Citizen Science Deepdive

By collecting images and GPS data from citizen divers, scientists can get a better sense of the health of the entire Great Barrier Reef. (Damian Bennett)

Citizen Science has been a common thread for us on this site, linking creatures of land, sea and air as subjects of study. Marine Ecosystem citizen science has especially  fascinated us in terms of the creative thinking applied to problems of invasive species.

The collaborative goal of documenting such a vast ecosystem as the Great Barrier Reef, and using creative solutions to combat threats to this wonder of the natural world is inspiring, to say the least.

Massive Citizen Science Effort Seeks to Survey the Entire Great Barrier Reef

Only about 1,000 of 3,000 individual reefs have been documented, but the Great Reef Census hopes to fill in the gaps

The majority of individual reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef have not been directly surveyed. (Damian Bennett)

In August, marine biologists Johnny Gaskell and Peter Mumby and a team of researchers boarded a boat headed into unknown waters off the coasts of Australia. For 14 long hours, they ploughed over 200 nautical miles, a Google Maps cache as their only guide. Just before dawn, they arrived at their destination of a previously uncharted blue hole—a cavernous opening descending through the seafloor.

After the rough night, Mumby was rewarded with something he hadn’t seen in his 30-year career. The reef surrounding the blue hole had nearly 100 percent healthy coral cover. Such a find is rare in the Great Barrier Reef, where coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 led to headlines proclaiming the reef “dead.”

“It made me think, ‘this is the story that people need to hear,’” Mumby says.

The expedition from Daydream Island off the coast of Queensland was a pilot program to test the methodology for the Great Reef Census, a citizen science project headed by Andy Ridley, founder of the annual conservation event Earth Hour. His latest organization, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, has set the ambitious goal of surveying the entire 1,400-mile-long reef system in 2020.

“We’re trying to gain a broader understanding on the status of the reef—what’s been damaged, where the high value corals are, what’s recovering and what’s not,” Ridley says. Continue reading

Slow Down On Tuna

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A new study finds that tuna harvests, including of some species considered “vulnerable,” have increased by an astonishing 1,000% in the last 60 years — a rate that some scientists warn is unsustainable. NiCK/Getty Images

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this warning:

We’re Pulling Tuna Out Of The Ocean At Unprecedented — And Unsustainable — Rates

If you’re in the mood for a tuna poke bowl or an old-school tuna niçoise salad, here’s a tip: Don’t hit up the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland. It has been nearly six years since chef Jonathon Sawyer became a “tuna evangelist” after attending a meeting of like-minded chefs at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was there that he made the decision to forgo tuna — both in his personal life and on the menus at all four of his restaurants.

It wasn’t always easy. Turning down the chance to eat famed chef Eric Ripert’s mouthwatering thin-sliced tuna over a foie gras torchon took some Superman-like strength, but for Sawyer, the mission is an important one. He’s not trying to get people to give up tuna altogether. Rather, he’s trying to raise awareness of the sheer quantities that are coming across our collective plates and serve as a gentle warning that all that fish is coming from a limited resource.

It turns out that his effort is hitting a seafood sustainability bull’s-eye. Continue reading

A Different Kind Of Getting Clear

A flock of red-winged blackbirds over Long Island, N.Y.CreditCreditVicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography/Moment, via Getty Images

Thanks to the authors of this op-ed for a bit of clear thinking:

The Crisis for Birds Is a Crisis for Us All

The mass disappearance of North American birds is a dire warning about the planet’s well-being.

By John W. Fitzpatrick and 

Dr. Fitzpatrick is the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Marra is the director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative.

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Steve Maslowski/Science Source, via Getty Images Plus

Nearly one-third of the wild birds in the United States and Canada have vanished since 1970, a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unraveling.

The disappearance of 2.9 billion birds over the past nearly 50 years was reported today in the journal Science, a result of a comprehensive study by a team of scientists from seven research institutions in the United States and Canada.

As ornithologists and the directors of two major research institutes that directed this study, even we were shocked by the results. We knew of well-documented losses among shorebirds and songbirds. But the magnitude of losses among 300 bird species was much larger than we had expected and alarmingly widespread across the continent. Continue reading

Saving Sea Snakes

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An olive sea snake, Aipysurus laevis, is returned to its home in Shark Bay, western Australia. Blanche D’Anastasi

Devi Lockwood, who we first linked out to years ago, and only once, has finally reappeared with an awesome story. We look forward to seeing more like this:

She Studies Sea Snakes by the Seafloor

Sea snakes are the most diverse group of marine reptiles in the world, but they are poorly understood and threatened by development. Blanche D’Anastasi is among the scientists working to save them.

SeaSnakesSix to eight million years ago, a snake related to swamp snakes or tiger snakes slithered into the sea. Over evolutionary time, descendants of that snake developed flattened paddle tails, an ability to breathe through the skin and a valve to stop water from entering the lungs. Today these creatures live their entire lives in the water. Clad in spots, triangles and stripes, they undulate across coral reefs or meadows of sea grass.

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An olive-headed sea snake caught by Ms. D’Anastasi. Blanche D’Anastasi

There are some 70 species of sea snakes in the world; they live in the Indian and Pacific oceans, in water less than 600 feet deep. Half of all species can be found in Australia, and they are particularly visible during their mating period, in July and August.

But sea snake populations have been declining rapidly for the last 20 years worldwide, as a result of climate change, pollution, fishing, habitat loss, mining exploration and disease. Although sea snakes are the most diverse group of marine reptiles — they outnumber sea turtle species by 10 to one — less is known about their ecology than that of any other group of reptiles.

This is because the research is difficult. If you want to find a sea snake, you have to go out searching for one.

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Tara Fullston

Blanche D’Anastasi, a sea snake researcher at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, travels to remote regions like Exmouth Gulf, on the country’s northwest coast, to find sea snakes in the wild. Sometimes she scuba dives or snorkels, but the most efficient technique is to be towed behind a boat while wearing a snorkel. When she spots a snake, Ms. D’Anastasi dives down to catch it in a bag. Continue reading

Co-habitation Questions Down Under

A platypus in Tasmania. Photo © Klaus / FlickrJustine E. Hausheer

Thanks to TNC’s Justine E. Hausheer for this story:

Can Platypus Persist Alongside People?

Most of us are familiar with the bizarre and improbable platypus: a mammal that lays eggs, secretes milk from its skin, and defends itself with a venomous spur on its hind leg.

Urban platypus habitat. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer / TNC

But the incredible little mammal wriggling in the net at my feet is all too real, and — like much of Australia’s iconic wildlife — it’s also in deep trouble. As urban development alters waterways, platypus populations are declining and their range is shrinking, putting the future of this wildlife wonder at risk.

“An Animal of All Time”

One Aboriginal story says that platypus originated from the union of a duck and a water-rat, which is rather apt. British naturalist George Shaw infamously thought the first platypus specimens sent back from Australia were a hoax, cutting the taxidermied corpse apart to try and find the stitching.

A painting by of a platypus by John Lewin, 1808. Photo © State Library of New South Wales / Wikimedia Commons

But the animal’s oddity afforded little protection from European settlers. Continue reading

Our Favorite Form Of Prospecting

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Expedition members sprint to flush Slender-billed Flufftails, among the world’s most elusive birds, in a marsh in Bemanevika reserve. Photo: Tristan Spinski

Bioprospecting, a topic we have not posted enough about, came to our attention in the mid-1990s through Costa Rica’s National Institute of Biodiversity. Kimon de Greef, writing for Audubon Magazine, offers an inside view of a prospecting expedition in one of the most wondrous, and at-risk natural habitats on the planet:

Scientists Race to Uncover the Secrets of Madagascar’s Treasure-Filled Forests

The rediscovery of a long-lost duck spurred the creation of two protected areas in the country. Now researchers are scouring these spots for other endemic species before it’s too late.

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With only a few kilometers to go during day-long to Bemanevika, challenging road conditions forced the group to disembark from the two Toyota Land Cruisers and push them through the deep mud. Much of the terrain required the forest technicians to utilize the wench, which they fastened to tree stumps to wind the vehicles up the muddy mountain roads. Photo: Tristan Spinski

We had come this far and now we were stuck, dug in on a dirt track high above the plains. It was monsoon season in Madagascar, and thunderstorms had laid waste to the deeply rutted road. Already we had traversed seemingly unnavigable passes on our way to the remote northern mountains, mud churned to slurry by each passing set of wheels. Almost 24 hours later, this slope flanked by agave plants had defeated us. Our drivers took up shovels: There were ruts to flatten, boulders to excavate and heave into the bushes. As the workers toiled, cicadas hissed from the treetops.

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Map: Mike Reagan

For the field biologists I was accompanying, this breakdown of rural infrastructure held great promise. They were on their way to survey some of the island’s last remaining virgin rainforests—shrinking havens of exceptional biodiversity, including some of Earth’s rarest birdlife. “There’s definitely a correlation with how hard it is to get in,” said John Mittermeier, an expedition leader, ornithologist, and geography Ph.D. student at Oxford University, “and how likely you are to find new stuff.”

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Clockwise from top left: Spearpoint leaf-tail gecko; Andreone’s tree frog; Compsophis fatsibe snake; Boophis goudot frog; Calumma nasutum chameleon; Spinomantis nussbaumi frog. Photos: Tristan Spinski

Now a cry went up among the team. A snake was moving its way through the undergrowth, and with abandon they leapt after it. Luke Kemp, the herpetologist on the expedition, crouched beside the bushes, poking around but coming up empty. “It’s like an addiction,” he told me. “I can’t stop.”

The biologists had congregated from four countries, united by a relentless, even maniacal fascination with wildlife. They wore faded shirts from scientific conferences and were never without their binoculars. Instead of making small talk, they discussed bird calls and sampling methods, animated by purpose and shared expertise. In unison, like meerkats, Mittermeier and the other two birders swung their binoculars from side to side, trying to glimpse what sounded to them like an endemic robin. The two entomologists swept the air with butterfly nets; they would not hesitate, when their hands were full, to pop wriggling insect specimens between their lips. Continue reading

Tiger Census as Bright Star

 

photo credit: Dr. Eash Hoskote

Tigers and other megafauna felines have frequently held pride of place on this site, beginning long before our company was based in India.

Thank you to NPR for reporting on the good news of this census, although in full disclosure their choice of cover photos is quite disappointing and we are happy to highlight a stunning photo by Dr. Eash Hoskote, one of our regular nature photography contributors instead.

Census Finds Nearly 3,000 Tigers In India

In 2010, India sought to double its tiger population by 2022. But on International Tiger Day, the country announced it met its goal four years earlier than expected.

Nearly 3,000 tigers now reside in India, that’s more than 70% of the world’s tiger population.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the 2018 All India Tiger Estimation count on Monday, attributing the figures to India’s hardworking wildlife officials and advocates.

“Once the people of India decide to do something, there is no force that can prevent them from getting the desired results,” Modi announced at a news conference. “Today we reaffirm our commitment towards protecting tigers.”

He added that India now takes the lead in being the biggest and safest habitat in the world for tigers. The population, now at 2,967, is up from 2,226 since 2014.

“There are several plants and animals out there that need our help,” Modi said. “What is it that we can do? Either through technology or human action to give them … a life so that they can add beauty and diversity to our planet.” Continue reading

Conservation via Changing Perspectives

The manta ray tourism model in Peru is helping to protect rays and their habitat. Photograph: Martin Strmiska/Getty Images

The correlation between the success rates of ecotourism as a conservation tool and the “charisma quotient” of a particular species may be stating the obvious, but the giant manta is one such example.

It’s especially gratifying when the strategy takes engaging the next generation in the process.

How Peru fell in love with a sea giant worth far more alive than dead

The giant manta ray is at risk in the Pacific ocean, but the rise of ecotourism is changing attitudes among local fishermen

Fishermen heading out to sea off Peru’s northern coast keep a keen eye on the turquoise waters below them, hoping for a glimpse of the elusive giant manta ray gliding by.

Nowadays the boats are taking tourists rather than nets. The fish they once caught are now in decline, and the fish the visitors want to see now are worth far more alive than dead.

This wildlife-rich stretch of the eastern tropical Pacific shared with Ecuador is home to one of the largest populations of the world’s biggest ray – the giant manta – and the local community, led by marine scientist Kerstin Forsberg, is trying to conserve the creatures.

These ocean-going giants are targeted for their gill plates, used in Chinese medicine, or, more commonly in Peruvian waters, they become entangled in fishing nets. With a wingspan that can measure as much as nine metres across, the giant manta rays have declined by up to a third globally and are classified as vulnerable on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“This species was really overlooked in my country,” says Forsberg, 34. But that is no longer the case in Zorritos, a village arranged along a stretch of Peru’s west-facing Pacific coastline.

In eight years, Forsberg has changed the mentality here towards the mantas. She has helped create a fisherman’s association focused on ecotourism encouraging local and foreign visitors to observe or even swim with the rays. The Guardian spotted rays leaping out of the sea and swimming close to the boat on one of these trips.

“People here now get excited about giant manta rays. Before, they didn’t even notice that they existed,” Forsberg says. “Now if the manta ray gets entangled in their nets, fishermen start releasing them and report on it excitedly. They’re happy to mention it to their peers.” Continue reading

New Zealand’s Minister of Conservation Shares Surprising Good News

When the Minister of Conservation speaks, we listen:

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We came to this news through the story below by National Public Radio (USA):

Rare New Zealand Parakeet Population Doubles After ‘Epic’ Breeding Season

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The small bird was believed to have gone extinct but after a bumper crop of beech seeds this year, conservationists estimate the orange-fronted parakeet population has likely doubled.
Department of Conservation

One of the rarest birds in New Zealand is having its best breeding season in decades, potentially doubling the population.

The orange-fronted parakeet, known locally as the kākāriki karaka, is in the midst of a prolonged mating season due to a beech seed bonanza, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said in a statement on Wednesday.

“It is great news that this year there are more than three times the number of nests compared to previous years,” Sage said.

She added that at least 150 wild-born chicks have been born so far this season…

Read the whole story here.

Two Sides of a Conservation Story – With Wolves in the Middle

Karin Vardaman, pictured left, walks the pastures with Breanna Owens, the owner of Cobblestone Ranch, in Los Molinos, California.Photographs by Lucas Foglia for The New Yorker

The return of apex predators to both national parks and rugged, yet unprotected areas of the United States impacts conservation and regeneration of biodiversity for both wildlife and native landscape.  Not surprisingly, it also creates challenges within the well established ranching community.

We’re grateful to all those who participate in the process of navigating a successful middle ground.

The Persuasive Power of the Wolf Lady

To bridge the divide between wolf-lovers and ranchers, the conservationist Karin Vardaman had to change many minds—including her own.

Early one morning in April, 2016, Karin Vardaman and four travelling companions woke in a motel in Siskiyou County, a rugged and remote region where rural California meets the Oregon border. They were in a town called Montague—a dot on the map that had begun, in the eighteen-eighties, as a stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad. After visiting a small market to pick up breakfast and snacks, they continued on to the old community hall, a narrow, low-slung building by the railroad tracks. Large, glass-paned windows ran the length of one side; below them, murals depicted horse-drawn wagons from the area’s pioneer days. Outside, a few dozen people were gathering. Watching them, Vardaman had an uneasy feeling. Oh, boy, she thought. Here we go.

Inside, chairs were arranged in a semicircle. Vardaman stood at the center, near a screen on which a PowerPoint slide displayed the title of her workshop, “On Wolves and Livestock.” Tall and sturdy, in her fifties, she has a flowing mane of lustrous red hair, framing slate-blue eyes and a narrow face. She introduced herself to the crowd as an advocate with the California Wolf Center. The Center, she said, was sponsoring a new, collaborative project called the Working Circle, through which it hoped to find a way for cattle and sheep to coëxist with endangered gray wolves.

Before Vardaman could continue, a man in the audience stood up, interrupting her. He wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He calmly thanked her and her team: they had helped the local economy, he said, by shopping at the market. What he didn’t appreciate, he went on, was their coming into town and dictating to the community what it should and shouldn’t do about wolves. As he spoke, his voice rose in anger, and he stepped suddenly toward Vardaman; at the same moment, more than twenty other people rose to their feet. Some waved anti-wolf flyers above their heads. Others held rifle cartridges, their brass glinting in the light. They chanted, “Shoot, shovel, and shut up!”—an anti-wolf slogan. Vardaman watched as several people opened their jackets, revealing handguns.

For most of the last century, there have been no wolves in California; government-sponsored livestock-protection campaigns exterminated the state’s wolf population by 1924. But in December, 2011, a lone male gray wolf from Oregon, known as OR-7, was tracked via radio collar as he crossed into the Golden State. Slowly, over time, a few others followed. In 2014, the gray wolf gained protection under California’s Endangered Species Act; not long afterward, in Siskiyou County, two wolves were spotted by a trail camera. Today it’s thought that there are at least twelve to fifteen wild wolves in the state. This nascent comeback has opened a rancorous breach between California’s agricultural community, which fears losing livestock to wolf attacks, and its environmentalists, who have been galvanized by the idea of an iconic predator resurrected.

A version of this polarizing conflict has played out wherever wolves have reappeared, from Michigan to the Northern Rockies and Washington State. To an extent, livestock producers and wolf conservationists are divided for pragmatic reasons. If a wolf kills a heifer calf, a rancher can suffer a substantive economic hit—one or two thousand dollars, plus the loss of income from all the calves that the mature cow would’ve had over her lifetime. (Since the wolves returned to Northern California, an estimated eleven calves and cows have died in wolf attacks.) Conversely, if a rancher kills a wolf in an area where the wolf population is still recovering, it could be a significant blow to the animals’ survival.

And yet ranchers and conservationists are divided in other ways, too. Continue reading

A Daily Grind Unlike Yours

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JOHN CUNEO

Ed Yong, one of the excellent science writers who does not shy away from troubling findings–but mostly amazes us with pure inspiration about how nature works–has a real downer of a career for us to contemplate today. It is a long read, less dark than it first sounds, and worth the read:

The Last of Its Kind

The biologist David Sischo has a tragic assignment: keeping vigil over a species’ sole survivor, then marking its extinction in real time.

Sometime on new year’s day, as the people of Hawaii recovered from a night of revelry, in a trailer on the outskirts of Kailua, Oahu, a 14-year-old snail named George died. David Sischo, who works in the trailer but was taking a rare day off, found out at 7 o’clock the next morning, when a colleague discovered George’s limp body and texted him. “I usually don’t hear from her that early, so before I even read the text, I felt that something bad had happened,” Sischo told me. Continue reading

Native Prairie & Savanna In The USA

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Cherokee Prairie Natural Area near Fort Smith, Arkansas. WILLIAM DARK PHOTOGRAPHY

Janet Marinelli, according to her author’s bio, is an award-winning independent journalist who was director of scientific and popular publications at Brooklyn Botanic Garden for 16 years; according to our read of her work over the last two years she is also a perfect fit with our mission to find at least one story every day that explains the natural world, illuminates the possibilities of entrepreneurial conservation or challenges us to be more careful with natural resources. She brightens our day:

Forgotten Landscapes: Bringing Back the Rich Grasslands of the Southeast

Native prairie and savanna once covered vast areas of the U.S. Southeast from Maryland to Texas, but agriculture and sprawl have left only small patches remaining. Now, a new initiative, driven by scientists and local communities, is pushing to restore these imperiled grassland habitats.

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Southeastern grasslands have some of the highest plant richness in the world, home to rare species such as American chaffseed. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS

Dwayne Estes pulls over to the side of a rural road in Franklin County, Tennessee, about 20 miles from the Alabama border. He hops out of his truck and points out a small plant with dainty, trumpet-shaped white flowers with purple-streaked throats. “This is Penstemon kralii,” says Estes, a 40-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch-tall professor sporting a baseball cap and beard, the twin badges of honor for many field botanists. The plant is found almost exclusively at the base of the Cumberland Plateau escarpment, where it survives precariously in narrow, grassy roadside fringes with other rare and threatened species, including a sunflower and a blue-eyed grass yet to be named and described by scientists.

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Kral’s penstemon. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS

We continue to the top of the steep, densely forested escarpment. Below, a checkerboard of croplands and pastures stretches as far as the eye can see. “Before 1840, those agricultural fields were prairies covering half a million, maybe 750,000 acres,” Estes says. “They were maintained by frequent fires and bison.” The wildfires probably swept up the base of the adjacent escarpment, he adds, keeping it open and sunny oak savanna where the penstemon and its companions could thrive. Like so many southern grassland denizens, they are vestiges of a lost botanical world that once covered as many as 120 million acres from Maryland to East Texas, caught in a vise between habitat loss to agriculture and urban sprawl on the one hand, and encroaching fire-suppressed forest on the other. Continue reading

Racing to Save Earth’s Rarest Eagle

Our long history with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology keeps their initiatives on our radar, and their films hold a very special place.

Sales from this award-winning documentary will benefit bird conservation.

World-renowned wildlife cinematographer, Neil Rettig, embarks on the most challenging assignment of his career: to find and film the rarest eagle on the planet.  An expertly woven tale with stunning cinematography, Bird of Prey journeys deep into the vanishing world of the Great Philippine Eagle and reveals an inspiring group of people that are determined to save the world’s most critically endangered eagle species from extinction.

Click here for more information on streaming options.

Doom Is A Four Letter Word

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Wind power could be used to pump cold ocean water to the surface to thicken sea ice.

We have balanced doom scenarios and their best explainers with plenty of stories about innovations, entrepreneurial initiatives and insights that lay out why nature deserves our protection and how to take action. It is clear to me that the last three decades of gentle prodding on the issue of climate change has been insufficient, and that more deep dive examination of the consequences we have created is the only effective tool left for us. But by that I do not mean a steady diet of only doom scenarios. Jon Gertner, the author of the forthcoming book “The Ice at the End of the World,” has this to say:

Maybe We’re Not Really Doomed After All

We have the brains to slow down climate change. Do we have the will?

9780812996623As the effects of a warming climate intensify and a sense of impending catastrophe grows stronger, it’s becoming easier to give in to environmental despair. Having spent the past five years studying the Arctic and traveling around Greenland, I feel the pull as well.

Glaciers and sea ice are melting at an alarming rate; temperatures are rising at a steady clip. To make matters worse, the Trump administration’s recent efforts to ignore a fact-based, scientific approach — rejecting, for instance, the use of computer projections to assess how a warming world might look after 2040 — leads me to worry that climate denialism is moving from the scientific fringes to the institutional center.

Still, it’s worth considering that things may not be as bad as they appear. I say this with a full understanding that most indicators are pointing in the wrong direction. Yet I also feel we’re in danger of losing sight of two crucial and encouraging aspects of our predicament. Continue reading

Creative Canine Collaboration

A team of specially-trained hunting dogs has been helping conservationists and researchers find rare turtles in Iowa. KATE PAYNE/IPR

Thanks to Iowa Public Radio for some good conservation news from the Heart Land.

Specially Trained Dogs Help Conservationists Find Rare Iowa Turtles

An eastern Iowa conservation group is taking an unconventional approach to tracking rare turtles on its land. Iowa Public Radio tagged along with a man who’s trained his hunting dogs to find the reptiles for researchers. Counting the creatures will help conservationists manage the land better.

It’s a cool morning on a nature preserve owned by Bur Oak Land Trust in Johnson County. I’m scouring a shady hillside with John Rucker and his four Boykin spaniels, looking for turtles.

“Find turtle, find turtle,” Rucker calls to his dogs. He turns to me and says, “did I tell you I’m the only person in the world that does this?”

When he’s not living off the grid in rural Montana, Rucker travels the country with his specially-trained hunting dogs, helping scientists and conservationists find turtles.

“This is Rooster,” John says, introducing the dogs. “This is Jenny Wren. She’s the one that gives me my litters. And that’s Mink. No, that’s Jaybird, and that’s Mink.”

We make our way through the undergrowth, checking in brush piles and under old logs. When the dogs find a turtle, they’ll pick it up and bring it back to be counted.

“You will notice that as soon as they strike a scent trail their tails will start wagging furiously, and then their whole demeanor becomes extremely excitable,” Rucker explains.

Citizen conservationist Judy Felder is one of the volunteers out hunting today.

“It’s sort of like a religion for me,” Felder says. “Nature is important and somebody has to defend it, protect it, preserve it.” Continue reading

Rewilding in an Unexpected Landscape

Elk are the most common mammals at the reserve. Photograph: Valery Yurko

Most examples of rewilding are defined as human intervention to return wildlife back into habitats where they’ve long disappeared. Thanks to the Guardian for this highly unusual one where the human population are the ones who have left – due to bizarre circumstances, to be sure – and the wildlife have slowly returned to reclaim the habitats left behind.

It’s heartening to believe that the animals may illustrate Nature’s power to heal where human’s have so severely faltered.

Chernobyl: the wildlife haven created when people left

Rare and endangered animals have thrived in the Chernobyl disaster zone since it was evacuated in 1986, as a new wildlife tour in southern Belarus shows

It is 5.30am in southern Belarus. A pink moon hangs over flat fields tinged with frost, and as we arrive at the checkpoint on the edge of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, five hours’ drive south of the capital, Minsk, a dawn chorus of cranes and hoopoes is in full swing.

This may seem an unlikely place to come wildlife watching, but I’m here with the first eco-tour of the Palieski state radioecological reserve (as the Belarusian section of the zone is called).

It was in April 1986 that probably the world’s worst nuclear accident happened, just over the border in northern Ukraine – a dramatisation of the disaster is currently showing on Sky Atlantic. Chernobyl town was evacuated and the exclusion zone today covers 2,600 sq km in Ukraine and 2,100 sq km in Belarus.

Ukraine turned its part of the zone into a tourist attraction several years ago – 50,000 people visited the nuclear reactor and ghost town of Pripyat last year, and it has even hosted a rave. But Belarus didn’t open its Palieski reserve to visitors until last December.

The Ukrainian site is now popular for its eerie ghost town and reactor ruins, but on this side of the border it’s all about the wilderness, and our tour will be a nature-watching trip like no other. The reserve claims to be Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding, and the unlikely beneficiaries of nuclear disaster have been the wolves, bison and bears that now roam the depopulated landscape, and the 231 (of the country’s 334) bird species that can also be found here. Continue reading

Everglades & Birds & Signals

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Wood Storks nesting in the Everglades. Photo: Mac Stone

Thanks to By Andy McGlashen, the Associate Editor of Audubon Magazine, for this bright spot on the horizon, a signal that long shot comebacks are possible:

Last Year’s Everglades Breeding Bonanza Was the Biggest in More Than 80 Years

An official report says that South Florida’s wading birds had an even better 2018 than we thought.

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Wood Storks in the Everglades. Photo: Mac Stone

A year ago, Everglades scientists and environmentalists were ecstatic about what looked like a blockbuster breeding season for South Florida’s wading birds. Turns out, it was far better than those early estimates indicated. New data show that the region hosted its biggest colonies of waders in more than 80 years, offering a flashback to the historical Everglades and a glimpse of how the ecosystem again could look once restored.

All told, wading birds built 138,834 nests throughout South Florida, with 122,571 of them in the Everglades, according to an annual report released last week by the South Florida Water Management District. That’s about three and a half times the average for the past 10 years, making it the strongest nesting season since before the region’s hydrology was transformed with engineering projects that made development possible but also contributed to steep declines in wading bird numbers. Continue reading

What Is The Cost Of Extinction To You?

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A palm oil plantation in Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

One more on the same topic of recent days, last for a while I promise:

To Tell the Story of Biodiversity Loss, Make It About Humans

The authors of a sweeping United Nations report on species in danger of extinction faced the same question I often do in reporting: Why should anyone care about the loss of nature?

On Monday, I wrote about a sweeping new United Nations report warning that humans were destroying Earth’s natural ecosystems at an “unprecedented” pace.

The findings were sobering: Millions of acres of wetlands and rain forests are being cleared away. As many as one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction because of farming, poaching, pollution, the transport of invasive species and, increasingly, global warming. Almost everywhere you look, nature is vanishing before our eyes.

But the report, which was written for world leaders and policymakers, also wrestled with some big questions: Why should anyone care about the loss of nature? Why should countries take drastic steps, as the report urges, to halt the decline in biodiversity? Continue reading

How Do You Define Too Late?

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“The problem with climate change is that it’s a timed test,” the writer Bill McKibben says. “If you don’t solve it fast, then you don’t solve it.” Photograph by S. E. Arndt / Picture Press / Redux

I have been reading the reviews, and interviews with the authors of this and two other important recent books covering similar territory. I have stopped worrying about overkill, because this is overkill territory. You cannot get too much perspective on this; the worry is too little, too late:

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Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert on the U.N. Extinction Report

While the political tide could be turning on climate change, both writers worry that it is too late.

After years of languishing far down the list of voters’ priorities—for Democrats and even more so for Republicans—the desire for action on climate change has brought this issue to the top of many voters’ concerns, according to a CNN poll. Now Presidential candidates are competing to establish themselves as leaders on the issue, while children are making headlines for striking from school.

Bill McKibben, whose book “The End of Nature” brought the idea of global warming to public consciousness thirty years ago, tells David Remnick that the accumulation of weather catastrophes—droughts, wildfires, floods—may have finally made an impact. McKibben joined Elizabeth Kolbert in a conversation about the U.N.’s new report on species extinction. It finds that a million species could become extinct within a few decades, and that human life itself may be imperilled. While the political tide could be turning, both worry that it is too late. Continue reading

Charismatic Doesn’t Always Have to Be Cute

We applaud Pennsylvania lawmakers for choosing to highlight a creature whose presence in waterways indicates healthy ecosystems. Thanks to NPR for the story.

Snot Otter Emerges Victorious In Vote For Pennsylvania’s Official Amphibian

Pennsylvania’s soon-to-be official amphibian has more than its fair share of nicknames: snot otter, mud devil, Allegheny alligator, devil dog, lasagna lizard.

In short, it’s not exactly a looker.

But the Eastern hellbender salamander was the overwhelming choice of lawmakers for amphibian representation in the state. On Tuesday, the state’s House of Representatives voted 191-6 on a bill that would name the aquatic creature its state amphibian. The Senate passed the bill in February.

The hellbender is a nocturnal salamander that can grow more than 2 feet long. The mud-colored creature, covered in a layer of mucus, breathes primarily through loose flaps of thick, wrinkled skin that look a little bit like lasagna noodles.

The hellbender is also a canary for environmental degradation. Continue reading

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