Monday, January 18, 2010


The Western Lowland Gorilla

In the wild, these primates are under siege. Forest loss is a twofold threat; it destroys gorilla habitat and brings hungry people who hunt gorillas for bushmeat. Farming, grazing, and expanding human settlements are also shrinking the lowland gorilla's space.

You'll noticed a common theme in my recent posts, i.e., the disappearance of the earth's species, animal and plant. Despite the nano second of human existence on the earth relative to biological time, most biologists believe we are responsible for what they call The Sixth Mass Extinction.

Daniel Simberloff, who is Professor of Environmental Studies and director of the Institute for Biological Invasions at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, says, "I'm actually certain that we're in the midst of a mass extinction. Geologically, there have been five periods in which upwards of 20 percent of the Earth's species, in one case maybe 90 percent of the Earth's species, went extinct, and there've been about 20 or so others in which anywhere from two to 10 percent of species have gone extinct. And certainly over the last few hundred years there are enough extinctions to qualify us in the second category. There's documentary evidence, in some cases, for this. And it's an ongoing process. It's not slowing down -- if anything, it appears to be accelerating. So I think it's quite possible that we'll eventually be in a situation that qualifies as one of the great mass extinctions."

The Golden Lion Tamarin

Despite their name, these rare primates have far more in common with their monkey relatives than any feline. These interesting and beautiful animals are critically endangered, as are many of the forests in which they live. Brazil's Atlantic coastal rain forests are disappearing due to ever-expanding logging, agriculture, and industry, and unfortunately, the golden lion tamarin is in danger of vanishing with them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Aral Sea Revisited

Bactrian Camels on the Frozen Tundra of Kazakhstan

I wrote about the tragedy of the Aral Sea in an earlier post. One of the blogs I follow has an amusing adventure about traveling to Aralsk. It's on Becca's Blog -- Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. It's a very interesting and funny post.

A Winnowing For Tomorrow`s World

an article by Norman Myers

We are into the opening phase of a mass extinction of species. That much is well understood. Hardly understood at all is what the mass extinction will do to the future course of evolution. But we are surely disrupting and impoverishing it in ways that promise to match the greatest set-back to life`s course during the past half billion years - and we are doing it in half a century. So while we are inducing an extinction spasm that threatens, if unchecked, to eliminate half or more of all species, we might consider the full scope of the biological debacle ahead.

Sheer loss of species will likely turn out to be less significant in the long run than our reduction of evolution`s capacity to generate new species. This ultimate upshot will persist, so far as we can gather from recovery periods following mass extinctions in the prehistoric past, for five million years at least, probably several times longer.

Five wild elephants lie on the jungle floor in Indonesia after they were found poisoned to death in 2006. Elephant poaching has increased dramatically in 2009.

It behoves us, then, to appraise the ultimate repercussions of the present mass extinction on basic evolutionary processes such as natural selection and speciation. We appear to be giving it ne`er a thought. No research centre in the world is engaged in a comprehensive and systematic effort to evaluate this key question.

Our Earth is subject to many other environmental assaults such as acid rain, soil erosion, decline of forests and spread of deserts. Fortunately, all these problems are inherently reversible, and they can be rectified within a matter of decades or centuries. Even ozone-layer depletion and global warming can eventually be corrected if we want it to be. Species extinction, by contrast, is final - for the lengthy time being at least. True, evolution will eventually come up with replacement species that will match today`s in numbers and diversity will require a recovery period extending for at least 200,000 human generations into the future - or 20 times more generations that have existed since humankind itself emerged as a species. More specifically, we are almost certainly determining there shall be no new forms of the great cats and apes, rhinos and panders and many other species known amongst biologists as charismatic megavertebrates.

To produce offspring species, they would have to maintain population totals, hence gene pools for natural selection to work on, many times larger than today`s remnant numbers. Zoo`s are no answer. Fine job as they increasingly do for threatened species, they will be geriatric wards at best.

From what we can discern from the geological record, the "bounce back" time following a mass extinction generally requires several million years. After the dinosaur crash 65 million years ago for instance, five to 10 million years elapsed before there were bats in the skies and whales in the sea.

In the wake of the species crash during the late Permian 245 million years ago, when marine invertebrates, being the most numerous categories of species, lost about half their families, it took 20 million years before the survivors cold establish even half as many families as were lost.

But the evolutionary outcome this time around could prove yet more drastic. The critical factor lies with the likely loss of strategic environments. We are set to lose most, if not virtually all, of the tropical forest biome. There is progressive depletion of tropical coral reefs, wetland, estuaries and other ecological zones with exceptional abundance and diversity of species and with unusual complexity of ecological workings. These environments have served in the past as pre-eminent "power-houses" of evolution, meaning they have thrown up more species than other environments.

Virtually every major group of vertebrates and many other large categories of animals and plants appear to have originated in spacious zones with warm equable climates, especially in tropical forest. In addition, tropical species seem to persist for only brief periods of geological time, which implies a high rate of evolution.

Furthermore, the species fall out will surely apply across most if not all, major categories of species. This is axiomatic as extensive environments are eliminated wholesale. So the result will contrast sharply with the "great dying" of the dinosaurs and associated species, when not only placental mammals survived, (leading to the adaptive radioation, eventually including the human species), but also birds, amphibians, and crocodiles and many other non-dinosaurian reptiles.

The impending upheaval in evolution`s course could rank as one of the greatest biological revolutions of palaeontological time. In scale and significance, it could match the development of aerobic respiration, the emergence of flowering plants and the arrival of limbed animals. But whereas these three departures in life`s history rank as advances, the prospective depletion of many evolutionary capacities will rank as a distinctive set back.

These, then, are some ultimate issues for us to bear in mind as we begin to impose a fundamental shift on evolutions course. The biggest factor by far is that, as we proceed on our impoverishing way, we scarcely pause to consider what we are doing. We are "deciding" without even the most superficial reflection - deciding all too unwittingly, but effectively and increasingly.

Norman Myers is an environmental scientist who has been called the Paul Revere of the environmental movement. He is a Fellow at Green College, Oxford University; the Andrew D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University; and an advisor at the World Bank's Global Environment Facility. He is at Berkeley as the Charles M. and Martha Hitchcock Professor. Professor Myers has won many awards, including the Volvo Environment Prize and the United Nations' Sasakawa Prize. He has published more than 250 papers in professional journals, 300 popular articles in newspapers and magazines, and 15 books with sales of one million copies in 11 languages. He is the originator of the biodiversity hot-spot strategy that has generated over $300 million for conservation activities.

Passenger Pigeon

Probably the most terrible example of mass slaughter in the history of wildlife was not the bison but the passenger pigeon - a story that almost defies belief. From Dead Trees EF

At one time, not that long ago, the Passenger Pigeon was probably the most abundant bird on the planet. Accounts of its numbers sound like something out of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," and strain our credulity today. Alexander Wilson, the father of scientific ornithology in America, estimated that one flock consisted of two billion birds. Wilson's rival, John James Audubon, watched a flock pass overhead for three days and estimated that at times more than 300 million pigeons flew by him each hour. Elongated nesting colonies several miles wide could reach a length of forty miles.

Market hunters prospered, devising a wide variety of techniques for slaughtering the pigeons and collecting their succulent squabs. Adults were baited with alcohol-soaked grain (which made them drunk and easy to catch), and suffocated by fires of grass or sulfur that were lit below their nests. To attract their brethren, captive pigeons, their eyes sewn shut, were set up as decoys on small perches called stools (which is the origin of the term stool pigeon for one who betrays colleagues). Squabs were knocked from nests with long poles, trees were chopped down or were set on fire to make the squabs jump from nests. Disruption of the colonies was so severe that wholesale nest abandonment was common and breeding success much reduced.

So successful were the market hunters that pigeons became cheap enough for use as live targets in shooting galleries. Laws intended to protect the pigeons did not help. In 1886 an editor's note in Forest and Stream said: When the birds appear all the male inhabitants of the neighborhood leave their customary occupations as farmers, bark-peelers, oil-scouts, wildcatters, and tavern loafers, and join in the work of capturing and marketing the game. The Pennsylvania law very plainly forbids the destruction of the pigeons on their nesting grounds, but no one pays any attention to the law, and the nesting birds have been killed by thousands and tens of thousands.

As railroads penetrated the upper Middle West after the Civil War, many millions of pigeons were shipped to cities along the Atlantic seaboard, since, by then, clearing of oak and beech forests and hunting had already exterminated the birds on the East Coast.

Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon came with stunning rapidity. Michigan was its last stronghold; about three million birds were shipped east from there by a single hunter in 1878. Eleven years later, 1889, the species was extinct in that state. Although small groups of pigeons were held in various places in captivity, efforts to maintain those flocks failed. The last known individual of the species, a female named Martha, died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo and is now on display in the U.S. National Museum of Natural History.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Charting the Losses -- of Species

Editorial by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of the New York Times editorial board.

Like everyone, I have been reading the graphs and looking at the numbers that measure the convulsions in the global financial markets. And as I do, I keep hearing the echo of another frightening set of numbers - the ones that gauge the precipitous declines in the species that surround us. The financial markets will eventually come back, but not the species we are squandering.

Last week in Barcelona, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released results of a global survey of mammal populations. It concluded that at least a quarter of mammal species are headed toward extinction in the near future.

Don't think of this as an across-the-board culling of mammals. The first ones to go will be the big ones. And among the big ones, the first to go will be primates. Nearly 80 percent of the primate species in southern Asia are immediately threatened.

The causes are almost all directly related to human activity, including, for marine mammals, the growing threat of ocean acidification, as the oceans absorb the carbon dioxide we emit.

The numbers are not much better for other categories of life. At least 22 percent of reptile species are at risk of extinction. Perhaps 40 percent of North American freshwater fish are threatened. In Europe, 45 percent of the most common bird species are rapidly declining in numbers, and so are the most common bird species in North America.

Similar losses are expected among plants. What is especially worrying is how much the rate of decline has increased over the past half-century as the human population has increased.

These numbers are shocking in their own right. But they don't begin to tell the whole story. These are projections for the most familiar, best studied, most easily counted plants and animals, which, all told, make up less than 4 percent of the species on Earth. It is only reasonable to assume that many, if not most, of the legions of uncounted species are doing as poorly.

What complicates matters further is a simple lesson we might also draw from the present financial crisis: Everything is connected. No species goes down on its own, not without affecting the larger biological community. We emerged, as a species, from the very biodiversity we are destroying. At times it seems as though the human experiment is to see how many species we can do without. As experiments go, it is morally untenable and will end badly for us.

The good news here is the same good news as always - the resilience of nature. Given even the slightest chance, declining species often find a way to recover. But the bad news is also the same bad news - human irresponsibility. In our myopic pursuits, we characteristically overlook the possibility of giving species the chance to recover.

We are watching a global, international effort to stabilize the financial markets. It will take a similar effort to begin to slow the rate at which species are declining. The bottom line is that what is good for biodiversity is also good for humanity.

This includes protecting habitat and finding ways to reduce human pressure on other species. It also includes a concerted effort to slow climate change, which, unchecked, could have a devastating impact on the entire planet.

What we need, really, is a new ability to think selfishly in a slightly different way.

Instead of saving the Sumatran orangutan or the Iberian lynx for itself, it may make more sense to think of saving them for ourselves - not as resources to be harvested somewhere down the road or even as repositories of genetic difference, but as essential elements in the biological complexity from which we arose and in which we thrive.

Without them, we are diminished.

Friday, January 8, 2010


William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, first saw pronghorn at the eastern edge of their range, near the mouth of the Niobrara River in today's Nebraska, on September 6, 1804. He wrote, "They are all keenly made, and is butifull." Meriwether Lewis was no less impressed. In mid-July at the Great Falls in Montana he wrote that, "they appear very inquisitive, usually to learn what we are as we pass, and frequently accompany us at no great distance for miles, frequently halting and giving a loud whistle through their nostrils. They are a very pretty animal, and astonishingly fleet and active."

Around 1850 there were still perhaps 40 to 50 million pronghorns in western North America, but by 1920 the population had dropped to around 13,000, owing to the expansion of farms and ranches. Today, as a result of intensive wildlife management policies and landowner cooperation, there are an estimated 450,000 pronghorns roaming parts of the Western plains. However, some sub-species remain endangered.

American Buffalo Two Hundred Years Ago

This senery already rich pleasing and beautiful was still farther hightened by immence herds of Buffaloe deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains. I do not think I exagerate when I estimate the number of Buffaloe which could be comprehended at one view to amount to 3,000.
An observation of Meriwether Lewis when his expedition was west of what is now Oacoma, South Dakota, on September 17, 1804.

At one time, some 70 million buffalo roamed the plains from Alaska to northern Mexico. In less than 80 years after Lewis and Clark's historic journey, the immense herds had been destroyed and only about 350 animals survived.

Buffalo Skulls, circa 1870

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Black-Tailed Jack Rabbit

This little fellow with the big, big ears is the Black-Tailed Jack Rabbit. Actually a hare, the speedy critter (it can move at 40 mph) is a resident of the Amon Basin, a major watershed of the upper Columbia. The Yakima and Columbia basins are the primary habitat within Washington for the Back-Tailed Jack and proposed development in the Amon Basin threatens this animal, along with beavers, otters, salmon, and other animal and plant species that depend on the shrub stepp and riparian aspect of the Amon Basin.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


More than 100,000 roamed from east of the Mississippi to the California coast in the time of Lewis and Clark. Today, about 1,000 remain in the Lower 48; one percent of former numbers in one to two percent of their former range. There are five isolated groups in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington. These small numbers, coupled with diminishing habitat, resulted in the bear's 1975 listing as "threatened" on the endangered species list.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

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