This Penguin Colony Has Fallen by 77% on Antarctic Islands
Scientists on a Greenpeace expedition to Antarctica found that the penguins' numbers were falling, with one colony decreasing by 77 percent in nearly 50 years. This is especially surprising because, up until now, the chinstrap penguin has been considered a species of "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), according to CNN.
"Such significant declines suggest that the Southern Ocean's ecosystem is fundamentally changed from 50 years ago, and that the impacts of this are rippling up the food web to species like chinstrap penguins," Expedition co-leader Dr. Heather J. Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. "While several factors may have a role to play, all the evidence we have points to climate change as being responsible for the changes we are seeing."
Researchers from Stony Brook and Northeastern University have been surveying the penguins on Antarctic islands using drones and handheld clickers, according to The Guardian. On Elephant Island, they found that there were only 52,786 breeding pairs, a 58 percent decrease compared to the last survey in 1971. The researchers also noted similar declines on Low and Livingston islands.
"This shows something in the marine ecology is broken, or has drastically changed since the 1970s," scientist and author Noah Strycker told The Guardian.
The researchers found that every colony on Elephant Island had declined, CNN reported. The largest decline was the fall of 77 percent recorded at a colony known as Chinstrap Camp. The reason the scientists think climate change is driving the decline is because the penguins rely on sea ice for their food.
"Penguins, seals and whales all depend on krill, which depends on ice," Stryker, who studies penguins at Stony Brook, told CNN. "So if climate change affects the ice, that impacts on everything else."
The researchers found that the chinstraps' breeding rates had not declined, meaning the threats they faced were harming them after birth, according to The Guardian. They also found that another type of penguin, the gentoo, seemed to be replacing the chinstrap. Gentoos rely less on krill and ice and have been called the "pigeon of the penguin world" for their adaptability and wide diet.
The expedition marks the first time that chinstrap colonies on Low Island have been fully surveyed, according to CNN. The full results of those surveys are not yet available.
But Greenpeace argued that the penguins' evident decline was another reason to protect 30 percent of the world's oceans to help vulnerable species recover. Alongside the research expedition, the advocacy group has been installing disappearing penguin ice sculptures in international cities from London to Washington, DC this week in order to raise awareness of the need for a Global Ocean Treaty.
"We installed a melting penguin sculpture in front of the U.S. Capitol to highlight the threats ocean wildlife is currently facing," Arlo Hemphill of Greenpeace's Protect the Oceans campaign said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. "Without protection, not only penguins are at stake but entire ecosystems are in danger from the impacts of industrial fishing, pollution, deep sea mining and climate change. We're calling on the U.S. government to support the creation of a strong Global Ocean Treaty at the United Nations to protect 30 percent of our oceans by 2030. This new treaty would create a network of sanctuaries in international waters for wildlife to recover and thrive."
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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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