By Fino Menezes
Everyone adores dolphins. Intelligent, inquisitive and playful, these special creatures have captivated humans since the dawn of time. But dolphins didn't get to where they are by accident — they needed to develop some pretty amazing superpowers to cope with their environment.
These extraordinarily intelligent creatures have been seen to display culture, use tools, and display altruism, traits long-thought to be unique to humans. Facebook / BrightVibes
Adapting to Life in the Ocean Required Some Serious Skills for a Mammal
Dolphins have developed some incredible abilities that continue to amaze researchers.
Everything needs to sleep, but dolphins have found a clever workaround. They shut down only half their brain at a time while the other half remains conscious and takes over all functions. What's more, the mammals seem to be able to remain continually vigilant for sounds for days on end.
Besides sonar, which is itself pretty incredible, dolphins have excellent eyesight. A panoramic range of vision of 300° allows them to see in two directions at once and even behind themselves — both in and out of the water.
3. Super Skin
Dolphin skin grows about 9 times faster than ours, and an entire layer of skin is replaced every two hours. Their skin secretes a special non-stick antibacterial gel to deter barnacles and parasites.
4. They Rescue Other Species
There are many tales of dolphins helping humans in the high sea. Sometimes they'll even go out of their way to help other aquatic species.
Bottlenose dolphins can hold their breath for 12 minutes and dive to 550 metres (1800ft) due to hyper-efficient lungs. Dolphins have more red blood cells with greater concentrations of hemoglobin than we do.
Scientists are baffled by dolphins' ability to not only heal quickly but seemingly regenerate missing parts. And dolphins won't bleed to death despite huge wounds, having the ability to constrict blood vessels to stem the flow.
While an Olympic swimmer can produce around 60 or 70 pounds of thrust, a dolphin is capable of 300 to 400 pounds of thrust and is one of the oceans most efficient swimmers.
How dolphins are able to swim with open wounds in the bacteria-riddled ocean and not die of infection, scientists still don't know for sure, but the best guess is that dolphins have managed to siphon off antibiotics made by plankton and algae.
Dolphins can actually sense the electrical impulses given off by all living things. They probably use this ability to hunt fish in turbid water and muddy sediments.
These extraordinarily intelligent and graceful creatures have also been seen to display culture, use tools, and display altruism, traits long-thought to be unique to humans.
Reposted with permission from BrightVibes.
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By John R. Platt
A few months ago a group of scientists warned about the rise of "extinction denial," an effort much like climate denial to mischaracterize the extinction crisis and suggest that human activity isn't really having a damaging effect on ecosystems and the whole planet.
That damaging effect is, in reality, impossible to deny.
This past year scientists and conservation organizations declared that a long list of species may have gone extinct, including dozens of frogs, orchids and fish. Most of these species haven't been seen in decades, despite frequent and regular expeditions to find out if they still exist. The causes of these extinctions range from diseases to invasive species to habitat loss, but most boil down to human behavior.
Of course, proving a negative is always hard, and scientists are often cautious about declaring species truly lost. Do it too soon, they warn, and the last conservation efforts necessary to save a species could evaporate, a problem known as the Romeo and Juliet Effect. Because of that, and because many of these species live in hard-to-survey regions, many of the announcements this past year declared species possibly or probably lost, a sign that hope springs eternal.
And there's reason for that hope: When we devote energy and resources to saving species, it often works. A study published in 2019 found that conservation efforts have reduced bird extinction rates by 40%. Another recent paper found that conservation actions have prevented dozens of bird and mammal extinctions over just the past few decades. The new paper warns that many of the species remain critically endangered, or could still go extinct, but we can at least stop the bleeding.
And sometimes we can do better than that. This year the IUCN — the organization that tracks the extinction risk of species around the world — announced several conservation victories, including the previously critically endangered Oaxaca treefrog (Sarcohyla celata), which is now considered "near threatened" due to protective actions taken by the people who live near it.
"We can turn things around. We don't just have to sit there and cry," says conservation scientist Stuart Pimm, founder of the organization Saving Nature.
But at the same time, we need to recognize what we've lost, or potentially lost. We can mourn them and vow to prevent as many others as possible from joining their ranks.
With that in mind, here are the species that scientists and the conservation community declared lost in 2020, culled from media reports, scientific papers, the IUCN Red List and my own reporting.
32 orchid species in Bangladesh — One of the first papers of 2020 to report any extinctions announced the probable loss of 17% of Bangladesh's 187 known orchid species. Some of these still exist in other countries, but even regional extinctions (or extirpations, as they're called) tell us that we've taken a toll on our ecological habitats. A similar paper published just days later suggested that nine more orchid species from Madagascar may have also gone extinct.
19th-century drawings of orchid species recently declared extinct in Bangladesh.
Smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis) — One of the few extinctions of 2020 that received much media attention, and it's easy to see why. Handfish are an unusual group of species whose front fins look somewhat like human appendages, which they use to walk around the ocean floor. The smooth species, which hasn't been seen since 1802, lived off the coast of Tasmania and was probably common when it was first collected by naturalists. Bottom fishing, pollution, habitat destruction, bycatch and other threats are all listed as among the probable reasons for its extinction. Even though the local fishery collapsed more than 50 years ago, the remaining handfish species are still critically endangered, so this extinction should serve as an important wake-up call to save them.
65 North American plants — This past year researchers set out to determine how many plants in the continental United States had been lost. They catalogued 65, including five small trees, eight shrubs, 37 perennial herbs and 15 annual herbs. Some of these had been reported before, but for most this is the first time they've been declared extinct. The list includes Marshallia grandiflora, a large flowing plant from the American Southeast that was declared its own species this past year. Too bad it was last seen in 1919 (and has been confused with other species for even longer).
The original Marshallia grandiflora holotype. Smithsonian NMNH / Creative Commons
22 frog species — The IUCN this year declared nearly two dozen long-unseen Central and South American frog species as "critically endangered (possibly extinct)" — victims of the amphibian-killing chytrid fungus. They include the Aragua robber frog (Pristimantis anotis), which hasn't been observed in 46 years, and the Piñango stubfoot toad (Atelopus pinangoi), which mostly disappeared in the 1980s. A single juvenile toad observed in 2008 leads scientists to say this species "is either possibly extinct or if there is still an extant population, that it is very small (<50 mature individuals)."
Chiriqui harlequin frog (Atelopus chiriquiensis) and splendid poison frog (Oophaga speciosa) — Last seen in 1996 and 1992, these frogs from Costa Rica and Panama fell victim to the chytrid fungus and were declared extinct in December.
15% of mite species — This requires a lot more research, but a paper published this past August announced "evidence of widespread mite extinctions" since the year 2000 following similar disappearances of plants and vertebrates. Mites may not look or sound important, but they play key roles in their native ecosystems. If 15% of the world's 1.25 million mite species have been lost, we're talking more than 8,300 extinctions — a number the researchers predict will continue to rise.
Simeulue Hill mynas — An alarming paper called this an "extinction-in-process" of a previously undescribed bird that probably went extinct in the wild in the past two to three years due to overcollection for the songbird trade. A few may still exist in captivity — for now.
17 freshwater fish from Lake Lanao, Mindanao, the Philippines — A combination of predatory invasive species, overharvesting and destructing fishing methods (such as dynamite fishing) wiped these lost species out. The IUCN this year listed 15 of the species as "extinct" following extensive searches and surveys; the remaining two as "critically endangered (possibly extinct)." The predators, by the way, are still doing just fine. Here are the 15 extinct species:
- Barbodes disa — last seen in 1964.
- Barbodes truncatulus – last seen in 1973.
- Barbodes pachycheilus – last seen in 1964.
- Barbodes palaemophagus – last seen in 1975.
- Barbodes amarus – Last seen in 1982.
- Barbodes manalak – Once a commercially valuable fish, last seen in 1977.
- Barbodes clemensi – last seen in 1975.
- Barbodes flavifuscus – last seen in 1964.
- Barbodes katolo – last seen in 1977.
- Barbodes palata – last seen in 1964.
- Barbodes baoulan — last seen in 1991.
- Barbodes herrei — last seen in 1974, when just 40 pounds' worth of fish were caught.
- Barbodes lanaoensis — last seen in 1964.
- Barbodes resimus — last seen in 1964.
- Barbodes tras — last seen in 1976.
Some of the extinct species from Lake Lanao. Photo © Armi G. Torres courtesy IUCN.
Bonin pipistrelle (Pipistrellus sturdeei) — Scientists only recorded this Japanese bat one time, back in the 19th century. The IUCN listed it as "data deficient" from 2006 to 2020, a period during which its taxonomy was under debate, but a paper published in March settled that issue, and the latest Red List update placed the species in the the extinct category. The Japanese government itself has listed the bat as extinct since 2014.
Pseudoyersinia brevipennis — This praying mantis from France hasn't been seen since 1860. Its declared extinction comes after some extended (and still unresolved) debate over its validity as a unique species.
Agave lurida — Last seen in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2001, this succulent was finally declared extinct in the wild this year after numerous expeditions searching for remaining plants. As the IUCN Red List notes, "There are only a few specimens left in ex-situ collections, which is a concern for the extinction of the species in the near future."
Falso Maguey Grande (Furcraea macdougallii) — Another Oaxacan succulent that's extinct in the wild but still exists in cultivated form (you can buy these cacti online today for as little as $15). Last seen growing naturally in 1973, the plant's main habitat was degraded in 1953 to make way for agave plantations for mezcal production. Wildfires may have also played a role, but the species' limited distribution also made it easier to kill it off: "The restricted range of the species also made it very vulnerable to small local disturbances, and hence the last few individuals were easily destroyed," according to the IUCN.
Eriocaulon inundatum — Last scientifically collected in Senegal in 1943, this pipewort's only know habitat has since been destroyed by salt mining.
Persoonia laxa — This shrub from New South Wales, Australia, was collected just two times — in 1907 and 1908 — in habitats that have since become "highly urbanized." The NSW government still lists it as "presumed extinct," but the IUCN placed it fully in the "extinct" category in 2020.
Nazareno (Monteverdia lineata) — Scientific papers declared this Cuban flowing plant species extinct in 2010 and 2015, although it wasn't catalogued in the IUCN Red List until this year. It grew in a habitat now severely degraded by agriculture and livestock farming.
Wynberg conebush (Leucadendron grandiflorum) — This South African plant hasn't been seen in more than 200 years and was long considered the earliest documented extinction from that country, although it only made it to the IUCN Red List recently. Its sole habitat "was the location of the earliest colonial farms," including vineyards.
Wolseley conebush (Leucadendron spirale) — Another South African plant, this one last seen in 1933 and since extensively sought after, including high rewards for its rediscovery. The IUCN says the cause of its extinction is unknown "but is likely the result of habitat loss to crop cultivation, alien plant invasion and afforestation." Oh yeah, and it probably didn't help that in 1809 a scientist wrote that the species possessed "little beauty" and discouraged it from further collection.
Schizothorax saltans — This fish from Kazakhstan was last seen in 1953, around the time the rivers feeding its lake habitats were drained for irrigation. The IUCN did not assess the species before this past year.
Alphonsea hortensis — Declared "extinct in the wild" this year after no observations since 1969, the last specimens of this Sri Lankan tree species now grow at Peradeniya Royal Botanic Garden.
Lord Howe long-eared bat (Nyctophilus howensis) — This island species is known from a single skull discovered in 1972. Conservationists held out hope that it still existed following several possible sightings, but those hopes have now been dashed.
Deppea splendens — This IUCN declared this beautiful plant species "extinct in the wild" this year. All living specimens exist only because botanist Dennis Breedlove, who discovered the species in 1973, collected seeds before the plant's sole habitat in Mexico was plowed over to make way for farmland. Now known as a "holy grail" for some gardeners, cultivated plants descended from Breedlove's seeds can be purchased online for as little as $16.95.
Pass stubfoot toad (Atelopus senex) — Another Costa Rican chytrid victim, last seen in 1986.
Craugastor myllomyllon — A Guatemalan frog that never had a common name and hasn't been seen since 1978 (although it wasn't declared a species until 2000). Unlike the other frogs on this year's list, this one disappeared before the chytrid fungus arrived; it was likely wiped out when agriculture destroyed its only habitat.
Spined dwarf mantis (Ameles fasciipennis) — This Italian praying mantis was only scientifically collected once, in or around 1871, and never seen again. The IUCN says the genus's taxonomy is "rather confusing and further analysis need to be done to confirm the validity of this species." Here's what we do know, though: There are none to be found today, despite extensive surveys.
Scleria chevalieri — This Senagalese plant, last seen in 1929, once grew in swamps that have since been drained to irrigate local gardens.
Hawai'i yellowwood (Ochrosia kilaueaensis) — This tree hasn't been seen since 1927. Its rainforest habitat has been severely degraded by invasive plants and goats, as well as fires. It's currently listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but the IUCN declared it extinct this past year.
Roystonea stellate — Scientists only collected this Cuban palm tree a single time, back in 1939. Several searches have failed to uncover evidence of its continued existence, probably due to conversion of its only habitats to coffee plantations.
Jalpa false brook salamander (Pseudoeurycea exspectata) — Small farms, cattle grazing and logging appear to have wiped out this once-common Guatemalan amphibian, last seen in 1976. At least 16 surveys since 1985 did not find any evidence of the species' continued existence.
Faramea chiapensis — Only collected once in 1953, this Mexican plant lost its cloud-forest habitat to colonialism and deforestation.
Euchorium cubense — Last seen in 1924, this Cuban flowing plant — the only member of its genus — has long been assumed lost. The IUCN characterized it as extinct in 2020 along with Banara wilsonii, another Cuban plant last seen in 1938 before its habitat was cleared for a sugarcane plantation.
Aloe silicicola — Last seen in 1920, this plant from the mountains of Madagascar enters the IUCN Red List as "extinct in the wild" due to a vague reference that it still exists in a botanical garden. Its previous habitat has been the site of frequent fires.
Chitala lopis — A large fish from the island of Java, this species hasn't been seen since 1851 (although many online sources use this taxonomic name for other "featherback" fish species that still exist). It was probably wiped out by a wide range of habitat-degrading factors, including pollution, unsustainable fishing and near-complete deforestation around nearby rivers.
Eriocaulon jordanii — This grass species formerly occurred in two known sites in coastal Sierra Leone, where its previous habitats were converted to rice fields in the 1950s.
Amomum sumatranum — A relative of cardamom, this plant from Sumatra was only scientifically collected once, back in 1921, and the forest where that sample originated has now been completely developed. The IUCN says one remaining cultivated population exists, so they've declared it "extinct in the wild."
Lost shark (Carcharhinus obsoletus) — This species makes its second annual appearance on this list. Scientists described this species in 2019 after examining decades-old specimens, noting that it hadn't been observed since the 1930s. This year the IUCN added the species to the Red List and declared it "critically endangered (possibly extinct)."
"Lost shark." Photo: PLOS One
Cora timucua — This lichen from Florida was just identified from historical collections through DNA barcoding. Unfortunately no new samples have been collected since the turn of the 19th century. The scientists who named the species this past December call it "potentially extinct" but suggest it be listed as critically endangered in case it still hangs on in remote parts of the highly developed state. They caution, however, that it hasn't turned up in any recent surveys.
Dama gazelle (Nanger dama) in Tunisia — This critically endangered species still hangs on in a few other countries, and in captivity, but the death of the last individual in Tunisia marked one more country in which the gazelle has now been extirpated and serves as a stark reminder to keep the rest from fading away.
John R. Platt is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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The COVID-19 Delta variant has left businesses and schools across the country backpedaling from their goals for more integrated, in-person participation.
In many areas, virtual learning and remote work are becoming the norm once again, and often, this comes with a significant increase in residential energy consumption. For those concerned about increased electric bills and a greater carbon footprint, however, researchers say solar energy could prove effective in offsetting the costs of working and learning from home.
Turning Back to Virtual Learning
Although most school districts across the country opened back up with the intention of holding 100% in-person classes, spreading of the Delta variant has already forced many classrooms into stints of remote learning.
As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, "a cluster of three or more potentially linked cases at one school over 14 days could represent an outbreak and could lead to having a group of students or even a class quarantine at home."
As of August 24, at least 80 school districts have been forced to halt in-person instruction in some capacity due to viral outbreaks.
At the end of the last academic year, an elementary school teacher in Marin County, California, who had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 infected at least 12 students while experiencing mild symptoms, according to a recent CDC report. The majority of her class was ineligible for vaccination, due to their age.
Cases like this illuminate the obstacles that schools are facing in their efforts to protect students. Eight states have passed laws banning mask mandates in public schools, and because students younger than 12 years of age are ineligible for vaccination, classrooms can quickly become hotspots. This forces students to quarantine and learn remotely, which raises energy consumption within homes.
A Bright Future for Remote Work
Some of the most successful companies in the world have maintained and refined opportunities for remote work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these corporations are moving toward permanent implantation of remote and hybrid working models, especially in industries like software, finance and media.
Studies suggest that these models could prove wildly successful, even in a post-pandemic era, not only because they expose employees to fewer health risks, but also because they promote higher productivity and greater mental wellness.
According to LinkedIn's 2020 Workforce Confidence Index, about half of the country's working professionals believe that their industry can operate successfully in a remote setting.
Minimizing Energy Costs and Environmental Impacts of Virtual Meetings
Increased use of home appliances, electronics, heating and air conditioning all contribute to higher electric bills and a greater carbon footprint for those working and learning from home.
At the onset of the pandemic, residential energy consumption increased by up to 10% and energy bills for remote workers increased by up to $50 per month, according to a study by Dr. Steve Cicala, a research fellow for the National Bureau of Economic Research and associate professor at Tufts University.
"The relative energy intensity of heating and cooling the entire homes of employees rather than a single office suggests that the future of working from home is not as green as one might think based on reduced commuting alone," Cicala writes in the study.
Drawing from solar panels could actually be the cleanest, most energy-efficient and cost-effective strategy to offset the energy costs of working from home. But is it worth installing solar panels on your home to offset increased energy costs due to COVID-19 quarantining?
"If people think they might be working from home and using more electricity long term, this would be a good time to think about prospective efficiency improvements," Cicala says in an interview with Tufts, "LEDs instead of old bulbs and plasma TVs, rooftop or community solar to spin the meter back a bit, or perhaps updating some old power-hungry appliances around the house."
Although market barriers and soft costs limit the expansion of the solar industry, the average cost of solar panels has dropped by more than 70% in the last decade. Federal solar tax credits can further reduce the cost of installation by 26%, and some states also offer their own incentives.
Beyond slashing costs, powering homes with solar energy can support the electric grid through net metering. This credits residences that produce more energy than they consume and allows them to export excess energy to the grid, providing surrounding consumers with clean energy.
While the barriers for entry are higher in certain states, solar panels are becoming more universally accessible. As remote work and schooling become the "new normal" once again, solar energy could be vital in preventing further financial and environmental crises related to the pandemic.
By John R. Platt
Earlier this month a team of scientists announced they've developed a high-tech way to help save rhinos from poachers: They propose fabricating fake horns out of horse hair (which is also composed of inert keratin, like human fingernails) and then flooding the illegal market with their products, thereby lowering the price of powdered rhino horns so much that no one will ever want to kill another rhino again.
This isn't the first time someone's come up with the well-intentioned (yet illogical) idea of creating fake rhino horn, and it probably won't be the last. But it should be the last, because there are several reasons why this concept, no matter how it's executed, is doomed to fail.
Let's explore them.
Perhaps most obviously, selling fake rhino horn doesn't do anything to address the end-user demand for these illegal products, which are driven by either fortunes or phony medicinal claims. These are ultimately the reasons rhinos and many other species are poached in the first place. As a result the best way to eliminate the financial incentive to sell these wildlife products is to get consumers to understand why they shouldn't be buying them in the first place. We've already seen this work; conservationists have finally started to make headway on curbing the shark-fin trade in China after extensive public-awareness campaigns called attention to the dangers the practice poses to people and marine ecosystems. Similar initiatives have started to help chip away at consumer demand for rhino horns there as well (thanks, Jackie Chan).
Progress still needs to be made on reducing the market for products from those species, as well as with other heavily trafficked animals such as pangolins, but that's another reason why purposefully selling fake rhino horns is wrong: The more you say that any aspect of the market for rhino horn is okay, which is what happens when you put these fake products (or limited real products) up for sale, the more it will expand the market. We've seen this before in the surge of elephant poaching after a one-off sale of ivory tusks in 2008, which was meant to flood the market and reduce the profitability of poaching but horrifically backfired. Elephants had begun to recover before that, and now they're in crisis. Rhinos are already in crisis — do we want to make things even worse?
On a broader and similar note, creating fake substitutes ignores a major aspect of what drives sales of many of these wildlife products. In traditional Asian medicine, "wild" products are considered more potent — and therefore more valuable — than anything that comes out of a lab or from a farm. That's why China still has trouble commercializing its vast network of tiger farms (yes, you read that right). Consumers want wild products, so even if you do succeed in commercializing "fake" or farmed products, it will tend to normalize demand for all these biological byproducts and further drive desire for "prestige" animals poached from their native habitats.
Meanwhile some well-healed people are actually investing in the possibility of extinction. Rich consumers in China and other countries have been known to buy rhino horns, tiger bones, live tortoises and other species in anticipation that a species will become rarer or even go extinct in the wild, therefore making their assets even more valuable. That threat will never evaporate through the addition of fake products on the marketplace — because, yes, extinction is profitable.
Confiscated rhino horns about to be burned.
Joanna Gilkeson / USFWS
Let's get to the ethical aspects of this trade in fakes. For one thing many consumers — those who actually use powdered rhino horn as "medicine" instead of holding on to it for eventual sale — are already being exploited. They're buying into false claims that rhino horn has curative qualities, including the recent and spurious assertion that it can treat cancer. By selling fake rhino horns, you become complicit in that lie and directly harm people who could, and should, seek more appropriate and effective medical care.
Another ethical quandary: How are you going to get these products into the black market without putting your undercover operatives in direct harm from the violent criminals who run wildlife trafficking networks? And do we really think anyone's going to be able to squeeze these products into the same illegal market that professional law-enforcement operations haven't been able to shut down? The chances of success there seem slim — and potentially dangerous.
Finally let's address the invisible gorilla in the room: Selling fake rhino horn doesn't do anything to resolve the inequality that inspires poaching. More often than not, people hunt illegally to support their families. The monies they get from poaching may mean the difference between comfortable living and going hungry. Sure, their pay comes from the people higher up the clandestine ladder — and sure, some poachers are more criminally minded themselves — but if we want to solve the problem of poaching, we always have to factor in the fate of people on the ground.
Having said all this, I have to point out that the current idea to sell fake rhino horns is just lab science. The researchers fully acknowledge that they don't have an actual initiative to get these products into the market. They say it's up to someone else to actually figure out how to make their idea a reality — so for now it's basically a thought exercise, not a concrete plan.
I have a better idea: Let's leave this fake horn concept in the lab where it belongs and commit to more practical initiatives to help rhinos — and people — in threatened habitats, where real assistance is desperately needed. With poaching and illegal trafficking still running rampant, rhinos don't have time left for anything less.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
Every day, sharks suffer from different threats. Up to 100 million sharks disappear every year, due to destructive fishing by humans and the impact of climate breakdown. One-third of the world's known shark species have been listed as "threatened" species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
We need to talk about them, because the ocean desperately needs sharks! After 400 million years of evolution, sharks are incredible creatures—master hunters with incredible precision. Sitting at the top of the food chain, they're central to maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems.
There are hundreds of species of sharks in the world, and they have been around since before the dinosaurs. Despite their fearsome Hollywood reputation, they are some of the most amazing animals on the planet.
1. Many sharks lay eggs, but some give birth to live young, just like we do. Shark pregnancies can last from a few months to well over a couple of years. That's longer than whales or elephants!
This whale shark smiles for the camera in the warm water off the coast of the Philippines. Greenpeace
2. Sharks come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny lantern sharks, which are about the size of your hand, to giant whale sharks, which are about the same size as a bus.
A former fisherman, now a whale shark guide, hand feeds a whale shark as a tourist takes an underwater photo, Tan-awan, Oslob Cebu. Greenpeace
3. Greenland sharks, which live in cold polar waters, hold the record as the oldest known vertebrate animals on the planet. Since they are estimated to live as long as 500 years, there could be some alive today that were born in the Middle Ages. For reference, Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa 500 years ago!
An oceanic whitetip shark in Egypt. Greenpeace
4. Mako sharks hold the record for being the most athletic sharks, reaching swimming speeds of over 40 miles per hour! They are also known to have jumped as much as 30 feet out of the water.
A whale shark photographed from above in Cenderawasih Bay National Park, Indonesia. Greenpeace
5. The world's biggest sharks also have the widest mouths and eat only tiny ocean plankton, just like the largest whales.
A whale shark in the Philippines. Greenpeace
6. Carpet sharks live on the ocean floor and have elaborate patterns to blend in with perfect camouflage. The Tasseled Wobbegong shark takes this to the extreme, with a fringe of feathery 'tassels' around its body.
7. Epaulette sharks have developed a cunning ability to hold their breath and walk over rocks and land using their fins and tail. This lets them check out the seafood buffet in neighboring rock pools at low tide.
Lemon shark and other fish underwater at Tuamotus, French Polynesian. Greenpeace
8. Hammerhead sharks' elongated heads not only give them super-sense when it comes to electromagnetic detection, but they also have almost 360-degree surround vision.
A Blue Shark (Prionace glauca) near the Azores. Greenpeace
9. When sharks are turned upside down, they go into a natural suspended state called tonic immobility.
A shark is seen in the Republic of Palau. Greenpeace
10. It's dark in the deep sea, so tiny lantern sharks have developed their own way to glow in the dark. It's not yet known if this is to find food, find each other, or help avoid being eaten!
Grey Reef Sharks in Tahiti. Greenpeace
In June 2019, the Greenpeace ship Esperanza went to the North Atlantic to confront the overfishing of sharks. At the same time, Greenpeace International issued a report, Sharks Under Attack: Overfished and under-protected. It proposed a solution: secure a strong Global Ocean Treaty at the UN.
Reposted with permission from Greenpeace.
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By Gavin Naylor
Sharks elicit outsized fear, even though the risk of a shark bite is infinitesimally small. As a marine biologist and director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, I oversee the International Shark Attack File – a global record of reported shark bites that has been maintained continuously since 1958.
We are careful to emphasize how rare shark bites are: You are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning than be bitten by a shark. You are more likely to die while taking a selfie, or be bitten by a New Yorker. In anticipation of the anxiety that's typically generated by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week programming, here are a few things about sharks that are often overlooked.
A Big, Diverse Family
Not all sharks are the same. Only a dozen or so of the roughly 520 shark species pose any risk to people. Even the three species that account for almost all shark bite fatalities – the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) and bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) – are behaviorally and evolutionarily very different from one another.
The tiger shark and bull shark are genetically as different from each other as a dog is from a rabbit. And both of these species are about as different from a white shark as a dog is from a kangaroo. The evolutionary lineages leading to the two groups split 170 million years ago, during the age of dinosaurs and before the origin of birds, and 110 million years before the origin of primates.
White, tiger and bull sharks are distinct species that diverged genetically tens of millions of years ago. Gavin Naylor / CC BY-ND
Yet many people assume all sharks are alike and equally likely to bite humans. Consider the term "shark attack," which is scientifically equivalent to "mammal attack." Nobody would equate dog bites with hamster bites, but this is exactly what we do when it comes to sharks.
So, when a reporter calls me about a fatality caused by a white shark off Cape Cod and asks my advice for beachgoers in North Carolina, it's essentially like asking, "A man was killed by a dog on Cape Cod. What precautions should people take when dealing with kangaroos in North Carolina?"
Know Your Species
Understanding local species' behavior and life habits is one of the best ways to stay safe. For example, almost all shark bites that occur off Cape Cod are by white sharks, which are a large, primarily cold-water species that spend most of their time in isolation feeding on fishes. But they also aggregate near seal colonies that provide a reliable food source at certain times of the year.
Shark bites in the Carolinas are by warm-water species like bull sharks, tiger sharks and blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus). Each species is associated with particular habitats and dietary preferences.
Blacktips, which we suspect are responsible for most relatively minor bites on humans in the southeastern United States, feed on schooling bait fishes like menhaden. In contrast, bull sharks are equally at home in fresh water and salt water, and are often found near estuaries. Their bites are more severe than those of blacktips, as they are larger, more powerful, bolder and more tenacious. Several fatalities have been ascribed to bull sharks.
Tiger sharks are also large, and are responsible for a significant fraction of fatalities, particularly off the coast of volcanic islands like Hawaii and Reunion. They are tropical animals that often venture into shallow water frequented by swimmers and surfers.
Humans Are Not Targets
Sharks do not "hunt" humans. Data from the International Shark Attack File compiled over the past 60 years show a tight association between shark bites and the number of people in the water. In other words, shark bites are a simple function of the probability of encountering a shark.
This underscores the fact that shark bites are almost always cases of mistaken identity. If sharks actively hunted people, there would be many more bites, since humans make very easy targets when they swim in sharks' natural habitats.
Local conditions can also affect the risk of an attack. Encounters are more likely when sharks venture closer to shore, into areas where people are swimming. They may do this because they are following bait fishes or seals upon which they prey.
This means we can use environmental variables such as temperature, tide or weather conditions to better predict movement of bait fish toward the shoreline, which in turn will predict the presence of sharks. Over the next few years, the Florida Program for Shark Research will work with colleagues at other universities to monitor onshore and offshore movements of tagged sharks and their association with environmental variables so that we can improve our understanding of what conditions bring sharks close to shore.
More to Know
There still is much to learn about sharks, especially the 500 or so species that have never been implicated in a bite on humans. One example is the tiny deep sea pocket shark, which has a strange pouch behind its pectoral fins.
Only two specimens of this type of shark have ever been caught – one off the coast of Chile 30 years ago, and another more recently in the Gulf of Mexico. We're not sure about the function of the pouch, but suspect it stores luminous fluid that is released to distract would-be predators – much as its close relative, the tail light shark, releases luminous fluid from a gland on its underside near its vent.
Sharks range in form from the bizarre goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni), most commonly encountered in Japan, to the gentle filter-feeding whale shark (Rhincodon typus). Although whale sharks are the largest fishes in the world, we have yet to locate their nursery grounds, which are likely teeming with thousands of foot-long pups. Some deepwater sharks are primarily known from submersibles, such as the giant sixgill shark, which feeds mainly on carrion but probably also preys on other animals in the deep sea.
Sharks seem familiar to almost all of us, but we know precious little about them. Our current understanding of their biology barely scratches the surface. The little we do know suggests they are profoundly different from other vertebrate animals. They've had 400 million years of independent evolution to adapt to their environments, and it's reasonable to expect they may be hiding more than a few tricks up their gills.
Gavin Naylor is the Director at the Florida Program for Shark Research, University of Florida.
Disclosure statement: Gavin Naylor receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Lenfest Ocean Program.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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Six months: That's how much time Mexico now has to report on its progress to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) from extinction.
It's a time-sensitive deadline. After years of decline, as few as 6 to 19 vaquitas survive in their only home, the Gulf of California. Also known as the Sea of Cortez, the gulf lies between mainland Mexico and Baja California — and the porpoises' population there has slowly but steadily been wiped out over the past decade. First these gentle, blunt-faced porpoises were killed by shrimp fishermen, who accidentally caught the "sea cows" in their large gillnets. More recently they've fallen to poachers seeking a rare fish called the totoaba (Totoaba mcdonaldi).
Totoaba swim bladders sell for up to $20,000 each in China, where they're considered a delicacy and are used in traditional medicine. The bladders are frequently smuggled through the U.S. before heading to Asian consumer markets.
With transnational criminal cartels leading the totoaba poaching and distribution, and with time running out for vaquita, the future for both species "looks very bleak indeed," says Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC, an NGO focusing on wildlife trade.
Conservationists have urged Mexico to protect the vaquita for years, and the country and its allies have taken many steps along the way, but the species' population has continued to decline. As a result the international community has now finally put a bit of real pressure on the Mexican government. According to an agreement established this August at the 18th triennial meeting of the member parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Mexico, in collaboration with the U.S. and China, must now work to eliminate both the supply and consumer demand for totoaba and support a program to remove destructive gillnets from the fishery in the Gulf of California. The three nations promised to meet about these goals in the next few months.
"Urgent measures include maintaining net-free zones, round-the-clock patrolling of these areas with removal of all gillnets — and protection for those carrying out these tasks — and arrest and prosecution of illegal fishers," says Thomas.
Mexico, meanwhile, must improve its enforcement of existing laws by Nov. 30 and report on its progress to the CITES Secretariat every six months. The first report will be due in early 2020.
#Vaquita & #Totoaba #CITESCoP18 Mexico US & China agreed Parties would eliminate supply & demand & support gillnet… https://t.co/aOWfSJ5wsa— Ivonne Higuero (@Ivonne Higuero)1566860314.0
"Mexico took this, I think, with a lot of commitment, but also wanted the other parties to recognize the efforts that have been done in the country as well," says Adrian Router, Latin American wildlife trafficking coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society. "It's not that Mexico had done nothing — there's a long, long list of things they have done — but obviously it's been insufficient."
If these new efforts don't roll out fast enough, or if vaquita continue to die, Mexico could conceivably face international sanctions that would prevent it from exporting some of its most profitable native plants or animals, specifically those species currently listed on what's known as CITES Appendix II.
CITES, an international treaty covering wildlife trade among 183 member nations, protects threatened species by placing them on two lists that regulate trade. The first, Appendix I, bans all international trade in endangered plants and animals. The second, Appendix II, allows trade, but only of specimens from proven-sustainable populations.
Blocking Mexico from legally exporting its Appendix II species — a step advocated for by several conservation organizations in the lead-up to CITES — is actually a pretty significant threat. More than 2,300 Mexican plants and animalsappear on CITES Appendix II, including some coveted species and products such as bighorn sheep hunting trophies, mahogany wood and shark fins.
Other species on the list include boa constrictors, iguanas, corals, spider monkeys and dozens of kinds of orchid.
CITES sanctions, however, don't happen very often. One of the few noteworthy examples occurred in 2013, when CITES threatened to sanction Thailand if the country didn't reduce the amount of illegal ivory for sale there. (The threat worked, by the way. The amount of ivory available in Bangkok markets dropped 96 percent by 2016.)
But progress for the vaquita will be much tougher to achieve because of the violent cartels dominating the trade. "The vaquita and the totoaba are a good example of how things can go really, really bad for biodiversity when the commodity is really high-value and organized crime gets involved," says Reuter.
"It's a big, big challenge," he adds. "As we know, the totoaba bladder trade involves transnational, highly organized networks. It's a high-value commodity. It requires actions being taken like for addressing any other serious crime committed by organized cartels and organizations. Sometimes that's difficult because it requires lots of resources, staff and coordination that — in many instances, not just in Mexico but in many other countries in the region — are not available to tackle environmental crimes."
With the time for action growing increasingly tight, will we see any progress on saving the vaquita from extinction? Reuter says he'll be watching to see what happens by the end of the year, especially to find out if the proposed meeting between Mexico, the United States and China actually takes place. "If it does, it would be a very good forum to follow up on what happened," he says.
Meanwhile there's both good news and a stark reminder about the need for action. Last month the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society reported that scientists had, over the course of a few weeks, observed six vaquitas in the Gulf of California, an important confirmation that the animals still exist. "It is excellent to see these vaquitas are well fed, plump and healthy looking," vaquita researcher Barbara Taylor said in a press release. "This invigorates the resolve for Mexico to protect their species."
Demonstrators with The Animal Welfare Institute hold a rally to save the vaquita, the world's smallest and most endangered porpoise, outside the Mexican Embassy in DC on July 5, 2018.
SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images
Next, 600 Mexican antipoaching troops are scheduled to arrive in the region soon to enforce a "zero tolerance" fishing policy in the vaquita's habitat.
But those troops may find themselves in the midst of a renewed struggle with local fishermen. Mexico has paid shrimp fishermen to stay out of vaquita habitat since 2015, but those compensation funds reportedly stopped arriving last December, after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office. With fishermen now struggling to feed their families, their leaders say fleets could resume operation any day. "We know about the vaquita, and we've done what we can, but we have needs and we have to work," Lorenzo Garcia, president of the region's largest fishermen's federation, told Fronteras.
Even with the imminent arrival of Mexican soldiers, the resumption of gillnet shrimp fishing in the Gulf of California represents a major shift in vaquita conservation efforts. Will it push the tiny porpoises closer to disappearing? The world will be watching.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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Beachgoers enjoying a pleasant evening on Georgia's St. Simons Island rushed into the water, despite warnings of sharks, to rescue dozens of short-finned pilot whales that washed ashore on Tuesday evening, according to the New York Times.
The dramatic rescue by the citizen volunteers was caught on video and streamed on Facebook live by Dixie V. McCoy who was on the beach with her 2-year-old granddaughter. McCoy captured dozens of volunteer beachgoers, including kids and lifeguards, in the impromptu operation pushing and shoving the whales and scooping handfuls of water on to them in the 15-minute video that went live around 6 p.m. on Tuesday.
"They're going to die if they don't get help," said McCoy in the video. "All these whales have been washed up to shore and there's already been one whale that's been attacked by a shark. It is so sad."
The rescue effort worked wonders, as only three of the beached whales perished, according to a statement from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). And, unbeknownst to the volunteers, their strategy was exactly right.
"While stranding is a known natural occurrence, the only thing we can do is to continue pushing them out to sea," said Clay George, a biologist for Georgia's DNR.
Harbor pilots spotted a pod of more than 40 whales in the Brunswick shipping channel on Wednesday morning. Conservationists from the National Marine Mammal Foundation then monitored the whales from a boat to make sure they stayed in deep waters and far offshore, said DNR spokesman Rick Lavender, as USA Today reported.
A helicopter searched for more stranded whales along the coastline, but none were found.
"We're cautiously optimistic that the group dodged a bullet, and that they're now on their way to deeper water," said George.
Pilot whales are essentially very large dolphins that can grow up to 24-feet in length and weigh over 6,600 pounds. Maneuvering them back into the water is a Herculean task. So, volunteer rescuers focused on turning the whales so they were faced offshore, encouraging them to head into deeper waters, where a large group from their pod was swimming about 300-feet offshore, according to Vice.
"The water was full of immense black fins and bodies rolling in the surf; these were huge animals," said David Steen, a research ecologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center who participated in the rescue effort, as Vice reported.
It is not clear why pilot whales move so close to shore. There have been 23 mass standings in Southeastern states since 1991, but never in Georgia. Two years ago, over 400 pilot whales washed ashore in New Zealand and over 70 percent of them perished. There are several theories for their behavior—perhaps since they are so social, one confused whale can lead an entire pod ashore. Cetaceans are social creatures that live in groups, and it's possible that one confused whale can lead an entire pod astray. Another theory formed from necropsies of stranded whales posits that sinus and ear parasites or injuries from seismic activity, such as US Navy sonar tests or oil exploration, impair a whale's senses and ability to navigate waters, according to Vice.
In the necropsy of the three whales that didn't make it, researchers will look for ingested plastic or evidence of plastic netting. They will also look for signs of an acoustic disturbance, like bombs or sonars, that could have caused one or more of the animals to swim toward land, as the New York Times reported.
"Tomorrow will be the beginning of a process that could go on for potentially weeks," he said.
On Sept. 22, local authorities from the Central African island state of São Tomé and Príncipe boarded the Senegalese-flagged, but Spanish-linked, long-line fishing vessel Vema in a joint operation with Sea Shepherd marine conservationists and Gabonese law enforcement officers called Operation Albacore III.
Although the long-liner was licensed to fish for "tuna and similar species," inspections carried out by São Toméan authorities working on board the Sea Shepherd vessel Bob Barker revealed their fish holds were solely filled with sharks, predominantly blue sharks that are classified as "near-threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Fishing line tracers (or snoods), which are the monofilament segments that support the fishing hooks, were reinforced with steel wire, thereby underlining the suspicion that the targeted species of the Vema was mainly sharks, not tuna. Steel snoods are used to prevent sharks from biting through the fishing line to escape.
Fish on board were also found gutted and processed, which is a violation of São Toméan fisheries regulations when advance approval has not been sought, which the Vema did not obtain.
Approximately two tons of sharks—including shark fins severed from their corresponding torsos—were discovered by inspectors, a fraction of what would have been uncovered had the Vema not recently returned to São Toméan waters from Walvis Bay, Namibia, a port commonly used for offloading shark fins.
Vema fishing for sharksSea Shepherd Global
The arrest of the Vema is the fourth shark-finning bust carried out over the past two years, three of which were the direct result of joint operations between São Tomé and Príncipe and Gabon, with assistance by Sea Shepherd ships and crew.
In August 2016, São Toméan authorities, again operating on board Sea Shepherd's Bob Barker, arrested a Spanish long-line fishing vessel, the Alemar Primero. On board the Alemar Primero were 87 tons of sharks and shark fins. The EU Directorate-General of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG Mare) decided not to pursue charges of violating the European Union Finning Ban, despite complaints lodged by the São Toméan fisheries department.
In October 2017, the São Toméan fisheries department issued a Notice of Violation of Fisheries Rules to another Spanish ship owner, as well as a request to the European Commission to investigate an additional violation of the European Union Finning Ban, this time by a Spanish long-line fishing vessel, the Baz.
On Sept. 12th, 2018, one week prior to the arrival of the Bob Barker in the waters of São Tomé and Príncipe, the Taiwanese-flagged Shang Fu was arrested by São Toméan Coast Guard with assistance from the Portuguese Navy.
Shark species are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because they're slow to grow, late to mature and breed small numbers of offspring.
São Toméan fisheries regulations that prohibit processing of sharks at-sea and the European Union Finning Ban are existing conservation measures that ensure shark bodies are not discarded at sea to make room for the more valuable shark fins, therefore allowing far more sharks to be killed. Sharks are being killed in increasingly large numbers to meet a demand for fins to make shark fin soup.
Sea Shepherd works with authorities in African coastal states in unique joint patrols that allow shark finning operations to be uncovered through critical boardings and inspections at sea.
"Given how sensitive shark species are to overfishing, coupled with the fact that 15 percent of shark species in the Atlantic are now endangered, it is alarming that industrial fishing vessels, many from Europe, continue to massacre sharks under the guise of tuna licenses," said Sea Shepherd director of campaigns Peter Hammarstedt. "These trojan horse fishing licenses deliberately mislead African coastal states as fishing vessels [and] slaughter sharks with reckless abandon. Sea Shepherd applauds the São Toméan authorities for working together with Gabon and Sea Shepherd to bring African marine wildlife poachers to justice."
Sea Shepherd Uncovers Huge Shipments of #Shark Fins https://t.co/I1qKbFaTLG @seashepherd @CaptPaulWatson @acousteau @Greenpeace @Oceana— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1488980429.0
The statistics around threatened species are looking grim. A new report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has added more than 9,000 new additions to its Red List of threatened species, pushing the total number of species on the list to more than 105,000 for the first time, according to the Guardian.
The IUCN last published its definitive assessment of the status of species in December. Since then, it has found many species have gotten worse and not a single one has improved. The analysis found that 27 percent of the list, or 28,338 different species, are at risk of extinction. The IUCN organizes this group into three different categories, Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable. To make matters worse, an additional 6,435 species fall into the near-threatened category.
The extent of the problem is global. It runs the gamut from the depths of the oceans to the peaks of mountains. Man-made destruction is the primary driver of declining plant and animal species. The red-capped mangabey, a monkey previously listed as vulnerable moved to endangered since it is hunted for bush meat and its habitat is being destroyed, according to Mongabay.
Similarly, habitat loss and the pet trade moved the pancake tortoise in East Africa from vulnerable to critically endangered. In Japan, nearly half of its native freshwater fish are being pushed towards extinction as well as nearly a third of freshwater fish in Mexico.
"The loss of these freshwater fish species would deprive billions of people of a critical source of food and income, and could have knock-on effects on entire ecosystems," said William Darwall, head of the IUCN freshwater biodiversity unit, as the Guardian reported.
Trees are facing trouble too. Illegal logging has decimated Madagascar's rosewoods, and Dutch elm disease, an invasive fungal disease, has nearly wiped out the American elm. In fact, more than 5,000 new entries to the list are trees, including a West African evergreen tree that, thanks to mining, agriculture, and urban expansion has fewer than 250 mature trees left, as Mongabay reported.
"The implications for people are that we lose valuable resources such as rosewoods and elms, and we also lose ecosystem resilience, undermining the essential ecosystem services that forests provide," said Paul Smith, secretary general of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, in an IUCN statement.
The report highlighted the Rhino Rays as the most critically endangered marine species. It has been overfished, in part for shark fin, a specialty in China and parts of Asia, as TIME reported. All but one of the 16 species of Rhino Rays is near extinction.
"With more than 100,000 species now assessed for the IUCN Red List, this update clearly shows how much humans around the world are overexploiting wildlife," said Grethel Aguilar, acting director general of the IUCN, in a statement. "States, businesses and civil society must urgently act to halt the overexploitation of nature, and must respect and support local communities and Indigenous Peoples in strengthening sustainable livelihoods."
"The numbers are just horrendous, that's totally frightening," said Lee Hannah, a climate change biologist at Conservation International, to TIME. "We've had a lot of great progress, we've got national parks, community conservancies, a lot of great conservation going on around the world, and these numbers tell us that it's just not enough."
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Scientists have identified four new species of walking shark in the waters off Australia and New Guinea.
While that might sound like the stuff of horror films, researchers say that the foot-long fish, which have evolved to use their fins to walk on land or in shallow water, are actually adorable.
"They're incredibly cute little animals and are really more like a gecko walking around than a shark," Mark Erdmann, a coral reef ecologist at the California Academy of Sciences and vice president of the Asia-Pacific Field Division of Conservation International, told VICE.
Erdmann was part of a team of scientists who spent 12 years studying the walking sharks. Their efforts, published in Marine and Freshwater Research Tuesday, nearly doubled the number of known species, raising it from five to nine, the University of Queensland reported.
The walking sharks all belong to the genus Hemiscyllium, according to Science Alert. The sharks have evolved to succeed in their unique coral reef environment and hunt during low tides.
"At less than a metre long on average, walking sharks present no threat to people but their ability to withstand low oxygen environments and walk on their fins gives them a remarkable edge over their prey of small crustaceans and molluscs," study coauthor Dr. Christine Dudgeon of the University of Queensland said in the press release.
The researchers used tissue samples taken from live sharks to determine that DNA linked the new shark species to the Hemiscyllium genus, according to Science Alert.
DNA testing also revealed that the walking sharks are the youngest type of shark on Earth, VICE reported.
"With our molecular clock, we've been able to show that this group really only branched off from their nearest ancestor about nine million years ago and they've been actively radiating ever since," Erdmann told VICE. "Obviously in human terms, that still seems like a long time ago, but for sharks, and for speciation in general, that's actually very recent."
Dudgeon explained in the press release how the sharks may have ended up in their current form and their current location:
"Data suggests the new species evolved after the sharks moved away from their original population, became genetically isolated in new areas and developed into new species," she said.
"They may have moved by swimming or walking on their fins, but it's also possible they 'hitched' a ride on reefs moving westward across the top of New Guinea, about two million years ago."
Because each species has a very small, unique range, they are vulnerable to natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, as well as human pressures like habitat loss and their increasing desirability for aquariums, VICE reported. Three of the nine species have been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
At the same time, the researchers don't think they have yet accounted for every species of walking shark out there.
"We believe there are more walking shark species still waiting to be discovered," Dudgeon said in the press release.
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Maxim's said it phased out the controversial product in 2017 but undercover investigators with the wildlife conservation charity WildAid found that the eatery still offers shark fin on a secret "premium" menu, the South China Morning Post reported.
Now, activist groups are calling on the coffee giant to break its 18-year partnership with Coffee Concepts (HK) Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Maxim's Caterers Limited.
In a letter to Starbucks executives last month, WildAid urged the company to end its relationship with Maxim's Caterers ahead of its upcoming expansion in China.
"Maxim's seemingly contradictory status as Hong Kong's largest retailer of shark fin soup casts a stain on Starbucks' reputation," the letter stated, as quoted by Hong Kong Free Press. "[We] sincerely urge Starbucks to call on its Hong Kong licensee Maxim's Caterers Limited, to halt all cruel, dirty, unsustainable, and often illegal shark fin trade with immediate effect."
Shark fin soup is mostly served in Chinese banquet menus as a symbol of prosperity and for its supposed health benefits. But the shark fin trade poses a danger to vulnerable shark species. More than 70 million sharks are killed each year and a quarter of species are threatened with extinction, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
WildAid did not appear impressed with Starbucks' response to their letter, tweeting on Tuesday "we got the brush off from Starbucks customer service about two weeks ago. Since then, nothing."
@Laughhon @Starbucks Thanks, Susie! Please read our letter to @Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and CEO Kevin Johns… https://t.co/PNxxAeQpdt— WildAid Hong Kong (@WildAid Hong Kong)1528812395.0
Gary Stokes, Asia director for Sea Shepherd Global, also spoke out against the partnership.
"The shark fin industry is not limited to just the shark fin traders, but spans from the fisherman who killed the shark all the way to the restaurants that serve shark's fin soup," he said in a statement. "By licensing Starbucks' brand to Maxim's Caterers Limited who openly sell shark's fin on their menus, Starbucks has partnered with the shark fin trade itself."
Despite the protests, Maxim's Caterers told Hong Kong Free Press on Thursday that they will continue to sell shark fin products "upon request" at their Hong Kong restaurants. They also claimed to only use shark fins from Blue Sharks—a "Lower Risk-Near Threatened" species.
"We have stringent sourcing process, and all suppliers must provide legal shark fin import documentations that met regulatory requirements. We are also the first Chinese chain restaurant to proactively conduct independent DNA testing on shark fin to ensure that the supply is from the lower risk species," they told the publication.
@ADMCF_Wildlife Here's Maxim's #SecretSharkFinMenu at Hoi Yat Heen in the Harbour Grand Hotel. https://t.co/p8AobB1vq4— WildAid Hong Kong (@WildAid Hong Kong)1528846691.0
In their press release, Sea Shepherd noted that Starbucks' environmental mission statement includes commitments such as "understanding of environmental issues and sharing information with our partners," "striving to buy, sell and use environmentally friendly products," and "encouraging all partners to share in our mission."
Stokes commented, "None of the above points in the mission statement are in line with or justify selling shark fin soup. With between 100-200 million sharks being killed annually, no business can claim that they are environmentally friendly or responsible when they sell shark fin soup."
"Starbucks needs to demand that Maxim's Caterers Limited drop shark fin from their menus across their group or cancel their license to operate Starbucks in Asia. Tarnishing the brand of Starbucks should not be an option, and Starbucks customers deserve to be informed if the mission statement has changed," Stokes concluded.
EcoWatch has reached out to Starbucks for comment.
Endangered Whale Shark Fins Found in Airlines Shipment https://t.co/4mvQ62q0rB @seashepherd #SharkFin @WWF @peta… https://t.co/ojfEdSqB3m— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1527697970.0
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The fins from the endangered species were hidden within legal fins in a 989 kilogram (approximately 2,180 pound) shipment that traveled from Colombo, Sri Lanka through Singapore to Hong Kong, which is one of the largest shark fin trading centers in the world, AFP reported.
Singapore Airlines, which bans the shipment of shark fins, said in an email statement Wednesday reported by Reuters that the shipment had slipped past the airline's notice because it was labeled "Dry Seafood."
"Singapore Airlines are yet another victim of these shark fin smugglers, who deceived the airline by declaring the shipment as 'dried seafood' to skirt the airline's internal booking checks," Asia director for Sea Shepherd Global Gary Stokes told AFP.
According to Reuters, Stokes discovered the endangered fins hidden in the shipment.
Singapore Airlines has since blacklisted the shipper and alerted employees to check any other shipments labeled "dry seafood."
Hong Kong allows the import of shark fins, which are served in a jelly-like soup believed to have health benefits. Most of the fins imported to Hong Kong are then sent on to mainland China, according to AFP. Fins from species on the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species are supposed to be accompanied by a special permit, Reuters reported.
Activists have succeeding in halving the number of shark fins entering Hong Kong in the past 10 years, but the trade still poses a danger to vulnerable shark species.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 70 million sharks are killed each year and a quarter of species are threatened with extinction.
The latest discovery comes a little over a year after a three-month investigation by Sea Shepherd revealed that shark fins from endangered species like hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks were entering Hong Kong despite bans imposed by shipping lines and airline cargo companies.
Smugglers used similar tactics of mislabeling shipments as "seafood," "dried seafood" or "dried goods" to bypass bans by Maersk, Virgin and Cathay Pacific. At the time, all three companies pledged to work with Sea Shepherd to combat smuggling.
Maersk, the world's largest shipping company, also became the first to ban shark fin cargo in 2010. Cathay Pacific was the first airline to ban unsustainable shark products in 2012, and banned shark fins altogether in 2016.
Now, more than 30 airlines and nearly 20 shipping lines have implemented similar bans, Alex Hofford of WildAid said.
About 92 percent of shark fins enter Hong Kong by sea and 8 percent by plane.
Unprecedented Rescue Operation': Sea Shepherd Saves 25 Critically Endangered #Totoabas at the Height of Spawning Se… https://t.co/uWff5XlA3x— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1522676526.0