Death by Rail: What We’re Finally Learning About Preventing Wildlife-Train Collisions
By Tara Lohan
Last year a terrible accident in India made headlines around the world. Late one February night, a speeding train struck a herd of elephants crossing the tracks, instantly killing two adults and two calves. A third adult died soon after.
It wasn't an isolated incident. Over the past 30 years train collisions have killed more than 220 elephants in India alone.
Most of those incidents don't generate international headlines; nor do the deaths of thousands of additional animals killed by trains worldwide each year. In fact most wildlife-train collisions go unnoticed, their fatalities left uncounted — which has made it difficult for experts to study the problem and mitigate its impacts.
That puts us woefully behind similar research to reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions on roads, an active field of research for the past two decades. That's because car-animal collisions present a greater danger to human safety and property, according to a 2016 study surveying the emerging field of railway ecology. "Despite the field of road ecology rapidly expanding and the large footprint created by railways, there is a prominent lack of research related to railways and their effects on wildlife," the study found.
Here's what we do know: Like roads, railways fragment habitat and can affect all kinds of wildlife in varying ways. Collisions are the most common cause of mortality, but some animals die from electrocution or being stuck between the rails, leaving them susceptible to predation, starvation or dehydration.
Exactly how many animals die is a bit of a mystery. Railway mortalities are usually not as visible to the public as roadkill, and railways can be harder to access for research and data collection, the 2016 study found.
The little research that has been done on railways and wildlife has been largely limited in both scope and geography. The majority of studies have looked at large mammals, mostly in North America and Europe, with some attention paid to elephant strikes in India.
"The mammal species receiving the most attention are frequently the larger ones, such as moose, bears or elephants as they cause more damage to trains, disrupt the normal operation of the train network, or hold higher conservation and economic status," according to the editors of the 2017 book Railway Ecology.
Understanding how to curb wildlife deaths from trains means first understanding what draws animals to the tracks in the first place, which is not always easy. New research is working to close that knowledge gap, identify problem areas and find cost-effective solutions.
Deer on the railway tracks in New York
Photo by Timothy Vogel, CC BY-NC 2.0
The timing of this research, experts tell us, is important. With rail transit of products and materials on the rise and high-speed rail networks expected to grow as we work globally to lower our carbon footprint, the number of fatalities could soon increase unless we devote more resources to additional research and mitigation.
Rail tracks can make for tough times if you're a toad — even a big one.
In Brazil a 2018 study found an estimated 10,000 Cururu toads (Rhinella marina) and related species, often called giant toads, were dying every year along a 500-mile stretch of railway. Researcher Rubem Dornas says they still don't know exactly why so many toads die, but it appears the tracks formed a barrier the toads can't cross while migrating. Despite the large size of the toads, which average about 4 to 6 inches in length, the researchers found they may not be able to jump or climb over rails more than 6 inches high.
"We think the main problem is the barrier effect caused by the rails," said Dornas.
Not all the fatalities are the result of being run over by passing trains. Some of the toads appeared to have died from desiccation due to extreme heat from the tracks.
Most horrifyingly, others showed signs of barotrauma, where a sudden change in air pressure from the fast-moving train causes the inner organs to be blown out — the toads literally exploded from the inside.
While additional research would help to better understand the problem and its population-level impacts for the toads, Dornas says that providing passage underneath the rails could be a useful solution.
A 2018 study of endangered gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus), which have been known to cross railways near the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida, came to a similar conclusion.
"We predict that nearly all tortoises in the vicinity of railways are susceptible to becoming entrapped or experiencing reduced movement and dispersal," the researchers wrote. They recommended trenches that can create a safe passage underneath the tracks and an escape route for those that get caught between rails.
While smaller in size, these trenches are similar in concept to corridor bridges and tunnels that are commonly used to help animals safely cross roadways. And while crossing structures may be used occasionally for railways — like a "landscape" bridge over railway tracks that was opened in Stockholm, Sweden in 2017 — it's far less common. The biggest reason is simply financial — the structures take resources to build, and so far more investments have been devoted to reducing wildlife collisions on roads than rails.
Wildlife overpasses, like this one in British Columbia, are more common for roads than rails.
Photo by B.C. Ministry of Transport, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
That could change with more interest in railway ecology and cheaper building options. ARC Solutions, a project of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, held a recent design competition to rethink the materials and engineering used in wildlife overpasses to make them more sustainable and affordable. If those concepts come to fruition, it could mean an easier lift to develop safer crossing systems for all kinds of wildlife over both roads and rails.
Getting animals over or under tracks safely is helpful when a railway is an obstacle. But, as researchers found in Alberta, Canada, railways can also be a destination. And that requires a new set of solutions.
Concern over grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) deaths on the Canadian Pacific Railway between Banff and Yoho national parks has prompted years of study. "The causes for attraction of bears to the rail are really surprisingly complex and variable among individuals," said Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta, who has been leading a team to determine why grizzlies end up on railways and how to prevent their deaths. "There just isn't a single simple solution."
The biggest reason is that railways are a good place for a bear to find food. For one thing, the trains can spill grain from their cargo cars, leaving behind a steady supply of free food.
The very existence of the railways also opens up avenues for grizzly dining. The carcasses of deer and other ungulates struck by trains are an attractant for bears. Railways are slightly warmer than adjacent forests, which attracts ants, another grizzly food, researchers have found. And palatable vegetation also grows along the tracks, providing grizzlies with a wide range of edible choices.
This "edge habitat," according to a 2017 study co-authored by St. Clair, has "higher species richness, diversity and cover for seven of the eight most commonly-occurring species that are consumed by grizzly bears." Buffaloberry, a local fruit that's an important source of nutrients for bears pre-hibernation, was even found to have more fruit, ripen earlier and have higher sugar content within 15 meters of the railway lines compared to the nearby interior forest.
Food that grizzly bears like, including berries, has been found to grow more abundantly near rail tracks.
Photo by Christian Tauber, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
More food along railways means the possibility of more train strikes on bears. So what to do about it?
One tactic would be to limit the growth of vegetation that attracts bears and other wildlife, or, as Canadian Pacific Railways has done, remove vegetation from along the tracks that could obscure sight and sounds lines to make approaching trains easier to see and hear at certain problem locations.
But St. Clair favors a different approach, developed by one of her graduate researchers, Jonathan Backs. He invented a warning system using a vibration sensor on the track that, farther down, triggers a ringing bell sound and flashing light 30 seconds before a train passes by a hotspot that has been designated for mitigation.
Acoustic warning systems have been developed elsewhere. Poland is testing a system that deters wildlife from approaching trains by loudly broadcasting recordings of barking dogs and alarm calls of other animals. Japan is testing a similar system. St. Clair says that these acoustic warning systems are promising, but it's too early to determine how effective they'll ultimately be. One drawback could be that if predator sounds are used as a deterrent and no predator ultimately appears, animals will stop associating those warning sounds with a risk.
To avoid that potential pitfall, the warning system that Backs is developing in Alberta has a key difference: It's not meant to scare the animals, but to teach them.
"Our idea with this approach was to help the animals learn that these warning signals, which are not scary in themselves, are reliably associated with the train coming, which most animals seem to find scary," said Backs. "And then the animals would learn to get out of the way when they receive these warning signals rather than waiting for the train to arrive."
Backs says he's still analyzing the data he has collected from trials of the warning system, but preliminary results are encouraging — and not just for bears. Other large animals appear to leave the tracks around six seconds earlier when the system is used.
And that's another reason St. Clair is excited about the potential of this system. Public interest in grizzlies helped spur the research, but the mitigation can be useful for all kinds of wildlife and all over the world. "The principles potentially apply to all animals," she said.
Backs says there is still more work to do to prove the concept and then find partner organizations to implement it. "The most important thing for me is to get it out there and make it real and put it in the hands of people who are working hard to keep animals safe," he said. "It might end up being only one part of a broader toolbox — different solutions are appropriate in different situations — but it's exciting that this could actually be used to save lives."
And for the field of railway ecology, more research is still needed, too, says St. Clair.
"We need a broader understanding of where mortality is a real problem, for which species and what the circumstances are that generate locations of higher vulnerability," she said. "Some ongoing work in Banff is trying to put together an entire database of animals that have been killed on the rail and determine what environmental and train operational factors seem to contribute to that vulnerability. With that information it will be possible to be more surgical, if you will, in applying the right kind of mitigation."
How Animals Benefit From Wildlife Corridors - EcoWatch: Quite interesting.Submitted by Christeen A to Offbeat | Note-it! |… @environmentguru— Environment Guru (@Environment Guru)1552396340.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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