Tag Archives: species

So this one wasp species turned out to be 16 species

In 1843, researchers described a small parasitoid wasp species; they called it Ormyrus labotus. There didn’t seem to be anything special about it at the time. Just a generalist parasite that lays its eggs in sixty-something species. But a new study found that Ormyrus labotus wasn’t one species at all — in fact, it’s 16 species that look similar in appearance but are genetically distinct.

This one species turned out to be 16 species. Image credits: Gallery image by Entomological Society of America; component images by Sofia Sheikh, Anna Ward, and Andrew Forbes, University of Iowa.

Many species on Earth have not been discovered yet, but some are hiding under our very noses, masquerading as other species. These so-called “cryptic” species may be pretty common — according to one estimate, up to 30% of all species could be cryptic.

But the advent of relatively cheap DNA testing is enabling researchers to discover these hidden species. In a recent study, researchers uncovered the secrets of one cryptic species: a wasp that actually turned out to be 16 different wasps.

“We know so much from ecology about how important even the smallest species can be to an ecosystem,” says Andrew Forbes, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at the University of Iowa and senior author of the study, “such that uncovering this hidden diversity—and, maybe more importantly, understanding the biology of each species—becomes a critical component of conservation and maintenance of ecosystem health.”

Super exciting

This story starts in 2015, when Sofia Sheikh and Anna Ward, then graduate students in Forbes’ lab, were working on a different project. They collected galls formed on oak trees and observed the insects that emerged. They noticed that a lot of the time, the galls looked different — but when the wasps came out, it was always Ormyrus labotus. This got them wondering.

“The Forbes lab is broadly interested in how parasitic insects interact with their hosts and how that relates to species diversification,” Sheikh tells ZME Science. “Species-rich systems, like oak gall wasps and their associated parasites, are useful for addressing that question, and to that end, we had been collecting oak galls from across the country and preserving the insects that emerged from them. We were surprised to find wasps that all morphologically looked like Ormyrus labotus emerging from a diverse set of these oak gall hosts.”

This was particularly curious because many parasitic insects tend to be host-specialized — but Ormyrus labotus seemed to have an exceptionally broad range.

“This expectation led us to ask whether these wasps that all physically look like O. labotus represent one generalist species, or if they constitute several lineages, each specializing on a smaller, less variable subset of hosts,” Sheikh adds.

The idea that the wasp species could, in fact, be multiple species is not far-fetched. In fact, researchers were expecting to find diversity hiding beneath this species — though they weren’t sure just how many species they would uncover.

“Even though it may not be surprising that cryptic diversity exists, its discovery is always super exciting, because making accurate predictions about how climate change will impact species, how we protect ecosystems, etc. relies on knowing what’s out there and how it exists,” Sheikh explains to ZME Science.

What happens now

For now, Ormyrus labotus will remain a “species complex” — while researchers have established the existence of different species, they haven’t formally described and named them — this falls “a bit outside our focus,” Sheikh tells me. There’s still a lot of work to do.

“We hope that studies like these can help us better understand insect diversity and, subsequently, its conservation – the naming of species and taxonomic revision is an incredibly important dimension to this. We’d be happy to send specimens, and help however else we can, to anyone who’d like to take on the taxonomic work!”

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, which is why it’s so important to understand the peculiarities of these individual species. There’s still plenty of work left to be done on discerning the biology of these wasps and their evolutionary relationship with their hosts.

For Forbes, this is a clear sign that we need to pay more attention (and offer more funding) to this type of study.

“one of the aspects of this kind of work that I find endlessly amazing is that there continues to be so much undiscovered diversity hidden even in the urban and suburban parks and backyards where we made many of these collections,” the researcher concluded in an email. “For some of the reasons Sofia mentioned, the US and the world should really invest more in discovery-based biology – there is a lot more left to find!”

The study was published in Insect Systematics and Diversity.

Extinct Australian rodent is re-discovered, alive, after 150 years

It’s always a sad day when you have to report on a species going extinct. This is what makes this occasion especially merry: researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) report that Gould’s mouse has been rediscovered on several small islands off the coast of Western Australia.

Shark Bay mouse (Pseudomys fieldi). Image credis Australian Wildlife Conservancy Photographer Wayne Lawler.

The species was assumed to have been wiped out some 150 years ago, likely due to the environmental changes spurred by the arrival and settling of Europeans, such as invasive species.

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“The resurrection of this species brings good news in the face of the disproportionally high rate of native rodent extinction, making up 41 percent of Australian mammal extinction since European colonisation in 1788,” Dr. Roycroft said.

“It is exciting that Gould’s mouse is still around, but its disappearance from the mainland highlights how quickly this species went from being distributed across most of Australia, to only surviving on offshore islands in Western Australia.It’s a huge population collapse.”

The team compared DNA samples taken from extinct Australian rodents and 42 of their living relatives, aiming to understand the dynamics of Australia’s native rodents since the arrival of Europeans.

They were surprised to find that the extinct Gould’s mouse was genetically indistinguishable from the Shark Bay mouse, which is still alive and well on several islands. In essence, although we’ve perceived these two groups as separate species, they are, in fact, the same.

Several other extinct species were also considered in this study. Based on the samples we have, the team reports that all of them showed high levels of genetic diversity immediately before their extinction. This suggests that the species had numerous populations spread wide across Australia prior to Europeans making landfall here.

“This shows genetic diversity does not provide guaranteed insurance against extinction,” Dr. Roycroft said. “They were likely common, with large populations prior to the arrival of Europeans. But the introduction of feral cats, foxes, and other invasive species, agricultural land clearing, and new diseases have absolutely decimated native species.”

“The extinction of these species happened very quickly. We still have a lot of biodiversity to lose here in Australia and we’re not doing enough to protect it.”

Biodiversity, both in the context of ecosystems and single species, is a measure of genetic variety. It’s life’s insurance policy — the theory is that if a pathogen or threat can take down one individual or species based on their genetic traits, there are other actors of the same species, or completely new species, which can take their place and have a chance to resist said threat. In the context of individual species, this ensures the survival of the species through natural selection. In the context of ecosystems, this ensures that critical processes such as water or nutrient recycling will still be performed even if one species goes extinct.

Biodiversity directly benefits us, as it underpins the healthy functioning of the world around us, ensuring we’re provided with air, water, and pollen for our crops. Degradation of this diversity wouldn’t be great for nature, but it wouldn’t be deadly, either — in time, new species will evolve to fit empty niches. However, it would definitely be a huge issue for us, as the loss of key species can represent a real threat to our short- and long-term survival as a civilization and a species.

The paper “Museum genomics reveals the rapid decline and extinction of Australian rodents since European settlement” has been published in the journal PNAS.

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

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

Image via Pixabay.

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

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

No room to share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Pixabay.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Researchers want to create the first universally accepted list of species

A group of researchers has proposed to create the first universally recognized list of species on Earth, from mammals and birds to plants, fungi, and microbes. This would help to end centuries of disagreement over how to classify them, as well as improve global efforts to tackle challenges to biodiversity.

Credit Flickr

Biologists have never reached an agreement over what constitutes a species, the most basic classification of an organism. This has led to national governments, researchers, and conservation organizations to use separate list of species with different taxonomic descriptions.

And this has consequences — for example in the case of the African elephant. Studies have shown there could be two species of the African elephant, the forest elephant and the savanna elephant, but most conservation organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) only recognize one.

“The general public are identifying with these entities they call species and they think they’re real biological, natural units rather than being a slice in time that is a human construct,” the lead author Stephen Garnett, a professor of conservation and sustainable livelihoods at Charles Darwin University in Australia, told The Guardian.

One of the most used definitions of species focuses on whether a group of living organisms can exchange DNA by creating viable offspring. But in several cases, the lines between species are unclear, causing disagreement between taxonomists (the scientists who discover, name, and classify species).

Also, a group of new techniques such as genomic analysis has led scientists to discover that organisms previously thought to be one species could, in fact, be several. “For probably 90% of the species, there are natural units, they don’t interbreed and they’re well behaved. But there’s 10% that are busy evolving and we have to make this decision about what is the species and is not,” said Garnett.

Alongside a group of researchers, Garnett proposed a set of ten principles for creating and governing lists of the world’s species, and a proposed governance mechanism for ensuring that the lists are well-managed and broadly acceptable. The list would be based on science, fully traceable and separate the governance of naming species from validating them.

There is currently no universally accepted way to resolve taxonomic disputes about species classifications, resulting in competing lists of organisms. Mammals and reptiles have several, while some less well-known groups have none. “The more people you have working on a group, the more lists you will have,” Frank Zachos, a co-author of the plan, told The Guardian.

The ten principles

The ten principles were published in a paper in the journal Plos Biology, which will be part of a soon to be published set of publications that will explain how a single, authoritative list of the world’s species would be governed and managed. For one, here are the ten principles:

  1. The species list must be based on science and free from nontaxonomic considerations and interference.
  2. Governance of the species list must aim for community support and use.
  3. All decisions about list composition must be transparent.
  4. The governance of validated lists of species is separate from the governance of the naming of species.
  5. Governance of lists of accepted species must not strain academic freedom.
  6. The set of criteria considered sufficient to recognize species boundaries may appropriately vary between different taxonomic groups but should be consistent when possible.
  7. A global list must balance conflicting needs for currency and stability by having archived versions.
  8. Contributors need appropriate recognition.
  9. List content should be traceable.
  10. A global listing process needs both to encompass global diversity and to accommodate local knowledge of that diversity.

Theory by Darwin is proven 150 years after his death

The theory of evolution through natural selection by biologist, geologist, and naturalist Charles Darwin made him one of the most influential people in history. But, in reality, this is not his only contribution to science.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

His investigations supported the concept that humans were animals and members of a single species. He also looked at sexual selection and its influence on beauty, the pollination of orchids, and the evolution of human psychology.

Although he died in 1882, his research still shapes our understanding of the world to this day — and are still relevant scientific topics. A new study by researchers from the University of Cambridge confirmed one of the hypotheses proposed in Darwin’s origins of species.

After analyzing a multitude of studies on small mammals, the researchers have shown that the most diverse lineages have both more species but also subspecies, which confirms that they have a very important role in evolution.

“Darwin said that animal lineages with more species also have to have more varieties, in other words, subspecies,” said in a statement Laura van Holstein, one of the researchers. And that is exactly what has been confirmed, thanks to the analysis of the studies carried out with small mammals.

A species is a group of animals that can reproduce freely amongst themselves. Some species can contain subspecies — populations within a species that differ from each other by having different physical traits and their own breeding ranges. The study confirmed with new experimental data that evolution doesn’t occur in the same way and in the same speed in all mammals since not all of them face the same type of geographical barriers.

“We found the evolutionary relationship between mammalian species and subspecies differs depending on their habitat. Subspecies form, diversify and increase in number in a different way in non-terrestrial and terrestrial habitats, and this, in turn, affects how subspecies may eventually become species,” van Holstein said.

For example, van Holstein said, if a natural barrier like a mountain range gets in the way, it can separate animal groups and lead to different evolutionary journeys. Flying and marine mammals have fewer physical barriers in their environment.

There’s a strong relationship between the diversity of species and the diversity of subspecies, which indicates that the second is very important for the appearance of the first, the researchers argued. In fact, this relationship confirms that subspecies can be considered an early stage of speciation – the formation of new species.

The research represents a warning over the impact humans can have on animal habitats, both today and on their future evolution. The findings can help create new conservation strategies for endangered species across the world.

“Evolutionary models could now use these findings to anticipate how a human activity like logging and deforestation will affect evolution in the future by disrupting the habitat of species,” van Holstein said. “Animal subspecies tend to be ignored, but they play a pivotal role in longer-term future evolution dynamics.”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

New tweets: ten species of bustling songbirds discovered on Indonesian islands

An expedition off the coast of Sulawesi has come upon ten new songbird species. It’s a rare discovery that highlights once again the thriving Indonesian biodiversity — but also the threats this biodiversity faces.

The Wakatobi white-eye. Image credits: Seán Kelly.

Deep seas, unique birds

Although they are some of the most-studied groups of animals in the world, new birds are rarely discovered. Maybe it’s because we’ve found most of them, or maybe because birds are easier to spot than other creatures, but identifying new bird species is rare.

In the past two decades, an average of just six new bird species have been described every year. But 2020 is already different.

The expedition was carried out from late 2013 to early 2014. Three small, little-explored islands off the coast of Sulawesi were visited by a team led by Frank Rheindt at the National University of Singapore. The team tried to focus on the areas where they thought it was most likely to find new species. They analyzed geological trends that would have influenced the likelihood of finding birds, zooming in on one particular aspect: how deep the water around the islands is.

Taliabu Myzomela, one of the newly-identified species, carefully watching its surroundings. Image credits: James Eaton / Birdtour Asia.

Sea depth is a surprisingly important factor in determining how distinct an island’s biodiversity is. As the Earth has undergone over 20 glacial periods in the past 2 million years, sea levels have repeatedly risen and dropped, connecting and disconnecting islands with other areas. Islands surrounded by shallow waters would have had periods of communication with the mainland or other islands, producing a gene flow between populations, which slows down the emergence of endemic creatures.

But islands which are surrounded by seas deeper than 120 meters would have remained isolated throughout this period, increasing the likelihood of unique species.

This was exactly the case with Peleng and Taliabu, two of the surveyed islands. In addition, these islands have rarely been explored by biologists, making them an excellent target.

Hill forest in Peleng. Image credits: Philippe Verbelen.

The researchers’ efforts were rewarded as 10 new species were identified — 9 of which on Peleng and Taliabu.

Two of the newly discovered animals are leaf warblers — small, insect-eating songbirds. Others include a type of honeyeater that feeds on nectar and fruit and the Peleng fantail (which, as the name implies, fans its tail feathers when is alarmed), as well as two flycatchers. It’s a fairly diverse group, the majority of which was discovered in the islands’ highlands, over 1,000 meters (3,200 feet) high.

Problems already

As it is so often the case, threats to these new species have already been identified. It already seems like a trope: we’ve found some new species, but they’re at risk. In this case, rampant deforestation on the islands is threatening the survival of the birds. Logging is the main cause of deforestation, although forest fires (exacerbated by climate change) also play a role.

It’s an important reminder that life needs to be protected — even life that we haven’t discovered yet.

Thousands of species have been described in recent years, but most researchers agree that thousands more still remain undescribed. Although Sulawesi has been populated by archaic hominins since before the time of Homo sapiens, its zoology still has surprises to offer.

Holotype of one of the newly-described species. Credits: Rheindt et al (2020) / Science.

This study, just like many others analyzing species of birds, leaves behind another pressing ethical question.

This sort of specimen-collecting expeditions involve, as the name implies, collecting specimens — killing them. In this case, nets were placed at strategic points on the island, and whichever unfortunate birds flew into them are harvested and sent to the lab for later analysis.

Establishing that an animal is a new species cannot be done without this analysis — and yet, it involves killing specimens from a population that may very well be threatened. This has been done for centuries, but the ethics of it are being debated more and more in recent times.

Does the end goal of conservation and study justify this process?

The study was published in Science.

‘Half-Earth’ conservation schemes would affect over a billion people

A new study is looking into the social and economic effects Half-Earth-type conservation schemes would have on local and global communities. Over a billion people around the world would be impacted by such measures, they explain.

USFS Wilderness Sign at Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, California.
Image credits Jason Crotty / Flickr.

Back in 2016, American biologist Edward Osborne Wilson published ‘Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life’. The book proposes that we designate half the planet as a human-free natural reserve in order to preserve biodiversity.

The idea is definitely catchy — there’s something romantic about the idea of keeping half the planet wild, and it would definitely go a long way towards protecting nature. While policymakers and conservationists are starting to consider the idea in various forms ( such as the ‘Global Deal for Nature‘ which aims for 30% protection by 2030 and 50% by 2050) we still have a very poor idea of how a Half-Earth-type scheme would impact human society.

Half-earthing it

“People are the cause of the extinction crisis, but they are also the solution,” said Dr. Judith Schleicher, who led the new study, published today in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“Social issues must play a more prominent role if we want to deliver effective conservation that works for both the biosphere and the people who inhabit it.”

Species go extinct all the time, that’s just how mother nature rolls. The ‘extinction crisis’ Dr. Schleicher mentions is an increase in that natural rate of extinction (called the baseline extinction rate) caused by human activity — with habitat destruction and pollution being the main culprits.

Faced with this extinction crisis, and with humanity’s overall disastrous effect on the natural balance of our planet, activists have picked up on Wilson’s idea and are calling for more ambitious conservation targets than ever before. A new study comes to assess how many people worldwide would be impacted, and who and where they are specifically, if half the planet was used to preserve the diversity of the world’s habitats.

For the study, they analyzed global datasets to determine the areas we’d need to give conservation status to add up to 50% protection for every ecoregion (areas of distinct habitats such as Central African mangroves and Baltic mixed forests). The team reports they made every effort possible to avoid specific “human footprints” such as cities of farmland.

This “conservative” estimate still holds that over a billion people, primarily in middle-income countries, would be affected by a Half-Earth scheme. However, many of the world’s rich and populous countries in the Northern Hemisphere would also need to massively expand on lands with conservation status, including areas we may be loathe to give up — the authors cite parts of London as an example. They cautiously estimate that an additional 760 million people would find themselves living in areas with new conservation status, a fourfold increase of the number of residents inside protected areas today.

The team says that issues of environmental justice and human wellbeing should be at the forefront of the conservation movement. They hope that their findings will help world leaders agree of global conservation targets at next year’s Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing.

“Goals that emerge from the Convention on Biological Diversity could define conservation for a generation,” said Schleicher. “We need to be ambitious given the environmental crises. But it is vital that social and economic implications at local levels are considered if the drivers of biodiversity loss are to be tackled. The lives of many people and the existence of diverse species hang in the balance.”

“Failing to consider social issues will lead to conservation policy that is harmful to human wellbeing and less likely to be implemented in the first place.”

The team calls for proponents of Half Earth, and all supporters of area-based conservation, to “recognise and take seriously” the human consequences – both negative and positive – of their proposals.

“Living in areas rich in natural habitat can boost mental health and wellbeing. In some cases, protected areas can provide new jobs and income through ecotourism and sustainable production,” said Schleicher.

“However, at the other extreme, certain forms of ‘fortress’ conservation can see people displaced from their ancestral home and denied access to resources they rely on for their survival.”

The paper “Protecting half of the planet could directly affect over one billion people” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Newly-discovered bee species in Fiji are already thretened

Newly-discovered bee species in Fiji are already showing signs of exposure to environmental changes.

Homalictus terminalis.
Image credits James Dorey / Flinders University.

As researchers at the Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia are discovering new bee species endemic to the Fiji archipelago, they’re already reporting signs of climate- and environment-related stress. Some of the main threats for these species are climate change, noxious plants, and multiple human activities that are impacting their habitat.

Beeing under pressure

“A likely driver of this possible extinction is changing climates,” says Flinders University Associate Professor Mike Schwarz, a co-author on the paper.

University students from South Australia have been working in Fiji for several years now as part of the Australian Government’s New Colombo overseas study program. The field trips taken as part of the program are definitely worthwhile. Students were able to redescribe four known bee species and describe nine new ones according to Dr. Mark Stevens, South Australia Museum senior researcher on terrestrial invertebrates.

The species are part of the Homalictus subgenus of bees, a group whose range includes Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and extends east across the Pacific to Australia, Samoa, and the Mariana Islands. Some of these animals, such as the bee Homalictus cockerell have not been taxonomically reviewed in the Fijian archipelago for 40 years. But, some of these species are already showing signs of exposure to environmental change.

The field trips taken as part of the program are definitely worthwhile. Students were able to redescribe four known species of bees and describe nine new ones according to Dr. Mark Stevens, South Australia Museum senior researcher on terrestrial invertebrates. Some of these animals, such as the bee Homalictus Cockerell has not been taxonomically reviewed in the Fijian archipelago for 40 years.

Homalictus groomi.
Image credits James Dorey / Flinders University.

Fiji’s bees rely on unique habitats created by the mountains in the area. “Most of the species diversity (11 species) live 800 meters or more above sea level, which highlights the vulnerability of highland-restricted species to a warming climate,” explains Dr. Stevens.

Homalictus achrostus, featuring unusual large mandibles, is one of the most interesting bee species endemic to Fiji. Like many Fijian bee species, H. achrostus has only ever found on a single mountain top. The team christened of its relatives Homalictus terminalis in an effort to raise awareness of how close to extinction it is hovering currently, and of how dire the situation is for the subgenus.

“Homalictus terminalis is named so to indicate that, like many Fijian bees, it is nearing its limit and is at risk of climate-related extinction,” says lead author James Dorey, a Ph.D. candidate at the Flinders University. “Found only on Mount Batilamu near the city of Nadi, where many tourists launch their holidays, H. terminalis has only been found within 95 metres of the mountain peak.”

“Six individuals were collected on Mount Nadarivatu in the 1970s and two in 2010, but despite frequent searching almost every year since no more have been found,” says Associate Professor Schwarz.

The mountains that dot Fiji create highland ecosystems that are unique in the area. These colder ecosystems, however, could be slowly pushed upwards and off the top of the mountains, which would spell disaster for the species adapted to living in the particular microclimates of today.

The findings, the team explains, raise “real concerns about the extinction of many highland species in Fiji and across all of the tropics,” and showcase yet again the strain our emissions are putting on biodiversity, ecosystems, and the health of the planet at large.

The paper “Review of the bee genus Homalictus Cockerell (Hymenoptera: Halictidae) from Fiji with description of nine new species” has been published in the journal Zootaxa.

How Are The Best Coffee Beans In The World Grown?

They get you up in the morning, and they keep you running till late evening — but how is coffee grown?

Image via Pixabay.

Boiled down (pun intended), coffee is produced from the seeds of the coffee tree. These seeds develop inside fruits known as coffee berries and are usually found in pairs inside each berry. When tomato-red, the fruits are ready to be harvested, the pits collected, dried, and shipped to a grocery store near you.

That, however, is only the short version. Let’s take a look at the coffee plant, its main varieties, and how to spot a good bean for your morning brew.

Types of coffee

Coffee plants (genus Coffea) are small trees or shrubs native to the tropical areas of Africa and Asia, as well as southern Africa. They can grow up to 3–3.5 m (9.8–11.5 ft) in height at the tropics.

While there are many different types of coffee out there (over 120 known species, here’s a list of some well-known ones), the two most of us have ever tasted are Coffea arabica (commonly known simply as “Arabica”) and Coffea canephora (known as “Robusta”). Arabica plants account for 60-80% of the world’s coffee production, while Robusta accounts for about 20-40%.

Most types of coffee plants grow better at higher altitude but will be killed by freezing temperatures. A bush of Arabica coffee takes 3-5 years to mature into growing fruits and can keep producing for an average of between 50 to 60 years.

Ripening coffee fruits.
Image credits Miloslav Hamřík.

Around 5-10% of all coffee fruits bear a single bean rather than a pair of them. The pits from these fruits, known as peaberries, are handled and sold separately from the regular, flat-faced coffee beans we know and love. Common wisdom holds that these peaberries are more flavorful than regular beans as they’re believed to roast more uniformly.

On average, it takes 5-8 pounds of harvested coffee cherries to eventually yield 1 pound of high-quality coffee beans.

Types of coffees

Between the two varieties, Robusta tends to have a more bitter taste. It’s a bit easier (and thus cheaper) to grow so all in all, it’s considered to be the lower quality variety. It’s much more disease resistant and has a higher yield than Arabica and is more tolerant of environmental conditions (which gave it its name).

Image via Pixabay.

Because of its more bitter taste, Robusta is generally not used for espresso blends, although some producers do mix it in as it helps better accentuate the product’s taste and aroma. More run-of-the-mill products like regular and instant coffee, however, make heavy use of this variety, which is good news for morning-you: Robusta has a higher caffeine content.

Arabica is more difficult to grow as this variety is more sensitive to location (it needs high-altitude, tropical climates) and soil (ideally, volcanic). Subtropical regions in the 16-24 degree latitude range, and equatorial regions with latitudes less than 10 degrees make for ideal growing spots for Arabica. Arabica grown at higher elevations takes more to grow but produces a more flavorful bean.

Coffee is acidic — this gives it its particular flavor and taste. Different varieties of coffee have different levels of acidity, which is why we differentiate between them commercially. Acidity is mostly impacted by growing altitude and soil: as a rule of thumb, beans produced in Africa tend to have higher acidity and fruity or floral undertones, while coffee from Brazil or Sumatra tends to have a much lower acidity with cocoa and nutty notes.

Image via Pixabay.

Higher-quality coffee tends to come from a single crop, which helps preserve its taste and flavor (somewhat like a single malt whiskey), while cheaper options tend to use blends (giving it a more ‘regular’ but balanced taste). Single-origin coffee tends to be more expensive but also more varied in regards to aroma, taste, and caffeine content. Blends are used to make the most of different types of coffee beans and counteract their individual weaknesses: a roaster might blend a coffee with a full body with another coffee that has a striking taste to support each other for example.

Bitterness in coffee is the result of the brewing process. If the beans are ground too finely, or they’re over-brewed, the drink will have a bitter and harsh aroma. This happens because too many flavorful compounds are extracted from the beans thanks to more contact between the water and the grounds (if the particles are too small) or over-brewing.

So, if you wake up to bitter coffee tomorrow, try brewing it less.

How many species are on Earth? Untangling a difficult question

With the most recent studies estimating there are 8.7 million, knowing how many species are on Earth is one of the most important questions for scientists but also one of the most difficult to answer.

A total of 1.3 million species have so far been identified but many more live on the planet.

A British burnet moth. Credit: Philip McErlean (Flickr)


Current estimates range from the whopping one trillion species on the planet to the much lower 5.3 million. A massive difference, which actually starts with the disagreement among biologists on what the term species actually means – with at least 50 definitions to choose from.

A conventional definition says two organisms belong to the same species if they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. But this has been challenged, as the concept can’t be used to define asexual organisms and also ignores that many living things we consider separate species can interbreed.

At the same time, researchers have so far been unable to count all life forms on the planet. A large number live on places that can’t be accessed by humans, so what scientists do is look for patterns in biodiversity and try to estimate the total number of species.

US entomologist Terry Erwin did one of the first studies, back in 1980. He sprayed pesticides into the canopy of trees, with 1,200 species of beetle falling to the ground. He concluded there are 30 million species on Earth, assuming each tree species had a similar number of beetles that beetles make up about 40% of insects.

But the figure has been repeatedly challenged, with later estimates arriving at figures under 10 million. In 2011, scientists used a technique based on patterns in the number of species at each level of biological classification to arrive at a much lower prediction of about 8.7 million species

“Knowing how many plants and animals there are on the planet is absolutely fundamental,” said Bob May, a zoologist at the University of Oxford, UK. “Without this knowledge, we cannot even begin to answer questions such as how much diversity we can lose while still maintaining the ecosystem services that humanity depends upon.”

Classification and distribution

Despite the disagreement on the number, what’s clear is that there’s a long way to go until completing the catalog of species, with the risk of not discovering all of them before they face extinction.

Scientists have so far named and cataloged 1.3 million species. How many more species there are left to discover is a question that has hovered like a cloud over the heads of experts for centuries.

Researchers constantly find new species, at a rate of roughly 18,000 per year. For example, in Los Angeles experts found 30 new species of scuttle fly living in urban parks, while also in the US more than 1,400 new species of bacteria living in the belly buttons of university students were found.

The main group of species is animals, which represent 76% of all known species, according to the classification system of Margulis and Schwartz. Within animals, arthropods are the group with the most species, with about 1.2 million species – one million of which are insects.

Plants represent 17% of the species studied, with about 292,000 species. These include four large groups: angiosperms (87% of species), gymnosperms (0.3%), ferns (4.3%) and bryophytes (9%).

Drives of change

The fact that many species haven’t been discovered yet is faced with a difficult reality. Human activities are causing a decline in many of them, with several reports now warning over an age of mass extinction of species in the land and the ocean.

The expansion of agriculture is largely to blame, as abusive use of pesticides is causing the death of many inspects that are key for pollination. At the same time, the use of more land is leading to the destruction of large areas of native forest, displacing species from their habitats.

Exotic species also present difficulties for biodiversity. When a species is introduced in an area where it’s not native, it competes for space and resources with native ones. This can harm local species and even displace them, having an invasive behavior. The number of many species has been reduced because of this.

Climate change is also to blame. It alters the habitats and conditions in which species leave, forcing them to move to new locations that are in line with their climate patterns. WWF estimates most species will have to move 1,000 meters per year to keep within their climate zone.

Hunting and exploitation of animals can also play a big role in reducing the number of species, a practice that remains in many countries. The same occurs with the trade of exotic species and collecting or capturing animals with supposedly curative properties, leading to the decline of many species.

Warning signs

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list is an annual report on the global conservation status of plant, animal and fungi species and assesses the extinction risk of a species should no conservation action be taken.

According to its most recent update, there are more than 28,000 species threatened around the world. That is a 6% increase from 2018 when 26,840 species said to be threatened.

Species are assigned to one of eight categories of threat based on whether they meet criteria linked to population trend, size and structure, and geographic range. They are listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.

The new report classified 6,127 species as critically endangered, meaning they are one step away from global extinction. This is up from 5,826 species last year. However, the IUCN says this may be due to greater efforts at assessing species.

In line with these findings, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report found in May that a million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.

“This Red List update confirms the findings of the recent IPBES Global Biodiversity Assessment: nature is declining at rates unprecedented in human history,” said Jane Smart, Global Director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group, in a public statement. “Decisive action is needed at scale to halt this decline.”

Working landscape.

Working landscapes can be used for species conservation alongside economic activities

Privately-owned land in the forests of Costa Rica can help support the same number of vulnerable bird species as the nature reserves they border, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis.

Working landscape.

Working landscape in Vietnam.
Image credits Quang Nguyen Vinh.

Collaborating with local landowners to conserve or restore forests in the working landscapes of Costa Rica can help protect local wildlife, the study reports. Working landscapes are cohesive units of land that are ecologically, socially, and economically connected. Rural areas, which often are dominated by intensive or extensive agricultural, forestry, or other natural resources based economies, are generally a part of a working landscape. In Costa Rica, working landscapes include forest patches, crops, pastures, and small towns. Private lands in regions that are wetter and already have a degree of natural forest cover would help local bird species the most, it adds.

Can’t see the forest for the patches

“With sufficient forest cover, working landscapes — even if degraded and fragmented — can maintain bird communities that are indistinguishable from those found in protected areas,” said lead author Daniel Karp, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.

“This means that private landowners have great power to improve the conservation value of their lands through reforestation.”

As part of a larger project funded by National Geographic, the team looked at the state of Neotropical birds at 150 sites across Costa Rica’s northwest over a two-year period.

Agricultural lands in the area host diverse bird communities, the team reports, but not the same species that live in protected areas. These field-dwelling species also had large distributions, meaning they are of lower conservation value (‘not-as-threatened’) as the species in protected areas.

Interestingly, the privately-owned patches of forest in the studied area stood out quite sharply from their surrounding fields. Despite their advanced state of degradation — these plots of forest were degraded by logging, hunting, and fires — they housed the same species of birds as the protected areas. The patches were also better at supporting bird populations in wetter and more forested areas. The team estimates that reforesting the wettest sites would increase bird similarity to protected areas four-fold compared to a two-fold increase in the driest sites.

In a related study, Karp showed that the amount of local forest within about 150 feet of a site was the biggest determinant of the species of birds found there.

“Tropical birds respond very strongly to the amount of forest in their immediate vicinity,” Karp said. “That’s encouraging because it means forest restoration on a small scale, even in small patches, can be really effective in safeguarding vulnerable bird species.”

Costa Rica has experienced decades of forest decline, which prompted the state to offer monetary incentives for landowners who maintained forest on their private lands in the early 1990s. That’s how these patches of forest the study focuses on came to be.

The paper “Remnant forest in Costa Rican working landscapes fosters bird communities that are indistinguishable from protected areas” has been published in the journal Journal of Applied Ecology.


Invasive flowering species might overpower native ones because of warming climates

Invasive plants species might be more resistant to climate change than native ones, reports a new study on Midwest blooming flowers.


Image via Pixabay.

Led by researchers at the Indiana University’s (IU) Environmental Resilience Institute (part of the Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge initiative) in collaboration with members from Michigan State University, the study reveals that warming temperatures affect native and non-native flowering plants in different ways. Over longer periods of time, this can end up fundamentally changing the look and composition of local landscapes.

Foreign customs

“The timing of a plant’s life cycle is crucial for species survival,” said study co-author Jen Lau, an associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology and a member of the Environmental Resilience Institute.

“When a plant flowers determines whether it will be pollinated by bees or other insects and how much time it will have to produce seeds. Our data makes me worry that we will have a very weedy world in our future.”

Non-native flowering plants could be able to shift their flowering times while native ones can’t, the findings suggest, a difference which could prove important in shaping a species’ success both now and in the future, warmer climates. To reach these results, Lau and her students planted 45 native and non-native species in fields and then simulated progressively warmer climate conditions (i.e. upcoming climate change). For example, some of the plots were heated using infrared lamps to simulate the expected conditions that areas in the Midwest will experience by the end of the century. The others were not, and were used as controls. The team monitored all the plants to determine when they first flowered and for how long.

Non-native flowering plants in the warmed planters bloomed 11 days earlier, on average than their ‘normal’ flowering times. Native plants, in contrast, did not shift their flowering period at all.

“We also found that earlier-flowering non-native species had greater geographic spread, suggesting that flowering earlier may help promote successful establishment across large areas,” said the study’s lead author Meredith Zettlemoyer, a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University, where Lau was previously on faculty.

The findings suggest that there are important differences in how native and non-native plant species respond to shifts in climate. Previous findings can also be weaved into those of the present study. Past research has shown that species which were unable to shift their flowering times over the past century were more likely to dwindle in abundance or go extinct altogether. Taken together, this indicates that native flowering species may be more affected by warming climates than non-native ones.

“Species across the globe are showing us that the climate is changing in ways that affect them,” Lau said. “Flowering earlier in the spring is a big sign that the climate is changing and may be a key strategy for surviving climate change.”

“Maybe the native species that aren’t very good at blooming earlier under warmer temperatures possess other strategies for surviving climate change, but if they don’t, they could be in serious danger.”

The paper “Phenology in a warming world: differences between native and non‐native plant species” has been published in the journal Ecology Letters.

Escaped parrots are now living, roosting in 23 US states

A new study reports that around 56 different parrot species have been spotted in the wild in 43 states across the USA. These birds aren’t native to the continent — but 25 species are now breeding in 23 different states, effectively becoming naturalized to the country.

Monk Parakeet.

Monk Parakeet.
Image via Pixabay.

In the 1950s and 60s, tens of thousands of monk parakeets were imported to the USA as pets from South America. Over the years, many escaped (or worse, were released) from their owners. By 1968, they were breeding in the wild across 10 states, including a colony in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, home of the University of Chicago campus. Stephen Pruett-Jones, now a Ph.D. and ecologist at the University of Chicago, first stumbled upon these birds back in 1988, when he first came to Chicago, in Hyde Park.

Made in the USA

“I have never actually held a wild parrot in the United States,” he says. “But indirectly I’ve become the spokesperson for parrot research here because when I saw the monk parakeets in Chicago, I realized nobody else was working on them.”

The US originally harbored two native species of parrot: the Carolina parakeet and the thick-billed parrot. The Carolina parakeet is now extinct, while the thick-billed parrot, a Mexican species that ranged into the southwestern states, was driven out of the U.S. Needless to say, this made for a very peculiar sighting when, on his daily commute, Pruett-Jones spotted a large group of parakeets. Although his usual area of research focuses on Australian wild birds such as wrens, he started sending out students to study the birds and eventually organized an annual lab project to count them. Over time, this project grew much larger than he had anticipated.

Pruett-Jones recently published a study, alongside Jennifer Uehling, a former UChicago undergraduate student now working on a Ph.D. at Cornell University, and Jason Tallant of the University of Michigan, detailing the findings. Between 2002 and 2016, the paper reports, 56 different parrot species were spotted in the wild in 43 states. Of these, 25 species are now breeding in the wild in 23 different states.

“Many of them were escaped pets, or their owners released them because they couldn’t train them or they made too much noise — all the reasons people let pets go,” Pruett-Jones said. “But many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay.”

The study drew on two databases of bird sightings, which were used to track the new ranges of these naturalized parrot species. The first (the Christmas Bird Count) is an annual survey organized by the National Audubon Society that gathers data on US birds during a two-week period (December 14 to January 15) each year. The second one (eBird) is an online database where amateur and professional bird watchers can log all the birds they have seen.

The team reports that the most common species of parrots in the USA today are monk parakeets, the Red-crowned Amazon, and the Nanday Parakeet. They mostly gravitate in the warmer regions of Florida, Texas, and California, but large populations of parrots also roost around cities like New York and Chicago. And, in a somewhat ironic twist, there are now more Red-crowned Amazons living in California than there are in their original habitats in Mexico.

“The entire conservation focus for this species is now on a non-native, introduced, naturalized population,” Pruett-Jones added. “The survival of the species is most likely going to come from efforts to save it someplace where it never existed before.”

Monk parakeets are considered to be agricultural pests in South America, the team writes, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in the US as well. Apart from a few isolated cases, the feral US parrots also don’t seem to be competing with native birds. The Chicago parakeets seem to live in and off the city around the year — they don’t migrate at all, and mostly dine in the city’s parks and open grassy areas. One of Pruett-Jones’ students discovered that make it through the harsh local winters by switching almost exclusively to backyard bird feeders from December to February.

Monk parakeets are a bit of trouble, however, as they build rather bulky nests (they’re the only species of parrot that builds their own nest) which can damage utility lines. The birds aren’t as numerous as they used to be, dwindling from around a peak of 400 to around 30 today. This trend seems consistent across all the birds in the study, the team notes, perhaps due to a disease or parasite — and this may actually be threatening the species’ survival.

“Because of human activity transporting these birds for our own pleasure, we have inadvertently created populations elsewhere,” says Pruett-Jones’. “Now for some of these parrots, they may become critical to the survival of the species.”

The paper “Status of naturalized parrots in the United States” has been published in the Journal of Ornithology.

Scuba Diver.

Robots and AI can help us better understand deep sea species, study reports.

Robots and artificial intelligence may be just what we need to meet the denizens of the ocean floor, a new study reports.

Scuba Diver.

Image via Pixabay.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has an important role to play in helping us understand the large variety of species living on the ocean floor, new research from the University of Plymouth reports. Such systems could finally allow marine researchers to push past the efficiency bottleneck created by human users analyzing recordings from the depths of the sea.

Davy Jones’ locker

“Autonomous vehicles are a vital tool for surveying large areas of the seabed deeper than 60m [the depth most divers can reach],” says PhD student Nils Piechaud, lead author on the study. “But we are currently not able to manually analyse more than a fraction of that data.”

“This research shows AI is a promising tool but our AI classifier would still be wrong one out of five times, if it was used to identify animals in our images.”

The new study analyzed the effectiveness of a computer vision (CV) system in taking over the role of humans in analyzing deep-sea images. All in all, the team found, such as system is around 80% accurate in identifying various animals in images of the seabed but can be up to 93% accurate for specific species if enough data is used to train the algorithm. The authors say that such results suggest CV could soon be routinely employed to study marine animals and plants. In such a case, it would lead to a major increase in data availability for conservation research and biodiversity management, they add.

“But we are not at the point of considering it a suitable complete replacement for humans at this stage,” Piechaud notes.

The team used Google’s Tensorflow, an open access library, to teach a (pre-trained) neural network to identify individuals of deep-sea species found in images taken by autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV). One of these AUVs, known as Autosub6000, was deployed back in May 2016 on the north-east side of Rockall Bank, UK, and collected over 150,000 images in a single dive. Around 1,200 of these images were manually analyzed, containing 40,000 individuals of 110 different kinds of animals (morphospecies), most of them only seen a handful of times.

Manual annotation ranged from 50 to 95% on this dataset; however, it was very slow. And, as you guessed from that ‘ranged’ part, it was quite inconsistent across different teams and work intervals. The automated method reached around 80% accuracy, approaching the performance of humans with a clear speed and consistency advantage. The software worked particularly well for certain morphospecies. For example, it correctly identified a type of xenophyophore 93% of the time.

So should we just use it instead of marine biologists? Well, the authors of this present study don’t think that would be a good idea. The study makes a case for automated systems working in tandem with marine biologists, not replacing them. The AIs could greatly enhance the ability of scientists to analyze the data before them.

And combining the ability of high-tech AUVs to survey large areas of the seabed, the fast data-crunching ability of AI, and expertise of marine biologists together could massively speed up the rate of deep-ocean exploration — and with it our wider understanding of marine ecosystems.

“Most of our planet is deep sea, a vast area in which we have equally large knowledge gaps,” says Dr Kerry Howell, Associate Professor in Marine Ecology and Principal Investigator for the Deep Links project.”

“With increasing pressures on the marine environment including climate change, it is imperative that we understand our oceans and the habitats and species found within them. In the age of robotic and autonomous vehicles, big data, and global open research, the development of AI tools with the potential to help speed up our acquisition of knowledge is an exciting and much needed advance.”

The paper “Automated identification of benthic epifauna with computer vision” has been published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Paper leopard.

The UN says humanity is causing an ‘unprecedented’ decline in biodiversity — and it’s picking up

A new report from the United Nations says that humanity is putting a never-before-seen strain on the planet — over 1 million species of plants and animals are facing extinction.

Paper leopard.

Image via Pixabay.

Species loss is accelerating to a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past, the report said. More than half a million species on land “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and are likely to go extinct, many within decades, unless their habitats are restored. The oceans are not faring any better. However, the report also says that it’s not too late to fix the issue.

Remade in our image

“We have reconfigured dramatically life on the planet,” said UN co-chairman Eduardo Brondizio of Indiana University at a press conference detailing the report.

Conservation scientists from around the world convened in Paris to issue the 1,000-page strong report. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) included more than 450 researchers who drew data from 15,000 scientific and government reports. The report’s summary had to be approved by representatives of all 109 nations.

The damage isn’t evenly distributed across the Earth. Some of the harder-hit nations, such as small island countries, wanted the report to be broader and use more conclusive language. Other countries however, such as the United States, were cautious in the wording they used but agreed that “we’re in trouble,” said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, who observed the final negotiations.

“This is the strongest call we’ve seen for reversing the trends on the loss of nature,” Shaw said.

The findings don’t just show a planet where plants and animals need our intervention to survive (our own actions). It also shows a world in which humanity has a harder and harder time living in, according to Robert Watson, a former top NASA and British scientist who headed the report. The loss of biodiversity threatens to impact food and water security, the ecological mechanisms upon which our societies are built, and our health, he told Associated Press. It will also have a massive effect on our economies and can potentially give rise to security issues as countries and later, individual communities and groups, fight for ever-scarcer resources. The poor in less developed countries bear the greatest burden, Watson adds.

Here are the five main ways humanity is driving down biodiversity today:

  • Clearing forests, grasslands and other areas for farms, cities, and other developments. About three-quarters of Earth’s land, two-thirds of its oceans and 85% of crucial wetlands have been severely altered or lost, the report said. This basically destroys the natural habitats that species rely on, driving them to extinction.
  • Overfishing: A third of the Earth’s fish stocks are experiencing overfishing, according to the report.
  • Continued emissions of greenhouse gases which drive climate change. Almost half of the world’s land mammals — not including bats — and nearly a quarter of the birds have already had their habitats hit hard by global warming.
  • Land and water pollution. Between 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, and toxic sludge are dumped into the world’s waters each year.
  • The introduction of invasive species that outcompete native plants and animals. The number of invasive alien species per country has risen 70% since 1970, with one species of bacteria threatening nearly 400 amphibian species.

“The key to remember is, it’s not a terminal diagnosis,” said report co-author Andrew Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London.

The report says that fighting climate change and species conservation are equally important and that work on the two problems should go hand in hand. Both problems exacerbate each other because a warmer world means fewer species, and a less biodiverse world means fewer trees and plants to remove heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, reported in March that 27,159 species are threatened, endangered, or extinct in the wild out of nearly 100,000 species biologists examined in depth. That includes 1,223 mammal species, 1,492 bird species, and 2,341 fish species. Nearly half the threatened species are plants. The present report estimates that up to 1 million species are trouble by extrapolating the IUCN’s 25% threatened rate to the rest of the world’s species.

Our ships carry invasive species, not just trade — and it is rapidly getting worse

More maritime traffic means a higher standard of living — but also more invasive species.

Paper ship.

Image via Pixabay.

The rise in global maritime traffic could lead to dramatic increases in the number of invasive species globally over the next 30 years, a new study from McGill University researchers reports. The authors also say that this increase in shipping will come to far outweigh climate change in the spread of non-indigenous pests to new environments in the coming decades.

“My passion is traveling”

“Biological invasions are believed to be a major driver of biodiversity change, and cause billions of dollars in economic damages annually,” says senior author Brian Leung, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Biology and School of Environment. “Our models show that the emerging global shipping network could yield a three-fold to twenty-fold increase in global marine invasion risk between now and 2050.”

Some 80% of world trade gets ferried around on boats, as do between 60% and 90% of marine invasive species. The latter get onto ships either in ballast water — which is pumped in to help balance the vessels — or attach to their hulls as stowaways. So, the team says that to understand how invasive species will evolve over time, we need to look at how shipping patterns could change.

To that end, the team used socioeconomic-growth scenarios (developed as part of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC) to build several computer models that estimated future rates of global shipping traffic growth. As population and wealth increase in different areas of the globe, the demand for goods and services that aren’t available locally also spikes — leading to more shipping. The models estimated a pretty wide range of increases in bio-invasion risk — from three- to twenty- fold — which the team says comes down to uncertainty in the socioeconomic paths different areas will take in the future.

“Our study suggests that, unless appropriate action is taken, we could anticipate an exponential increase in such invasions, with potentially huge economic and ecological consequences,” says Anthony Sardain, a graduate student in Leung’s lab at McGill and the study’s lead author.

“Despite this large range, all scenarios point to an increase in both shipping and invasions. That should alert us to the gravity of the situation, and the importance of measures to curtail biological invasions.”

Some progress is being made into limiting the spread of invasive species, the team writes, citing major policy initiatives such as the International Ballast Water Management Convention. The Convention entered into force in 2017 and represents the latest global effort to control bio-invasions through measures such as ballast exchange. Leung explains that it’s still too early to gauge the efficacy of this measure globally, but that their work suggests it’s a step “in the right direction.”

The paper “Global forecasts of shipping traffic and biological invasions to 2050” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Fossil monkey teeth.

Fossil Friday: Newly-found fossil teeth solve ancient monkey mystery

Fossil teeth uncovered in Kenya, Africa, fill a missing link in the evolution of old world monkeys, a new paper reports.

Fossil monkey teeth.

Some specimens of A. metios that the team recovered.
Image credits D. Tab Rasmussen et al., (2019), PNAS.

The 22-million-year-old chompers allowed the team to describe a new species — which they christened Alophia metios — that fills a major gap in the evolution of old world monkeys (family Cercopithecidae), a team of U.S. and Kenyan researchers reports. It forms a link between a 19-million-year old fossil tooth unearthed in Uganda and a 25-million-year-old fossil tooth found in Tanzania.

Surprisingly, the teeth exhibit more primitive features compared to those of earlier species of monkeys, giving us an unique glimpse into what the lineage dined on in its earliest days.

Kenya find me a tooth?

“For a group as highly successful as the monkeys of Africa and Asia, it would seem that scientists would have already figured out their evolutionary history,” said the study’s corresponding author John Kappelman, an anthropology and geology professor at The University of Texas at Austin.

“Although the isolated tooth from Tanzania is important for documenting the earliest occurrence of monkeys, the next 6 million years of the group’s existence are one big blank. This new monkey importantly reveals what happened during the group’s later evolution.”

The team had their sights set specifically on the fossil-rich region of West Turkana, as the time interval they were interested in studying is only represented by a handful of African fossil sites. West Turkana is very arid today, but between 19 and 25 million years ago it was peppered with lush forest and woodland landscapes fed by a network of river and streams. Hundreds of mammal and reptile jaws, limbs, and teeth were recovered during fieldwork, ranging from 21 million to more than 24 million years old — including remains of early elephants.

At first, A. metios’ teeth confused the team. The fossil teeth were very primitive, more primitive than geologically younger monkey fossils, in fact. They even lacked a hallmark structure of monkey teeth, “lophs” — which are a pair of molar crests.

Fossil teeth comparison.

A comparison of cercopithecoid dental evolution over time. Specimens arranged left to right from oldest to youngest species. A are Alophia teeth, B are the same but reversed for comparison. C is Noropithecus, D is Victoriapithecus, E is Nsungewepithecus, F and G Alophia and Alophia reversed, H are Noropithecus teeth in reverse, I are Victoriapithecus teeth in reverse.
Image credits D. Tab Rasmussen et al., (2019), PNAS.

“These teeth are so primitive that when we first showed them to other scientists, they told us, “Oh no, that isn’t a monkey. It’s a pig,” said Ellen Miller, an anthropology professor at Wake Forest University and paper co-author.

“But because of other dental features, we are able to convince them that yes, it is in fact a monkey.”

The species’ name, Alophia, is a tribute to this feature — the word means “without lophs”. It’s quite a significant result, actually, since these lophs are a key feature of monkey teeth today. Lophs and cusps on molars allow the animals to eat a wide range of foods, from animal to plant matter. These teeth are like “uber food processor[s]”, the team explains, and helped monkeys adapt to the diverse environments they inhabit today, from Africa to Asia.

Exactly how and when these structures evolved, however, remained a mystery.  The researchers speculate that Alophia’s primitive dentition was suited to a diet of hard fruits, seeds, and nuts — but not leaves, as these are more efficiently processed by teeth such as those first seen in monkeys from 19 million years ago. This would suggest that the later inclusion of leaves in the diet of monkeys was a key driver of their (and their dental) evolution

“It is usually assumed that the trait responsible for a group’s success evolved when the group originated, but Alophia shows us this is not the case for Old World monkeys,” says co-author Samuel Muteti, a researcher at the National Museums of Kenya.

“Instead, the characteristic dentition of modern monkeys evolved long after the group first appeared.”

Monkeys as a lineage first appeared during a time when Africa and the Arabian peninsula were still joined together. Species here evolved in relative isolation until the whole island-continent connected to Eurasia, between 20 to 24 million years ago. After this time, we see mammals such as antelope, pigs, lions, or rhinos — what we’d consider African species today — making their way to Africa and Arabia.

One of the team’s hypotheses is that these immigrant species placed a lot of environmental stress on monkeys, and competition between them and the new arrivals drove monkeys to start exploiting leaves as a food source. Alternatively, changing climate conditions could have been at the root of this dietary shift.

“The way to test between these hypotheses is to collect more fossils,” Kappelman said. “Establishing when, exactly, the Eurasian fauna entered Afro-Arabia remains one of the most important questions in paleontology, and West Turkana is one of the only places we know of to find that answer.”

The paper “Primitive Old World monkey from the earliest Miocene of Kenya and the evolution of cercopithecoid bilophodonty” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Nanotyrannus and the Skeptical Criteria for Species

The classification of varying species, even the very term species itself, has long been a puzzling element of taxonomic categorization. Pulled from the Latin phrase species (meaning “appearance”), the term, in regards to its scientific use, has more than two dozen different definitions.

Based on this information alone, we can see how precisely pinpointing what declares a specimen a specific species is not quite clear. It is, perhaps, unique to each individual case. Numerous factors need to be taken into account. When biologists examine an organism to see if it is identical to or distinct from another species, they analyze its attributes. In comparing it to other organisms, they look for common characteristics or reproduction compatibility, or the lack of either.

However, when studying the remains of organisms of eons past, definitively declaring a species can be more difficult. Take a look at the drawn-out Jane and Nanotyrranus dilemma, for example. More than 15 years ago now, a dinosaur skeleton was unearthed in Montana by a team from the Burpee Museum of Natural History from Rockford, Illinois. The remains were rather well-preserved. They belonged to a ferocious carnivore of the Cretaceous Period. But what kind of carnivore?

Skeleton of a T. Rex. Source: Wikipedia.

It was a tyrannosaurid. Well, that narrows it down a bit, kind of like narrowing one’s selection from mammals down to bears. We have eliminated countless possibilities, yet there are quite a few bear species to go through. Similarly, there is a variety of species of tyrannosaurids to compare the remains of one to.

It was 20 feet in length, 7 feet in height, and its gender was undetermined. Regardless of that trifling mystery, the tyrannosaurid was dubbed Jane. Paleontologists made their observations. But not all agreed on what the appropriate classification of this specimen should be. Some suggested it could be a Nanotyrannus, a species of dwarf tyrannosaurid, whereas others believed it to simply be a juvenile specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Jane on Display at Burpee Museum. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The debate was on. Upon further research, the existence of Nanotyrannus has been a sketchy one, as far as some scientists are concerned. As Dougal Dixon puts it in his extensive World Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures, “Some paleontologists regard Nanotyrannus as a juvenile specimen of something better known, or even a dwarf species of Albertosaurus or Gorgosaurus” (324)”, which are other tyrannosaurids.

Jane’s remains were not the first to be suggested to be those of Nanotyrannus. In 1942, David Dunkle found the skull of a carnivorous dinosaur which resembled that of Jane. Dunkle’s discovery was tagged “CMNH 7541.” After this, other paleontologists examined the fossil on numerous occasions. Each suggested it was a certain species of previously known tyrannosaurid, such as Albertosaurus. It would not be until the late 1980’s that the skull would be suggested to be something more.

Robert Bakker. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Bakker. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Renowned modern paleontologist Robert T. Bakker and his associates took another look at CMNH 7541. This time though, the scientists were able to use a variety of advanced practices in their combing of the skull. One of these was the use of CAT scans. Bakker’s team ultimately determined it to be an utterly new species, calling it Nanotyrannus.

However, this skull, like the remains of Jane, has more recently fallen under scrutiny again. Some experts, such as Thomas Carr, have pointed to the presence of the factor of mere growth to explain the differences between “Nanotyrannus” and other tyrannosaurids. Carr and others have stated that the features of this supposed new species are different from those of its relatives only because the specimens of “Nanotyrannus” were juvenile examples of another species.

Once again, technology managed to come to the rescue. Fossilized bones carry LAG’s, lines of arrested growth. Like tree rings, these natural markings can allow us to better distinguish the age of a prehistoric creature. In order to detect the LAG’s, a tiny bit of practically weightless bone must be cut off. This is what was done with a segment of bone from Jane. (This could not be done with CMNH 7541 since a weightless fragment of bone cannot be extracted from the fossilized skull.)

Jane remains on display at the Burpee Museum. You can see the dinosaur in her museum habitat in this video I was able to shoot of Jane. It features some of the other skeletons on display at the Burpee Museum as well.

From the fragment taken from Jane, scientists concluded that Jane was merely a teenager, around 12 years old. With tyrannosaurs typically reaching adulthood around 20, Jane’s LAG’s showed the dinosaur was, in fact, a juvenile. Most now consider Jane simply a very well-preserved specimen of juvenile T. rex.

Despite the whole controversy over Jane’s identity, the existence of Nanotyrannus has not altogether been ruled out. This is just one example of the confusing, perpetually ongoing discussions regarding what classifies an organism under a certain species.

African slender-snouted crocodile. Image credit: Leyo / CC BY-SA 2.5.

New species of crocodile found in Africa right under our snout

African slender-snouted crocodile. Image credit: Leyo / CC BY-SA 2.5.

African slender-snouted crocodile. Image credit: Leyo / CC BY-SA 2.5.

Scientists have identified a new species of crocodile for the first time in more than 80 years. The species, dubbed Mecistops leptorhynchus or the Central African slender-snouted crocodile, did not suddenly appear out of nowhere — it has been hiding in plain sight all along. Up until now, the animal was thought to be the same species as Mecistops cataphractus, its West African counterpart.

Matthew Shirley poses with juvenile Central African slender-snouted crocodiles. Credit: Florida International University.

Matthew Shirley poses with juvenile Central African slender-snouted crocodiles. Credit: Florida International University.

It took Matt Shirley, study lead author and a researcher at Florida International University, more than ten years of painstaking work to come to a new species designation for the Central African croc. During this whole time, Shirley traveled through more than a dozen African countries, paddling across thousands of miles in search for crocs and scoured through museum samples around the world. He even caught malaria 16 times. To make things even more challenging, the M. cataphractus holotype—the specimen used to originally identify the species— was destroyed when the Nazis bombed the National History Museum in London. But, in the end, it was all worth it.

The West African croc was first described in 1835, but scientists have always had a hunch that there may be a second, very similar species.

In a new study published in the journal Zootaxa, Shirley and colleagues showed that there are two slender-snouted crocs. The main difference between the two is that the Central African crocs have softer, smoother scales than their West African cousins. Another defining feature is that the Central African crocs don’t have bony crests on their skulls, unlike their counterparts.

A genetic comparison of the two species suggests that the two diverged more than eight million years ago. The volcanic activity of a volcano in Cameroon led to the formation of mountains that were impenetrable to the crocs. In time, different populations isolated from one another speciated. They’re still very similar but different enough to be called distinct species.

The study is also somewhat bad news for Mecistops cataphractus, which is now down to only 500 individuals left in the wild, following the new designation. Both species are affected by habitat loss and poaching, and Shirley hopes that his work will help boost conservation efforts.

National Geographic reports that Shirley and colleagues are currently working with the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana to breed the animals in captivity. Ultimately, the plan is to release more than 30 of the animals currently residing at a zoo in Côte d’Ivoire. Hopefully, Africa’s slender-snouted crocodiles can be saved, just like the American alligator, which was on the cusp of extinction in the 1960s but can now be easily observed in nature thanks to protective measures.