Aug 26

Leopards in Africa’s jungles are becoming increasingly threatened by the demand for bushmeat, according to a new study.

However, these big cats are not usually themselves the target, with hunters instead taking the leopard’s prey species, such as forest antelope.

Photo of African leopard walking

African leopard walking

Bushmeat hunting threat

According to the study in the Journal of Zoology, humans in the Congo basin rely heavily on bushmeat for food, and trade between one and five million tons of wild meat annually.

Such intensive hunting is likely to have a negative effect on the leopard population in the region, even where it is not targeting the leopard directly.

To determine the impact of bushmeat hunting on leopards, the researchers used camera traps to identify leopards living in Ivindo and Lope National Parks in Gabon, as well as studying their scats to find out what they ate.

The team found that in regions where hunting pressure was highest, leopards were increasingly forced to switch their diet to feed on smaller prey.

Philipp Henschel, lead author of the study and an expert on forest leopards for the big cat conservation organisation Panthera, said that, “While leopards can hang on in forests with moderate levels of hunting, they are forced to switch their diets to smaller, less preferred prey species and they cannot reach their normal densities.

The study revealed that, predictably, hunting intensity increased close to human settlement, while the abundance of potential leopard prey species decreased. The researchers also found that bushmeat hunting can push leopards out of an area completely.

Photo of African leopard suckling cubs

African leopard suckling cubs

‘Empty Forest’

At one particular site – where there was plenty of primary, unfragmented forest that was ideal for leopards to thrive in – the researchers found the forest to be totally devoid of any sign of leopards.

The president of Panthera, Luke Hunter, who co-authored the paper, used the team’s findings to highlight what is known as the ‘Empty Forest Phenomenon’.

You can have intact, old growth forest that looks basically pristine but is so heavily hunted that there are few large mammals—and no top carnivores at all. It clearly demonstrates the necessity of strictly protected forests where absolutely no bushmeat exploitation occurs,” he said.

The authors of the paper believe that the evidence they present in the paper for the impacts of bushmeat hunting on leopards is also likely to be relevant to other big cats in Africa, as well as species found in Asia and South America.

Overhunting of prey is undoubtedly a factor affecting the viability of tiger populations, and it is also likely a key factor in the ability of jaguars to persist in human-modified landscapes and move between them,” continues Hunter.

Photo of African leopard pair

African leopard pair

According to the scientists, conserving leopards in the Congo Basin will rely on effective protected areas and alternative land management strategies that promote regulated human hunting of leopard prey.

The Congo Basin is one of the most important strongholds for leopards remaining in Africa; it is essential that we find ways to address the massive trade in bushmeat if we want to keep it that way,” says Hunter.

Find out more about the leopard on ARKive

Read the full story by Mongabey

Read the paper in the Journal of Zoology

Visit the Panthera website

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

Aug 24

Earth is home to as many as 8.7 million species, according to a new estimate described as being the most accurate to date. However, the vast majority of species have not yet been identified, and cataloguing them all could take over 1,000 years.

Photo of Carabus olympiae

Insects make up the vast majority of animal species, with beetles making up nearly half of this group.

Calculating species numbers

Scientists have been attempting to count and catalogue species for over 250 years, ever since the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus devised a taxonomy system – a way of classifying organisms – that is still used today.

In Linnaeus’ system, species are grouped into a hierarchical “tree of life”, in which closely related species are classified in the same genus, these in turn being grouped into families, then orders, then classes, then phyla, and finally into kingdoms, which include the animal, plant and fungi kingdoms.

However, accurately calculating the total number of species on Earth has always been difficult, with current estimates ranging from 3 million to 100 million.

In the new study, published in the journal PLoS Biology, researchers looked at the relationships between species and the broader taxonomic groups to which they belong, focusing on the rates of new discoveries at different levels in this taxonomic ‘tree’. From this, they were able to use predictable patterns to estimate the total number of species in each taxonomic group.

Photo of kipunji climbing

The kipunji, discovered in 2003. Although mammals are one of the best known animal groups, new discoveries are still being made.

Vast majority of species unknown

The technique was found to accurately predict the number of species in well-known groups, such as mammals, birds and fish. It was then applied to all domains of life, and predicted a total of around 8.7 million species, give or take about a million.

Of these 8.7 million, around three quarters live on land, with only a quarter (about 2.2 million) in the oceans, even though water covers most of the Earth’s surface.

Most species (about 7.8 million) belong to the animal kingdom, with progressively smaller numbers of fungi, plants, protozoa (a group of single-celled organisms) and ‘chromists’ (algae and related microorganisms). The figures did not include the many thousands of species of bacteria.

Photo of frilled shark swimming

The frilled shark, a little-known, deep-sea shark species. The vast majority of deep ocean species are yet to be discovered.

However, the results also suggest that a staggering 86% of terrestrial species and 91% of ocean species are as yet undiscovered, underlining just how little we still know about the natural world.

When we think of species we tend to think of mammals or birds, which are pretty well known. But when you go to a tropical rainforest, it’s easy to find new insects, and when you go to the deep sea and pull up a trawl, 90% of what you get can be undiscovered species,” said Dr Derek Tittensor, one of the researchers.

Unknown species becoming extinct

At the current rate at which new species are discovered, the researchers estimated that it would take over 1,000 years to completely catalogue all life on Earth. However, new techniques – for example, DNA ‘bar-coding’, in which species are identified from their DNA – may speed up the process.

The team also said that they know this is unlikely to be a final estimate, and expect others to refine their methods and conclusions in the future. In addition, they warned that many species are likely to become extinct before they are even known.

Photo of fly agarics

Fruiting bodies of the fly agaric. Fungi are the second most diverse kingdom after animals, but only 7% of fungi species have been described.

Speaking about the paper, Professor Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation programmes for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), said, “I think it’s definitely a creative and innovative approach, but like every other method there are potential biases and I think it’s probably a conservative figure.”

But it’s such a high figure that it wouldn’t really matter if it’s out by one or two million either way. It is really picking up this point that we know very little about the species with which we share the planet; and we are converting the Earth’s natural landscapes so quickly, with total ignorance of our impact on the life in them.”

Photo of flock of scarlet macaws in flight with red and green macaws

Macaws in flight over rainforest. Rainforests are some of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet.

Another of the researchers, Dr Camilo Mora, said, “We know we are losing species because of human activity, but we can’t really appreciate the magnitude of species lost until we know what species are there.

With the clock of extinction now ticking faster for many species, I believe speeding the inventory of Earth’s species merits high scientific and societal priority. Renewed interest in further exploration and taxonomy could allow us to fully answer this most basic question: What lives on Earth?

Read the original article in PLoS Biology – How many species are there on Earth and in the Ocean?

Read more on this story on the BBC and Guardian websites.

View photos and videos of endangered species on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

Aug 23

Is the Iberian lynx doomed by its genetics? Probably not, at least according to new research published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

Photo of Iberian lynx resting

Iberian lynx resting. Only 250 of these beautiful cats remain in the wild.

One of the world’s most critically endangered cats

Only around 250 Iberian lynx are thought to exist in the wild, making this charismatic feline one of the world’s most critically endangered cats. However, despite the long-held belief that this species may be ‘doomed’ by its tiny population size, a new study suggests otherwise.

When a species has a very small population size, it puts it at risk of having low genetic diversity. Genetic diversity refers to the total variety of genes within a particular species, and the genes affect how the species looks and behaves. Species with greater genetic diversity usually have a better chance of long-term survival, as the variation within the species means that they are able to better adapt to changing environments.

Very small populations mean that individuals have less choice with whom they are able to breed. This often leads to inbreeding, which occurs when closely related individuals mate. An inbred population usually has less genetic variability and this is generally disadvantageous for its long-term survival and success.

Photo of Iberian lynx

The Iberian lynx is the world's most threatened species of cat.

50,000 years of genetic uniformity

In the case of the Iberian lynx, new research suggests that this species has actually had very little genetic diversity for the last 50,000 years, and that this has not hampered its long-term survival.

Looking at several different lynx, a team from Spain, the UK and Sweden studied the most variable region of the lynx genome, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). As expected, there was very little genetic variation between individuals.

However, the surprise came when they compared the mtDNA of today’s lynx to the mtDNA of lynx fossils from the last 50,000 years.

Remarkably, the results showed that there has been hardly any variation in the genetic make-up of the Iberian lynx for thousands of years.

Professor Mark Thomas, an author of the paper from University College London, said, “This is the first species, as far as I am aware, where such low diversity has been seen recently and over such a long period of time.”

Usually, species that have very low genetic diversity today are found to have had quite high genetic diversity thousands of years ago. Such species have usually gone through what is known as a ‘genetic bottleneck’, where an event at some point in their evolutionary history caused most of the genetic diversity within the species to be wiped out.

Professor Thomas believes that the Iberian lynx is different, and that its consistently low genetic diversity over the past 50,000 years suggests that it has always had a small population size.

The team carrying out the study are not sure exactly how the Iberian lynx has survived with such a small population size and low genetic diversity for thousands of years, while so many other animals have not.

Photo of Iberian lynx with prey

Iberian lynx with its main prey, the rabbit. Numbers of rabbits have declined throughout the lynx’s range in Spain since the 1950s.

Hope for the Iberian lynx

Nonetheless, such findings will give hope to conservationists who are working to save the Iberian lynx.

Dr Cristina Valdiosera, from the University of Copenhagen, added that the new research on the Iberian lynx suggests that a lack of genetic diversity in an endangered species should not hamper conservation efforts.

She said, “It’s a myth that certain species are doomed by their genetics.”

If a species is doomed, it is only doomed by a lack of will to conserve it.”

Although conservationists are hopeful that the Iberian lynx isn’t doomed by virtue of its small population and low genetic diversity, this species remains under threat.

The lynx is highly dependent on rabbits for its main food source, but the number of rabbits in its range has dramatically declined over the last few decades. Habitat destruction, human development and overhunting have also had notable impacts on the tiny remaining populations of this beautiful wild cat.

Find out more about the Iberian lynx on ARKive.

Read the full BBC article ‘Iberian lynx ‘not doomed’ by low genetic diversity’.

Read the paper in Molecular Ecology.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

Aug 23

With over 40 species of felid on ARKive, it was no easy task to whittle the list down to a purr-fect top ten.  But I lapped up the challenge and have highlighted the paws-able species out there. If there are any felids you think should have been honoured on the list and it is a catastrophe that they are not featured, do let us know!

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

Photo of cheetah mid-sprint

Straight out of the starting blocks, the record breaking cheetah. Renowned for being the fastest land mammal, the cheetah can reach speeds of up to 87 kilometres an hour, beating the fastest human over 100 metres by a whopping 3 seconds. Unlike other cats, the cheetah’s claws are not retractable, helping it to grip the ground in high speed chases.

Pallas’s cat  (Otocolobus manul)

Photo of a Pallas's cat climbing over rocks

Its dense fur coat gives Palla’s cat a distinctly endearing appearance. It has got a practical purpose though, as Palla’s cat is found in cold, frosty uplands. Unlike other small cats, the pupils in the large eyes of Pallas’s cat contract to small circles rather than slits.

Sand cat  (Felis margarita)

Sand cat photo

A favourite in the ARKive office, the sand cat is expertly adapted to the desert. With footpads covered in thick hair, they can move comfortably over scorching sand, and they don’t need water sources, getting all the water they need from their food. But the real reason we love the sand cat? They’re just so darn cute 

Fishing cat  (Prionailurus viverrinus)

Photo of young fishing cats fishing at water's edge

Ever seen a cat that likes to swim? Not all felids are as hydrophobic as you’d think. The fishing cat, as the name suggests, frequently gets wet to prey on fish, diving to hunt or just scooping them out. We’ve some fantastic footage of this on ARKive so check it out!

Caracal  (Caracal caracal)

Caracal cub photo

The caracal gets its name from the Turkish “karakulak”, meaning black-eared, and it’s easy to see why. The distinctive tufts at the end of the ears are thought to aid in communication between individuals. Showing tremendous bursts of speeds, the caracal is also a formidable predator, shown superbly in this infrared footage.

Wildcat  (Felis silvestris)

Photo of a European wildcat hunting edible frog

The wild ancestor of the domestic cat, the wildcat is very similar in appearance to the common moggy. Close to our own hearts here in the ARKive office, it is the only native cat species to the UK. Found in Europe, Africa and Asia, the wildcat currently has the largest range of any wild felid.

Clouded leopard  (Neofelis nebulosa)

Clouded leopard photo

The clouded leopard is an absolutely stunning animal. Named after the “cloud” patterns on its coat, the clouded leopard has a lengthy tail equivalent to it’s body length, providing essential balance for its impressive tree climbing abilities – it’s been seen running head first down tree trunks and hanging upside down by its hind legs. A true arboreal acrobat!

Tiger  (Panthera tigris)

 Photo of a Bengal tiger in forest

A solitary species with fantastically effective camouflage, you’d be extremely lucky to spot one of these striped cats in the wild. The tiger is an endangered species, and with three out of nine subspecies becoming extinct in the 20th century, it’s imperative to resolve human conflicts with this fearsome predator and conserve the remaining subspecies.

Jaguarundi  (Puma yagouaroundi)

Jaguarundi photo

The Jaguarundi is possibly the strangest looking cat species, looking more like a weasel than a felid. But it’s not just its appearance that makes this unusual felid the odd one out. They have unusually large ranges for a cat, and are mostly active in the day, making them easier to spot. They’ll eat any small animals they can catch, and have even been known to swat birds from the air!

Lion  (Panthera leo)

Photo of an African lion rolling in dirt

And finally, no top ten cat list would be complete without the king of them all, the majestic lion. One of the largest cats, the lion uses brute strength to prey on animals many times its size. Although this footage shows they’re not always boss! Once the most widespread large land mammal after humans, lions are now restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and western India.

Lauren Pascoe, ARKive Media Researcher

Aug 22

The UK has secured an international agreement to clamp down on the illegal trade in rhino horn, which is now in such high demand that it is being sold for more than diamonds, gold and cocaine.

Photo of southern white rhinoceros eating grass

Southern white rhinoceros

“Conservation crisis”

With myths about its medicinal properties fuelling high demand in Asia, rhino horn is now worth over £50,000, or $82,400, a kilo. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the number of rhinos killed for their horns in countries such as South Africa, in what conservationists have called a “poaching crisis”.

The new agreement, reached at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva, will involve countries and conservation groups sharing policing techniques and working on awareness campaigns. The UK will also lead global talks to fight the myths about the medicinal properties of rhino horn.

Photo of confiscated black rhinoceros' horns

Confiscated black rhinoceros horns

The UK Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, described the illegal trade in rhino horns as “cruel and archaic”.

Criminals trading in rhino horn have lined their pockets while bringing this magnificent animal to the brink of extinction, but their days are now numbered,” she said.

We will be leading global action to clamp down on this cruel and archaic trade, and to dispel the myths peddled to vulnerable people that drive demand for rhino products.”

Photo of mutilated Indian rhinoceros

Mutilated Indian rhinoceros with its horn removed

Tighter export rules

Last year, after detecting a rise in the number of rhino horn products being sold through auction houses in Britain, the UK’s Animal Health agency warned that it would be refusing almost all applications to export rhino horn items.

The tighter rules come amid fears that the legal export of “worked items”, created and acquired before 1947, is being used to send rhino horn to Asia to be powdered down and used in the medicine trade. This could further increase the demand for illegally poached horns.

Under the new rules, export licences for rhino horn products will only be granted under special circumstances.

Photo of black rhinoceros feeding

Black rhinoceros feeding

As part of the clamp down on the illegal trade in rhino horns, the UK will also be supporting a workshop in South Africa in September, to help develop better co-operation between countries where rhinos are poached and the countries where the horns are sold.

Read the BBC News story – UK to lead international rhino horn clampdown.

View photos and videos of rhinoceros species on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

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