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Orca Mother Who Carried Dead Calf 17 Days Is Pregnant Again

Animals
Orca Mother Who Carried Dead Calf 17 Days Is Pregnant Again
Tahlequah, the southern resident killer whale who carried her dead calf for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles, is pregnant again. CBC News: The National / YouTube

Tahlequah, the southern resident killer whale who broke hearts around the world when she carried her dead calf for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles, is pregnant again.


Tahlequah's grueling journey called attention to the plight of the endangered orcas who roam the waters between Washington state and British Columbia. The animals are threatened by boat traffic, pollution and the decline in their food staple chinook salmon.

"There are stressed whales out there, critically stressed," Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director for the nonprofit SR3, told The Associated Press.

Fearnbach discovered Tahlequah, or J-35's, pregnancy while recording drone images of the southern resident killer whales with Southall Environmental Associates senior scientist John Durban, The Seattle Times reported.

The purpose of the drone photographs was to track the orcas' overall condition and nutrition over time in a non-invasive manner, SR3 explained. (The drone flies more than 100 feet above the whales, according to The Seattle Times.) But comparing the photographs revealed several pregnancies in J, K and L pods.

Orca pregnancies are common, but successful births are far less so. Two thirds of them are typically lost, Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington researcher Sam Wasser has found. This is mostly due to poor nutrition linked to a decline in salmon.

When Tahlequah gave birth two years ago, it was the first birth for southern residents in three years. Since then, two other calves have been born to the orcas, and both are still alive. However, the population as a whole is down to just 73 whales, according to a Center for Whale Research population census.

"With such a small population ... every successful birth is hugely important for recovery," SR3 wrote.

Fearnbach and Durban told The Seattle Times that boaters could help the pregnant whales by giving them space and quiet to feed.

This is important for two reasons. First, orcas tend to return to the same hunting grounds, but many of their traditional spots are seeing a lot of traffic from boats, fishermen and commercial ships.

"Just like human [fishermen] that don't just go drop a hook in the ocean," Durban told The Seattle Times. "They have their favorite places. They are amazing societies that pass culture down from generation to generation. They are creatures of habit."

Second, whales hunt using sound, which is why boat noises are such a big threat.

"[W]e hope folks on the water can give the Southern Residents plenty of space to forage at this important time," SR3 wrote.

The pregnant whales aren't the only ones in need of support right now. Fearnbach told The Associated Press that several juvenile whales appeared skinny.

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By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

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The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

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So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.