300+ Mammal Species Could Still Be Discovered, Scientists Say
By Sara Novak
You can't protect an animal that you don't know exists. Tapanuli orangutans, for example, are found only in the Tapanuli region of Sumatra; they were only identified as a species last year, when scientists found them to be genetically different from other Bornean and Sumatran orangutans. With just 800 left, this newly discovered species is the most critically endangered ape.
It's hard to believe that with only seven great ape species on the planet—Tapanuli, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos—a species could have gone undiscovered until 2017. But, in fact, new research shows that many mammals still fly under the radar.
The olinguito, a carnivorous member of the raccoon family, wasn't discovered in Colombia and Ecuador until 2013. The Burrunan dolphin was found in the waters off Australia in 2011. In a new study published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, Molly Fisher and other researchers at the University of Georgia used a predictive model to conclude that 303 mammals have yet to be discovered.
Most of these unknown mammals, the researchers found, are likely in tropical regions of the world, many of which are threatened with habitat destruction. This makes discovering them a race against time before they go extinct. "If a species goes extinct before we discover it, how can we know what went wrong? If we lose a species without knowing it existed, we lose a lot of information," said Fisher.
Fisher said that she chose to study mammals because they are the most charismatic of terrestrial species, and therefore more likely to be protected. But less glamorous creatures, like plants and arthropods, are disappearing at even faster rates than mammals, which is worrying to scientists.
"We're concerned about why extinction rates are on the rise," said Fisher. "We're losing a lot of biodiversity, most of which exists in our remaining forests in places like the Amazon." Some researchers now talk about "biological annihilation," citing cascading extinctions, dwindling population sizes, and range shrinkages among vertebrate species.
Sumatran Orangutan Conservation ProgrammeMaxime Aliaga
Fisher and her team employed scientific modeling to measure discovery and extinction rates. Without direct interaction, however, it's impossible to know whether a species has disappeared completely or just hasn't been seen in a while. This occurred recently with the Guadalupe fur seal, a species found in California and Mexico that was rediscovered after years of suspected extinction.
The model used by the University of Georgia researchers is similar to one used to predict the remaining unknown number of plant species in 2011. It was constructed by counting the total number of species discovered and described by scientists from 1760 through 2010 by five year increments. "The model utilizes a statistical technique called 'maximum likelihood,' which allows scientists to approximate the total number of species that are likely to have existed in order to produce the number of descriptions actually recorded by taxonomists, scientists who classify new species," said Fisher.
As the number of such scientists has increased, so has the number of classifications accounted for in the model. The researchers also noted "taxonomic efficiency" or how good scientists are at discovering new species. Like the Tapanuli orangutan, many species once thought to be identical are, upon closer inspection, found to be genetically distinct. Dr. Michael Krützen from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Zurich was part of the team that helped discover the Tapanuli using genomic analyses from orangutan samples. He said that Tapanuli orangutans differ significantly, most notably in tooth and skull shape, from those outside the region, because their populations had been disconnected for at least 20,000 years. But with so few of them left, it's easy to see why the species wasn't discovered until recently.
Fisher and her team approximate that 5,860 mammal species currently exist. She was surprised to find that Europe and Asia had a significant number of undiscovered mammals. The model showed that 10 percent of species in this part of the world have yet to be discovered, possibly because many are located in lightly populated Siberian regions.
7 Amazing New Fish Species Discovered in 2017 https://t.co/bgbUq28XEM @wwwfoecouk @GreenpeaceUK— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1514888706.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA magazine.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.