Elephants and Monkeys Are Working to Protect You From Climate Change
By Marlene Cimons
Mother Nature has it figured out. She's designed a master scheme that connects plants and animals, all working in concert to keep every living thing in balance. Imagine a stack of dominoes — knock down one of them, and the rest will tumble. The same can happen in nature.
This is especially evident in places like central Africa and in South American tropical rainforests where certain animals — from the world's largest to its smallest — help keep trees safe and healthy, which is critical as trees absorb vast amounts of planet-warming carbon pollution.
Recent research warns that losing the creatures that nurture trees puts forests in danger. This, by extension, is helping to accelerate dangerous climate change.
In central Africa, for example, elephants eat fast-growing trees, making room for those that grow more slowly. The slow-growing trees — with their very dense wood — store more carbon than their thinner, faster-developing counterparts. Without elephants, more carbon would accumulate in the atmosphere, worsening climate change, according to a new study that used computer models to project what could happen if elephant populations continue to dwindle or become extinct.
An elephant fuels up.
"Africa may once have contained 10 million elephants from the Mediterranean to the Cape, in every habitat except extreme desert. In 1970, there may have been a million left. By the end of the 1980s, there were half that number, mostly killed for the ivory trade," said Stephen Blake, assistant professor of biology at St. Louis University, and author of the study, which appears in the journal Nature Geoscience.
Despite an international agreement created to protect them, they face extinction as hunters persist in illegally killing them for ivory. Blake said that the price of ivory is so high that poachers will kill elephants of any size for their tusks, and go to gruesome lengths to remove them.
"How many cuddly [elephant] toys will be purchased this Christmas around the world?" Blake said. "Children everywhere will take them to bed, play with them, love them and be enchanted with the notion of these massive, gentle, humbled, wrinkled old animals… How many hearts touched?… Yet, as we do all these things, we live at a time when the last members of a once global and diverse lineage of these huge animals are being slaughtered."
By killing elephants, poachers rob slow-growing trees of their guardian. They also slow the growth of new trees. Elephants blaze trails and disperse seeds as they forage. "Elephants are basically the gardeners of the forest," Blake said. "They disperse over 100 species of seeds, and disperse more of them over longer distances that other dispersers."
"Without the restorative powers of the elephants, the forest becomes a broken shadow of its former glory," he added.
Similarly, some of the world's littlest creatures also help replenish forests, although they don't face the grave risks that elephants encounter. Tiny tamarins that live in Peruvian rainforests eat fruits from trees, then poop out the undigested seeds in degraded former pastures — land cleared by humans for grazing water buffalo — effectively planting trees.
A female emperor tamarin.
Scientists showed that two types of these squirrel-sized monkeys — moustached and black-fronted tamarins — are seeding new forests. This is vital because — like the forests of central Africa — tropical rainforests also store carbon, and are home to a vast number of plants and animals.
The scientists tracked seeds from the animals' feces deposited in the new forest and identified eight different plant species found in the main rainforest. "Tamarins can play a role for the natural regeneration of disturbed areas," said Eckhard W. Heymann, a scientist at the German Primate Center, who reported his findings in the journal Scientific Reports.
However, their contribution, while important, usually isn't enough to regenerate large tracts. "So it is better to protect the forests — which also protects the animals living there — than to rely on the services [of tamarins]." Moreover, climate change may be altering the plants that tamarins eat, changing when they produce leaves, flowers and fruits. This could limit tamarins' ability to seed new forests.
A baby tamarin.
Tamarins do not face extinction, like elephants, but are not without their own risks. While hunters usually reject them because they are too small to provide meat, "they are sporadically hunted or captured to obtain infants as pets," Heymann said. There is also the fact that forests are shrinking, meaning tamarins could lose their home. "The more serious threat at the moment comes from increasing deforestation," he added.
Blake, who has spent nearly 20 years in Africa working in elephant research and conservation, laments their fate, describing them as "a complex society of intelligent, caring, emotional animals who respect their grandmothers and mourn their dead," and condemns those who neglect their duty to save them.
"We will go to Mars — there is no doubt — humans are too smart not to," he said. "Yet we do not have the wisdom to protect elephants and their forest environment that do so much for our physical, spiritual and emotional well-being."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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