Penny Thoughts

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

Category: Ecology

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.

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.

Threatened Species of the Week- Pangolins: One of Conservation’s Hidden Stories

It’s that time again where I reveal the chosen threatened species of the week.. well strictly this week it is 2 species but you’ll forgive me for that I’m sure.

There is a great deal of media coverage surrounding numerous threats to wildlife, including polar bear hunting, the ivory trade and the timber industry. However, these problems are only part of a much larger and concerning set of challenges that the world’s wildlife is facing.

Relatively unknown creatures are being overshadowed by poster-children of conservation campaigns, regardless of the often intense levels of exploitation they face.  With little media coverage and poor public interest, there is almost negligible drive felt by governments and policy makers to take action. This is why I am doing this feature, to increase the awareness of those species under great threat that the majority of us are completely unaware of.

So what is being overlooked? The simple answer is: an awful lot, and this weeks threatened species of the week is the Pangolin. Strictly there are actually 8 species of pangolin, of which 2 are listed as endangered under the IUCN criteria; the Sunda Pangolin and the Chinese Pangolin.

Pangolins were ranked the most illegally trafficked animal in Asia in 2011, yet most people are completely unaware of them, with them receiving little media coverage. Pangolins are related to anteaters and are found across Africa and Asia. They are covered in thick, hard scales made of keratin; the same material that makes up our finger nails and the precious horn of rhinos and tusks of elephants.

Although the pangolins are protected under international law, little success is being seen in the conservation of these docile creatures.

Population numbers are decreasing in all eight species of pangolin, and two species are listed as endangered under the IUCN Redlist criteria. These declines are being driven by the increasing demand for these unique animals’ meat, scales and hide.

The biggest demand for pangolins is coming from Asia. In some Asian cultures the pangolin scales are believed to have unique medicinal properties.

With countries like China becoming increasingly wealthy the demand for these scales is ever increasing. This rapidly rising demand is pushing up prices and tempting more people into the illegal poaching trade.

This increase in poaching popularity is driving the population numbers way down. Pangolins are now so rare that they can be sold for as much as $1000 on the black market.

The co-Chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group, Dan Challender has stated that “…tens of thousands of illegally traded pangolins are seized each year”. This is still likely to be a massive underestimate with a huge number of poached pangolins escaping identification and inclusion in these figures.

As this trade is illegal there is very limited market data available, making appropriate targeting of conservation strategies increasingly difficult

If the situation remains as it is for pangolins and many other species of concern, the future for wildlife does not look bright. Nature interacts in a multitude of ways and it is not just the poster animals that are of importance; everything matters.

Threatened Species of the Week- Tasmanian Devils and Transmissible Cancer

Welcome to the very first post in my new feature: Threatened Species of the Week!

Which species will have the honour of being the first threatened species on my list? I was thinking of ways to choose this first species and dabbled with a few ideas. I decided to look into a threatened species that comes with a very interesting story to liven things up a little.

Because of this I decided to go for.. drum roll please.. the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)! How terribly exciting.. right so let’s give you some facts about this creature and why it is threatened by extinction.

Tasmanian Devils are listed as Endangered by the IUCN Redlist classification which is all explained in a previous post which you should have a look at if you haven’t already. These marsupials are found wild only in Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia.

Their numbers have been declining for some time for numerous reasons, however the most devastating culprit is a disease which is rapidly wiping out the isolated populations. This disease is called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) and is a kind of cancer. The cancer is common throughout 60% of the Tasmanian Devils’ natural range and is spreading at a rate of 7-50 km per year.

Studies of these tumours stunned scientists as they realised something very bizarre was going on. If you compare the tumours of people suffering from the same kind of cancer the DNA of the cancerous cells are specific to that individual. Essentially each person’s tumour cell DNA is different.

However, studies of the tumour cells of these Tasmanian Devils found that the DNA was almost identical. Now this makes very little sense as tumour cells are those which have mutated from that individual’s normal healthy cells. So how on Earth can all of these different diseased Tasmanian Devils have the same DNA in the cells of their tumours??

The answer to this question is that the cancer is being directly transmitted from infected individuals to uninfected individuals. But how can this be? Cancers don’t spread from person to person, they occur as a consequence of genetic and environmental factors. So this existing transmissible cancer occurring in Tasmanian Devils is something incredibly intriguing.

Research and observation soon found the key to this unusual transmissible cancer. The temperament of the Tasmanian Devil created by Warner Bros. was based on fact, with real Tasmanian Devils being incredibly aggressive creatures. They regularly fight and this characteristic is the root to why these Devils share the same tumours.

The tumours that form as a result of DFTD form on the face, commonly around the mouth and jaw. When an infected Devil fights and bites their opponent the teeth essentially act as needles, injecting the cancerous cells into the flesh of the other Devil. So these Devils are directly transmitted this cancer to each other.

In the region of Tasmania where most Devils are found, roughly 30% of the total population was lost within the first 3 years after the disease’s arrival, and the adult population declined by 50% each year. From this information it has been predicted that within 10 years of the disease’s arrival, the devils in that region will be extinct.

Already the population has predicted to have declined from 130 000-150 000 individuals in 1987 to 10 000-25 000 in 2007. Estimates of the whole Devil range predict that over 70% of the total population will be lost in less than 10 years.

The tragic thing about this situation is that, although the cause of decline is well understood, very little can be done to prevent it. There is no cure for this cancer and the fighting nature of the devils means that the disease will continue to spread. To make things worse devils are commonly killed by vehicles, dogs and foxes in the region and the low genetic diversity that exists as the population bottlenecks with further threaten the devils in the future.

Efforts are being done to protect the devils and attempt to limit the spread of the disease in the currently unaffected regions. The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program works to research DFTD and maintain the existing population. Devils are being reared in captivity to act as a kind of insurance population as the wild devils continue to decline. The program is also trying to develop resistance to the disease through rearing programs and also are developing a vaccine to treat DFTD, however the use of the vaccine would not be feasible for wild devils.

The situation is not looking good for Tasmanian Devils and in my opinion the wild population will become extinct and the “insurance” devils will attempt to make up for the loss with reintroductions to the wild.

Right.. well I hope you enjoyed the first instalment of Threatened Species of the Week and will be reading again next week!

NEW FEATURE- Threatened Species of the Week

As I generally blog about current biological issues I fancied mixing things up a little and decided I would create a regular feature for my blog. It took me a bit of time to decide what this feature would be, but I decided upon something that interests me and will hopefully interest you readers.

So the plan is that I will be publishing a post each week on a threatened species. This species may be an animal, plant, fungus.. whatever. My main aim is to increase awareness of those threatened species that we rarely hear about.

We are costantly being bombarded with pleas to protect tigers, rhinos, polar bears etc, but these are a mere fraction of the number of species threatened by extinction in our over-polluted and over-populated world.

I will be using the IUCN Redlist to choose threatened species so I’ll give a quick Redlist 101 for those of you unfamiliar with the classification.

So the IUCN Redlist is a list of species that are classified into varying categories depending on how threatened by extinction they are.

So there are 9 categories starting with:
1. Least Concern (LC)
2. Near Threatened (NT)

These two categories do not count as “threatened” and therefore those species classed as LC or NT will not be included in this feature. The following 3 categories describe the varying levels of being threatened by extinction and therefore, species within these 3 categories will be included.
3. Vulnerable (VU)
4. Endangered (EN)
5. Critically Endangered (CR)

There are two categories defining extinct and these are:
6. Extinct in the Wild (EW)
7. Extinct (EX)

Again those species within these categories will not be included as it is unfortunately too late for them.

So I will be looking at those species that fall into the threatened categories of Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered.

There are 2 other categories as can be seen in the picture, these are Data Deficient (DD) and Not Evaluated (NE). It takes a lot of time and effort to collect enough population data and make an assessment of species and therefore there are an enormous number of species that have not been evaluated or there is not enough data available to accurately categorise. Constant efforts are however in place to get as many species categorised as possible.

So that is all a little dry, but I wanted to make sure we were all clear on the ins and outs of the classification I was using. I look forward to posting my first threatened species very soon!

Bells Ring out for Biodiversity

With recently finishing my degree (fingers crossed) I’ve been trying to make the most of being a student in London while I still can. Myself and a few friends decided to escape our rather sheltered lives in West London to explore the city. I found a cheeky voucher for a rooftop restaurant near Bank called Coq d’Argent. Considering this restaurant has the French word for money in the title I felt I’d done pretty well with a voucher getting us 2 courses for £15.

After reaping all of the food benefits we could we decided enough was enough and to save our expanding waistlines we’d go for a walk about. We ended up a St Paul’s and this is where I noticed something that has spurred me on to write this post.

Near the old cloisters of St Paul’s was a strange looking sculpture and after having a little read it was the “Robert Hooke Biodiversity Bell”. I wouldn’t really say I have an eye for good art, but this bell certainly caught my eye and its message only pulled me in further.

The upside-down bell sculpture is a scale model of a bell which will be installed on the Isle of Portland; the home to the limestone that makes up St Paul’s Cathedral and the plinth to the sculpture. Once in place the bell will be rung every time a species is officially announced as extinct in the world. Although a poignant message, my first thought was, “well they’re going to be ringing that bloody regularly”.

The trouble with extinctions is that they are very difficult things to officially announce and therefore, the extinction lists that exist are massive underestimates.

Firstly, the world is a very big place and officially determining that a species has gone extinct is a bit of a guessing game. This isn’t so much the case for species like big mammals that people pay a lot of attention to. However, when it comes to announcing the extinction of for example a species of snail as big as someone’s finger nail, it becomes very difficult to make accurate estimations of current population sizes. Often species are announced as being extinct, and then they are found again in the wild.

Another difficulty is that there are millions of different species in the world and we know very little about them. It is predicted that we have only recorded about 10% of the species that exist on our planet; with over 91% of the species of the oceans unknown to us. It is unbelievable how little we really know about the species that we share the planet with.

It is not just the species that we are aware of that are suffering as a result of natural and manmade impacts. There are an incredible number of species at risk of extinction that we don’t even know exist yet. The number of announced extinctions is therefore an enormous underestimate of what is actually going on in our world.

For a species to become extinct it has to be found, identified as its own species, recorded and then noticed to have gone extinct. A huge number of species are going extinct without us realising as we haven’t even found them yet.

These bell ringings that will occur on the Isle of Portland, will in fact be accompanied by a constant and huge background level of extinctions that we are blissfully unaware of.

Predictions of the real number of extinctions occurring estimate that 20 species will go extinct each day. This is one species every 1 hour and 20 minutes.

The message of the Biodiversity Bell is still very important for increasing the awareness of species loss around the world. However, if the bell were to be rung every time a species really went extinct, it is likely that the inhabitants of the Isle of Portland would be sick of their new bell by the end of the week.

Sustainability: Fashion or Function?

As I’m currently doing a project on the maintenance of biodiversity in urban areas, words like “sustainability”, “ecosystems”, “biodiversity” are popping up all over the place. These terms are generally all wonderfully defined, fully equipped with a visual aid and chart of the writer’s choice.

After reading my first few reports and papers I started to realise that people are throwing these words around like their going out of fashion. It seems that saying that you’re being “sustainable” is the new cool. People like these words; it makes them sound future-thinking, caring and wordly. Really I think it’s a whole load of crap.

In most cases these words are being thrown out with really very little understanding of what is going on. It seems that the sustainability club is the new jock club of political life. Politicians absolutely love it. As much as I like Boris Johnson it seems that he can hardly go 2 minutes without mentioning being  “sustainable”, and “green”.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is brilliant that politicians and policy makers are being more considerate of the environment; it sets a good example for our future. But really they’re just trying to stick a tiny tiara of “sustainability” on the massive turd that is our past. Maybe they think that if they say sustainability enough times the huge damage we humans have done to our environment will vanish in a poof of smoke.

I came across a google program called Ngram Viewer where you can type in a word and see how much it has been used in literature over time. If you want to have a play follow this link. I typed in these new environmental buzzwords and found something rather funny. There has been no mention of these words anywhere up until about the 1960s and 1980s.

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These words are getting people ever so excited; everyone wants a piece of them. They are  like the shiny, new iphones of the word world.. people can’t wait to show off just how sustainable they are being and how much they truly care for these ecosystems they know very little about.

Hopefully there will be some substance behind the politician’s new favourite words. But it still seems to me that the people who are actually making the difference are the conservation charities and organisations. Governments and councils are still realistically more interested in developing their growing economies than helping out the natural world that we have been shitting on for the last few hundred years.

Duck Feeding, Dog Poo and Goldfish Dumping: The Nightmares of Public Parks

I must apologise.. I have rather been neglecting my blog recently. I got back to university and have had to jump immediately into my final year project.. so I have been a little overwhelmed.

I’ve been doing tonnes of research so as soon as I come to terms with the endless pages of notes I’ll try to get posting regularly again.

My dissertation is on what works to maintain biodiversity in urban areas. Being that I live in London while I study, it has been something I’ve thought about since arriving at Imperial two and a half years ago. I’ve always looked at the paved streets and concrete buildings and thought that you couldn’t really be further from nature. The idea of looking into the horizon is pretty unexciting when I am at home in Leicester. However, in London I find that I go 8 weeks without really seeing the horizon at all.

It all sounds a bit depressing, but don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love living in London. The constant hustle and bustle and vibrancy of the people and surroundings keeps me busy wherever I go. But there is no place in London I prefer than Hyde Park.

Being at Imperial has its perks; I’m probably only ever a 2 minute walk from Hyde park. Recently with the weather picking up I’ve been nipping there at lunch times to enjoy the sunshine in a more green and pleasant place than my computer labs.

Being that part of my dissertation is about how London parks manage their grounds to maintain biodiversity, I feel I have some kind of excuse to spend a little more time there than I probably should.

But saying all that, this week I have learnt a lot about how much work goes into maintaining the urban parks of our world. The constant pressure from the incessantly growing urban matrix means our parks are hugely vulnerable and are in a constant war against pollution and people.

Things that I’m sure we are all guilty of doing can have really detrimental effects on our much beloved parks and green spaces. Feeding the ducks, letting our dogs poo all over the place, littering, building dens, making fires, going off the paths, and trampling through meadows and bushes are things that many of us do with only the smallest tingling of mild guilt.

However, these relatively minor behaviours have big impacts on our parks that are already under constant fire from the “big problems” of air, noise and water pollution.

Something I have found surprising is just how bad feeding the ducks is.. I mean I thought I was helping them out. Apparently if you feed park birds and mammals too much bread it fills them up very quickly and means they don’t eat other food. The bread basically leaves no room for the animals to eat the foods that actually provide them with the nutrients they need. Also excess feeding leaves a lot of food on the ground and this attracts pests like rats and foxes, and nobody wants that.

I am not a dog owner so the idea of picking up a dog’s poo has never really been something I’ve worried about. We all know that dog poo is damaging to the environment in many ways; yet I seem to spend my life hop, skipping and jumping these piles of joy whenever I’m walking around London.

In many of the parks in London they have acid grasslands. These are basically ecosystems that are made up of plants that require very little soil nutrient content to survive and thrive. These are rare habitats in urban areas and are being managed to maintain their existence and to enable this ecosystem to thrive in our challenging urban environment.

Dog poo is a big threat to these grasslands as they provide nutrients to the soil, like a stinking, doggy  fertiliser. This added nutrient alters the soil and makes it increasingly unsuitable for the acid grassland plants. It also means that more common species of plants (often weeds) can colonise the area now that there is more nutrient in the soil. If this continues, these less specialist species can spread and take over the rare acid grassland. This is only one example of the damage to the natural environment that can occur when people let their dogs release their load in our green spaces.. pick up your poop.

Not only do we humans let our dogs do their business all over our urban parks, we also discard of our unwanted pets in them.. what a great idea! I’m sure some people probably think they are doing their poor neglected pet a favour by releasing it into a natural environment.. this is not true.. at all.

I spoke to a wonderful lady at Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park about her experiences in the urban-based park and she shared some brilliant insight into the difficulties of maintaining these precious spaces. She mentioned that one big problem they have is people releasing unwanted pets like goldfish and terrapins into their lakes and ponds. As multiple goldfish had been dumped they bred and now have increased rapidly in number. Some of their lakes are riddled with these household pets. Yes, goldfish are lovely, but that is when they are in a fish tank fully equipped with fake shrubbery and bubbling treasure chests. The lakes and ponds on Greenwich Peninsula are not where these fish belong and they are eating everything.

The staff at the ecology park are doing their best to control these unwanted gold guests, but with their continued breeding and people’s continued ignorance it is proving relatively difficult. Working with locals and informing them about where they should take their unwanted pets is helping; so hopefully this amazing wetland will be goldfish free in the near future.

These are only a couple examples of how our behaviours can directly damage the areas we love so much. Urban parks and green spaces keep us happy and provide an oasis in an otherwise grey and polluted environment. Let’s respect these places we love; they are struggling enough as it is.

 

The Mysterious Caged Tree

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Yesterday was a lovely day so I thought I’d go to Kew Garden with my mum. I’ve been once before but the weather was a bit grim so it was nice to go back with some good weather.

We had a good potter around and then my mum pointed out something a bit odd. It was a tree caged in iron bars. Looked a bit odd so we wandered over to see why this tree was locked up behind bars.

Turns out the tree is a Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) and was considered extinct for 2 million years. There are a lot of fossils of this tree and it was thought that there were no living specimens until 1994 when it was discovered in Australia.

Living trees were found in a deep rainforest gorge in the Blue Mountains in west Sydney. The basically unexplored gorge contained these trees and now about 100 mature Wollemi pines exist there. 

Obviously this finding made the trees very collectable and at risk of over harvesting and extinction. To help to prevent this, researchers at Kew have helped to conserve this species by running a propagation programme. Lots of these trees are being grown and can now be bought in the Kew shop.

I found this a bit odd.. if the trees can be bought in the shop and all over the place, why is this tree still locked up?

We never found the answer to this question. My guess is that it may be an early specimen that they are trying to maintain so that specimens can be grown from its seeds. The trees are likely still relatively expensive so it is also likely to prevent people sneaking into Kew and chopping the poor thing down.

New Hope For Corals: Self-Recovery

A study publsihed this week in Science has shown that coral reefs can in fact recover themselves after disaster, when under the right conditions.

Scott reef is an isolated reef found 250km from the coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean.  It suffered a mass bleaching event in 1998 in which over 80% of the coral cover was lost. Dr James Gilmour, the lead author of the study stated that, “The initial projections for Scott Reef were not optimistic”.

Before this paper, it was believed that seriously damaged corals could only recover in the presence of nearby coral reefs. Planula are the gametes of corals; they are what forms when the male and female gametes of the corals fuse together, much like our eggs and sperm. These planula are free-swimming and can reach neighbouring reefs and settle. Before the findings of this study were published, this process was thought to be the mechanism by which damaged reefs could recover.

Scott reef was monitored for 15 years by the researchers and the findings were very much unexpected. The researchers did not have much faith in the reef recovering to its pre-bleaching state in the near future. However, over the years of monitoring they observed the reef recovering at a surprisingly fast rate considering its isolation and level of damage.

Instead of the reef relying on propagules from other healthy reefs, the researchers found that the very few surviving corals were producing planula at high enough rates that self-replenishment was taking place.

It was soon realised that these few survivors were growing at such high rates because of the conditions existing in this isolated reef. Because Scott reef is so isolated from other reefs and so far offshore, the levels of human influence are reduced. The water quality at Scott reef is much better than other near shore reefs which receive higher levels of pollutants from the coast.

Water quality is linked with the health of reefs and meant that Scott reef had an increased ability to cope with and recover from the bleaching. The reef also received reduced levels of fishing and sedimentation compared to other reefs helping with its surprisingly speedy recovery.

The isolation that was initially considered a hindrance for the reef was actually enabling its survival.

This work proves that coral reefs can spring back from extreme damage. However, this recover is dependent on conditions. These findings are great for those reefs similar to Scott reef; isolated and with reduced human pressure. However, the majority of reefs do not have these qualities and are still at threat from the ever increasing human pressures. Non-isolated reefs are relatively safeguarded by neighbouring reefs sending propagules, but there is only so much these reefs can take.

Even conservative estimations predict that all coral ecosystems could be lost by the end of this century. So although this paper is good news in that it shows another way in which corals can recover after severe damage, the pressures facing coral reefs are ever worsening and need to be addressed.

Poisonous Rhino Horns: The Answer to a Difficult Question?

This year over 200 rhinos have been illegally slaughtered to feed the incessant demand for rhino horn coming from the East. The huge majority of this demand is coming from China where the horn is used for traditional medicine and the ivory for numerous products including artworks and weapon handles.

One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch up to $68 000 on the black market making it worth more than its weight in gold. This clearly lucrative business attracts a lot of people and devalues the potentials costs associated with being part of an illegal industry.

There have been endless attempts to try to control this illegal poaching but with very little success. The number of rhinos being poached is rising each year and the future is looking ever darker for rhinos around the world. A ban has existed since the 1970s but is providing little protection to these heavily targeted creatures. Due to this, alternative approaches have been considered.

I have already written a post about the attempt to legalise the ivory trade to enable more control of the industry. This idea was based on the fact that rhino horn is made out our keratin, like our finger nails and therefore can regrow. So essentially rhino horn harvesting could take place. If you want to read more about this really interesting idea follow this link.

This year, another alternative method of control is being carried out in a game reserve in South Africa; Sabi Sands. It is targeting the medicinal use of the rhino horn which is ingested. The rhino horns are being injected with a mixture of parasiticides and an inedible pink die. If ingested, this cocktail of chemicals will make the consumer very ill, leading to “nausea, stomach ache, [and] diarrhoea.”

Andrew Parker, chief executive of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association has stated that the poison will not kill people just make them very ill. The pink dye will also be very obvious and therefore should act as an obvious visual deterrent. This dye will also make it very obvious to poachers that the rhino horn is poisoned and should prevent continued hunting of rhinos in those regions. It will also serve as a very good indicator for border control forces who will rapidly be able identify rhino horn in its whole or powder form.

So what is actually in this poisonous cocktail of chemicals. The parasiticides used are generally used to control mites on livestock like horses, sheep and cattle. This is mixed with the dye and injected into a hole that is bored into the rhino horn when the rhino is sedated. This “toxification” has already been carried out on over 100 rhinos in South Africa, and work is continuing to toxify even more.

This process does seem like a good idea, however, it does bring up some moral concerns. This process is acting with the intention of causing harm to consumers. Yes, these consumers are acting illegally, but does that justify this kind of action? In my opinion it does. These people aren’t going to die, but it will serve as a lesson to not consume this illegal product. The lesson may be harsh, but the current “weaker” attempts are not working. Maybe these consumers deserve this kind of action and considering the product will be bright pink they would have to be pretty stupid to go on and eat it.

Another concern is that this may not bring an end to poaching or even reduce the levels, it may simply displace the poaching to other places. Poachers may be put off from poaching in certain regions due to this action, however, these people are likely to just target other areas to obtain their income. This method could be effective if carried out throughout a

ll/the large majority of the rhino’s distribution; unfortunately, this is really not a possibility. Many rhinos do reside within reserves and parks, but a large proportion of these parks do not have the people, the materials or the funds to carry out this kind of work. Also, many rhinos do not live in parks and therefore it would be extremely complicated to toxify all rhinos.

Maybe with significant funding and support, a campaign could be carried out; this is unfortunately pretty unlikely too. A huge amount of lobbying and campaigning would be required, with research and trials to determine whether this method would be a possibility. This would all take quite some time, and maybe too much time for the rhinos.

There is also concern that the rhino poachers simply wouldn’t care. These people are criminals, if they can still fetch a decent amount of money it is very likely that they will continue to poach these rhinos until the horn completely devalues. Devaluing may occur if this toxification can be rolled out across the world driving down global demand, but as has been mentioned, this is a lot easier said than done.

The Sabi Sands reserve want to tell poachers that they have no place being in their park as their rhinos are pointless kills. I do worry about this message; a few years ago some parks were shaving the horn off rhinos so that the poachers had no access to the horn and therefore, no profit. However, the poachers retaliated and many rhinos were slaughtered in response.

Overall, I think this is a good idea. Measures in place aren’t working and so new, alternative measures are having to be considered. This approach does come with some ifs and buts, but in my opinion, every little helps. However, it may reach a point  where our greed seals the fate for rhinos, where investing effort into saving them would be rendered pointless. Some people already think this is the case. I do still think there is some time, but that window of opportunity is ever shrinking and action needs to be taken now before it’s too late.

Pesticides Wiping The Memories of Our Bees

This year, evidence has mounted supporting the idea that neonicotinoid pesticides are contributing to the dramatic falls in bee populations over the last few decades. I have already written two posts regarding this matter. If you are interested feel free to give them a quick read as I won’t be going over too much of the stuff I included. The first can be f0und here and delves into what effects neonicotinoids are having on bees and other pollinating insects. The second summarises the results of the EU vote against the ban of these pesticides and can be found here.

The proposed ban of neonicotinoids was rejected when put forward to the European Commission on the 15th March this year. One of the main arguments presented by opposers of the ban, including the UK environmental secretary, Owen Paterson, was that more data and research was required supporting the idea that neonicotinoids are negatively impacting bees, before a ban could be properly considered.

There has been a lot of response to this, including  a recent evaluation by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This report has suggested that neonicotinoids do not pose a serious threat to bees in a natural, real life setting. One of their main arguments is that the majority of the research that has been carried out has been done so in a lab based environment. They believe that the levels of neonicotinoids that most bees are exposed to in the wild are not comparable to those used in the lab based research and that the results are therefore over estimations.

This is a major punch in the face for supporters of the ban and researchers trying to investigate into this topic. With DEFRA being such a big name, it is likely that many people will be swayed due to this report. However, I have not.

This is a little irritating to me. Yes, a lot of the research was carried out in lab based environments, but I do not feel that this fact alone is enough to render these findings invalid. The huge majority of scientific work takes place in the most part in labs. Does this mean that all lab based work should be dismissed? NO.

The neonicotinoids are affecting bees and other pollinating insects in detrimental ways, whether that be in the lab or the field. It is likely that the lab setting may intensify these effects, but bees are being affected in the real world. Numbers are falling and something is causing that.

I found this very recent study published yesterday in Nature. This study is something different, it has lab AND field based experimentation. The researchers have shown that neonicotinoids actually impair the memory of bees which is impacting their ability to successfully forage and therefore pollinate the world’s plants. The study was led by Mary Palmer and her team and they state that it is known that neonicotinoids do impact bees, but that there is little empirical evidence to explain how and this needs to improve.

They successfully demonstrate how 2 neonicotinoids (imidacloprid and clothianidin) directly affect neuronal transmission within the nicotinic receptors in the brains of honey bees. They looked at the effects of neonicotinoids in bee Kenyon cells (KCs). KCs are neurons found in the brains of arthropods, including incsects. These KCs play an important role in learning and memory, particularly when it comes to smells.

The research team looked at the effects of sublethal levels of neonicotinoids on honeybees in the field and in the lab. They found in the lab group that the exposure led to a significant impairment of the bees’ abilities to learn and remember smells. This is particularly important as bees rely in part on the specific scents of certain flowers in their foraging and pollination behaviours. In the field, the neonicotinoids impair bees’ abilities to forage efficiently and navigate to and from the nest. Effects are being seen in the field.

These findings are worrying as they show that the levels of neonicotinoids that many bees are exposed to are impacting learning and foraging abilities. If bees cannot forage efficiently, then they cannot pollinate efficiently. This does not bode well for our already suffering global food security.

Another concerning finding is that these impacts are being exacerbated by other pesticides. This is very important as there is a lot of overlap in pesticide use and also regular switching of pesticides. This means that the majority of bees will be affected as they find themselves in ever increasingly common regions of extensive pesticide usage.

This study is great in showing an actual physiological change that results in the cells of bees in response to exposure to neonicotinoids. The use of research in a lab and field environment also helps with securing the accuracy and representativeness of their findings and reducing the opportunity to dismiss this important work. However, Mary Palmer and her team do state in the paper that improvements could be made. They explain that the cultured KCs do show marginally different levels of response to actual KCs and that future work could look into this disparity.

Regardless of the potential flaws, this study empirically shows neonicotinoids directly impacting bee learning and memory. I’m sure that this study will be just one of many similar studies appearing in the near future. The research is likely to be faced by a lot of opposition, with papers like the above being in the firing line of organisations who intend to undermine as much as possible.

This area is a hot topic and the demand for this type of research is ever increasing. Let’s hope that the methodology is a stringent as possible giving opposition very little excuse to dig their claws in and undermine very important work.

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