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1 Woman, 8 Years of Effort & 28,000 Turtles Saved: An Incredible Conservation Story

1 Woman, 8 Years of Effort & 28,000 Turtles Saved: An Incredible Conservation Story

One of India’s most hardworking conservationists, Arunima Singh has won the NatWest Group Earth Heroes Save the Species Award 2021 for her exemplary efforts towards saving turtles, tortoises, crocodilians and Gangetic dolphins.

In late October this year, Arunima Singh was conferred with the NatWest Group Earth Heroes Save the Species Award 2021 for her exemplary grassroots conservation efforts to safeguard north Indian freshwater turtles and tortoises, crocodilians and Gangetic river dolphins.

Since 2013, Arunima, a resident of Lucknow and staff of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) – India, has used various initiatives to further the cause of conservation — from educating over 50,000 children from rural and urban communities about conserving freshwater reptiles through formal and informal means in Uttar Pradesh, to assisting with rescue, rehabilitation and release of over 28,000 turtles, 25 Gangetic dolphins, 6 marsh crocodiles and 4 gharials in the last 8 years.

Over the years, Arunima’s efforts have led to many changes.

Through the joint Uttar Pradesh Forest Department and TSA India Program for Aquatic Biology, she was instrumental in establishing assurance colonies for more than 10 species of turtles and most of which are critically endangered. Her efforts further bolstered rear and release programmes for certain imperiled turtle species such as Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle (Chitra indica).

Moreover she helped sensitise and built capacities of hundreds of frontline forest department staff and veterinarians. Her research has facilitated understanding the breeding of a few elusive species. If this wasn’t enough, she has also been on the frontline of operationalising on-site care for tens of thousands of turtles rescued from clandestine trade.

As Dr Shailendra Singh, the Director of TSA India Program, said upon receiving news of the award, “Arunima has been one of the most remarkable conservationists in the country, single-handedly attending to several wildlife distress calls. Her research on elusive freshwater turtle species, the Crowned River Turtle (Hardella thurjii), has provided watershed moments for scientific turtle conservation communities and aids our organization in the development of species-specific conservation strategies.”

But it was a visit to the Kukrail Gharial Rehabilitation Center (KGRC) at the start of her Master’s course in Life Science from Lucknow University in 2010 that set her on the path of conservation.

“Dr. Shailendra gave me an insight into how I could be involved with wildlife conservation in the long term and gave me opportunities to obtain a greater understanding of it in areas like the Chambal Valley. In 2011, I began doing some volunteering work with the TSA and enrolled in a small awareness and educational programme at Lucknow University for wildlife conservation. Upon completing my Master’s degree, I got involved full time in conservation work of endangered freshwater turtles, tortoises and other aquatic species. At present, I’m also pursuing a PhD focussing on freshwater turtles,” she says.


Satish Jain at moratmarit.com

South Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area

South Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area

South Africans took to their beaches on Sunday to protest against plans by Royal Dutch Shell to do seimsic oil exploration they say will threaten marine wildlife such as whales, dolphins, seals and penguins on a pristine coastal stretch.

A South African court on Friday struck down an application brought by environmentalists to stop the oil major exploring in the eastern seaboard’s Wild Coast, rejecting as unproven their argument that it would cause “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, especially migrating hump-back whales. read more

The Wild Coast is home of some of the country’s most undisturbed wildlife refuges, and it’s stunning coastal wildernesses are also a major tourist draw.

At least 1,000 demonstrators gathered on a beach near Port Edward, a Reuters TV correspondent saw.

“It’s just absolutely horrendous that they are even considering this. Look around you?” said demonstrator Kas Wilson, indicating an unspoilt stretch of beach. “It’s unacceptable and … we will stop it.”

Shell officials were not immediately available for comment, but the company said on Friday that its planned exploration has regulatory approval, and it will significantly contribute to South Africa’s energy security if resources are found.

But local people fear the seismic blasting conducted over 6,000 square kilometres will kill or scare away the fish they depend on to live.

“I don’t want them to operate here because if they do we won’t be able to catch fish,” said 62-year-old free dive fisherwoman Toloza Mzobe, after pulling a wild lobster from the ground. “What are we going to eat?”

Environmentalists are urging Shell and other oil companies to stop prospecting for oil, arguing that the world has no chance of reaching net zero carbon by 2050 if existing oil deposits are burned, let alone if new ones are found.

Earlier this year, a Dutch court ordered Shell to reduce its planet warming carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2019 levels, a decision it plans to appeal.

South Africa’s environment ministry referred Reuters to a statement late last month that “the Minister responsible for environmental affairs is … not mandated to consider the application or to make a decision on the authorisation of the seismic survey.”

South Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area

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A protestor joins a demonstration against Royal Dutch Shell's plans to start seismic surveys to explore petroleum systems off the country's popular Wild Coast at Mzamba Beach, Sigidi, South Africa, December 5, 2021. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

What is seismic blasting?

The process involves blasting the seafloor with highly powered airguns at intervals, and then measuring the echoes, which helps map out oil and gas reserves.

The process can continue for weeks or months at a time. The sound of the blasts can travel for hundreds of kilometers.

Ecologists believe the exploration technique could upset the behavior of marine animals including their feeding, reproduction and migration patterns, especially animals like whales who depend on their sense of hearing.

Why are people protesting?

There are fears the prospecting activity will have a devastating impact on marine life.

The area Shell is planning to explore is known as the Wild Coast along the country’s eastern coastline. It’s a popular tourist area and environmental groups regard it as an ecologically sensitive marine sanctuary. 

“It’s just absolutely horrendous that they are even considering this. Look around you!” said demonstrator Kas Wilson. “It’s unacceptable and… we will stop it,” he said.

“Seismic blasting on the Wild Coast will not only destroy precious ecosystems but will also impact local communities, all in the name of profit,” Greenpeace Africa said in a tweet.

Local fishermen believe the prospecting will have an impact on their livelihoods. “I don’t want them to operate here because if they do we won’t be able to catch fish,” said fisherwoman Toloza Mzobe.

Shell says discoveries will be good for South Africa

However, Shell has said that its exploration had received regulatory approval and that its activity would contribute significantly to South Africa’s energy sector if resources were discovered.

The oil company plans to spend four to five months exploring in the region. Speaking to AFP in November, a company spokesman said: “We take great care to prevent or minimize impacts on fish, marine mammals and other wildlife.”

But environmentalist contend that there will be no chance of meeting net zero carbon emissions targets by 2050 if prospecting for new reserves is allowed to continue.


Siyabonga Sishi via Reuters

kb/jsi at DW News

Okaloosa Darter saved from extinction

Okaloosa Darter saved from extinction

Federal officials this week announced a major conservation milestone for the once-endangered Okaloosa Darter. The small fish that inhabits streams mostly located on Eglin Air Force Base is now being proposed for delisting.

“Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to remove the Okaloosa Darter from the federal endangered species list,” said Shannon EstenozU.S. Department of Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, making the the announcement Tuesday near Anderson Pond on Eglin property, which is home to much of the Okaloosa Darter population.

“There are only two ways off the list. Once you’re on the list, there are only two ways off. Either you go extinct or you recover, and the first, of course is a tragedy and the second is a triumph, so I’m really excited to be here to celebrate this triumph and moment for the darter and everyone who’s been working so long.”

Okaloosa Darter saved from extinction

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Bill Tate, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist, watches two Okaloosa darters in a fish viewing box. More than 90 percent of the darter's stream habitat is found on the Eglin Air Force Base reservation. (Air Force photo by Jerron Barnett)

Estenoz notes she was just five years old in 1973, when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and the Okaloosa Darter was classified as “endangered” and added to the Endangered Species List.

Recently back from the U.N. Climate Summit in Scotland, she said one could draw a straight line between the work that’s been done at the local level for the Okaloosa Darter – to – the intersecting crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss being experienced globally. Addressing the issue, she said, will include building a renewable energy future, reducing carbon emissions, and conserving nature.

“You know, President Biden set a goal, the first national conservation goal. He said we’re going to conserve 30% of our land and water by 2030. And, we’re going to do it the only way we know how, which is how you guys have done it here.”

The Okaloosa Darter is now a success story, coming back from the brink of extinction, largely due to the long-term commitment of the U.S. Air Force and the staff from Eglin Air Force Base, including its Natural Resources and Management division known as Jackson Guard.

Estenoz also noted the importance of partnerships with organizations including the U.S. Geological SurveyU.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceFlorida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Loyola University at New Orleans.

“I’m very happy that the species is approaching recovery,” said Dr. Frank Jordan, a professor and chairman of Biological Sciences at Loyola-New Orleans. Along with colleague Howard Jelks of the Geological Survey, Jordan has been studying the Okaloosa Darter for nearly 30 years, conducting summer field research at Eglin since 1992.

“Our work actually preceded the recovery plan,” he began. “We had actually started studies on where Okaloosa Darters lived in the streams that they inhabit, what we call the micro-habitat. And, in the process, we were snorkeling to find the fish. We discovered that was a very easy way to locate and count them.”

Okaloosa Darter saved from extinction

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In April 2007, WUWF caught up Jordan and his team as they lying in the middle of the stream, snorkels on with their heads submerged, in Mill Creek on the Eglin Golf Course, where a major habitat restoration project was underway.

In this section of the creek, he hasn’t seen any yet, “They haven’t made it this far yet.”

At that time, Dr. Jordan described their search for the tiny Okaloosa Darter as looking for needles in a haystack.

“The darters are 2-3 inches long and they like to hang out in the substrate along the edges, where there are lots of place to hide, provides cover from predators,” he explained.

“So, we’re moving away debris and substrate material and looking around and trying to find the darters. It shouldn’t be too hard because most of the darters that they’ve caught recently they’re marked, so they have neon colors on their backs, big racing stripes on their backs.”

Pondering the notion of big racing stripes on a two-inch fish brings a few chuckles.

Dr. Jordan was joined hosting students from the Young Women’s Leadership School of Harlem. They were helping to create habitat by planting a grass-like, aquatic plant called Sparganium, along the water’s edge. And, they, too, were looking for the small fish.

“Oh man, look there’s another one behind me,” exclaims one of the girls.

Soon, the Okaloosa Darter began to show up in the newly restored areas of the creek and Dr. Jordan seemed to be pleased.

“But, the habitat looks really good. It looks like a natural stream already. So, the darter should…be if you build it they should come.”

And, they have come.

Back in 1973, the Okaloosa Darter numbered few than 10,000 – close to disappearing forever. Today, there are more than 600,000 swimming in six stream systems in Walton and Okaloosa counties, with over 90% located entirely on land managed by the U.S. Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB).

As a result of years of conservation efforts, more than 480 acres of Eglin AFB stream erosion has been reduced, fish barriers have been removed and stream habitat has been restored.

Col. Joseph Augustine, Vice Commander of the 96th Test Wing thanked all who contributed and touted the big impact of the tiny fish on the local environment, noting that for the future such conservation work is essential.

“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land an even better land for our descendants than it is for us,” Augustine stated.

In 2011, the Fish & Wildlife Service was able to downlist the Okaloosa darter from “endangered” to “threatened.” In 2018, a five-year review of the species was initiated. And, it is this data on current status and future population projections that is now serving as the foundational science for the proposal to delist.

“There is a very small number of people on this planet who can say, ‘I brought a species back from the brink of extinction,” Asst. Interior Sec. Estenoz declared with pride.

Loyola University’s Frank Jordan is one of those few people, after countless summers with dozens of students monitoring the Okaloosa Darter.

“It feels great is the short answer,” he acknowledged. “It makes all those long days laying in that very cold water, it makes it all worthwhile.”

To help ensure the fish remains healthy and secure from the risk of extinction after it is delisted, a draft post-delisting monitoring (PDM) plan has been created. Public comment on the monitoring plan and the proposal to delist the Okaloosa darter will be received until Jan. 18, 2022.


WUWF Public Media

Thirty South African white rhinos airlifted to Rwanda in the largest single translocation

Thirty South African white rhinos airlifted to Rwanda in the largest single translocation

The rhinos, consisting of 19 females and 11 males aged between four years and 27 years were translocated from South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve to the new home in Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda as part of a program to replenish the species’ population

The rhinos, consisting of 19 females and 11 males aged between four years and 27 years were translocated from South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve to the new home in Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda as part of a program to replenish the species’ population, decimated by poaching since the 1970s. The translocation was carried out through collaboration between the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), African Parks with funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Rwanda Development Board, which manages the Akagera National Park along with African parks termed the relocation as a historical milestone.

White rhinos are classified as endangered with numbers declining across their natural habitats, largely due to poaching driven by demand for their horns. The southern white rhino, one of two subspecies of white rhino, is critically endangered with about 20,000 individuals remaining. The Northern white rhino, the other subspecies, has all but vanished, with only two females left alive.

African Parks’ CEO Peter Fearnhead said:

Introductions to safe, intact wild landscapes are vital for the future of vulnerable species like the white rhino, which are under considerable human-induced pressures.

Jes Gruner, Park Manager of Akagera national park said that the rhinos were slightly sedated to keep them calm and not aggressive during the journey.

The rhinos weren’t sedated on the plane in the sense they were totally lying down, as that’s bad for their sternums. But they were partly drugged, so they could still stand up and keep their bodily functions normal, but enough to keep them calm and stable.

The introduction of white rhinos to Akagera follows the reintroduction of lions in 2015 and 18 eastern black rhinos in 2017.


PolarBear on NewsBreak

Krill: The Disappearing Backbone of Marine Ecosystems

Krill: The Disappearing Backbone of Marine Ecosystems

Are we that close to krill-ing off biodiversity as we know it? Apparently so, because keystone species are feeling the pressure with every passing day.

When humans think of the “great deep,” outlandish, alien sea creatures come to mind: National Geographic images of anglerfish, vivid apparitions straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, timeless sea shanties depicting the fearsome giant squid. Not often is it that some of the most vital organisms in marine ecosystems, keystone species, are at the forefront of our attention. One such linchpin, krill, is a miniscule, hardly visible, invertebrate that often passes for a shrimp look-alike. These finger-sized crustaceans tend to go unnoticed in modern society, their tangerine hue not bright enough to attract the interest of humans. Despite not being one of the more appetizing types of seafood for mankind, krill are a crucial main dish for animals of the Antarctic. For decades, krill has been harvested by humans without a care for the vital role they hold within the Southern Ocean food webs. Now a new threat has been recognized, as climate change threatens the existence of Antarctic sea ice which krill rely upon for nesting grounds. The key to their gargantuan presence on Earth, krill risk losing more than ever before.

Krill dominate the Antarctic Ocean from the shadows with their massive numbers, grouped together in swarms so dense they can be spotted by satellites in space. With eighty-five currently identified species, researchers estimate that the combined biomass of krill — which are individually no larger than a paper clip — worldwide could range from anywhere between 125 million and 600 million tons. Such swarms can drift through the waters at lengths of four miles, boasting densities of over 10,000 krill per square meter. Naturally, as with any resource present at such a scale on Earth, you’d be inclined to think that the statistical stability of krill would be able to overcome any threats to its population size; how could humans even attempt to jeopardize an organism of such a scope? Unfortunately, even the most abundant organism on the planet hardly stands a chance of escaping the all-encompassing nature of climate change. Direct and indirect anthropogenic influences — reflected in commercial fishing practices and the accelerated melting of sea ice — have developed into two, potent sources of stress for krill populations, signifying the greater doom that awaits these crustaceans.

What exactly makes these pinky-sized invertebrates so irreplaceable within the vast oceans of this planet? To answer this question, we must step back into one of the most fundamental topics of ecology: ecological efficiency. Within a food chain, trophic levels quantify the different stages of energy movement between categories of lifeforms, separated into producers and consumers; notably, only 10% of energy is passed from one level to the next. Sub-categories place primary producers (organisms with photosynthetic capabilities) at the bottom-most level, while top predators take the spots of tertiary or quaternary consumers.

In a typical marine food web, phytoplankton replace terrestrial plants as primary producers, and are considered the most energy efficient. As one of the few species capable of directly feeding upon phytoplankton, krill — categorized under zooplankton — take the spot of primary consumer within the food chain. What makes krill so potent as a food source for all predators alike is (1) sheer numbers, making it available to every Antarctic predator, and (2) its tendency to swarm in densely packed groups, which makes feeding much less work for large predators. Krill is a superfood, allowing even normally tertiary consumers to adopt an energy efficient food source into their diet and essentially gain more for less.

A food web depicting the role of Antarctic krill in Southern Ocean ecosystems. (Image Courtesy of Cool Antarctica)

The most populous species of krill, Euphausia superba, serves as a primary source of food for not one, but seventeen different marine animals, such as baleen whales, seals, penguins, fishes, birds, squid, and cephalopods. If they manage to evade the predation tactics of nearly every Antarctic organism larger than them, krill can persist in the Southern waters for an impressive lifespan of up to ten years. To prevent the rapid depletion of a common food source, the species’ predators have likewise taken steps to ensure that their feeding patterns do not overlap. Baleen whales, for example, stop by plankton blooms in polar waters over the summer before continuing their migration towards warm, tropical regions of the ocean.

With so many organisms dependent on krill for sustenance, what does krill, in turn, depend on? That would be phytoplankton–microscopic, buoyant algae which photosynthesize using chlorophyll at the ocean’s surface. During winter months, live phytoplankton form layers within and underneath Antarctic sea ice, which doubles as both a shelter and constant food source for larval and juvenile krill. Fast forward six months, and the bright polar summers create the perfect set of conditions for phytoplankton blooms: a combination of nutrient-rich waters brought up from the deep via Antarctic upwellings, 24-hour sunlight, and ideal ocean temperature. When the surface sea ice melts, both phytoplankton and krill are free to multiply endlessly. The result? An explosion of krill clouds overtaking the sub-Arctic and Antarctic Oceans, and the perfect rest stop for migrating consumers.

Krill feeding on phytoplankton located on sea ice, grazing the underside of the ice cap to collect the phytoplankton as they go. (Image Courtesy of Ice Stories)

As much as they provide shelter, the presence of sea ice is a figurative Achilles heel for our star organism. In addition to the multitude of predators waiting to eat them, that is. Temperature especially stands out as a weakness in that a fraction of a degree Celsius can make a significant difference for these tiny creatures. In fact, krill provide a concrete example of what exactly the implications of “rising ocean temperatures” — a term loved by media coverage — are. The ideal conditions for phytoplankton survival require ice cover to protect them from the harsh, stormy oceans of the South, as well as cold water, which is richer in nutrients. If the surface of the ocean were to be warm instead of cold, upwelling — the phenomenon in which nutrient-rich water rises from the deep to the surface via ocean currents — would not occur and nutrients would be locked below the surface. The following summer, phytoplankton blooms would be smaller in size, and krill would emerge from the melting ice to a noticeable lack of food and a significant difference of 1-2°C. Though researchers have found it difficult to track increases and decreases in Antarctic krill population due to the sheer scale of the endeavor, studies have theorized that krill populations may have dropped 80% since the 1970s.

Krill are not the sole bearers of this insufferable fate that threatens the collapse of entire ecosystems. Sea otters — regulators of the sea urchin population in coastal marine habitats — have been deemed “climate change warriors”, tasked with keeping kelp and seagrass ecosystems in check and promoting carbon sequestration. Starfish, when removed from their ecosystem, directly resulted in the widespread takeover of the unrestrained mussel population. Alarmingly so, recent research has established a direct connection between the warming of the oceans and sea star wasting syndrome, a term for cases of sea stars dying of hypoxia due to aerobic bacteria buildup at high temperatures.

The effects of the presence and lack of presence of starfish in its ecosystem.(Image Courtesy of Institute for Research for Development, Montpelier)

Looking back on history, it’s always been our old, persistent habits that produce the greatest consequences, and it’s past time we pull the plug on this one — once and for all. Krill serve as a dark example for the extent of influence humans have on this planet. One of the most extensive species in the world, research now shows that krill may one day face the same endangerment as many other species. It’s up to us to ensure that climate change is mitigated before it can topple entire ecosystems and sweep biodiversity from the face of this planet.

In some ways, these global phenomena feel so far from us, a disconnect heightened by sheer distance and the differences between nature and civilization. That doesn’t mean, however, that we get to pretend they are not happening. Spreading awareness is always a safe and easy first step, making sure these issues are felt within the bubbles we place ourselves in before breaking out of them entirely. Climate change communication is difficult, unfamiliar, but so incredibly necessary if anything is to be accomplished. Otherwise, humanity’s insatiable greed and sheer disregard for the Earth’s required natural balance causes us to willfully blind ourselves to the impacts of the climate on the world around us — impacts inherently caused by us. It is essential that we open our eyes and face our actions, before their consequences grow to a size much too large to control.


Karthy Sajeev at The Climate Change Review

“Vulture bees” evolved a taste for flesh—and their microbiomes reflect that

“Vulture bees” evolved a taste for flesh—and their microbiomes reflect that

“The only bees… that have evolved to use food sources not produced by plants.”

Ask a random person to picture a bee, and they’ll likely conjure up the familiar black-and-yellow striped creature buzzing from flower to flower collecting pollen to bring back to the hive. But a more unusual group of bees can be found “slicing chunks of meat from carcasses in tropical rainforests,” according to the authors of a new paper published in the journal mBio. As a result, these bees have gut microbiomes that are markedly different from their fellow buzzers, with populations more common to carrion-loving hyenas and vultures. So they are commonly known as “vulture bees” (or “carrion bees”).

According to the authors—entomologists who hail from the University of California, Riverside (UCR), the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Columbia University, and the American Museum of Natural History—most bees are essentially “wasps that switched to a vegetarian lifestyle.” But there are two recorded examples of bumblebees feeding on carrion dating back to 1758 and 1837, and some species are known to occasionally feed on carrion in addition to foraging for nectar and pollen. (They are considered “facultatively necrophages,” as opposed to vulture bees, which are deemed “obligate necrophages” because they only eat meat.)

An entomologist named Filippo Silvestri identified the first “vulture bee” in 1902 while analyzing a group of pinned specimens, although nobody called it that since they didn’t know at the time that this species fed on carrion. Silvestri dubbed it Trigona hypogea, and he also described their nests as being used for honey and pollen, although later researchers noted a surprising absence of pollen. Rather, biochemical analysis revealed the presence of secretions similar to those fed to queen bees in the nests of honeybees.

Then, in 1982, entomologist David Roubik of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama reported some surprising findings from his observations of Trigona hypogea colonies. Rather than gathering pollen from flowers, this species ingested the flesh of dead animals: lizards, monkeys, snakes, fish, and birds. Bees that stumbled on a tasty bit of rotting flesh deposited a trail of pheromones to call its nest mates, who typically converged en masse on the corpse within eight hours.

A worker bee of <em>Trigona hypogea</em> busily harvests the decaying flesh of a small lizard. Because it can.
A worker bee of Trigona hypogea busily harvests the decaying flesh of a small lizard. Because it can.D.W. Roubik, 1982

The vulture bees often entered a carcass via the eyes, similar to maggots, and Roubik made particular note of just how efficiently they could consume a carcass. A large lizard was reduced to a skeleton over two days, while the bees took just eight hours to remove all feathers and flesh from the head of a dead passerine. They reduced two frogs to skeletons in six hours. Because they fed on carrion rather than collecting pollen, this species had a distinctive hind leg, with a drastically reduced pollen basket compared to “vegetarian” bees.

The bees consumed the flesh on-site, storing a kind of “meat slurry” in their crops to bring back to the hive. Roubik hypothesized that, once at the hive, the bees converted that slurry into some kind of glandular substance, which they then stored in wax pots. “Considering animal flesh rots and would be unsuitable as stored food, its metabolic conversion is essential to allow storage,” he wrote. Another hypothesis, proposed in 1996, suggests that the actual flesh is what’s stored in the wax pots.

The toothed mandible (A) and hind tibia (B) of <em>Trigona hypogea</em>.
The toothed mandible (A) and hind tibia (B) of Trigona hypogea.D.W. Roubik, 1982

We now know of three distinct groups of vulture bees that exclusively get their protein from carcasses: the aforementioned Trigona hypogeaTrigona crassipes, and Trigona necrophages. These are stingless bees, but they have five large, pointed teeth, and they have been known to bite. Some excrete substances with their bites that can cause painful blisters and sores.

“These are the only bees in the world that have evolved to use food sources not produced by plants, which is a pretty remarkable change in dietary habits,” said Doug Yanega, a UCR entomologist who co-authored the new study. He and his colleagues wondered whether these vulture bees, given their radical shift in diet, had also evolved distinct microbiomes, and they conducted a series of experiments to find out.

The adult bees used in the experiments were collected at field stations in La Selva and Las Cruces, Costa Rica, in April 2019. Each site featured 16 “bait stations” with large chunks of fresh chicken suspended from branches with string. The string was coated with petroleum jelly to ward off ants, although a few particularly intrepid bullet ants managed to overcome that barrier. For comparison, the team also collected bees that fed on both meat and flowers as well as bees who fed exclusively on pollen.

Individual from the <em>Trigona</em> genus of stingless bees, some of which eat meat.
Individual from the Trigona genus of stingless bees, some of which eat meat.Ricardo Ayala

Each bee was stored in a sterile tube filled with 95 percent ethanol. Because the specimens were so tiny, the entire abdomens were used for the microbiome analysis, except in the case of larger Melipona bees, whose guts were carefully dissected. That analysis revealed that the most extreme microbiome changes were found in the vulture bees that fed exclusively on meat. Those microbiomes had a lot of Lactobacillus bacteria, commonly found in fermented foods like sourdough, as well as Carnobacterium, known to help digest flesh.

“The vulture bee microbiome is enriched in acid-loving bacteria, which are novel bacteria that their relatives don’t have,” said UCR entomologist and co-author Quinn McFrederick. “These bacteria are similar to ones found in actual vultures, as well as hyenas and other carrion-feeders, presumably to help protect them from pathogens that show up on carrion.” The next step will be to learn more about the bacterial genomes, as well was those of the various fungi and viruses found in the vulture bees.

Even though the vulture bees had much smaller baskets on their hind legs, the authors noted, they were nonetheless able to use them to collect pieces of masticated chicken, much like their vegetarian cousins collect pollen. “They had little chicken baskets,” said McFrederick.

McFrederick, Yanega, and their colleagues suggest two hypothetical scenarios to explain their findings, noting that the two are not mutually exclusive. “The diet shift may have led to symbiont extinction and replacement of microbes that can break down carrion, or the core stingless bee microbiome may persist, suggesting that these microbes evolved along with the bee over its diet shift and are adapted to a new protein source,” they wrote.


Jennifer Ouellette at arsTechnica

The Enormous Hole That Whaling Left Behind

The Enormous Hole That Whaling Left Behind

The mass slaughter of whales destroyed far more than the creatures themselves.

In the 20th century, the largest animals that have ever existed almost stopped existing. Baleen whales—the group that includes blue, fin, and humpback whales—had long been hunted, but as whaling went industrial, hunts became massacres. With explosive-tipped harpoons that were fired from cannons and factory ships that could process carcasses at sea, whalers slaughtered the giants for their oil, which was used to light lamps, lubricate cars, and make margarine. In just six decades, roughly the life span of a blue whale, humans took the blue-whale population down from 360,000 to just 1,000. In one century, whalers killed at least 2 million baleen whales, which together weighed twice as much as all the wild mammals on Earth today.

All those missing whales left behind an enormous amount of uneaten food. In a new study, the Stanford ecologist Matthew Savoca and his colleagues have, for the first time, accurately estimated just how much. They calculated that before industrial whaling, these creatures would have consumed about 430 million metric tons of krill—small, shrimplike animals—every year. That’s twice as much as all the krill that now exist, and twice as much by weight as all the fish that today’s fisheries catch annually. But whales, despite their astronomical appetite, didn’t deplete the oceans in the way that humans now do. Their iron-rich poop acted like manure, fertilizing otherwise impoverished waters and seeding the base of the rich food webs that they then gorged upon. When the whales were killed, those food webs collapsed, turning seas that were once rain forest–like in their richness into marine deserts.

But this tragic tale doesn’t have to be “another depressing retrospective,” Savoca told me. Those pre-whaling ecosystems are “still there—degraded, but still there.” And his team’s study points to a possible way of restoring them—by repurposing a controversial plan to reverse climate change.

Baleen whales are elusive, often foraging well below the ocean’s surface. They are also elastic: When a blue whale lunges at krill, its mouth can swell to engulf a volume of water larger than its own body. For these reasons, scientists have struggled to work out how much these creatures eat. In the past, researchers either examined the stomachs of beached whales or extrapolated upward from much smaller animals, such as mice and dolphins. But new technologies developed over the past decade have provided better data. Drones can photograph feeding whales, allowing researchers to size up their ballooning mouths. Echo sounders can use sonar to gauge the size of krill swarms. And suction-cup-affixed tags that come with accelerometers, GPS, and cameras can track whales deep underwater—“I think of them as whale iPhones,” Savoca said.

Using these devices, he and his colleagues calculated that baleen whales eat three times more than researchers had previously thought. They fast for two-thirds of the year, subsisting on their huge stores of blubber. But on the 100 or so days when they do eat, they are incredibly efficient about it. Every feeding day, these animals can snarf down 5 to 30 percent of their already titanic body weight. A blue whale might gulp down 16 metric tons of krill.

Surely, then, the mass slaughter of whales must have created a paradise for their prey? After industrial-era whalers killed off these giants, about 380 million metric tons of krill would have gone uneaten every year. In the 1970s, many scientists assumed that the former whaling grounds would become a krilltopia, but instead, later studies showed that krill numbers had plummeted by more than 80 percent.

The explanation for this paradox involves iron, a mineral that all living things need in small amounts. The north Atlantic Ocean gets iron from dust that blows over from the Sahara. But in the Southern Ocean, where ice cloaks the land, iron is scarcer. Much of it is locked inside the bodies of krill and other animals. Whales unlock that iron when they eat, and release it when they poop. The defecated iron then stimulates the growth of tiny phytoplankton, which in turn feed the krill, which in turn feed the whales, and so on.

Just as many large mammals are known to do on land, the whales engineer the same ecosystems upon which they depend. They don’t just eat krill; they also create the conditions that allow krill to thrive. They do this so well that even in the pre-whaling era their huge appetites barely dented the lush wonderlands that they seeded. Back then, krill used to swarm so densely that they reddened the surface of the Southern Ocean. Whales feasted so intensely that sailors would spot their water spouts punching upward in every direction, as far as the eye could see. With the advent of industrial whaling, those ecosystems imploded. Savoca’s team estimates that the deaths of a few million whales deprived the oceans of hundreds of millions of metric tons of poop, about 12,000 metric tons of iron, and a lot of plankton, krill, and fish.

Whaling proponents sometimes argue that whales’ gargantuan appetites threaten the food security of coastal nations, dismissing modeling studies that disprove this idea, according to Leah Gerber, a marine-conservation biologist at Arizona State University who wasn’t involved in the new study. By contrast, the empirical results from Savoca’s study “will be hard to refute,” Gerber told me.

A whaler in Spitsbergen, Norway
Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis / Getty

The new study, says Kelly Benoit-Bird, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, in California, is an important reminder of how “exploited species are part of a complex web, with many effects cascading from our actions.” Killing a whale leaves a hole in the ocean that’s far bigger than the creature itself.

There are more whales now than there were even a few years ago—in early 2020, scientists rejoiced when they spotted 58 blue whales in sub-Antarctic waters where mere handfuls of the animals had been seen in years prior. But that number is still depressingly low. “You can’t bring back the whales until you bring back their food,” Savoca said. And he thinks he knows how to do that.

In 1990, the oceanographer John Martin proposed that the Southern Ocean is starved of iron, and that deliberately seeding its waters with the nutrient would allow phytoplankton to grow. The blooming plankton would soak up carbon dioxide, Martin argued, and cool the planet and slow the pace of global warming. Researchers have since tested this idea in 13 experiments, adding iron to small stretches of the Southern and Pacific Oceans and showing that plankton do indeed flourish in response.

Such iron-fertilization experiments have typically been billed as acts of geoengineering—deliberate attempts to alter Earth’s climate. But Savoca and his colleagues think that the same approach could be used for conservation. Adding iron to waters where krill and whales still exist could push the sputtering food cycle into higher gear, making it possible for whales to rebound at numbers closer to their historical highs. “We’d be re-wilding a barren land by plowing in compost, and the whole system would recuperate,” says Victor Smetacek, an oceanographer at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, in Germany. (Smetacek was involved in three past iron-fertilization experiments and has been in talks with Savoca’s group.)

The team plans to propose a small and carefully controlled experiment to test the effects of iron fertilization on the whales’ food webs. The mere idea of that “is going to be shocking to some people,” Savoca admitted. Scientists and advocacy groups alike have fiercely opposed past iron-addition experiments, over concerns that for-profit companies would patent and commercialize the technology and that the extra iron would trigger blooms of toxic algae.

But with Savoca’s new estimates, “we now have a much better idea of exactly the quantity of iron that whales were recycling in the system and how much to add back so we don’t get bad effects,” he said. His goal isn’t to do something strange and unnatural but to effectively act as a surrogate defecator, briefly playing the role that whales did before they were hunted to near extinction. These creatures would still face many challenges—ship strikes, noise pollution, entangling fishing gearpollutants—but at least food supplies would tilt in their favor.

Whaling almost destroyed a thriving food web, “but in the sliver we have left, I see a lot of hope,” Savoca said. He’s not talking about restoring long-lost ecosystems, such as those that disappeared when mammoths and other land-based megafauna went extinct tens of thousands of years ago. “This is a system that was alive and well when our grandparents were alive,” he said. “And we want to bring it back.”


Ed Yong at The Atlantic

Billionaire Buys 15% of the Planet to Protect It

Billionaire Buys 15% of the Planet to Protect It

Wyoming billionaire pledges to purchase around 15% of the planet, doubling the amount of protected lands and waters on Earth

Since the creation of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872, 15 percent of the earth’s lands and 7 percent of its oceans have been protected in a natural state.

But some scientists have concluded that at least half the planet needs to be protected to save a large majority of plant and animal species from extinction.

A multi-billionaire has pledged $1 billion to get us closer to that goal.

The money will be used to “create and expand protected areas” with the goal of protecting 30 percent of the planet’s surface by 2030.

The 83-year-old Swiss-born steel magnate Hansjörg Wyss — who’s now an avid outdoorsman living in Wyoming — has already donated $450 million to protect 40 million acres of land and water across the globe since the establishment of the Wyss Foundation in 1998.

Wyss has also supported anti-poaching efforts, river restoration projects, African national park improvements, rails-to-trails initiatives and land conversation in his beloved adopted home, the American West.

He’s also pulled a handful of high-profile maneuvers to stop fossil fuel industries from degrading protected lands.

The new Wyss Campaign for Nature adds $1 billion more toward those efforts.

“Already, the campaign has identified nine locally led conservation projects spread across 13 countries — 10 million acres of land and 17,000 square kilometers of ocean in total — that will receive $48 million in assistance,” Mother Nature Network reports.

The first nine conservation projects to receive grants are:

1. Aconquija National Park and the National Reserve Project in Argentina

2. The Ansenuza National Park Project, also in Argentina

3. Costa Rica’s proposed Corcovado Marine Reserve

4. The multi-country Caribbean Marine Protected Areas initiative

5. The Andes Amazon Fund, which impacts Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Guyana

6. Romania’s Fundatia Conservation Carpathia, which spearheads conservation efforts in the Carpathian Mountains

7. The Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area in Canada’s Northwest Territories

8. Australia’s Nimmie-Caira Project

9. The Gonarezhou National Park Project in Zimbabwe

Funds will be granted to additional projects over the next 10 years.

“I believe this ambitious goal is achievable because I’ve seen what can be accomplished,” Wyss writes in an editorial for the New York Times.

“We need to embrace the radical, time-tested and profoundly democratic idea of public-land protection that was invented in the United States, tested in Yellowstone and Yosemite, and now proven the world over.”


Sara Burrows at Return To Now

After 64 Years, the River Thames Sheds Its “Biologically Dead” Classification

After 64 Years, the River Thames Sheds Its “Biologically Dead” Classification

London’s River Thames is one of the most famous rivers in the world, with parts of the 215-mile river flowing right through Central London, alongside sights like Big Ben, the Tower of London, the London Eye, and the Tower Bridge. 64 years ago, parts of the River Thames were declared dead — and after years of hard work, signs of life in the River Thames have scientists rejoicing.

London’s River Thames is no longer “biologically dead.”

The ​​Zoological Society of London (ZSL) just published a report titled The State of the Thames 2021, which analyzes environmental trends observed in the river over the past 64 years. The report’s introduction explained that in 1957, Natural History Museum scientists declared parts of the Tidal Thames “biologically dead.” Essentially, the estuary was so ravaged by pollution, that animals could barely survive in it.

River Thames
A seal rests on the banks of the River Thames in Hammersmith on March 08, 2021 in London, England.

But for the past 18 years, the ZSL has been working to change that, and “restore the Tidal Thames to a biodiverse estuarine ecosystem that provides ecosystem services benefiting our economy and wellbeing,” as the ZSL’s Director of Conservation and Policy, Dr. Andrew Terry, wrote in the report’s forward.

And the work has paid off — according to the ZSL, the Tidal Thames “once again provides a rich and varied habitat to an abundance of wildlife, and many benefits to people.”

What animals were discovered in the River Thames?

As reported by The Hill, the ZSL claims that the River Thames is now home to over 92 species of birds, 115 species of fish, and three species of shark: the starry smooth-hound, the spurdog, and the tope shark, the latter two of which are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

But Londoners shouldn’t get too excited — spurdogs are venomous sharks. Fortunately, they tend to live in the river’s depths, as noted by CNN.

Healthy rivers are good for wildlife and for the climate.

Additionally, the river also now contains about 600 hectares of coastal wetlands, aka salt marshes, according to The Hill. Salt marshes have endless positive effects on the environment — they help keep coastlines healthy, they provide food and habitats for fish, they defend shorelines from erosion, they filter runoff, and they absorb rainwater, which lessens the severity of floods, as per the National Ocean Service.

“A healthy Thames is also vital in mitigating some of the impacts of climate change,” Terry added. “As we increasingly recognise the intrinsic and economic value of nature’s services to humans, we hope to see investment in the continued restoration of the river.”

That said, the climate crisis has definitely been a factor in the Thames’ struggles. The report’s executive summary noted that rising global temperatures, rising water temperatures, rising sea levels, and increasing stormwater runoff can all negatively impact the river, which can harm wildlife. Plastic pollution is a factor as well, as marine animals often get tangled in plastic waste, or mistake plastic for food, both of which can kill them.

To help prevent climate change further hurting the Thames, the ZSL plans to continue its work to restore wildlife along the River Thames, set limits for plastic pollution throughout the river, and get local communities involved.


Sophie Hirsch at Green Matters

A father and son’s Ice Age plot to slow Siberian thaw

A father and son’s Ice Age plot to slow Siberian thaw

A father and son in remote Siberia are trying to engineer an ice age ecosystem. Peer-reviewed scientific papers show they are slowing global warming.

In one of the planet’s coldest places, 130 km south of Russia’s Arctic coast, scientist Sergey Zimov can find no sign of permafrost as global warming permeates Siberia’s soil.

As everything from mammoth bones to ancient vegetation frozen inside it for millennia thaws and decomposes, it now threatens to release vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

Zimov, who has studied permafrost from his scientific base in the diamond-producing Yakutia region for decades, is seeing the effects of climate change in real time.

Zimov checks for permafrost in the Pleistocene Park outside the town of Chersky, Sakha (Yakutia) republic, Russia.

Driving a thin metal pole metres into the Siberian turf, where temperatures are rising at more than three times the world average, with barely any force, the 66-year-old is matter-of-fact.

“This is one of the coldest places on earth and there is no permafrost,” he says. “Methane has never increased in the atmosphere at the speed it is today … I think this is linked to our permafrost.”

Permafrost covers 65% of Russia’s landmass and about a quarter of the northern landmass. Scientists say that greenhouse gas emissions from its thaw could eventually match or even exceed the European Union’s industrial emissions due to the sheer volume of decaying organic matter.

An abandoned vessel is seen near the Northeast Science Station in a waterway outside Chersky, Sakha (Yakutia) republic, Russia.
The former Soviet television station that is now used by the Northeast Science Station stands outside of the town of Chersky in Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, Russia.

Meanwhile permafrost emissions, which are seen as naturally occurring, are not counted against government pledges aimed at curbing emissions or in the spotlight at the U.N. climate talks. Zimov, with his white beard and cigarette, ignored orders to leave the Arctic when the Soviet Union collapsed and instead found funding to keep the Northeast Science Station near the part-abandoned town of Chersky operating.

Citing data from a U.S.-managed network of global monitoring stations, Zimov says he now believes the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that permafrost has begun to release greenhouse gases.

Despite factories scaling back activity worldwide during the pandemic which also dramatically slowed global transport, Zimov says the concentration of methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been growing at a faster rate.

Whole cities sit on permafrost and its thawing could cost Russia 7 trillion roubles ($100 billion) in damage by 2050 if the rate of warming continues, scientists say.

Built on the assumption that the permafrost would never thaw, many homes, pipelines and roads in Russia’s far north and east are now sinking and increasingly in need of repair.

Ice Age animals

Zimov wants to slow the thaw in one area of Yakutia by populating a nature reserve called the Pleistocene Park with large herbivores including bison, horses and camels.

Such animals trample the snow, making it much more compact so the winter cold can get through to the ground, rather than it acting as a thick insulating blanket.

Zimov and his son Nikita began introducing animals into the fenced park in 1996 and have so far relocated around 200 of different species, which they say are making the permafrost colder compared with other areas.

Bison were trucked and shipped this summer from Denmark, along the Northern Sea Route, past polar bears and walruses and through weeks-long storms, before their ship finally turned into the mouth of the Kolyma River towards their new home some 6,000 kilometres to the east.

The Zimovs’ surreal plan for geo-engineering a cooler future has extended to offering a home for mammoths, which other scientists hope to resurrect from extinction with genetic techniques, in order to mimic the region’s ecosystem during the last ice age that ended 11,700 years ago.

A father and son’s Ice Age plot to slow Siberian thaw

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Sergey Zimov, a scientist, holds an ice crystal in the underground storage where sample materials are stored in permafrost in Pleistocene Park outside of the town of Chersky, Sakha (Yakutia) republic, Russia September 13, 2021. Underground storages digger in permafrost layer are widely used by local people as a natural fridge with temperature of minus 5 degrees Celsius and lower. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

A paper published in Nature’s Scientific Reports last year, where both Zimovs were listed as authors, showed that the animals in Pleistocene Park had reduced the average snow depth by half, and the average annual soil temperature by 1.9 degrees Celsius, with an even bigger drop in winter and spring.

More work is needed to determine if such “unconventional” methods might be an effective climate change mitigation strategy but the density of animals in Pleistocene Park – 114 individuals per square kilometre – should be feasible on a pan-Arctic scale, it said.

And global-scale models suggest introducing big herbivores onto the tundra could stop 37% of Arctic permafrost from thawing, the paper said.


Nikita Zimov, Sergey’s son, was walking in the shallows of the river Kolyma at Duvanny Yar in September when he fished out a mammoth tusk and tooth. Such finds have been common for years in Yakutia and particularly by rivers where the water erodes the permafrost.

Three hours by boat from Chersky, the river bank provides a cross-section of the thaw, with a thick sheet of exposed ice melting and dripping below layers of dense black earth containing small grass roots.

“If you take the weight of all these roots and decaying organics in the permafrost from Yakutia alone, you’d find the weight was more than the land-based biomass of the planet,” Nikita says.

Trees lean precariously at Duvanny Yar southwest of the town of Chersky.

Scientists say that on average, the world has warmed one degree in the last century, while in Yakutia over the last 50 years, the temperature has risen three degrees.

The older Zimov says he has seen for himself how winters have grown shorter and milder, while Alexander Fedorov, deputy director of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, says he no longer has to wear fur clothing during the coldest months.

But addressing permafrost emissions, like fire and other so-called natural emissions, presents a challenge because they are not fully accounted for in climate models or international agreements, scientists say.

“The difficulty is the quantity,” says Chris Burn, a professor at Carleton University and president of the International Permafrost Association.

A father and son’s Ice Age plot to slow Siberian thaw

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A general view of Duvanny Yar and Kolyma river south-west of the town of Chersky, Sakha (Yakutia) republic, Russia September 12, 2021. Duvanny Yar is landscape complex at lower Kolyma, rich of syngenetic ice wedges, and remains of Pleistocene flora and fauna. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov SEARCH "PERMAFROST SHEMETOV" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

“One or two percent of permafrost carbon is equivalent to total global emissions for a year.” Scientists estimate that permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere contains about 1.5 trillion tons of carbon, about twice as much as is currently in the atmosphere, or about three times as much as in all of the trees and plants on earth.

Nikita says there is no single solution to global warming. “We’re working to prove that these ecosystems will help in the fight, but, of course, our efforts alone are not enough.”

The Wider Image

Photos: Maxim Shemetov

Reporting by Maxim Shemetov in Chersky, Russia, Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Clare Baldwin in Hong Kong

Video: Maxim Shemetov, Dmitry Turlyun

Photo editing: Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson

Art direction: Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson, Troy Dunkley

Text editing: Alexander Smith