Dam Good Work

Returning wild beavers to their former habitats can help clean up polluted waterways and restore the natural environment for other wildlife, according to a new study by the University of Exeter.

The British scientists worked with the Devon Wildlife Trust to find that the toothy animals can remove large amounts of sediment, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus pollution created by agriculture, from the water that flows through the ponds they create with their dams.

All that material can create problems for wildlife and, without the beavers, needs to be removed at processing plants before the water can be used by humans.




Florida’s Coral Reefs Face Mysterious Disease

Around the world, coral reefs are facing trouble. Coral bleaching, due in part to rising ocean temperatures, has stressed reefs, leaving them weakened and susceptible to disease. Now, in Florida, scientists are struggling to combat a mysterious disease that’s threatening the future of the world’s third largest coral reef.

In just four years, the so-far unidentified disease has already had a dramatic impact on Florida’s reef tract, which extends some 360 miles down the state’s Atlantic coast.

When corals are affected by the disease, the tissue sloughs off the skeleton. Once a coral is infected, it usually kills the entire coral, sometimes within weeks.

It’s proved especially deadly for species of brain and star coral, which form the foundation for many reefs. In some areas now, almost all of those corals are dead.

Scientists believe ocean currents help spread the disease. Since it was first discovered, it’s moved north, affecting reefs all the way up to the St. Lucie inlet. It’s now moving south, through the Florida Keys.

A large number of researchers are working to tackle the disease on many fronts. Some are using DNA analysis to try to identify the pathogens involved. Others are looking for ways to stop the disease from spreading.

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War Extinctions

A new study shows armed conflicts in Africa’s Sahara and Sahel regions are resulting in a sharp decline of species such as the African elephant and dorcas gazelle.

The study, led by researchers at Portugal’s University of Porto, found that the proliferation of firearms, over-exploitation of natural resources and human intrusion into previously isolated areas have resulted in the extinction or near-extinction of 12 out of the 14 large animal species in the region.

The study also found that oil drilling has led to the progressive extinction of the addax, a type of antelope.

Rodent Free Island

The world’s most ambitious project to eradicate invasive species has left the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia free of rats and mice for probably the first time in nearly 250 years.

The rodents were inadvertently introduced by sealers and whalers who stopped there. The pests have since ravaged the British territory’s native species, especially birds that lay their eggs on the ground or in burrows.

But a $15 million project to poison or trap the rodents over the past decade has apparently eradicated every single one from the 100-mile-long island.

Sniffer dogs like this one were unable to detect any more rats on South Georgia Island.



Hawaii Bans Sunscreen to Protect its Corals

For years, we were told to apply sunscreen, and apply it liberally. Whether lying on the sand or snorkeling among the waves, slathering up seemed almost a moral obligation—the slimy, shiny price of enjoying the sun. The risks of skin cancer were absorbed into our psyches as deeply as we once absorbed UV rays—SPF 50 or go home. With the invention of waterproof sunscreen in 1977 and the rise of sun-safety awareness, the chemical-y smell of sunscreen became an unmissable feature of the beach vacation.

But since research now suggests that oxybenzone and octinoxate, which show up in almost all major sunscreens, are harmful to the marine ecosystem, we seem to have a moral dilemma on our sunscreen-coated hands: ruin your skin, or ruin the environment. In a 2015 study, oxybenzone and octinoxate were found to contribute to coral bleaching (the scourge that has more or less destroyed the Great Barrier Reef), slow new coral growth, and disrupt marine life. The study found the chemicals in especially high concentrations in popular tourist waters, especially in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In response, some resorts and tour companies have chosen to ban or educate against nonbiodegradable sunscreens, while the National Park Service recommends being “reef friendly” by choosing sunscreens made with natural mineral ingredients such as titanium oxide or zinc oxide.

Now Hawaii, seemingly unwilling to go down the same path as the Great Barrier Reef, has become the first state to ban the sale of sunscreen containing the coral-killing chemicals. The legislation, which still awaits the governor’s signature, won’t come into effect until 2021, giving sunscreen producers plenty of time to switch over to a safer formula. Hawaii’s ban leaves producers with two options: continue offering chemical sunscreens without oxybenzone and octinoxate or switch over to natural, mineral-based sunblocks.


Captive-bred lions killed on South African farm for bones

The killing of dozens of lions on a South African farm last week has led to increased scrutiny of the country’s policy allowing the annual export of 800 skeletons of captive-bred lions to meet demand in Asia for bones.

The SPCA animal protection group in Bloemfontein is preparing to file a formal complaint alleging abuse by the farm’s owner and foreman, said Reinet Meyer, a senior inspector for the group. She said a total of 54 lions were killed at the farm over two days.

Meyer also said she saw two lions that had been kept in transport crates for several days, and described the conditions in which the lions were kept as “totally unacceptable.”

The killing of captive-bred lions is not illegal in South Africa if permits are in order. Conservationists, however, say enforcement of regulations governing the lion bone trade is weak and that the legal market could threaten Africa’s wild lions by spurring demand for skeletons.

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Simian Revenge

A Sudanese farmer was rescued from a savage attack by a monkey, said to be the father of a young monkey the farmer killed years ago.

Khartoum’s SudaNow reports the Central Darfur farmer’s wife was able to beat the attacking primate to death as it was biting her husband’s thighs and legs.

The magazine reports monkeys once dug up seeds the farmer had planted until he chased them away about five years ago, killing the assaulting monkey’s offspring in the process.

Locals say they have witnessed monkeys stalking their enemies for decades after being wronged.

Elderly Arachnid

The world’s oldest known spider was killed at the age of 43 by a wasp attack in Western Australia.

Scientists at Curtin University said the trapdoor spider was the subject of a long-term study and outlived the previous record-holder by 15 years, mainly from living her entire life in one burrow.

“We’re really miserable about it,” lead researcher Leanda Mason told The Telegraph. “We were hoping she could have made it to 50 years old.”

Trapdoor spiders ambush small prey that have the misfortune of passing by their burrows.


Humpback Whales May Soon Fill Antarctic Seas

An unusually high number of female humpbacks living in the Southern Ocean around the Western Antarctic Peninsula have gotten pregnant in recent years, according to a study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. Researchers are hopeful that the population is recovering from years of commercial whaling that nearly wiped them out in the area in the 20th century.

Humpback whales usually give birth every couple of years and have pregnancies that last for around 11 months. Once the baby is born, the mother is very “protective” and “affectionate” toward its young.


Suicide Bombers

The first new species of “exploding ants” since 1935 has been discovered in the remote rainforests of Borneo, Thailand and Malaysia. The insects give their lives in selfless acts that produce a burst of toxic yellow goo to kill invaders.

“When threatened by other insects, minor workers can actively rupture their body wall,” said lead researcher Alice Laciny of Austria’s Natural History Museum. “Apart from leading to the ants’ imminent death, the ‘explosion’ releases a sticky, toxic liquid … to either kill or hold off the enemy.”

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EU to ban bee-killing pesticides

EU countries voted on Friday for a near-total ban on insecticides blamed for killing off bee populations, in what campaigners called a “beacon of hope” for the winged insects.

Bees help pollinate 90 percent of the world’s major crops, but in recent years have been dying off from “colony collapse disorder,” a mysterious scourge blamed on mites, pesticides, virus, fungus, or a combination of these factors.

The 28 European Union member states approved a ban on three neonicotinoid pesticides after the European food safety agency said in February that must uses of the chemicals posed a risk to honey bees and wild bees.

Dolphins Compete for Fish

Damage to fishing nets caused by dolphins is increasing across the Mediterranean as overfishing forces the marine mammals to compete more with humans for seafood.

Damage to the typically small-scale fishing businesses are now costing thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars per year, according to University of Exeter researchers.

Acoustic “pingers” used in an attempt to deter dolphins haven’t worked, and may have acted as “dinner bells” that actually attracted the ocean animals in some cases, the researchers found.


Climate change leaves birds hungry

Warmer springs due to climate change are leaving chicks in UK woodlands hungry, according to new research.

As springs get warmer earlier, caterpillar numbers spike too soon meaning by the time many birds’ eggs have hatched later in the season, there is not enough food to go around.

The study adds to mounting evidence that the changing climate is playing havoc with the seasons and causing problems for animals and plants whose actions are calibrated to annual rhythms.

“With spring coming earlier due to climate change, leaves and caterpillars emerge earlier and birds need to breed earlier to avoid being mismatched. We found that the earlier the spring, the less able birds are to do this.”

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Hundreds of Purple Octopus Moms Cling to Undersea Volcano

Miles beneath the ocean’s surface, in the darkened waters along a rocky seafloor, along the Dorado Outcrop, located about 155 miles (250 kilometers) west of Costa Rica at a depth of 9,842 feet (3,000 meters), a submersible vehicle unexpectedly encountered a bizarre spectacle: hundreds of small, purple octopuses, many of them mothers protecting clusters of eggs, clinging to the hardened lava from an undersea volcano.

The octopuses, which sport enormous eyes in comparison to their dinner plate-size bodies, were identified as a new species in the genus Muuscoctopus. During the dives, the researchers collected data on water temperature flowing from the volcano and evaluated the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. They also observed 606 octopuses.

But what were so many octopuses doing in that location? It’s highly unlikely that they were drawn to the area because it was a desirable place to lay eggs, the scientists said. Though prior research has shown that elevated water temperatures can speed up egg development, the heat also increases octopuses’ metabolic rate, which makes them need more oxygen. And the water seeping from cracks in the rocky outcrop carried just half as much oxygen as the water in the surrounding areas.

Whatever the reason, the octopus nursery seems doomed. The embryos were not developing due to lack of oxygen and many of the mothers were already dying.

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Winged Tragedy

Wildlife experts in Idaho Falls, Idaho, say a gaggle of more than 100 geese found dead in a parking lot and on nearby rooftops were brought down by lightning in a “freak accident.”

A violent hailstorm was in progress just before the migrating snow geese fell from the sky.

But since the dead birds had exploded internal organs, Idaho Department of Fish and Game officer Jacob Berl said it’s proof lightning caused their demise.

“Mother nature is sometimes cruel to the wildlife kingdom,” said colleague James Brower. “We worry about accidents with cars and trucks — sometimes animals are affected just by the weather.”

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Zombie Raccoons

Seemingly crazed raccoons standing on their hind legs have terrorized a city in Ohio. Dozens of people have called the police in Youngstown to report the normally nocturnal animals standing up in broad daylight, baring their teeth then falling over in what was described as a comatose state.

Wildlife biologists say the weird behavior could be caused by distemper, which isn’t a threat to humans.

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Sperm Whale Dies from Plastic Trash

A young male sperm whale washed up dead on the southeastern coast of Spain in February, and now scientists know what killed the animal.

During a recent necropsy, investigators discovered nearly 65 lbs. (29 kilograms) of plastic trash crammed into the dead whale’s stomach and intestines, including dozens of plastic bags, chunks of mangled rope and glass, a large water container and several “sacks of raffia [a fiber derived from palm trees].

The 33-foot-long (10 meters) whale was found dead on the beach at Cabo de Palos, near Murcia, Spain, on Feb. 27. Researchers at El Valle Wildlife Recovery Center performed the autopsy and determined that the whale likely died from a form of abdominal infection. The whale simply could not expel the vast amount of plastic it swallowed, the researchers said, causing the mammal’s digestive system to become lethally impacted or infected.

This news provides another vivid example of the staggering amount of plastic waste humans are dumping into the world’s oceans.

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Race for Mexico’s ‘cocaine of the sea’ pushes 2 species toward extinction

The lucrative black market for totoaba swim bladders — prized in Chinese traditional medicine for their purported healing and beautifying properties — have turned the Gulf of California into a battleground, criss-crossed by armed poachers, Mexican navy vessels and environmental activists patrolling with pirate flags.

The casualties of this war include not only the critically endangered totoaba, but also the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita marina — of which just 30 remain, according to scientists — and local fishermen caught in the middle.

Mexican authorities say the vaquita has been virtually wiped out by totoaba fishing, because it gets stuck in the same kind of net.

Authorities say poachers filet the totoaba at sea, stash the swim bladders in hidden compartments and toss the bodies back into the water. Then they ship their haul in small quantities — the same strategy used by drug cartels.

In the faraway city of Guangzhou, in a shop on a busy street, a soft-spoken saleswoman shows an undercover AFP reporter her collection of dried totoaba swim bladders, fetched from a store room upstairs and carefully laid out on a wooden table. The prices range from 20,000 yuan ($3,160) to 130,000 yuan ($20,500).



Evolving Immunity

Several species nearly sent into extinction by a killer chytrid fungus appear to have evolved with resistance to the pathogen. Their populations in Panama alone have now rebounded to previous levels.

A hybrid strain of the fungus has been responsible for numerous die-offs of amphibians worldwide since the 1980s. It’s believed to have emerged because of the global trade in amphibians.

While not all species have evolved quickly enough to survive, the deep croaks of frogs and toads are returning to some of the once-quiet streams in Panama, according to researchers from the University of Pittsburgh.

But they caution that the amphibians are still infected with the fungus; they are just better able to limit its growth and damage.

Japanese Whaling Season Ends

Japan’s whaling fleet returned home after slaughtering 333 of the marine mammals since November.

The fleet of five ships operated this season without interference from anti-whaling groups for the first time in seven years, allowing the hunt for minke whales to proceed without disruption or confrontation.

The most aggressive of the campaigners, Sea Shepherd, announced last year it was taking a break from its efforts to thwart Japan’s whaling by clashing with the fleet in the Southern Ocean.