Guam Rails Are No Longer Extinct in the Wild (Something Only One Other Bird Can Claim)
By Jason Bittel
When you walk into the tropical rainforest room at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, the first thing you'll probably notice are the hyacinth macaws perched in mango trees. The feathers of these massive parrots are so impossibly blue that the birds look like birthday party piñatas. And the first thing you'll likely hear is the trill of the much tinier laughing thrushes as they swoop from tall cacao plants to the indoor-jungle floor. But watch out for Gus! He's the blue-headed great argus pheasant who likes to commandeer the walkway while unfurling his four-foot-tall fan of feathers in an attempt to woo female pheasants.
In all, there are 90 tropical birds in this lush and misty room, representing 32 species from all over the world. But in the midst of all this avian splendor, there's one bird you aren't likely to set eyes upon: the Guam rail. They're in there — I just doubt you'll spot one.
"We can't make a liar out of me," said Kurt Hundgen, the aviary's director of Animal Collections as he scours the understory looking for the small, dirt-colored birds. Not seeing any, Hundgen purses his lips and whistles out a few short calls of rail-speak. "There are nine rails in here!" he laughs. None answer his calls.
Unfortunately, the rail is even more difficult to find in its native habitat on the Micronesian island of Guam. Impossible, actually. This is because sometime in the mid-1900s, brown tree snakes made their way onto the island, likely stowed away in cargo delivered by a U.S. Navy supply ship. And once these lithe, narrow-necked serpents made landfall, they started gobbling up every native species in sight. Prior to the snakes' arrival, Guam had no large predators that would eat eggs or chicks. So it took just a few decades before 9 of Guam's 11 native species of forest-dwelling birds disappeared for good down the snakes' gullets. In 1987, the Guam rail was added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) ignoble list of species considered extinct in the wild.
But there is some good news. Just before the species left this world entirely, scientists managed to capture 21 rails and create a captive breeding program on Guam and at several mainland American institutions, including the National Aviary. The breeding program has performed so well that new populations of Guam rails have been reintroduced to the nearby islands of Cocos and Rota. These islands never had rails, but they also don't have any snakes, which makes them ideal sanctuaries for Guam rails. And with just 60 birds on Cocos and 200 on Rota, Hundgen says there are no indications that the birds are becoming an invasive species themselves.
To date, Pittsburgh has provided 39 birds. That's more than any other Association of Zoos and Aquariums institution, Hundgen points out proudly.
The IUCN announced at the end of last year that the continued survival of the breeding program's birds justified relisting the species as critically endangered — a step up from extinct in the wild. Guam rails are only the second bird in history to accomplish this feat. The other is the California condor, North America's largest bird. The condor's numbers plummeted in the last century due to poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat loss. If not for extreme conservation interventions, both the California condor and the Guam rail would no longer be around.
The rails were lucky in that they breed well in captivity, but reproduction is just part of the story. To successfully reintroduce an animal to the wild, you also have to prepare it for what it will face there. Hundgen believes Pittsburgh's tropical enclosure has been especially beneficial on that score. The rails' wild-like tropical rainforest habitat is 80 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 60 feet tall, allowing them to constantly interact with other birds as well as to practice defending their territories from other rails — just like they would do in a real forest.
As if to demonstrate this visually, an aviculturist named Danielle Minkus appears below the raised walkway where Hundgen and I are talking and starts flinging handfuls of mealworms into the leaf litter. Almost immediately, half a dozen long-legged birds with black and white underbellies begin to materialize from the dark understory. They find and snatch up the mealworms Minkus tosses so quickly, I find myself wondering how a snake would ever be able to catch one of them.
But that would be underestimating the brown tree snake. These suckers can grow longer than 10 feet, are excellent climbers, and pack a venomous bite. Most unfortunately, they have next to nothing keeping their numbers in check on Guam.
"At one point, there were so many snakes on Guam that they were causing electrical outages on a daily basis," says Scott Boback, an animal ecologist at Dickinson College. This happens when a large snake turns itself into a living conductor by trying to move between a power line and a tree branch.
Oddly, acetaminophen is the snake's kryptonite, with just a small dose able to disrupt its blood's ability to carry oxygen. Scientists like Boback have found that dropping pills glued to dead mice from helicopters flying over fenced-off areas can actually put a considerable dent in the local snake populations. Still, as Boback showed in a recent study, when just a handful of snakes remain, it is nearly impossible to find them. Which means it may never be safe for the Guam rail to return to Guam.
So prevention on the rails' new islands is "absolutely paramount," said Boback. To that end, the U.S. Geological Survey has installed snake-proof fencing all around the port on Rota — the only such structure on Earth.
To contribute to the effort of returning these birds to the wild has been rewarding, said Hundgen, but we shouldn't lose sight of just how much time, effort, and money it takes to bring a species back from the brink. "You can bring a species back. It can happen," he said, as the aviary's nine rails disappear back into the underbrush. "But it's 35 years later. It took 35 years to get that."
Honestly, it's incredible that we still have Guam rails at all, Hundgen said. "It'll probably go down in the conservation history books."
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
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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.
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."
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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.
For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.
"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."
To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.
"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."
So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.