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We Can Restore Marine Health, Study Says

Oceans
We Can Restore Marine Health, Study Says
Reef scene with crinoid and fish in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Reinhard Dirscherl / ullstein bild / Getty Images

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts

The future for the world's oceans often looks grim. Fisheries are set to collapse by 2048, according to one study, and 8 million tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year, causing considerable damage to delicate marine ecosystems. Yet a new study in Nature offers an alternative, and more optimistic view on the ocean's future: it asserts that the entire marine environment could be substantially rebuilt by 2050, if humanity is able to step up to the challenge.


The key to success, the authors say, is lessening the impact and stresses on the ocean, while restoring damaged ecosystems, and trying to reduce carbon emissions that drive climate change.

This study examines nine parts of the ocean in detail — salt marshes, mangroves, seagrasses, coral reefs, kelp, oyster reefs, fisheries, megafauna, and the deep ocean — and suggests critical and realistic steps that can be taken to restore and protect these areas.

The authors refer to several models of success for reversing the decline of marine life. For instance, the global wildlife trade treaty CITES and and a 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling have reduced hunting of endangered species and helped protect the critical habitats these species depend upon. Depleted fish populations have also rebounded in response to proper management techniques.

While the study fosters an optimistic view of future ocean health, it concedes that some parts of the ocean will be more difficult to restore. For instance, coral reef systems have the added pressure of bleaching events due to climate change, and the process of restoring damaged reefs is slow and expensive. However, the study notes that there are efforts to discover coral that's resistant to temperature change and bleaching events.

Restoring the oceans would be no small feat, and would require stable governmental policies, a large financial investment, and the continued evolution of scientific advances and technologies, the authors say. Action would also need to take place within a very short space of time.

But the biggest obstacle to restoring the oceans is mitigating the effects of climate change, according to Callum Roberts, a co-author of the study and professor at the University of York in the U.K.

"Climate change is the big problem that is looming over everything because it makes recovering nature harder, and as the climate changes, it's going to become more difficult," Roberts told Mongabay. "That's why we have to act very quickly now to start restoring nature, because that's going to help human societies to adapt over time, as well as to allow nature a better chance to survive and thrive through a changing climate."

Despite the challenges, Roberts says he believes the oceans are incredibly resilient. This is evident in marine protected areas (MPAs), where fishing and other human activities are prohibited, Roberts says.

"I've seen in localized areas how recovery can take place, and how it can take place quite quickly and spectacularly," he said. "When you protect areas, you can predict very easily the way that the response will go. You start off with things becoming more abundant, living longer, producing more offspring. Then you see the reconstruction of habitat structures on the seabed or kelp forests, then the return of some of the rarer things."

This year was supposed to be the "Ocean Super Year," with several ocean-related meetings and negotiations meant to take place, including the 4th High Seas Treaty negotiation, the U.N. Ocean Conference, Monaco Blue Initiative, and the International Maritime Organization, which included a session with the Marine Environment Protection Committee. However, most have been cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19.

The pandemic itself has also prompted some reprieve for the oceans from human pressure, although Roberts said it's too early to identify the long-term effects.

"A lot of fishing boats are tied up right now, and that's definitely going to give a short-term benefit to marine life," he said. "Longer term, I don't know. But I think there will be a lot of thinking done after this crisis about how we need to do things better."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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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