For the Conservation Curious

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Goods News / Bad News for Species December 23, 2016

Although it’s the holiday season and I should write about cute puppy dogs with bows and ribbons, there were two stories I saw in the last week that I am compelled to write about. One is rather dreary, the other gives me a bit of hope. Since you’re supposed to tell someone two nice things before you break the bad news, I’ll start with the positive story…

Many news outlets discussed the discovery of many new species in the Greater Mekong Area of China. These included a frog that sings like a bird, a blind fish, a walking catfish, and 123 others. So to me, the fact that in 2016 we are still discovering new species is amazing, especially those on land. I’m sure there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of new species in the deep sea… but those will be much more difficult to find and catalogue. There are most likely myriad insect species that we don’t know about too, but again, their small size makes them more elusive. The world is still ripe for discovery.

And yet, Nick Cox, manager of the World Wildlife Fund’s Greater Mekong Species Program said, “The good news is new discoveries. The bad news is that it is getting harder and harder in the world of conservation and environmental sustainability.” Just as these species are discovered, they are under threat. That is downer statement number one.

Number two is that scientists are warning that the species extinction crisis is far worse than previously thought. CNN has a great interactive story (videos, charts, etc.) about it here. They discuss the five causes that are speeding up the process: climate change, agriculture, wildlife crime (i.e. poaching), pollution, and disease. That’s a lot to keep you up at night if you care about animals.

However, they offer solutions to help us slow the crisis. And I’d like to offer a thought or two as well.

  • People have the capacity to do great harm to the planet, but we have as equally great a capacity to help and heal the earth.
  • By recognizing the problems, we can develop solutions for them.
  • Iconic species like the rhino and elephant, and even the giraffe, which scientists say are in a downward population spiral, grab people’s attention and pull on their heart strings. By protecting them, we protect other less charismatic species too.
  • No matter how gloomy the news has been this year, and it has indeed been downright apocalyptic at times, we have to keep faith that things change… sometimes at a glacial pace… but they do change. I’ll hope for the best.

(Photo collage from The Telescope)


Don’t Cross the Extinction Threshold August 7, 2014

Over the past few weeks I have read articles about some species on the brink of extinction, their numbers dwindling in the low thousands or even hundreds. At what point does a species have no chance of recovery? Does it vary depending on whether the species is a mammal, bird, plant or otherwise? I thought I’d look into those questions and discuss what I’ll call the “extinction threshold” – the point of no return for a species.

Small populations of any species are generally at a much greater risk of extinction than large populations for several reasons. With fewer individuals there is a greater chance of inbreeding and the issues that creates. Small populations feel random variations in birth and death rates much more significantly than a large population would. And environmental fluctuations like predation, disease, and natural disasters take a much greater toll on small populations than large ones. Imagine if one wolf died out of a population of 100, that’s 10 percent. In a population of 1,000 wolves, however, that’s only 0.1 percent. Quite a difference! It’s like a slippery slope… once a species starts to decline those factors weigh more and more heavily on the population, leading to even greater declines.

So is there hope for a species that is sliding quickly down the slope towards extinction? Shaffer (1981) coined the term “minimum viable population” (MVP) to refer to the “smallest isolated population (of a given species in a given habitat) having a 99 percent chance of remaining in existence for 1,000 years. Populations smaller than the MVP are at significant risk of sliding down the slope to extinction. It can be difficult to determine where that MVP line is… and that is far too technical to get into here… but just know that it exists.

What really matters in terms of the long-term viability of small populations is their ability to disburse. If individuals from a small population can leave their habitat and find a new population of the same species to breed with, then there may be a chance for survival. This immigration brings more genetic diversity to both populations. However, given how habitats are fragmented by roads, transmission lines, housing developments and other man-made structures, many small populations don’t have the luxury of moving to find new mates.

Back to my question about “does it depend on whether a species is a mammal, plant, etc.”, well it depends. It depends on where that species is located, more than anything. But a bird would more easily be able to fly to a new habitat than a small rodent could crawl to one, and a lizard can get up and go far more easily than a plant (obviously plants can’t move, but they can spread their pollen and seeds, thus spreading their genetics on the wind or water). The more easily a species can get around in general, the greater are its chances in beating the “extinction threshold.”
Then there is the species’ charisma factor. Think about a cute, fluffy pike (a small, bunny-like create of alpine habitats) versus a poisonous snake. If you could only protect one of them from going extinct, which one would you choose. A majority, I will guess, would choose the pika, even though they will probably never see one in real life. Why is that? Because it is cuddly and charismatic. So if a species is attractive people may be more likely to try and help it survive, which would keep it above the “extinction threshold,” at least for a little while longer.


Mighty Mammals February 28, 2014

Over the past week or so I have watched a fascinating BBC documentary series called “The Life of Mammals,” thanks to my Netflix subscription. I was a zoology major in college so I like to think that I know a lot about the world’s animals… and maybe I do, compared to the average person on the street. But this series has shown me that there are so many weird and wonderful mammals out there that I couldn’t possibly know them all. From the cute numbat in Australia that looks like a striped squirrel with one of the longest tongues I’ve ever seen, to the wide variety of antelope on the African savannahs, the world’s mammals are amazing.

So I thought I would highlight a few of the interesting Pennsylvania mammal species here. While they may not be as unique as the egg laying echidna or duck-billed platypus, they have their own special features that make them just as important.

Water shrew – The BBC show actually featured this tiny creature in the episode on insect eaters. What makes the water shrew so interesting are its fur and feet. The fur is so densely packed that it is water-proof. That’s good because the water shrew hunts for insect prey underwater. When the water shrew dives air bubbles are trapped in its fur, helping it stay buoyant. As soon as it leaves the water all it takes are a few shakes to get the water out of its fur. The feet are partially webbed and have special hairs on the ankles, aiding the water shrew in swimming. Talk about an animal perfectly adapted for its lifestyle!

Porcupine – Everyone knows that porcupines have “needles” that can hurt you if you get to close to them, but did you know that those quills are modified hairs? And porcupines cannot shoot those quills at you… you must touch them in order for them to come loose. A porcupine can have over 30,000 of them! The name “porcupine” is Latin for “quill pig” – quite an apt name. Porcupines have an appetite for wood, usually, but have been known to eat plastic and metal too. Our state park and forest staff have had to replace many signs and structures across the state thanks to porcupine damage!

Flying squirrels – Did you know that Pennsylvania is home to not one but two flying squirrel species? We have both Northern and Southern flying squirrels. Where their territories overlap, the more aggressive southern one may bully the northern one and steal their home. How rude! Flying squirrels can’t actually fly, but they use the large flap of skin between their front and hind legs as a sort of hang-glider, launching them from trees for as far as 150 feet. Few people see flying squirrels as they are small and nocturnal, but I was lucky enough to see one on a dying sugar maple in my parents’ front yard many years ago. Perhaps it was nesting inside the rotting tree? It was a sight of a lifetime, that’s for sure!

my flying squirrel
Drawing by Jessica Sprajcar

Pennsylvania is home to just over 60 species of mammals, although many of those are very rare or uncommon. And did you know that Pennsylvania was once home to wolverines, badgers, lynx, mountain lions, wolves, moose and bison? Unfortunately all those mammals are now extirpated from the state, but perhaps one day we will see them again? Deer, beaver and river otters are all mammal reintroduction success stories to gain hope from.


Zoos: Good, Bad or In Between? December 12, 2013

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 1:10 PM
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On CBS News this morning I watched a brief story about the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington, D.C. Multiple staffers had voiced complaints that animals were being overcrowded, leading to fights and health problems among the cheetahs, antelope and other species of special concern.

I have to been to this zoo numerous times over my lifetime and generally thought it was pretty nice (aside from all the invasive bamboo everywhere). As someone who volunteered at the Pittsburgh Zoo as a teen, and a frequent visitor to zoos and aquaria across the country, generally I am very supportive of zoos. The AZA accredited ones are helping to keep species in existence through breeding programs and releases into the wild. They educate the public about these magnificent creatures and build appreciation that will last a lifetime, hopefully.

However, as the CBS News story brings to light, there can be dark sides to zoos, at times. I can recall the days when animals were in cement-bottomed cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo. That was only 30 years ago. And there are non-accredited zoos out there that still use such horrible, unrealistic “habitats” for their animals (the bear and lion cages at Lake Tobias Wildlife Park come to mind). When animals are not given enough room to thrive, I do have an issue with that.
Many people question the motive of putting animals on display for our entertainment. They think that any zoo runs on exploitation. While I look at most zoos as educational, not everyone does. Is it better to let a species go extinct, rather than try to keep the species alive, even if only in captivity? Where do we draw the line?

I think part of the problem with the National Zoo’s situation is that it is free to go there. They rely solely on donations (and probably an endowment) to operate. That has to be difficult when you consider how many animals they have to feed and care for. Zoo staff are not paid all that well, but it still adds up. The senior staff is not made up of zoologists, I am guessing, so they are disconnected from what is best for the animals. They are tasked with making sure the zoo makes ends meet and continues to attract visitors day after day. So bringing in a few more cheetahs, and adding in a handful of new species without expanding the size of the zoo, seemed to make sense to their bottom-line view. But we’re talking about living creatures here, so that’s no way to run such a business.

CBS News said the zoo recognizes that they have issues, and have hired a new biologist to deal with some of the health issues and other problems. That’s one small step on what will hopefully be a wholesale review of their day to day operations. I will continue to go to zoos because I may never get to see a lion on the savannahs of Africa. But I will pay closer attention to the conditions of the animals and their habitats and won’t hesitate to complain if I see something untoward. You should do the same!


New Year’s Resolutions for the Environment January 3, 2011

One of my new year’s resolutions is to blog more often, but I suspect that just about every blogger out there promises to do the same. I got my stats from WordPress for 2010 – over 1,100 views. Not too shabby for someone who writes 1-2 times a month if lucky, but I’m sure I can do better than that. Posting once a week might be a pipe dream, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

New year’s resolutions are always easy to keep initially; much harder to do so long term.  But some resolutions are so important that every effort should be made to make sure they come true.  If the environment could make a few resolutions for 2011, what would they be?  Taking some liberties and pretending to be Mother Earth for a few moments, here are the top five new year’s resolutions for the environment this year:

5.) Let Fall stick around a little longer; none of this jumping from Summer straight to Winter!

4.) Send out an insect plague to devour all the Japanese knotweed and Kudzu in the U.S.

3.) Put out some extra wind near turbines to keep that alternative energy flowing.

2.) Improve rainforest habitat so that a few species can come back from the brink of extinction.

1.) Show more clear-cut signs that the climate is indeed warming so that deniers have nothing to say.

The environment, unfortunately, cannot speak for itself and cannot purposefully make any of these resolutions come true.  But hopefully through the actions of concerned and curious conservationists, some of these objectives can be reached.


Threatened, Endangered, Extinct: What Does it all Mean?! July 30, 2010

There is a lot of scientific terminology out there; how can anyone know what it all means? I work in the conservation field and sometimes even I am not 100 percent sure what all the terms means in relation to the commonness or rarity of a species, so I will try to give a brief summary here… 

When talking about threatened, endangered and extinct species, it helps to know whether you are discussing it from the state, federal or international perspective, because each may have slightly different definitions and regulations.  In terms of the U.S. federal government, some species fall under the Endangered Species Act.  Richard Nixon created this Act in 1973 to protect “imperiled” species from extinction caused by human development and economic growth.  The term “imperiled” is more commonly referred to as “endangered” and it signifies a species that could become extinct – i.e. completely die out on the planet.  

Once a species is put on the federal list it doesn’t mean that it will stay on there forever.  A conservationist’s ultimate goal might be to restore a species and its habitat to such an extent that the species is no longer endangered or threatened.  When that occurs the species is de-listed and loses some of the protections afforded to it by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The bald eagle and gray wolf are examples of animals that were once on the brink of extinction, but thanks to conservation efforts, bans on hunting and pesticide laws, are now rebounding enough.  Species can also be “downlisted,” meaning that the threats against them have lessened, so they go from a status of endangered to threatened. 

While every state must obey the federal rules that apply to animals under the ESA states can also have their own versions of ESAs that cover other plants and animals.  California, for example, has their own ESA – the most comprehensive of all state acts (it’s modeled after the federal act).  Any threatened or endangered species in the state is protected under those regulations.  Their Department of Fish and Game works with developers, land owners and others to try to lessen the negative impacts of shopping mall, housing development, road construction, etc. on the listed species.  

My home state of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, does not have its own ESA.  There are “jurisdictional agencies,” however, that can create their own regulations protecting threatened and endangered species from harm.  The Pa. Fish and Boat Commission, as an example, has a list of protected reptiles, amphibians and fish – if the Commission catches someone hunting, trapping or otherwise harming these species they will be fined and/or put in jail.  The same goes for mammals and birds.  Unfortunately there is no state list of protected plants and insects in Pa.  If a developer wanted to build an industrial park on a field of endangered sedge, they could do so with no penalty or required mitigation.  State agencies still try to work with the developer to prevent this from happening but there are no legal “teeth” to it – it can only be a suggestion, not a requirement. 

Extinction is forever; you might have heard that phrase before.  While the statement is generally true, sometimes you hear of a supposedly extinct species, but then a few individuals are found, out of the blue.  The indri, a large lemur on the island of Madagascar, is one such species, as is the ivory-billed woodpecker, which some people claim to have seen in recent years in Arkansas.   I like to hope that there are enough pockets of good habitat in the world, away from the hands of man, where these so-called extinct species can continue to live on.  Sadly some species are truly extinct… the dodo bird and passenger pigeon are two well-known examples.  We can’t get those creatures back unless cloning on a Jurassic Park scale ever takes place. 

When you hear the word “extinct,” it typically applies on a global scale, but some species are locally-extinct (meaning that they have disappeared in a given area but more may survive elsewhere).  This is also referred to as “extirpation.”  Then there are the species that are “extinct in the wild,” meaning that the only remaining individuals of a species are in captivity, like the Hawaiian crow, Scimitar Oryx and Barbary lion.  Zoos may do captive breeding to increase the population with the hope of releasing some back into the wild, but that won’t be possible for every species.  Some have no habitat to go back to, like the red-tailed black shark.  This small freshwater fish, common in the aquarium trade (I had 2 growing up!), is extinct in the wild.  Dams on rivers in Thailand are the main blame for the species’ extinction, and unless someone removes the dams, there is little change the fish could ever be reintroduced.  

When you get down to it, this terminology encompasses the breadth of species out there, our impacts (both positive and negative) on them, and the need to conserve what we can.  For as John Muir, one of the fathers of the conservation movement, once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  If we lose an endangered species to extinction, it may affect many other species as well.