More On Salmon And Southern Residents

“Damn, these things are getting hard to find.”

From Erica Cirino in The Revelator. Again, the focus is on dams:

According to experts, the reason for the starvation in the Southern Residents is most definitely a lack of salmon, which make up the largest and most nutritious part of their diet. Wasser and his fellow researchers found that levels of thyroid hormones were lowest in the Southern Resident whales following known drops in Chinook salmon from the Fraser River, while increases in salmon in the river were associated with increases in thyroid hormone levels.

In the past 10 years, salmon — particularly those spawning in the Columbia River — have decreased. While that’s certain, Wasser said what’s not well understood is why their numbers are dropping. Overfishing and habitat loss due to development could play a role in the fish’s demise. However, it appears more likely that the construction of hydroelectric dams on rivers where salmon spawn and migrate are to blame.

“Some say dams are key, including the Snake River dam, which impacts levels of early spring Chinook, some of the fattiest fish known and essential to replenish whales from the harsh winter and sustain them until the Fraser River Chinook run peaks in the summer,” said Wasser.

Giles takes a stronger personal stance when it comes to discussing the threats to survival the Southern Residents face. She said it’s clear that fishing restrictions and dam removal are necessary in order to replenish salmon and killer whale populations in the Pacific Northwest. But making her voice heard has been something she’s been criticized for doing as a scientist.

“I won’t stop telling the truth about what’s happening just because it’s politically ‘incorrect’ or unpopular,” said Giles. “We need to take action now or we’ll lose these genetically and culturally distinct whales forever.”

Whether we succeed in doing what is necessary to help this population survive, or whether we let them dwindle away, is a true test of whether anyone really cares enough about the rest of the species on this planet. Everyone says they love killer whales. But if they can’t be mobilized to help a species they love, then what hope do all the other species have?

The Graphic Reality Of Extinction

The journal Nature sums up the threat of the Sixth Great Extinction in one mindblowing graphic (click here, or on graphic for zoomable  version):

Here’s the data and thinking that are behind the graphic:

Studies that try to tally the number of species of animals, plants and fungi alive right now produce estimates that swing from less than 2 million to more than 50 million. The problem is that researchers have so far sampled only a sliver of Earth’s biodiversity, and most of the unknown groups inhabit small regions of the world, often in habitats that are rapidly being destroyed.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlighted the uncertainty in the latest version of its Red List of Threatened Species, which was released in November. The report evaluated more than 76,000 species, a big increase over earlier editions. But that is just 4% of the more than 1.7 million species that have been described by scientists, making it impossible to offer any reliable threat level for groups that have not been adequately assessed, such as fish, reptiles and insects.

Recognizing these caveats, Nature pulled together the most reliable available data to provide a graphic status report of life on Earth (see ‘Life under threat’). Among the groups that can be assessed, amphibians stand out as the most imperilled: 41% face the threat of extinction, in part because of devastating epidemics caused by chytrid fungi. Large fractions of mammals and birds face significant threats because of habitat loss and degradation, as well as activities such as hunting.

Looking forward, the picture gets less certain. The effects of climate change, which are hard to forecast in terms of pace and pattern, will probably accelerate extinctions in as-yet unknown ways. One simple way to project into the future would be to assume that the rate of extinction will be constant; it is currently estimated to range from 0.01% to 0.7% of all existing species a year. “There is a huge uncertainty in projecting future extinction rates,” says Henrique Pereira, an ecologist at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig.

At the upper rate, thousands of species are disappearing each year. If that trend continues, it could lead to a mass extinction — defined as a loss of 75% of species — over the next few centuries.

I find it hard to believe that this is not screaming headline news every day. The media, like the public, simply doesn’t know what to do with the catastrophic implications of climate change and human impact on the planet. That is not good.

(H/T The Dodo–very appropriate, no?)

What Giraffes Tell Us About Zoos, Endangered Species, And Human (Mis)Perception Of Animal Intelligence

Who you calling stupid?

So being a hit in zoos didn’t translate into scientific interest and understanding of giraffes in the wild:

Giraffes are the “forgotten megafauna,” said Julian Fennessy, a giraffe researcher and the executive director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. “You hear all about elephants, Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees, Dian Fossey and her mountain gorillas, but there’s been a massive paucity of information about giraffes.”

Now all that is changing fast, as a growing cadre of researchers seek to understand the spectacular biology and surprisingly complex behavior of what Dr. Fennessy calls a “gentle giant and the world’s most graceful animal.” Scientists have lately discovered that giraffes are not the social dullards or indifferent parents they were reputed to be, but instead have much in common with another charismatic mega-herbivore, the famously gregarious elephant.

Well, just because scientists have been ignoring giraffes, doesn’t mean the giraffe-loving zoo public hasn’t been concerned about giraffes in the wild, right? Zoos say they give people a passion for animals that helps protect them in the wild. Apparently not. According to the story: “The species is not listed as endangered, but researchers point with alarm to evidence that in the past 15 years, the giraffe population has plummeted some 40 percent, to less than 80,000 from 140,000.”

Which raises an important question, I think: how does a species which has seen a 40% population crash in 15 years NOT get listed as endangered?

This story is also one more datapoint in Zimmermann’s Axiom Of Animal Intelligence (which states that research into just about any animal never shows it is dumber and less sentient than we thought). To wit:

Female giraffes, for example, have been found to form close friendships with one another that can last for years, while mother giraffes have displayed signs of persistent grief after losing their calves to lions.

“Giraffes have been underestimated, even thought of as a bit stupid,” said Zoe Muller, a wildlife biologist at the University of Warwick in England. But through advances in satellite and aerial tracking technology, improved hormonal tests and DNA fingerprinting methods to extract maximum data from giraffe scat, saliva and hair, and a more statistically rigorous approach to analyzing giraffe interactions, she said, “we’ve been able to map out their social structure and relationships in a much more sophisticated way; there’s a lot more going on than we appreciated.”

So one story, three important insights. 1) Being a zoo star doesn’t appear to do much for you in the wild; 2) The process by which species are labeled and treated as “endangered” needs a re-examination; and 3) Yet another species labeled “stupid” by the human species turns out to be not so stupid.

Manatee Madness

I’m working on a story about environmental threats to the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), and the unusual mortality events in which both manatees and dolphins are dying in record numbers in 2013.

The story is mostly about how development impacts the water quality in the IRL, and how that might affect the health of manatees and dolphins. But humanity also poses a direct threat to manatees, both from boat strikes as well as from wanting to get close to lovable manatees.

Treehugger recently posted a story about the latter problem, featuring a saddening time-lapse video of all the human activity around a favorite manatee winter gathering spot–a place where they are trying to keep warm and conserve energy in the winter:

Here, in a timelapse video made by Mittermeier and fellow photographer Neil Ever Osborne, you can see just how much interaction the manatees are forced to deal with all day, every day. You’ll even see a manatee stampede, which happens when a sudden loud noise onshore scares them. Mittermeier states that this happens several times a day. The video reveals just how little space manatees get for themselves, and how much more protection we need to be offering these animals who are, we cannot forget, members of an endangered species.

It doesn’t look very restful for the manatees. And the exclusion area set up is pathetically small. This is one of the many paradoxes of humanity: we often harm even the things we say we love.

Protecting Captive Chimps

This could be big:

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Tuesday to bring captive chimpanzees under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, a move that would create one more major barrier to conducting invasive medical research on the animals for human diseases.

If the proposal is enacted, permits will be required for any experiment that harms chimps, and both public and privately financed researchers will have to show that the experiment contributes to the survival of chimps that remain in the wild. The recommendation is now open to public comment for 60 days.

And this would be even bigger, and an interesting precedent for other captive species that are listed as endangered:

Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society, who praised the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision, said his organization and others would use the comment period to pursue the issue of using chimps in entertainment.

While the argument for medical research has been that there is a compelling human need, he said there was no such argument for using young chimps in television advertisements, for example, which he described as “entirely frivolous.”

But under the Endangered Species Act, only uses that are considered harmful or harassing require permits. And use in entertainment has not traditionally been considered to be in the same class as taking blood or other invasive procedures.

In separate interviews, Mr. Pacelle and Dr. Goodall said chimps who are trained for entertainment are taken away from their social group when they are young, which is very harmful to them.

What Meat Or Animal Substance Won’t The Chinese Plunder For Medicinal Properties?

“Dammit, the Chinese think I can help cure indigestion from shark fin soup.”

Apparently, the answer is not scaly anteater:

A Chinese vessel that ran aground on a protected Philippine coral reef was found to contain more than 20,000 pounds of meat from the scaly anteater, a protected species prized for its supposed medicinal qualities.

The ship hit an atoll on April 8 on Palawan Island, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site. An additional search of the boat Sunday revealed 400 boxes, each containing between 25 to 30 kilograms of frozen anteaters. An international ban on trading scaly anteaters took effect in 2002, but illegal trade continues as the meat and scales of the animals are valued at over a hundred dollars per kilogram in China.

Billions of Chinese, plus a culture that seeks medicinal relief from all manner of animal parts, is not a good combination.

The Elephant Slaughter Rolls On

Ugh:

Poachers in south-west Chad have killed at least 86 elephants including 33 pregnant females in less than a week, in a potentially devastating blow to one of central Africa‘s last remaining elephant populations.

Groups of elephants follow traditional migration routes during the dry season from Central African Republic, through Chad to Cameroon. Thirty years ago there were estimates of 150,000 animals across the region, but today that figure could be as low as 2,000.

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the elephants were killed near Fianga, close to the border between Chad and Cameroon, and their tusks were hacked off. Fianga is near a cross-border national park area – Sene Oura in Chad and Bouba N’Djida in Cameroon, where many elephants spend the dry season before the rains start in April. It is thought the animals were killed by Chadian and Sudanese poachers travelling on horseback carrying AK47s and hacksaws to remove the tusks.

“The poachers killed pregnant females and all the calves,” said Celine Sissler-Bienvenu from IFAW. “Even if the conditions were right, which they are not, it would take more than 20 years for this population to recover”.

This isn’t working for the elephants. Is it working for you? Didn’t think so.

I think I have a good idea for a more justifiable and effective use for drones.

U.S. Navy Proposes “Taking” 33 Million Marine Mammals

This is stunning, and a perfect example of how the inertia of stale priorities–especially Cold War-era national security priorities–can take us down some disastrous roads.

From a New York Times editorial:

Between 2014 and 2019, the United States Navy hopes to conduct testing and training exercises in the Atlantic and the Pacific that will involve sonars and explosives of many different kinds.

Over the years, the Navy has been forced to acknowledge what science has clearly demonstrated: noise generated by sonar and underwater detonations can kill marine mammals, like whales and porpoises, and disturb their normal feeding, breeding and migration. In preparing for its upcoming exercises, the Navy has asked the National Marine Fisheries Service for approval to “take” a number of marine mammals — “take” being the broad term for everything from killing these creatures to disturbing their habits.

This all sounds as it should be, with the Navy requesting permission from the agency, as required by various laws protecting marine mammals and endangered species. But the numbers say something else. In its testing areas in the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, the Navy estimates that between 2014 and 2019 it will “take” nearly 33 million marine mammals — everything from blue whales to elephant seals.

Most of these creatures will be disturbed in some way but not injured or killed. But the damage could still be considerable. Sound travels much faster through water than it does through air, magnifying its impact, and many of the sounds the Navy plans to generate fall in the frequencies most damaging to marine mammals. More than five million of them may suffer ruptured eardrums and temporary hearing loss, in turn disrupting normal behavioral patterns. As many as 1,800 may be killed outright, either by testing or by ship strikes.

So we’ve got whales versus sonar and naval training. That’s a trade-off that needs a much closer look, as the New York Times urges.