“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
― Henry David Thoreau
Of Interest to All
Calls to Action
Please urge your U.S. Representative to support and cosponsor the Albatross and Petrel Conservation Act – here
Keep Fracking out of Florida – here
Tell Administrator Gina McCarthy it’s time for action on neurotoxic organophosphate (OP) pesticides – here
Stop-slaughter of rare-mountain-lions – here
Contact your Senators today. Ask them to reject Sen. Roberts’ bill that would Kill GMO Labeling. – here
Save the Last Coral Reef in North America – here
[If you sign only one petition this year, please make it this one.]
Birds and Butterflies
Where Do Maine’s Atlantic Puffins Go for the Winter?
Audubon scientists tracked breeding puffins from Maine to finally learn where they pass the colder months—in a maze of underwater canyons and mountains southeast of Massachusetts.
Steve Kress spent more than 40 summers off the rocky coast of Maine, uncovering every detail about Maine’s breeding Atlantic Puffins and their ecology. But there was one mystery he just couldn’t get to the bottom of. “[The puffins] are only on land for about four months; most of the time they’re at sea,” says Kress, who is the founder of Project Puffin and was credited with bringing the birds back from the brink of extinction in Maine during the 1970s using unique conservation techniques. The fact that the birds were hiding out for more than half the year was baffling to him and his fellow scientists.
Now, after years of trying to trace the puffins’ trail, Kress and his team have finally tracked the birds to an offshore paradise on the U.S. Continental Shelf, southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Geolocators lead to a startling discovery.
Back in 2009, Kress and other researchers at Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program started hunting for clues to where their neighborhood puffins were swimming off to every August. They attached geolocators to birds from the colonies at Maine’s Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge and Matinicus Rock and tried to track them. After two failed rounds between 2009 and 2013—one due to concerns over faulty data, and the other because of a manufacturing glitch—researchers ran a third attempt over 2013 and 2014 that finally yielded some hard-won information about the birds’ winter retreat.
Geolocators on the puffins’ legs record light levels from the different places they go, revealing their general winter itinerary. Photo: Stephen W. Kress
The data, gathered last spring from 19 puffins that returned to their burrows on the two islands, showed that the birds embark on an adventurous route that takes them to two main locations. They start by swimming north through the fish-rich waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Kress explains, spending about a month in Canada before veering south to overwinter in waters about 200 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.
Their final destination is an epic, underwater landscape: home to New England’s famed “coral canyons,” which go deeper than the Grand Canyon, and huge submerged mountain ranges that stretch for hundreds of miles along the ocean floor. The biodiverse zone is populated with impressive swathes of cold-water coral, kelp forests, whales, dolphins, a plethora of fish species—and as we now know, Atlantic Puffins, which are probably benefiting from some quality foraging in the area. “The canyons must be supporting a food web that extends up through the water column to the surface,” says Tony Diamond, a wildlife ecology professor at the University of New Brunswick who is conducting similar research on the puffins of Machias Seal Island in the Gulf of Maine.
New facts provide ample cause for protection.
Each geolocator only weighs a few ounces. Its data can only be recovered by retrieving the device from the puffin once it returns to its breeding grounds in Maine. Photo: Stephen W. Kress
The discovery comes at the perfect time, too. In September of last year, scientists and conservationists began advocating for a Marine National Monument around the coral canyons and seamounts near Cape Cod. If approved, it would be the first marine monument in the U.S. side of the Atlantic, and would protect the region against potential future threats like dredging by fishing vessels, undersea mining, and oil drilling. “It comes back to this: We need to do as good a job as possible protecting the habitats where [puffins] both nest and winter,” says Kress. “They already have enough issues from climate and shifting food chains.”
Kress’s current research shows that warming seas in the Northeast are threatening the availability of forage fish for puffins, meaning there’s less food available for chicks during breeding season. That could be causing young to fledge before they’ve gained enough weight, reducing their chances of survival. By tracking more birds throughout the year, scientists can figure out where the parents are searching for food, and if those locations are shifting over time. This summer, the Seabird Restoration Program will be using GPS tags—which are more precise than geolocators—to study the birds’ foraging habits in greater depth.
As tagging technologies grow more sophisticated, a clearer picture of the puffins’ winter homeland will emerge—along with cues on how to protect them. “Given that this species spends most of its time at sea, we need to develop the tools to protect them at sea, as well on land,” Diamond says. “Even well-known birds, like puffins, are still revealing secrets about how and where they live,” adds Gary Langham, Audubon’s chief scientist.
Secrets are thrilling, but when it comes to conservation, finding the answers pays off in a big way.
Emma Bryce|February 12, 2016
Birders have blast along St. Clair River
Event offers wonders of the Blue Water Area
Monica Laney was decked out in bird watching gear, binoculars and a camera with telephoto lens hanging around her neck.
“Birds are pretty cool,” said the Chesterfield township resident.
She was among about 75 people who showed up Saturday for the Friends of the St. Clair River Watershed Winter Bird Blast in Port Huron.
“I come up to look at the birds,” she said, scanning the St. Clair River north of the Blue Water Bridge. “I wanted to come and learn more about what I was seeing.
“It’s neat. I’m glad to see such a turnout at an event like this,” she said. “It shows support for the lakes and the community and the birds.” Sheri Faust, president of the Friends group, said one of the goals of events such as Saturday’s Bird Blast is to educate people about the resources where they live.
“This is a great way to get people out when normally they might not be outside,” she said.
Tom Dennis, of the Blue Water Audubon Society, briefed participants about what birds to expect. Because the tour was along the St. Clair River, most of the birds were waterfowl — but there were some raptors including a bald eagle on the Canadian side.
“Our goal is to get people interested in the unique natural features of the Blue Water Area,” Dennis said.
“If they want to become a Blue Water River Walk steward, that’s fantastic, but if they just learn to appreciate the natural features of the Blue Water Area, we’ve accomplished our mission.”
Kirsten Lyons, stewardship director for the Friends, said the more people learn about the places where they live, the more they want to protect those places.
“We do this to connect our community to our water resources,” Lyons said. “The best way to do that is to get them out there looking at our wildlife.”
BOB GROSS|TIMES HERALD
Agami Herons’ Full Mating Ritual Photographed for the First Time
A couple’s trek to a hidden lagoon in Costa Rica leads to a cache of new details about a glorious, yet understudied bird.
The Agami Heron is a superb-looking bird, in part due to its swanky mating ensemble—a feathery white comb over, ombre neck plumes, and a hot-crimson facemask. But the species favors the steamy overgrowth of Central and South America, and is notoriously hard to find (no one even knows where this mysterious bird spends its winters). As a result, very few people have seen its extraordinary habits or photographed it in the wild—until now.
It all started when heron biologist Jim Kushlan and wildlife photographer Kirsten Hines heard about a rare colony of Agamis at the Pacuare Reserve in Costa Rica, back in 2011. After a series of conversations with the reserve’s manager and caretaker, Kushlan and Hines were finally able to secure permission to visit at the height of breeding season last May. What resulted from their trek—thanks to Hines’s photography skills—is the first full documentation of this elusive species’ breeding behavior.
After arriving at the private eco-reserve by boat, Kushlan and Hines immediately launched into an eight-day heron study. With the help of long-time caretaker Danilo Herrera and his sturdy old canoe, the duo counted 266 Agami Heron nests plus two chicks—all holed up on a tiny island in the Pacuare lagoon. They were lucky to find the birds at all. Three years ago, an impish spider monkey used a fallen tree to cross over to the nesting grounds. Once there the animal destroyed multiple nests, causing the entire colony to flee and relocate for the season. But spider monkeys are now exiled from the island—Herrera makes sure to cut up any makeshift bridges he notices during his patrols—and the birds are back and thriving.
Though Agamis are easily disturbed, the Pacuare birds are used to Herrera’s presence and therefore, are more forgiving to humans. During their stay, Kushlan and Hines even led a group of local high school students to the bird blind to watch the herons. The teens were captivated by the glamorous birds, Hines says, but were also very respectful of their shy ways.
The trip marked the second time Kushlan had encountered the species (the first time was by flashlight in the dead of the night in Ecuador), but it was Hines’s first, and the birds made quite an impression. “The Agami Herons were stunning, more brilliant than any of the images I’d seen,” she wrote on her website. “This was a special opportunity, and that was exactly why we were here.”
As soon as Hines spotted the heron’s headdress (which she likens to a punk rocker’s wig and Einstein’s hair), she started snapping away from behind a bird blind. Her timing was impeccable; at one point, a young female and male faced off in a fascinating courtship act, while on the other end of the blind, a chick called out to its father for food.
A male heron about to stab a displaying female away. Note her submissive posture and red lores (the skin between the eye and the beak—the color indicates she’s eager to mate); the male’s lores are still yellow. Photo: Kirsten Hines
Unlike most birds, both sexes of Agamis boast the same fancy plumage around mating season. The only way to tell them apart, Kushlan says, is by the male’s larger beak and body. And unlike many other species, it’s the female that has to win the male’s heart. Courtship starts when a male chooses a nesting site and starts displaying around it. This catches the eye of a female—and if she’s interested, she’ll come over and start dancing: shaking her plumes, rocking on her legs, turning bright red in the face, and bowing from time to time. The males then counter—and they can get aggressive, snapping and even stabbing the females with their razor-sharp beaks to try and rebuff them. “It’s very hard on the female,” Kushlan says. The process may go on for days, until the male finally accepts the partner and they start building a nest.
The herons’ courtship has never been described in such detail before. And thanks to Kushlan’s expert eye and Hines’s elaborate photos, the findings will be published in the journal Waterbirds in early June. The paper, which complements ongoing research on an even larger Agami colony in French Guiana, imparts new information on the birds’ nesting, feeding, and parenting habits, and how they react to disturbances around them. It also points out the discrepancies between the breeding males and females; for example, the female will hold the red in her lores for hours, unlike the male.
Kushlan and Hines hope that their work will draw more scientists to Costa Rica for long-term monitoring; every new detail can help strengthen the IUCN’s conservation plan around the Agamis. Through their experience they realized that well-managed, privately owned land can be valuable to both local inhabitants and migratory animals. “Private endeavors like this can have a continent-wide effect on a species,” Kushlan says. He and Hines urge birders to visit the reserve and see its special tenants firsthand (Hines gives the place a glowing review on her online travelogue).
As for the intrepid husband and wife, they’re now back in their home state of Florida, preparing to scout out another wily waterbird: the Zigzag Heron, a little-known species which nests in the Amazon, right alongside its regal Agami cousin.
Purbita Saha|January 29, 2016
A Ban on Salamanders Is Just Part of the Fight Against This Deadly Fungus
Scientists are deploying a variety of weapons as new clues emerge about the fungal diseases killing off amphibians
Species of all types are disappearing around the globe, but no group may be more threatened than amphibians. One recent analysis found that 43 percent of amphibian species are on the decline and nearly a third are officially threatened. Scientists have also counted 168 species that have gone extinct in the wild, and more than half of those extinctions have occurred in the last few decades.
One big factor has been Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a fungal disease also known as chytrid that was virtually unknown two decades ago. Since its discovery, scientists have witnessed mass die-offs of amphibians, especially frogs, around the world, sometimes happening overnight.
Now, a related fungal disease is spreading among salamanders, B. salamandrivorans, or Bsal, and scientists are racing to apply what they have learned about chytrid to prevent this new threat from devastating amphibians in North America.
Amphibians are an integral part of the ecosystem, providing a link between the aquatic and terrestrial worlds, Karen Lips, who studies the animals at the University of Maryland College Park, said this week at the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C.
Amphibians are key predators of insects—many of which can transmit diseases such as Zika and dengue to humans—and they serve as meals for other creatures. When frogs disappear, “there are big impacts on pretty much all aspects of the ecosystem,” from water quality to snake abundance, says Lips, who has seen the effects of chytrid on amphibians in Panama.
The animals have also become key in research on limb regeneration. That makes amphibian declines, which may be even worse than reported, especially worrisome, Lips says. So researchers around the world are jumping in to find out as much as they can about the attacking fungi.
“The discovery of these two diseases has changed the way we think about pathogens,” says Ana Longo, of the University of Maryland College Park and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. When chytrid first appeared, scientists were reluctant to believe that a single pathogen could be so dangerous to more than a single species.
While studies have since shown that it’s possible, scientists they have also discovered that there are several kinds of Batrachochytrium. Some appear to be endemic in certain regions, such as Brazil, Switzerland and Korea, and amphibians there are able to tolerate the fungus.
But two other versions have spread widely, largely due to the pet trade. These invasive fungi are mostly responsible for the mass die-offs of frogs and other amphibians in the wild.
Scientists have also recognized that the chytrid epidemic began decades earlier than they thought. By studying amphibians in natural history collections, they have been able to see that declines in some species, such as the Yosemite toad, occurred around the same time as the arrival of chytrid in a particular region.
“Museums are giving us a view of the past that may help us interpret the status of present-day populations,” says Vance Vredenburg, an amphibian ecologist at San Francisco State University.
One big takeaway so far is that the fungus may not actually doom all frogs, as scientists once feared. Many factors can interact to determine whether a population—or an entire species—survives. For instance, while chytrid thrives in cooler climates, the local climate and ecology can influence the spread of the disease and amphibian susceptibility.
Interactions with the other microbes living on an animal’s skin may also play a role, along with the response of its immune system. Some researchers are now working on probiotics that might help a frog fight off a chytrid infection. And zoos, including the Smithsonian National Zoo, are raising animals that have gone extinct in the wild, such as the Panamanian golden frog, with plans to eventually reestablish lost populations once they figure out how to control the fungus.
Such efforts are giving scientists a head start for tackling Bsal, a disease that was first officially described in 2013. Thought to be native to Asia, this fungus arrived in the Netherlands via the pet trade and spread through Europe from there. The disease has not yet been found in North America, but it could be a huge problem if it makes the leap across the Atlantic.
“The threat of the new salamander-eating chytrid fungus is something we should all be very concerned about, because the Appalachian region is the world’s major biodiversity hot spot for salamanders,” says Brian Gratwicke, a conservation biologist at the National Zoo. “We have a responsibility do everything we can to preserve them as an important feature of the continent’s biodiversity.”
The U.S. Geological Survey has developed a rapid-response plan for handling suspicious salamander deaths, and herpetologists would love to see any dead salamanders people find. The National Zoo has also teamed up with a citizen-science project, the Amphibian Survival Alliance, to test pet salamanders for the fungus. In the meantime, researchers are hoping to apply the lessons they are learning about chytrid biology to Bsal.
But for now, the best way to keep U.S. salamanders safe is to keep Bsal out of the country. To that end, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a ban earlier this year on the import and interstate trade of 201 salamander species that could transmit Bsal.
“We know that there’s no treatment,” Lips said, “so it’s pretty obvious that the only thing that is going to give us any amount of time to come up with a solution or treatment … is to keep it out as long as possible.”
Sarah Zielinski|smithsonian.com|February 13, 2016
“Mermaid Ivory” Stirs Controversy Over How Extinct Species Are Studied
The carved bones of marine mammals highlight the squishy regulations around their trade and what that means for science
The Steller’s sea cow was almost extinct by the time German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller first laid eyes on the plump marine mammal. The species that would bear his name once ranged throughout the North Pacific, but by the time of Steller’s visit in 1741, the last population was sequestered around Russia’s Commander Islands. The species was hunted into extinction before the close of the 18th century.
Then, a discovery complicated this classic story of extinction. In 2014, George Mason University biologist Lorelei Crerar and her coauthors announced that a hidden population of Steller’s sea cow bobbed through the waters around St. Lawrence Island, west of the Alaskan coast, up until about 1,000 years ago.
Why this second pocket went extinct wasn’t clear—in their report in Biology Letters, the researchers proposed that a brief uptick in temperatures called the Medieval Warm Period could have made the kelp the marine mammals ate harder to find, or that Inuit hunted them into extinction. Either way, the discovery of this “hidden” population added a new wrinkle to the animal’s tragic tale.
Now the study is making waves for a very different reason: It highlights the squishy state of regulations surrounding “mermaid ivory,” the colorful name for the bones of marine mammals carved into sculptures, and what that means for scientific research.
For their work, Crerar and her coauthors used bone specimens bought at knife shows and on Ebay. The bone dealers assured them that the samples came from St. Lawrence Island. The team’s initial intention was to detect whether protected marine species were being illegally traded under the banner of mermaid ivory, says study co-author Chris Parsons. Their genetic analysis identified some of the samples as Steller’s sea cow, and those bones were dated at about 1,000 years old, which Crerar and Parsons deem a serendipitous result.
But not everyone is sold on the idea that the sea cows inhabited the waters around St. Lawrence Island way back when. In a response article published this month in Biology Letters, marine mammal experts Nicholas Pyenson, James Parham and Jorge Velez-Juarbe question where these critical sea cow bones came from and, more broadly, how commercially purchased specimens are used in studying the past.
“While I certainly hope that the material did come from St. Lawrence Island, we have no basis, given the current facts, to affirm this geographic placement with confidence,” says Pyenson, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Location is just as important as anatomy or tatters of genes in examining where species used to live. Even though it was not Crerar and colleagues’ intention to conduct a paleontological study, Pyenson and his coauthors are dismayed that there is no concrete evidence for where the bone samples came from.
A bone sold as mermaid ivory is stripped of its context and can only give you scant anatomical details, Parham says. “Because the fossil record is so incomplete already, any time we lose attendant data, the science suffers.” Promises from bone dealers are not sufficient, he adds. “In science, you should not really pick and choose which merchant to believe.”
Complicating matters, this species falls through a regulatory loophole.
“The specimens in question fall outside of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, because Steller’s sea cow is extinct. And because these specimens are not technically fossils either, they fall outside of the Paleontological Resources Protection Act,” says Pyenson. That means dealers can legally buy and sell the bones without having to worry much about documenting their origins. And that makes the original study problematic, Pyenson says.
“I think their broad conclusions would be interesting and relevant to a more complex extinction scenario if we did have such traceability,” he says. “But what confidence do we have that the isotopic and DNA results can be tracked to actual physical vouchers, given these issues?”
Pyenson and his coauthors are also concerned that the 2014 study grated against the standards of paleontology and other biological disciplines. The bones used in the 2014 study were held in a private collection, which was put in a George Mason University collection last December. That means the original specimens were privately held at the time they were formally described.
When important specimens are in private hands, the owner may deny access to scientists for any reason they like, the trio point out. “And then there’s always the question of what will happen to those specimens beyond the lifetime of the owner,” says Velez-Juarbe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
Reiterating that their initial findings were a happenstance that came out of a different project, the authors of the 2014 study dispute these arguments. In a published reply to Pyenson and his colleagues, Crerar says that the samples were not hard to access.
“All 200 of the bones are at George Mason University,” she says, with the exception of five that are currently at the Smithsonian, and she says that other researchers have already examined the collection. And while Crerar would also like to know more about where the bones came from, she has not yet visited St. Lawrence Island and talk to the people who dig the bones from middens.
Parsons adds that he is “dumbfounded by the furor over the samples,” especially because the sea cow samples “are tiny fragments that aren’t really recognizable as bones or carvings.” He likens them to genetic tissue samples, which are not always stored in museum collections.
Still, archiving genetic samples has rapidly become a scientific standard for biologists, and museums and zoos around the world are building huge collections of frozen tissues, says Parham of California State University.
While the tricky nature of mermaid ivory may not be resolved any time soon, there is some hope for resolving the mystery of the St. Lawrence Island sea cows. Middens likely to harbor more sea cow bones have previously been excavated on the islands, and their fully documented contents are now being cared for at museums, say Pyenson, Parham and Velez-Juarbe.
“Could there be Steller’s sea cow already in museum collections at Fairbanks?” Pyenson wonders. “I’m going to go and find out.”
Brian Switek|Smithsonian.com|February 15, 2016
Hunters Become Conservationists in the Fight to Protect the Snow Leopard
A pioneering program recruits locals as rangers in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, where the elusive cat is battling for survival
High in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, scientists and hunters are unlikely allies in an effort to protect the endangered snow leopard before it vanishes. (Panthera)
To reach the Tien Shan mountains from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, you head east until you hit the shores of a vast freshwater lake called Issyk Kul, and then you turn southeast, in the direction of the Chinese border—a drive of about ten hours, if the weather is good and the roads are clear. The week I made the trip, last winter, in the company of a snow leopard scientist named Tanya Rosen, it took considerably longer. There was rain in Bishkek, and snow on the plains. Every 20 miles or so, we slowed to allow young shepherd boys, stooped like old shepherd men, to drive their sheep from one side of the ice-slick road to the other. In the distance, the mountains loomed.
“Kyrgyz traffic jam,” the driver, Zairbek Kubanychbekov, a Kyrgyz staffer with Panthera, the American nonprofit where Rosen is a senior scientist, called out from behind the wheel. Rosen laughed. “You’ll get used to it,” she told me. “I remember one of the very first things I decided when I came to Central Asia was that I wouldn’t allow myself to get annoyed or angry at the pace of travel here. Because if you do, you won’t have any time for anything else. I surrendered.”
Rosen, who is 42, was born in Italy and raised in what was then Yugoslavia. She speaks six languages fluently, another two passably, and her accent, while vaguely European, can be hard to place. In another life, she worked as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, but in 2005, frustrated with her job, she and her husband separated and she moved to Grand Teton National Park and then to Yellowstone, to work for the U.S. Geological Survey with grizzly bears while earning a master’s degree in social ecology from Yale. An interest in big-clawed bears gave way to an interest in big-clawed cats, and for the past half decade, Rosen has spent almost all her time studying Panthera uncia, or the snow leopard, an animal whose life in the wild, owing to its far-flung habitat and fundamentally elusive nature, remains little known.
In Tajikistan, Rosen and her colleagues at Panthera helped to set up a network of pioneering community-run conservancies—areas controlled and policed not by government rangers but by local people. The programs were a success—recent surveys showed snow leopard counts inside the Tajik conservancies climbing up. Now she was pushing north, into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where, except in a single nature reserve called Sarychat-Ertash, little research has been done. So much remains unknown that scientists debate even the size of the snow leopard population itself: Some thought there were a thousand cats in the country, others put the number at 300.
As we hurtled toward the Tien Shan, Rosen ran down the list of what she hoped to accomplish: persuade Kyrgyz hunters and farmers to set up new conservancies; install camera traps to get a rough measure of the snow leopard population in key areas, which could be used as a base line to monitor fluctuations in the years to come; and, if she got lucky, maybe even manage to get a radio collar on an adult snow leopard, allowing her team to track its movements, map its range and learn more about how it interacts with prey and its environment.
Our first destination was a hunting camp high in the Tien Shan, where the owner, a man named Azamat, had reported seeing snow leopards in the surrounding peaks. Azamat had invited Rosen to stay a few days and set up a handful of camera traps. We’d pick up Azamat in his village at the foot of the mountains and continue for another hundred miles up to the camp.
We drove for nine hours straight, past mosques with minarets of sapphire blue, tombs of twisted tin and the occasional dolorous camel. The road narrowed to dirt and reverted back to concrete; we descended only to climb again. I sat in the back seat, next to Naryn, Rosen’s year-old taigan, a Kyrgyz cousin of the Afghan hound. Taigans can be trained to kill wolves, but Naryn, with her gentle, citrine eyes, seemed to have acquired her master’s reserved temperament: She spent her time curled up atop the gear—the better to keep an eye on the rest of us.
Near the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, we stopped to spend the night, and the next day we added another passenger to the already-overstuffed car: Azamat, the owner of the hunting camp. Azamat was dark-haired and absurdly handsome, with little English and a passion for Soviet weaponry; the lock screen on his cellphone, which he showed me immediately after we met, was a glossy photograph of his favorite scoped automatic rifle.
At 12,200 feet, the sage of the plains gave way to the middle reaches of the mountains, and the only other vehicles were trucks from a nearby gold mine. All around us was an ocean of unbroken snowpack; without sunglasses, it hurt to even open your eyes. At 15,000 feet, according to the altimeter on my satellite phone, the air began to feel painfully thin; my vision clouded at the corners with a gray haze, and my head throbbed.
Before I came to Kyrgyzstan, Rodney Jackson, the head of an American nonprofit called the Snow Leopard Conservancy, told me that the reason so few scientists chose to specialize in the feline—as opposed to, say, the tiger—is that tracking snow leopards is an intensely physical endeavor: Altitude hurts, and so does the punishing amount of travel involved. Not everyone wants to spend weeks at a time in the mountains, fending off the nausea and the pain of mountain sickness. I was starting to see what he meant. I swallowed a Diamox pill, a prescription medicine to minimize the effects of altitude, and slumped lower into the bench seat.
Rosen shouted: Ahead, a pack of long-horned argali sheep, a favorite prey of the snow leopard, were watching us approach. But before I could get my binoculars focused, they scattered, flecking the slopes with hoof prints. Four days after leaving home, I’d arrived at last in snow leopard country.
The snow leopard is a deceptively small beast: Males are 95 pounds, give or take, and light through the back and torso. They stand little more than 24 inches tall. (Female snow leopards are smaller still.) And yet as the late naturalist Peter Matthiessen, who wrote his most famous book about the snow leopard, once noted, there are few animals that can match its “terrible beauty,” which he described as “the very stuff of human longing.”
Although snow leopards will descend to altitudes of 2,500 feet, they are most comfortable in steep and rocky mountains of 10,000 feet or higher, in the distant reaches of terrain historically inhospitable to man. It is no accident that in so many cultures, from Buddhist Tibet to the tribal regions of Tajikistan, the snow leopard is viewed as sacred: We must climb upward, in the direction of the heavens, to find it.
And even then, we may not sense its presence. Save for the pink nose and glimmering green or blue eyes, its camouflage is perfect, the black-speckled gray pelt a good blend for both snow and alpine rock. In Kyrgyzstan, I heard stories of experienced hunters coming within yards of a snow leopard without being the wiser for it; the next morning, following the path back to their cabin, the hunters would see tracks shadowing their own.
Although packs of wolves or even a golden eagle may bring down an unprotected cub, the same spring-loaded haunches that allow an adult snow leopard to jump distances of close to 30 feet, from mountain ledge to mountain ledge, make the animal a devastating killer.
Data from the Snow Leopard Trust suggest that the cat will bring down an animal every eight to ten days—ibex or bharal or long-horned argali sheep, whichever large ungulates are nearby—and can spend three or four days picking apart the carcass. Tom McCarthy, executive director of Snow Leopard Programs at Panthera, says he has collared more than a few of the animals in Mongolia with split lips and torn ears: an indication that some of the snow leopard’s prey will fight back. But it’s also possible that male snow leopards “smack each other around,” McCarthy says, in tussles over mountain turf.
Female snow leopards will breed or attempt to breed once every two years, and their home ranges may partially overlap. Pregnancy lasts about 100 days; litters can range from one cub to five, although mortality rates for snow leopard cubs are unknown—the harsh climate, it’s thought, may claim a significant number. Once her cubs are born, a female snow leopard will guard them for a year and a half to two years, until the young leopards are capable of hunting on their own.
The life of a male snow leopard is lonelier. He might stay with a female for a few days while they mate, but after that he’ll typically return to hunting and defending his territory in solitude. In Kyrgyzstan, he is often referred to, with reverence, as “the mountain ghost.”
And yet the snow leopard’s remote habitat is no longer enough to protect it. At one time, thousands of snow leopards populated the peaks of Central Asia, the Himalayan hinterlands of India, Nepal, Mongolia and Russia, and the plateaus of China. Today, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are fewer than 6,600 snow leopards in the wild. In some countries, according to the WWF, the numbers have dwindled to the point that a zero count has become a real possibility: between 200 to 420 in Pakistan and 70 to 90 in Russia.
The primary culprit is man. Driven by the collapse of local economies in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and enticed by the robust market for snow leopard parts in Asia, where pelts are worth a small fortune and bones and organs are used in traditional medicines, over the past few decades poachers have made increasingly regular forays into the mountains of Central Asia, often emerging with dozens of dead leopards. Cubs are illegally sold to circuses or zoos; WWF China reports that private collectors have paid $20,000 for a healthy specimen. The poachers use untraceable steel traps and rifles; like the leopards themselves, they operate as phantoms.
As the human population expands, the snow leopard’s range has shrunk in proportion—villages and farms crop up on land that once belonged exclusively to wild animals. In Central Asia, a farmer who opens his corral one morning to find a heap of half-eaten sheep carcasses has plenty of incentive to make sure the same snow leopard doesn’t strike again. Meanwhile, snow leopard habitat is being chipped away by mining and logging, and in the future, McCarthy believes, climate change could emerge as a serious threat. “You might end up with a scenario where as more snow melts, the leopards are driven into these small population islands,” he says.
McCarthy points out that the loss of the snow leopard would mean more than the loss of a beautiful creature, or the erasure, as in the case with the Caspian tiger, which vanished in the mid-20th century, of a link to our ecological past. Nature is interlocked and interdependent—one living part relies on the next. Without snow leopards, too many ungulates would mean that mountain meadows and foliage would be chomped down to dirt. The animal’s extinction would forever alter the ecosystem.
In recent years, much of the work of organizations such as the WWF, Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust has centered more on people than the cats themselves: lobbying local governments to crack down on poaching; finding ways to enhance law enforcement efforts; and working with local farmers to improve the quality and safety of their corrals, because higher fences means fewer snow leopard attacks on livestock and so fewer retaliatory shootings.
“There’s a temptation to think in terms of grand, sweeping solutions,” Rosen told me. “But, as with all conservation, it is less about the animal than it is getting the best out of the human beings who live alongside it.”
Jackson says that the primary challenge is one of political will. “I’m convinced that in places where anti-poaching laws are strict, like Nepal, things have gotten markedly better,” he told me. “People have seen the cultural incentive in having the cat alive. And they’ve watched people get prosecuted for poaching, and they’re wary of messing with that.” But activists and scientists like Jackson have been working in places like Nepal for decades.
By comparison, Kyrgyzstan is a new frontier.
Azamat’s hunting camp turned out to be a cluster of trailers sheltered to the east by a stone cliff and to the west by a row of rounded hills. There was a stable for the horses used by visiting hunters, a gas-powered generator for power and wood stoves for heat. Ulan, a ranger acquaintance of Azamat’s, had arrived earlier in the day with his wife, who would do the cooking.
We ate a wordless meal of bread and soup and threw our sleeping bags on the bunks in the middle trailer. The stove was already lit. I was sore from the drive, jet-lagged, dehydrated from the elevation. Underneath my thermal shirt, my lungs were doing double-duty. I flicked on my headlamp and tried to read, but my attention span had disappeared with the oxygen. Finally, I got dressed and stepped outside.
The night was immense; the constellations looked not distant and unreachable, as they had back on earth, but within arm’s length. By my reckoning, it was 300 miles to the nearest middle-sized town, 120 miles to the nearest medical clinic and 30 miles to the nearest house.
At 5:30 a.m., Askar Davletbakov, a middle-aged Kyrgyz scientist who had accompanied us to the camp, shook me by the shoulders. His small frame was hidden under four layers of synthetic fleece and down. “Time to go,” he said. He had a camera trap in his hand. Rosen had brought along ten of the devices, which are motion-activated: A snow leopard passes by the lens, and snap, a handful of still images are recorded onto a memory card. Later, the camera is collected, and the data is uploaded to a Panthera computer.
We’d hoped to set out on horseback, but the ice in the canyons was too thin—the horses might go crashing through to the river below—so instead we drove out to the canyon mouth and hiked the rest of the way on foot. It was minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and colder with the wind. Through the ice on the river I could see sharp black fish darting in the current. Naryn howled; the sound filled the canyon. Resting totemically in the snow up ahead was the skull of an argali sheep torn into pieces by a pack of wolves. The job had not been finished: Clumps of flesh still clung to the spinal column, and one buttery eye remained in its socket.
Nearby, we found the first snow leopard tracks, discernible by the pads and the long tubular line that the tail makes in the snow. A snow leopard’s tail can measure three and a half feet; the cats often wrap themselves in it in the winter, or use it as a balancing tool when traversing icy slopes. I knelt down and traced my finger over the tracks. “Very good sign,” Rosen said. “Looks fresh. Maybe a few hours old.”
Zairbek removed a camera trap from his pack and climbed up a gully to set it. The process was onerous: You need dexterity to flip the requisite switches, but even a few moments without gloves was enough to turn your fingers blue. Three hours after we’d left camp, we’d traveled two miles and set only four traps.
The canyon narrowed to the point where we were forced to walk single file; the ice groaned ominously underfoot. I watched Ulan, a cigarette in hand, testing the ground with his boot. The accident, when it happened, gave me no time to react: Ulan was there, and then he was not. Azamat pushed past me, got his hands under Ulan’s armpits, and hauled him out of the river. The hunter was soaked through to his upper chest; already, his face was noticeably paler. We set the remaining traps as quickly as we could, in caves and in cascades of scree, and turned back home, where Ulan, with a mug of hot tea in hand, could warm his legs in front of the stove.
We ate more soup and more bread, and drank large glasses of Coca-Cola. While in the mountains, Rosen consumes the stuff by the gallon—something about the caffeine and sugar and carbonation, she believes, helps to ward off altitude sickness. I wondered aloud, given the difficulty of just the past couple of days, whether she ever felt overwhelmed. Surely it would be more comfortable to continue to study the grizzly, which at least has the sense to live closer to sea level.
Rosen considered this for a moment, and then she told me a story about a trip to Central Asia a few years back. “I was tired, I was sore,” she said. “We’d been driving all day. And then, from the window, I saw a snow leopard a few hundred yards away, looking back at me. Just the way it moved—the grace, the beauty. I remember being so happy in that moment. I thought, ‘OK, this is why I’m here. And this is why I’m staying.’”
One afternoon, Rosen took me to visit a man named Yakut, who lived in a small village in the Alai Valley, close to the border of Tajikistan. Yakut is slight and balding, with a wispy gray goatee. As a young man in the 1970s, he’d traveled to Russia to serve in the Soviet Army; afterward he had wanted to stay in Moscow and enroll in a university there—there were plenty of opportunities for an ex-military man. But his father forbade it—Yakut was the only boy in the family—and he returned to the village, married and took over the family farm. In the summers, he hunted. He’d killed a lot of animals: ibex, wolves, bears, argali sheep.
In the summer of 2014, Rosen approached Yakut and other hunters in the village to make an offer: Allow Panthera to assist in establishing a local-run conservancy in the Alai. Unlike the National Park Service in the United States, or the zapovednik system in Russia—top-down institutions, where the government designates the protected land and hires rangers to police it—the community-based conservancy model is premised on the belief that locals can often be better stewards of their land than the federal government, especially in fractious areas like Central Asia.
Rosen, with the assurance of local law enforcement and border guards, promised the villagers of the Alai that in addition to helping set up the conservancy, they would assist in negotiations with the government for a hunting parcel, where they could charge visitors a fee to hunt animals like sheep and markhor, a large mountain goat. At the same time, the locals would monitor wildlife populations and carry out anti-poaching work.
Wealthy Kyrgyz city-dwellers and foreign tourists will pay tens of thousands of dollars to bring down an argali sheep. A month earlier, the villagers had registered the conservancy and elected Yakut as its head. Yakut received us at the door to his hut in a watch cap and olive military fatigues—a habit left over from his army days. His home, in the manner of many Kyrgyz dwellings, was divided into three chambers: a hallway for boots and gear; a kitchen; and a shared room for sleeping. We sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor. The television, tuned to a station out of Bishkek, burbled along agreeably in the background.
Yakut’s wife appeared with bread and tea and old plastic soda bottles filled with kumiss, an alcoholic delicacy made from fermented mare’s milk. The first gulp of kumiss came shooting back up my throat; it had the consistency of a raw oyster, and the taste of sour yogurt and vodka. I tried again. It was no better, but this time it went down. Yakut beamed.
I asked him what had made him agree to chair the conservancy, whether there was an appeal besides additional income for the village. “I used to go up into the mountains and see a snow leopard almost every other day,” he said. “Now, months and months can go by before I see a single track. The animals have started to disappear.” He explained that the other week, he and his fellow villagers had stopped a group of young hunters with bolt-action rifles who appeared to be headed onto the land, possibly in search of snow leopards. Perhaps they’d be back, but probably not—it would likely be more trouble than it was worth to attempt another incursion.
“My hope,” Yakut continued, “is that one day, maybe when my grandchildren are grown, the snow leopards will start to return.”
Outside, the sky was low-bellied and dark. Yakut gestured to the wall of his shed, where a wolf carcass hung. He and a cousin had trapped and killed it just the other day. The belly had been slit open and stuffed with hay to preserve the shape. Rosen, noticeably upset, turned away.
As she later told me, building community-based conservancies involved trade-offs: Some animals would be protected, but others would still be hunted. You knew that going in, but it didn’t mean you had to like it.
That night, we slept on the floor of a hut owned by the head of a nearby conservancy. Tossing and turning in my sleeping bag, I listened as Rosen, on the other side of the room, spoke by phone with her 11-year-old daughter, who was living with her father in New York. (Rosen divorced her first husband and has since remarried.) The conversation started in Italian, broke into English, and ended with a series of ciaos and blown kisses. Last year, Rosen’s daughter joined her mother for a few weeks in the field, and Rosen hoped she’d visit Kyrgyzstan again soon. But in the meantime they would be apart for nearly half a year. The separation, she told me, was the single toughest part of her job.
The most successful government conservancy in Kyrgyzstan, alongside Sarychat-Ertash, is Naryn, less than a hundred miles north of the Chinese border. Rangers, despite being paid the equivalent of $40 a month, are well-known for their commitment to the land. A few years ago, the director single-handedly created a museum devoted to indigenous animals, and he has poured the resulting funds (along with proceeds from a nearby red deer farm) directly back into the reserve.
I traveled to Naryn with Rosen, Askar and Zairbek to meet with the Naryn rangers. It had been a month or so since Rosen had been in touch with the team, who had set a series of Panthera-purchased camera traps in the surrounding hills, and she was keen for an update.
Our horses were a few hands taller than ponies but more nimble than the average American thoroughbred, with manes that the rangers had tied up in elaborate braids. Rosen grew up riding—as a teen she’d competed in dressage, and had briefly contemplated a career as a professional equestrian—and she was assigned a tall stallion with a coat that resembled crushed velvet. I was given a somnolent-looking mare.
I locked my left foot in the stirrup and swung myself up over the saddle, which was pommel-less, in the manner of its English counterpart, and set atop a small stack of patterned blankets. The horse shimmied, nosed at the bit, sauntered sideways across the road and was still. Hanging from the saddle was a tasseled crop, which could be used if my heels failed.
We set off in midafternoon, following a narrow track into the hills. The higher we climbed, the deeper the snow became, and at periodic intervals the horses would fall through the top crust with a terrified whinny, pinwheeling their legs for traction. Then their hooves would lock on firm ground and they’d surge forward, in a motion not unlike swimming, and their gaits would once more level out. Soon my mare’s neck and withers were frothed with sweat.
Approaching 10,000 feet, we were suddenly greeted by a flood of horses, saddleless and without bridles, coursing down the opposite slope in our direction. Our mounts grew skittish, and for a moment it looked as if we’d be driven backward off the cliff, but at the last moment a Kyrgyz cowboy appeared from the east, clad in a leather jacket and a traditional peaked Kyrgyz hat, and cut the horses off before they could reach us.
I listened to Zholdoshbek Kyrbashev, the reserve’s deputy director, and Rosen speaking in Russian; Zairbek, riding next to me, translated in his beginner’s English. Zholdoshbek believed there were at least a dozen snow leopards in the reserve—although the photo evidence was scant, the rangers had found plenty of scat. Rosen promised to try to provide the rangers with more cameras. Next they discussed the possibility of trapping and collaring some of the local bears, in order to get a better understanding of their behavior and movements. “It’s a great idea—but you’ll be careful,” Rosen chided him.
Zholdoshbek nodded, and smiled shyly. Like all the Kyrgyz scientists and rangers I met, he clearly liked Rosen immensely, and more than that he seemed to trust her—there was no guile to her, no arrogance. I thought of something that Tom McCarthy, of Panthera, had told me. “You look back to the 1980s, the early 1990s, and you could count the number of people studying the snow leopard on two hands,” he said. Now there were hundreds around the world, and, he went on, “Tanya has become one of the most prominent figures—she’s just absolutely superb at what she does: At the politics of it, at the fieldwork. She’s smart, but she’s always listening.”
The sun was now almost extinguished. We wheeled in a circle along the slope and descended into a valley. In the distance, a scattering of rocks materialized; the rocks became houses; the houses became a village. We dropped in on Beken, a veteran ranger at the reserve. He was a large man, with a face creased by the sun and wind and hands the texture of a catcher’s mitt. As we talked, his 5-year-old daughter climbed into his lap and, giggling, pulled at his ears.
Beken kept talking: He had many plans for the reserve. He wanted Naryn to become an international tourist attraction. He wanted more red deer. He wanted a bigger staff. And above all, he wanted to ensure that the snow leopard would never disappear from this land, which had been the land of his grandfather and father, and would be the land of his daughter.
“The snow leopard,” Beken said, “is part of who we are.”
It took two days to drive back to Bishkek. The highway was full of curiosities: telephone poles topped by storks’ nests; a man with what appeared to be a blunderbuss, taking aim at a scattering of songbirds. After a week in the mountains, the Irish green of the pastures looked impossibly bright, the Mediterranean blue of the Naryn River incandescent.
In Bishkek, with its unlovely Brutalist architecture, a fresh rainstorm arrived; the rain turned to pellets of ice. In the markets, vendors ran for cover. Behind us, shrinking in the Land Cruiser’s side-view mirrors, were the Tien Shan, wreathed in fog.
A few weeks after I returned to the United States, I heard from Rosen, who had sad news: Beken, the ranger at Naryn, had been retrieving a memory card from a camera trap when the river swept him away. His colleagues found him weeks later. He left behind his wife and children, including the young daughter I had watched yank at his ears. It was stark evidence of the dangers, and the cost, of the work Rosen and her colleagues choose to do.
Then, in the fall, came happier news: Working with the Snow Leopard Trust and its local affiliate, the Snow Leopard Foundation, Kyrgyzstan, Rosen and her team at Panthera had set ten snares in the canyons of the Sarychat-Ertash Reserve. “For weeks nothing happened,” Rosen wrote to me. “But on October 26, the transmitter attached to one of the traps went off. At 5 a.m., the team picked up the signal and within one and a half hours reached the site.”
There they found a healthy female snow leopard. The scientists darted the cat and attached a collar fitted with a satellite transceiver. It was the first time a snow leopard had ever been collared in Kyrgyzstan—a development that will shed light on the animal’s habits and range, and its relationship with the local ecosystem. Does the Kyrgyz snow leopard wander more widely than its counterparts in Nepal and elsewhere? Does it hunt as often? How frequently does it come close to human settlements?
Already, Panthera has found that the leopard is a mother to three cubs, who have been captured on camera traps. For now, Rosen and her team are calling the leopard Appak Suyuu, or True Love.
Matthew Shaer|Smithsonian Magazine|March 2016
First twins born to habituated gorilla family in the Central African Republic
© Nick Radford
Still too young to be named, the most recent additions to the gorilla population in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas (DSPA) complex in the Central African Republic (CAR) are nevertheless making a name for themselves—as the first twins ever to be born to the area’s habituated gorillas.
The infants were first spotted at Bai Hokou at the end of January, clinging to their mother, Malui—with their father, the resident silverback Makumba, standing protectively nearby.
The gorilla habituation and research program has been running in Dzanga-Sangha since 1998, so the birth of the twins have caused quite a stir.
“These are the first twins ever recorded in Dzanga-Sangha and their birth is an incredible moment for everyone who has worked so hard to habituate and conserve these gorillas over the past 16 years,” said David Greer, the leader of WWF’s African great apes program, who worked in Dzanga-Sangha for over eight years.
The DSPA is co-managed by the CAR government and WWF, which habituates gorillas for tourism and research through its Primate Habituation Program.
Apart from being the major source of employment for local people, the program plays a vital role in the DSPA’s management strategy by generating much-needed revenue and strengthening the vital links with the community.
The project employs over 80 eco-guards for continuous surveillance of the area and actively supports the sustainable use of natural resources.
“These tiny twins are a sign of success in Dzanga-Sangha, but gorillas continue to face serious threats from poaching, disease and habitat loss across Central Africa and their futures are far from secure, which is why WWF is working with governments and partners throughout the region to protect them and their forest habitat,” Greer said.
Although multiple sets of twins have been recorded for eastern gorillas, it seems to be a rare occurrence for western gorillas. Another set of western gorilla twins was recorded in Mbeli Bai in northern Congo last year and both are still going strong.
Hopefully, the same will be true of Malui’s twins in a year’s time.
WWF|February 08, 2016
Major ivory trafficking network broken up in the Democratic Republic of Congo
In a significant blow to the illegal ivory trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), authorities dismantled a major ivory trafficking syndicate thanks to a law enforcement supported by WWF and partners.
The Congolese authorities seized approximately 66 pounds of ivory tusks and ornaments on Feb. 4 and arrested a number of traffickers, who remain in police custody.
With thousands of elephants poached each year, this crackdown represents a major step forward in stopping wildlife crime.
“WWF congratulates the DRC government for successfully breaking up this ivory trafficking network,” said Bruno Perodeau, WWF-DRC conservation director. “This crackdown shows that ivory traffickers can no longer count on impunity for their crimes in this country, and demonstrates that with determination, we can be successful in the fight against wildlife crime, even in DRC.”
The Congo rainforest, home to the African forest elephant, is the world’s second largest rainforest – two thirds of which are found in the DRC, where elephant poaching continues at an industrial scale. If poaching is not stopped, the species could all but disappear from the DRC in the near future, following in the footsteps of several other iconic species, such as the Northern White rhino.
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)—a treaty that regulates international trade in wild flora and fauna—requested the DRC provide an action plan for combatting wildlife crime and the ivory trade in 2014. And last March, CITES recommended certain commercial sanctions with the DRC because it didn’t finalize the action plan within the agreed timeframe.
Faced with the threat of these sanctions, the DRC has started to act on wildlife crime, completing and using the action plan and cracking down on a key ivory trafficking network.
As many as 30,000 elephants are killed for their ivory every year. To end this tragedy, WWF focuses on zero poaching efforts, reducing demand for ivory parts and breaking trafficking links. Along with governments, communities, and supporters like you we can put an end to wildlife crime.
Alarming rhino poaching rates reported in Southern Africa
South Africa announced its first decrease in rhino poaching since 2007, but an increase in the number of rhinos killed in neighboring countries offsets this slight improvement.
The South African government confirmed 1,175 rhinos were lost in the country in 2015—slightly down from 1,215 in the previous year.
Unfortunately, at least 130 rhinos died at the hands of poachers in neighboring Namibia and Zimbabwe during that same period—up nearly 200 percent from the previous year.
“As governments like South Africa continue to ramp up efforts to stop wildlife poaching, these numbers remind us of the urgency to swiftly address this crisis across all fronts,” said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation for WWF. “Although South Africa remains the epicenter for the rhino poaching epidemic, criminal networks appear to be expanding their reach across the region, and the problem is ultimately rooted in demand for rhino horn in Asia, most notably in Vietnam.”
Though poachers still focus primarily on South Africa, the uptick in figures from Namibia and Zimbabwe suggest that criminal networks are expanding their reach in the region—targeting rhinos in previously secure areas. South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are home to nearly 95 percent of all remaining African rhinos.
We need to act now
Wildlife crime is the most immediate threat to wild rhinos, elephants, and tigers. Demand for rhino horns—along with elephant ivory and tiger products—runs rampant in parts of the world, particularly in Asia.
WWF emphasizes that stopping rhino poaching requires not just a law enforcement response, but also involvement of local communities around protected areas.
Together, we need to commit to long-term demand reduction efforts to protect rhinos.
WWF|January 21, 2016
Once thought to be globally extinct, black-footed ferrets are making a comeback. For the last thirty years, concerted efforts from many state and federal agencies, zoos, Native American tribes, conservation organizations and private landowners have given black-footed ferrets a second chance for survival. Today, recovery efforts have helped restore the black-footed ferret population to nearly 300 animals across North America. Although great strides have been made to recover the black-footed ferret, habitat loss and disease remain key threats to this highly endangered species.
Black-footed ferrets are one of the most endangered mammals in North America and are the only ferret species native to the continent. Their recovery in the wild signifies the health of the grassland ecosystem which they depend on to survive.
© Clay Bolt / WWF-US
Clay Bolt|WWF|February, 2016
Sir Richard Branson Stands Against Rhino Horn
Sir Richard Branson and other celebrities deliver a “nail biting” message against rhino horn consumption. Photo credit: WildAid
With rampant poaching threatening the survival of Africa’s rhinos, an all-star team of Chinese celebrities and global wildlife ambassadors led by Sir Richard Branson is speaking out against the sale of rhino horn — by chewing on their own fingernails.
Why? Rhino horn is primarily made of keratin, a protein also found in human nails and hair. In recent years, international criminal syndicates who peddle rhino horn in countries such as China and Vietnam have marketed the product as a medicinal panacea when ground into powder form and ingested. Such uses include a recreational drug, an aphrodisiac and even a cancer cure.
The celebrities in the new Mandarin- and English-language campaign from African Wildlife Foundation and WildAid put to rest such claims. “Keratin. That’s all it is. No different or more a medical remedy than your fingernails,” WildAid ambassador Sir Richard Branson, Founder of the Virgin Group, said of rhino horn. “So with a dwindling rhino population, why kill off one of our planet’s greatest species for no reason?”
Mr. Branson is joined in the new campaign by Vietnamese-American actress and WildAid Wildlife Champion of the Year Maggie Q; Li Bingbing, China’s top actress; and Chinese celebrities such as actor/singer Jing Boran, fashion photographer Chen Man and actor Chen Kun.
“Rhino horn won’t cure cancer or a headache, but the rhino poaching epidemic in Africa does have a cure, and it involves people not buying rhino horn,” said Dr. Patrick Bergin, African Wildlife Foundation CEO. “Sir Richard and other campaign celebrities are delivering the message, and now we need citizens in China and Vietnam to be part of the solution.”
A Vietnamese version of the “Nail Biters” campaign starring some of the nation’s biggest celebrities is also underway. Vietnam is the world’s largest rhino horn market and the focus of a multiyear effort by African Wildlife Foundation and WildAid to educate consumers and persuade them not to buy, gift or consume rhino horn.
In China, Mandarin-language campaign ads are already on display in Beijing Capital International Airport as well as a towering billboard in Chongqing’s Central Square, seen by tens of thousands of people daily. WildAid has secured additional, extensive billboard space in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, while PSAs will be broadcasted on several national TV networks and video screens in bullet trains. The campaign will also be heavily promoted via Chinese social media networks.
“Rhino horn’s luxury cache among a privileged few is the root cause of the poaching crisis raging in Africa,” said WildAid CEO Peter Knights. “This campaign seeks to deflate rhino horn’s allure and expose it for what it is: fraud.”
In 2012, WildAid and African Wildlife Foundation launched the “Say No to Rhino Horn” campaign in partnership with the Vietnamese nonprofit organization CHANGE to reduce rhino horn demand in China and Vietnam, the world’s leading consumers of rhino horn. The campaign has three primary goals: raise awareness of the rhino-poaching crisis, support Vietnamese lawmakers in strengthening enforcement efforts and measurably reduce demand for rhino horn.
WildAid has leveraged its extensive pro bono media network in Asia, which in 2014 was worth nearly $200 million in donated airtime from media partners, to bring this message to millions of people each week, using influential ambassadors such as artists, CEOs and doctors, as well as international ambassadors such as the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William), David Beckham, Yao Ming and Sir Richard Branson. The campaign uses strategies from previous WildAid campaigns that have shown measurable results in reducing consumer demand for wildlife products such as shark fin.
Studies show the campaign is yielding results in China: According to surveys conducted by an independent research firm, the percentage of those who believe that rhino horn has medicinal effects has dropped by nearly a quarter, from 58% percent in 2012 to 45% percent in 2014. About half of the Chinese public knows that rhinos are killed for their horns, a 52% percent increase in awareness since 2012.
Mr. Branson has been an active ambassador for rhino conservation, both globally and in China and Vietnam. In September 2015, he hosted a dinner in Ho Chi Minh City with some of Vietnam’s top CEOs, all who signed a pledge in which they committed to never buy, use or gift rhino horn. “Listening to 25 of the country’s leading entrepreneurs around the table, I quickly learned how much the issue has already become part of a national conversation — one that has caused great embarrassment for a country of 90 million people that is rapidly entering the global market,” Branson wrote of the event.
“But change is difficult to come by, stifled by a lack of interest in conservation issues and also by insufficient enforcement. On the upside, as I learned over dinner, younger Vietnamese seem to understand the seriousness of the problem and no longer wish to be associated with these harmful habits,” Branson wrote.
In 2014, over 1,200 rhinos were killed in South Africa, which has the highest concentration of the species left on the planet. Early estimates on 2015 poaching numbers indicate that the crisis continues.
> See the video
AWF|January 12, 2016
Wild & Weird
Why Do Beluga Whales Blow Bubbles?
The animal’s whimsical pastime offers insight into the mammalian brain
Beluga whales blow bubbles. (Hiroya Minakuchi / Minden Pictures / Corbis)
When it comes to quirky animal behaviors, few are more charming than 2,000-pound beluga whales blowing delicate bubbles. But why do they do it? To find out, researchers spent eight years gathering data on 11,858 “bubbling events”—the most comprehensive study of this form of cetacean creativity.
As they observed belugas at Marineland Park near Toronto, the biologist Michael Noonan and his students discovered a kind of bubble semantics. The whales often expelled big bursts of bubbles through their blowholes when they were startled. Pairs released bubble streams as they swam side by side—apparently in a spirit of companionship, unlike the aggression shown by bubbling humpback duos. The belugas also blew bubble rings, but apparently not when they had more serious things to do: Males rarely did it during the spring breeding season. “That’s when they’re busy patrolling the pool, cruising for females,” Noonan says. In summer, males again blew bubble rings, swatting to change their shapes and swimming through them as if they were hoops. “This is a species that makes its own toys,” says Noonan.
Whimsical behavior isn’t unique to belugas. Apes, dogs, birds, reptiles and even spiders play, according to a recent issue of the journal Current Biology devoted to the subject. But animal play usually takes the form of tugging, chasing or wrestling—activities that might help develop survival skills down the line. In contrast, a mammal has every reason not to exhale underwater. “When you’re a breath-holding animal,” says Noonan, “you can hardly think of anything more precious than air.”
One possible explanation is that the belugas are bored. In the wild, they cover vast distances and dive into deep trenches. At a marine park, they’re confined to concrete pools. “Captive animals are deprived of a lot of normal stimuli,” says Gordon Burghardt, a professor at the University of Tennessee and the author of The Genesis of Animal Play. “So you often see them engaging with their environments in ways they wouldn’t normally do.”
But Noonan, an expert on animal cognition at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, thinks there’s more to it than that. He argues the whales might be blowing rings for much the same reason that people dance or draw: to engage with the world and express their innate curiosity about it. “We’re mammals and they’re mammals,” Noonan says. “That doesn’t mean their mental lives are identical to ours. But until proven otherwise, I think we can assume we are more similar than we are different.”
Jennie Rothenberg Gritz|Smithsonian Magazine|March 2016
Environmental documents for transfer and deauthorization of the Ten Mile Creek project available for 30-day public and agency review
The Environmental Assessment (EA) and Draft Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for transfer and deauthorization of the Ten Mile Creek Water Preserve Area project are now available for public and agency review. Comments will be accepted through March 18, 2016.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working closely with the State of Florida to execute an agreement that will transfer the Ten Mile Creek project to the State of Florida. Once the project is transferred to the State it will no longer be Federally authorized. The Environmental Assessment has been completed and has determined that no significant impacts are anticipated as a result of transferring and deauthorizing the project.
The Environmental Assessment and Draft FONSI are available at: http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Portals/44/docs/Planning/EnvironmentalBranch/EnvironmentalDocs/Draft_10_Mile_Creek_EA.pdf
Comments will be accepted through March 18, 2016 and can be sent electronically to: email@example.com, or mailed to:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District
P.O. Box 4970
Jacksonville, FL 32232-0019
Additional information on the Ten Mile Creek project available at: http://bit.ly/TMC_WPA.
Water Quality Issues
SFWMD Emergency Operations in Water Conservation Area 3
To relieve flooding and dire conditions impacting Everglades wildlife, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) today opened water control gates to move water out of Water Conservation Area 3 (WCA-3).
Maximizing gate openings at the S-333 structure along the Tamiami Trail will allow about 10,000 gallons of clean water a second to flow south from the WCA into Northeast Shark River Slough in Everglades National Park.
The WCA, spanning Broward and Miami-Dade counties, has been inundated with record rainfall, including:
- The wettest January on record since recordkeeping began in 1932
- The wettest November through January, the first half of the dry season, since recordkeeping began in 1932
- 6-8 inches of rain directly over the WCA in one 24-hour period in January
This record rainfall and increased stormwater flows into the wetland resulted in the WCA rapidly rising to its highest level since 1994. The current level is approximately 11.41 feet, which is more than a foot too high.
At this extremely high level, wildlife loses critical food sources and safe habitat and cannot survive prolonged flooding conditions.
Emergency gate operations will lower the WCA level as rapidly and as safely as possible. The rate at which water levels fall is highly dependent upon daily rainfall.
Once the level becomes safe for wildlife, water managers will once again have flexibility to move water south from Lake Okeechobee, through water-cleaning wetlands, and into the Water Conservation Areas, helping to protect the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Daily water levels in WCA-3 are available at:
The SFWMD is also taking action to protect urban and agricultural areas bordering the increased flows to Shark River Slough. This includes connecting the Richmond Drive Seepage Collection Canal at Southwest 168th Street to the C-357 Canal.
This will provide additional protection for the area just west of the L-31 North Canal in Miami-Dade County’s 8.5 Square Mile Area.
The SFWMD’s action follows the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission orders that allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ease regulatory restrictions on operations to make this speedy response possible. This followed a request from Governor Rick Scott to the Corps.
Environmental documents for temporary emergency deviation to alleviate high water levels in Water Conservation Area 3A available for 30-day public and agency review
Environmental documents for temporary emergency deviation to alleviate high water levels in Water Conservation Area 3A available for 30-day public and agency review
The Environmental Assessment (EA) and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for a temporary emergency deviation to alleviate high water levels in Water Conservation Area 3A (WCA- 3A) are now available for public and agency review. Comments will be accepted through March 18, 2016.
In response to a request made by Florida Governor Rick Scott for a deviation from the Corps’ Water Control Plan in WCA-3A, the Corps has initiated a temporary deviation for 90-days to raise water levels in the L-29 Canal in order to allow more water to flow from WCA-3A to Everglades National Park.
The L-29 Canal runs along the north side of the Tamiami Trail (US Hwy 41) between Water Conservation Area 3A and Everglades National Park. The WCA-3A Water Control Plan limited those levels to elevation 7.5 feet (NGVD). The deviation raises the levels as high as elevation 8.5 feet, which would allow more water to flow from WCA-3A to Everglades National Park.
The Environmental Assessment and FONSI are available at: http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Portals/44/docs/Planning/EnvironmentalBranch/EnvironmentalDocs/WCA_3ADade_EA.pdf
Comments will be accepted through March 18, 2016 and can be sent electronically to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or mailed to:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District
P.O. Box 4970
Jacksonville, FL 32232-0019
This EA and FONSI is for an emergency purpose. A supplemental National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document will be completed to supplement this EA and FONSI, providing additional discussion of the actions proposed as appropriate. Completion of the draft document is expected by the end of February, upon which members of the public will receive an additional 30 day comment period.
Additional information on the Water Conservation Area- 3 High Water Deviation available at: http://bit.ly/WCA-3_Deviation.
Miller, Jennifer S SAJ|2/17/16
SFWMD’S Lake Okeechobee Operating Plan
The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) today requested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers follow the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule and reduce discharges from the lake to levels identified in the plan.
Currently, releases by the Corps exceed amounts called for in the operating plan. SFWMD has requested discharges be reduced according to the plan to 2,800 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the St. Lucie River (a 50 percent reduction) and 6,500 cfs in the Caloosahatchee River, starting this Friday.
Lowering the discharge amounts will reduce the adverse ecological impacts to the estuaries while achieving reasonable water management goals for the lake.
SFWMD\February 18, 2016
South Florida’s Tourist Season From Hell
February and March are the prime times for tourists to come to Florida for a respite from cold winter weather. So imagine the panic that people who run fishing charters, paddle board concessions, beachfront hotels and restaurants are feeling as dark agricultural swill gushes from the state’s center to the east and west coasts, killing marine life.
“It’s brown, it stinks, it’s cold,” a tourist from New Mexico told a TV reporter in Fort Myers.”It doesn’t look very appealing to get into to go swimming in.”
The scuzzy water that’s wrecking this year’s tourist season comes courtesy of Big Sugar and other agricultural operators around Lake Okeechobee, which sits in the state’s sparsely populated center roughly between Palm Beach on the east coast and Fort Myers on the west coast. It’s America’s second biggest lake, and thanks to ridiculously permissive policies, it’s become a private dumping ground for mega-agricultural operations. These corporations pump the public’s water from the lake to irrigate their fields, then send the water; polluted with fertilizer and other farm chemicals, back into Lake Okeechobee.
Because heavy winter rains have raised the lake level and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dike around the lake is old and weak, South Florida water managers have been releasing some 70,000 gallons of polluted lake water per second into two rivers which lead out to the coasts: the Caloosahatchee, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and the St. Lucie, which empties into the Indian River Lagoon and then into the Atlantic.
“I just call it the black curtain because everything on one side is perfectly clear and all the dark water looks like a curtain was pulled on the waterway,” Charter Captain Mike Wilson told reporters in Fort Myers.
The pollution has caused outrage so fierce that an angry mob gathered to shout down Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam as he arrived at a local Economic Development Council meeting at a high-end resort along the Atlantic beachfront.
Local politicians on both coasts are demanding that Florida Gov. Rick Scott declare a state of emergency to compensate businesses for their losses, and several mayors are traveling to Washington, D.C., to urge Florida’s representatives to take action. A throng of people crowded onto a southwest Florida causeway to protest the assault on their Florida way of life.
It is an environmental tragedy that we here at the Earthjustice Florida office have been intimately involved with for decades. For more than two decades, we’ve been filing lawsuits from various angles to stop this heartbreaking situation from happening.
Ever since water officials opened the flood gates to let the polluted water out of the lake on Jan. 30, people have been sounding the alarm.
“The dead ocean creatures and red tide have had an immediate impact on my business,” an innkeeper on Southwest Florida’s beautiful Captiva Island told his local NBC station.
“How many people will never come back because of this?” a protester told a WINK TV reporter in Southwest Florida. “Can’t go swimming, can’t go fishing, boating’s gone down the tubes.”
“My business has been devastated by this,” a commercial fisherman on the St. Lucie River told WPTV.
Feeling the pressure, Gov. Rick Scott asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to break from its usual practices and drain Lake Okeechobee south into the Everglades instead of out to the coasts, and the Corps complied. As you can imagine, that approach is certainly raising serious questions. Remember, American taxpayers are paying billions to clean up the Everglades, and the federal government sued Florida decades ago for failing to keep agriculture’s polluted runoff out of Everglades National Park.
The solution has nothing to do with moving the water around. It’s about cleaning it up. And that’s where Florida and the federal government have continually been falling down on the job. Only a month ago, the state legislature passed a law that eliminates pollution permits for agricultural operations around Lake Okeechobee. You read that right – no permits. Instead, these multinational corporations get to work on the honor system. Agriculture Secretary Putnam was the one who shepherded that sham of a law into being.
We’ve tried to attack this mess on several fronts over the years. We filed legal actions to stop agricultural operations from pumping their pollution back into the public’s lake. We sued the government for using taxpayer-funded pumps to move the pollution around. We filed legal actions to compel government to set numeric limits on the amount of fertilizer, sewage, and manure allowed in water. Each of these actions spawned massive backlashes from industry and from government that reached all the way to Washington, D.C., and beyond. We’re still in court, attacking the regulatory framework that makes an environmental disaster like this possible.
It’s heartening for us to see the citizens rising up, taking their video cameras out to document the damage, holding their leaders to account and joining together to challenge this broken system.
Can it be any plainer that these giveaways to corporate polluters have got to stop? If they don’t, Florida’s tourist season will be a memory.
David Guest|February 17, 2016
High rains in Everglades
Unusually strong rains have once again threatened the dike around Lake Okeechobee, leading to major discharges of polluted water east and west from the lake and ensuing environmental damage. The dire situation prompted U.S. Senator Bill Nelson to call for the state legislature to fund projects to stop Lake Okeechobee discharges. Recently speaking in the Treasure Coast, Nelson was quoted as saying, “I wish you all would kick them in the shins. If you did, you’d see some land acquisition south of the lake.”
Since the beginning of 2016, more than 40 billion gallons of dirty Lake Okeechobee water has been released eastward into the St. Lucie River. That water, plus drainage from canals in Martin and St. Lucie counties and local runoff, has pushed the salt out of the estuary and created a plume of black water pushing through the St. Lucie Inlet and out into the Atlantic Ocean. The discharges are killing the estuary’s oysters and sea grasses in an area already suffering ecological calamity.
Our Florida legislators need to focus on this catastrophe now.
Preston Robertson and Jay Liles
Offshore & Ocean
Can Underwater Resorts Actually Help Coral Reef Ecosystems?
A Los Angeles company is designing artificial reefs to boost local economies and marine habitat
Dubai, known for such modest ventures as the Burj Khalifa and the artificial Palm Jumeirah islands, is on the verge of building yet another one: the fabricated ruins of an “ancient” pearl-trading city, submerged just off its shores in the waters of the Persian Gulf.
Half adventure park, half marine sanctuary, the Pearl of Dubai will be the first-of-its-kind artificial reef, built to attract diving dollars from tourists, but also to encourage the return of once-abundant species whose populations are flagging.
Reef Worlds, a Los Angeles-based company, is at the helm of the Pearl project, as well as two other developments in the planning and design stage in Mexico and the Philippines. Company founder Patric Douglas says the idea grew organically out of his previous work with Shark Diver, the excursion company he founded not only to popularize shark diving, but also to educate divers on the plight of sharks in oceans worldwide. He hopes to do the same thing for decimated coral reefs.
In the immortal words of Kevin Costner, build it and they will come. Though artificial reefs have been used for centuries as defensive structures, breakwaters and to attract fish, the typical reason modern reefs are built is to increase available habitat for coral and fish. Divers come as a consequence, but the reefs weren’t built for them.
Artist Jason deCaires Taylor creates underwater installations with sculptures made from highly detailed casts of real people. He recently completed a project in Lanzarote, Spain, and his installation in Cancun, Mexico attracts thousands of divers every year. As part of its statewide initiative to increase reef real estate off its shores, Florida sank an entire aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany. And the half-acre Neptune Memorial Reef site in the waters off Miami, inspired by the lost city of Atlantis, is designed to eventually accommodate the cremated remains of people interested in a different kind of burial at sea.
Reef Worlds’ take on artificial reefs adds a new paradigm: their installations are designed first for customers with credit cards, and then for ones with real fins. Primarily intended to provide tourists with a new adventure-based experience, and in places where they are already present in great numbers, Douglas hopes the increased traffic will create a positive feedback loop. By making reef ecosystems more accessible to more people, a large part of the goal is to drive a greater demand for conservation of those natural resources.
The Pearl of Dubai is the fabricated ruins of an “ancient” pearl-trading city. (Reef Worlds)
Diving is big business, and coral reefs a big part of it. A 2013 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report pegs the economic value of all coral reefs in the United States and its territories at $202 million dollars annually, with half of that figure accounted for by tourism dollars. Douglas thinks this kind of buying muscle can be built up around the world, creating not only a novel and authentic adventure experience but also a powerful tool for restoring critical ocean habitat.
Gone are the days when a visitor to a Caribbean resort can walk out on a near-shore snorkeling tour and see coral reefs teeming with life. Today, that excursion usually involves a lengthy boat ride. But hotels at tropical resorts are still trying to one-up each other in the battle royale for tourism dollars: the swimming-pool wars of the 1980s and 1990s gave way to full-blown water parks like Bermuda’s Atlantis, yet the resorts themselves seemed to completely ignore their offshore assets, Douglas observed.
“My team and I were lamenting that at every hotel resort we went to in the Mediterranean and Mexico, the near-shore reef system was just gone, like a nuke went off,” Douglas says. “So the question became, what can we do to rehabilitate that, and what’s the tourism angle? All of these resorts are 200 feet from the ocean, but have nothing to do with the ocean.”
Douglas, a self-described “environmentalist masquerading as a developer,” says coastal resort hotels are uniquely positioned to grow their business by developing recreational opportunities in the water, but also to defend the natural resources there. By motivating local residents to help protect the reefs, they can help tourism grow and increase incomes for everyone involved.
“This is a major question: how do you stop the local fishermen from making a living?” Douglas says. “You can’t pay them not to fish, especially when they’re dirt poor and they need to go out and scavenge whatever they can get. But I’ve been to enough of these hotels to know that most of the people in the community are working there, and when you explain to them what the reef [can do for tourism], they’ll tell their family, don’t fish there. It’s not good for us or the community.”
The network Douglas imagines is grand: at each of the first three planned properties, the reef territory will cover a five-acre plot with a mixture of open ocean floor and full-sized structures for exploration. Buildings will be constructed in a way to maximize fish and coral habitat; for the “Gods of the Maya” project in Mexico, full-scale replicas of Mayan stelae and other sculpture will not only showcase the country’s cultural heritage, but also provide plenty of nooks and crannies for critters.
To build these underwater resorts, Reef Worlds translates computer-based designs into full-scale, hand-finished foam blocks, which are then used to cast the molds for the final structures. Once on site, the molds are filled with a mixture of coral and basalt rock substrate, cured and submerged.
In Dubai, Douglas says the client initially wasn’t as concerned with the ecosystem restoration component as they were about simply having something to boost diving tourism in the country. But after being convinced that supporting the return of the brown spotted reef cod, a delicacy known locally as hamour, would also encourage divers to come swim with the popular fish, they asked Douglas to “Swiss cheese” the designs of the underwater city to give baby cod a place to hide and thrive. Reef Worlds is planning the release of two million baby hamour into the Dubai reef as part of the project.
Yet while revenue is the reason for the projects, it relies upon public passion to create the demand to protect them in the long term, Douglas says.
“Once people have a more authentic experience, and engage with a reef on a fundamental level, it changes their whole focus and attitude,” Douglas says. “It’s cool to say that you went underwater and saw fish, but it’s important to learn why it’s there, and that it’s a replacement for what was once there. You’re now in participation to make it right, and make it better—even though it doesn’t make up for what was once there.”
Keith Mille is a fisheries biologist who has worked in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s artificial reef section for 14 years, overseeing the planning and construction of reef projects in the state. As public properties, Florida’s reefs are open for recreational fishing and diving, but are also used in research. Mille explains that man-made reefs often work best as a diversion to take pressure off of natural reefs.
“That is a trend, statue-type deployments that are more focused on attracting people than fish,” he says. “But there’s a dichotomy there. If you’re improving fishing opportunities, sometimes the outcome of that is reduced biomass and increased fishing pressure. But on the other hand, by directing fishers and divers to an artificial reef site, you could potentially reduce traffic to more sensitive areas for an overall net benefit.”
But Mille notes that artificial reefs aren’t an adequate substitute for appropriate fisheries regulations for the protection of sensitive marine habitat.
Douglas, whose Shark Divers company created the Shark-Free/Shark Friendly Marinas Initiative, argues that prior to charging people to go dive with sharks, the idea of shark protection areas in the Pacific equivalent to the Australian continent was unimaginable.
“Unfortunately, there’s a very strong abhorrence for anything that’s for-profit,” Douglas says. “Who would have thought that in 2003 when we were yelling about sharks being killed that we’d have so much shark sanctuary today? But people who had been diving, who came home and put their pictures on the Internet and opened the minds of a thousand of their friends, drove all of it. To save a thing, you have to put money into it, and the best way to do that is charge people to go see it.”
Estimated to cost around $6 million to build, the Pearl of Dubai project will include numerous “ruins” of buildings, dive-helmeted statues, avenues and trading markets to explore, including a large semi-enclosed coliseum that could be used for underwater meetings or weddings. Douglas says he expects construction to begin later this year.
Michelle Z. Donahue|smithsonian.com|February 23, 2016
Wildlife and Habitat
What Killed 13 Bald Eagles in Maryland?
Officials want information on the strange die-off of a clutch of majestic birds
In Maryland, 13 bald eagles will soar no more. (Patrick Frischknecht/robertharding/Corbis)
Bald eagles are soaring symbols of national pride and sacred meaning—so prized that killing them or even taking any portion of their body, nest or eggs is illegal under federal law. Now, report Dana Hedgpeth and Julie Zauzmer for The Washington Post, the death of 13 bald eagles near a Maryland farm has sparked a mystery—and a reward for anyone who can provide information on their demise.
Hedgpeth and Zauzmer write that the eagles were discovered by a hunter in a field in Caroline County near the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Their bodies were intact, but they were all dead. It’s the biggest die-off of bald eagles in the state in 30 years, they write, and one that’s sparked quite the mystery.
Officials believe that the eagles may have been poisoned. George Lettis of WBAL-TV reports that the eagles had no sign of external trauma, but could have eaten a poisoned mammal or been exposed to a pesticide. However, the land owner insists there was nothing in his field that would poison the birds. The eagles are being taken to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Oregon lab for investigation.
In a release, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service writes that information leading to a conviction will be rewarded with $2,500 from the Service and additional rewards of up to $5,000 from the Humane Society of the United States and the Human Society Wildlife Land Trust and $2,500 from the Phoenix Wildlife Center, Inc., which rehabilitates raptors in the area.
People with information on the eagles’ deaths may walk away with a large reward, but if a person is responsible for tampering with the bird, they will face an even larger fine. Both the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts have maximum fines of $250,000 and up to two years of imprisonment for a felony conviction of tampering with a bird. In addition, people who violate state, U.S. and tribal laws with by transporting or selling the birds can face hefty fines and imprisonment under the Lacey Act.
Contrary to popular belief, bald eagles are not endangered species. They were removed from the list in 2007 after a significant population pickup due to restoration efforts. But that doesn’t mean they’re invulnerable to things like poison or predators. If you have information on the Maryland eagles, call Special Agent John LaCorte with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement in Cambridge, Maryland, at 410-228-2476, or the Maryland Natural Resources Police Hotline at 800-628-9944.
Erin Blakemore}smithsonian.com|February 24, 2016
How to Save the Monarchs? Pay Farmers to Grow Butterfly Habitats
A novel conservation effort aims to fund a habitat exchange to protect the iconic butterflies from extinction
(GomezDavid / iStock)
Once the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America, numbering in the hundreds of millions, if not billions. It would take several hours for flocks to pass a single spot, their wing beats so loud it was hard to carry on a conversation. But by the late 1890s they were gone from the wild, and less than 20 years later, totally extinct. Could monarch butterflies see the same fate?
These important insects once numbered a billion strong just 20 years ago, too, but in the last few years their numbers have plummeted. In 2013 to 2014, there were around only 33 million; the next year they rebounded a bit and were estimated at about 56.5 million; and this year they are expected to have an even larger number. Even so, the precipitous drop has led some to call for the insects to be added to the Endangered Species List. The problem has to do with the loss of habitat for monarchs that overwinter in Mexico and the California coast then migrate north in the early spring making their way to Canada. These pollinators rely on milkweed—the only plant they will lay their eggs on—and flowers that provide nectar for food.
“These are the kinds of plants typically found in native prairie, roadsides, in the middle of farms. But in the last 20 years farming has changed,” says Eric Holst, the associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) working lands program. “It’s become a much more intensive activity, herbicide technology has allowed farms to be much more weed free. That provides benefits to farmers, but it has an unintended negative effect on populations of butterflies and other pollinators.”
There are a number of efforts underway to try and reverse the drop in monarch numbers, including the USDA asking farmers to volunteer portions of their land to establish milkweed habitat. But EDF, which brings a market-driven approach to environmental issues, is introducing another way, called a habitat exchange. It’s sort of a stock exchange—or maybe more accurately a carbon market—where landowners, farmers and ranchers get paid for restoring or improving monarch habitat either by entities like corporations or government agencies that need to mitigate their impact to wildlife, or by organizations and individuals who are interested in protecting monarch habitat.
“It’s a venue to connect buyers and sellers of conservation services,” says Holst. He says the idea started in the early 2000s in an unlikely place: The Army base at Fort Hood, Texas. The base was negatively impacting the habitat of the golden cheeked warbler, a threatened bird species, and needed to find a way to offset it. The Environmental Defense Fund worked with Texas A&M University, ranchers near the base and the Army and devised the first habitat exchange. Ranchers, by enhancing the warblers’ habitat on their properties, created conservation credits that the Army purchased, offsetting the loss of habitat on the base. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made sure the deal met all the requirements needed. It was a win-win that led EDF to develop similar programs for other protected species like the lesser prairie chicken, the greater sage grouse and the Swainson’s hawk in California. The exchanges are under review by various regulatory agencies to ensure that they comply with government requirements.
In the case of the monarch, the plan is to develop the habitat exchange before the insect finds its way onto the Endangered Species List—which EDF thinks of as a last resort, since common application of the law doesn’t create strong enough incentives before a listing decision is made. They want to create an environment in which farmers consider habitat building the same as any other crop they grow. The first step is creating a “habitat quantification tool” that allows biologists to place a numeric value on the quality of habitat, much like an appraiser would value a piece of property. Holst says they are doing that now and will be field testing the tool in April. They’re also building a “war chest” of potential buyers made up of companies, government agencies and individuals willing to invest in monarch conservation.
“We’re proposing to launch an exchange that would create an economic, financial stimulus, so that farmers and ranchers throughout the monarch range would have a financial incentive to preserve monarch habitat. Hopefully enough habitat can be created and enhanced to avoid listing the species,” says Holst. “A lot of the politics around wildlife right now involves the idea that the federal government is out to get ranchers and farmers. We want to turn that on its head. We think tools like habitat exchanges can create an environment where farmers and ranchers see wildlife as an asset rather than a liability.”
The goal is to formally launch the monarch habitat exchange by the end of 2017. Besides field testing, EDF will be starting some pilot conservation projects this summer. While they are not actively soliciting participation right now (Holst says they have already identified their key pilot program sites), you can find out more and contact EDF here.
Andrew Amelinckx|Modern Farmer|smithsonian.com|February 24, 2016
Thousands of Blacktip Sharks Are Hanging Out on Florida’s Coast Right Now
Experts say they’re not dangerous, and are easy to spot
you’re planning on escaping winter for a little Florida sun, you may have some company on the beach—approximately 10,000 to 12,000 blacktip sharks.
In an aerial video captured by Stephen Kajiura, a professor of biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University who researches the migrating sharks, the ocean is filled with tiny black dots hovering just off the shore for 80 miles, from Miami to Jupiter Inlet. Each of those dots is a blacktip shark. You can check it out on Instagram, too.
Much like your grandparents, the sharks migrate to Florida every winter and for much the same reason—to bask in the warm coastal waters and pig out on the fresh local fish.
In an interview with Live Science, Kajiura said that the current estimate of finned visitors is probably “a gross underestimate” of how many sharks actually are lurking in the ocean, because it only includes the ones that are visible in the shallow waters. “We see lots more sharks on the other side of the plane, so there’s a lot more out there that we’re simply not counting in the survey,” Kajiura said.
While the idea of thousands of feeding sharks sounds daunting (or at least a good excuse to stay inland and, say, finally visit Pittsburgh), shark researchers claim that tourists have nothing to worry about. According to Kajiura, “they’re not curious types,” and typically have little interest in people. Exercise common sense and perhaps avoid wearing reflective watches or jewelry (which might be mistaken for the sharks’ prey) just to be sure.
Kajiura thinks the sharks are a great addition to the roster of activities that Florida has to offer tourists. “You can literally sit on the beach and you can watch the blacktips jumping and spinning and splashing back into the water,” Kajiura said. “They’re not out to get you,you’re not part of their diet, so you may as well go to the beach and enjoy the phenomenon.”
The sharks are expected to stick around the Florida coast until mid-to late March, and then head north.
Melissa Locker|Travel + Leisure|smithsonian.com|February 26, 2016
Global Warming and Climate Change
How Will Native Americans in the Southwest Adapt to Serious Impacts of Climate Change?
A drying landscape and changing water regime are already affecting tribal lands
The ground cracks as a waterhole on Navajo lands in Arizona dries up. (Michael Weber/imageBroker/Corbis)
Around the world, indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. That is true, too, in the United States. Coastal native villages in Alaska have already been inundated with water due to melting permafrost and erosion, and the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians of Louisiana recently announced plans to resettle on higher ground after losing 98 percent of their lands since 1950 to rising sea levels.
But leaving traditional lands is not an option for many Native Americans. In some ways, they have the same migration opportunities as anyone, but these peoples often have a profound relationship with the land and leaving it can mean losing traditional native culture, Derek Kauneckis, a political scientist at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, said this past weekend at the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. He and three other experts presented their research in a symposium on “Climate, Water and the American Indian Farmer.”
Scientists are trying to identify how these tribes will be affected by climate change, and how they can not only adapt to that change but even thrive in the face of it, Kauneckis says.
For those tribes living in the American Southwest, that means dealing with warmer temperatures, longer droughts and decreasing water supplies, notes Maureen McCarthy, executive director of the Academy for the Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The southwest region is shifting into a drier pattern as wet weather systems have become rarer, scientists recently reported in Geophysical Research Letters. And researchers reported last year that the western United States could face a megadrought by the end of the century. But an even bigger problem is that as temperatures rise, more precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow. Normally winter precipitation builds snowpack in the Rockies that feeds streams in warmer months when rain is scarce. When the snowpack is smaller than average, there can be less water available. New patterns in storms and extreme weather can result in catastrophic flooding—water that is not useful. And rising temperatures also means that more of that water is lost to evaporation, leaving even less for people to use.
Already these conditions are affecting Native American tribes in different ways, says Karletta Chief, a hydrologist at the University of Arizona and a member of the Navajo nation. A loss of soil moisture on Navajo lands in northeastern Arizona, for instance, caused sand dunes to inundate homes, she notes. And the Hualapai of Arizona had to sell much of their livestock during the most recent drought.
While these problems face everyone in the Southwest, Native American communities have unique vulnerabilities. One of these is a complex system of land ownership, notes Loretta Singletary, an economist at the University of Nevada, Reno. On these “checkerboard lands”—where patches of land may be owned by tribes, individual tribal members or non-Native Americans—it can be difficult to know who has authority to act and make decisions about land and water.
In addition, many Native American lands have been divvied up into parcels that now, generations after they were established, have dozens of heirs that all have interest in the land. Decision-making becomes inefficient, Singletary says, and it can be impossible to manage the land’s resources sustainably.
But other laws dating to the 1800s, those dealing with water, may be an advantage for Native Americans in the Southwest. “Water means something totally different west of the Mississippi,” McCarthy says. “Water is a valuable commodity.”
Unlike in the eastern United States, water laws in the region are based on two basic principles: “First in line, first in right,” McCarthy quips, and “use it or lose it.” The older a claim is, the more water that user gets, she explains. And those who don’t make use of all of their rights can lose them.
A 1908 Supreme Court decision, known as the Winters Doctrine, established that Native Americans have some of the oldest water rights in the United States. However, most of the communities have yet to have those rights legally quantified, something that usually requires litigation, Singletary notes. Plus, water laws usually reserve water only for agriculture. Other uses, such as providing drinking water or keeping streams and lakes full enough for fish, aren’t considered. This is a “major challenge” for these communities, she says.
Several communities rely on the 121-mile-long river, fed by snowpack melting into Lake Tahoe.
Managing water is incredibly important in these communities. “To us, water is sacred,” Chief says. But many Native Americans lack access to clean water, including some 40 percent of Navajo. Chief herself didn’t live in a place where water came out of a faucet until she went to college. People may travel up to 40 miles away to fill up huge drums that will last a few weeks. Others may have wells, but these are often drawing from shallow aquifers that are the first to dry up in a drought.
Native Americans, with their long history, can be a rich source of traditional knowledge on past environmental conditions and how to survive in difficult times, Chief notes. In California, for instance, the U.S. Forest Service is working with tribal members to reinstitute traditional burning practices for better fire and land management in the face of drought. Scientists are now starting to work with native communities to draw on that knowledge and develop adaptation strategies for the future, such as diversifying crops and the local economy, conserving water and providing better education for the younger generation.
The Native Waters on Arid Lands project, for instance, is bringing together researchers, native communities and government officials to address water issues for sustainable agriculture. Another project is looking more closely at issues faced by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nevada, which depends on water from the Truckee River.
The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian is also collaborating with the Indigenous Peoples’ Climate Change Working Group, a national consortium of tribal colleges that is working to ensure that tribal knowledge of changing landscapes and climates is a part of education and research programs, notes Jose Barreiro, the museum’s assistant director for research.
“Tribes have been resilient,” Chief says. “They have been able to survive different challenges with the environment through adaptation, and so there is opportunity for them to continue doing so.”
Sarah Zielinski|smithsonian.com|February 22, 2016
Sea Levels Are Rising More Quickly Than in the Last Two Millennia
Here are five things to know about the rising tide
When scientists warn about climate change, they often use sea levels to illustrate the catastrophic effects of surging greenhouse gases. But just how much have human activities affected Earth’s sea levels? According to four new studies published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the answer is dramatic indeed. the studies found that within the last 2,000 years, the sea levels rose more quickly than ever before.
“This isn’t a model,” one of the studies’ directors tells Warren Cornwall at Science. “This is data.” Each study emphasizes the effects human activities have on sea levels, and together they paint a sobering vision of a future with even higher seas. Here’s what you need to know about the new research:
Even small temperature changes make ocean levels rise
It’s tempting to think that small changes in temperature don’t make a big difference, but an analysis of global sea-level change over the past 3,000 years suggests otherwise. The study, which looked at a global database of sea-level reconstructions, concluded that sea level rises in the 20th century were faster than the last 27 centuries that preceded it.
After their initial data analysis, the researchers made a computer model that could project sea level backwards and forwards in time. They found that if global warming hadn’t bumped up by just 0.36 degrees Fahrenheit (0.2 degrees Celsius) during the 20th century, sea levels would have risen by just over one inch instead of about 5.5. In the future, the rise could be even more astonishing: One projection shows sea levels rising by 20.5 to 51.6 inches, and another shows sea levels rising by 9.4 and 24 inches.
Those numbers are scary—but match other scientists’ conclusions
Could such dramatic sea level rise calculations really be real? All signs point to yes. Another paper comes to nearly the same conclusion on the amount of sea level rise, and makes nearly the same projections on future sea level surges. This team’s models projected a rise of anywhere between 11 and 51.6 inches using a combination of past sea level and temperature measurements—numbers that look eerily familiar given the first study’s projections.
Ice sheets are sensitive to carbon dioxide levels
Okay, so the oceans seem to respond to even small temperature bumps. But what about ice sheets, which could contribute to sea level rise if they melt? It turns out they are quite sensitive, too. A third study shows that during the mid-Miocene period, when carbon dioxide levels were extremely similar to those that scientists project for the coming years, the ice responded dramatically to tiny shifts in carbon dioxide. In fact, the ice seemed to ebb and flow in sync with carbon dioxide levels.
Researchers use phrases like “highly sensitive” and “vulnerable” to refer to ice sheets’ responses to rising carbon dioxide. And they warn that given rises in current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and projected increases, “reconstructions such as this one…imply an element of inevitability to future polar warming, Antarctic sheet retreat, and sea level rise.”
Scientists are getting better at simulating ice sheet levels
The final paper in the suite shows a big advance in simulating just how ice levels ebb and flow. The researchers from the third paper were able to come up with a new way to model how ice behaves—a model that could prove useful in future projections.
Bottom line: Brace yourself for rising sea levels
The data from the four papers lines up with another report just published by Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists devoted to reporting on climate. When that group ran the numbers on hourly water level records from U.S. tide gauges since 1950, they found that sea levels changed with global temperatures—and can almost certainly be attributed to human-caused climate change. They estimated that if not for climate change, a good three quarters of U.S. coastal flooding wouldn’t happen at all.
Can humans change the rising tide? Probably not: Other studies have found that even if carbon dioxide levels were stabilized, sea levels would continue to rise. But the seeming inevitability of rising seas is no reason to throw in the towel: Given the other severe consequences of even small jumps in temperature and carbon dioxide—famines and floods come to mind—it’s still worth it to keep reducing emissions.
Erin Blakemore|smithsonian.com|February 23, 2016
As Oceans Warm, Little Penguins Are Left Hungry
The world’s smallest penguin is struggling to find fish in warmer waters
Australia’s little penguins aren’t as well-known as the koala or the kangaroo, but they are cute enough to go head-to-head with these icons of the outback. In recent years, scientists have grown concerned about the world’s tiniest penguin as their populations have steadily declined. Now, a new report suggests that rapid changes in the ocean’s temperature may be partly to blame as the warmer waters make the little penguin’s preferred prey more scarce.
The little penguin, also known as the “fairy penguin,” is the world’s smallest penguin, weighing roughly two pounds and standing less than a foot tall. Found in southern Australia and New Zealand, the little penguins feed mainly off of small fish and ocean-going creatures, like sardines, anchovies, and krill. Normally, the little penguin’s prey thrives off of nutrients and plankton stirred up by the East Australian Current each spring, but in recent years these waters have grown warmer, driving away the temperature-sensitive little fish and leaving the little penguins struggling to find food, Devin Powell reports for National Geographic.
“We’re seeing that warm years are quite bad for the penguins, and it’s not hard to see that if the temperature keeps going up, things might get worse,” Carroll tells Powell.
While scientists aren’t sure why the East Australian Current is heating up, it’s happening fast. Overall, the current’s temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, which suggests that it could be a result of climate change, Emily DeMarco writes for SFGate. Yet, the powerful annual current is warming two- to three-times faster as the ocean’s surface, according to Carroll.
That might be enough to change the migration patterns of the penguins’ prey—influencing when the little fish show up in the area and how long they stick around.
“It’s really important that we understand what might happen to these ecosystems as these systems change,” Carroll tells DeMarco.
To figure out how the little penguins were coping with the changes in their environment, DeMarco and her colleagues monitored little penguins as they hunted over the course of three breeding seasons from 2012 to 2014. The researchers strapped GPS trackers to the tiny penguins backs along with accelerometers, devices that measured their body movements (and the reason your smartphone knows that you’ve turned it on its side), which let them know when their subjects were just swimming around or when they were on the hunt, Powell writes.
The movement data showed that the penguins often avoided warmer waters, where they might find more fish. And during years when the water was warmer overall, the penguins ended up catching less fish altogether.
While some predators adjust their own hunting patterns to match their prey’s, the little penguins are too small to travel very far. During breeding seasons, the penguins only travel up to 15 miles a day, making it difficult to find new hunting grounds, DeMarco writes.
Vanishing prey isn’t the little penguin’s only problem: the penguins are also a favorite food for animals like seals, foxes, cats and dogs. But with oceanic temperatures in eastern Australia projected to rise up to nine degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, the penguins may be left hungry with increasing frequency.
“I wouldn’t say which factor [threatening penguins] is the most important,” conservation biologist Dee Boersma, who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Powell. “But climate change is going to be a big problem for penguins.”
Danny Lewis|smithsonian.com|February 26, 2016
Winter storm hits East Coast with snow, ice
A winter storm Monday delivered a snowy, icy mess from Georgia to Maine, canceling flights, snarling road travel and threatening power outages across the region.
In the Deep South, where heavy rain brought the risk of flash floods, a few tornadoes were reported.
Nearly 1,050 flights had been canceled nationwide as of 2 p.m. EST, with the heaviest disruptions coming in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, according to FlightAware.
Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., saw the most cancellations, AccuWeather said. Roads were also closed in North Carolina, the Weather Channel said.
Overall, the weather could have less of an effect than a typical Monday because schools and many workplaces were closed for the Presidents Day holiday.
The most disruptive and dangerous aspect of the storm was ice and freezing rain, according to AccuWeather. A vast area from the southern Appalachians to the Northeast could see ice accumulations up to a quarter-inch, the National Weather Service warned.
US weather forecasts get upgrade
New computer promises more accurate analysis
RESTON , VA. In a nondescript office building here, one of the world’s most powerful weather supercomputers quietly hums on a 24/7 mission to analyze billions of pieces of data that ultimately will tell you whether you need a sweater or sunscreen when you leave the house.
Forecasts, critical not only for your wardrobe choices but for ship captains, airline pilots and shipping companies, depend on sophisticated data crunching and computer models, but three years ago European forecasting models delivered a blow to the U.S. weather apparatus. The European weather models accurately predicted the path and strength of the devastating Hurricane Sandy that hit the New Jersey coastline and caused $65 billion in damage.
Now, the U.S. is on the rebound with this monumental supercomputer that collects, processes and analyzes billions of observations from weather satellites, weather balloons, airplanes, buoys and surface stations from around the world to help meteorologists make better forecasts.
The brand-new Cray supercomputer — designed, owned and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — processes 3quadrillion calculations per second. You’d need about 12,500 high-end laptops to get close to that kind of power. Still, the supercomputer is merely the 18th fastest in the U.S. and 42nd fastest in the world, said David Michaud, director of the office of central processing at the National Weather Service, which is part of NOAA.
NOAA’s purchase of the school-bus-size device stemmed partly from competition from the top European weather model. It predicted Sandy’s now infamous and unusual left hook in 2012 days before the top American model.
The one-two punch pushed the U.S. to invest $44.5 million to develop better forecasts. The U.S. chose Seattle-based Cray to build its new supercomputer. The company is a leading maker of supercomputers worldwide and supplied the ones used by European weather agencies. NOAA installed the Reston computer and its backup twin in Orlando, a safe distance away in case of a natural disaster, late last year.
Together, they provide a tenfold increase in computer power over previous systems and put American forecasting systems back on par or even above European ones, said University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass. “It’s a huge improvement over what they had.”
Doyle Rice|USA TODAY
At least 6 die in 2 days of storms
30 tornadoes are reported in 4 states across the South
Severe weather pelted the East Coast on Wednesday, killing at least three people in Virginia and raising the two-day death toll to six after the system pounded the Deep South a day earlier.
At least two of the deaths occurred in Waverly, Virginia, after a possible tornado hit the town southeast of Richmond on Wednesday afternoon, according to the Associated Press.
The worst of the severe weather was expected to hit eastern portions of Virginia and the Carolinas, according to the Storm Prediction Center. Tornado watches were posted from South Carolina to New Jersey, meaning conditions were favorable for tornadoes to develop.
Several North Carolina public school systems closed early in advance of the storms, Accu- Weather reported.
At least three people were killed Tuesday night as strong storms and tornadoes blasted through the southern U.S. The Storm Prediction Center received about 30 reports of tornadoes in four southern states.
On the back end of the system, a snowstorm pounded parts of the central U.S. and created airline havoc Wednesday, with snow reported from Michigan to Arkansas, including blizzard conditions in Illinois and Indiana.
The National Weather Service in Chicago warned of “horrible travel conditions” in northwestern Indiana and east-central Illinois. Several locations had recorded a half-foot of snow as of midafternoon.
Nationwide, more than 1,500 flights were canceled by early Wednesday afternoon. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport canceled more than 750 flights alone, a figure that accounts for about one-third of the entire day’s schedule at the airport.
Gusty winds will accompany the rain and snow from the storm, AccuWeather said. The combination of wind and precipitation will result in poor visibility for motorists.
In the Deep South, survey teams from the weather service began investigating the damage Wednesday to determine how many tornadoes formed.
One person died in Lamar County, Mississippi, during the severe weather. Two others died when a suspected tornado slammed into the Sugar Hill RV Park near Convent, Louisiana.
A possible tornado destroyed 24 units and damaged six others at the Moorings Apartments in Pensacola, Florida, Escambia County officials said.
More than 20,000 Georgia customers were without power.
Doyle Rice|USA TODAY
Death toll rises from brutal storm system
Tornadoes leave path of destruction across South, East
WAVERLY , VA. Rattled residents in communities across the South and East picked through rubble Thursday after a line of vicious storms and tornadoes blasted through the region, killing eight people, injuring dozens and destroying scores of homes.
Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses from the Deep South into New England lost power as the furious front touched off at least six tornadoes in Florida and winds over 80 mph in Massachusetts.
Two men and a 2-year-old child died Wednesday in this rural, southeastern Virginia town of 2,500 when a tornado tore through their mobile home. The tornado had winds estimated at 100-110 mph and was rated as an EF-1 by the National Weather Service, which conducted a damage survey Thursday morning.
About 120 miles to the west, another man was killed and seven injured when a tornado swept through a section of Appomattox County, state police said.
One person was killed by a falling tree in Darlington, South Carolina. On Tuesday, tornadoes killed two people in Louisiana and one in Mississippi.
Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the weather service, said he expects the final tally of tornadoes for the two days to exceed 30.
“I’m just shocked for seeing … the debris and everything flying up,” Waverly resident Desmond Gardner said. “Big ball of fire from the power lines and debris smacking against my car as I was sitting in it. And I heard that I lost a good friend today, so my prayers go out to their family.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and began visiting the state’s most battered communities Thursday.
The tornadoes were the state’s first deadly February twisters on record, according to meteorologist Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory.
“Tornado events in the Mid-Atlantic are incredibly unusual” for this time of year, Carbin said.
In Tappahannock, about 45 miles northeast of Richmond, Timothy Williams told the Associated Press that he was about to go for a drive with a friend when the storm hit.
“It picked the car right off the ground and put it right back on the ground,” said Williams, 44. Dozens of injuries were reported in the area.
After two wild days of fierce storms in the southern and eastern U.S., the weather calmed down considerably Thursday. No severe weather was expected Thursday or for the next several days, the Storm Prediction Center said.
Snow was the story in the Midwest, where schools closed in several states. Some areas braced for more than a foot of snow, along with thousands of flight cancellations.
The South and East were in recovery mode. Around Washington, D.C., thousands were without power, according to utilities Pepco and Dominion Power.
The quick-moving storm swirled north into Pennsylvania at about 50 mph late Wednesday, knocking down trees and wires along the way.
“This whole area got hit hard with this storm,” Saul Schmo-litz, a lieutenant with Union Fire Company, said at the scene of a downed 40-foot pine tree in East Manchester Township.
Wind gusts were recorded at 52 mph at York Airport in Jackson Township, said Craig Evanego, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in State College. York County saw more straight-line wind damage, Evanego said. The National Weather Service had not verified reports that a tornado formed.
WVEC-TV, Hampton-Norfolk, Va| John Bacon|USA TODAY|Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY; York Daily Record; WUSA-TV, Washington, D.C.; Associated Press
Genetically Modified Organisms
True or False? Extinction Is Forever
Researchers’ efforts to clone the vanished Tasmanian tiger highlight the quandary of reviving long-gone creatures
[In 1997, Scottish scientists announced that an adult sheep named Dolly had been successfully cloned. Dolly proved that DNA from an ordinary animal cell could generate a virtually identical copy.
Dolly’s legacy has led to technology that has the potential to bring back extinct creatures like wooly mammoths and Tasmanian tigers.]
“Danger,” says the sign on the door of a laboratory at the Australian Museum in Sydney: “Tasmanian Tiger, Trespassers will be eaten!” The joke is that the Tasmanian tiger—a beloved symbol of the island state that appears on its license plate—has been extinct for nearly seven decades. But researchers behind that door are working to bring the animal back to life by cloning it, using DNA extracted from specimens preserved decades ago. Among other things, the work raises questions about the nature of extinction itself.
The Tasmanian tiger’s Latin designation, Thylacinus cynocephalus, or “dog-headed pouched-dog,” makes it redundantly clear that the marsupial’s feline nickname is a misnomer. It comes from the dark striping on its back that runs nearly shoulder to tail. The animal had large, powerful jaws, which secured the predator a place atop the local food chain. Females carried their young in backward-facing pouches.
Thylacines, once spread throughout mainland Australia and as far north as New Guinea, were probably outcompeted for food by the dingoes that humans introduced to the area some 4,000 years ago, says Australian Museum director Mike Archer, founder of the cloning project. Eventually, thylacines remained only on the dingo-free island of Tasmania, south of the mainland. But with the arrival of European settlers in the 1800s, the marsupial’s days were numbered. Blamed (often wrongly) for killing livestock, the animals were hunted indiscriminately. The government made thylacines a protected species in 1936, but it was too late; the last specimen reportedly died in captivity the same year.
The Australian researchers set out to bring the animal back partly to atone for humanity’s role in its extinction, Archer says. The idea took root 15 years ago when he saw a pickled thylacine pup in the museum’s collection. “It jarred me and started me thinking,” recalls the 58-year-old paleontologist and zoologist, who received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University and his doctorate from the University of Western Australia. “DNA is the recipe for making a creature. So if there is DNA preserved in the specimen, why shouldn’t we begin to use technology to read that information, and then in some way use that information to reconstruct the animal? I raised the issue with a geneticist. The response was derisive laughter.”
Then, in 1996, Dolly the sheep burst onto the scene and, suddenly, Archer says, “cloning wasn’t just a madman’s dream.” Dolly proved that DNA from an ordinary animal cell—in her case, a ewe’s udder—could generate a virtually identical copy, or clone, of the animal after the DNA was inserted into a treated egg, which was implanted in a womb and carried to term. Archer’s goal is even more ambitious: cloning an animal with DNA from long-dead cells, reminiscent of the sci-fi novel and movie Jurassic Park. The challenge? The DNA that makes up the chromosomes in which genes are bundled falls apart after a cell dies.
Researchers working with Don Colgan, head of the museum’s evolutionary biology department, extracted DNA from a thylacine pup preserved in alcohol in 1866, and biologist Karen Firestone obtained additional thylacine DNA from a tooth and a bone. Then, using a technique called polymerase chain reaction, the researchers found that the thylacine DNA fragments could be copied. The scientists next have to collect millions of DNA bits and pieces and create a “library” of the possibly tens of thousands of thylacine genes—a gargantuan task, they concede. Still, an even greater obstacle looms, that of stitching all those DNA fragments together properly into functioning chromosomes; the scientists don’t know how many chromosomes a thylacine had, but suspect that, like related marsupials, it had 14. But no scientist has ever synthesized a mammalian chromosome from scratch. If the Aussie scientists accomplish those feats, they may try to generate a thylacine by placing the synthetic chromosomes into a treated egg cell of a related species—say, a Tasmanian devil, another carnivorous marsupial—and implant the egg in a surrogate mother.
Such cross-species cloning, as the procedure is called, is no longer fantasy. In 2001, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) of Worcester, Massachusetts, succeeded in cloning, for the first time, an endangered animal, a rare wild ox called a gaur. This past April, scientists from ACT, Trans Ova Genetics of Sioux Center, Iowa, and the Zoological Society of San Diego announced they had cloned a banteng, an endangered wild bovine species native to Southeast Asia, using a domesticated cow as a surrogate mother. Meanwhile, researchers in Spain are trying to clone an extinct mountain goat, called a bucardo, using cells collected and frozen before the species’ last member died in 2000. Other scientists hope to clone a woolly mammoth from 20,000-year-old specimens found in Siberian permafrost.
Many scientists are skeptical of the thylacine project. Ian Lewis, technology development manager at Genetics Australia Cooperative Ltd., in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia, says the chances of cloning an animal from “snippets” of DNA are “fanciful.” Robert Lanza, ACT’s medical director and vice president, says cloning a thylacine is beyond existing science. But it may be within reach in several years, he adds: “This area of genetics is moving forward at an exponential rate.”
In Australia, critics say the millions of dollars that the thylacine project will cost would be better spent trying to save endangered species and disappearing habitats. One opponent, Tasmanian senator and former Australia Wilderness Society Director Bob Brown, says people might become blasé about conservation if they’re lulled into thinking a lost species can always be resurrected. The research “feeds the mind-set that science will fix everything,” he says.
Another concern touches on the great nature-nurture quandary: Would a cloned thylacine truly represent the species, given that it would not have had the chance to learn key behaviors from other thylacines? For some carnivores, says University of Louisville behavioral ecologist Lee Dugatkin, “it’s clear that young individuals learn various hunting strategies from parents.” And a foster parent might not fill the gap. Dugatkin asks whether a cloned Tasmanian tiger raised by a surrogate Tasmanian devil would just be a devil in tiger’s clothing.
Luba Vangelova|Smithsonian Magazine|June 2003
Report: Multiple pesticides, magnified harms
A new report by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) reminds us that we have a lot to learn about the risks of exposure to multiple pesticides at a time. Hmmmm. “Exposure to multiple pesticides at a time” — isn’t that what we face in the real world? Yes, it is. Read on.
The researchers, who work with UCLA’s Sustainable Technology & Policy Program, looked specifically at exposures to three fumigant pesticides: Telone (or 1,3-dichloropropene), chloropicrin, and metam sodium. Here’s what they found:
- Some California residents are exposed to all three pesticides, either all at once or over a period of time;
- These pesticides can interact in ways that increase risks to human health; and
- California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) is not assessing the risk of cumulative exposure — which it is, in fact, required to do.
Drifting and dangerous
Fumigant pesticides are highly toxic chemicals that are used to manage pests in the soil. In California, because we have such a diversity of what are called “specialty crops,” we use a lot more fumigants than the rest of the country. Many specialty crops are highly lucrative — some examples are strawberries, lettuce, stone fruits and grape vines — and fumigants allow the planting of the same crop in the same field year after year.
Applied as a gas or liquid, fumigants are used at very high volumes and are vaporized (or volatilize) readily. These two factors contribute to the strong propensity of these pesticides to drift off-target.
Drift into nearby fields, homes, schools and communities is the main route of people’s exposure to fumigants. Every year in California, many farmworkers and residents fall ill from acute exposures to fumigants, as indicated by the state’s Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program. Unlike many pesticides, residues remaining on our food are not an issue with fumigants. These pesticides are so volatile; they’re not likely to stay on food by the time it gets to market.
Not all mixtures are created equal
The researchers point to a number of ways the three fumigants might be interacting, including cumulative effects, additive effects and interactive effects. What does it all mean?
We experience cumulative exposures in the real world — exposure to a milieu of chemicals in our environment, day after day. These cumulative exposures can lead to mounting effects, which can be either additive or interactive. Here’s where it gets interesting — or scary, depending on how you look at it.
Additive effects come into play when two or more chemicals combine to elicit an effect greater than exposure to one chemical alone. “Interactive” effects happen when two or more chemicals interact to increase or reduce a toxic effect. Our best understanding of interactive effects is based on pharmaceuticals, and the potential for some drugs to antagonize and/or synergize with each other.
Oh yes, and then there’s cancer risk
Yes, there is evidence that all three of these fumigants are carcinogenic. Evidence of other effects has also been reported, including developmental toxicity, reproductive toxicity, and neurotoxicity. Yet another way fumigants might impact us is by using up a detoxifying enzyme, glutathione, which we all have in our bodies. When the enzyme gets depleted, we have to make more — and meanwhile the fumigants remain in our body longer, and may cause additional harm.
And finally, these fumigants have physical properties that indicate they could attack DNA directly or inhibit the activity of enzymes that control important processes such as DNA repair and maintenance of DNA’s stability, which could also increase risk of carcinogenicity. Here at PAN, we call chemicals that can cause toxic effects like these “bad actors.”
We know fumigant drift is happening at levels that increase risk of cancer. Last fall, we conducted a Drift Catcher project with a community partner in Watsonville, California to monitor for chloropicrin. Even though the levels we found in the air were relatively low, they were still sufficient to increase cancer risk for children and families in nearby homes.
Watsonville is one of the biggest strawberry growing regions in the country, and fumigants are used in many fields every year. During application season, exposure to multiple fumigants — like those highlighted in UCLA’s study — is highly likely.
Protecting human health in the face of uncertainty
You’ll note that I’ve used the words “might,” “possible,” and “potential” a lot here. This is because there is still much that we don’t know, and the new report identifies several data gaps. Knowing this, how do we reduce uncertainty? And what can and should DPR do now to reduce health risks in California communities?
We can reduce uncertainty by collecting more and better data, and using it. Approaches for identifying interactive effects and, more broadly, cumulative risks have been developed by U.S. EPA, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the European Food Safety Authority. It’s quite a challenge to assess cumulative exposures, but DPR can and should use these guidelines to give it a try.
Meanwhile, DPR officials need to consider this new evidence of interactive effects — and then take steps to protect public health. We’ve long known from air monitoring data that fumigants drift in the air. With this new report, we know a bit more about the potential of these chemicals to interact with each other, posing more of a health hazard than was previously thought.
As DPR takes a closer look, they will likely find good reason to put more protective buffer zones in place around schools and other sensitive sites — and maybe even good reason not to use some of these pesticides. This would be very good news for Californians’ health. It should also trigger measures to protect farmer livelihoods, including financial support for alternative approaches that don’t rely on such hazardous pesticides.
More info requested on nuclear waste site
Decision pushed back by Canadian government
Canada’s federal government wants more information about a proposed nuclear waste repository in Kincardine, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Huron.
According to a news release, Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of Environment and Climate Change, has requested additional information and further studies on the environmental assessment for the proposed Deep Geologic Repository Project for low and intermediate level radioactive waste in Kincardine.
“I’m so geeked,” said Elizabeth Zimmer- Lloyd, a Port Huron resident and member of the Great Lakes Environmental Alliance. “Oh my God, I’m so happy.
“I knew this was going to happen.”
Ontario Power Generation had proposed to prepare a site, and construct and operate a facility for the long-term management of low- and intermediate level radioactive waste at the Bruce nuclear site, within the municipality of Kincardine, according to the news release.
The deadline for a decision on the proposal had been pushed back 90 days to March 1 from its original Dec. 2 deadline.
According to the release, OPG has been asked to provide the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency by April 18 with a schedule for fulfilling the information request.
M McKenna will contact the Canadian Joint Review Panel, which is tasked with reviewing the proposed nuclear waste facility, at a future date, regarding its role in the review of the additional information and studies.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, the OPG said the company is “committed to conducting further technical, environmental and economic studies into its proposed deep geologic repository, as requested by the Federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.
“OPG understands the sensitivity of decisions around nuclear waste and respects the Minister’s request for further information to inform a science based decision.”
The company said McKenna has requested three studies:
» An updated analysis of potential combined environmental effects of the OPG low- and intermediate level repository site and a potential Nuclear Waste Management Organization site located close to the proposed site.
» An updated list of the company’s commitments to mitigate any identified effects from the project.
» A study into the environmental effects of alternate sites.
The release said OPG “maintains that a deep geologic repository is the right answer for Ontario’s low and intermediate-level waste, and that the Bruce site is the right location. OPG is confident that further studies will confirm this.”
Zimmer-Lloyd said OPG has not looked at other sites.
“They have placed all their bad nuclear eggs in one basket,” she said, “We have kind of won the battle, but we haven’t won the war.”
She said her group is not anti-Canada or anti-industry.
“We are pro-water,” Zimmer-Lloyd said. “We are pro-be-responsible with your industry. Don’t make the environment and the people who rely on it, don’t make them an expense of making money.”
She said storing “over 200,000 cubic meters of nuclear waste within a mile of 21 percent of the world’s fresh water … is not thinking common sense but dollar sense.
“More than 40 million people rely on this water daily.”
The proposal has been met with widespread opposition from Michigan residents and politicians.
“Canada is a big country,” Zimmer-Lloyd said. “They have a ton of places there where it is not near drinking water, where it is not near populated places, where they can place it at.”
BOB GROSS|TIMES HERALD
The Size of the California Methane Leak Isn’t the Scariest Part of the Story
The Aliso Canyon leak doubled Los Angeles’ methane emissions—and it’s just one disaster we were lucky enough to find
The first time Stephen Conley flew through the plume of natural gas hovering above Aliso Canyon, California, he knew the situation was bad. He couldn’t see the methane or ethane pouring out from the old well, but he could smell the rotten-egg odor of the mercaptan added to natural gas to warn people of leaks. “It was nasty,” he recalls.
And then there were the readings from his plane’s scientific instrumentation. Conley has flown his specialized research plane over the sites of many oil and gas leaks in the past. In normal, leak-free air, he usually detects about 2 parts per million (ppm) of methane. Over a leak, that might go up to 4 or 5 ppm. But the air over California in November had levels of 50 ppm a mile from the leak site.
“That’s when I first got this idea that, holy crap, this is a big leak,” says Conley, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Davis, and Scientific Aviation.
Now, analysis of Conley’s data reveals that by the time the leak had been plugged, just over 107,000 tons of methane and 8,000 tons of ethane had been released from Aliso Canyon. That’s the equivalent of the greenhouse gas emissions from half a million cars, spewed into the air near Los Angeles over the span of 16 weeks.
“On the scale of the control efforts that have been put in place to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, it rolls that back years,” says study co-author Thomas Ryerson, a research chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Though methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and the Aliso Canyon event was a “monster” emitter, the event highlights an even bigger problem, Conley says. There are hundreds of natural gas storage facilities like this one around the country, and there’s nothing in place to monitor these facilities for leaks or respond to them quickly.
“Even if each one is leaking [a little bit], that’s a big number,” Conley warns.
The Aliso Canyon leak came from a natural gas storage facility that had started out its life in 1954 as an oil well. In 1973, that well was converted into natural gas storage, a common practice for U.S. energy companies that need a place to store the fuel near towns and cities.
On October 23, residents of the nearby town of Porter Ranch reported smelling a gas leak, and Southern California Gas Company discovered the leak at Aliso Canyon. Two weeks later, Conley was tasked by the California Energy Commission, for whom he had been working under contract, to fly through the plume above the leak and map out where and how much methane and ethane were being emitted.
Conley and his team made 13 flights through the plume between November 7, two weeks after the leak began, and February 13, two days after the leak was plugged.
Because the natural gas had been stored in an old oil well, it also contained small amounts of substances, such as benzene and toluene, that wouldn’t normally be found in a natural gas pipeline, says Ryerson. Other scientists led by Donald Blake of the University of California, Irvine, collected samples of the gas down on the ground and analyzed it back in the lab. Combining that data with Conley’s measurements of methane and ethane gave the researchers “the DNA of the leak,” Ryerson says.
The team confirmed that efforts to stop the leak had been successful, though 3 percent of the natural gas stored in the facility had been lost by that time. The data also showed that the Aliso Canyon event released enough methane to make this the largest leak in history in terms of climate impact, Conley and his colleagues report this week in Science. Only one previous event, at Moss Bluff, Texas in 2004, released more natural gas, but most of that burned off in a huge fireball.
The leak also released some 2.5 tons of benzene, a carcinogen, into the atmosphere, they found. That sounds like a lot, but cars and other sources emit about a thousand times more every year, Ryerson says. Individuals who were in the way of the plume may have been exposed to more worrying amounts of the substance, but for now there’s no way to know.
Southern California Gas Company has stated that it will mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the leak. Francesca Hopkins, an Earth systems scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has some ideas about how they can do that.
While at UC Irvine, she led a study that mapped out methane emissions across the LA Basin using a white Ford Transit van equipped with a snorkel and a host of scientific equipment. As they report in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, her team found methane leaking from compressed natural gas fueling stations, gas-fired power plants, landfills—even ones that had been closed for 50 years—and, of course, cows.
Plugging up those “fugitive leaks” could be part of the gas company’s mitigation efforts, Hopkins says. And targeting methane leaks could bring a far bigger bang for the buck than carbon dioxide emissions, she says. While methane has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere, it is also a far more potent greenhouse gas and one that has an economic value, since lost methane is essentially wasted fuel. Luckily, methane is also a lot easier to get rid of because it can be burned.
Conley notes that this one leak’s overall contribution to climate change is just a drop in the bucket. That’s because there’s already so much carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases being released around the globe. For his team, the real issue is how to prevent such massive leaks from happening more often and becoming a bigger climate threat.
“Nobody really knows yet what caused Aliso to happen,” Ryerson says. If it had happened in a spot more distant from where people live, it might not have been noticed for a lot longer. Even then, the team was only able to measure the magnitude of the event because Conley was already under contract to the state.
Scientists were also available to map the plumes from two previous oil and gas disasters—the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and a natural gas leak in the North Sea in 2013—and provide key information for stopping the events. But Ryerson and Conley both note that the three situations were largely due to luck.
“There is no standing capability for a quick-response airborne chemical measurement” of a disaster, Ryerson says. They argue that some sort of “grab-and-go package” should be developed to get scientists to a site within hours rather than weeks or months.
“We’ve been lucky three times in a row,” Ryerson says. “We should do something to be ready for the fourth.”
Sarah Zielinski|smithsonian.com|February 26, 2016
Celebrating wetlands and their role in supporting communities worldwide
Our wetlands are essential for life, they’re home to a variety of wildlife, help prevent flooding, store carbon dioxide to regulate climate change and protect our coastlines.
But did you know that more than a billion people make a living from wetlands across the world? Wetlands provide livelihoods, from fishing and eco-tourism, to farming and drinking water for communities. WWF is working to support some of the world’s most vital wetlands and the communities that depend on them across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Manuel Barbosa is among those relying on healthy wetlands to support himself and his family.
Barbosa, a small-scale farmer in Brazil, inherited land and a love for nature from his father. He grows fruit and vegetables and also raises dairy cattle on his small farm, all for his family’s own consumption. He feels his greatest achievement is the contribution he has made to the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, by supporting a new Pact to conserve its headwaters. Part of this Pact is the conservation of the stream—Queima Pé—that runs through his property and provides clean water to the 90,000 people who live in his community called Tangará da Serra.
“People need to understand that protecting springs guarantees water for everybody, because the water from the spring flows into the stream, which flows into the river and feeds the whole region,” Barbosa said. “Water is everything. Water is life. The same water that I drink, that quenches the thirst of my cows, is the same water that supplies the town and its businesses and which people use to drink, shower and wash.” In 2015, the Pact’s partners, including WWF-Brasil, helped to improve water filtration into the land and minimize erosion and sedimentation run off from roads through activities such as contour planting—a method of planting across a slope, following the curves of the land—and the restoration of forest around the source of the stream.
“Thanks to contour planting, when it rains now, the water can infiltrate properly into the soil and consequently feed the spring and stream,” Barbosa said. “My pastures have improved, but the main thing is that it ensures there is plenty of clean water in the stream.”
WWF|February 02, 2016
New Species of Prehistoric Flower Discovered Preserved in Amber
Rare fossil may be an ancient relative of the potato
George Poinar, Jr., courtesy of Oregon State University)
The delicate structures of flowers rarely fossilize, but the sticky resin of trees can capture these dainty specimen, preserving them for tens of millions of years. Scientists recently found two of such fossils, which turned out to be a new species that may have been a poisonous predecessor to modern plants like coffee and potato.
Scientists discovered the pair of rare fossil flowers in a mine in the Dominican Republic, according to a new study published this week in the journal Nature Plants. Dubbed Strychnos electri, these tiny beauties belong to a group of flowers called asterids, which includes such varied members as coffee, potatoes, peppers, sunflowers, and the poisonous strychnine tree, Annalee Newitz writes for Ars Technica.
“The specimens are beautiful, perfectly preserved fossil flowers, which at one point in time were born by plants that lived in a steamy tropical forest with both large and small trees, climbing vines, palms, grasses and other vegetation,” study author and Oregon State University researcher George Poinar, Jr. said in a statement.
The two flowers are very tiny, about a centimeter long apiece. But while Poinar and his colleagues know the plants are somewhere in the ballpark of tens of millions of years old, they are still not clear on exactly how old they are, Mary Beth Griggs writes for Popular Science. While researchers can date fossils preserved in rock by analyzing where it was found and the radioactive decay of certain elements contained in the rocks around them, amber is harder to to date because it is made from fossilized tree resin.
In order to figure out how old these fossilized flowers were, Poinar had to rely on other life forms found alongside the amber-encased specimens, particularly a couple of common single-celled organisms called foraminifera and coccoliths. Because the evolutionary paths of these tiny animals are distinctive and well-known, scientists often used them to date fossil specimens by proxy, Newitz writes.
However, in this case the tests were somewhat inconclusive: each test gave different results, suggesting that the flowers were fossilized anywhere between as early as 45 million years ago and as recently as 15 million years ago.
Poinar may not know exactly how long ago Strychnos electri thrived, but it’s possible it was somewhat poisonous.
“Species of the genus Strychnos are almost all toxic in some way,” Poinar said. “Some are more toxic than others, and it may be that they were successful because their poisons offered some defense against herbivores.”
Today, there are about 200 species of Strychnos plants, some of which are the sources of some of the world’s deadliest poisons, like strychnine and curare. It’s impossible to know if or how poisonous Strychnos electri was, but Poinar hopes this discovery will help shed new light on what the America’s forests were like millions of years ago, long before North and South America were joined by a land bridge, Newitz writes.
“Specimens such as this are what give us insights into the ecology of ecosystems in the distant past,” Poinar said in a statement. “It shows that the asterids, which later gave humans all types of foods and other products, were already evolving many millions of years ago.”
Danny Lewis|smithsonian.com|February 17, 2016
Hubble telescope spots ‘supermassive’ black hole
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured a photo of a distant galaxy that’s home to one of the most massive black holes astronomers have ever discovered.
The black hole is located 300 million light years away in the center of the Coma Cluster of the galaxy NGC 4889, which is the brightest galaxy in the newly released photo, according to a statement from NASA.
The “supermassive” black hole is 21 billion times the size of the sun. To put that in perspective, the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy has a mass 4 million times that of the sun, scientists say.
Black holes are defined by NASA as “a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape it.”
When matter is pulled into a black hole, it creates energy. By blowing outward in all directions, black holes play a part in regulating what’s around them.
And while NGC 4889’s black hole had quite the appetite when it was active, researchers conclude it “has stopped feeding and is currently resting after feasting on NGC 4889’s cosmic cuisine.”
We Finally Know How Much the Dino-Killing Asteroid Reshaped Earth
The impact that wiped out large dinosaurs also dumped hundreds of feet of debris in the ocean off the Yucatán peninsula
An artist’s rendering of Chicxulub, the asteroid believed to have wiped out large dinosaurs and reshaped parts of the world. (Elenarts/iStock)
More than 65 million years ago, a six-mile wide asteroid smashed into Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, triggering earthquakes, tsunamis and an explosion of debris that blanketed the Earth in layers of dust and sediment.
Now analysis of commercial oil drilling data—denied to the academic community until recently—offers the first detailed look at how the Chicxulub impact reshaped the Gulf of Mexico. Figuring out what happened after these types of impacts gives researchers a better idea of how they redistribute geological material around the world. It also gives scientists an idea of what to expect if another such impact were to occur now.
The Chicxulub impact, which wiped out large dinosaurs and giant marine reptiles, created a global layer of debris that is now part of the geologic record. Geologists refer to this layer as the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, because it marks the switch between these two geologic time periods.
“It is truly a tree ring for the Earth, because how we define time geologically is by extinction events,” says Sean Gulick of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics in Austin. “Everywhere on Earth this layer marks exactly the time when the mass extinction happened.”
The boundary can be less than a tenth of an inch thick in areas far from the impact site. But in the Gulf of Mexico, researchers weren’t able to say for sure just how much sediment and debris the impact threw around the region—until now.
The new analysis shows that the Chicxulub impact mobilized nearly 48,000 cubic miles of sediment across the gulf. It wiped out the contours of the bottom of the gulf, covering everything from the Yucatán to the Caribbean in hundreds of feet of debris.
“This deposit was literally laid down in a matter of days and weeks,” says lead author Jason Sanford, previously of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics and now working as an exploration geologist for Chevron.
To create this new picture of the asteroid’s effects in the gulf, Sanford and his colleagues used a combination of data on rocks and sediment gleaned from 408 drilling wells that penetrated up to 35,000 feet into the seafloor, as well as seismic data. Seismic vibrations sent into Earth’s crust are reflected back toward the surface and can give scientists a three-dimensional view of the subsurface.
But the team’s comprehensive view wouldn’t have been possible without the commercial drilling data, and obtaining it was a major achievement. When David Kring, of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, discovered and named the Chicxulub impact site in 1991, he immediately started talking to oil companies about gaining access to their Gulf of Mexico data. Because the region was a valuable oil resource, the conversations went nowhere.
“For over 20 years I have been hoping that somebody would be able to get hold of that data,” says Kring, who was not involved in the study. “So I am ecstatic that this group at the University of Texas has been able to do that.”
Using these datasets, the team was able to probe up to 50,000 feet below sea level to determine the thickness, volume and nature of the boundary layer in the gulf region. As they report in a recent paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, the scientists found that the volume of material moved by the Chicxulub impact dwarfed that of the next biggest instantaneous deposit—the Nuuanu debris flow in Hawaii—by two orders of magnitude.
“It was always going to be big numbers,” Kring says. “It is not that scientists didn’t think that those kinds of slump deposits existed in the past, but this paper quantifies those numbers basin wide, which is an important next step.”
Further afield, the boundary layer consists of fine grains of sediment, but closer to the impact site, the layer consists of hundreds of feet of sand, gravel, cobble and even boulders. Sanford and his colleagues showed that when the asteroid slammed into Earth, the impact set off earthquakes that shook loose rocks and boulders and whipped up tsunamis that carried in debris from as far away as what are now Texas and Florida.
“That’s why the layer can be hundreds of meters thick,” Gulick says. “It is full of everything falling down the hill, tsunami deposits and also the stuff that fell out of the sky.”
The Chicxulub impact released as much energy as a hundred terratons of TNT, beyond a billion times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
“The atomic bomb, the most powerful earthquake—these are already events that we have difficulty conceiving of,” Sanford says. “It was a constant exercise in trying to keep our minds open to what’s possible in terms of the amount of sediment, the amount of energy and the speed at which things happen.”
Jane Palmer|smithsonian.com|February 25, 2016 1:00PM
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