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) weren’t in a great shape. In fact, they were struggling so much so that the species was listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as endangered. Not somewhere you want to find yourself.

Luckily, since then things have been looking up for our furred friends. They’ve become the de-facto poster-species for conservation efforts and green living at large, and just last year, it was decided they’ve recovered enough that they can be safely be downgraded to ‘vulnerable’. But not all is well in Pandaland, an international team of researchers reports.

First off, there’s only about 1,800 of them roaming about in the wild, so extending reserves and establishing new ones is still critical to ensure the species’ survival. But more worryingly, the animals’ habitat is becoming a fragmented mosaic of what it once was.

Eye in the sky

“What’s new in this study is our ability to assess the status of the giant panda by using satellite imagery and then use that information to come up with recommendations of how better to manage this iconic threatened species,” said Prof Stuart Pimm, of Duke University, North Carolina, US, who is a researcher on the study.

Drawing on satellite imagery and remote sensing, the joint Chinese-US team assessed changes across the giant pandas’ range from 1976 to 2013. They report that suitable panda habitats have been substantially reduced over this period as a result of earthquakes and human encroachment from agriculture, building, tourism, and logging. The issue isn’t so much one of size — habitat area has decreased by almost 5% from 1976 to 2001, but has since been increasing, they explain. The real issue is habitat fragmentation, which limits a population’s access to food and water sources, and isolates groups and their gene pools from the species at large, promoting inbreeding. Average habitat-patch size was gone down 23% over the same period and has only “slightly” increased since.

“I think we now understand we’ve got to keep an eye on the habitats where pandas live,” said paper co-author Prof Pimm. “But it also points to the need to try and re-connect isolated panda habitats by building what we call biological corridors.”

Developments such as roads running through a habitat will effectively cleave it in two smaller pieces, isolating groups of animals from one another. Creating ways for them to communicate (such as road over- or under-passes, structures know as biological corridors) is essential to ensure the health of the overall species. Similarly, future developments should be designed “responsibly with the lowest possible environmental impact,” says WWF’s Head of Asian programmes, John Baker.

Today, pandas in the wild inhabit areas throughout six mountain ranges in China’s Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Apart from the issue of habitat fragmentation, the team reports that the regions are making some “encouraging” changes, such as slamming the breaks on logging and establishing nature reserves.

“But conservation is a dynamic process with humans and nature in a constant push and pull to survive and thrive, so new solutions always are in demand,” says paper co-author Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University.

The paper “Reassessing the conservation status of the giant panda using remote sensing” has been published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Three new species of toad discovered in Nevada

Discoveries of toads are extremely rare in the United States, which makes this find even more special.

A recently discovered new species of toad, the Dixie Valley toad, was found by a team from the University of Nevada, Reno. Photo by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno.

Biodiversity

Over a painstaking decade, Nevada researchers surveyed a 190,000 square mile surface, on an ancient lake bottom that’s since become a desert. During the Pleistocene, that area was covered by shallow lake and marshes, but nowadays it’s one of the most arid areas in the US — only 1% of it contains water.

It took them a long time before they could find the new species and establish their characteristics, but it was all worth it. The three new species, Dixie Valley toad, Railroad Valley toad, and Hot Creek, are not connected to each other geographically, each found in different habitats.

“We’ve found the toads in small, wet habitats surrounded by high-desert completely cut off from other populations,” Dick Tracy, a renowned biology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lead scientist on the project, said. “These are absolutely new, true species that have been separated from other populations for 650,000 years.”

The initial objective of the survey wasn’t to identify new species, but rather to quantify biodiversity along the area. Finding new species was surprising, but it just goes to show just how much we’ve yet to discover.

“Our goal has been to understand the relationships among toad populations in the Great Basin,” Tracy said. “We’ve found that our knowledge of amphibian diversity in the western United States remains incomplete and that novel discoveries continue to occur, even in unlikely settings. This is really, really neat; an exciting thing, to find something not known to exist before.”

The new species resemble others, but using 30 “shape” metrics and DNA analysis, Tracy’s team was able to show that they really are new species. All three exhibit significant differences both from each other and from previously described species.

Species and threats

A view of the Dixie Valley toad’s habitat in Churchill County, Nevada, about 100 miles east of Reno. (Photo: Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity).

The star of the show is definitely the Dixie Valley toad. This adorable little critter was found in Churchill County about 100 miles east of Reno. It only inhabits an isolated spring-fed marsh that covers only four square miles. This makes it highly vulnerable to any changes in that particular area.

Notably, the Dixie Valley, where the toad was found, is hot and geothermally active — and one geothermal project is adjacent to that very marsh. The project is currently being reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management. If it gets the green light, the area will change significantly and this could threaten the newly found toad.

“If this power plant goes in and the habitat is dried up, this recently discovered species could go extinct,” Tracy said. “It’s a good candidate for an Endangered Species Act listing. The ESA was passed under Richard Nixon in 1973, and the second species listed under the new Act was the Houston Toad. This is a tough conflict between commerce and biological resources, and we need to seek compromises so if the project proceeds, it won’t hurt the toads.”

Despite its limited geographical distribution, researchers weren’t really able to establish their numbers. The toads are perfectly concealed in their habitat — which is one of the reasons why they haven’t been discovered until now — and this makes counting them very difficult. Also, no matter how many there are, if the water runs out, they can’t survive.

The other two species are in a similar situation — unknown numbers, very limited habitat. It’s an exciting discovery, but a very fragile one.

Journal Reference: C. Richard Tracy et al. A diamond in the rough desert shrublands of the Great Basin in the Western United States: A new cryptic toad species (Amphibia: Bufonidae: Bufo (Anaxyrus)) discovered in Northern Nevada. Zootaxa, July 2017

Bumblebees in Europe and North America bumble away from the equator as habitats shrink due to climate change

In the most comprehensive study ever conducted of the impacts of climate change on critical pollinators, scientists have discovered that global warming is rapidly shrinking the area where these bees are found in both North America and Europe.

Researchers examined more than 420,000 historical and current records of many species of bumblebees and confirm that they are in steep decline at a continental scale because of climate change. The new research is reported in the journal Science.

Bumble, bumble, toil and trouble. Image via: pixgood.com

The reduction in the habitable areas of these tiny fuzzy insects would make being a bumblebee really cramped and uncomfortable (we sympathize with the plight of our bumblebee readers), but more importantly, it would affect entire ecosystems that rely on them for food:

“Bumblebees pollinate many plants that provide food for humans and wildlife,” says Leif Richardson, a scientist at the University of Vermont who helped lead the new research. “If we don’t stop the decline in the abundance of bumblebees, we may well face higher food prices, diminished varieties, and other troubles.”

And we, as a species, rely on them, their honeybee brethren and other pollinators heavily in agriculture; farmers worldwide depend on them to pollinate crops, from onions to celery to tomatoes and sunflowers effectively, and free of charge. The buzz is a bonus.

“Pollinators are vital for food security and our economy, and widespread losses of pollinators due to climate change will diminish both,” stated leader of the study Jeremy Kerr, a biologist from the University of Ottawa. “We need to figure out how we can improve the outlook for pollinators at continental scales, but the most important thing we can do is begin to take serious action to reduce the rate of climate change.”

If only this poor farmer fought climate change so he would have a few bumblebees.
Image via: garden.lovetoknow.com

Many species of animals and insects have been observed to expand their territories northwards, towards the North Pole, as previously frigid lands become more hospitable due to climate change. Bumblebees however are a special and worrying case, as they do not seem to move north at all, and even worse, the southern boundary of their territory is starting to creep away from the equator.

“This was a surprise,” said Richardson, a bee expert at UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. “The bees are losing range on their southern margin and failing to pick up territory at the northern margin–so their habitat range is shrinking.”

The new study shows that the culprit is not pesticides and it’s not land use changes–two other major threats to bumblebee populations and health. Instead, the research shows clearly that this “range compression,” as the scientists call it, tracks with warming temperatures.

The team also found that bumblebees are starting to move to higher elevations, up hill and mountain sides, searching for cooler, more comfortable temperatures.

“Moving upslope doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve lost area there yet,” said UVM’s Richardson, “but, eventually, they may simply run out of hill.”

To conduct their study, the scientist used geo-referenced databases from museum collections on both continents. In Vermont, Leif Richardson examined bee specimens at UVM’s Zadock Thompson Zoological Collections.

Over the 110 years of records that the team examined, bumblebees have lost about 185 miles (300 km) from the southern edge of their range in Europe and North America, the scientists estimate.

“The scale and pace of these losses are unprecedented,” said Ottawa’s Jeremy Kerr.

They speculate that the explanation lies in the bee’s origins: many other species of insects originated and diversified in tropical climates, so the higher temperatures bode them well, as they can better adapt to them. Bumblebees however have “unusual evolutionary origins in the cool Palearctic,” the scientists write, which may help explain their rapid losses of terrain from the south and lagging expansion in the warming north.

To respond to this problem, the research team suggests that a dramatic solution be considered: moving bee populations into new areas where they might persist. This “assisted migration” idea has been considered–and controversial–in conservation biology circles for more than a decade, but is gaining support as warming continues.

“We need new strategies to help these species cope with the effects of human-caused climate change, perhaps assisting them to shift into northern areas,” said Kerr. But the most important message of this study is “the need to halt or reverse climate warming,” says Leif Richardson, a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture postdoctoral research fellow at UVM.

“These findings could spell trouble for many plants–including some crops, like blueberries–that depend on bumblebees for pollination,” he said. “Bumblebees are crucial to our natural ecosystems.”

 

NASA is offering over $2 million for the best design for a 3D printed Martian habitat

NASA is offering up to $2.25 million to anyone that can successfully design a habitat that can be 3D printed on Mars. The announcement is part of a broader attempt by NASA to outsource ideas and projects.

Image via Slashgear.

“Their new adopted home should contain everything needed to comfortably sustain human life, including cooking areas, sleeping quarters and bathroom facilities. Their jobs as geologists, land surveyors, prospectors, scientists, biologists, & engineers should also be considered while creating this structure, as it will act as a prototype for the one that they’ll reside in while on Mars,” NASA said in a press release.

NASA seems to be giving out prizes for innovative like hot cake. Just a few days ago they invited people to submit ideas for how astronauts can reduce their exposure to radiation ($US29,000) and what the first colony would need to survive ($US5000). But this time, the stakes are much higher.

But if you think this is easy money… you’re in for a surprise. The competition will have multiple stages, challenging inventors to not only find a way to 3D print stuff on Mars – but to 3D print a livable habitat, preferably with materials found on-site – and to do so semi-autonomously. NASA’s goal is to send out these self constructing habitats to Mars before actually sending humans, so they will have to manage on their own, with local materials, or at most, materials from the spacecraft.

The first stage, called Structural Member Competition calls for ideas for new fabrication technologies, while the second stage (On-Site Habitat Competition) requires participants to show exactly how their ideas would come to fruition. Both carry a $1.1 million prize.

“We believe that 3D printing/additive manufacturing has the power to fundamentally change the way people approach design and construction for habitats, both on Earth and off,” program partner America Makes director Ralph Resnick said. It’s also hoped the technologies could be used to construct affordable housing in remote locations on Earth.

NASA is integrating 3D printing into their space projects more and more. In 2013, NASA successfully built its first 3D printed rocket engine injector, while last week they 3D-printed a copper combustion chamber capable of withstanding temperatures of over 2760 C (5000 F). 3D printing in space may actually save astronauts a lot of time and effort, and it may also improve their quality of life. Two weeks ago, astronauts onboard the ISS 3D printed an espresso machine.

The bat entrance to the cave. It's missing a waterfall, but it's practical enough for starters. (c) Paul Kingsbury/The Nature Conservancy

Check out the world’s first man-made bat cave

While it may lack most of Bruce Wayne’s gadgets, the very first artificial bat cave in the world is sure to provide resonable accomodations for non-superhero dwellers. The cave was introduced after a group of environmentalists raised money, in an effort to help save thousands of bats from a disease which has claimed the lives of millions of bats so far in North America.

The cave, located in Tennessee where the most documented bat caves in the US can be found, has yet to receive a name and was built as a  sanitary hibernaculum, in an attempt to dwindle the numbers of fallen bats which succumb to white nose syndrome, a condition named for the distinctive fungal growth around the wings and muzzles of hibernating bats that was first discovered in a New York cave six years ago. Since then around 6.7 million bats have perished to the disease.

The bat entrance to the cave. It's missing a waterfall, but it's practical enough for starters. (c) Paul Kingsbury/The Nature Conservancy

The bat entrance to the cave. It’s missing a waterfall, but it’s practical enough for starters.  More photos at the PopSci gallery.(c) Paul Kingsbury/The Nature Conservancy

Back to the bat cave. It’s located near the Tennessee town of Clarksville, and is 78 feet long and 16 feet wide or about the size of a single-wide mobile home. That might sound small, but officials from The Nature Conservancy which built and raised $300,000 for the cave, claim that it can house a minimum of 160,000 of the estimated 265,000 that reside in the nearby Bellamy Cave network, where the syndrome was first discovered back in March.

Cory Holliday, director of the Cave & Karst Program for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, says the cave is completely bat friendly. All sorts of improvised metal works hanging from the cave ceiling ensure that bats can cling onto them for slumber, a rainwater pipe ensures humidity levels are close to their natural habitat as well as provide drinking water. Also, currently two 1.5-ton air conditioning units will run for the next few weeks to drop the cave’s temperature to the required range, between 41 and 50°F. For the sake of science, cameras have been installed to monitor the bat population which is expected to migrate there for winter.

Why go to all this trouble and build an artificial cave when you could simply cleanse the existing infected caves? Well, things is, according to  Sally Palmer, director of science for the Tennesee Conservancy, chemical cleansing of the caves would also kill beneficial fungi. This would debalance the ecosystem and bring a lot more harm than good.

How will the bats know to come here in the first place? Well, the staff installed ultrasonic speakers which are designed to play bat calls around winter migration time, in a move to entice them. If the project works, this could provide a model for a continent wide conservation effort. There are regions in North America where as much as 90% of the bat population was killed by fungi infections.

Source: Popular Science

World’s biggest beaver dam can be seen from space

The biggest beaver dam is (get ready folks), twice as long as the Hoover dam, measuring 2,790 ft (over 800 meters; in fact, it’s so big that you can even see it from space.

beaver_1629011c

Though it may seem pointless for the tiny critters to build, they actually build the dams for a good purpose: the goal is to design a sort of moat where they can make better use of their swimming skills to evade predators. In order to achieve this, they use not only trees and mud, but also stones.

Whole beaver families live in the proximity of the dam, and spend most of their active day repairing and adding to the structure; the biggest such dam is located in the Wood Buffalo National Park in Northern Alberta, Canada.

While it’s not uncommon to find ones of over 1000 feet (or even 1500), the size of this one took all the biologists by surprise. Beaver dams are important not only for ecological purposes, but they also give a good indication about the climate and habitat change.

Sharon Brown, a biologist from Beavers: Wetland and Wildlife, an educational organisation in North America:

“Beavers build dams to create a good habitat. They are very agile in the water but they’re a bit slow moving on land. They create a habitat with lots of water like a moat around their lodges so they can swim and drive and keep one step ahead of predators such as coyotes and bears. They also use water to move the trees they use in their dams because it is easier floating wood on water than dragging them over land. These habitats are not just good for them but for other animals and the environment. Their dams are also good because they slow the flow of water leading to less drought and less flooding. And when plant matters dies in water it turns to peat and that is one of the best ways for storing CO2.”

The March award for awesome animal goes to THE MIMIC OCTOPUS

mimic3

The mimic octopus, Thaumoctopus mimicus is a species of octopus that grows up to 60 cm (2 feet) in length and is naturally colored with brown and white stripes and spots. So what’s so special about it? The mimic octopus can literally mimic the physical appearance and movement of fifteen different species, that we know of (including, but not limited to sea snakes, lionfish, flatfish, brittle stars, giant crabs, sea shells, stingrays, flounders, jellyfish, sea anemones).

This fascinating creatures wasn’t discovered until 11 years ago; after the first one was spotted, a relatively thorough research project was launched, and in the following two years, only 9 different such creatures were seen. The mimic octopus is extremely intelligent and despite the fact that mimicry is quite a common trait among the animal world, Thaumoctopus mimicus is the only observed animal that can mimic multiple species. In fact, it’s so smart that it actually knows what animal is best to mimic. If it’s being hunter, it knows exactly what animal the predator will fear and impersonates that one.

NASA is stunned to find life beneath 183 meters of Antarctic ice

At nearly 200 meters below the ice, there is no light, the temperature is way below 0 degrees, and scientists were expecting to find nothing more than a handful of microbes – and for good reason. So it’s easy to understand why they were so surprised to find not a single (evolved) life form, but actually two such creatures.

Antarctica Sea Life

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration lowered the camera, in an attempt to look deep in the underbelly of Antarctica’s ice; not long after that, a shrimp-like creature swam by and then “landed” on the cable. Scientists also picked up a tentacle that they believe can only come from a jellyfish – a pretty big one too.

“We were operating on the presumption that nothing’s there,” said NASA ice scientist Robert Bindschadler, who will be presenting the initial findings and a video at an American Geophysical Union meeting Wednesday. “It was a shrimp you’d enjoy having on your plate. We were just gaga over it,” he said of the 3-inch-long (76-millimeter, orange critter starring in their two-minute video.

The video forces experts to rethink what they previously believed about where evolved animals can survive in extreme environments; if they can live in this freezing underwater environment, why not on Europa, the frozen moon of Jupiter, or other such places?

“This is a first for the sub-glacial environment with that level of sophistication,” Ellis-Evans said. He said there have been findings somewhat similar, showing complex life in retreating ice shelves, but nothing quite directly under the ice like this.

Lion, Tiger and Bear share impressing friendship

1013716large

They’ve known each other basically all their lives, but the early days weren’t happy at all. Found during a police raid at the home of a drug lord, Leo, Shere Khan and Baloo tied an extremely unusual bond.

They now live their peaceful lives together in the habitat built specifically for them at Noah’s Ark rescue center in Locust Grove, Ga., where they can even go out for a swim in the creek near their… house.

“To our knowledge, this is the only place where you’ll find this combination of animals together, they are our BLT, (bear, lion and tiger),” said Diane Smith, assistant director of the zoo at Noah’s Ark.

“It is wonderful and magical to see a giant American black bear put his arm around a Bengal tiger and then to see the tiger nuzzle up to the bear like a domestic cat. When Leo wakes up, the three of them mess around for most of the day before they settle down to some food.”

Stunning variety of sea life found in Antarctica

005_isopod_crustacean

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) published some quite awesome pictures showing that Antarctica isn’t the lifeless frozen wasteland most people believe it to be; ice fish, octopus, sea pigs, giant sea spiders, rare rays and gorgeous basket stars all thrive in the extreme temperatures in Antarctica’s waters. Well, thrive is perhaps a too strong word, but they’re doing just fine in what seemed to be an impossible habitat.

010_unknown_soft_coral

An unknown coral that awaits identification from experts

“Few people realise just how rich in biodiversity the Southern Ocean is – even a single trawl can reveal a fascinating array of weird and wonderful creatures as would be seen on a coral reef. These animals are potentially very good indicators of environmental change as many occur in the shallows, which are changing fast, but also in deeper water which will warm much less quickly. We can now begin to get a better understanding of how the ecosystem will adapt to change.”, said Dr. David Barnes of BAS

020_young_icefish

A young ocean

022_basket_star

Amazing basket star

“Our research on species living in the waters surrounding the BAS Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula shows that some species are incredibly sensitive to temperature changes. Our new studies on the diverse range of marine creatures living in the deep waters of the Bellingshausen Sea will help us build a more complete picture of Antarctica’s marine biodiversity and give us an important baseline against which we can compare future impact on marine life.”, he added.

024_sea_pig

052_octopus

BAS biologist Dr. Sophie Fielding concludes: “Changes at the Earth’s surface directly affect the surrounding ocean and the marine animals living there. For example accelerating glacier melt, collapse of ice shelves and shrinking winter sea-ice all seem to be impacting sea life. We want to understand that impact and what the implications for the food chain may be.”

047_featherstar

Feather star

Amphipod sandhopper

Amphipod sandhopper

I have to say, it’s exactly this kind of study that shows us exactly how little we know about the very world we live in and how we affect it in ways we don’t even understand. Hopefully, this will make people pay more attention to any environment and ecosystem, no matter how barren it appears to be. I take my hat off.

062_skate

A lovely comb jellyfish

A lovely comb jellyfish

069_isopod_crustacean

VIA Antarctica.ac.uk; go there for more pics in higher resolution and more explanations

120 million crabs hit the streets

Image by Lilolebob.

Every year, around this time of year, more than 100 million determined crabs take to the streets in a massive attempt to get to their spawning grounds as soon as possible; as a result, they literally flood the streets in Christmas island, covering the streets and forcing rangers to divert traffic and use some quite creative methods of protecting the crustaceans.

Photo by Ian Usher.

However, despite the absolutely huge number of crabs, there have been no reports of violence, from any one of the islands 1200 inhabitants. “It is difficult to see crabs in the houses,” one local resident told BBC Brasil. However, the efforts local rangers have been sustaining are nothing short of laudable; they constructed plastic bridges and fences to keep them from more populated areas and even help them across difficult areas (I don’t know, but I’m guessing difficult urbanized obstacles).

At 135 square km and located 370 km off of Indonesia, this Australian territory is often called the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” for its diversity of both plant and animal life. It’s also home to 14 different species of crabs, including the coconut crab, the largest invertebrate in the world. The efforts I mentioned earlier are even more impressive taking into account the 1.5 million people who come to see the amazing wildlife display each year.

 

A fifth of Florida’s pumas were killed in car collisions

panther_next_2_mi

There are less than 100 pumas left in Florida’s wilds, and 17 were killed in collisions with cars, which is even more than in 2008 (when 10 such magnificent creatures found their death after being hit by a car) and 2007 (15). For me, it’s absolutely heart breaking to see this happening.

You’d expect people to learn, after panther numbers were down to just 20-30 in 1990. It took some serious efforts to raise their numbers by almost 10 times, but the future is once again looking dire for the felines.

florida_panther_with_cub

“If we don’t do something quickly to reduce the risks to Florida’s panthers as they move around in search of food, mates and territory, then we are facing loss of this iconic species,” said a member from Defenders of Wildlife. “The panther found dead yesterday should serve as a sobering reminder that we all have to do our part to protect the Florida panther and watch out for wildlife while we drive through their habitat.”

They also proposed some good ideas on how this could be stopped, which you can read on their site.

Japanese project aims to turn CO2 into natural gas

Mankind is screwing up. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is. Not taking care of our natural resources, polluting and destroying habitats, it’s obvious that we, as a species, made some pretty big mistakes, the combined effects of which will come back to haunt us (and already are). But that’s not to say that we’re doomed or something – on the contrary. We can and have to stop these damaging processes and reverse them as much as possible, but that’s not so easy; it’s like U-turning when you’re running at full speed, hard as hell.

smoke-stack-pollution

Finding a way to store or transform the CO2 is among the top priorities in this fight that we are in. If we can come even close to Al Gore’s challenge, we have to first come up with some innovative and efficient methods, and then apply them as quickly as possible.

Such a project was presented by Japanese researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. The team led by Fumio Inagaki announced that they intend to employ the help of bacteria to transform carbon dioxide into regular natural gas. He said that such a bacteria exists ‘deep under the seabed off the northern tip of Japan’s main island’. However, the major difficulties here will be to find a way to ‘train’ the bacteria to become more and more effective and accelerate the process of creating methane gas.

They announced that in a few years from now they will be able to shorten the transformation period to 100 years; this may not seem spectacular at all, but it really is! As far as I know at least, this is the first viable idea to not only dispose of unwanted CO2, but even transform it into something useful, basically killing two birds with one stone. This may not have immediate results and does not eliminate the need for CO2 storage, but it rather suggests what we can do with it after it’s stored, being a long term solution.

Koalas in peril of extinction, due to habitat loss and an AIDS-like virus

The koala population has been going down for quite some while now, mostly due to habitat loss and the lack of laws to protect them, but now it seems they have a really, REALLY big problem. It’s recently been reported that koalas from the Queensland area (and not only) are dying from the spread of an AIDS-like virus, and if things keep going this way, they could be extinct in less than 15 years.

Koala Baby07RAM

”We’re seeing a 100 per cent infection rate in the populations we’re studying. On those figures, it should be considered a disease epidemic,” Australian Wildlife Hospital research director Jon Hanger said.

The big problem is that this retrovirus combines with the habitat loss and there already have been reported some local koala extinctions.

“‘We are losing the battle, and koala populations in smaller fragmented habitats are doomed to extinction. ‘We have hammered our biodiversity like you wouldn’t believe. If you look at a map of Australia on Google Earth you’ll see how few fragments of native vegetation are left across the continent. We have gone way beyond the tipping point for many of our ecosystems.”

Having looked at Google Earth I can say that this statement is not an exaggeration by any standards. He also pointed a finger at the “antiquated legislation” which is currently unable to provide any kind of protection to the little furry fellows.

koala-2

”They were written at a time when the main aim was to make it illegal to kill or collect koalas. They need to be urgently revised to factor in threats posed by climate change, the rapid spread of disease and urban development.”

It’s obvious that the needs and expectancies from the legislators have greatly increased, and hopefully they will see this and make the necessary steps. The Australian Wildlife Hospital and University of Queensland have published a progress report on the moving of young koala populations. The greatest distance traveled was 14km and the reproductive success was really high, but the relocated koalas have numerous problems to cope with. Feral dogs, competition for mates, clearing forests and droughts are just a part of what they will have to face.

As it turns out, the risk of extinction has been greatly misscalculated, underestimated by ~ 100 times ! This also raises more questions as 1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 3 amphibians and 1 in 10 birds are threatened with extinction; what happened if the mathematical model has been wrong here too??

Global warming posts new threats – Australian wildlife

australiaThe threat that global warming is has definetly been underestimated, and if something doesn’t develop quite fast that could handle this problem or at least diminuate its effects (could it be iron fertilization?), the perspectives are quite dire. Everything and everybody is affected, and the effects include the melting of glaciers and the destruction of coral reefs, which is really dangerous.

Now, a new report, Implications of Climate Change for the National Reserve System, was prepared for the Federal Government in Australia, and released April 1 by the Environment Minister Peter Garrett, and author Dr Michael Dunlop says climate change is forcing environmental scientists to rethink their approach. Climate change will change practically all of Australia’s landscapes.

The temperatures are expected to rise by 1 C in the next 20 years, which may not seem huge, but it really is.

“Traditionally, conservation has focused on preventing change or restoring landscapes toward a pre-European state, but we now have to accept that change is inevitable, and it’s happening quite fast,” he says. “Some animals and plants will be found in places where they’ve never been seen before, and others will disappear from areas where they were once common, and for many regions the look, sound, and smell of the landscapes we are familiar with will gradually change.”

The report confirms that Australia’s 9,000 protected areas are critical for nature conservation in a warming world, but Dr Dunlop says new protected areas will also be needed.

“There’s a lot we don’t yet understand, but we know more species will have a greater chance to adapt and survive if we protect:
as many different types of habitat as possible;
larger areas of habitat; and
locations that have historically provided a refuge for biodiversity during times of climatic stress.”

It’s really sad to know that the wonderful wildlife Australia will have so much to bare, and it’s really not fair. But there are still somethings even the small guys (us) can do to help out things. Here’s an idea.