Major Threats to New Zealand’s Environment Highlighted in Government Report
By Jordan Davidson
New Zealand's pristine image as a haven of untouched forests and landscapes was tarnished this week by a brand new government report. The Environment Aotearoa 2019 painted a bleak image of the island nation's environment and its future prospects.
The report, which was put out by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand, is a follow-up to a 2015 report. While stopping short of making explicit suggestions, it "provides evidence to enable an open and honest conversation about what we have, what we are at risk of losing, and where we can make changes," according to the report's summary.
It found that New Zealand's native plant and animal life has been decimated by invasive species, with 75 animal and plant species having vanished since humans settled the islands. The risk of extinction has worsened for 86 species in the last 15 years, while only improving for 26 species over the last decade.
The numbers in the report tell a dark picture. Almost 4,000 of New Zealand's native species are currently threatened with or at risk of extinction. Marine, freshwater and land ecosystems all have species at risk: 90 percent of seabirds, 76 percent of freshwater fish, 84 percent of reptiles and 46 percent of plants are currently endangered or on the precipice of extinction, according to the report.
"New Zealand is losing species and ecosystems faster than nearly any other country," said Kevin Hague from the conservation group Forest and Bird to The Guardian. "Four thousand of our native species are in trouble … from rampant dairy conversions to destructive seabed trawling – [we] are irreversibly harming our natural world."
The report highlights the dairy industry as particularly problematic since maintaining a herd is land-intensive. The report found that converting land to pasture use contributed to nearly 173,000 acres of natural vegetation loss since 1996 and nearly 2,500 acres of wetland loss since 2001.
"It is undeniable that the dairy industry deserves the title of the dirtiest industry in New Zealand, and urgent action is required," Greenpeace senior campaign and political advisor, Steve Abel said, New Zealand based Newshub reported.
"To turn this around, the Government must institute policies that will lead to land use change, get rid of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, dramatically reduce cow numbers, and invest millions into regenerative farming."
The rapid increase in dairy farming has wreaked havoc on the country's freshwater. The report found that over 82 percent of river water near farmlands was unsuitable for swimming due to pathogens, which have also threatened three-fourths of New Zealand's freshwater fish with extinction.
"The biggest degradations in New Zealand's environment in recent years have been caused by the dairy industry," said Abel to Newshub. "As a nation reliant on an international reputation of being clean and green, we're failing pretty epically."
Hundreds of Pilot Whales Die in Devastating Mass Stranding in New Zealand https://t.co/qagvHbvfHQ @1World1Ocean @Oceanwire— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1486770004.0
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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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