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Beluga Whale in River Thames 'Very Lost and Quite Possibly in Trouble'

Animals

Close-up of beluga whale swimming in water. Graham Swain / EyeEm / Getty Images

Beluga whales are normally found in icy Arctic and subarctic waters. So onlookers were undoubtedly surprised to spot one of the distinctive white whales swimming very far south in the UK's River Thames.

Ecologist and ornithologist Dave Andrews first posted footage of the unusual sighting onto Twitter on Tuesday and said the whale was feeding around the barges near the town of Gravesend in northwest Kent.



"Can't believe I'm writing this, no joke - BELUGA in the Thames off Coalhouse Fort," he wrote.

At first, it was unclear that the animal was actually a beluga, but Richard Sabin, curator of marine mammals at the Natural History Museum confirmed the species.

"The latest set of images and videos I've seen suggest very strongly that this is a beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas," he said in a museum blog post. "The white body color, absence of a prominent dorsal fin, bulbous forehead and general swimming motion all suggest this very strongly."

Belugas can be found in Russia, Alaska, Canada, West Greenland and Svalbard, but they have swum far from their usual habitats before. They've been recorded as vagrant at Japan, New Jersey, Washington state, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Ireland, Scotland, France, the Netherlands and Denmark, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

But this is the first time a beluga has been spotted in the River Thames, The Telegraph reported.

Ornithological consultant Lee Evans told the publication that the whale is "in grave danger."

"It is stuck next to a buoy and hasn't moved for an hour-and-a-half except coming up to breathe. It was a lot more active earlier. It's either stuck or there's something wrong," Evans said.

Evans explained that large winds from the north could have pushed the whale south towards the Thames.

"The whales only ever come to these narrow estuaries when there's something very wrong. The Thames is far too warm for this beluga and I doubt it can feed," he said.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society told BBC News that animal was "obviously very lost and quite possibly in trouble" and is urging the public to give space to the whale.

The conservation group also noted in a Tuesday blog post there have been about 20 previous sightings of beluga whales in the UK, but these were off the coasts of Northumberland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Belugas are listed as "near threatened" by the IUCN due to human activities such as in oil and gas operations, commercial shipping and hunting. Rising temperatures caused by climate change has also melted Arctic ice and opened its waters, increasing the scale and distribution of such human activities in beluga habitats, according to the IUCN.

The World Wildlife Fund also says that climate change has shrunk the extent and thickness of ice cover, which belugas use as a place to feed, to take refuge and to hide from their predators such as orcas.

A 2016 study led by the University of Washington found that the annual migration of some beluga whales in Alaska was altered by sea ice changes in the Arctic.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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