Wildlife

California tortoises died trying to reproduce during drought

Scientists examining the deaths of female desert tortoises in Southern California said it appears the animals died while exhausting their water and energy to lay eggs during California’s historic drought.

Researchers want to know why female tortoises are dying in greater numbers than males in the Joshua Tree National Park.

U.S. Geological Survey biologist Jeffrey Lovich said he believes the tortoises died during a desperate attempt to fight extinction. He called it an “evolutionary gamble” — choosing to try and reproduce despite harsh conditions.

“Females will go out of their way to produce a clutch of four or so eggs,” Lovich told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “They’ll do it during a drought, when they can’t find the water they need, to have a chance to win at the game of life.”

Over the past three decades, Joshua Tree’s tortoise population has plummeted from about 30,000 to an all-time low of roughly 3,000.

Desert tortoises are a threatened species that typically have 50-year lifespans in the wild, with some living 80 years.

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Chimp Extinction

Tanzanian experts fear that chimpanzees could join elephants and rhinos as the most threatened wildlife species in the country due to their dwindling populations.

“A hundred years ago, there were probably 2 million, but now only 150,000 to 200,000,” said Anthony Collins, a baboon researcher at Gombe Stream National Park.

He told Tanzania’s The Citizen daily that destruction of habitat, illegal hunting and capture for medical research are the greatest threats to the chimps’ survival.

Wildlife

Global Warming Affecting Migratory Birds

The arrival of migratory birds at northern breeding grounds typically coincides with the growth of spring plants. A team of researchers from several universities studied data collected by citizen scientists and satellites between 2001 to 2012 in an attempt to see how climate change is affecting the birds’ ability to accurately time their arrival at these breeding grounds. Their research has been published in Scientific Reports.

Of the 48 North American songbird species that migrate north, the researchers found that nine — almost 20 percent — didn’t reach the grounds by the deadline critical for mating and breeding the next generation of birds. On average, the gap stretched by more than half a day each year across all species, for a total of five days per decade. However, the change for some species was far more drastic — double or triple that pace.

This delay was due to the effect of warmer temperatures on the growth cycles of plants. The birds leave their southern homes at the same time every year, basing their departure on the amount of daylight, which remains unaffected by climate change. However, climate change is altering when plants put out new leaves, with plants in eastern North America “greening up” sooner than normal, while plants in the western part of the continent are undergoing the process later.

This means birds are arriving either too soon and being met with frigid temperatures or too late and missing out on the insect boom that coincides with the new plant growth. Either condition means the birds have a much lower chance of surviving and reproducing, so the nine species identified in the study are therefore in danger of dwindling numbers.5

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Wildlife

Mystery of How Narwhals Use Their Tusks Solved

The unicorn of the sea just got a little less mysterious.

Until now, how narwhals used their long tusks has been subject to much speculation by scientists.

Behavior captured for the first time on camera shows narwhals using the long tusks protruding from their heads to stun Arctic cod by hitting them, using jagged, quick movements. This behavior immobilizes the fish, making them easier to prey upon.

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Wildlife

Winged Tragedy

Nearly 400 migratory birds died after they smashed into a Galveston, Texas, office tower during a storm, falling onto the sidewalk below. Three surviving birds were taken to a wildlife centre.

Most of the victims were Nashville warblers or Blackburnian warblers that were flying northward from Central and South America.

The fierce storm probably forced the birds to fly low and strike the American National Building, Galveston’s tallest.

Wildlife

Polluted Killer Whale

An orca that was found dead last year is now considered one of the most polluted whales ever found: The marine animal contained some of the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — human-made organic chemicals known to cause a variety of adverse health effects — ever recorded.

Lulu, an adult female killer whale, was a member of the last orca pod living near the United Kingdom. When the dead whale was discovered in January 2016 on the Isle of Tiree, Scotland, after becoming entangled in fishing rope, researchers analyzed the orca’s body in hopes of determining the health of the rest of the small pod. They found that Lulu might have been the most contaminated whale ever discovered.

The PCB concentrations in Lulu’s blubber were 100 times higher than the toxicity level scientists have determined is safe for marine mammals, according to researchers from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

High concentrations of PCBs can cause a range of health issues for marine mammals, including impaired immune function, increased susceptibility to cancers, and infertility, according to the SRUC researchers.

Though Lulu was at least 20 years old when she died, an analysis of the orca’s ovaries showed that she had never reproduced. In fact, researchers have not verified a single calf in the 23 years that the U.K. orca pod has been monitored.

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Wildlife

Whale Deaths

An alarmingly high number of humpback whale deaths along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States has prompted officials to launch an investigation into what’s being called an “Unusual Mortality Event.”

More than 40 of the marine mammals have been found dead from Maine to North Carolina since January 2016, with most dying off the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina.

While many of the carcasses were too decomposed for a thorough examination, a large number of the dead whales showed signs of being struck by boats or larger vessels.

Wildlife

Some coral species are adapting to warmer waters

Rising ocean temperatures are wreaking havoc on the organisms that live there, and one only needs to look to coral reefs to see the extent of the damage. Severe coral bleaching events could become increasingly regular, but a new study has revealed a glimmer of hope. Some species of coral – but by no means, all of them – appear to be adapting to the warming waters, with researchers finding less bleached coral in a 2016 event than under similar circumstances in 1998.

Last year was a bad year for coral. Unusually warm water puts a lot of stress on the organisms, and in response they discharge vital algae, which robs them of nutrients and color. The resulting paleness, known as bleaching, paints a pretty clear picture of an ailing reef, and reports suggest the condition affected about 60 percent of the world’s coral in 2016, including huge swathes of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

While there are indications that these kinds of events might become more regular in the near future, a new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society has found some good news among the bad. Examining two marine national parks in Kenya, which were among those affected in last year’s bleaching event, the researchers found a significant decline in the number of bleached coral colonies, when compared to a similar event in 1998.

Out of 21 coral species studied, 11 appeared to be hardier against bleaching than they were 20 years ago. In one area, the number of bleached coral colonies dropped from 73 percent in 1998 to just 27 percent in 2016, while the other area fell from 96 to 60 percent. Encouraging as that sounds, the rest of the species studied weren’t handling the changes well, with one seeming more vulnerable to bleaching now than in the past.

Walrus, caribou face extinction risk in Arctic: Canada

Both Atlantic walrus and eastern migratory caribou are at risk of extinction in Canada’s Arctic, a panel of experts has warned.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which met in Whitehorse, said Monday that the number of Canadian northern wildlife species at risk now stands at 62.

“Over the past few decades, the areas inhabited by the few thousand High Arctic walruses and the more numerous Central and Low Arctic population have shrunk and continue to do so. As the climate warms and sea ice recedes, interaction with industry and tourism is increasing,” the experts’ report said.

These threats, layered upon ongoing harvesting, led the committee to recommend a status of Special Concern for both populations.”

The walrus is both unique, and especially sensitive to environmental changes, experts noted.

“Walruses have been very important to the Inuit, both as food and in their culture, and they remain so today,” said COSEWIC member Hal Whitehead.

And “walruses are particularly sensitive to disturbance, and certainly deserve special attention,” he stressed.

The committee also sounded the alarm for eastern caribou. A famous herd, named for the George River, in Quebec and Labrador numbered over 800,000 in 1993.

“The figure has fallen to an unprecedented low of a few thousand animals. A second major herd is also in serious decline,” the experts said.

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Wildlife

Urban Foxes

There are now four times as many foxes living in urban areas of England than 20 years ago, or about one for every 300 city-dwelling humans.

Researchers found that London has about 18 foxes per square kilometer, while the whole of England is home to about 150,000 of the urban omnivores.

But Trevor Williams, of the rescue group The Fox Project, says he thinks that many foxes have become urban dwellers because cities have expanded into their historic habitats. Foxes also seem to thrive in places like London because of the abundance of rats and mice.

Wildlife

US Marines Airlift 1,100 Tortoises to New Home

The U.S. Marine Corps had an unusual mission this month: to airlift more than 1,000 desert tortoises across the Mojave Desert.

Desert tortoises are native to the southwestern desert, and a population of the reptiles had made their home near the U.S. Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California. However, plans to expand the Marines’ training grounds for large-scale exercises with live fire would have put the tortoises at risk, so the military took on the massive task of relocating approximately 1,100 desert tortoises.

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Vinegar offers hope in Barrier Reef starfish battle

Coral-munching crown-of-thorns starfish can be safely killed by common household vinegar, scientists revealed Thursday in a discovery that offers hope for Australia’s struggling Great Barrier Reef.

The predatory starfish is naturally-occurring but has proliferated due to pollution and run-off at the World Heritage-listed ecosystem, which is also reeling from two consecutive years of mass coral bleaching.

Until now other expensive chemicals such as bile salts have been used to try and eradicate the pest — which consumes coral faster than it can be regenerated — but they can harm other marine organisms.

Tests by James Cook University, in collaboration with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), showed vinegar was safe, effective and cheap.

Study head Lisa Bostrom-Einarsson said crown-of-thorns were injected with vinegar at four sites on the reef over six weeks, causing them to die within 48 hours with no impact on other life.

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Wildlife

Baby whales ‘whisper’ to mothers to avoid predators

Newborn humpback whales and their mothers whisper to each other to escape potential predators, scientists reported on Wednesday, revealing the existence of a previously unknown survival technique.

Whales are known for their loud calls, congregating fellow members of the pod. Male humpback whales also emit reverberating sounds to attract females during the mating season.

But this is the first time scientists have observed a unique, intimate form of communication between humpback mothers and calves.

Potential predators such as killer whales could listen to their conversations and use that as a cue to locate the calf and predate on it, if the conversations were louder.

While a male’s cry can resound over an area covering several kilometres, the pairs in the study could only hear each others’ calls within a distance of less than 100 metres.

The faint sounds are also a way to keep mate-seeking males from interfering in the humpback’s nurturing, a crucial time in the newborn’s life as it braces for an arduous 8 000km journey back home to the Antarctic, the researchers speculated.

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Environment

Plastic-eating caterpillar

A caterpillar that munches on plastic bags could hold the key to tackling plastic pollution, scientists say.

Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered that the larvae of the moth, which eats wax in bee hives, can also degrade plastic. Experiments show the insect can break down the chemical bonds of plastic in a similar way to digesting beeswax.

Each year, about 80 million tonnes of the plastic polyethylene are produced around the world. The plastic is used to make shopping bags and food packaging, among other things, but it can take hundreds of years to decompose completely.

However, caterpillars of the moth (Galleria mellonella) can make holes in a plastic bag in under an hour.

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Wildlife

Living Fossil

A reclusive mud-dwelling worm has been found alive for the first time, even though the fossils it leaves behind have hinted at its existence for more than 200 years.

About a dozen live specimens of the baseball bat-sized giant shipworm were finally discovered in the mud of a shallow Philippine lagoon after an extensive search.

Experts soon found that bacteria living in the gills of the creature produce enough food for the worm, which is encased inside a long tube made of the calcium carbonate it secretes. The gunmetal black bivalve also uses hydrogen sulphide in the water as an energy source.

The shells, in all likelihood, contributed to the myth of the Unicorn.

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Wildlife

Hippo’s Poisoned in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe officials have launched an investigation into how 11 hippos died from suspected poisoning along the country’s Mlibizi River.

Environment, Water and Climate Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri told reporters she feared the use of chemicals in agriculture to kill weeds and invading worms could have polluted the waters in which the hippos live and feed.

“So, whatever that is put on the ground ends up in our water,” she said. “It affects our fish, our crocodiles, our hippos, and we are seeing that this is a feature that we ignored in the past.”

Wildlife

Cyclone Debbie Demolishes Great Barrier Reef

As severe bleaching wreaks havoc on the coral, the Great Barrier Reef has had to deal with another devastating blow — Cyclone Debbie.

Fierce 260kph winds tore through the Whitsunday Islands before making landfall at Airlie Beach, and news.com.au went underwater to see the destruction first hand.

The once dazzlingly beautiful coral has been reduced to rubble by the cyclone, the diverse life that dived between its delicate fronds wiped out, with bloodied pieces of dead fish lying on the seabed.

Branches have snapped off and huge pieces of coral lifted up and thrown aside as Debbie raged through the reef.

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Wildlife

Butterflies are ‘failing to cope’ with climate change – UK

Butterflies are “failing to cope” with climate change and the pollution of the British countryside, experts have warned after a disastrous year saw population declines in 40 out of 57 species.

The UK Butterfly Monitoring Survey found it had been the fourth-worst year overall with six species – the heath fritillary, grizzled skipper, wall, grayling, white-letter hairstreak and white admiral – all suffering their most dramatic declines in the 41 years since records began.

Sixteen species saw increases with one remaining about the same, the annual survey found.

The survey has run since 1976 and involves thousands of volunteers collecting data through the summer. Last year a record 2,507 sites were monitored across the UK.

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