Is This the Year the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Goes Extinct?
By John R. Platt
This year the U.S. could experience its first bird extinction in more than three decades.
That's the warning from the scientists and conservationists working to protect the critically endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus). Once common in the grasslands of central Florida, this geographically isolated subspecies has experienced a catastrophic population decline since the 1970s, mostly due to habitat loss and degradation. Although the tiny birds have been protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1986, their numbers have continued to fall—to the point where recovery now seems next to impossible. A survey last year found that just 22 females and 53 males remained in the wild—and that was before 2017's hurricane season and record-setting winter cold snaps.
"Extinctions really happen," warned Paul Reillo, zoologist and president of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, Florida. "This is going to be North America's next extinct bird if we do nothing."
Reillo said there's just one option left to save the Florida grasshopper sparrow: the captive-breeding program that began in 2015. "Captive breeding is never anyone's desire, and it's always the approach of last resort," he said. "Given the collapse of the wild population it's not only the last option, but it's the last of the last options."
Getting to this point took several years of debate among the various government agencies and partner organizations working to protect the birds. Finally the first sparrow eggs and juvenile birds were brought into captivity at the Rare Species Conservatory and the White Oak Conservation Center plantation near Jacksonville in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Learning to Live
As with any captive-breeding program, learning how to get the birds to mate and hatch outside their native habitat has been a complex process. Early attempts to hatch the birds' tiny eggs failed before the team established the proper temperature, humidity and incubator-rotation procedures. They learned quickly, though; by May 2016 a successful artificial incubation protocol had been established. The first captive-laid eggs hatched that month at the conservatory. Several additional chicks have been born since that point, although not all have survived. The captive population now stands at a total of 48 birds, with 29 living at the conservatory in Loxahatchee.
Rare Species Conservatory Foundation
Beyond figuring out how to hatch the birds, the conservation teams also learned more about the adult birds, specifically the critical role of parenting. For one thing, the birds they've hand-reared never learned how to act like wild birds and "tend to be very poor parents," Reillo said. Breeding pairs rarely work together to build nests, while females sometimes lay eggs outside of their nests and then fail to sit on the eggs until they hatch. Most of the females who did successfully nest often fed their chicks improperly, while males were rarely attentive to any part of the reproductive process except for mating—a big change for a species that engages in bi-parenting in the wild. During 2016 and 2017 most of the fertile eggs laid at the facilities had to be artificially incubated and then hand-reared after hatching, a process that could conceivably extend this cycle of parental neglect.
Parenting is also important in other ways. Although chicks can be raised by humans to become healthy adults, they need some quality time with their parents first. "The first two to three days of parental care stimulate all sorts of wonderful things, the most important of which seems to be the bacteria in the gut flora that enables a healthy immune system to develop," Reillo said. "We cannot replicate that." The facilities have managed to raise more than a dozen chicks whose eggs were removed from their parents after just a day, but "it's extremely difficult and it often ends in disappointment because they develop septicemia and often there are infections that the chicks can't overcome," he said.
A Threat Revealed
Another immunological challenge has revealed itself through the captive-breeding program: Many of the birds, they found, have become afflicted with a previously unknown protozoan parasite that starts in the intestines and then invades vascular tissue in the liver, heart, spleen and other organs. This causes high mortality in the sparrows, particularly young birds, as well as birds stressed by factors such as cold, handling or even breeding.
Reillo said we might not have learned about this parasite without the captive-breeding program. "When birds die on the landscape the bodies disappear very quickly, and you can't explain the mortalities," he said. That's why there has never been what he calls a "unifying explanation" for the collapse of the wild population. Captivity, on the other hand, provides a more controlled setting and gives the scientists "a window into some of these problems facing the birds that otherwise you would not see in the wild."
Although the parasite's still killing some captive birds, the conservation teams have learned how to detect and treat it. "We've stumbled across a means of controlling it and we do have a therapy that clears this organism from birds very quickly," Reillo reported. "But so far we've only found one such drug that actually works well. That's a concern because whenever you use one thing over and over again there's a good chance that the target organism will evolve some resistance to it, and then you've got a real serious problem because you've got something that you can't treat."
What Happens Now?
The next step involves finding out more about how parasites and other potentially transmittable threats affect the birds both in captivity and in the wild. Larry Williams is the Florida supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the lead agency in the birds' conservation efforts. He said disease analysis is being conducted and is expected to be completed by March. In April the wild population will be surveyed "so we'll have a feel for how many birds survived the winter." Once that's complete the species' conservation working group will meet in mid-May to make a final plan for possibly collecting any of the remaining wild birds and bringing them into captivity.
"We're being really careful about this," Williams said. "If the working group says our plan will be to bring in 10 females, then we want to have the cages and capacity in the captive facilities to handle those 10 new females. We don't want to be sitting there at May 15 saying 'bring in 10' when nobody thought to build the cages to house them." He expects that if the working group gives the go-ahead to start collecting more wild birds, the effort would start in June when the birds are nesting, so both mothers and eggs can be brought into the breeding facilities.
One big hurdle looms over all of this: money. After investing millions of dollars on field research, mitigation efforts and launching the captive-breeding program, the Fish and Wildlife Service has requested an additional $150,000 to $200,000 for future captive-breeding efforts. But federal funding for many endangered species programs is up in the air under the Trump administration. Reillo said "we're not counting on the federal government actually providing tangible resources for this program going forward." The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida is currently raising funds to help the captive-breeding program, as is the Rare Species Conservatory through Florida International University's Tropical Conservation Institute, the latter with a matching-grant program.
Another obstacle for this entire effort: Some of the captive birds may not live much longer. Florida grasshopper sparrows typically only live four to five years in the wild, and Reillo reports that several of the birds in their collection are already older than that. "Why they're still alive is anybody's guess," he said. "They're on borrowed time."
Hope Springs Eternal
If most or all of these many difficult problems can be overcome, there is actually hope for this subspecies. Although the sparrows are relatively short-lived, they make up for it with several biological advantages. "These birds are hardwired for rapid reproduction," Reillo said. Parents incubate eggs for just 11 days, and chicks can start leaving the nest at nine days before becoming completely independent just after three weeks of age. They start reproducing about one year later, and females can lay three to four eggs at a time, with as many as five clutches in a season. "So a female may be able to produce up to 20 chicks a year," Reillo said. "It is a species that is engineered and has evolved for rapid population growth." That means the captive population could conceivably grow fast enough and large enough that a release program could be considered some time down the road.
Of course, getting to that point won't be possible without additional potential breeders, and every day that passes without bringing more wild birds into the captive population is a day when the total population could shrink even further. "Every single life is precious for these birds," Reillo said.
Ultimately what happens next depends on the people who have devoted their lives to saving the Florida grasshopper sparrow from extinction. "I'm worried about our ability to save the species," Williams admitted, "but I'm confident that the people working on it are doing the absolute best work possible."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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On Monday and Tuesday of the week that President Donald Trump held his first rally since March in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the county reported 76 and 96 new coronavirus cases respectively, according to POLITICO. This week, the county broke its new case record Monday with 261 cases and reported a further 206 cases on Tuesday. Now, Tulsa's top public health official thinks the rally and counterprotest "likely contributed" to the surge.
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By Tim Radford
German scientists now know why so many fish are so vulnerable to ever-warming oceans. Global heating imposes a harsh cost at the most critical time of all: the moment of spawning.
Nearing the Brink<p>Since <a href="https://climatenewsnetwork.net/abundant-fish-need-cool-seas-and-protection/" target="_blank">fish in the temperate zones already experience a wide variation</a> in seasonal water temperatures, it hasn't been obvious why species such as <a href="https://climatenewsnetwork.net/sardines-swim-into-northern-waters-to-keep-cool/" target="_blank">cod have shifted nearer the Arctic, and sardines have migrated to the North Sea</a>.</p><p>But <a href="https://climatenewsnetwork.net/ocean-warming-spurs-marine-life-to-rapid-migration/" target="_blank">marine creatures are on the move</a>, and although there are other factors at work, including overfishing and <a href="https://climatenewsnetwork.net/fish-cant-smell-well-in-more-acidic-seas/" target="_blank">the increasingly alarming changes in ocean chemistry</a>, thanks to ever-higher levels of dissolved carbon dioxide, temperature change is part of the problem.</p><p>The latest answer, Dr Dahlke and his colleagues report in the journal <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aaz3658" target="_blank">Science</a>, is that many fish may already be living near the limits of their thermal tolerance.</p><p>The temperature safety margins during the moments of spawning and embryo might be very precise, and over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, marine and freshwater species have worked out just what is best for the next generation. Rapid global warming upsets this equilibrium.</p>
By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach
The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.
When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.
We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.
Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.
What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.
Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.
To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.
Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.
The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.
Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.
Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?
The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.
Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome
While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.
It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.
Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.
Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.
Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.
Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.
Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
One of the initial reasons social distancing guidelines were put in place was to allow the healthcare system to adapt to a surge in patients since there was a critical shortage of beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment. In fact, masks that were designed for single-use were reused for an entire week in some hospitals.
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By Jake Johnson
Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.
"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."
The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."
In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."
"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."
Today the 6 Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces are unveiling final language. The Climate Task Force accomplished a gr… https://t.co/gz3broq2qe— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)1594240617.0
The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.
Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."
"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."
Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."
"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.
On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.
Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.
"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."
We rein in #pharma's greed by: 1) Allowing Medicare to FINALLY negotiate Rx drugs FOR ALL AMERICANS 2) Using Rx d… https://t.co/6k9iUCLMp7— Abdul El-Sayed (@Abdul El-Sayed)1594238411.0
Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."
Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."
"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."
"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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