Lawsuit Filed to Protect Struggling Walruses from Arctic Oil Drilling
Threats to walruses in the Arctic are in the spotlight again, as six environmental and conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) challenging a rule that would allow oil companies to begin drilling in key walrus feeding areas in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea by next year. Shell has already announced its intention to do so.
Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council. According to the plaintiffs, oil operations could force walruses out of their feeding areas, trigger stampedes, harm them with loud seismic blasts and put them at risk from the impacts of catastrophic oil spills which would be difficult to clean up in Arctic conditions.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to do a much better job of protecting walrus mothers and calves struggling to survive in the dramatically changing Chukchi Sea,” said Earthjustice Attorney Erik Grafe. “Today’s challenge seeks to protect walruses from suffering potential serious harm and harassment at the hands of companies like Shell Oil, which crashed and burned during its Arctic Ocean drilling efforts in 2012. Walruses are already under tremendous stress from climate change—their sea ice home is literally melting away. Without adequate analysis, the challenged rules would add to walruses’ woes by allowing drilling and risking oil spills in the areas most important for food and resting. What’s more, drilling would accelerate the climate change already causing so much trouble for walruses.”
Grafe is referring to the stress already on walruses in the region as the ice from which they hunt and on which they raise their young has been melting due to climate change. The ice edge has receded north into water to deep for the walruses to fish in. This has forced the animals onshore where they have gathered in huge masses on beaches on both flanks of the sea in Alaska and Russia. About 35,000 walruses came ashore in Alaska a month ago, with another 10,000 finding solid ground in Russia, as September sea ice extent shrunk to its sixth-lowest extent since satellite measurements began.
The lawsuit has much wider implications than just protecting the habitats of some big, beautiful animals.
“Walruses are the Arctic’s canary in a coal mine,” said Cindy Shogan, executive director for Alaska Wilderness League. “We can’t ignore the signs and impacts of climate change in the Arctic. The Interior Department must better protect walruses and the fragile Arctic Ocean with its disappearing shoreline from harm by big oil companies like Shell. Adding drilling into this already dangerous mix is reckless and irresponsible.”
Photo credit: Shutterstock
"The danger to walrus is one more in a long list of serious risks posed by drilling in the Arctic Ocean," said Dan Ritzman, Alaska program director for the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign. "We should not sacrifice the Arctic's amazing wildlife, the subsistence culture that depends on it, or our climate to dirty drilling. The effects on walrus and other wildlife will only worsen if we don't begin keeping dirty fuels in the ground."
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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