The continued onslaught by white nose syndrome against North America’s bats is one of the stories of the year—number 13, in fact, on DISCOVER’s Top 100 of 2010. But some help soon could be on the way in the form of Endangered Species Act protection. Earlier this month, a group of conservationists and scientists filed an emergency petition with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to list the little brown bat under the act.
Emergency listing for a species does happen, but not very often, says Ann Froschauer, national white-nose syndrome communications leader for FWS. “Given the urgency of white-nose syndrome and recent information about predicted declines in little brown bat populations, the Service is committed to quickly reviewing scientific information, both published and provided by organizations such as these, in assessing the status of little brown bats and other bat species affected by WNS.” [Scientific American]
Listing the bats as endangered could force government action to protect them, including increased funding and the designation of critical habitat.
Polar bears, the poster-species for climate change, have been the subject of reports about new or growing threats in 2010: One story noted that the warming Arctic is pushing grizzlies north into polar bear territory, while another questioned whether polar bears can change their diet as their icy habitat melts. But the journal Nature this week brought an antidote to all that doom and gloom. A study modeling the Arctic climate suggests that it’s still not too late to protect the polar bear habitat, and therefore save the polar bear. The world just needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The question is one of tipping points: Is the total demise of the Arctic summer sea ice already inevitable, or could a slowing of emissions also slow down the ice loss?
The dramatic retreat of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2007 prompted some researchers to warn that the system may have reached a tipping point that would lead to the disappearance of summer sea ice within the next several decades, regardless of actions humans took to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. That concern, in turn, helped elevate the polar bear to climate-icon status and reportedly fed into then-President George W. Bush’s decision in 2008 to list the bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The new study, however, finds no “tipping point” now or in this century in Arctic sea-ice decline, but rather a relatively steady fall-off in ice extent as average temperatures increase. [Christian Science Monitor]
Study author Steven Amstrup, formerly of the U.S. Geological Survey and now at Polar Bears International, modeled five different scenarios for greenhouse emissions in the future. He saw a linear relationship between rising temperatures brought on by those emissions and the retreat of Arctic ice. What he didn’t see was a sharp sudden drop, a point at which crossing some temperature boundary led to an irrevocable disappearance of the ice that would doom the bears.
Sunday marked the opening of the worldwide tiger summit, which brought together high-level representatives from the 13 tiger-habitat countries, including Russia and China, to discuss the best plan to save the tigers. The meeting goes through Wednesday.
Only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild, and without help experts say populations will start to go extinct in less than 20 years.
“Here’s a species that’s literally on the brink of extinction,” said Jim Leape, director general of conservation group WWF. “This is the first time that world leaders have come together to focus on saving a single species, and this is a unique opportunity to mobilise the political will that’s required in saving the tiger.” [BBC News]
The working plan includes provisions to decrease poaching and smuggling of the tigers and calls for more protected habitats. Researchers say that if tigers are left alone and provided with enough habitat and prey, the population could double in 12 years.
The clock is suddenly ticking for the U.S. Department of the Interior to defend its classification of the polar bear as “threatened,” rather than the more protective “endangered” classification.
The “threatened” designation dates back to the George W. Bush administration, but in response to a series of lawsuits concerning the polar bear, U.S. District of Columbia District Judge Emmet Sullivan said this week that the government needs to review that decision, because it was not based on a proper reading of the Endangered Species Act.
In his decision, Judge Sullivan said that the agency was wrong to conclude that a species had to be in imminent danger of extinction in order to qualify as an endangered species. He said that the Endangered Species Act was ambiguous as to whether a species had to be on the brink of extinction in order to be considered endangered. He did not rule on the merits. [Wall Street Journal]
We know things are bad for biodiversity. But just how bad across the board? The scientists at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as they will from time to time, just updated their Red List—an accounting of how much trouble vertebrate species face. According to them, one in five around the world is threatened, and the numbers are worse for groups like sharks and amphibians.
The survey results, which are coming out in the journal Science, are based on research conducted in nearly 40 countries. The 174 scientists studied about 25,000 species to estimate the condition of the approximately 56,000 species on the Red List. From IUCN’s release:
“The ‘backbone’ of biodiversity is being eroded,”says the emminent American ecologist and writer Professor Edward O. Wilson, at Harvard University. “One small step up the Red List is one giant leap forward towards extinction. This is just a small window on the global losses currently taking place.”
The Florida panthers may be saved. They simply needed a little Lone Star assist.
Fifteen years ago the big cats in Florida were in dire straits, doomed to probable extinction because of genetic inbreeding and dwindling numbers. Now, though, their population is on the upswing, thanks to a program that brought in eight females from a panther population in Texas to bolster the Florida cats. Scientists who studied the experiment report in the journal Science that it has worked: Both the numbers and the genetic diversity of Florida panthers improved drastically.
Hybrids of the Florida cats and cousins of the same species from a wild-caught Texas population have twice the genetic variety and far fewer of the genetic defects that were known in Floridian panthers before the introduction, says geneticist [and study coauthor] Warren Johnson. [Science News]
In August, Conservation International launched its globe-spanning search for amphibians that haven’t been seen in decades, but still could exist. This month, they’ve tracked down their first three slippery specimens. Scientists turned up two long-lost African frogs and a salamander from Mexico.
“It’s pretty extraordinary to think about just how long it has been since these animals were last seen,” observed project co-ordinator Robin Moore of Conservation International (CI). “The last time that the Mexican salamander was seen, Glenn Miller was one of the world’s biggest stars. The Omaniundu reed frog disappeared the year that Sony sold its first ever Walkman.” [BBC News]
The three rediscovered animals are:
The Mount Nimba reed frog (right). Last seen in 1967, it lives in the Ivory Coast. A local scientist spotted it.
The find was made “in a swampy field in Danipleu, an Ivorian village near the Liberia border.” [MSNBC]
Omaniundu Reed Frog (top). The most recently seen of the three, Omaniundu was last noted in 1979. It lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to Conservation International’s account of the rediscovery:
Of all the tigers left in the world—and there aren’t many—70 percent of them are clustered into lands that make up just 6 percent of the total tiger habitat in the world. Save these spots, scientists say today, and you save the tigers.
In the journal PLoS Biology, a large group of researchers outline why their 6 percent solution could succeed where other conservation attempts have failed. Basically, they say, efforts to save the cat have been ambitious, but too broad. Job one has to be the protection of these 42 small “source sites” in Asia (seen on the map in the slideshow above), that are home to the core population of tigers.
“The long-term goal is to conserve an Asia-wide network of large landscapes where tigers can flourish,” said Nigel Leader-Williams from Cambridge University, one of the scientists on this study. “The immediate priority, however, must be to ensure that the few breeding populations still in existence can be protected and monitored. Without this, all other efforts are bound to fail.” [BBC News]
Bluefin tuna–they’re so delicious, they’re on the brink of extinction. The human appetite for this majestic fish has spurred overfishing that has endangered the wild population, so researchers and aquaculture companies are trying to breed the fish in captivity. But so far bluefin tuna have proved very difficult to farm, since it’s impossible to replicate their natural reproductive cycle–researchers think the fish travel hundreds of miles to their traditional spawning grounds. The best results so far have come from an Australian company that is using hormone injections to get the big fish to breed.
Now researchers associated with a European project called Selfdott (an odd acronym for “self-sustained aquaculture and domestication of thunnus thynnus”) say they can successfully raise fish in captivity without using hormones. The New York Times reports that the first batch of fish, raised in floating cages, died after a matter of weeks or months, but researchers still think that with better food and parents more adjusted to captivity, the next group of fish will survive.
“If the results of this research can ultimately be commercialized, it can improve food supplies and contribute to economic growth and employment while also helping to ensure a sustainable management of bluefin tuna,” Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European Union’s commissioner for research, said this week. [New York Times]
Last week, we described the plight of the Russian Pavlovsk Experimental Station: Plans for a housing complex threaten some 5,000 rare plants, including varieties found nowhere else on the planet. A court judgment last week meant that only the president or prime minister could save the plants, which scientists said would take years to relocate. Now government telegrams and a presidential tweet hint that the plants might have a chance.
Twitter campaigns and a petition led by The Global Crop Diversity Trust appear to have caught the attention of the Russian Civic Chamber which monitors parliament and the government. As The Guardian reports, the Civic Chamber sent a telegram to President Dimitry Medvedev to request a protective appeal and Medvedev updated the world via Twitter:
[N]umerous supporters of the research station have made their feelings felt on Twitter (using the #pavlovsk hashtag). On Friday, following a week of lobbying Medvedev tweeted back: “Received the Civic Chamber’s appeal over the Pavlov Experimental Station. Gave the instruction for this issue to be scrutinised.” [The Guardian]
The outcome of the Medvedev-ordered investigation is far from certain, but advocates for the botanical gene bank have promised to keep up the pressure and say they hope Pavlovsk station will yet be saved. For all the details on the station and its valuable collection, check out Andrew Moseman’s previous 80beats post.
80beat: “Living Library” of Fruit Plants May Fall to Russian Bulldozers
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DISCOVER: The “Doomsday Vault” Stores Seeds for a Global Agricultural Reboot
DISCOVER: The Banks That Prevent–Rather Than Cause–Global Crises
DISCOVER: Beautiful Images of Strange Fruits (photo gallery)
Image: Wikimedia Commons (N.I. Vavilov, institute founder)