The Ash Meadows pupfish, which may soon form a hybrid species
with its cousin, the Devils Hole pupfish.
The Devils Hole pupfish is an endangered species whose only natural habitat is Devils Hole, a hot spring at the bottom of a hole 500-feet deep which leads to limestone caverns. The fish is suited to its niche environment, requiring extremely hot water, low oxygen levels, and a particular limestone ledge to spawn on. If University of Colorado conservation biologists have their way, it could be the subject of a conservation experiment, writes Hillary Rosner at Wired: in order to salvage some of dying species’ genes, they want to mate it with another species, creating a vigorous hybrid that could supplant the original species.
Though the slogan “Save the Whales” has, these days, something of a sepia-toned sound to it, we aren’t doing a terribly good job of it, a new study suggests. In the last 40 years, the study says, humans were implicated in the majority of whale deaths with known causes. Read More
This video is a slow burn, but it’s mesmerizing. This stick insect, painstakingly extruding itself from its egg, is an individual from one of the most endangered insect species on Earth. Given how long it takes for this one to get free, you can get a sense of how devastating it was when rodents were introduced to its home island, Lord Howe Island in Australia. A insect this preoccupied with hatching can’t outrun a hungry rat.
The Lord Howe Island stick insect, as it’s called, was declared extinct in 1960. But a 2001 mission to a jagged, barren rock of an island nearby found the place was not quite as barren as scientists had thought. After they had climbed up hundreds of feet of sheer rock face, writes Becky Crew at Running Ponies, they saw something strange: Read More
Coral reef at the Palmyra Atoll in the northern Pacific Ocean
It’s not a good time to be a coral. Less than a third of coral reefs have legal protection from fishing and other damaging human activity. And as climate change increases oceans’ temperature and acidity, corals are suffering from more bleaching events, when stressed corals spit out the symbiotic algae they need to survive, and weaker skeletons. By 2050, coral reefs might be a lost cause. While some researchers work to protect reefs, others are preparing for conservation to fail—by collecting frozen coral sperm.
As Michelle Nijhuis explains in a New York Times article, marine biologist Mary Hagedorn is gathering reproductive material from many corals so that even as reefs die off, researchers can work at maintaining various species’ genetic diversity and trying to ensure their survival.
The scientists’ blood-sucking accomplices
What’s the News: Scientists searching for new and endangered species in tropical highlands face a Catch 22. Spotting shy creatures is the order of the day, but bushwhacking through forests is anything but subtle. How can you get a sense of what’s there when you can’t get close enough to see it?
Environmental DNA analysis is one of the answers—checking out the DNA in soil, for instance, can reveal what pooped there recently in amazing detail. But for a technique that can reach beyond a given patch of ground, scientists have been investigating using leeches from streamwater as their source of DNA. It turns out that blood from their last meal sticks around in their gut for a good long time, and they happen to be partial to human blood too—which makes them, in the scientists’ words, “easy to collect.” A new paper gives proof that the technique is valuable: blood in leeches collected from a Vietnamese rainforest reveals the presence of six mammalian species, some of them rare.
King penguin with chick.
Three squawks for conservation! After New Zealand businessman Joseph Hatch boiled down 3 million Macquarie Island king penguins for their blubber, public outrage helped make the island a wildlife sanctuary in 1933. The king penguins then flourished undisturbed, growing from the decimated population of 3,400 to half a million today. Those raw numbers look good, but to gauge the population’s viability, scientists needed to find out a little more. A new study has found that the population has also recovered to pre-slaughter levels of genetic diversity, just 80 years after their near-extinction.
Population bottlenecks like the one caused by Hatch’s steam digester mean not only fewer individuals but also less diversity in the gene pool. This makes it difficult for the population to adapt to any stresses—a disease, for example, that can wipe out the remaining population if everyone has the same immune system.
To compare pre- and post-bottleneck genetic diversity, the researchers sequenced DNA from 1,000-year-old penguin bones on the island. The ancient DNA samples had similar levels of diversity as modern samples from the foot of living penguins. The researchers were surprised by how the population had recovered and saw this as a testament to conservation efforts.
With their majestic peaks, imposing canyons, and lofty designation, America’s national parks seem inviolate, places of natural grandeur far from the vagaries of money or politics. But over the years, 26 sites have lost their national park status. In a slideshow at National Geographic, Brian Handwerk explores why.
A few parks were less-than-ideal candidates to begin with (the National Park Service running the Kennedy Center? huh?). But more often than not, the decision to jettison a park from the list came down to economics: Several parks, like Montana’s Lewis and Clark Caverns, above, were too remote to attract enough visitors; the caverns are now part of the state’s park system. Other ex-parks, however, are no longer open to the public: a Palm Beach retreat that proved too expensive for the government to maintain was bought by Donald Trump—and made into a swanky, exclusive club.
Read the rest at National Geographic.
Image courtesy of Montana State Parks
Sequencing the DNA in a scoop of dirt can tell scientists what creatures are living nearby, a new study using soil from safari parks shows, and the amount of DNA present can even tell how many individuals of each species there are, which could allow field biologists to get preliminary surveys of species. But though the team managed to identify nearly all the species they had expected in the parks, from wildebeest to elephants, they are still addressing how to take samples that accurately represent the area’s biodiversity—one would have to avoid elephant latrines or wildebeest sleeping areas, for instance—and there is the additional problem that rare or small creatures, like insects, might easily be missed. That said, it’s still an unusual and interesting way to take a look at an area’s inhabitants without actually tracking them down.
Read more at Scientific American.
Image courtesy of malcyzk / flickr
New tools for conservation?
What’s the News: Maybe it’s you—or maybe it’s the dice. A technique that relies on concealing individual transgressions while revealing greater truths is letting biologists get to the bottom of South African farmers’ killing of leopards.
What’s the News: A fungus that his been wiping out frog species all over the world is creeping into the last area patch of tropical mountains in the Americas escape its scourge, the Darien National Park in Panama, and scientists are scrambling to save what species they can.
Frogs have been taking a beating over the last three decades, due in large part to a ruthless killer called chytrid fungus. Identified in the late ’90s, the fungus is startlingly lethal, driving 50% of species into extinction and killing 80% of individuals within five months of appearing at one location in Panama. It spreads through water via spores, affecting even areas where humans have not penetrated. “It is the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates in terms of the number of species impacted, and its propensity to drive them to extinction,” wrote a team of scientists in a 2005 World Conservation Union report [pdf].