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With the consequences of human activities pushing Earth into a sixth mass extinction, a team of biologists have calculated that plant and animal species are being wiped out so quickly that evolution cannot keep up.
Human activities—including pollution, deforestation, overpopulation, poaching, warming oceans and extreme weather events tied to climate change—are predicted to drive so many mammals to extinction in the next five decades that nature will need somewhere between 3 to 7 million years to restore biodiversity levels to where it was before modern humans evolved, according to an alarming new analysis published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The largest bird that ever stalked Earth's surface is officially the "Vorombe titan," a previously unidentified species of elephant bird that once roamed the island of Madagascar.
Literally meaning "big bird" in Malagasy and Greek, the giant creature could weigh more than 1,700 pounds and stood nearly 10 feet tall, a new study published Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science has revealed.
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The 45-year-old rhinoceros, named Sudan, was euthanized Monday at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
By Tim Radford
Think of it as the day a comet set the earth on fire. Researchers have evidence of widespread and devastating forest fires around half the world—a blaze to blot out the light of the sun—and all of it at a geological boundary called the Younger Dryas, 13,500 years ago.
The evidence, they say, supports the hypothesis that planet Earth sailed through a cloud of shattered cometary dust and stones, and the atmospheric violence that followed was enough to set light to accumulated forest timber, peat and grasses across the Americas, Europe and western Asia.
We've received some fantastic news over the weekend. The giant panda is no longer listed as endangered!
Thanks to amazing conservation efforts and the commitment of the Chinese government, this iconic species has dropped down a level on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, from "Endangered" to "Vulnerable" following a remarkable growth of their population. There are now around 1,860 giant pandas in the wild—nearly 17 percent more than in 2003.
Andy Rouse / WWF
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which keeps track of threatened species, announced the positive change to the giant panda's official status at its party conference Sunday.
A Step Further From Extinction
"For over 50 years, the giant panda has been the globe's most beloved conservation icon as well as the symbol of WWF. Knowing that the panda is now a step further from extinction is an exciting moment for everyone committed to conserving the world's wildlife and their habitats," Marco Lambertini, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) director general, said.
But, while the panda's status has improved, other species are under increasing threat. The eastern gorilla is now listed as critically endangered, just one step away from extinction, due primarily to poaching.
A Symbol of Hope
The much loved panda logo was designed by WWF's founding chairman, Sir Peter Scott in 1961. Twenty years later, we became the first international organization to work in China.
Since then we've been working with the government on initiatives to save giant pandas and their habitat, including helping to establish an integrated network of giant panda reserves and wildlife corridors to connect isolated panda populations. We're also working with local communities to develop sustainable livelihoods and minimize their impact on the forests.
These efforts have seen the number of panda reserves jump to 67, which now protect nearly two-thirds of all wild pandas. They have also helped to safeguard large swathes of mountainous bamboo forests, which shelter countless other species.
After decades of work, it is clear that only a holistic approach will be able to secure the long-term survival of China's giant pandas and their unique habitat.
Grauer's gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), a subspecies of eastern gorilla, the world's largest ape, and confined to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, has been listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The announcement was made at the IUCN World Conservation Congress currently underway in Hawaii.
The IUCN Red List classifies species of the world and documents the threats they are facing. It is recognized as the global standard on the conservation status of species. Critically Endangered status means that a species is considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction.
The new designation follows a report earlier this year released by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) that showed a shocking collapse of Grauer's gorilla numbers due to illegal hunting and civil unrest.
"We are grateful that IUCN and the Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group have accepted our recommendations to upgrade the listing of Grauer's gorilla," Andrew Plumptre, lead author of the revised listing, said. "Critical Endangered status will raise the profile of this gorilla subspecies and bring attention to its plight. It has tended to be the neglected ape in Africa, despite being the largest ape in the world."
Few Grauer's gorillas exist in captivity and if this ape becomes extinct in the wild it will be effectively lost forever. This listing also means that the two gorilla species (eastern and western gorillas) and four gorilla subspecies (two for each species) are all Critically Endangered.
The WCS and FFI surveys documented that Grauer's gorilla has declined by at least 77 percent over the past 20 years using three methods of estimation; the other methods estimated up to a 94 percent decline at specific sites where they have been monitored over time. A decline in 80 percent over the time span of three generations leads to a listing of Critically Endangered status. Twenty years is considered to be only one generation time for these gorillas as they are a long-lived ape.
These apes are therefore declining very rapidly across their range. Only one site, the highland sector of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, has shown an increase over the past 15 years where resources have been invested to protect these apes from hunting. These results have just been accepted for publication in PLoS One, an open source and peer reviewed scientific journal.
The main cause of the decline is hunting for bushmeat, which is taking place around villages and mining camps that have been established by armed groups deep in the forests in eastern DR Congo. The mines are set up in remote areas to provide the financing for weapons to continue the armed struggle by these groups. Being deep in the forest to avoid detection, they are also in the areas where gorillas have tended to survive because of the remoteness and distance from villages and roads. There is no agriculture in these sites, so the miners/rebels can only subsist off bushmeat and gorillas provide more meat than most species per shotgun cartridge and can be tracked fairly easily because they are mainly terrestrial and move in a group, making them particularly vulnerable to hunting.
"The data used to estimate this decline came from park rangers of the DR Congo protected area authority ICCN as well as local communities which are entered in software called SMART (Spatial Monitoring And Reporting Tool)," said WCS DRC project director Deo Kujirakwinja. "It shows the value of such monitoring databases once established and it is vital they continue to be supported to allow us to continue to monitor the gorillas in future."
"The survey results helped us to identify critical sites for the conservation of the remaining gorillas," Richard Tshombe, WCS's country director for DR Congo, said. "We have already started engaging communities in one area to protect the gorillas in the Punia Gorilla Reserve, and we continue to support their conservation in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. In addition, we helped establish the Itombwe Reserve in June 2016 which protects a second important population."
With this new listing, both species and all four subspecies of gorilla (Grauer's, western lowland, Cross River and mountain gorilla) are now considered Critically Endangered; and WCS is working to improve their conservation status across Africa.
Tim Tear, executive director of the WCS Africa Program, emphasized the importance of investing more in conservation.
"Overall, this study has startling news—based on data gathered in very difficult and challenging circumstances," he However, the positive news from Kahuzi-Biega National Park is a beacon of hope. It demonstrates that if we continue to invest in conservation of this gorilla, we can make a difference. This is a wake-up call that demands more investment to support conservation in the field if we are to save this species."
What if I told you there was an entire underground world below you right now? The frogs you may see in your backyard are a tiny portion of the amphibian world surrounding you.
According to Mark Mandica, amphibian conservation coordinator at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG), "If you weighed all the spotted salamanders they'd weigh more than all the mammals and birds combined in a healthy ecosystem." Some salamanders on average live 50-51 weeks underground, until they emerge for their breeding season. Frogs and salamanders come in many shapes, sizes and colors and are critically important to ecosystems around the world.
Toughie is the last known Rabbs' Fringe-Limbed Tree Frog in existence. He is named after George Rabb, one of the world's most eminent herpetologists.Mark Mandica
Unfortunately, amphibians are dying off in huge numbers in a global mass extinction. Reasons are varied, but chief among them are habitat loss and the chytrid fungi. In the mid-90's, then amphibian conservation coordinator of ABG, Ron Gagliardo, started what is now one of the oldest amphibian conservation programs in the U.S. He and several botanists started working with frogs as a way to illustrate plant and animal relationships at the garden. From there the program gained momentum and started safeguarding rare amphibians.
Their work reached a crisis level in 2005 when the chytrid fungus was sweeping through South and Central America. Gagliardo from ABG and Joe Mendelson, director of Herpetological Research at Zoo Atlanta, swooped in urgently ahead of the fungus and collected as many frogs as possible. After the collection, that same year the fungus killed up to 85 percent of amphibians in the region.
Famed National Geographic photographer and creator of the Photo Ark, Joel Sartore, likened this to rescuing precious items from a burning house. Thank goodness they did because the frogPOD at ABG is now home to some of the world's rarest frogs. Shortly after Gagliardo and Sartore returned from their rescue mission I took my three young children to observe the magnificent menagerie. Laura Elizabeth, my then 9 year-old daughter was truly moved. She befriended Gagliardo and Sartore and wrote a children's book with their help, Our Friends the Frogs. It was important to her to educate others on the tragic plight of the amphibians and offer pointers on how anyone can help. Laura Elizabeth is now 18 and, sadly, the crisis still looms large.
My then nine year-old Laura Elizabeth with Ron Gagliardo visiting the frogs for her book, Our Friends the Frogs.
The Atlanta Zoo and ABG's conservation programs are centered around Captive Assurance Colonies which are collections of endangered animals kept safely in captivity and bred with the hope they may one day be returned to the wild. For some like Toughie, the last Rabbs' Fringe-limbed Tree Frog known in existence, this will probably never be a reality. For other species at the frogPOD there is hope, but currently it is still not safe to re-release.
The chytrid fungus still remains in the area, with no known method of eradication and growing in lethality. According to Mandica, "The more out of balance an ecosystem, the more lethal the disease can become." Prof. Tyrone Hayes, UC Berkeley, released a study in 2006 positing agricultural chemical drift and specifically the most popular herbicide worldwide, atrazine, is compounding the problem. Amphibians exposed to common pesticide mixtures suffer suppressed immune systems, making them more susceptible to the chytrid fungus, among other disorders.
In the U.S. and specifically Georgia, amphibians are becoming increasingly endangered from habitat loss. Georgia is second behind North Carolina for the largest number of amphibian species. For eight years ABG has collaborated with Zoo Atlanta, the University of Georgia and Georgia Department of Natural Resources on a head-start program for their rarest frog, the Gopher Frog. They collect eggs every year, raise the tadpoles up through metamorphosis and release the baby frogs in protected habitats in South Georgia. Their habitat, the longleaf pine ecosystem, has been reduced by 97 percent. Other animals adversely affected by this reduction are the Gopher Tortoise, Indigo Snake and Mandica's favorite, the Flatwoods Salamander.
The Frosted Flatwoods Salamanders, native to Georgia, are critically endangered.Pierson Hill
The Flatwoods Salamander is a peculiar species that has never been kept successfully in captivity. But Mandica and his team are trying to change that. They currently have three adult salamanders which they collected and raised from larvae last year. This season, they acquired 15 more as recently metamorphosed baby salamanders. Flatwoods Salamanders live underground until they emerge to return to the same small pond they were born in to breed. They have not been detected in South Carolina for six years, very few last year in Georgia and none this year. Fortunately a broad coalition is working to restore their habitat. ABG's plant and amphibian conservation efforts have targeted this endangered ecosystem and partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, San Antonio Zoo, University of Missouri, Virginia Tech, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and others.
Visiting the Atlanta Botanical Garden's frogPod with Mark Mandica, Suzanne Barnes, Joel Sartore and Cole Sartore.
Conserving amphibians is important for many reasons. Here in the South, we should be especially grateful for their voracious bug consumption and even better, spotted salamanders are mosquito eating experts! Mandica says a mere 1,000 amphibians can eat five million bugs a year! Due to amphibian's highly sensitive skin they are the first to show imbalances in the ecosystem. At ABG frogs can only be sprayed with filtered "frog water" because if common, highly-treated tap water were used, they would all die. There are some very important lessons there! Amphibians are also a critical part of the food chain as popular prey and bug-eating predator. To humans, amphibians can have big health implications. For example, a pharmaceutical study revealed a compound in the skin of the endangered Phantasmal Poison Frog is 200 times more effective than morphine and non-addictive.
Locals and out-of-town visitors alike can learn more about amphibian conservation from exhibits in the ABG conservatory every day at 11 a.m. They can also join Mandica's hugely popular Metro Atlanta Amphibian Monitoring Program. He gives workshops on how to identify and monitor frogs and salamanders in your backyard. On the website, maamp.us, Mandica has information, call recordings and pictures of each life stage of all 28 species we have in Atlanta. Outside the Southeast, you can visit AmphibianArk.org to learn more about amphibian conservation.
A Bornean orangutan with baby at Camp Leakey Tanjung Puting Reserve in South Kalimantan, Indonesia.Photo credit: World Wildlife Fund
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published an assessment this week that found hunting, habitat destruction and degradation, and habitat fragmentation to be the biggest drivers of Bornean orangutan population loss, Mongabay reported.
The authors wrote that "the combined impacts of habitat loss, habitat degradation and illegal hunting equate to an 86% population reduction between 1973 and 2025," according to Mongabay.
Only 59.6 percent of Borneo's forests were suitable for orangutans in 2010. Most of the land, Mongabay reported, is protected by Indonesian, Malaysian and Brunei governments. But illegal logging and uncontrolled burning continues to threaten the population.
"This is full acknowledgement of what has been clear for a long time: orangutan conservation is failing," Andrew Marshall, one of the authors of the assessment, told Mongabay.
Even with the remaining forest, it might not be enough to sustain the current Bornean orangutan population, Mongabay said:
In addition, the smaller patches of remaining forest may be unable to sustain the groups currently living there. These zombie orangutan populations can adapt to survive for decades in degraded or isolated habitats, but the poor health or low numbers may prevent successful reproduction.
Habitat loss is not the only factor contributing to the decreasing Bornean orangutan population. Females reproduce once every six to eight years—the longest birth interval of any land mammal—making the population slow to rebound even if improvements to conservation are made.
Bornean Orangutan female 'Tata' and her unnamed baby aged 2-3 months portrait at Camp Leakey, Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Photo credit: World Wildlife Fund
This new classification for the Bornean orangutan shouldn't be a cause to give up hope though. Marshall said that recent studies have found the species to be "more adaptable, and fare better in degraded forests than once predicted," Mongabay reported.
He believes placing a higher conservation value on degraded lands could help the Bornean orangutans avoid extinction.
"Although I think things will likely get worse before they get better, it's not too late for orangutans," Marshall said.
The World Wildlife Fund reports that there are currently 41,000 Bornean and 7,500 Sumatran orangutans in the wild. Sumatran orangutans have been listed on IUCN's Red List as critically endangered since 2000.
Like a lot of reptiles, Discovery News said, the gender of central bearded dragons depends on their chromosomes and the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. The egg is born a female when incubated at higher temperatures. Increasing global temperatures could skyrocket the number of female central bearded dragons in the future, wreaking havoc on the population.
Central bearded dragons have Z and W chromosomes in the same way we have X and Y. A dragon with ZW chromosomes will be a female no matter what. The temperature-induced sex change occurs in dragons with ZZ chromosomes.
At low temperatures, these dragons will be born males. But if the eggs are exposed to temperatures above 32.5 degrees Celsius (90.5 degrees Fahrenheit), the dragons will be born females, according to ABC Science.
The change is aided by an enzyme called aromatase, which converts testosterone into estrogen.
Rising temperatures, and therefore higher birth rates of females, would be severely detrimental to the species. Scientists have already recorded a higher rate of ZZ female births than before, according to DNews. ZZ females tend to be more aggressive and produce more eggs than ZW females.
With greater numbers, ZZ female central bearded dragons could out compete ZW females. The female population would soon outgrow the male population, as well.
Depending on temperature increases, there might come a time when only female ZZ bearded dragons are born, making reproduction impossible.
The central bearded dragon can be found in a wide range of arid and semiarid regions in Australia. Adults can reach lengths of up to 60 centimeters (24 inches), with their tail accounting for more than half of the total amount.
Watch DNews' video about the central bearded dragons below:
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The Obama government is now accepting comments on a draft policy that would sharply limit the number of species given protection under the Endangered Species Act. The policy in question is a Bush-era throwback that ignores entire populations of imperiled species.
Unlike weaker wildlife laws, the Endangered Species Act does not require a species to be at risk of global extinction to qualify for protection—it must only be at risk in a "significant portion of its range." This provision ensures species are protected before they're past the point of no return—it fulfills the Endangered Species Act's purpose of protecting the ecosystems on which endangered species depend.
Unfortunately, the policy the Obama administration is proposing would ignore historic losses of habitat and reestablish the global-endangerment criterion—a standard that has already allowed the government to downplay the urgent plight of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.
Please take action now to tell President Obama's Interior Department not to shut out animals and plants that desperately need the Endangered Species Act's protection.
Click here to find out more and take action.
For more information, click here.