Crowd-Sourced Data from the Deep

Female sand tiger shark observed on the wreck Aeolus in (a) September 2016 and (b) 10 months later in July 2017. In the older photograph (a), fishing gear is visible in the mouth of the shark (inset). SPOT A SHARK USA BY TANYA HOUPPERMANS.

A great example of how data crowd-sourced from Citizen Scientists is helping to improve understanding of shark populations and behavior.

Female Sand Tiger Sharks Love Shipwrecks… Really.

Site fidelity – the tendency to return to a particular area – isn’t exactly new in a species of shark (e.g. reef sharkslemon sharks, even great white sharks). But that place is usually some sort of habitat… not a over 100-feet (34 meter) deep shipwreck. However, that is exactly the case for female sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus) off the coast of North Carolina!

Sand tiger sharks, also known as grey nurse sharks or spotted ragged-tooth sharks, are found globally in subtropical and temperate waters. Despite looking quite scary due to their tooth grins that never quite close, they are a slow-moving shark that are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A grey colored shark with reddish-brown spots throughout its body, they feast on a variety of animals such as a fish, crustaceans, squid, skates and even other sharks!

In September 2016, a citizen scientist wasn’t surprised to see an individual female sand tiger shark while scuba diving on the Aeolus shipwreck. Continue reading

Big Cats Of The South, Present & Future

960.jpg

 A Brazilian soldier swims in the Negro river holding Jiquitaia, a two-year-old jaguar that was adopted by the military command of the Amazon. Jiquitaia was rescued as a cub after hunters killed his mother. Photograph: None Mangueira/AP

5472 (3).jpg

A jaguar in the Yasuni national park, Orellana, Ecuador. Photograph: Lucas Bustamante/NPL

Ecuador is mentioned in the title but is not the only country where deforestation is putting at risk the survival of one of the big predator species in the hemisphere. Thanks to Kimberley Brown, writing in the Guardian, for her reporting from our neighborhood to the south on one of the animals we have featured the most in our pages over the years:

Ecuador’s vanishing jaguars: the big cat vital to rainforest survival

Industries such as coffee and cacao have devastated the jaguar’s habitat, but its dwindling numbers leave a delicate ecosystem hanging in the balance

5184 (3).jpg

Jaguars are found across South America. This one was photographed deep inside the Nouragues Natural Reserve, in French Guiana. Photograph: Emmanuel Rondeau/WWF France

Across the American continent, from the north of Mexico to Argentina, the jaguar has long been revered for its strength and power. But in some parts of Ecuador, the largest cat in South America is increasingly at risk as roads, mining and agriculture take over the rainforests.

The loss of habitat is the biggest threat to jaguars in Ecuador, particularly along the coast, where more than 70% of the original forest cover has been lost. The vast majority of this destruction has taken place over the last 50 years with the expansion of the logging and agriculture industries, including coffee, cacao, palm oil and bananas, one of the country’s largest agriculture exports. Continue reading

Botanists Sleuthing, For Science & Conservation

00SCI-WAXPALMS1-jumbo.jpg

Quindío wax palms cover the hillsides of Colombia’s Tochecito River Basin. Before sequoias were discovered in California, the wax palm was considered the world’s tallest tree, with some growing 200 feet high.

The botanists who do this kind of work are heroes to us:

Stalking the Endangered Wax Palm

Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm, is endangered. Now, with decades of guerrilla war in retreat, scientists are rediscovering vast forests and racing to study and protect them.

By Photographs and Video by 

In 1991 Rodrigo Bernal, a botanist who specializes in palms, was driving into the Tochecito River Basin, a secluded mountain canyon in central Colombia, when he was seized by a sense of foreboding. Continue reading

Time To Make Lemonade

3000u

A purple urchin at Bodega Marine Lab in California, which is running a pilot project to remove purple urchins from the ocean floor, restore them to health, then sell them as premium seafood. Photograph: Terry Chea/AP

With invasive species, sometimes the only thing to do with such lemons is make them tasty:

Sea urchin population soars 10,000% in five years, devastating US coastline

Voracious purple urchins in waters of California and Oregon pose threat to kelp forests and risk upending delicate ecosystems

3000k

An aerial view of one of the last remaining kelp forests near Elk, California, on the Mendocino county coast, which has lost more than 90% of its bull kelp in less than a decade. Photograph: Terry Chea/AP

Tens of millions of voracious purple sea urchins that have already chomped their way through towering underwater kelp forests in California are spreading north to Oregon, sending the delicate marine ecosystem off the shore into such disarray that other critical species are starving to death.

A recent count found 350m purple sea urchins on one Oregon reef alone – more than a 10,000% increase since 2014. And in northern California, 90% of the giant bull kelp forests have been devoured by the urchins, perhaps never to return.

Vast “urchin barrens” – stretches of denuded seafloor dotted with nothing but hundreds of the spiny orbs – have spread to coastal Oregon, where kelp forests were once so thick it was impossible to navigate some areas by boat. Continue reading

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

tuna-1_custom-d47cd28103604517f199242df4377d3da1afe26b-s1400-c85

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.

19Fitzpatrick2-jumbo.jpg

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

00SCI-SEASNAKES5-jumbo.jpg

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.

00SCI-SEASNAKES4-jumbo.jpg

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.

00SCI-SEASNAKES2-jumbo.jpg

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

web_madagascar_highres_spinski_576.jpg

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.

web_madagascar_highres_spinski_227

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.

web_madagascar-map.jpg

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.”

madagascar3

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:

orange-fronted-parakeet-chick.jpg

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

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

orange-fronted-parakeet-chick-with-transmitter-doc-c9811c0f185647851facaa77fc88d87cd8614f8f-s1200-c85.jpg

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

33a8ae702.jpg

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

CherokeePrairie_Arkansas_WilliamDarkPhotography_web.jpg

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.

american-chaffseed_USFWS_web

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.

Krals-Penstemon_CumberlandPlateau_TimMartin_web.jpg

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

09gertner2-superJumbo-v3.gif

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

%d bloggers like this: