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Toxic Algae Plagues U.S.

Health + Wellness
Toxic Algae Plagues U.S.

National Wildlife Federation

Summer should be a time for fishing, boating and swimming with family on our nation’s lakes. Yet instead of fresh clear waters, many are encountering mats of thick blue-green harmful algal blooms (HABs)—also known as toxic algae.

A new, first-of-its-kind national online map by the communications firm Resource Media shows that 21 states across the U.S. have issued health advisories and warnings related to harmful algal blooms at 147 different locations on lakes, rivers and ponds this summer.

In partnership with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, Resource Media is also releasing a report, Toxic Algae: Coming Soon to a Lake Near You? The report provides a look at how extreme weather and an increase in nonpoint source pollution from agriculture and failing septic systems are spurring its spread. Health impacts and economic costs are also reviewed. 

The scourge continues to fly beneath the radar of national attention, in part because:

  1. No federal agency currently tracks lake closures or health warnings nationally.
  2. Few economic studies have assessed the national cost of freshwater hazardous algal blooms.
  3. A minority of states monitor lakes and rivers for algal-related toxins.

Tracking of toxic algae showed that this summer:

  • New York State led the U.S., with warnings issued at 50 different lakes and ponds.
  • For the first time, Kentucky officials found toxic algae at four lakes, which collectively draw more than 5 million visitors a year. Some visitors to the lakes complained of rashes and intestinal problems.
  • Western Lake Erie continues to experience a resurgence of toxic algal blooms, leading to health advisories and “do not drink” orders being issued by the state of Ohio. In contrast, the state of Michigan, which shares some of the same waters but does not currently have a formal monitoring or advisory program, issued no health advisories during that same time period.
  • In southeast Florida, a massive toxic algae outbreak covered St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon with fluorescent green slime this summer, prompting warnings from health officials to not touch the water. Scores of dolphins, manatees, birds and fish have died.

“No one wants a green, sick lake,” said Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director, National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “And yet that’s what communities across the country are facing. Excessive runoff is feeding an explosion of toxic algae that is choking our waters, closing our beaches, and posing a threat to people, pets and wildlife. This is a national problem that demands a national solution.”

Heavy rains this spring and summer increased the volume of chemical fertilizer and manure from crops and livestock operations entering waterways across the U.S. Scientists caution that these conditions, plus record-high summer temperatures, contribute to the spread of toxic algae and associated lake closures. Cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, can produce liver and nerve toxins that make people and pets sick, and even kill dogs. In addition to public health threats, toxic algae blooms in lake communities have a significant effect on local economies by reducing lake-related tourism.

“Toxic algae outbreaks slimed Florida’s inland waters this summer, killing wildlife, hurting property values and devastating tourism revenue,” said Manley Fuller, president, Florida Wildlife Federation. Thousands of residents have protested, calling for a statewide emergency management plan to stop the toxic slime.”

The report urges federal public officials to set limits on the amount of phosphorous allowed into waters; to maintain efforts to restore the nation’s great waters, including the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico and others; and to pass a strong Farm Bill that pays farmers to take specific actions to help protect soil and water quality.

Congress’ failure to reauthorize the Farm Bill jeopardizes funding for programs like the Conservation Stewardship program aimed at helping farmers protect water quality through implementation of agricultural best management practices. Those include planting cover crops, restoring wetlands or creating buffer strips to filter farm runoff.

More federal attention to the problem is needed. “The reach and extent of harmful algal blooms has likely been under-reported due to the lack of a national program to track health warnings and lakes closures,” said Alan Wilson, associate professor of limnology at Auburn University. “Regional monitoring networks could help fill this important scientific void, and tell us more about how climate change, land use and nutrient pollution influence HAB frequency and intensity."

Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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