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Are Cities Europe's New Biodiversity Hotspots?

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View of canal in Amsterdam, Holland. Amstel river, canal, and bicycles. ElOjoTorpe / Moment / Getty Images

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 Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."