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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

Wildfires killed thousands of sequoias in southern Sierra Nevada

Wildfires killed thousands of sequoias in southern Sierra Nevada

As many as 3,600 giant sequoias perished in the flames of the twin wildfires that ignited during a lightning storm in early September and rampaged through 27 groves of the behemoths in the southern Sierra Nevada, National Park Service officials said Friday.

More than two dozen groves of the towering trees were scorched as the KNP Complex and Windy fires exploded through parched vegetation, exacerbated at times by fierce winds and thunderstorms.

It’s a stunning loss that equates to 3% to 5% of the world’s giant sequoia population — arriving on the heels of even greater devastation. Last year’s Castle fire killed up to 14% of the global population of giant sequoias. Among the three fires, officials estimate nearly 20% of all sequoias may have perished in the last 14 months.

The somber news was delivered at a briefing in the Grant Grove of Kings Canyon National Park, in the shadow of the General Grant Tree — considered the second largest tree on Earth. Last month, the massive tree, which rises more than 260 feet, was surrounded by sprinklers to protect it from the still-active KNP Complex fire that has torched more than 88,300 acres in rugged country in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

“It does not ever get easy looking at a monarch giant sequoia that has died,” said Teresa Benson, supervisor for the Sequoia National Forest, at the briefing. “That is one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to look at in my entire 30-year career with the forest service. It is not a good thing for our environment.”

Though it’s no longer a threat, the KNP — still just 75% contained — continues to chew through pockets of heavy fuel.

Meanwhile, crews have fully contained the Windy fire to the south, which burned upward of 97,500 acres in the Tule River Indian Reservation and Sequoia National Forest.

Nathan Stephenson points toward treetops.
Nathan Stephenson of the Western Ecological Research Center discusses the loss of sequoias.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

The KNP Complex scorched 16 sequoia groves, and the Windy burned 11 groves of the giant trees, natural wonders that can live more than 3,000 years and rise over 250 feet.

Among the worst was Redwood Mountain Grove, where scores of giant sequoias were torched by the KNP Complex fire.

Interspersed with healthy-looking trees, blackened sequoia carcasses rose Friday in eerie, almost sculptural forms, like an army of the dead.

Some were still smoking from the blaze that erupted more than two months ago.

Officials had steeled themselves for the devastation, though the massive trees have survived — and thrived — amid wildfires for thousands of yeas.

With their towering canopies and thick bark, giant sequoias are adapted to withstand low-intensity fire, and even need it to reproduce. But ferocious climate-change-fueled fires of recent years have proved fatal to the trees that experts once thought were impervious to flames.

Officials on Friday said that between 2,261 and 3,637 sequoias with a base of 4 feet or more in diameter were either killed or so severely damaged that they would die in the next three to five years.

The figures come from a report based on analysis by scientists from the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service. While preliminary, Christy Brigham, chief of resources management and science for the Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks and co-author of the report, thinks they’re accurate — or worse, an underestimate.

Discussing the number of sequoias that perished, Brigham teared up at the briefing.

“While these losses are not as stark and large as the Castle fire, they are still significant, unsustainable and are outside the range of historic fire effects on large sequoias — and are not what we are trying to achieve as we manage these magnificent forests for fire and climate change resilience,” she said.

Since 2015, high-severity fires have killed large giant sequoias “in much greater numbers than has ever been recorded,” officials with the National Park Service said. Drought has also contributed to their decline, weakening their defenses and making them susceptible to incursions from bark beetles, another scourge to which they’ve historically been immune.

The KNP Complex and Windy fires ignited Sept. 9 amid thunderstorms that roiled the region and quickly exploded amid the parched landscape. As crews struggled to battle flames raging in steep, difficult-to-access areas, a devastating revelation emerged: The flames had pushed in the direction of the famed Giant Forest, home to some 2,000 giant sequoias, including the largest tree in the world.

As the grim reality set in, crews in mid-September wrapped the hulking base of the General Sherman tree — and some other well-known giants — in aluminum material typically used to protect buildings. General Sherman, considered the largest tree by volume, and many other nearby trees survived, in part, because of decades of prescribed burns to clear out vegetation in the tourist mecca.

But prospects were dimmer for more remote, less-manicured groves.

Garrett Dickman, a botanist assigned to the Windy fire, expressed fears weeks ago that tree mortality rates could rival those of the 2020 Castle fire, which burned at least 7,500 trees.

Aided by a sequoia task force, Dickman trekked through the backcountry to prepare trees for fire when possible and treat them after flames had passed through. He saw heavily scorched trees and entire groves he estimated had been decimated.

As the crews made their way through the burn zone, Dickman kept a tally of dead trees. He counted 74 by early October, but officials now say that number is far greater.

Brigham initially thought the trees had fared better amid more favorable conditions, including a frequent inversion layer that tamped down flames. But that optimism soured last month when an enormous pyrocumulus formed near the Redwood Mountain Grove, indicating the likelihood of extreme fire behavior. Castle Creek Grove also appeared subjected to high-severity fire.

Park officials wrote on Facebook that they suspected some groves were hit by flames severe enough “to result in sequoia mortality, possibly for significant numbers of trees (hundreds).” The recent assessment suggests the damage was even more severe.

In an effort to protect the beloved trees, crews resorted to unusual firefighting tactics. Besides wrapping the massive trees in fire-resistant aluminum material akin to tinfoil, sprinkler systems were also rigged in rugged terrain, personnel set preemptive fires to burn away potential fuels and climbers were even sent up a 200-foot tree to douse it with water.

“We’re taking such drastic measures to save these trees — and they deserve those drastic measures to be saved,” Dickman said at the time.

Much of Kings Canyon reopened last month, but some areas have since shuttered for the winter season, park officials said. Only a portion of Sequoia recently became accessible to the public.

Park officials last week reopened part of the foothills area, stretching from the Ash Mountain entrance to Hospital Rock, about six miles up the Generals Highway. Beyond that, damage to the road and hazardous trees made the area unsafe, Mark Ruggiero, a fire information officer, said. Some of the park’s biggest draws are still off-limits, including the Giant Forest.

While visitors would see charred trees and smoke billowing from hot spots, they’d also see areas resembling “a green carpet,” Ruggiero said. Grass was growing in burn areas recently doused by recent rains.

“It will look like spring a little bit,” he said.


Lila Seidman at Los Angeles Times

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

Japan-Based Scientists Fully Sequence the Oriental Mangrove Genome

Japan-Based Scientists Fully Sequence the Oriental Mangrove Genome

The oriental mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza), also known as the large-leafed orange mangrove, is a kind of tree that’s usually found in the seaward side of mangrove swamps.

These trees can grow up to 35 m in length—and given their specific name which translates to “naked root” in Greek, these trees are also famous for their exposed “knee roots” which emerge from the ground. The genus Bruguiera is named by French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who named it after his colleague, French zoologist and diplomat Jean Guillaume Bruguière. These beautiful trees can be found across coastal areas stretching from the western Pacific to South Africa.

A close-up image of the oriental mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza) can be seen in the image above, which was taken in Thane, India. (Valke/Wikimedia Commons, 2011)

Unfortunately, these trees are also in danger due to human-induced climate change. Data from a 2010 study showed that mangroves are vanishing at about a rate of 1-2% per year, with a total loss rate reaching 35% over the last twenty (20) years. These losses are often associated with the rise in sea levels, which risk drowning what would otherwise be simple coastal mangrove habitats. These mangrove “swamps” are also home to several species of coastal creatures, most of which are also in danger of losing their homes once the seas encroach upon their shallow waters.

It is thus important for scientists to truly understand how the plant came about, as well as how it survived the way it did for thousands of years. In doing so, experts can fully inform themselves of the strategies and policies involved in saving what’s left of our crucial mangrove habitats. One particular effort of interest was a study published just this year in the journal New Phytologist; a team of researchers, in this case, had fully sequenced the genome of B. gymnorrhiza for the first time.

The study was produced out of a combined effort by scientists from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University and the University College London, and was led by two scientists, Matin Miryeganeh and Hidetoshi Saze, who are both from the Okinawa institution’s Plant Epigenetics Unit.

The study by Miryeganeh and team placed under intense study the mangroves situated along Okinawa’s Okukubi River, and separated them as either “riverside” or “oceanside” populations; the research team found specific differences in the two kinds of mangroves along the length of the river. (Miryeganeh et al, 2021)

“Mangroves are an ideal model system for studying the molecular mechanism behind stress tolerance, as they naturally cope with various stress factors,” said Miryeganeh in a statement.

The team performed a survey on the oriental mangroves located within the main island of Okinawa, an area within Japan famous for its coastal scenery. There, the research team noted differences between populations of oriental mangroves situated in different areas along the length of the Okukubi River.

One site was described as being in “brackish” waters, being located upstream; these were coined “riverside” populations of oriental mangroves. Trees on this segment of the river grew up to 7 m high. Meanwhile, plants near the ocean, called the “oceanside” population, grew only up to 2 m tall, according to Saze.

“[The] shorter trees were not unhealthy—they flowered and fruited normally—so we think this modification is adaptive, perhaps allowing the salt-stressed plant to invest more resources into coping with its harsh environment,” Saze followed after mentioning that the oceanside mangroves were exposed to waters with high salinity, given their proximity to the ocean.

Afterwards, the team sequenced the genome of these trees, and found them to contain some 309 million base pairs. They also found some 34,000 genes in the B. gymnorrhiza genome—far larger than those of other mangroves, according to the authors; they attributed this high number to the presence of repeating sequences called transposons in the B. gymnorrhiza DNA.

(This genomic sequencing news comes as the latest in a long line of research efforts to save other species, as is the case with the sequencing of the Atlantic puffin genome. Similar efforts have also been made to save endangered species, such as the recent effort to map out the rhinoceros family tree.)

These transposons, also called “jumping genes,” are “parasitic genes that can ‘jump’ position within the genome, like cut-and-paste or copy-and-paste computer functions,” according to Saze. These genes can build up in the genome of plants like B. gymnorrhiza, accounting for the high number of repetitive sequences.

After analyses were performed on both natural mangroves from the two earlier areas as well as mangroves grown in a lab, the team found that suppressing the appearance of these transposons play a role in managing the stresses induced in the plant by living in a high-salinity environment, such as those living in oceanside habitats. These seaside trees also show an increased activity in genes responsible for the plants’ stress response, including water deprivation.

Saze followed: “This study acts as a foundation, providing new insights into how mangrove trees regulate their genome in response to extreme stresses. […] More research is needed to understand how these changes in gene activity impact molecular processes within the plant cells and tissues, and could one day help scientists create new plant strains that can better cope with stress.”


Gil Caparas at Modern Sciences

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

Image 1 of 6

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

Image 1 of 7

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

The Farmer Trying to Save Italy’s Ancient Olive Trees

The Farmer Trying to Save Italy’s Ancient Olive Trees

A fast-spreading bacteria could cause an olive-oil apocalypse.

In early 2016, Giovanni Melcarne, an agronomist and the owner of an extra virgin olive oil farm in Gagliano del Capo, walked through the southern Italian countryside of Puglia. He was with a fellow olive-oil farmer who had called and told him there was something he had to see.

The two approached a centuries-old olive tree growing at the edge of the street along a traditional stone wall. All around, the old olive trees that covered the red clay were either dead or in an advanced state of decay, filling the landscape with an unnatural greyness. Melcarne was not surprised: At least 2 million olive trees in Puglia looked this way, including many of his own.

The cause of the blight was Xylella fastidiosa, a bacteria that researchers believe arrived around 2010 from Latin America, possibly from Costa Rica on an imported ornamental plant. Today, Xylella has infected at least one-third of the 60 million olive trees in Puglia, which produces 12 percent of the world’s olive oil. The bacteria leaves no chance of survival: Once a plant is infected, it’s doomed to die in a handful of years. Today, Xylella is spreading fast across Puglia, crossing into other Italian regions and Mediterranean countries, and upending the production of olives and olive oil, the symbols of the Mediterranean.

Agronomist Giovanni Melcarne invested his life savings to find a way to stop Xylella.

When the two reached the tree, the olive farmer pointed at a live, green bough on the otherwise dead trunk.

“The man told me that his father had grafted the tree with a Barese olive variety, which is good for eating,” Melcarne says. Grafting is common practice in the area: People take a twig of a different variety and insert it on the trunk of an older tree, where it will grow and bear the kind of olives of the tree it came from. Melcarne immediately suspected that the grafted branch was resistant to Xylella. It seemed to be keeping the olive tree alive.

“And then I thought, ‘Could it be that grafts could save the oldest and grandest olive trees’?” Melcarne says.

At the time, efforts to contain the Xylella blight were going poorly: Italian media and politics was dominated by vicious fights, accusations, and conspiracy theories that prevented a coordinated response. But seeing that bit of green, Melcarne felt hopeful. The agronomist was already exploring ways to fight the disease with a team of scientists, and that visit showed that there might be some hope against the olive-tree apocalypse.

“If today we don’t try to save at least some of the monumental olive trees,” Melcarne asks, “what identity will be left to this region?”

A tree with centuries-old roots recently infected by Xylella.
A tree with centuries-old roots recently infected by Xylella.

Whether you are in New York, London, or Melbourne, chances are good that the extra virgin olive oil you use to dress your salad, finish a fresh mozzarella, or sear a sea bass comes from Puglia. It is either explicitly labeled as such or, in many cases, disguised under the branding of other estates that didn’t quite yield the harvest they were expecting.

In Puglia, olive trees are everywhere. They have populated these lands since 1,000 BC, when the ancient Greeks brought them. Some trees still growing today saw ancient Romans passing by or welcomed Emperor Frederik II on his way to the Sixth Crusade, while many more were already old when Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Americas. The trees have always been present in their corrugated fairy shapes, and they are an inherent part of the local culture. Each family owns a few olive trees and treats them like family, like immortal grandparents. Pugliesi have taken their presence for granted for a long time, but Xylella is now crushing that timeless, idyllic reality.

Xylella fastidiosa is carried by a sap-feeding insect, a spittlebug called Philaenus spumarius. When the insect bites an infected leaf, it involuntarily takes the bacteria on its saliva, giving Xylella a free ride to the next plant it feeds on. Through the bite, the bacteria enter the xylem––the plants’ vascular tissue, where water and nutrients flow––traveling countercurrent towards the roots. As the bacteria reproduce, they create a gel that clogs the channels, preventing water and nutrients from passing through. Once the plant is infected, it slowly starts dying.

The disease’s symptoms first appeared around 2010, but Italians didn’t know what was killing their trees. In 2013, scientists realized that it was Xylella. It was the first detection in Europe, and the European Union and Italian government immediately pushed for containment measures that implied the eradication of the infected trees. Speed was crucial: Stopping the spread would only get harder as it dispersed across Italy.

A recent harvest in northern Puglia, where the disease has not yet arrived (top), and dead olive trees in Scorrano, Italy (bottom).
A recent harvest in northern Puglia, where the disease has not yet arrived (top), and dead olive trees in Scorrano, Italy (bottom).

But many Pugliesi could not believe that a bacteria could kill these eternal trees. So thousands of people campaigned to stop the uprootings. Farmers chained themselves to infected trees, stopped railways, protested in city centers, and got full support from TV personalities, singers, and politicians, including Michele Emiliano, the region’s governor.

Much like the millions of people who would later resist pandemic lockdowns or call Covid-19 a hoax, the protesters believed that what was happening was part of a conspiracy. Some believed it was Monsanto’s fault and that the agrochemical company wanted to sell seeds for immune, genetically modified olive trees to farmers. Others said it was entrepreneurs and the Mafia, who wanted to build indiscriminately where the trees stood. A few more blamed chemtrails. The enraged public opinion led by an anti-science movement got so much momentum that in December 2015, government prosecutors from the city of Lecce started investigating the scientists studying the disease, blaming them for having brought it to Puglia. (After four years of investigations, all charges were dropped.)

“I do not expect to be thanked, but being pilloried by the media for having done my work with passion is a paradox,” says Donato Boscia, a plant pathologist and head researcher for Xylella at the National Research Council of Italy (CNR).

While conspiracies flourished, the disease advanced north at a speed of 30 km (18.6 miles) a year. Xylella is present in several countries worldwide, including the U.S., where it has been known for more than a century for attacking grapevines. But before arriving in Puglia, Xylella had never been detected on olive trees before.

“We could not wait for somebody else to deal with it,” says Pierfederico La Notte, an agronomist and researcher working on Xylella at CNR with Donato Boscia. While they studied how Xylella impacted the olive trees, Boscia and La Notte met with Giovanni Melcarne, the olive oil producer from Gagliano del Capo. Melcarne had noticed that in Salento, the lower tip of Puglia, certain olive trees were still alive between an ocean of death. It was 2016, and Melcarne brought the scientists to Gallipoli to check the green and thriving graft his fellow farmer had shown him, which later turned out to be Leccino––one of the only two olive varieties known to be resistant to the bacteria.

“That plant lightened up lots of lightbulbs,” La Notte says. Grafting, a technique as old as agriculture, seemed to show promise, just like it did a century ago when it saved European grapevines from Phylloxera, a tiny aphid that nearly destroyed the continent’s wine industry. If a resistant variety of olives could be grafted on the millenary trunks, the plant appeared to have a chance of survival.

In April 2016, while local politicians were delaying scientific research by withholding funding, Melcarne invested 130,000 euros––around $156,000, his lifetime savings––to graft 14 hectares of his olive trees. His family had been in the olive business since the 1500s, so Melcarne took the enormous financial risk not only to save his company, but to maintain his family’s tradition. He and the CNR researchers wanted to see if the varieties known to be resistant to Xylella––Leccino and Favolosa––could be grafted on older trees, and if other types had some resistance too. Lanotte called on greenhouses, collections, and producers from every corner of the globe, and this international community of scientists and farmers responded by shipping samples of their olive varieties to Puglia. In a short time, they grafted 270 different olive varieties on Melcarne’s fields.

Melcarne points out a graft that failed.
Melcarne points out a graft that failed.

While still solely funded by Melcarne’s life savings—due to the chaos and conspiracies paralzying the government response—their work advanced with trial and error. Grafts died from disease, broke during inclement weather, and were vandalized: One morning Melcarne found that dozens of his grafts had been snapped during the night. He suspected conspiracy theorists were behind it.

Word of the group’s experiment spread. Vanzio Turcato, a northern Italian who had decided to build his house in Puglia, on land home to a few dozen olive trees, became an early adopter of Melcarne’s grafts. He and his wife couldn’t stand the idea of seeing their 54 monumental olive trees die, so, in 2017, Melcarne grafted them all with patch grafts of Favolosa. But only two grafts out of 250 worked. It took two more years of trials to understand that crown grafts––chopping the old branch clean and inserting the grafts on the mutilated extremity––was the way to go. They had finally perfected a grafting protocol.

“I’d be happy if we manage to save even just 50 percent of the trees,” Turcato says. Today, though, his trees are vegetating luxuriantly, surrounded by his neighbors’ endless fields of grey, dead olive trees.

Ninety miles (150 km) from Turcato’s fields, Armando Balestrazzi, the owner of Masseria Il Frantoio, a boutique hotel and olive-oil farm, was well aware of the problem that was about to hit. And according to La Notte and Melcarne, olive trees have a higher probability of surviving if they are grafted before getting infected. The more advanced the infection, the less likely the grafts will work.

This tree has, for now, escaped infection.
This tree has, for now, escaped infection.

“When I heard about the grafts, I decided to run a test,” Balestrazzi says. It was 2019. His area was part of the disease’s buffer zone, and Balestrazzi had in his property 300 Leccino trees resistant to the disease. So he used their twigs to graft 50 of his 2,300 trees, all at least 1,000 years old. “I couldn’t stand with my arms folded while the scourge hit my home. I had to try to save them. And after two years, I know that it works.”

Balestrazzi says that 70 percent of his grafts have survived and are flourishing, and he has 2,250 more trees to graft. The region of Puglia recently issued a 5-million-euro incentive—advised by the work of La Notte and Melcarne—to push farmers to graft their oldest trees. But Balestrazzi is skeptical: “We still haven’t received any money from the damages of the 2016 flooding. Multiply $120 [the cost to graft a tree] by 2,250. How can I advance that amount of money knowing that probably I will never be reimbursed?” Many farmers are stuck in limbo: They want to save their trees, but bureaucracy and pandemic-related financial difficulties prevent them from doing so.

Grafting cannot save every olive tree of Puglia, though. It would take decades, as well as money that residents and the region do not seem to have. The researchers know that the grafting technique can only save the oldest trees and their beauty.

According to Melcarne, what’s needed to save Puglia’s olive groves is a long-term, coordinated plan led by politicians and scientists that stops the northward spread of the disease while investing in finding resistant varieties and grafting the oldest olive trees.

Harvesting olives in northern Puglia.
Harvesting olives in northern Puglia.

After three long years, the region’s administration recognized the value of Melcarne and La Notte’s work. They granted them 2 million euros to continue grafting and uncover new resistant, local varieties. Besides leading the grafting crusade, Melcarne is currently looking to reproduce wild Puglian olive trees that are still alive where Xylella has killed any other olive tree. The quality of local olives is what distinguishes the region’s extra-virgin olive oil from others, and local farmers are wary of planting resistant varieties such as Favolosa that do not belong to that territory and taste different. While they have found a grafting technique to save the region’s grandest trees, it is this search for local, resistant varieties that could protect Puglia’s beloved olive oil and the industry and food culture it supports.

Thanks to the thousands of tips he receives on social media, Melcarne has checked about 30,000 wild olives trees, covering 600,000 kilometers (372,822 miles) in his car in the process. He dreams of finding a local olive variety to replant the orchards destroyed by the bacteria. He picked 30 of them for reproduction, and he says he has found good candidates.

“I think we found one,” Melcarne says proudly. The future of the olive tree in the Mediterranean might well be in his hands.


Agostino Petroni at Gastro Obscura