ecosystems

Government failing to adequately protect marine life, say wildlife experts

Conservationists warn lack of protection for key English marine sites puts wildlife at risk after government announces just 23 potential new conservation zones

The Government has been accused of “dragging its feet” on protecting the seas, as it announced fewer than two dozen potential sites for new conservation areas.

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has proposed 23 new marine conservation zones in the second stage of creating a network of protected areas in the seas around England – down from 37 candidate sites announced last year.

So far, just 27 marine conservation zones have been designated in English waters, although 127 sites were recommended by regional groups tasked with drawing up potential sites to protect ocean species and habitats.

Conservationists warn the latest set of proposed conservation zones, which will now be subject to public consultation, are missing key sites and putting habitats and wildlife ranging from large seagrass meadows to the spiny seahorse at risk.

Wildlife experts say a “truly ecologically coherent network of sites” is needed to protect marine wildlife and restore the seas and fish stocks after decades of neglect and decline.

Defra said the 23 proposed sites would cover more than 10,000 sq km (3,800 sq miles), protecting important seabed habitats and species, and it hoped to designate them within a year, with a third tranche to follow later.

Marine environment minister George Eustice said: “We’re doing more than ever to protect our seas, preserving incredible underwater landscapes and helping our sea life flourish.

“We’ve already created 27 marine conservation zones and a quarter of English inshore waters are in protected areas.”

But he said: “It is important we secure the future of our coastal communities as part of our long-term economic plan. We want to support these communities while protecting our marine life.”

Sites proposed for designation in the second tranche of conservation zones include Allonby Bay on the Cumbrian Coast which has blue mussel beds and living reefs, and coast between Bideford and Foreland, home to pink sea fans and anemones.

The latest proposals also include Fulmar, 140 miles off the Northumberland coast, protecting sandy and muddy habitat in the North Sea which is inhabited by clams, cockles and the brittlestar.

But conservationists said important areas such as Studland Bay, Dorset, with seagrass meadows that are home to breeding seahorses and juveniles of species such as bass, bream and flatfish, and sites around the Isle of Wight have been missed out.

Read more here.

Image credit: Lin Baldock/Natural England/PA

Creature Exchange December: Bellpup by SandScales

This creature might be interpreted as more of a species than a unique being. The Coral Catcher is an ancient species of aquatic dragon living in tropical waters. They usually have similarities to species of reef snakes, though may have their own unique colours and patterns. These gentle giants can reach alarming sizes, so much that a few rare specimens have become their own mobile ecosystem! Much like whales, they feed off of schools of plankton, though it’s not uncommon for them to accidentally suck up some of the many fish and marine animals that call the reefs growing on their back home. They have two fore-fins with tiny hook-like claws; these are often used when they are at rest to anchor them to shallow waters and keep them from drifting out to sea. They are especially useful when they are small, as they can use them to attach to coral or dig their way into the sandy sea floor.

Strangely, the plants, corals, and stones that follow them do not directly attach to the creature itself. While they do feed off its energy, they stay with the dragon by force of a magical energy field. This field sort of “frills out” at the back of the head, creating a collar, or some times even a mane of broken coral, sea grasses, and even bones around the dragon’s head. Bits of coral and grass will break off from the main bed, being left at the way-side to either die or create a new stationary reef.

A group of scientists are flagging the possibility of a profound change to the Arctic ecosystem this year — one that has not likely been seen for 21,000 years, before the last ice age’s deep chill took hold.
The Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) states there’s a 20 per cent probability the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free during the summer of 2015. The probability of this occurring rises to 70 percent by 2020, said Paul Beckwith, one of the group’s scientists.
Global warming is being blamed.
“Within about a decade the accelerated warming could keep the ocean ice-free year round,” said Beckwith, a paleoclimatogy professor at the University of Ottawa.
"Then we’re in a different type of [global] climate.”
At first, this ice-free moment may only last for a week, he said, but the seasonal thaw will last much longer as the planet continues to warm.
The 2015 prediction for the north pole is not out of line with other scientific forecasts. The U.S. Navy believes the Arctic could be ice free as early as 2016.

For millennia, the Arctic Ocean has been ruled by two frozen forces: permanent, multi-year sea ice, and annual sea ice. The latter expands and contracts each summer or winter from the permanent sea ice core at the top of the planet.
All manner of northern life, from Inuit people to polar bears, have relied on this fundamental pattern of seasonal ice floes to survive.

Perhaps even more troubling is what this warming trend will do for releasing trapped methane — a greenhouse gas estimated to be 20 to 30 times more potent than CO2 in trapping heat.
Below the oceans, warming waters will cause gigatonnes of the gas to bubble up from the sea floors, the scientists claim. Along the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, there is an estimated 500 billion tonnes of methane. Scientists have already witnessed the release of this gas off the coast of Russia, as well as regions near Norway and Alaska.
Another worry: melting permafrost. Canada’s frozen northern frontier contains organic matter in the rock and soil that decompose into methane. It’s trapped for now, but if released, it along with methane from the sea could dwarf current atmospheric levels.
The fear is this could lead to “runaway global warming” said Beckwith. Newly released methane warms the planet, in turn releasing more methane. If this loop is triggered, Beckwith thinks it may not be possible to stop planetary warming, even with human effort to curb emissions.“It’s the most powerful feedback in the Arctic,” he added.NASA recently declared 2014 as the hottest year on record, and scientists at AMEG warn that global attempts to lower carbon emissions are too little and too late.The scientists clarify that an ice-free Arctic still means ice chunks will remain floating around, but the once inhospitable region will become far more navigable to ships than ever before. Oil and gas companies see that as an opportunity. Shell Oil says the Arctic contains “30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13 percent of its yet-to-find oil.”

Grasslands

You have built a home in a meadow
that no one has visited for years.

You have undid, with attention only,
what the past has taught me to seal away.

I am exposed and crave to be with,
around, next to, in front of, behind,
underneath, and on top of you.

I am as exposed and as vulnerable
as a meadow and it is because of you.

It is you it is you it is you.

You are the flora and fauna that flourish,
the host of wildlife and the stalk of wildflowers.

Bees, like me, live because of you

are grand importance 
of the entire ecosystem .

You have built a home in a meadow
where onlookers looked on
but never sat for a while
—in the high grasslands of my heart.

Grasslands // J. Harris

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A student at Clemson experiments with turtles crossing the road. If you’re American, the experiment went just as expected…

College student’s turtle project takes dark twist

Clemson University student Nathan Weaver set out to determine how to help turtles cross the road. He ended up getting a glimpse into the dark souls of some humans.

Weaver put a realistic rubber turtle in the middle of a lane on a busy road near campus. Then he got out of the way and watched over the next hour as seven drivers swerved and deliberately ran over the animal. Several more apparently tried to hit it but missed.

"I’ve heard of people and from friends who knew people that ran over turtles. But to see it out here like this was a bit shocking," said Weaver, a 22-year-old senior in Clemson’s School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences.

To seasoned researchers, the practice wasn’t surprising.

The number of box turtles is in slow decline, and one big reason is that many wind up as roadkill while crossing the asphalt, a slow-and-steady trip that can take several minutes.

Sometimes humans feel a need to prove they are the dominant species on this planet by taking a two-ton metal vehicle and squishing a defenseless creature under the tires, said Hal Herzog, a Western Carolina University psychology professor.

"They aren’t thinking, really. It is not something people think about. It just seems fun at the time," Herzog said. "It is the dark side of human nature."

Via AP

How Vultures Save People

photo credit

Many people only see turkey vultures as nasty pests; lowly, ugly scavengers undeserving of our respect. But these bald-headed badasses may have saved thousands of people over the years because of their amazing guts.

Turkey vultures have such strong stomach acid that they can digest bacteria and viruses that would kill other animals, such as E. Coli, anthrax, and botulism. You may have heard me spout this fact before, but I want to further express how critical this ability is. A single crystal the size of a grain of sand of the botulism toxin, for instance, is potent enough to kill 9,600 people. When vultures consume carcasses with this toxin in it, they are not only immune to its effects but they remove it from the ecosystem. This means that when that turkey vulture dies and another scavenger eats it, the scavenger will not be subject to the toxin and will therefore not die!

Abilities like this put vultures in an undeniably important position when it comes to maintaining the health of an ecosystem (and of people!). If you still do not believe we need vultures, look to India as an example. The Indian and Indian white-rumped vulture populations have declines by 97% in the last decade because of a poisonous anti-inflammatory drug used on Indian cattle.

photo credit

Without these vultures to consume the carcasses of dead animals, the population of stray dogs has skyrocketed. More stray dogs means more rabies, and therefore more rabies victims. Because of the decline of Indian vultures, which rabies has no effect on, India has become the number one country for rabies related deaths. 20,000 people per year die from rabies in India- that is more than 1/3 of the worldwide death toll!

If the connotation associated with turkey vultures does not change soon, and if use of lead shot is not banned (lead poisoning in the number one cause of turkey vulture deaths), a similar process may occur with something like botulism here in America.

6

Japanese sculptor and illustrator Maico Akiba created an awesome series of sculptures entitled SEKAI, which means “world.” Each beautiful piece depicts an animal with a miniature ecosystem growing on its back, complete with tiny people and remnants of human civilization, such as utility poles, power lines, and buildings that have been reclaimed by nature.

Click here to view the entire SEKAI series.

[via Spoon & Tamago]

Beaver Chief falls, Glacier National Park by WorldofArun on Flickr. 
7

A Pulsing Desert

The Sahara Desert conjures up images of merciless heat and endless sands, scuttling scorpions, deadly vipers, gritty winds, elusive water—but it wasn’t always like that. The Sahara has a long history of changing climate, when the sands give way to water and humans brave the elements and survive. The Fezzan region in southwest Libya is the beating heart of the Sahara. Though this apparent inferno receives less than an inch of rain a year and holds the world heat record, it actually harbours tiny gem-coloured lakes: the dehydrated reminders of a time when groundwater was much closer to the surface. 200,000 years ago, a lake the size of England spread across the sands, and ancient channels testify the existence of rivers, making the land not only tolerable, but farmable—human communities rose and fell with the water like a pulse. The Sahara Desert might have even been one of the paths our ancestors took on their journey out of Africa. To locate and map these ancient waterways, researchers have used radar images to direct ground crews to study the sites, but the images of the Fezzan region above, however, were taken by photographer George Steinmetz using an ultra-light paraglider.

Thanks to a former NBA star, a coalition of Chinese business leaders, celebrities and students, and some unlikely investigative journalism, eating shark fin soup is no longer fashionable here. But what really tipped the balance was a government campaign against extravagance that has seen the soup banned from official banquets.

“People said it was impossible to change China, but the evidence we are now getting says consumption of shark fin soup in China is down by 50 to 70 percent in the last two years,” said Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, a San Francisco-based group that has promoted awareness about the shark trade. The drop is also reflected in government and industry statistics.

“It is a myth that people in Asia don’t care about wildlife,” Knights said. “Consumption is based on ignorance rather than malice. ”

The dramatic expansion in China’s middle and upper classes has transformed the country into a major driver of global wildlife trafficking. The Obama administration is so concerned about Chinese demand for endangered wildlife that it made the subject an important part of its bilateral dialogue this year.

More than 70 million sharks were killed last year, largely to satisfy rapacious demand from China’s newly rich for shark fin soup.

Lavish spending by China’s wealthy has also sent demand for ivory skyrocketing, fueling a massive expansion in elephant poaching in Africa.

The consequences of the traffic go beyond a crisis for wildlife. The illegal ivory trade has financed global crime networks and local insurgents, including Somalia’s al-Shabab — responsible for last month’s attack on a Nairobi shopping mall.

“Conservation is more about China now than it is about Africa,” said Knights. “China can be the savior of wildlife or it can be the demise of it.”

Great read by WaPo.

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The Beauty of Life in Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are the most diverse of all marine ecosystems. They team with life, with about one quarter of all ocean species depending on reefs for food and shelter. This is a remarkable statistic when you consider that reefs cover just a tiny fraction (less than one percent) of the earth’s surface and less than two percent of the ocean bottom. Because they are so diverse, coral reefs are often called the rainforests of the sea.

Coral reefs are also very important to people. The value of coral reefs has been estimated at 30 billion U.S. dollars and perhaps as much as 172 billion U.S. dollars each year, providing food, protection of shorelines, jobs based on tourism, and even medicines.

Coral reefs are in dramatic decline and some coral are on the brink of extinction. One of the ten focal EDGE (evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered) coral reefs species, the elkhorn coral, has undergone an 95% decline in the shallow Caribbean reefs in the past thirty years (last picture).

Source 1, 2

Study: ‘Most plant species important in various and varying ecosystems’

From PhysOrg:

According to a new analysis of plants in grassland ecosystems around the world, it turns out that most of those plant species are important.

Brian Wilsey, associate professor, and Stanley Harpole, assistant professor, both in Iowa State University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, are authors of a study on plant diversity published in today’s issue of the journal Nature. The study’s lead author, Forest Isbell, is a former graduate student of Wilsey who now works at McGill University, Canada.

Their findings show that most species promoted ecosystem functioning in at least some years, sites and environmental conditions. In all, 84 percent of the grassland species are important to the ecosystem at some point.

Prior to this multi-year, multi-context research, Wilsey said that the argument for diversity was more difficult.

"In any single context, only about 27 percent of plant species were seen as important," he said.

Since previous research had shown that such a small number of plant species were important to ecosystem processes, there was less reason to be concerned if grasslands lost different species and diversity lessened, according to Wilsey.

Now, the value of diversity is very apparent.

Check out the rest of the article here.

(Photo: My own, taken a few weeks ago in the Similkameen Valley, BC, Canada)