Penny Thoughts

The Ramblings of a Biology Lover, with a Few Surprises on the Side

Month: August, 2013

Guinea Pigs are the Lowest Form of Pet- Morven Crumlish


Guinea pigs are the lowest form of pet

Stumbled across this article on the Guardian website and although I am a massive guinea pig fan, it had me in bits.

It’s only a short article so if you have a spare minute have a read and a good chuckle. It will also inevitably cause you to spend at least the next 10 minutes trawling through the internet looking at guinea pigs in costumes.. which I reckon is much better than whatever it is you are doing now.

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Threatened Species of the Week: The Cretan Orchid


You may have noticed that this week’s threatened species is very different to all others I have chosen; it is a plant. Generally when people think about threatened species the first images that come to mind are animals like tigers, pandas and rhinos. I imagine an incredibly small proportion of people would think of for example, a plant or a fungus.

Although an enormous number of non-animal species are at risk of extinction they receive a disproportionately small amount of media coverage and attention. So I thought that this would be a good platform on which to expose a few of these relatively ignored threatened species.

The Cretan orchid (Orchis sitiaca) is endemic to the small Greek island of Crete. The orchid mainly grows on slightly acidic to alkaline soils in the central and eastern mountains of the island.

This area over which they are found is already small and is becoming smaller with the increasing threats of habitat loss. The grasslands are no longer being grazed to maintain them and are therefore developing into more shrub/ forest land; a habitat unsuitable for the Cretan orchid.

Another threat to these orchids is tourism. Crete is one of the most popular Greek islands and with more people comes more picking and more trampling. Although people are encouraged not to pick these orchids, their beautiful appearance can commonly be too tempting for some.

Currently no figure has been estimated for the population size of the Cretan orchid, but due to its already small range and the threats facing it, the IUCN Red List criteria have classed the Cretan orchid as endangered. Without populations figures it cannot be determined whether the population is increasing or in decline; however it is incredibly likely that the latter is the case.

All orchids are protected under the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and this means that certain actions are recommended to ensure their protection. These actions include habitat protection, fencing vulnerable sites, raising public awareness and monitoring and surveillance programmes.

These actions can be effective, but with already small and fragmented populations it can be extremely difficult and expensive to carry out; and usually the required funding is not available.

This species of orchid is predicted to suffer increased intensity of threats over the coming years. Although there are actions in place to protect the Cretan orchid and others like it, they are still at risk of extinction. So next time you see a pretty flower when you’re wandering about resist that temptation to pick it out of the ground, you never know how precious it could really be.

Bee Big Brother: A Unique Insight into the Secret Lives of Bees

Explore.org have created Bee Cam, a live stream from inside a honeybee hive, to provide us with a unique insight into the inner workings of a living bee colony.

No matter how large our curiosity may be, in reality we cannot go about sticking our heads in beehives (for obvious reasons). So instead the folks at explore.org have provided the virtual alternative to this potentially deadly idea.



Live streaming video by Ustream

From the creators of Bear Cam and Bird Cams, explore.org have carefully positioned cameras within and at the entrance to a beehive in Waal, Germany. The stream is in HD, completely live and runs 24hrs a day to fulfill all of your bee watching needs. You can even take snapshots of the live footage if a particularly photogenic bee comes along.

Bee Cam is providing a rare glimpse into the lives of one of the world’s most rapidly declining group of insects. Bees are facing a multitude of threats including colony collapse disorder, climate change, disease, and the heavily covered threat of pesticides. The mystery killer, Colony Collapse Disorder alone is thought to have contributed to the collapse of over 10 million colonies in the last 6 years.

The colony of bees being observed by Bee Cam are in the process of recovering from a colony collapse. This Big Brother of the bee world is allowing a crucial insight into how these colonies respond to colony collapse and what behaviours they undergo to recover from such an event.


Live streaming video by Ustream

You can watch the honey bees carry out many behaviours including cell cleaning and capping, comb building and honey making. You can also observe how the individual bees interact; undergoing behaviours like grooming which help to maintain the cooperative life strategy that these bees abide by.

If you have some spare time, head over to explore.org to watch these busy bees go about their dayly business. If like me you are an avid bee fan then you will love this amazing glimpse into their lives.

Threatened Species of the Week: The Spiny Seahorse

This weeks threatened species of the week is the Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus histrix)!

The spiny seahorse is considered vulnerable to extinction under the IUCN classification system due to destruction of their habitat, their trade popularity and vulnerability as by-catch. If you aren’t sure of the classification technique used by the IUCN Redlist then have a look at this post which explains the ins and outs of this system.

Spiny seahorses were previously classed as data deficient. However, after an investigation of the species it was found that they were in decline and this bumped their ranking up to vulnerable. Studies estimated that the world population of spiny seahorses has declined up to 30% in the last 10-15 years, suggesting that they have been under extreme pressure over the last few decades.

The first culprit for this decline is the massive demand for these creatures as pets and for traditional medicine. The populations are being exploited to fulfil this demand and as a result the existing populations are struggling to maintain their numbers. It has been predicted that each year more than 200 000 individuals are traded in parts of the seahorses range and this level of trade is set to continue and potentially increase.

Surveys have also shown that the spiny seahorses are not only becoming rarer, but they also seem to be shrinking. The seahorses that are being caught are smaller than they used to be and this is likely due to the fact that most adult seahorses are rapidly removed from the populations. This leaves more of the smaller juveniles to be caught as many individuals do not survive long enough to reach full maturity before they are caught.

The second major pressure on the spiny seahorse populations is the ever growing issue of by-catch. By-catch are all those unwanted living organisms that are caught in the process of fishing and trawling in the ocean. A huge number of these seahorses are being caught as by-catch throughout the species’ range.

The huge majority of spiny seahorses caught as by-catch are caught as a result of trawling. Trawling involves dragging huge and heavy structures along the seafloor to catch creatures like mussels, clams and oysters. This method is incredibly damaging to the sea floor, basically destroying and removing everything in its path. The spiny seahorses that exist at these depths are swept away with the rest of the sea floor.

By-catch can and should be returned to the ocean. However, due to the huge demand for these seahorses they are generally considered a pleasant surprise as they can be easily sold into the medicine and pet trade. Less damaging trawling methods do exist, however, the majority of these seahorses are being caught in the oceans of developing countries that rarely use these trawlers.

The third threat to these seahorses is habitat destruction; possibly the biggest threat to all biodiversity across the world (but that is another story for another day). As mentioned, these seahorses exist close to the seafloor; specifically at depths of 6-20m. They live on various substrates including sponges, weedy rocky reefs, soft corals but mainly on seagrass beds.

The biggest habitat loss is being seen in seagrasses which are declining as a result of numerous factors. So the first big threat to seagrass is our good friend trawling. Trawling removes the seagrass like it removes the seahorses; leaving the seafloor baron of seagrass. So trawling is threatening spiny seahorses in multiple ways and it could be argued that this is the threat that is the most important to target.

Another threat to the seagrass is eutrophication which occurs when for example fertilisers and sewage leak into water systems. This leads to a massive increase in algae and plankton and therefore an enormous increase in the levels of photosynthesis in these water systems. This removes a significant proportion of the oxygen from the water and therefore starves the other living organisms (including seagrass) that need this oxygen to survive.

Other threats to the seagrass include coastal building which is removing much of the seagrass habitat in those regions. Invasive species are also threatening seagrass; with foreign plants outcompeting the native seagrasses and invasive wildlife consuming it. Overall, the seagrass habitats are under great threat and as a result, so are the spiny seahorses that call these grasses home.

All the threats that face spiny seahorses are predicted to not only continue, but also to worsen. The seahorses may be categorised as vulnerable currently. but it is likely that it will not be too long until they are bumped up to threatened.

Methods are in place to attempt to reduce the impacts of these threats, including stricter control on the seahorse trade. However, with a huge majority of the seahorses being caught as by-catch, it is incredibly difficult to control this trade. More protection is needed for our sea beds, however, the enormous demand for sea life for food, pets and medicinal purposes is meaning that more and more of our seabeds are being trawled and damaged each day.

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