Killer whales have been ramming yachts and boats off the coast of Northern Spain and researchers are puzzled by their behavior. In several attacks over the last couple of months, orcas have damaged boats and injured sailors, according to The Guardian.
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Two years ago, J35, a Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) nicknamed Tahlequah, broke hearts around the world when she carried her dead calf over 1,000 miles over 17 days of apparent mourning. Now, she's given birth to a "robust and lively" calf that researchers are calling a ray of hope for the endangered population, reported The New York Times.
The killer whales, also called orcas, stay off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, near Washington State, Oregon and British Columbia. According to the Marine Mammal Commission, the SRKW population may have historically numbered more than 200 animals prior to the 20th century. Their numbers plummeted due to loss of prey, opportunistic hunting prior to the 1960s and the live capture of nearly 70 Resident and Transient killer whales for marine parks from 1967 to 1971, the commission found. There were only 88 of the iconic whales left when they were listed as endangered in 2005, The New York Times reported, and the population has continued to dwindle since. The birth of the newest orca, called J57, brings the population to 73.
"It's a bit of a nail-biter right now," whale researcher Dr. Deborah Giles from the Center for Conservation Biology told The New York Times. "I can't help but be thrilled that she had this baby and this baby didn't die right away. Everybody is worried and on pins and needles, wondering if this calf is going to make it."
"With such a small population … every successful birth is hugely important for recovery," said a blog post from SR3, the marine conservation group that used drone footage to confirm J35's pregnancy in July and monitor her condition.
Several factors have hurt the population's chances of rebounding, including food scarcity, toxic pollutants that bioaccumulate, and noise pollution, the news report said.
The whales are "essentially starving," reported Smithsonian Magazine. Eighty percent of the SRKW's diet consists of Chinook salmon, the Center for Whale Research wrote. The salmon have declined "significantly" due to commercial fishing and widespread habitat destruction, according to the Marine Mammal Commission.
Government reports also found that agricultural pesticides jeopardize the survival of the salmon. Then, when the orcas eat polluted fish, the chemicals and pesticides eventually end up stored in the whales' fat, suppressing their immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to disease and affecting females' ability to reproduce, reported Smithsonian Magazine.
Additionally, according to the Georgia Straight Alliance, noise disrupts the whales' echolocation and prevents them from hunting, navigating and communicating.
"Both the physical presence of vessels and associated underwater noise hinders Southern Residents' ability to perform basic life activities," the Alliance reported.
To make matters worse, many of the population's pregnancies fail, and around 40% of calves die within their first year, The New York Times reported. Recent scientific findings suggest that these reproductive failures and high calf mortality rates are linked to malnutrition and lack of their preferred salmon prey, reported the Marine Mammal Commission.
With nothing to eat and nowhere to live, the Southern Resident orcas have thus become a symbol for animals on the brink of extinction. J35 became the poster child for her population during her 17-day "tour of grief," catalyzing many groups to call for new protections for the endangered whales.
According to the Center for Whale Research, J52, another two-and-a-half-year-old calf from the J-pod, died presumably from malnutrition one ear earlier.
After the 2018 loss of J35's previous calf, Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, estimated that the SRKW population only had about five years to rebound or face irreversible decline.
"We've got at most five more years of reproductive life in this population to make it happen"— meaning, to have viable offspring — "but if we don't do it in those five years it isn't going to happen," he told National Geographic in 2018.
That's why, with the birth of J57, researchers are cautiously optimistic.
The encounter report from the Center for Whale Research announcing J57's birth said, "Her new calf appeared healthy and precocious, swimming vigorously alongside its mother in its second day of free-swimming life … We hope this calf is a success story."
Balcom said, "The baby looked very robust and lively, so I have good expectations for this one surviving," reported The New York Times.
He told The New York Times he hoped that recent efforts such as the removal of a dam on the Elwah River would bring back more robust runs of Chinook salmon and issue a turning point for the orcas.
"This new birth brings new hope – for Tahlequah and for all of us," wildlife photographer Alena Ebeling-Schuld told The Guardian. "I am wishing Tahlequah and her new little one the very best with all of my being."
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The New Guinea singing dog is a rare breed of dog that makes a unique howl similar to the song of a humpback whale. Sadly, however, scientists thought its call had been forever silenced in the wild.
By David Duffy and Catherine Eastman
Plastic pollution has been found in practically every environment on the planet, with especially severe effects on ocean life. Plastic waste harms marine life in many ways – most notably, when animals become entangled in it or consume it.
Post-hatchling sea turtle being treated at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, CC BY-ND
The Sargasso Sea is an important feeding ground for immature Atlantic sea turtles, but the same currents that concentrate seaweed there also carry drifting plastic trash. University of Florida, CC BY-ND
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By Melissa Gaskill
During a trip to Cuba's Gardens of the Queen a few years ago, I found myself around small mangrove islands in an area called Boca Grande. Floating on clear, calm water, my travel group and I kicked over tall seagrass beds and rays camouflaged in the sandy flats. Fish of all kinds and sizes hung out among the tree roots, including huge cubera snappers. An hour stretched into two, this enormous saltwater aquarium proving as fascinating as the nearby, healthy coral reefs.
A pelican enjoys a perch in a mangrove stand in the Galapagos. Hans Johnson / CC BY 2.0<p>These ecosystems also protect the shore. Laura Geselbracht, a marine scientist and coastal restoration expert with The Nature Conservancy Florida, reports that mangroves prevented an additional $1.5 billion in direct damages in that state from 2017's Hurricane Irma. An analysis by The Nature Conservancy, University of California Santa Cruz and Risk Management Solutions found that just 100 yards of mangrove trees can reduce wave height by 66%.</p><p>And mangrove forests also help mitigate climate change, pulling massive amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and storing them in their soils — up to <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110404173247.htm" target="_blank">four times</a> as much carbon as other tropical forests. A 2018 study calculated that the world's mangrove forests suck up more than <a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aabe1c/pdf" target="_blank">6 billion tons</a> of carbon a year.</p><p>That's the good news. The bad news: Mangroves face numerous threats — 35% were lost between 1980 and 2000, and since the turn of the 21st century almost 1 in 50 of the remaining mangrove forests has been cut down.</p><p>Today, one of the direst threats to their continued existence comes from rising sea levels caused by climate change.</p><p>A <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6495/1118" target="_blank">paper</a> published in <em>Science</em> in June looked at data on thousands of years of sea-level rise and mangrove accretion. (Accretion is the opposite of coastal erosion: Instead of wearing away, soil builds up around the roots and lifts trees vertically, keeping them above water.) While a mangrove's lower trunk and roots live underwater, its upper trunk and leaves live above the waterline. And when the water gets too high, and the accretion process fails to support mangroves, the trees effectively drown.</p>
Mangroves underwater, near Queensland, Australia. Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble / CC BY 2.0<p>The authors determined that accretion will not keep up beyond sea-level rise of 0.27 inches per year. Rutgers University climate data scientist Erica Ashe, one of the authors, says the current global rate is 0.134 inches, with some areas experiencing much higher rates. In Louisiana, for example, the effect of rising water is compounded by land sinking due to water removal and sediment compaction.</p><p>Based on projected rates, mangrove trees could lose their race against rising water within the next 30 years.</p><p>"The rate of sea-level rise keeps going up," says Geselbracht, who was not affiliated with the study. "Every time a study looks at it, the rate is faster than we expected."</p><p>Mangroves could, in theory, adjust to rising seas by migrating landward, but that's not possible in much of the world because of human development. The trees cannot grow on roads or buildings.</p><p>"We need to modify infrastructure, change permitting rules, and come up with other innovative solutions to accommodate that movement," Geselbracht says.</p><p>Recent research supports this. A study on Mexico's <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S096456912030106X" target="_blank">Yucatan Peninsula</a>, published this past April, showed that the mangrove areas most affected by human activity there were also the ones least able to adapt to sea-level rise. In other words, just leaving mangroves alone could help.</p><p>But the world isn't leaving mangroves alone: We continue to actively destroy their forests at an increasing rate, clearing them for development and aquaculture, timber and fuel.</p><p>Colombia, which has approximately 1,467 square miles of mangrove forests on its coasts, is experiencing the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4441/12/4/1113/htm" target="_blank">highest annual rate</a> of loss in South America — roughly 154 square miles in the past three decades. Primary blame goes to human activities, including logging and development, primarily for tourism.</p>
Mangroves in Colombia. F Delventhal / CC BY 2.0<p>One of the most striking developing threats is in the Sundarbans region of Bangladesh and India, where the biggest mangrove forest on Earth — covering an area of more than 3,860 square miles — houses at least 505 species of wildlife, including 355 species of birds, 49 mammals and 291 fish. It provides critical habitat for Bengal tigers.</p><p>Sharif A. Mukul, a research fellow at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, warned in a recent <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6496/1198.1" target="_blank">letter</a> to <em>Science</em> that construction of a 3.8-mile-long bridge, the largest development project in Bangladesh, could destroy the Sundarbans.</p><p>"People anticipate much more tourism and industry activity with the bridge," he says. "The second to largest seaport [in Bangladesh] is close to Sundarbans. After completion of the bridge, the port likely will be used more frequently, with more factories and that sort of thing."</p>
A birding safari in the Sunderbans. Ankur Panchbudhe / CC BY 2.0<p>The Sundarbans are particularly important for protection from cyclones, Mukul adds, which have increased in number and intensity in the past few years. Fifteen percent of tropical cyclones form in this region. The country's annual monsoon season has also worsened, including <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-13/bangladesh-floods-sees-a-third-of-nation-underwater-coronavirus/12555448" target="_blank">catastrophic floods</a> this summer.</p><p>In addition, Bangladesh already has seen significant loss of mangrove forests to <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226697717_A_unified_framework_for_the_restoration_of_Southeast_Asian_mangroves-Bridging_ecology_society_and_economics" target="_blank">shrimp farming</a>.</p><p>The bridge will bring economic benefits to the region and Mukul does not argue against its construction, but rather for doing it in a way that protects local ecosystems and their services. "The government is definitely focusing only on development and not the environment," he says. "They should do the project in a more environmentally friendly way."</p><p>The country has company in that regard. The UNESCO <a href="http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/ecological-sciences/biosphere-reserves/asia-and-the-pacific/vietnam/can-gio-mangrove" target="_blank">Mangrove Biosphere Reserve</a> near Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam contains one of the world's largest rehabilitated mangrove forests. That country recently <a href="https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Vietnam-speeds-up-big-projects-to-heal-economy-from-pandemic" target="_blank">approved</a> a $9.3 billion tourist development to be built largely on filled-in coastal land within the reserve's buffer zone. This project also includes a <a href="https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/work-on-bridge-to-hcmc-coastal-district-to-begin-in-2022-4119621.html" target="_blank">massive bridge</a>.</p>
Big Cypress National Preserve (uncredited) (Public domain)<p>And in the United States, Geselbracht says, Florida continues to lose swaths of mangroves to physical removal.</p><p>"People on the coast don't want mangroves blocking their view," she says. The state now has laws regulating removal of mangroves, which has slowed their loss. But certain types of removals remain legal, Geselbracht says, including some for storm-retention ponds. "It astounds me that no one does a cost-benefit analysis to show that removing them increases rather than decreases pollution and damages."</p><p>In a particularly vicious twist, taking out mangroves not only eliminates their potential for storing carbon, it releases significant amounts — increasing the threats of climate change and sea-level rise and putting even more mangroves, and the communities and habitats around them, at risk. Between 2000 and 2015 mangrove destruction released up to <a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aabe1c/pdf" target="_blank">122 million tons of carbon</a> — more than two and a half times the amount emitted by <a href="https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/news/2016/8/22/back-to-school-burn-the-science-of-wildfires" target="_blank">California wildfires</a> between 2001 and 2010. Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar accounted for more than two-thirds of the released amount.</p>
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By Jonathan Booth
"We saw two swimming past our canoe the other day as we came to shore!"
"Yes, we saw one over towards the mangroves not so long ago…"
A Unique Site<p>The southwestern Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea is known for its renowned biodiversity, much of which lives nowhere else in the world. But that amazing animal and plant life is often both understudied and under threat.</p><p>This holds true in New Ireland.</p><p>The many islands of New Ireland Province, located in the Bismarck Archipelago, support coral reefs, mangroves, estuaries and tidal lagoons — typical habitats for rhino rays and sawfish. Some 77% of New Ireland's human population also lives in the coastal zone, where they're highly reliant on fish and other marine resources for food, livelihoods and traditional practices. Local communities also own most of this coastal zone through customary tenure systems, which may have been in place for centuries.</p><p>Human pressure, including population growth, could threaten potential sawfish and rhino ray populations unless sufficient management is in place — but local cooperation will be key to such action.</p>
Surprising Surveys<p>Over the past year and a half, WCS has conducted interviews in New Ireland's coastal areas. Part of the interviews involved showing images of each sawfish, wedgefish and guitarfish species, allowing respondents to identify what they saw. To date residents from 49 communities reported that they had seen sawfish and rhino rays in their local waters. There were 144 separate sightings reported by 111 respondents, which comprised 23 sawfish, 85 wedgefish and 36 guitarfish and giant guitarfish. Roughly half the respondents stated they had seen sawfish or rhino rays either often or sometimes.</p>
Papua New Guinea occupies the western half of New Guinea and is the largest of the South Pacific Island nations. The uplifted reefs, limestone terrain and adjacent islands that form New Ireland Province comprise the north-easterly region of Papua New Guinea. From January 2019 to March 2020, fisher key informant surveys were conducted in coastal communities in western New Ireland Province to determine whether sawfish and rhino rays were observed within the customary waters of each community. A total of 144 sightings were made, including 85 wedgefish (blue), 36 guitarfish and giant guitarfish (green) and 23 sawfish (red) sightings. Source: WCS.<p>When asked if the animals were targeted by local fishers, more than half the respondents said no: The animals were mostly caught accidentally. Only 9% of the sighted sawfish and rhino rays were reported to have been purposefully caught.</p><p>Respondents also provided information on where, and in what condition, they had seen the animals: 77% were seen alive, 10% at the market and 2% entangled in nets.</p><p>The results suggest that while sawfish and rhino rays are in the region, they are not a key fishery commodity, which is promising news for developing conservation approaches.</p>
Large-tooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) rostrum, beside a ruler, which was harvested by local community fishers from the Tigak Islands that lie to the west of mainland New Ireland. This rostrum measured nearly 30 inches in length. Photo: Jonathan Booth/WCS.
Further Evidence Needed<p>While physical and objective data has been lacking — I'm still waiting to see one of these animals in the water, myself — we have confirmed evidence of two large-tooth sawfish (<em>Pristis pristis</em>) in the region (two sawfish beaks, also known as rostra, have been found in community villages since this study began), and we've received reports of additional sightings.</p><p>WCS also conducted baited remote underwater video surveys (BRUVS) in 14 locations in the region in 2019-20, following a 2017 BURVS deployment by <a href="https://globalfinprint.org/" target="_blank">FinPrint</a> in western New Ireland Province.</p><p>Collectively the BRUVS documented 13 species of sharks and rays, including wedgefish (which have also been photographed by local dive operators), but no sawfish.</p>
Wedgefish in New Ireland Province: documented by BRUVS during the FinPrint project (left) and by scuba divers (Dorian Borcherds, Scuba Ventures) (right)<p>But with that success, we're expanding our search. Over the next 12 months, a further 100 BRUVS will be deployed in areas with a sandy seafloor, where wedgefish and giant guitarfish often rest. Because sawfish typically live in estuaries — where water is often murky — BRUVS will not work due to the poor visibility of the water. In these areas gillnets that have been carefully positioned in river outlets by trained local community members will be monitored for sawfish that may be present. If any sawfish are present in the nets, they will be documented and carefully released.</p>
Opportunities for Conservation<p>Despite the vulnerability of sawfish and rhino rays — with five of the ten documented species in Papua New Guinea classified as critically endangered — there are currently no protection laws in place. However, since 2017, WCS has worked with over 100 communities in New Ireland Province to establish the country's largest network of marine protected areas.</p><p>The MPAs have been developed through a community-first approach, with extensive local outreach, engagement and education. In that way WCS has been actively informing local residents about the biology, threats and management opportunities for sawfish and rhino rays. We anticipate that new laws to protect and manage these endangered animals will be incorporated into the management rules for the new MPAs.</p>
Example of education and outreach materials produced by the WCS team. This poster presents management methods that can be used by community residents to help manage sawfish and rhino ray populations in their customary waters.<p>While the mystery as to whether sawfish and rhino ray populations are alive and well in PNG has largely been solved, they are still rare and in need of additional conservation efforts. We hope that this work will help bring awareness and conservation action to these highly threatened species — and make sure they don't become mythical creatures of the past.</p><p><em>The opinions expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of </em>The Revelator<em>, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.</em></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/jonathanbooth/" target="_blank">Jonathan Booth</a> is a marine conservation advisor with the Papua New Guinea Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/shark-quest-papua-new-guinea/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>. </em><em></em></p>
A Michigan bald eagle proved that nature can still triumph over machines when it attacked and drowned a nearly $1,000 government drone.
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