The Slow Revival of America’s Grizzlies
By Sterling Miller
During the winter of 1804-05, when they were camped for the season in North Dakota, the Lewis and Clark Expedition heard the Mandan Indians speak of a fearsome great “white” bear that they’d encounter further west. Sure enough, the following year they became the first non-indigenous Americans to encounter grizzly bears. They shot or shot at almost every one they saw and verified that a wounded grizzly was indeed a fearsome beast, which ranged across the Great Plains and further west across the Rocky Mountains. Quite a different animal indeed than the black bears they were familiar with east of the Mississippi.
The pattern set by Lewis and Clark of shooting at every bear seen continued for more than 200 years, and by the mid-20th century grizzly bears had been eliminated from 98 percent of their former range south of Canada. Gone were the grizzly bears of Mexico, Arizona, California and the Great Plains. Grizzly bears survived only in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, and in some of the wild areas along the continental divide between these two parks.
When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, grizzly bears were one of the first species selected for protection under the Act, which remains the best law in the world for conserving endangered species. Under the protection of the Endangered Species Act and with the assistance of the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho (where grizzly bears still remained), the downward slide in grizzly bear population was reversed. The Yellowstone population was sufficiently secure to be proposed for delisting under the Endangered Species Act and management authority returned from the federal government to the states. Farther north, along the Continental Divide and into Glacier Park, populations also expanded, and within the last few years grizzly bears have once again begun to venture onto the Great Plains along the Missouri River—not too far west from where Lewis and Clark first encountered them.
Grizzly bears are one of the most difficult animals for conservationists to save because they have very low reproductive rates and require a vast area to sustain a viable population. Additionally, grizzly bears can become adept predators on livestock, which are easy prey compared to wild animals like the elk and bison they prey on naturally. Even more problematic, grizzly bears occasionally (although very rarely) attack people, usually because the people are not behaving correctly in grizzly bear country. Lurid tales of such attacks, however infrequent, create an impression of an exceptionally aggressive and dangerous animal—stories that don’t mesh with the facts. For example, more people are killed and injured in Yellowstone Park by bison than by grizzly bears, and far more people die in the park from traffic accidents and drowning than at the paws of grizzly bears.
Grizzly bears (also sometimes called “brown” bears) have the scientific name Ursus arctos. Grizzly bears, black bears, and polar bears are the three bear species that occur in North America. Modern wildlife management and conservation efforts have been successful in parts of the U.S., but there is significant political resistance to expanding conservation to new areas that could sustain grizzly bear conservation.
Worse, in places like Alaska—which used to have sensible management of grizzly bears and other predators—have become focused on encouraging hunters to kill as many grizzly bears as they can in the hope of reducing populations and thereby increasing the number of moose and caribou available for hunters. The current attitude toward grizzly bears in Alaska is akin to attitudes that existed 100 years ago in the 48 U.S. states, and poses a threat to the largest population of grizzly bears in North America.
Grizzly bear populations are out-of-the-woods in a few areas thanks to conservation efforts, but much remains to be done.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>