Horses Might Stop the Permafrost From Melting
Arctic winters are meant to be frigid, but because of rising temperatures and climate change, they aren't cold enough. The permafrost, the thick subsurface layer of frozen soil that stores one of the world's largest natural reserves of carbon, is thawing. As it does, it releases potent greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change. European scientists have now found that resettling massive herds of large herbivores could combat this effect and save up to 80 percent of all permafrost soils around the globe until 2100.
The study, published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports on Tuesday, focuses on wholistic "ecosystem management practices" that "[integrate] fauna dynamics into complex Earth System models." Lead scientist and permafrost expert Christian Beer from Universität Hamburg's Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN) found that introducing and managing reindeer, horses, bison and other herbivores into Arctic ecosystems can save the permafrost soils and stall climate change.
Beer drew inspiration from the late Pleistocene era, when large herds of herbivores roamed most of Northern Eurasia maintaining a grassland ecosystem in the Arctic called the mammoth steppe ecosystem, notes the study.
The productive ecosystem actually pulled large quantities of carbon from the earth's atmosphere into the soil where it froze, reports Climate CoLab. Over tens of thousands of years, the carbon-infused soils built up into our modern permafrost.
This ecosystem existed up until the end of the last ice age when wooly mammoths and other big mammals died off and the mammoth steppe vanished. Today, as the permafrost thaws, ancient methane and carbon dioxide are released.
Beer's study explores what would happen if a similar ecosystem could be recreated in the modern era to prevent loss of the permafrost. Luckily, he doesn't need to find wooly mammoths.
Russian scientists Sergey and Nikita Zimov resettled herds of bison, wisents, reindeer and horses at Pleistocene Park in Siberia 20 years ago to study how restoring the mammoth steppe ecosystem will positively affect global climate, reports Climate CoLab.
At Pleistocene Park, the winter air (minus 40 degrees Celsius) is far colder than the permafrost (minus 10 degrees Celsius), the study notes. "Thick snowfall insulates the ground from the much colder air, keeping it 'warm.'"
As the animals graze, their hooves scatter and compress the snow cover, dramatically reducing the insulating effect and allowing for more "freezing Siberian air [to reach] more deeply into the ground's permafrost," explains Pleistocene Park. This slows the thawing of the permafrost even in a warmer climate, reports Climate CoLab.
Beer, the Zimovs and their research partners compared the effect of grazing herds on snow depth and soil temperatures at Pleistocene Park and other Arctic locations in Europe. The study reports that herds in the Park cut snow cover height in half and reindeer in Sweden lowered snow cover by 73 percent. Comparing soil temperatures inside and outside of the fenced Pleistocene Park during winter revealed a mean annual difference of −1.9 degrees Celsius where animals had grazed.
The study explains the huge potential upside of this experiment. "Since most populations of large herbivores like reindeer and muskoxen are directly managed by humans, either by hunting or management," it reports, "the herbivore community can also be manipulated even more by reintroducing lost components of the Arctic herbivore assembly."
Beer said, "This type of natural manipulation in ecosystems that are especially relevant for the climate system has barely been researched to date – but holds tremendous potential," reported a Universität Hamburg article.
"If emissions continue to rise unchecked ... we can expect to see a 3.8-degree Celsius increase in permafrost temperatures, which would cause half of all permafrost to thaw," the article reported. Adding animals lowers that warming by 44 percent, to 2.1 degrees Celsius, which is enough to preserve 80 percent of the world's permafrost.
Beer's team also explored what would happen if some, but fewer, grazers were resettled. He admitted, "It may be utopian to imaging resettling wild animal herds in all the permafrost regions of the Northern Hemisphere," reported Universität Hamburg.
Critically, Beer's results show that fewer animals would still produce a cooling effect. "What we've shown here is a promising method for slowing the loss of our permanently frozen soils, and with it, the decomposition and release of the enormous carbon stockpiles they contain," the earth system expert told Universität Hamburg.
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Sweden's reindeer have a problem. In winter, they feed on lichens buried beneath the snow. But the climate crisis is making this difficult. Warmer temperatures mean moisture sometimes falls as rain instead of snow. When the air refreezes, a layer of ice forms between the reindeer and their meal, forcing them to wander further in search of ideal conditions. And sometimes, this means crossing busy roads.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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