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Loss of Large Carnivores Poses Global Conservation Problem

Loss of Large Carnivores Poses Global Conservation Problem

In ecosystems around the world, the decline of large predators such as lions, dingoes, wolves, otters and bears is changing the face of landscapes from the tropics to the Arctic—but an analysis of 31 carnivore species to be published today in the journal Science shows for the first time how threats such as habitat loss, persecution by humans and loss of prey combine to create global hotspots of carnivore decline.

More than 75 percent of the 31 large-carnivore species are declining, and 17 species now occupy less than half of their former ranges, the authors reported.

Southeast Asia, southern and east Africa and the Amazon are among areas in which multiple large carnivore species are declining. With some exceptions, large carnivores have already been exterminated from much of the developed world, including Western Europe and the eastern U.S.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

“Globally, we are losing our large carnivores,” said William Ripple, lead author of the paper and a professor in the department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University.

“Many of them are endangered,” he said. “Their ranges are collapsing. Many of these animals are at risk of extinction, either locally or globally. And, ironically, they are vanishing just as we are learning about their important ecological effects.”

Ripple and colleagues from the U.S., Australia, Italy and Sweden called for an international initiative to conserve large predators in coexistence with people. They suggested that such an effort be modeled on the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, a nonprofit scientific group affiliated with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The researchers reviewed published scientific reports and singled out seven species that have been studied for their widespread ecological effects or “trophic cascades.” This includes African lions, leopards, Eurasian lynx, cougars, gray wolves, sea otters and dingoes.

Ripple and his Oregon State co-author Robert Beschta have documented impacts of cougars and wolves on the regeneration of forest stands and riparian vegetation in Yellowstone and other national parks in North America. Fewer predators, they have found, lead to an increase in browsing animals such as deer and elk. More browsing disrupts vegetation, shifts birds and small mammals and changes other parts of the ecosystem in a widespread cascade of impacts.

Studies of Eurasian lynx, dingoes, lions and sea otters have found similar effects, the authors reported.

Lynx have been closely tied to the abundance of roe deer, red fox and hare. In Australia, the construction of a 3,400-mile dingo-proof fence has enabled scientists to study ecosystems with and without the animals, which are closely related to gray wolves. In some parts of Africa, the decrease of lions and leopards has coincided with a dramatic increase in olive baboons, which threaten farm crops and livestock. In the waters off southeast Alaska, a decline in sea otters through killer whale predation has led to a rise in sea urchins and loss of kelp beds.

The authors call for a deeper understanding of the impact of large carnivores on ecosystems, a view that they trace back to the work of landmark ecologist Aldo Leopold. The classic concept that predators are harmful and deplete fish and wildlife is outdated, they said. Scientists and wildlife managers need to recognize a growing body of evidence for the complex roles that carnivores play in ecosystems and for their social and economic benefits.

Leopold recognized such relationships between predators and ecosystems, Ripple said, but his observations on that point were largely ignored for decades after his death in 1948.

“Human tolerance of these species is a major issue for conservation,” Ripple said. “We say these animals have an intrinsic right to exist, but they are also providing economic and ecological services that people value.”

Among the services that have been documented in other studies are carbon sequestration, riparian restoration, biodiversity and disease control.

Where large carnivores have been restored—such as wolves in Yellowstone or Eurasian lynx in Finland—ecosystems have responded quickly, said Ripple. “I am impressed with how resilient the Yellowstone ecosystem is. It isn’t happening quickly everywhere, but in some places, ecosystem restoration has started there.”

In those cases, where loss of vegetation has led to soil erosion, for example, full restoration in the near term may not be possible, he said.

“Nature is highly interconnected,” said Ripple. “The work at Yellowstone and other places shows how one species affects another and another through different pathways. It’s humbling as a scientist to see the interconnectedness of nature.”

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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