By Amy McDermott
Behind the scenes at the California Academy of Sciences, baby potbellied seahorses roamed a tall, bubbling tank. They used their prehensile tails to cling to seagrass and to one another. The babies were small and slim as a finger, but as adults, they'd grow that eponymous potbelly, and wobble about, on display in the Academy's Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco.
When a keeper approached the tank, the youngsters rushed to the glass, then swam up to the surface, expecting a meal. These fish were living the good life.
They were the lucky ones.
Worldwide, seahorses are in trouble, threatened by habitat loss, and sold in a massive global trade. Scientists say this can't go on, or seahorses will severely decline. But existing conservation efforts may not be enough to save them.
Researchers estimate that 37 million seahorses are taken from shallow, lush coastal waters every year, mostly ensnared by indiscriminate fishing gear. Southeast Asia and West Africa are the main regions exporting them. More than half of captured seahorses end up dead, dried and sold internationally for use in traditional medicines thought to boost virility and even cure impotence. A small percent are plunked into home aquariums, or sold as kitschy souvenirs.
Twelve seahorse species are listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, one step down from endangered. An additional 17 species are understudied, and listed as "data deficient." Two are endangered.
In 2002, an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, responded to mounting concerns by tightening trade restrictions on all 44 species of seahorse. But scientists say that existing measures don't go far enough.
In the decade after the restrictions took effect, tens of millions of seahorses still died worldwide because of nonselective fishing. Millions were still sold around the world. Between 2005 and 2015, the U.S. imported roughly 140,000 live, wild-caught seahorses through Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle alone, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.
To make matters worse, many of the fishing methods to catch seahorses also destroy their habitats. Overfishing is just one part of a much larger issue. Despite legal protection, life keeps getting harder for these unusual fish.
Researchers measure dried seahorses from shops in Viet Nam. Hoang Do Huu / Project Seahorse
A Beastly Problem
Victor Cheng leaned across his office desk, in a small business park, in San Jose, California. He poured over a thick Chinese medical encyclopedia, hunting for "hai ma" or seahorse.
Cheng, a graduate of UC Berkeley and UCLA, practices traditional Chinese medicine in California, and at Shuguang Hospital in Shanghai. When he found "seahorse" in the encyclopedia, he translated the entry. The first records of their medical use appeared about 2,000 years ago, he read, in a Daoist tome, the Baopuzi. They are typically soaked in alcohol, or boiled as a tea, to ostensibly increase sperm count and activity.
While Chinese medicine has a two thousand-year history with seahorses, Cheng said that today, they "are far from commonly used herbs." Seahorses are used recreationally and superstitiously, he said. "I don't even think they stock them in major hospitals in China."
That's not to say that seahorse doesn't work, Cheng added. But they are a folk remedy, like a supplement from a vitamin store. A doctor would prescribe something more potent, like seal's penis, he said.
Despite the seahorse's folk status, traditional medicine still fuels the majority of global demand. To understand why, consider the size of China's population, and its health care system, Cheng said. China is home to more than one billion people. Imagine if just 1 percent bought a single seahorse every year. That would still add up to 14 million animals.
And folk remedies, while sometimes suspect, remain popular because health care is especially unpleasant in China. To make social services affordable, doctors are paid very little. "That doesn't attract top talent to the industry," Cheng said. Rather than visit a doctor they don't trust, rural people head for prestigious (and crowded) urban hospitals, to see a physician with a good reputation, he said. They can wait in long lines for hours, even sleeping on the floor, before being seen. Locally available treatments, like seahorses, are an appealing alternative.
But medical demand isn't the whole story. The problem is much bigger, researchers say. Because, it turns out, most seahorses aren't caught on purpose.
These seahorses, imported from Thailand and photographed in Hong Kong, sell for $70 (left) and $80 (right) per 50 grams. That's roughly $4 to $6 per animal in this case, estimated Lily Stanton of Project Seahorse.Anita Wan Hong / Project Seahorse
The Wrong Catch
Most fishermen don't set out to supply the traditional medicine market. They snare seahorses accidentally, using indiscriminate trawl nets, gill nets and crab traps, while angling for other creatures, said marine scientist Sarah Foster of the conservation group Project Seahorse. Bycatch would be thrown away as trash fish if not for medicinal demand.
"So even if we weren't using seahorses, they would still be caught and killed," Foster said. That makes it unfair to blame traditional medicine for seahorse declines, she added. "It's the overexploitation by non-selective fishing gear that's the problem."
Bycatch hurts seahorses both directly and indirectly: It kills millions a year, while destructive fishing gear damages their habitat by mangling fragile ecosystems, Foster said. The weighted trawl nets that snag these fish also rip up the seabed, along with the grasses, rocks and corals that seahorses cling to.
Perhaps most insidiously, bycatch keeps wild seahorses cheap — at least for now. Fishermen can sell them for very little. They'd otherwise be thrown away, after all. Prices are marked up as seahorses move from local ports to distributors, and into herbal shops worldwide. And as these animals become rarer, demand may drive the cost up further, meaning they'll just get more expensive.
Boxes of loose tea, bags of roots and other natural products line the shelves of herbal shops in San Francisco's Chinatown. Bins of animal and plant-based products are filed neatly beneath glass counters. Dried seahorses used to be common. You could buy them by the scoopful.
Nowadays, questions about seahorses are met with hesitation or silence. Seahorses are gone — or at least, less visible — in Bay Area markets.
Importers now need special permits to sell any non-native species, so shop owners have a much harder time stocking their shelves with seahorses legally. The permits, which have been required since seahorses were listed on the treaty CITES in 2002, certify that any species for sale were caught without harming wild populations, meaning herbal shops can't sell bycatch anymore.
Following permitting requirements, most of the major exporting countries banned seahorse trade. Thailand, the biggest producer, voluntarily suspended its exports in 2016. Ninety-six percent of the global trade is now illegal.
"A decline in reported trade looks like a good thing on paper," Foster said. "But that does not reflect what's really happening." Between 20 and 25 million dead, dried seahorses are still moving across borders every year, she estimated, largely from the same countries as before. Trade bans forced the industry underground, but it's still massive.
"Now we're talking about illegal wildlife trade," Foster said. Desiccated seahorses have a long shelf life and are easy to hide in suitcases. They're shipped illegally, so they don't have permits, making the black market much harder to track.
But even if the trade bans had worked, seahorses would still be dying in droves, because most are killed unintentionally by fishing gear. Regardless if seahorses are traded legally or illegally, Foster said, "what matters is how many are coming out of the water."
More selective fishing gear is one broad solution. "They need to stop trawling," Foster said. "We need much more of the ocean set aside, where these gears are not being used."
As conservationists push for long-term international solutions, aquariums, zoos and private businesses are exploring another option: captive breeding. Learning to farm seahorses, breeders say, offers a glimmer of hope for their future in the wild.
Ninety-six percent of the international trade is now illegal, but seahorses are still sold widely on the black market. Hoang Do Huu / Project Seahorse
Farming the Future
Today, most imported seahorses are wild-caught. But alternatives, like captive breeding, do exist. Farming is especially promising for the pet and aquarium trades, where captive-bred specimens gained popularity after wild ones became harder to buy.
The baby potbellied seahorses that crowded the glass at the California Academy of Sciences, for example, were born and raised in captivity thousands of miles from their native Australia.
Steven Yong sat behind the scenes at the Cal Academy, in a bright conference room framed by sleek, sliding-glass doors. Yong is the Studbook Keeper and Species Survival Program Coordinator for lined seahorses, native to the Eastern Seaboard. It's his job to know the pedigrees kept in every American Association of Zoos and Aquariums facility, and to play matchmaker by recommending which lineages should breed.
Seahorses, he said, are challenging to rear in captivity, because babies, called fry, rarely survive to adulthood. "Tiny fry need tiny food," he said. In lieu of fish flakes, most aquariums feed their seahorses brine shrimp, which are small and relatively inexpensive, but offer limited nutrition. Facilities like the Academy are growing other live food options, to mimic the dietary diversity seahorses get in the wild.
Captive breeding is one promising way ahead for seahorses, but it may not be enough. Peter Vanbillemont / Guylian Seahorses of the World
While aquariums "try to limit our wild collections," Yong said, breeding programs are still far behind those for land animals or even freshwater fish. Scientists don't know enough about many wild populations to bring them into an aquarium setting. But some day, aquarists like Yong hope to breed imperiled seahorses, so they aren't taken from the ocean.
Across the Pacific in Hawaii, Australia and Sri Lanka, seahorse farms have already cropped up. Carol Cozzi-Schmarr has raised seahorses in Kona, Hawaii, since 1998. Her farm, Ocean Rider, supplies 30 species to the pet trade and for global conservation.
"We did it to provide an alternative to taking seahorses out of the ocean," she said. "If we weren't preserving the species, no one would ever see them again." Today, Schmarr said Ocean Rider is large enough to supply the pet trade with thousands of seahorses a year.
Even so, captive breeding is unlikely to be widespread or cost-effective enough to supply the much-larger traditional medicine market, Project Seahorse's Foster cautioned. Schmarr, Foster and Yong emphasized the whole picture of bycatch, lingering market demand and habitat loss as a tangled, wicked problem. Yong questioned if captive breeding can ever really put a dent in seahorse woes. "They still have so many pressures that are causing their decline in the wild," he said.
Until fishing changes, farming won't be enough.
The seahorse trade may have moved underground, but demand, bycatch and habitat loss continue to threaten these whimsical fish.Luc Eeckhart / Guylian Seahorses of the World
The baby potbellied seahorses in San Francisco were a minority—most seahorses aren't so lucky. If global trends continue, some species could disappear from the wild entirely; museums might be the last places to see these charismatic little fish. Captive breeding and farming may help, but imagine, despite the vastness of the oceans, the last of their kind all born behind glass.
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Pangolins, a type of scaly anteater considered the world's most trafficked wild mammal, have lost more than 50 percent of their range in eastern China, according to a study published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Researchers from Beijing Forestry University, the Zoological Society of London and Imperial College, London focused on Chinese pangolins (Manis pentadactyla), which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species lists as a critically endangered species, and found that their range had shrunk by 52.2 percent in eastern China between 1970 and 2016.
There are eight species of pangolins in Africa and Asia and they are hunted on both continents for food and for their unique scales, which are used in medicines, according to BBC News.
The Chinese pangolin can be found from Nepal's Himalayan foothills, then south through southern China to Taiwan and Hong Kong.
In response to their findings, the scientists urged the Chinese government to step up their conservation efforts of the mammals.
"Pangolins have been listed in the list of China's state key protected wild animals as level II," study authors Li Yang, Xiaofeng Luan and Minhao Chen of Beijing Forestry University told BBC News. "According to our research and previous research, we suggest that [the] protection level should change into level I."
The researchers used local historical documents, fauna records, scientific surveys from nature reserves, newspapers and scientific articles to assess changes to the Chinese pangolin's range in eastern China.
While the animals roamed more than 30.41 percent of eastern China in the 1970s, by the 2000s their range had shrunken to mountainous areas, especially the Wuyi Mountains.
The researchers also assessed the relative influence of climate change and human encroachment or poaching on the changes in range and found that direct human actions like poaching were responsible for its dramatic shrinking, according to Phys.org.
In fact, the researchers found that as the pangolin's range declined, their preferred habitats also increased in elevation, suggesting that they were fleeing the development of roads at lower altitudes that made it easier for humans to transport captured animals.
The researchers also made recommendations for how governments and communities could protect the animals on a local and regional level.
They suggested creating or expanding nature reserves and engaging local governments and communities in pangolin conservation efforts.
They noted that only 5.62 percent of the 51,268.4 square kilometers (approximately 19,794.8 square miles) that their research determined was the primary conservation area for pangolins was covered by existing reserves.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Ninety-five percent of Earth's lemur population is threatened, experts warned this week, underscoring their unfortunate position as the world's most endangered primates.
Of the planet's 111 known lemur species and subspecies, 105 can be provisionally evaluated as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable, a group of primate specialists convened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) determined.
"This is, without a doubt, the highest percentage of threat for any large group of mammals and for any large group of vertebrates," Global Wildlife Conservation's chief conservation officer Russ Mittermeier, said in a press release.
Mittermeier also chaired the primate specialist group that assessed the lemur's conservation status for an update of the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species.
The primates, which are unique to the island of Madagascar, are threatened due to habitat loss from agriculture, illegal logging, charcoal production and mining, according to the IUCN. What's more, this ongoing destruction impacts the nation's striking biodiversity as a whole, Mittermeier pointed out.
"This assessment not only highlights the very high extinction risk Madagascar's unique lemurs face, but it is indicative of the grave threats to Madagascar biodiversity as a whole," he said. "Madagascar's unique and wonderful species are its greatest asset, its most distinctive brand and the basis for a major ecotourism industry."
The experts provisionally classified 38 lemur species as critically endangered, 44 endangered and 23 vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. This represents an increase of 12 threatened species from the IUCN's last lemur population assessment in July 2012. The largest jump was seen in the critically endangered category, which rose from 24 species to 38.
Lemur species up-listed from endangered to critically endangered include the indri, the largest of the living lemurs, as well as Madame Berthe's mouse lemur, the world's smallest primate.
Other critically endangered species include the Blue-eyed Black Lemur, as seen in this tweet. It's one of the few primate species other than humans that has blue eyes.
Sounding The Alarm: Madagascar’s Weird And Wonderful Lemurs On The Brink https://t.co/lN8vtic8UH https://t.co/XLno3oNeFX— Global Wildlife Conservation (@Global Wildlife Conservation)1533174959.0
Besides habitat loss, hunting the animals for food and capturing them as pets has emerged as a new threat.
"This is very alarming, and we have noticed a particularly worrying increase in the level of hunting of lemurs taking place, including larger-scale commercial hunting, which is unlike anything we have seen before in Madagascar," said Bristol Zoological Society Conservation Director Christoph Schwitzer, who helped organize the assessment, in the press release.
Schwitzer continued, "We are investing a lot of time and resources into addressing these issues and will be implementing our Lemur Action Plan over the coming years, which we are confident will make a significant difference to the current situation."
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By Hans Nicholas Jong
The report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) comes amid mounting debate about the use of palm oil, with the European Union seeking to phase out the use of the ubiquitous commodity in biofuels by 2030, citing environmental and human rights violations in the production of the commodity.
But existing vegetable oils that could theoretically replace palm oil would be far more damaging to the environment because they would need more land, according to the IUCN report "Palm Oil and Biodiversity."
The production of palm oil is characterized by its high yield relative to other vegetable oils, meaning more of it can be produced from a given area of farmland than other oil crops. The latter require up to nine times more land than oil palms to produce the same amount of oil.
Palm oil is currently produced from just 10 percent of all farmland dedicated to growing oil crops, yet accounts for 35 percent of the global volume of all vegetable oils.
"Half of the world's population uses palm oil in food, and if we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry oils will likely take its place," IUCN director general Inger Andersen said in a press release.
Indonesia and Malaysia are the world's biggest producers of palm oil, accounting for a combined 90 percent of global supply. However, the expansion of oil palm estates, particularly in Indonesia, has long been criticized for driving deforestation across much of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, as well as stoking social conflicts over land and other resources with forest and indigenous communities.
Feeding global demand for vegetable oils with other crops would only shift the damage elsewhere, to ecosystems such as the tropical forests and savannas of South America, the IUCN report said. One such oil crop widely cultivated in South America is soy, which has already had a massive negative impact on biodiversity in the region. Studies have linked the cultivation of soy to lower bird diversity in Brazil and Argentina. Much of Brazil's soy production takes place in the Cerrado, a vast tropical savanna that's home to rare and threatened species found nowhere else.
A recent report by the global environmental campaign NGO Mighty Earth found that 30,000 acres of forest, or about 12,100 hectares, were being cleared to plant new soy fields in northern Argentina, which supply some of the companies producing soy-based biodiesel for export to the U.S.
"When we look at soybean use of production there, we [sent] a team to Argentina, and we found tremendous damage to the forest," Henry Waxman, chairman of Mighty Earth, said at a panel discussion at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum in Norway on June 28.
The IUCN report emphasized that even though palm oil was the most efficient oil crop, it needed to be deforestation-free to halt the destruction of biodiversity in Southeast Asia and other regions where it's produced. The current practice of producing palm oil remains highly destructive, leading to the decimation of tropical rainforests and the species that depend on them, the report said. Orangutans, gibbons and tigers are among the 193 threatened species on the IUCN's Red List that would be affected by the continued expansion of oil palm plantations into forest areas—a menagerie of biodiversity representing half of the world's threatened mammals and almost two-thirds of threatened birds.
"Palm oil is decimating South East Asia's rich diversity of species as it eats into swathes of tropical forest," said Erik Meijaard, the report's lead author and chair of IUCN's oil palm task force. "But if it is replaced by much larger areas of rapeseed, soy or sunflower fields, different natural ecosystems and species may suffer."
Rainforest cleared for an oil palm estate in Indonesian BorneoSandy Watt for The Gecko Project
The report found that by far the biggest gains for biodiversity in an oil palm context are through avoiding further deforestation, which can be achieved through improved planning of new plantations and better management of forest patches left untouched in plantations.
The report also recommended stakeholders push for greater demand for sustainably produced palm oil, thereby putting pressure on producers to improve their practices.
"With most palm oil being supplied to India, China, and Indonesia, consumer awareness in these countries needs to be raised to ensure that this demand will materialize," the report read.
Adrian Suharto, the head of stakeholder engagement at Finland-based biodiesel supplier Neste Corporation, agreed with the report's recommendations.
"The most important thing is that what you buy is sustainable and you educate people and help support the local government in Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, and everywhere else to understand the importance of having sustainable production [of palm oil]," he said at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum.
The European Federation for Transport and Environment, an umbrella for NGOs working in the field of transport and the environment, said the best solution would be to completely remove biofuel mandates and incentives for crop-based biofuels that force people to use biofuel. It cited as a case in point the EU's 2009 policy requiring every EU member state to have 10 percent renewable fuels by 2020.
The EU is now revising its renewable energy policy, which will remove the incentives for crop-based fuels starting from 2020. It will also phase out the use of palm oil in biodiesel, which Laura Buffet, the manager for clean fuels at the transport and environment federation, said was a move in the right direction.
"I agree that if you keep the same drivers and the same high target, and you just remove one feedstock from the equation, it'll be likely to be filled by something else," she said at the Oslo forum. If those alternatives are soy or rapeseed oil, she added, "you will also look at indirect impact and deforestation, so it's not going to solve entirely the issue."
"That's why we're asking for reducing or completely removing the mandate, and that's going to be the best solution."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
By Steve Williams
A new report indicates that more than half of wild primate species are facing extinction. With nearly three quarters of the world's primate population already under threat, is there anything we can do to save our primate cousins?
The study, which was conducted by a team of 31 leading scientists from across the globe, looked at the current data we have on the state of primates around the world and the challenges they face, utilizing data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) among other sources. While we have several smaller studies that give us a worrying insight into the decline of primates, this research aims to provide a broader snapshot—and the results aren't encouraging.
2 Orangutans Who Spent Their Lives in Cages Are Returned to Their Forest Home https://t.co/kevnJBquJ5 @orangutans @opfuk— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1482807008.0
Of the total 504 primate species that we have on record it is estimated that 60 percent are under threat of extinction, while 75 percent have populations that are declining. What's more, the researchers believe that unless we take concerted action right now, several primate species may have as little as 25 years before extinction claims them.
To give an idea of how desperate the situation is, the Hainan gibbon, which is found in China, is now thought to have reached just 25 individuals. In fact, 22 out of the 26 primate species residing in China are now either critically endangered or under threat. The picture is similar in other areas like Indonesia and Madagascar, the latter of which is home to lemurs and shares some of the highest burden of primate population loss in the world.
Unfortunately, even when it comes to species who have received global attention and are being protected with conservation efforts, the picture is still worrying.
For example, figures show that the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan saw its habitat decline by nearly sixty percent during the period 1985 and 2007. One of the major contributors to this problem has been land clearing so that humans can use areas that were once the orangutan's home for farming.
While we have previously learned that orangutan populations have shown some surprising resilience to this threat, they cannot survive the onslaught for much longer. Though campaigners have urged tighter controls on things like palm oil and soy production, which together with livestock farming is leading to massive deforestation and thereby driving down habitable areas for the orangutan, action has been sadly lacking.
One thing the study does highlight that intersects with human political development is that civil unrest in the primates' home countries may be one driving force behind this rapid descent toward extinction. In countries where food scarcity has become a problem due to civil war and internal conflict, the scientists noted people may turn to hunting primates as a source of food and particularly as a source of rich protein.
Furthermore, in countries where poverty and a lack of job opportunities create systemic financial burdens, people may turn to hunting primates and sell them on the black market. Obviously both of these are terrible, but unless we tackle the root cause of these actions, namely extreme poverty and conflict, it's unlikely we can create meaningful change.
So can we do anything to stop this decline? The answer is yes and one way actually comes down to many of our buying choices. While global governments can help by utilizing international aid as well as peacemaking to ensure that nations are protecting their primates, we can use our spending power to avoid products that are going to contribute to deforestation and, as a result, species decline.
This Map Shows How Your Consumption Habits Impact Wildlife Thousands of Miles Away https://t.co/ni7ydIcCKN @foeeurope @globalactplan— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1484216114.0
Prof. Jo Setchell from Durham University, one of the researchers in this study, is quoted by the BBC as saying, "Simple examples are don't buy tropical timber, don't eat palm oil." In terms of broader actions, Setchell also points out, "we need to raise local, regional and global public awareness of the plight of the world's primates and what this means for ecosystem health, human culture and ultimately human survival."
Given that primates are our closest animal cousins, they can teach us so much about ourselves. They also provide a vital link to the animal kingdom that teaches us about other species, too. As primates are often a key species in biodiversity and are a good marker for wider habitat loss, their extinction would signal not just the loss of a profoundly important part of our heritage, but it would mean that the natural world as we know it will have changed fundamentally and not for the better.
If you would like more tips on how you can help save species like the orangutan, Care2 has a guide. We also have information on how to choose products that do not contribute to deforestation and primate loss.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Care2.
By Matthew Savoca
Imagine that you are constantly eating, but slowly starving to death. Hundreds of species of marine mammals, fish, birds and sea turtles face this risk every day when they mistake plastic debris for food.
Plastic debris can be found in oceans around the world. Scientists have estimated that there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic weighing more than a quarter of a million tons floating at sea globally. Most of this plastic debris comes from sources on land and ends up in oceans and bays due largely to poor waste management.
Plastic does not biodegrade, but at sea large pieces of plastic break down into increasingly smaller fragments that are easy for animals to consume. Nothing good comes to animals that mistake plastic for a meal. They may suffer from malnutrition, intestinal blockage or slow poisoning from chemicals in or attached to the plastic.
Many seabird species, including the blue petrel (Halobaena caerulea), consume plastic at sea because algae on the plastic produce an odor that resembles their food sources. J.J. Harrison
Despite the pervasiveness and severity of this problem, scientists still do not fully understand why so many marine animals make this mistake in the first place. It has been commonly assumed, but rarely tested, that seabirds eat plastic debris because it looks like the birds' natural prey. However, in a study that my coauthors and I just published in Science Advances, we propose a new explanation: For many imperiled species, marine plastic debris also produces an odor that the birds associate with food.
A Nose for Sulfur
Perhaps the most severely impacted animals are tube-nosed seabirds, a group that includes albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels. These birds are pelagic: they often remain at sea for years at a time, searching for food over hundreds or thousands of square kilometers of open ocean, visiting land only to breed and rear their young. Many are also at risk of extinction. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, nearly half of the approximately 120 species of tube-nosed seabirds are either threatened, endangered or critically endangered.
Although there are many fish in the sea, areas that reliably contain food are very patchy. In other words, tube-nosed seabirds are searching for a "needle in a haystack" when they forage. They may be searching for fish, squid, krill or other items, and it is possible that plastic debris visually resembles these prey. But we believe that tells only part of a more complex story.
A sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus) takes off from the ocean's surface in Morro Bay, California. Mike Baird / Flickr
Pioneering research by Dr. Thomas Grubb Jr. in the early 1970s showed that tube-nosed seabirds use their powerful sense of smell or olfaction, to find food effectively, even when heavy fog obscures their vision. Two decades later, Dr. Gabrielle Nevitt and colleagues found that certain species of tube-nosed seabirds are attracted to dimethyl sulfide (DMS), a natural scented sulfur compound. DMS comes from marine algae, which produce a related chemical called DMSP inside their cells. When those cells are damaged—for example, when algae die, or when marine grazers like krill eat it—DMSP breaks down, producing DMS. The smell of DMS alerts seabirds that food is nearby—not the algae, but the krill that are consuming the algae.
Dr. Nevitt and I wondered whether these seabirds were being tricked into consuming marine plastic debris because of the way it smelled. To test this idea, my coauthors and I created a database collecting every study we could find that recorded plastic ingestion by tube-nosed seabirds over the past 50 years. This database contained information from over 20,000 birds of more than 70 species. It showed that species of birds that use DMS as a foraging cue eat plastic nearly six times as frequently as species that are not attracted to the smell of DMS while foraging.
To further test our theory, we needed to analyze how marine plastic debris smells. To do so, I took beads of the three most common types of floating plastic—polypropylene and low-and high-density polyethylene—and sewed them inside custom mesh bags, which we attached to two buoys off of California's central coast. We hypothesized that algae would coat the plastic at sea, a process known as biofouling and produce DMS.
Author Matthew Savoca deploys experimental plastic debris at a buoy in Monterey Bay, California.
After the plastic had been immersed for about a month at sea, I retrieved it and brought it to a lab that is not usually a stop for marine scientists: the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science at UC Davis. There we used a gas chromatograph, specifically built to detect sulfur odors in wine, beer and other food products, to measure the chemical signature of our experimental marine debris. Sulfur compounds have a very distinct odor; to humans they smell like rotten eggs or decaying seaweed on the beach, but to some species of seabirds DMS smells delicious!
Sure enough, every sample of plastic we collected was coated with algae and had substantial amounts of DMS associated with it. We found levels of DMS that were higher than normal background concentrations in the environment and well above levels that tube-nosed seabirds can detect and use to find food. These results provide the first evidence that, in addition to looking like food, plastic debris may also confuse seabirds that hunt by smell.
When Trash Becomes Bait
Our findings have important implications. First, they suggest that plastic debris may be a more insidious threat to marine life than we previously believed. If plastic looks and smells like food, it is more likely to be mistaken for prey than if it just looks like food.
Second, we found through data analysis that small, secretive burrow-nesting seabirds, such as prions, storm petrels and shearwaters, are more likely to confuse plastic for food than their more charismatic, surface-nesting relatives such as albatrosses. This difference matters because populations of hard-to-observe burrow-nesting seabirds are more difficult to count than surface-nesting species, so they often are not surveyed as closely. Therefore, we recommend increased monitoring of these less charismatic species that may be at greater risk of plastic ingestion.
Finally, our results provide a deeper understanding for why certain marine organisms are inexorably trapped into mistaking plastic for food. The patterns we found in birds should also be investigated in other groups of species, like fish or sea turtles. Reducing marine plastic pollution is a long-term, large-scale challenge, but figuring out why some species continue to mistake plastic for food is the first step toward finding ways to protect them.
Matthew Savoca is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Group in Ecology at UC Davis.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.