These Newly Discovered Hummingbirds Can Survive High in the Andes—but Habitat Destruction Is Creeping Up on Them
By Jason Bittel
Somehow the striking blue-throated hillstar, a hummingbird with an emerald-feathered head and sapphire splash across its neck, managed to elude us for a very long time. Scientists just recently discovered Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus, describing the species for the first time in The Auk: Ornithological Advances.
Perhaps we humans didn't notice the bird before because it's tiny, at just four inches long. Or maybe it was because it lives high up in the Ecuadorian Andes, or because it hibernates long stretches of each day. Who am I kidding? Like many new (to us) species, only a handful of these hummingbirds are left. That's likely the reason we missed it.
Population estimates for the blue-throated hillstar range between 500 and 750. Making matters worse, all of them live within a narrow band of just 38 square miles—none of which is protected and much of which lies within gold mining concessions.
"This is large-scale mining we are talking about," said Elisa Bonaccorso, an evolutionary biologist at the University of San Francisco, Quito, in Ecuador, who worked on the study. When the steam shovels roll in, she says, we won't be talking about a few holes here and there, but about widespread habitat destruction. That the mining wastes would then pollute the area's soil and water would be "almost guaranteed."
Huge mines also bring new roads and, according to another of the study's authors, Juan Freile, operate without properly planning for how they might mitigate their impacts on the natural areas they carve through. While Ecuador's Ministry of Environment oversees such operations, it rarely declines a new project, said Freile, an ornithologist with the Ecuadorian Committee of Ornithological Records, "even if they overlap with ecologically sensitive or biodiverse regions."
But there's an even more immediate threat to the blue-throats: fire.
The hummingbirds live on a treeless plateau, called a páramo, some 11,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level. Winds whip over this landscape, forcing the birds to spend most of their time taking shelter among the shrubs and flowering chuquiraga plants that line the plateau's creek beds. People live up here, too—people with cattle and goats that they raise for milk, meat and wool. Unfortunately, burning the páramo from time to time to clear out old, dry grasses and spur the growth of young shoots that are more nutritious for livestock has become common practice.
The landscape of the Ecuadorian Andes.jpc.raleigh / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
"Páramos that have been burned recover very slowly and lose biodiversity," said Freile. A smattering of grass species then takes over and the shrubs disappear.
Some farmers also clear the grasslands for fields of potatoes, onions, beans, and grains. About 15 to 20 years ago, when communities brought nonnative pines to the plateau to harvest pulp for paper, the pine plantations began pushing the páramo ecosystem farther and farther from its natural state.
Suffice it to say, the threats to the blue-throats are piling up—and it's unclear whether the species will be able to handle them. Hummingbirds already push the limits of what's possible in terms of energy in and energy out. They are flying acrobats that beat their wings so fast the human eye can't see them, and their little hearts surpass 1,200 beats per minute. But they must replace the calories they burn, and rapidly, or risk death by exhaustion.
There isn't much room for error in such an energy equation—and it becomes even more complicated at more than two miles above sea level. Here on Ecuador's high plateaus, temperatures plummet to levels just above freezing each night. The blue-throated hillstars have evolved a work-around for this hostile environment.
For starters, they're slightly bigger than the hummingbirds you might see at your backyard feeder. This helps them hold onto heat more easily, as do their denser, more insulated nests. The birds are also very frugal with the energy they spend. For instance, instead of hovering in midair like tiny avian helicopters, as do most hummingbirds, the blue-throats hop along from branch to branch while snatching insects and sipping nectar.
And each night, the birds perform something of a magic trick in which their body temperature drops, their heart rate slows, and their metabolisms grind to a halt. It's only through this torpor that the birds are able to survive, since shutting down allows them to not waste precious energy staying warm. While other hummingbird species may use torpor to get through the winter, hillstars do it on the daily.
Whether it's gold mining, fires or a lack of native plants, each disturbance to the hummingbird's adapted lifestyle is like a withdrawal from a bank account that never had much money in it in the first place. The closer you get to zero, even small charges can bring an overdraw.
According to Bonaccorso, the blue-throated hillstar will have little hope of sticking around unless the Ecuadorian government immediately declares all or part of the bird's range as a nationally protected reserve. The conservation plan must take into account the needs of local communities, too. Ecotourism is one option that could mutually benefit páramo inhabitants, whether farmhands or feathered.
That scientists have now officially described the blue-throated hillstar hummingbird is, of course, the first step in all of this. After all, you can't save a species that you don't know is there.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
An "explosive" wildfire ignited in Los Angeles county Wednesday, growing to 10,000 acres in a little less than three hours.
- 10 Wildfires Ignite Around Los Angeles in Unseasonable Wind and ... ›
- 550,000 Acres on Fire in Alaska in Latest Sign of the Climate Crisis ... ›
- Sonoma County Wildfire Spreads 7000 Acres in Less Than Five Hours ›
- What Should We Know About Wildfires in California - EcoWatch ›
- California's Rainless February Points to Dangerous Drought, Early ... ›
By Jeff Berardelli
Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020
If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.
<div id="ecf36" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c2dcc9d48a6cd61f247df1544539a783"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290959314132361216" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Naming heatwaves is a good idea—making the abstract concrete, the invisible visible. Why should hurricanes and wild… https://t.co/hDWgYb79Ob</div> — Ed Maibach (@Ed Maibach)<a href="https://twitter.com/MaibachEd/statuses/1290959314132361216">1596623660.0</a></blockquote></div>
- Human Activity Caused Latest European Heat Wave, Scientists Say ... ›
- Antarctica Experiences First Known Heat Wave - EcoWatch ›
- Intense Heat Wave Bakes Much of the U.S. - EcoWatch ›
Thailand has a total population of 5,000 elephants. But of that number, 3,000 live in captivity, carrying tourists on their backs and offering photo opportunities made for social media.
- Botswana Auctions Off First Licenses to Kill Elephants Since Ending ... ›
- Wild-Caught Elephants Can Die Up to 7 Years Earlier - EcoWatch ›
- Thailand's captive elephants face starvation amid COVID-19 tourism ... ›
- Thai Tourist Park Sets Captive Elephants Free to Focus On ... ›
- Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism ›
- Captive Elephants in Thailand May Starve as Tourist Camps Close ... ›
- The Complicated Business of Saving Elephant Tourism: A Skift ... ›
One of the challenges of renewable power is how to store clean energy from the sun, wind and geothermal sources. Now, a new study and advances in nanotechnology have found a method that may relieve the burden on supercapacitor storage. This method turns bricks into batteries, meaning that buildings themselves may one day be used to store and generate power, Science Times reported.
Bricks are a preferred building tool for their durability and resilience against heat and frost since they do not shrink, expand or warp in a way that compromises infrastructure. They are also reusable. What was unknown, until now, is that they can be altered to store electrical energy, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.
The scientists behind the study figured out a way to modify bricks in order to use their iconic red hue, which comes from hematite, an iron oxide, to store enough electricity to power devices, Gizmodo reported. To do that, the researchers filled bricks' pores with a nanofiber made from a conducting plastic that can store an electrical charge.
The first bricks they modified stored enough of a charge to power a small light. They can be charged in just 13 minutes and hold 10,000 charges, but the challenge is getting them to hold a much larger charge, making the technology a distant proposition.
If the capacity can be increased, researchers believe bricks can be used as a cheap alternative to lithium ion batteries — the same batteries used in laptops, phones and tablets.
The first power bricks are only one percent of a lithium-ion battery, but storage capacity can be increased tenfold by adding materials like metal oxides, Julio D'Arcy, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who contributed to the paper and was part of the research team, told The Guardian. But only when the storage capacity is scaled up would bricks become commercially viable.
"A solar cell on the roof of your house has to store electricity somewhere and typically we use batteries," D'Arcy told The Guardian. "What we have done is provide a new 'food-for-thought' option, but we're not there yet.
"If [that can happen], this technology is way cheaper than lithium ion batteries," D'Arcy added. "It would be a different world and you would not hear the words 'lithium ion battery' again."
One of the concerns about a warming planet is the feedback loop that will emerge. That is, as the planet warms, it will melt permafrost, which will release trapped carbon and lead to more warming and more melting. Now, a new study has shown that the feedback loop won't only happen in the nether regions of the north and south, but in the tropics as well, according to a new paper in Nature.
- Amazon Deforestation Is Causing 20% of Forests to Release More ... ›
- World's Oceans Warming 40% Faster Than Previously Thought ... ›
- Earth Is Hurtling Towards a Catastrophe Worse Than the Dinosaur ... ›
By Jessica Corbett
A sheriff in Florida is under fire for deciding Tuesday to ban his deputies from wearing face masks while on the job—ignoring the advice of public health experts about the safety measures that everyone should take during the coronavirus pandemic as well as the rising Covid-19 death toll in his county and state.
<div id="7a571" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aad9dcf60e7385e6553ff23ffc1ae75d"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1293527664389693447" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Deaths hit a record in Florida yesterday. This guy's jail system is rife with COVID. And he's banned masks in his s… https://t.co/Cbp2wR32o1</div> — Michael McAuliff (@Michael McAuliff)<a href="https://twitter.com/mmcauliff/statuses/1293527664389693447">1597236002.0</a></blockquote></div>
<div id="79024" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4ac086eab58b9713f2ad777c40938252"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1293578984148606977" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">This actively puts peoples' lives at risk. https://t.co/GKF0Xgjyex</div> — CAP Action (@CAP Action)<a href="https://twitter.com/CAPAction/statuses/1293578984148606977">1597248238.0</a></blockquote></div>
- Beaches Reopen Before Memorial Day, but Is It Safe to Go ... ›
- Crowds Gather Over Memorial Day Weekend Despite Pleas From ... ›