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Are Cities Europe's New Biodiversity Hotspots?
Vondelpark, Amsterdam's public urban park in the southwest of the city, is anything but a remote place. Even on a weekday, it's full of people taking a stroll, playing soccer or chatting with friends on the neatly mowed grass.
There are also countless people bicycling on the wide, paved roads — after all, this is the Netherlands.
Vondelpark definitely might not seem like the ideal place to look for new species of insects, but biologist Iva Njunjic begs to differ.
"Unknown biodiversity is lurking everywhere, even in this place dominated by humans."
Njunjic works for Taxon Expeditions, a Netherlands-based organization that offers ecotourism trips, usually to places like Borneo, Panama and Montenegro.
Last year, they embarked on a week long citizen-science project to comb a small island nature reserve in Vondelpark called the "Koeienweide" — "cow meadow" — for new species.
A single path leads to the reserve, which is padlocked and clearly off-limits to the general public.
Managed by an Amsterdam citizens' initiative, the Koeienweide — an island surrounded by canals — clearly hasn't seen a lawnmower for quite a while.
Collecting What's There
Every day for a week, eight amateur researchers set up traps on the island to catch different kinds of resident critters, such as spiders, beetles, worms and moths.
"I'm not sure how many species we caught but I was surprised that it was so many," Norbert Peeters, a participant and philosopher from the city of Leiden, told DW.
Iva Njunjic says the group collected 143 different types of moths alone. Taxonomy experts at the Free University of Amsterdam helped the amateur researchers identify the species under the microscope.
"By the end of the week we were given some hints that we might be onto something," Peeters said.
It turns out the group discovered two species of insects that hadn't previously been described by scientists.
Njunjic unscrews a small plastic container to reveal one of the new finds. It is a small black dot, no larger than 3 millimeters or one-eighth of an inch, glued to a piece of paper and neatly labelled.
She explains that it's a beetle belonging to the family of Leiodidae, commonly called "round fungus beetles."
It most likely lives underground. "We think this species probably feeds on some decaying organic matter or fungi because we found it in a trap with meat and cheese."
Its Penis Gave It Away
How did they know this beetle was a new discovery?
"It differs from very closely related species from southern Europe by the shape of its penis," Njunjic explains and laughs. "When studying insects we compare male genitalia. So we had to dissect its penis and observe it under a microscope."
The group decided to name the new species after the band "The Beatles," because as Njunjic puts it, "it's kind of unfair that there is no beetle species named after them yet." Its full name will be Ptomaphagus beatles.
The group of researchers also found a new species of parasitic wasp, which are small insects that lay their eggs on or in the bodies of other invertebrates, sooner or later causing the death of their hosts.
The new parasitic wasp will be named Aphaereta Vondelpark to honor the place where it first was found.
More to Uncover
According to Martin Kubiak, insect researcher at the Center of Natural History at Hamburg University, who was not involved in the study, the outcome of the Vondelpark expedition is "not surprising."
While the fauna in Central Europe is well explored in terms of species of vertebrates, butterflies and dragonflies, there is still much to discover in other parts of the animal world.
"We still know amazingly little about insect groups comprising beetles, wasps, bees, flies and mosquitoes, especially if they are only 1 to 2 millimeters big," Kubiak says.
In 2011, biologists from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, estimated that there are an overall 8.7 million species on Earth.
So far, scientists have only described 1.5 million species.
Using a technique called DNA barcoding, researchers identify species by analyzing a short section of their DNA.
When biologists at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich analyzed the genetic material of a large number of insects they had trapped across Germany, they were able to estimate that 930 different gall midges — a family of flies — live around us, yet only 800 species have been described so far.
Biodiversity and the City
Like Norbert Peeters, many people might assume that cities are not where animals are most likely to be found.
But Menno Schilthuizen, evolutionary biologist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden and co-founder of Taxon Expeditions, says the opposite is the case.
"In a country like the Netherlands, cities are actually biologically rich in comparison to the countryside," he told DW. "This is because there is intensive agriculture everywhere."
The organizers hope their findings will shed light on the importance of insects.
"Even though they're so tiny they perform many important functions like aerating the soil, decomposing organic matter and pollinating the plants," Iva Njunjic says. "Everyone wants to save pandas and lions, but insects are actually more important."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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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.