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Archive for the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

Everybody’s Favorite Dinosaur Says: “Hey, Baby, I’m Back.”

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 7, 2015

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Here’s a quick quiz. Choose the one that doesn’t belong:

A) Tyrannosaurus

B) Stegosaurus

C) Brontosaurus

D) Triceratops

Yes, I know, you’re way too smart for this. You chose “C” because you remember that everybody’s favorite dinosaur, that 16-ton vegetarian with the long neck and the whip-like tail, is really named Apatosaurus. Scientists have long since declared that Brontosaurus was a taxonomic error, and doesn’t technically exist.

In fact, it’s been 112 years since a paleontologist named Elmer Riggs first pointed out that Brontosaurus, described by Yale’s O.C. Marsh in 1879, was an awful lot like Apatosaurus, which Marsh himself had described just two years previously. Marsh thought the two species were different because one had more vertebrae than the other in the sacral region, at the base of the spine. But Riggs pointed out that the sacral vertebrae in four-limbed species, including humans, normally fuse as an individual matures. Marsh’s two specimens were thus supposedly no more than older and younger individuals of the same species.

That is, until this morning. In a paper published Tuesday in the journal PeerJ, a team of paleontologists has declared that Brontosaurus is back, baby, and better than ever. They argue that Brontosaurus is different enough Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Evolution | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Finding 30 New Species in Los Angeles Backyards

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 26, 2015

30newSpeciesA team of researchers in Los Angeles has just described 30 new species discovered during a three-month study in ordinary backyards.  Emily Hartop, who did much of the biological grunt work, has written a nice description of the project, and what it means:

When I came to work at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, I had no idea exactly what was in store for me. The NHM had recently initiated a massive study to search for biodiversity, or the variety of life forms in a particular area. This study wasn’t taking place in some lush tropical jungle, though; in fact, far from it. This fabulous study was (and is) taking place in the backyards of Los Angeles. I got hired to be part of the entomological team for this urban project called BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science: City and Nature) and before I knew it, I was describing 30 new species of flies collected right here in the City of Angels.

Before I explain how this all happened, let’s pause and say that again: 30 new species of flies were described from urban Los Angeles in 2015. Let’s expand: these flies were caught in three months of sampling and are all in the same genus. What does this mean for us? It means that even in the very areas where we live and work,

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »

A Wildlife Where’s Waldo

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 22, 2015

1395180_939683106081777_4770492552988501563_nTexas conservationist John Karges picked up a piece of lumber lying on the ground at Las Estrellas Preserve, a Nature Conservancy Property in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.  Then he took this picture and immediately put the plank back down.  He now calls that plank “the Waldo Board,” because it set him off on a search for species taking shelter beneath it. So far he’s found “three Texas banded geckos, three Great Plains narrow-mouthed toads, one centipede, at least one beetle larva,” and probably other stuff since he posted this seven hours ago.

I still can’t find the damned centipede.  You give it a try.  Hints after the break.  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | 1 Comment »

Is Your City One of the Nation’s Top 10 for Wildlife?

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 13, 2015

Mountain Lion in Griffith Park, Los Angeles (Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic)

Mountain Lion in Griffith Park, Los Angeles (Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic)

I’ll be writing soon about what you can do if your community doesn’t quite measure up.  But meanwhile, here’s the top ten ranking for U.S. cities from the National Wildlife Federation:

Which American cities are going above and beyond the call of duty to protect America’s wildlife? The National Wildlife Federation is honoring the Top 10 Cities for Wildlife whose citizens have the strongest commitment to wildlife as part of our celebration of National Wildlife Week 2015.

“America’s most wildlife-friendly cities are located in every corner of our nation from sea to shining sea,” said Collin O’Mara, president and chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation. “The common thread between these cities is that citizens are coming together for a common purpose – to create a community where people and wildlife can thrive.”

The National Wildlife Federation ranked America’s largest cities based on three important criteria for wildlife – the percentage of parkland in each city, citizen action to create wildlife habitat, and school adoption of outdoor learning in wildlife gardens. The top cities are found in every region, from Seattle’s temperate rainforest to Albuquerque’s arid desert:

  1. Austin, Texas – Austin is a clear-cut choice as America’s best city for wildlife, boasting the most Certified Wildlife Habitats (2,154), most Certified Wildlife Habitats per capita, and most Schoolyard Habitats (67). Famous for its Congress Avenue Bridge that’s home to 1.5 million bats, the city of Austin is certified as a Community Wildlife Habitat. Its residents not only want to Keep Austin Weird – they’re the best in America at keeping their city wild.
  2. Portland, Oregon – The Rose City boasts America’s most Schoolyard Habitats per capita. With more than 8,200 acres of natural parkland certified salmon safe and a commitment to provide nature areas within a half-mile of every Portlandian, the dream of a wildlife-friendly city is alive in Portland.
  3. Atlanta, Georgia – The City in a Forest ranks Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »

Gigunda Rodent. Yes, Definitely Bigger Than a Housecat

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 6, 2015

O.k, New Yorkers, better stop your whining. Check out this report from the BBC:

Biggest rodent ‘fought with teeth’ like tusks

Josephoartigasia monesi (artist's impression)

The Big Fella

Scientists say the largest ever rodent probably used its huge front teeth like tusks, defending itself and digging with them instead of just biting food.

The bull-sized cousin to the guinea pig died out around two million years ago.

Based on a CT scan of its skull and subsequent computer simulations, its bite was as strong as a tiger – but its front teeth were built to withstand forces nearly three times larger.

This suggests that its 30cm incisors were much more than eating implements.

Researchers from York in the UK and Montevideo in Uruguay published the work in the Journal of Anatomy.

Only a single fossilised skull has been found belonging to this 1,000kg South American rodent, known as Josephoartigasia monesi. Unearthed in Uruguay in 2007, the animal lived in the Pliocene period – a warm era when large mammals were relatively abundant, including the first mammoths.

It remains the largest rodent ever discovered.

To study the mechanics of the skull,

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »

A Cardinal Tests the Limits of Sexual Diversity

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 30, 2015

This are brownish-gray feathers of a female cardinal on the right side a male cardinal's red feathers on the left. (Photo: Western Illinois University)

This are brownish-gray feathers of a female cardinal on the right side a male cardinal’s red feathers on the left.
(Photo: Western Illinois University)

So, yeah, I’m talking about a bird, and definitely not about a member of the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals.  A gynandromorph is an animal that has traits of both sexes, but this cardinal is truly Janus-faced, all female on one side, all male on the other.  Or rather, not like Janus. More like Tiresias, the male prophet in Greek mythology who spent seven years as a woman. Oh, hell, let’s just call it the Transgender Cardinal.

How did other cardinals react? “We never knowingly heard the gynandromorph cardinal vocalize nor was it obviously paired with another individual, whereas other cardinals in the area vocalized and were paired, especially as the breeding season approached.” But here’s the key line: “There were no unusual agonistic interactions between the gynandromorph and the other cardinals, although at times it appeared less likely to approach the seed when other cardinals were in the vicinity feeding.” So a little shy and confused. But other birds were basically o.k. with that.

Here’s the press release

Western Illinois University biological sciences Professor Brian Peer is receiving attention for his research and publication on a bilateral gynandromorph bird found in the wild.

More specifically, the bird has the brownish-gray feathered appearance of a female cardinal on its right side and that of a male cardinal’s red feathers on its left side.

The Northern Cardinal was spotted several years ago in Rock Island, IL by Peer and his colleague Robert Motz and was observed between December 2008 and March 2010. The two men documented how the cardinal interacted with other birds

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Deadly Dozen Effects of Losing Nature

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 27, 2015

Richard Conniff:

Billfish preparing to dice and slice (or rather gun and stun).

Billfish preparing to dice and slice (or rather gun and stun).

There’s a tendency in our flat screen-fixated society to treat the preservation of nature and wildlife as a boutique issue. I mean “boutique” in the sense that it’s become a ladies-who-lunch sort of thing. Nice, but it doesn’t really matter.

Our own experience also reinforces the subliminal impression that destroying nature—or at least pushing it back away from civilized life—actually makes us healthier. Turning forests into fields has made it easier for us to get food, for instance, and building dams provides the electricity to power those flat screens, build products, and create jobs.

But a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that the continued loss of habitat is in fact increasingly a matter of life and death. Let’s skip the subtleties and go straight to a list of the study’s dozen deadly effects:

1. In Asia, Africa, and South America those seemingly beneficial dams and irrigation projects have created new homes for the aquatic snail species that transmits schistosomiasis. It now afflicts more than 200 million people worldwide with symptoms including coughing, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever and fatigue. The altered habitat also provides breeding places for mosquitoes and other disease-carrying organisms, increasing the incidence of malaria, filariasis, encephalitis, and other dreadful diseases.

2. Our increasing incursions into remote wilderness areas are bringing epidemic diseases out of the jungle and into our backyards. Roughly 75 percent of emerging diseases—think HIV, Ebola, West Nile virus, SARS, and the new coronavirus in the Middle East—spill over from the animal world.

3. When we reduce the variety of species living in an area, we make it more likely that new diseases will spill over to humans. The “dilution effect” theory suggests that when you have many species in a habitat, some of them will be ineffective, or even dead ends, at transmitting a particular disease pathogen. So they dilute the effect of the pathogen and keep it from building up and spilling over to humans. Studies have correlated reduced species diversity with increases in West Nile virus, Chagas disease, Lyme disease, and hantavirus.

4. When we destroy coastal mangrove swamps in Sri Lanka, or dune vegetation on the beach in New Jersey, we lose vital protection against deadly storms. In the Asian tsunami of 2004 one village in Sri Lanka that had cut down its mangrove swamps to create shrimp farms suffered 6,000 deaths. In a comparable Sri Lankan village that left its mangroves intact, only two people died.

5. By providing nursing grounds for young fish and for the prey species they will eventually eat, those mangrove swamps are responsible for about 80 percent of the global seafood catch. The continuing loss of seafood, as well as of land-based bushmeat, threatens a large segment of the human population with chronic iron and zinc deficiencies, meaning anemia, fatigue, and other symptoms.

6. Most of our drugs, including all antibiotics, originally came from the natural world. To cite three quick examples: ACE inhibitors, currently the most effective blood pressure medicine, were derived from the venom of South America’s deadly fer-de-lance snake. AZT, the first drug to turn AIDS from a death sentence to a treatable disease, was derived from an obscure Caribbean sponge discovered in the 1950s. Prialt, a potent pain medicine, comes from a Pacific cone snail that people used to value only because it has such a pretty shell.

7. When plant breeders need to make a drought-resistant strain of rice, or a wheat variety that doesn’t drop dead from disease, they often borrow traits from closely related plants in the natural world. The need for those traits is increasing because of climate change. But borrowing only works if there is a natural world left to borrow from.

8. When we lose habitat and species, we also lose essential pollinators for our crops, including insects, birds, and bats. Honeybees pollinate about a third of U.S. crops, and the recent drastic decrease in their population imperils a harvest worth more than the $15 billion a year. According to the study, pollinators are a key factor in producing about a third of the calories and micronutrients we depend on.

9. Clearing forests has led to reduced access to fuel for cooking, creating an extra burden for the women and girls in developing nations who generally do the wood gathering.

10. Loss of hillside forests means water tends to run off rather than soak in. That makes it harder to find water, for crops, sanitation, or safe drinking. And again, it’s generally the women who have to go farther and pump harder, then carry the water home by the bucketful.

11. More than 100,000 people have died so far in the civil war in Syria, which, it’s been argued, was set off as much by persistent drought as by bad government. On a much smaller scale, but closer to home, a heat wave last summer caused 82 known deaths across the United States and Canada. Climate disruption is likely to cause increasing human health impacts in the form of heat stress, air pollution, respiratory disease, and food and water shortages. The question of social justice runs through this discussion: We in the developed world tend to benefit in our relatively prosperous lives, while the poor and disenfranchised get stuck with the bill.

12. In our mobile, rootless society, it’s easy to forget what we have never had.  But losing habitat can mean losing an essential sense of place and of self, and that can lead to depression, emotional distress, and other psychological effects.

The authors of the new study, who come from Harvard University, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, and other institutions, make one major recommendation. Up to now, our research into the natural world has been driven largely by scientific curiosity. Instead, scientists now need to think a lot harder about policy.

For instance, when Brazil eases restrictions on land use in the Amazon, researchers should be ready to project exactly how that will affect local malaria rates. When policymakers in Southeast Asia are debating the use of fire for land clearing, scientists should be able to explain the public health implications from air pollution in downwind areas of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia.

These kinds of considerations may sound, as the editor at a prominent magazine recently told me, “unsexy.” Not cool. But the new study makes it clear that if we don’t start paying much closer attention to them, and to the state of the natural world, we are all in imminent danger of ending up dead.

And that would be the unsexiest thing of all.

Originally posted on strange behaviors:

Mangroves (Photo: Diego M. Rossi/Getty) Mangroves (Photo: Diego M. Rossi/Getty)

My latest for TakePart:

There’s a tendency in our flat screen-fixated society to treat the preservation of nature and wildlife as a boutique issue. I mean “boutique” in the sense that it’s become a ladies-who-lunch sort of thing. Nice, but it doesn’t really matter.

Our own experience also reinforces the subliminal impression that destroying nature—or at least pushing it back away from civilized life—actually makes us healthier. Turning forests into fields has made it easier for us to get food, for instance, and building dams provides the electricity to power those flat screens, build products, and create jobs.

But a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that the continued loss of habitat is in fact increasingly a matter of life and death. Let’s skip the subtleties and go straight to a list of the study’s dozen deadly effects:

1. In…

View original 964 more words

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »

Using Probiotics to Prevent Disease is Common in the Animal World

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 14, 2015

Doctors of probiotic medicine (Photo: Stefan Meyers/Arkive)

Doctors of probiotic medicine (Photo: Stefan Meyers/Arkive)

I light up whenever I see a story about hoopoes, colorful Old World birds, mainly for the silly reason that they have the coolest scientific name in the animal kingdom.  I think it may just be impossible to say Upupa epops without smiling.  I’m pretty sure these birds must be fans of 1950s jazz.

But let’s talk about the story, which is in equal parts intriguing and kind of annoying. Scientists have discovered that hoopoe moms laying their eggs automatically apply a bacterial film that protects their offspring from various pathogens.  This is cool stuff: Birds using probiotics.

The press release says that this sort of behavior has never been detected before in any bird species.  It thus gives the annoying impression that this is a totally new thing in science, which is of course not so.  For at least the past half dozen years, for instance, scientists have been studying how certain salamanders and frogs apply a bacterial coating that protects their eggs from the deadly chitrid fungus and other pathogens, as I wrote here in 2013.

Indeed, all the writer of the press release needed to do was read the first paragraph of the study to learn that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

We Spend $60 billion on Pets. How About a Little for Wildlife?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 19, 2014

A wildflower at The Nature  Conservancy's Boardman Grasslands in north central Oregon.

A wildflower at The Nature Conservancy’s Boardman Grasslands in north central Oregon.

You’ve probably already noticed this while flipping through the contents of your overstuffed mailbox or scrolling past the endless stream of email solicitations, but this is the time of the year when nonprofit organizations ramp up their pleas for your donations. And with good reason: About a third of all charitable giving in the United States takes place in December. This is, of course, due to holiday cheer and a spirit of giving—not anything so cynical as tax write-offs.

But don’t be so quick to hit delete. Charitable giving makes us happier, and it has the potential to make wildlife happier too, or at least to keep monarch butterflies, wolves, elephants, songbirds, and other creatures a part of this world. Government funding for wildlife is declining everywhere, even as the pressure on wildlife from poaching, climate change, and expanding human populations dramatically worsens. “Conservation is often an early casualty of any government funding squeeze,” the authors of a recent Nature article noted. In the United States, for instance, the National Park Service has seen a 13 percent drop in funding over the past five years, and it’s much worse in many other countries. That means many wildlife and conservation organizations, and the animals they protect, increasingly depend on charitable contributions.

So how do you handle the tricky task of choosing just which organizations to support? Charity Navigator rates nonprofits on their financial efficiency and transparency (but not on the effectiveness of their services and programs). It lists 271 organizations under the Environmental Protection and Conservation heading, and that’s just organizations it has evaluated. Behavioral economists have shown that too having many choices leads to inaction, and the check never makes it into the mail. So let’s cut down the choices.

When I asked conservation-minded contacts on Twitter and Facebook and via email for their ideas on donating to help wildlife, responses generally fell Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | 8 Comments »

Wolves and Bears Make Comeback in Crowded, Urban Europe

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 18, 2014

Street traffic in Kuhmo Finland (Photo: Staffan Widstrand / Wild Wonders of Europe)

Street traffic in Kuhmo Finland (Photo: Staffan Widstrand / Wild Wonders of Europe)

What if European travelers suddenly stopped going to Yellowstone National Park to see grizzly bears and wolves, and found that they could see even more of the same species in their own backyards—say, within an hour or two of Rome? What if the “call of the wild”—the sound of wolves howling in the night—became more a European than a North American experience? This improbable scenario may be closer to reality than we imagine.

A study published Thursday in the journal Science reports that Europe, one of the most industrialized landscapes on Earth, with many roads and hardly any large wilderness areas, is nonetheless “succeeding in maintaining, and to some extent restoring, viable large carnivore populations on a continental scale.”

A team of more than 50 leading carnivore biologists across Europe, from Norway to Bulgaria, details in the research a broad recovery of four large carnivore species: wolves, brown bears, the Eurasian lynx, and the wolverine.

“There is a deeply rooted hostility to these species in human history and culture,” the study notes. And yet roughly a third of Europe Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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