Sea Otters, Alligators and Other Major Predators Are Reclaiming Historic Niches, Study Finds
Increasingly, large predators like mountain lions, alligators and killer whales are moving into ecosystems not traditionally associated with them. Mountain lions have been spotted prowling grasslands, alligators have been seen lounging on Florida beaches and killer whales have been spied swimming in freshwater rivers.
Many hypothesized that the animals were taking over new territories as their populations rebounded due to conservation efforts. But research published in Current Biology Monday suggests that they are actually taking back what was rightfully theirs.
The researchers looked specifically at sea otters on the Pacific coast of the U.S., who have expanded from kelp forests to estuaries, salt marshes and seagrass beds, and alligators in the Southeastern U.S., who have expanded from freshwater swamps into marine habitats like mangroves and seagrasses. The researchers argued, based on both the species' success in these "new" habitats when protected from human interference, as well as historical and archaeological evidence placing both sea otters and alligators in coastal marshes, that the predators were reconquering ground they had occupied before human activity drove them out.
"We can no longer chock up a large alligator on a beach or coral reef as an aberrant sighting," study co-author and Rachel Carson associate professor of Marine Conservation Biology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment Brian Silliman said in a Duke University press release. "It's not an outlier or short-term blip. It's the old norm, the way it used to be before we pushed these species onto their last legs in hard-to-reach refuges. Now, they are returning," he said.
The study's authors, who, in addition to Duke, came from the University of California Santa Cruz, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Florida and Kansas State University, suggested that the same might be true of other large predators moving into new niches, though more research needs to be conducted to confirm this hypothesis.
Examples of other potential reconquests include the movement of orangutans into disturbed forests, river otters into marine wetlands, canines like wolves and coyotes onto beaches and rocky shores and grey, harbor and harp seals from Arctic into subtropical waters.
Taken together, these movements also indicate that large predators are more adaptive than ecologists thought.
"The assumption, widely reinforced in both the scientific and popular media, is that these animals live where they live because they are habitat specialists. Alligators love swamps; sea otters do best in saltwater kelp forests; orangutans need undisturbed forests; marine mammals prefer polar waters. But this is based on studies and observations made while these populations were in sharp decline. Now that they are rebounding, they're surprising us by demonstrating how adaptable and cosmopolitan they really are," Silliman said in the press release.
This is good news for both predators and the ecosystems they are calling home again.
In the press release, Stillman used the example of sea otters' movement into estuaries. This habitat flexibility will help sea otters survive as kelp forests are threatened due to climate change. But it also helps estuaries, because the sea otters eat Dungeness crabs who otherwise eat too many of the sea slugs that prevent the estuaries from being overrun by epiphytic algae fertilized by urban and agricultural runoff.
The study's conclusion argued that its findings should be taken into consideration when determining conservation policy.
"As many of these consumers (and their habitats) are protected and managed by legislation, the habitats they are now re-colonizing (e.g., salt marshes) will also need to be considered as critical habitat in recovery plans. Indeed, as is the case with sea otters and alligators, these 'novel' ecosystems can potentially support much higher populations than current habitats listed as critical," the study's authors wrote.
New Study Is First to Demonstrate That Biodiversity Inoculates Against Extinction https://t.co/GsoGXgDP2b… https://t.co/W30DNURvN9— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1520853013.0
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By Kristen Fischer
It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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