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
Fresh shark fins drying on sidewalk in Hong Kong. Credit: cloneofsnake / flickr
On Friday, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill outlawing the trade in shark fins, making it illegal for them to be imported, possessed, or distributed in the state. Chinese chefs were angered by the decision, since the fins are the prime ingredient in shark fin soup, a prized and expensive delicacy (although most Chinese voters in California support the ban… and so does retired NBA player Yao Ming). Other parts of shark meat are not highly valued, though, so most sharks caught are “finned” and thrown back into the ocean, where they slowly bleed to death. As many as 73 million sharks are killed each year, most for this purpose, and shark populations around the world are in serious decline—perhaps 30 percent of shark species are endangered.
With only seven northern white rhinos left in the world, creating eggs and sperm from stem cells offers the possibility of salvaging some of the species.
What’s the News: In an effort to help preserve endangered rhinos and primates, biologists have converted skin cells taken from the animals into pluripotent stem cells, which can grow into nearly anything, given the right conditions. They might even grow into egg and sperm cells, eventually, the researchers think, suggesting a cell biological route to conservation.
What’s the News: Sometimes, finding out you don’t know everything is a wonderful surprise. Videos captured by motion-sensitive cameras in remote Afghanistan show that there are more snow leopards out there than we thought.
It’s no secret that an alarming number of species around the world, especially vertebrates, are in trouble. But is the notion that the Earth is on the brink of a sixth major extinction event—the first since the dinosaur die-off—true, or alarmist? In Nature this week, a team of scientists sought to answer the question directly by counting as many species (and extinctions) as they could in the fossil record and the recent historical record. The result is gloomy news: There’s still a chance to avert much of the crisis, but if nothing changes, such a mass extinction event really could happen in the span of just a few centuries.
Mass extinctions include events in which 75 percent of the species on Earth disappear within a geologically short time period, usually on the order of a few hundred thousand to a couple million years. It’s happened only five times before in the past 540 million years of multicellular life on Earth. (The last great extinction occurred 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out.) At current rates of extinction, the study found, Earth will enter its sixth mass extinction within the next 300 to 2,000 years. [MSNBC]
That range of time the researchers give is so large because of the great diversity of life—it makes it hard to track exactly how many species are disappearing, and how quickly. (Indeed, DISCOVER has covered how biologists are discovering many new species these days just as those species face extinction). So Anthony Barnosky and his team made conservative estimates based on the available evidence. For instance, they pegged the rate of mammal extinction at 80 species out of a total of 5,000-plus in the last five centuries. That may not sound like much, but when you consider the speed at which things typically happen on a geologic scale, it is a faster rate of species loss than the previous five mass extinctions saw, scientists believe.
“This is fantastic news because before these camera trap images surfaced, only 12 other Javan rhino births were recorded in the past decade,” WWF-Indonesia Ujung Kulon programme chief Adhi Hariyadi said. “The population in Ujung Kulon represents the last real hope for the survival of a species that is on the brink of extinction.” [AFP]
Scientists who track the species had feared that perhaps as few as 40 Javan rhinos remained. This video footage recorded in November and December of last year, as well as other observations, suggests that the population is probably a little larger now, but still only about 50.
The drastic changes in the Arctic wrought by global warming aren’t just threatening that icon of climate change the polar bear, they’re also jeopardizing the health of other species–like the Pacific walrus. Environmentalists petitioned the federal government years ago to add the walrus to the endangered species list, but progress on the case has been slow. Now, in a decision that has angered both activists and oil drillers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided that even though our be-blubbered friends deserve recognition under the Endangered Species Act, there are just too many other endangered animals to take care of first.
Specifically, the organization’s spokesman, Bruce Woods, said that protecting walruses was advised but “precluded.” That’s because other animals, like polar bears and certain species of sea birds, are more imperiled in this world of receding ice. The agency also said it’s hampered by lack of firm data on walrus population numbers.
“The main thing is that, compared to the polar bears, there are a lot of them,” Woods said of the Pacific walrus, adding that no baseline population count for the walrus exists…. “We don’t have any evidence of declines,” even if declines are suspected, he said. [Reuters]
The Agency’s decision has raised the ire of many.
Leatherback turtles are the wandering type, undertaking far-flung ocean migrations of thousands of miles. What scientists who follow these long-lived creatures didn’t know, though, was just how many different routes they travel, and how far they journey before returning home. These are critical pieces of information for protecting the turtles, whose numbers are dropping. So Matthew Witt says he and his international team affixed trackers to the turtles and revealed the routes of their great sea voyages:
“What we’ve shown is that there are three clear migration routes as they head back to feeding grounds after breeding in Gabon, although the numbers adopting each strategy varied each year. We don’t know what influences that choice yet, but we do know these are truly remarkable journeys.” [The Guardian]
Gabon, in West Africa, is the home base for this largest breeding group of leatherbacks—it’s where they nest and lay their eggs. Witt’s team tracked 25 female turtles, all of whom followed one of those three general routes: out to the middle of the Atlantic and then back, down the African coast to the temperate South, or even all the way across the ocean to South America.
One female was tracked making a 7,563 kilometer (4,699 mile) journey traveling in a straight line across the South Atlantic from Africa to South America, said [Witt]. At a pace of 50 kilometers a day, that trip took about 150 days of consistent swimming, he said. [AP]