By Tara Lohan
Earlier this month a series of lightning strikes touched off dozens of fires across California, burning 1.5 million acres, choking cities with smoke and claiming at least six lives. Outside California, large wildfires are burning in Colorado and Oregon, too.
A black-backed Woodpecker attending a nest in a tree cavity in a recently burned forest in the Deschutes National Forest, Oregon. Skip Russell, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Salvage logging three years following California's Rim Fire. Tara Lohan
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By Max G. Levy
In seabird after seabird, Anna Robuck found something concerning: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, lurking around vital organs.
Journeying Across the Globe<p>Coastal environments seem especially vulnerable to PFAS seeping from the <a href="https://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article235963052.html" target="_blank">chemical plants</a> and military bases <a href="https://www.ewg.org/news-and-analysis/2020/04/updated-map-suspected-and-confirmed-pfas-pollution-us-military-bases" target="_blank">responsible for heavy contamination</a>. <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/ccwagner" target="_blank">Charlotte Wagner</a>, a researcher at Harvard University studying the global transport of pollutants, says it's still unclear what fraction of PFAS pollutants remain contained at their source, and what fraction has already leached into other environments.</p><p>But the fact that they do spread — and far — is clear. They generally wind up in oceans, according to Wagner. And not just the ones nearby. <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15913661/" target="_blank">Studies</a> in the early 2000s showed that PFAS survived decades-long journeys from manufacturers to remote ocean basins without breaking down.</p><p>"The ocean is not this static pool or bathtub," she says. Large-scale ocean circulation moves pollutants huge distances across the globe. Some varieties of PFAS may degrade slightly over the course of years, until they convert into one of the more stable "terminal PFAS" subgroups, including PFAAs.</p>
Measuring Harm to Ocean Life<p>In North Carolina's Cape Fear River, striped bass carrying <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019334762" target="_blank">high levels of PFAS </a>showed distinct signs of impaired immune and liver function. But in the vastness of ocean water, can PFAS levels be high enough to cause harm?</p><p>"In recent years there have been increases in immune-based diseases in turtles and dolphins," says DeWitt. One of the most <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22109712/" target="_blank">well-studied</a> health effects of PFAS is immune dysfunction. Most experiments are limited to humans, rodents and chickens, but researchers are piecing together the role of PFAS in marine immune issues.</p><p>One study concluded that PFOS, a phased-out PFAS that still circulates today, triggers <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5831401/" target="_blank">"chronic immune activation</a>" in bottlenose dolphins. A similar link between PFOS and susceptibility to disease appeared in <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16955890/" target="_blank">sea otters</a>. Other research links multiple PFAS to hormonal changes in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2016.07.015" target="_blank">polar bear brains</a>. But these aquatic wildlife health studies are few and far between.</p><p>"PFAS in wildlife is kind of the <em>wild west</em>," says Robuck. "Wildlife are inherently difficult to study in a lot of ways."</p><p>Zeroing on the health effects for individual species is tricky because scientists lack baseline data about stress responses and pollutant levels. They have no choice but to presume consequences in wildlife based on hormonal, immune and reproductive effects in lab animals. For Robuck, that means judging how a pelican will respond to its measured PFAS levels according to health data collected from a chicken. "That's a really crappy comparison," she says.</p><p>In one sense, the method is conservative: Lab animals are well cared for, so their health effects may be a best-case scenario compared to the stressful baseline of wild animals' experience. But it also means we don't have an accurate sense of what dangerous thresholds are for most aquatic life — despite a parade of red flags.</p>
Endless Stream of Pollutants<p>Part of the problem is the sheer number of different compounds. Of the thousands of known PFAS, studies have only deduced health thresholds for a handful. Scientists screening their effects simply can't keep up with the pace.</p><p>The chemical compounds that fall under the PFAS umbrella are also not all the same. Some are long, bulky molecules; others are smaller and more agile. Some forms tend to naturally convert into others; others don't degrade whatsoever. Each molecule has the potential to be more toxic or bioaccumulative than the next. But for a lot of PFAS, Wagner says, scientists don't even have standardized methods of <em>detecting </em>them.</p><p>To make matters worse, even as some of the most dangerous chemicals are being phased out, companies are making alternatives. But they <a href="https://www.ewg.org/release/epa-genx-nearly-toxic-notorious-non-stick-chemicals-it-replaced" target="_blank">may not be any safer</a> than what they're replacing. And scientists have found these alternatives are also accumulating in the bodies of <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214158819300145?casa_token=6t17JUQM74gAAAAA:igHTxRV6z9RPhf1UNqwvbgD9iARSODj4WJtavRsmTbF6UUvn2P1YXirvBya2VC094wm8HMxb3A" target="_blank">fish and polar bears</a>.</p><p>"It seems that we haven't learned anything from the past," says Belén González-Gaya, an analytical chemist at the University of Basque Country in Spain. "We keep on substituting compounds [for] others without any knowledge of biological effects."</p><p><a href="https://www.ewg.org/experts/sydney-evans.php" target="_blank">Sydney Evans</a>, a research scientist for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, suggests that researchers shouldn't have to prove the health risks for thousands of similar compounds in order to warrant regulatory action. "The burden needs to be on these companies and manufacturers to prove their compounds are safe," she says.</p><p>And while there is much we don't know about the majority of PFAS, experts argue that we do know enough to assume they all share fundamental features: persistence, bioaccumulation and health risks. For this reason a group of scientists recently <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.estlett.0c00255" target="_blank">published a call</a> for governments and companies to treat all PFAS, old and new, as a single hazardous group.</p><p>"It's really the only way that we can be ahead of the curve," says Wagner, who cowrote the article. "Rather than always realizing that a compound is toxic once it's already everywhere and we measure it on a remote ice-site somewhere in Greenland."</p><p>To shut off the flow of PFAS into the ocean, scientists say that manufacturers should phase out the chemicals and focus on proving safer alternatives.</p><p>With so many open questions, Robuck hopes to see research that more closely predicts threats to marine life — and by extension people, too.</p><p>"As humans, we rely on every natural resource under the sun," she says. "When we undercut a healthy environment, we undercut our own health."</p>
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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 John R. Platt
The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming by Eric Holthaus<p>Billed as "the first hopeful book about climate change." Holthaus, a meteorologist turned climate journalist, explores several major scenarios under which we could get to carbon-zero over the next three decades and save the planet. Along the way he also encourages another radical idea: that we relearn how to embrace the Earth and our relationship with it — and maybe our relationship with ourselves along the way.</p>
Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It by Jamie Margolin<p>An essential book by one of the country's most engaging young climate activists. Margolin cofounded the action group Zero Hour and helped energize 2018's record-breaking Youth Climate March. Now she shares her experience and expertise — along with that of other activists — and offers advice on everything from organizing peaceful protests to protecting your mental health in a time of crisis. Greta Thunberg provides the foreword.</p>
When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids by Abigail Gewirtz<p>A wide-ranging book by a child psychologist that teaches parents to help stressed kids of all ages deal with the world's ever-growing multitude of crises, ranging from climate change to active-shooter drills — and yes, COVID-19. Oh yeah, and along the way the book aims to help parents deal with their own anxieties about these issues.</p>
Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe by Mario Alejandro Ariza<p>Environmental and economic collapse go hand in hand for Miami, Florida — and this book provides a poignant first-person investigation into a metropolis that could one day soon be underwater. (Read our full review <a href="https://therevelator.org/miami-climate-ariza/" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Health of People, Health of Planet and Our Responsibility: Climate Change, Air Pollution and Health<p>A wide-ranging, open-access (as in free) academic book addressing how climate change damages peoples' health, covering everything from the cardiovascular effects of air pollution to the ethics of climate justice. There are even chapters about how the climate crisis will affect our mental health and religious faiths. Edited by Wael K. Al-Delaimy, Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, with dozens of contributors from around the world, the book is <a href="https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-030-31125-4" target="_blank">available for download</a> in its entirety or on a chapter-by-chapter basis.</p>
Who Killed Berta Cáceres? by Nina Lakhani<p>This isn't <em>exactly</em> a climate book, but it's a must-read and close enough in topic to belong on this month's list. Subtitled "Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender's Battle for the Planet," this powerful investigation digs into the brutal murder of an activist who led the fight against a hydroelectric dam being built on her peoples' sacred river in Honduras. In an age when hydropower is being embraced in some corners as a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels, we need to remember that dams are often built on blood and stolen land.</p>
Paying the Land by Joe Sacco<p>The author, an acclaimed journalist/cartoonist best known for his graphic novels about war zones, travels to a different kind of conflict: the fossil-fuel and mining industries' destructive influence on a First Nations community in the Canadian Northwest Territories. Heartbreaking and powerful, this book drives home that the climate crisis was affecting people long <em>before</em> temperatures started to rise.</p>
The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move by Sonia Shah<p>Climate change is already forcing people, animals and plants to shift where they live — an often-dangerous prospect fraught with potential consequences and conflict. But is migration also a <em>solution</em> to the climate crisis? Shah looks deeply into human and natural history — not to mention our history of xenophobia — to show how we can effectively embrace compassionate laws, wildlife corridors and permeable international borders to benefit a changing world.</p>
Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World edited by John Freeman<p>In this hybrid book of nonfiction, fiction, essays and poems, an all-star lineup of international writers addresses how climate change will exacerbate the gap between rich and poor around the world and put millions of people at greater risk. Margaret Atwood, Anuradha Roy, Lauren Groff and Chinelo Okparanta are among the notable contributors.</p>
The Hidden Life of Ice: Dispatches from a Disappearing World by Marco Tedesco<p>A noted climate scientist takes us on a journey to Greenland to discuss its melting beauty and the secrets that researchers are uncovering beneath the ice. Part science book, part history lesson, part travelogue, this book puts the reader on the front line to illuminate the climate crisis and what we're losing in the process. Co-written by journalist Alberto Flores d'Arcais; Elizabeth Kolbert (<em>The Sixth Extinction</em>) provides the foreword.</p>
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy<p>A near-future novel about a world almost destroyed by climate change and overconsumption, narrated by a woman whose dark secrets and haunted past echo the melting ice and extinctions that surround her and a ship's crew as they follow the final migration of the world's last surviving birds. Mysterious and melancholy, but as much about the quest for the future as what the characters have lost.</p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/john/" target="_blank">John R. Platt</a> is the editor of <em>The Revelator</em>. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in <em>Scientific American</em>, <em>Audubon</em>, <em>Motherboard</em>, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/climate-books-august-2020/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>. </em><em></em></p>
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>
By Hope Dickens
Molly Craig's day begins with feeding hungry baby birds at 6 a.m. The birds need to be fed every 15 minutes until 7 at night. If she's not feeding them, other staff at the Fox Valley Wildlife Center in Elburn, Illinois take turns helping the hungry orphans.
By Tara Lohan
Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.
Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.
"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."
Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.
It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.
Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.
Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.
One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.
The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.
They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.
"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."
That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.
And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.
"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."
Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.
"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.
The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.
"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By John R. Platt
Here at The Revelator, we love a good shark story.
The problem is, there aren't all that many good shark stories. According to recent research, sharks and their relatives represent one of the world's most imperiled groups of species. Of the more than 1,250 known species of sharks, skates, rays and chimeras — collectively known as chondrichthyan fishes — at least a quarter are threatened with extinction.
Speaking of Shark Week:<p><a href="https://therevelator.org/film-fakery-shark-week-conservation/" target="_blank">Film Fakery: Does Shark Week Harm Conservation Efforts?</a></p>
Big Questions:<p><a href="https://therevelator.org/shark-conservation-success/" target="_blank">Are We Ready for Shark Conservation to Succeed?</a></p>
Sharks and Fisheries:<p><a href="https://therevelator.org/protect-sharks-overfishing/" target="_blank">How to Protect Sharks From Overfishing</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/florida-anglers-endangered-sharks/" target="_blank">Florida Anglers Are Targeting Endangered Sharks</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/recreational-fishing-environmental-impact/" target="_blank">Fishing for Fun? It Has a Bigger Environmental Impact Than We Thought</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/fins-protected-sharks-traded/" target="_blank">Fins from Protected Shark Species Still Heavily Traded</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/essential-unprotected-fish-habitats/" target="_blank">'Essential' But Unprotected: How the United States Fails Its Most Important Fish Habitats</a></p>
Sharks and the Extinction Crisis:<p><a href="https://therevelator.org/lost-shark/" target="_blank">Found But Lost: Newly Discovered Shark May Be Extinct</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/rhino-rays-cites/" target="_blank">A Chance to Save the 'Rhinos of the Sea'</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/one-million-extinctions/" target="_blank">What Losing 1 Million Species Means for the Planet — and Humanity</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/extinction-crisis-keep-feeling-overwhelmed/" target="_blank">The Extinction Crisis is Here. How do We Keep from Feeling Overwhelmed?</a></p>
Broader Ocean and Conservation Issues:<p><a href="https://therevelator.org/ocean-biodiversity-mpa/" target="_blank">The Top 10 Ocean Biodiversity Hotspots to Protect</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/protect-species-environmental-dna/" target="_blank">How Do You Protect a Species You Can't See?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/global-ocean-treaty/" target="_blank">Here's Our Best Opportunity to Save the Oceans — and Ourselves</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/coral-reef-replanting/" target="_blank">Coral in Crisis: Can Replanting Efforts Halt Reefs' Death Spiral?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/oceans-challenges/" target="_blank">What Are the Biggest Challenges for Saving the Oceans?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/empowering-communities-save-ocean/" target="_blank">Empowering Communities to Save the Ocean</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/toxic-plastic-pollution-food-chain/" target="_blank">Something Fishy: Toxic Plastic Pollution Is Traveling Up the Food Chain</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/trump-offshore-oil-wildlife/" target="_blank">Trump's Offshore Oil Plan: Like Nothing the Country Has Ever Seen</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/john/" target="_blank">John R. Platt</a> <em>is the editor of <em>The Revelator</em>. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in <em>Scientific American</em>, <em>Audubon</em>, <em>Motherboard</em>, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/sharks-imperiled/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>.</em></p>
By Olivia Sullivan
One of the many unfortunate outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the quick and obvious increase in single-use plastic products. After COVID-19 arrived in the United States, many grocery stores prohibited customers from using reusable bags, coffee shops banned reusable mugs, and takeout food with plastic forks and knives became the new normal.
Kamikatsu, Japan. Yuki Shimazu / CC BY-SA 2.0<p>This reveals a worldwide truth: Even products made mostly from easily recyclable materials like paper, aluminum or cardboard can't be sorted and recycled if they contain plastic components that can't be separated.</p><p>The truth is, some materials simply aren't recyclable, and <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782" target="_blank">only 9%</a> of all the plastic ever created has <em>been </em>recycled. As Kamikatsu's residents have painstakingly proven, no matter how many categories consumers sort their waste into or how diligently they scrub down their plastic food containers, most plastics <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Greenpeace-Report-Circular-Claims-Fall-Flat.pdf" target="_blank">cannot be recycled</a>.</p><p>Meanwhile we keep hearing the <a href="https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/504091-the-insanity-of-plastic-recycling" target="_blank">industry-driven narrative</a> that recycling can stop plastic from choking our marine life or littering our natural places. That's intentionally misleading.</p><p>Around the world, as in Kamikatsu, plastic is everywhere. With excessive amounts of plastic products and packaging stocked on store shelves, it's clear that zero-waste goals cannot be achieved by consumers alone. Plastic is not a "zero waste" material, so in order to achieve zero waste, companies must stop making so much plastic.</p>
Marine debris collected at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. NOAA<p>We can achieve that. The first steps include banning some of the worst and most polluting single-use plastics, placing a pause on the development of new plastics facilities, and protecting state and local governments' ability to enact more stringent regulations.</p><p>We must also shift the paradigm by holding producers responsible for the waste they create. By requiring new plastic products to contain recycled plastic and making producers fund the collection and recycling of plastic products, producers would be incentivized to design longer lasting products that can <em>actually</em> be reused and recycled.</p><p>These goals — outlined in numerous scientific studies and advocacy reports — have some forward motion. In the United States, a federal bill was recently introduced in both the House and the Senate, the <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5845" target="_blank">Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act</a>. If passed this bill — or others like it on the local, state or national levels — could help move the world beyond single-use plastics and make that needed systemic change a reality.</p><p>The bill hasn't moved forward since it was introduced this past February, but the world is still on a deadline. A recent study published in the journal <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/07/22/science.aba9475" target="_blank"><em>Science</em></a> looked at rising levels of plastic production and said "coordinated global action is urgently needed to reduce plastic consumption, increase rates of reuse, waste collection and recycling, expand safe disposal systems and accelerate innovation in the plastic value chain."</p><p>Requiring producers to stop making nonrecyclable products designed to be thrown out is the first step toward achieving that goal. Only then will Kamikatsu and other towns, cities and countries around the world finally be able to eliminate plastic pollution and reach 100% zero waste.</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/oliviasullivan/" target="_blank">Olivia Sullivan</a> <em><em>is a zero waste associate with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) working on a campaign to move the United States beyond plastic.</em></em></p><p><em><em><span></span>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/cities-zero-waste/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>. </em></em></p>
By John R. Platt
A porcupine's diet is wide, varied, and a little hard to digest. A lifetime of grasses, herbs, bark and other vegetation can leave little bits of indigestible matter behind in a porcupine's digestive tract, where they occasionally congeal into a hard ball called a bezoar.
A bezoar and typical medical claims, posted to Instagram. Screen grab July 24, 2020.<p>Previous research has suggested that bezoars only grow in an incidentally small portion of the porcupine population, so the total number of animals killed to accumulate that quantity for sale could conceivably have been in the tens of thousands.</p><p>And since the study didn't look at the e-commerce sites every day, it probably uncovered only a portion of the total trade.</p><p>This paper calls for more study about this issue and additional conservation actions to protect porcupines. Currently the various species enjoy some national-level protection but precious little on the international level, because they're still perceived as relatively common. In fact, most old-world porcupine species currently appear on the IUCN Red List as <a href="https://www.iucnredlist.org/search?query=porpupine&searchType=species" target="_blank">either "least concern" or "data deficient."</a> Only the <a href="https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/10753/22231557" target="_blank">Philippine porcupine</a> (<em>Hystrix pumila</em>) is listed as "vulnerable to extinction." None are currently protected by the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species.</p><p>Should that change? While the authors acknowledge the limitations caused by their study's short time frame and their inability to examine and verify the nature of the bezoars (some of which could have come from other animals or been counterfeits), they still uncovered an alarming level of trade. The authors warn that "current trade levels are likely unsustainable, and we predict that porcupine species may become threatened in the future should current trade levels continue."</p><p>And while some porcupines are farmed, this study indicates pressure on wild porcupines, which also face threats from habitat destruction and the bushmeat trade, as well as persecution as agricultural pests. It suggests a need to protect certain populations which fetch higher prices due to their purported purity. The study quotes one popular website: <em>"The most valuable for the porcupine bezoars are procured from … the rainforest of Indonesia or Borneo. The porcupines here eat unpolluted herbs that have high medicinal value causing the bezoars … to be of the rarest and highest value. The price is very high and has collection, medicinal and stockpiling value."</em></p><p>In many ways this isn't surprising. The bezoar trade has been around for centuries, and it isn't restricted to southern Asia. The paper notes that Europeans in the 16th to 19th centuries, who sometimes wore the stones as jewelry, valued porcupine bezoars so much they priced each one "as high as forty times its own weight in gold."</p><p>Bezoars today don't fetch quite that amount, but the study still found them selling for around $151 a gram — two and a half times the current price of gold — all for a useless clump of congealed, inedible food.</p><p>Too bad we don't value a living porcupine half that much.</p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/john/" target="_blank">John R. Platt</a> is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard</em><em style="">, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.</em></p>
By John R. Platt
Raging, guttural vocals. Pounding snare drums. Blazing-fast guitar riffs.
First up, what’s an “eco-slam”? And why death metal for such an already dark topic?<p>I've always been fascinated with the juxtaposition of extremes in death metal, which often takes lyrical concepts to an absurd degree of foreboding exaggeration, while the music itself is equally eager to achieve a kind of rhythmically visceral and disturbing impact. There's a sub-genre of death metal called "slam," which is often some of the most ridiculous and lowbrow of the style and is an excellent opportunity to combine Neanderthal-esque delivery with relevant factual concepts and content. The idea is to subvert the extreme metal expectation that the topics must necessarily be comically grotesque and therefore easy to brush off as gory escapism, while also adhering to the underlying spirit of death metal in plainly confronting the horrors of reality.</p>
What were the origins of this project?<p>The idea for the project first took hold after I had read a <em>National Geographic</em> article sometime shortly after New Year in 2019. It was a small, touching story about how a tree snail (George) had been declared extinct just a few days earlier. Something about it just struck an unexpected nerve. I hadn't really considered how many known species were going extinct every day.</p>
Peter Hauschulz, photo by Smilla West.<p>It was a perfect fusion of a genuinely dark topic that really wasn't being processed, either in the extreme metal community or at large, and therefore a ripe topic for deeper exploration.</p><p><em>(George's story was one of two songs on an </em>Extinction<em> demo album called "</em><a href="https://extinctionevent.bandcamp.com/album/anthropogenic-degradation-of-ecosystemic-vegetation-demo-2019" target="_blank"><em>Anthropogenic Degradation of Ecosystemic Vegetation</em></a><em>," released last year.)</em></p><p>For me, art and music are at their best when they seek to entertain, inform, inspire and connect with the listener. I felt that there was an opportunity to artistically energize the topic by connecting it to charity causes as well. It's very easy to become discouraged or feel like one isn't "doing enough" for the world, so I'm hoping to support the idea that we can all contribute in different ways according to our own needs and values and abilities, and not be held to an arbitrary standard of perfection that may be more discouraging than anything.</p><p>A few dollars here and there may not seem to be much, but it's important for me to try to align aspirations and ideas with actions. I hope that doing so artistically may inspire others to find clever ways to bring their unique talents and ideas to the world.</p>
What are your creative goals when developing music and lyrics about such a difficult subject, and what do you hope your listeners will get out of it?<p>My main goal with the project is to develop and foster connection between myself and the world, myself and other people, and hopefully inspire people's connection with their world, too.</p><p>Of course, encased in that is my own impulse to continuously challenge myself and hone my craft, so I hope listeners experience a feeling of deep urgency as a result of the music, but also a sense of inspiration to harness that feeling for something positive.</p>
What’s your writing process?<p>The process often involves a lot of iteration, bouncing from concept to experimentation on guitar or drums and back again, until it seems like it's congealing into something unique and alive. My primary musical focus is on the rhythms first, since I've always loved the way that aspect of music can reach deep into the core of a body and electrify it and give it motion.</p><p>I try to set the lyrics together in such a way that they amplify the music and give it a conceptual direction for that movement. For instance, the lines "flames of greed lick their black boots, inferno of corruption boils the frog, our spirit croaking for release, from the hell of our own kind" in the song "Electile Dysfunction" are some of my favorites in capturing the wretched spirit of greed behind so much of our planetary destitution.</p>
Why did you pick some of these species to profile? What drew you to the need to tell their stories in musical form?<p>I tried to represent a wide variety of species types, including those outside the more relatable ones that are cute or fuzzy, because things like mosses and trees are certainly just as important, but less often make it into headlines or story form. I also tried to focus on species whose extinction was more or less directly caused by human activity, whether by direct hunting or deforestation — something that highlights our essential relationship and the negative consequences of our actions and choices as a species on the planet.</p>
You have a unique approach to merchandise and the physical distribution of your music. Where did the idea of recycled goods come from?<p>Growing up in largely DIY punk scenes, it was common for smaller bands to screen print logos on thrift-store shirts. That seemed to be the most appropriate way to minimize the band's resource footprint while also opening the door to unique artistic opportunities. So far, the best result is when I can find an old novelty shirt from a vacation at Sea World or some other aquarium. Stamp a giant Extinction logo on top of a frolicking dolphin or killer whale and now it has become more than just a gift-store item.</p>
What comes next? I know you already have a follow-up album in the works, and you were planning on touring before the pandemic hit.<p>Next for Extinction is a bit up in the air, like for many bands and people of all inclinations all over the world. I'll be creating a music video in the coming months for one of these songs, continue writing a follow-up, which will be water-species themed, probably release a charity compilation single in a few months, and seek out like-minded collaborators of all types to start collecting a live lineup.</p>
By Tara Lohan
A logged forest is a changed forest, and for woodland caribou that could mean the difference between life and death.
Tar sands mining in Fort McMurray, Alberta fragments habitat for caribou. Kris Krüg / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>But here's the twist: Moose do better in these disturbed landscapes, and that puts caribou further at risk, albeit indirectly.</p><p>Previous research has found that moose prefer the vegetation that grows in these early successional forests that follow a large-scale disturbance, like commercial logging. And a higher density of moose attracts more wolves, which are also able to <a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1365-2664.12732" target="_blank">move faster and hunt farther</a> by following linear clearings like roads and pipelines in these developed areas.</p><p>While moose are the primary prey for wolves, caribou that wander into these forests become another tasty target.</p><p>"The bottom line," Fryxell explains, "is that the combination of vegetation changes, increase in road density, increase in moose, and consequent increase in wolves threaten long-term viability of woodland caribou in boreal landscapes of Ontario, in a similar fashion to many other parts of Canada."</p><p>A national assessment found that around 70% of Canada's local <a href="http://registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=2FEAAC82-1#_ex" target="_blank">populations of woodland caribou were no longer self-sustaining</a>.</p><p>So what's to be done?</p><p>Last year provincial managers in Quebec floated the idea of <a href="https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/12/11/news/quebec-plan-kill-wolves-protect-caribou-angers-conservationists" target="_blank">killing wolves</a> to protect caribou herds. Their idea met with public backlash, but wolves in British Columbia weren't so lucky. During the winter of 2019-2020, a whopping 463 wolves were killed by the B.C. provincial government for the stated purpose of protecting populations of southern mountain caribou, another caribou ecotype.</p><p>Some of the money to pay for the kill came from Coastal GasLink, a company actively clearing land in caribou habitat for a pipeline, the Canadian news outlet the <em><a href="https://thenarwhal.ca/a-dangerous-road-coastal-gaslink-pays-to-kill-wolves-in-endangered-caribou-habitat-in-b-c-interior/" target="_blank">Narwhal </a></em><a href="https://thenarwhal.ca/a-dangerous-road-coastal-gaslink-pays-to-kill-wolves-in-endangered-caribou-habitat-in-b-c-interior/" target="_blank">reported</a>.</p><p>And a <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10531-020-02008-3" target="_blank">recently published study</a> in the journal <em>Biology and Conservation </em>found that the culls were not likely to aid caribou and pointed out several shortcomings in previous research that called for such wolf-control measures.</p><p>There are other, and better, options — like habitat protection and restoration.</p><p>Fryxell's study concluded that "the most secure conservation measure would be to set aside extensive tracts of boreal forest with natural patterns of disturbance to sustain viable caribou sub‐populations."</p><p>Research shows that the animals need at least 65% of their range undisturbed to have a good shot at survival.</p><p>And helping caribou will come with other environmental benefits. Canada's 2018 <a href="http://registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=2FEAAC82-1#_ex" target="_blank">federal action</a> plan to restore caribou stated, "Boreal caribou is also considered by many to be an indicator of the overall state of Canada's boreal forest ecosystem." So keeping forests intact or restoring habitat is a proposition that would benefit not only caribou but many other species.</p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/taralohan/" target="_blank">Tara Lohan</a> is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard</em><em style=""> and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.</em></p>
By John R. Platt
In most cases an extinction takes decades of slow attrition and population declines — a death by a thousand cuts.
Sometimes, though, a species can nearly vanish in the blink of an eye.
Photo by Dr. Ricky Spencer, courtesy NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment<p>"I don't know of any similar wildlife mortality like this," says ecologist Bruce Chessman of the University of New South Wales-Sydney. "Of course, the chytrid fungus has wiped out some amphibian species quickly, but I don't know of anything equivalent with turtles."</p><p>Chessman served as the lead author of a <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.3258" target="_blank">recent paper</a> that provided an estimate of the Bellinger River snapping turtle's precipitous decline. "There's a lot of uncertainty because, as the paper says, trying to get a reliable estimate of a very rare species over 70 kilometers of river is quite challenging. But we think it's about 150-200 animals remaining. The risk of extinction is real because of the small number left."</p>
Virus-plus?<p>The researchers also examined several hypotheses about how a previously unknown and still unidentified virus could have killed so many turtles so quickly.</p><p>They didn't find much.</p><p>"It's all a bit of a mystery," Chessman says. "There's still so much we don't know. We know it's a reptile type of virus, but we have no idea where it came from, how long it's been in the Bellinger River, or how it managed to apparently spread upstream rather than downstream at a rate of up to a kilometer a day, which is really quite bizarre."</p><p><a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320717305335#!" target="_blank">Previous research</a> had suggested that some additional contributing factor — perhaps abnormal water temperatures, pollution or malnutrition — may have magnified the effects of the virus so that it caused so many fatalities. Current research, however, has found no specific evidence to support those hypotheses — at least, not yet.</p><p>"We can't rule out that some sort of unusual environmental conditions in the preceding months were related to it somehow, but we don't really have the information to understand what that was or what it may have been," says Chessman. "Unfortunately, there isn't that much information about what happened in the river until these sick and dead turtles started showing up in February 2015."</p>
The Bellinger River in September 2019. Photo: Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0)<p>Even our understanding of the virus — what it does and how it kills — continues to lag.</p><p>"Because the species is so critically endangered now, it's not permissible to try infection trials with the few adults that are remaining," Chessman explains. "So it's still not possible to get that experimental confirmation about what infection with the virus really does to the turtles."</p><p>All of this leaves the teams working to conserve the turtles with a great deal of uncertainty.</p><p>"We really don't know what the prospects are in terms of further disease outbreak and mortality," Chessman says. The few remaining turtles also face threats from predators, mostly introduced red fox, as well as from native species such as monitor lizards.</p><p>There's also a genetic threat. Another Australian turtle species, the Macquarie turtle (<em>Emydura macquarii</em>), appeared in the Bellinger River in recent years. The newcomers are slightly more aggressive than the native species, so they outcompete them for food, and there's evidence they've started to breed and hybridize with Bellinger River snapping turtles.</p><p>"The challenges are ahead," Chessman says. "But everyone's giving it their best."</p><p>That "everyone" includes the NSW Department of Planning Industry and Environment, other government organizations, local conservation groups and experts around the world.</p><p>And that collaboration may represent hope for the species.</p>
The Last Chance Leads to the Next Generation<p>After his first warnings reportedly fell on deaf ears, Rowan Simon and another friend returned to the river, where they gathered up 50 dead and dying turtles and presented them to the local council.</p><p>The collection process "was pretty horrific," Rowan told the <em>Sydney Morning Herald</em>.</p><p>That confrontation finally motivated action. But by then — just two months after the first signs of the disease — very few turtles were left.</p><p>At the last minute, conservation teams rescued 17 healthy mature and immature Bellinger River snapping turtles from an upper stretch of the river the disease hadn't yet reached. They soon became the core of a captive-breeding population at Sydney's Taronga Zoo. Another 19 immature turtles (also healthy) were collected in November 2016 and sent to Symbio Wildlife Park to start a second captive-assurance population.</p>
A recent hatchling identified with a unique dab of paint. Photo courtesy NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment<p>That effort has paid off — and probably saved the species from extinction.</p><p>The captive turtles promptly got down to business and started breeding. Today more than 130 healthy turtles live at the two breeding facilities. Taronga Zoo announced the birth of the most recent <a href="https://taronga.org.au/media-release/2020-03-16/baby-boom-bellinger-river-snapping-turtle" target="_blank">35 turtle babies</a> this past May.</p><p>More importantly, 20 captive-born animals have been released back into the river, where they're <a href="https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1428427787362202" target="_blank">constantly monitored</a> through surveys and radio transmitters.</p>
A Long Road Ahead<p>Of course, you need to produce a huge number of hatchlings to make up for losing 90% of a species. That will take time — a lot of it — and the effort faces some very strict physical limitations.</p><p>For one thing, very few mature females remain — just 5% of the total wild population. On top of that, 88% of the remaining turtles are immature, meaning they won't reach breeding age for several years — another 10-12 years in the case of the released hatchlings.</p>
Two Bellinger River snapping turtle hatchlings. Photo courtesy NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment<p>That means it would take decades for the population to come anywhere close to recovery even if the zoos keep producing and releasing young, and if the virus doesn't have a resurgence.</p><p>That timeline shouldn't come as a surprise, as it often takes decades for threatened species to recover once (or if) the threat that put them at risk is contained. As examples, the Chessman team's paper points out the difficulties faced by two other turtle species that faced enormous declines:</p><p><em>…a population of northern map turtles (</em>Graptemys geographica<em>) in the USA took 27 years to recover after a period of harvesting in which abundance declined by ~50% … and there was no recovery of a common snapping turtle (</em>Chelydra serpentina<em>) population in Canada 23 years after loss of 39% of nesting females to predation by otters…</em></p><p>For now, though, the Bellinger River snapping turtle's declines have ceased.</p><p>The biggest question, though, is whether that status quo will persist.</p><p>"The means of recovery are in place, potentially, but there's ongoing uncertainty about further mortality from disease," says Chessman. "We just don't know really what's going to happen to these young turtles that are being released once they reach maturity. Will they then succumb to the disease and die, or was it perhaps more of a one-off event?"</p><p>Other uncertainties include the potential threat of more bushfires like the ones Australia experienced earlier this year. Several media reports have suggested <a href="https://m.gulf-times.com/story/653574/Frightening-amount-of-world-heritage-area-burned-in-Australia" target="_blank">debris from the fires fell into the Bellinger River</a>, potentially affecting the turtles' food supplies. (Despite more than four months of inquiries, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment's public affairs office would not answer questions about how the fires may have affected the river.)</p>
Extinction Inspiration<p>Although we don't know much about the river basin's water quality before the turtles got sick, we know a lot more about it now — because this near-extinction has motivated the community.</p><p>Soon after news of the virus and mass turtle deaths emerged, a group of citizens banded together to form <a href="http://www.ozgreen.org/br" target="_blank">Bellingen Riverwatch</a> (named after the nearby town with a slightly different name than the river itself). Now community volunteers, schools and other organizations conduct monthly water-quality tests across three rivers, a process that's continued even amid the pandemic.</p>
Bellingen Riverwatch uses an icon of the critically endangered Bellinger River snapping turtle in its logo.<p>But the <a href="https://us19.campaign-archive.com/?u=30dee497e9a546ac8f61f1f67&id=dc0186b4c3" target="_blank">most recent Riverwatch report</a>, published June 24, found the river to be in "great" shape, with no visible pollution in most sites and only slight rises in certain phosphate levels or algae in others.</p>