Jan 31
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In the News: Pythons causing decline in Everglades wildlife

Non-native Burmese pythons are believed to be the cause of severe mammal declines in the Florida Everglades, according to new research.

Photo of Asiatic rock python (Python molurus bivittatus) resting in shallow water

Asiatic rock python (Burmese python) resting in water

Escaped pets

Also known as the Asiatic rock python, the Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) is a large constricting snake native to Asia. The exact origins of the pythons in the Everglades are unknown, but many have been imported into the United States through the pet trade, and some are likely to have escaped or been released into the wild.

In the absence of natural predators, the Burmese python population has exploded. Since 2000 the species has been recognised as being established across large parts of southern Florida, where it is known to eat a wide variety of mammals and birds.

Close up photo of Asiatic rock python showing heat receptors

Close up of Asiatic rock python showing heat receptors, used to detect the body heat of prey

Worrying mammal declines

In new research published in the journal PNAS, a team of scientists studied the number of live and dead mammals spotted along roads in the Everglades National Park. The team compared mammal surveys performed before and after the pythons became common, and found a strong link between the spread of the snakes and a decrease in many mammal species.

In particular, observations of racoons and opossums dropped by about 99%, while white-tailed deer fell by 94% and bobcats by 87.5%. No rabbits or foxes were seen during more recent surveys, despite rabbits being one of the most common mammals in earlier studies.

Most of these mammal species have been recorded in the diet of Burmese pythons in the Everglades National Park, with raccoons and opossums being particularly vulnerable to ambush as they often forage at the water’s edge.

Photo of Asiatic rock python with hog deer prey in water

Asiatic rock python killing hog deer

The decline in mammals was found to coincide with the spread of the pythons, with mammals being more common in areas were the pythons have only recently arrived, and most common outside of the python’s current range. The pythons are also likely to be eating other types of prey, including alligators.

We have documented pythons eating alligators, we have also documented alligators eating pythons. It depends on who is biggest during the encounter,” said Professor Michael Dorcas, one of the authors of the study.

Ecosystem impacts

The exact number of Burmese pythons in the Everglades is unknown, but their numbers are increasing year by year.

Any snake population – you are only seeing a small fraction of the numbers that are actually out there,” said Professor Dorcas. “They are a new top predator in Everglades National Park – one that shouldn’t be there.”

Photo of Asiatic rock python (Python molurus bivittatus) resting on foliage

Although a problem where it has been introduced in the US, the Asiatic rock python is classified as Near Threatened in its native Asia

Professor Dorcas has also stated that more research is needed to assess the potential impacts of the large mammal declines. “It’s not unreasonable to assume that any time we have major declines in mammals like this it’s going to have overall impacts on the ecosystem. Exactly what those are going to be, we don’t know. But it’s possible they could be fairly profound.”

Import ban

Earlier this month, it was announced that the US was poised to approve a ban on the import of Burmese pythons and on the sale of the snake across state lines. Another species that has been found in the Everglades, the African rock python, is also likely to be added to this list of “injurous” species.

Although reptile breeders and collectors have challenged the ban, and it would come too late to reverse the situation in Florida, Professor Dorcas has pointed out that it could help prevent the species from invading other suitable habitats in the United States, such as in southern Louisiana and south Texas.

Read more on this story at BBC – Pythons linked to Florida Everglades mammal decline.

View photos and videos of the Asiatic rock python on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

Jan 27
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Endangered Species of the Week: American burying beetle

American burying beetle image

American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus)

Species: American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: The American burying beetle buries a whole carcass to feed its young!

The largest carrion beetle in North America, the American burying beetle is an attractive species with bright orange markings. These beetles are named for their specialised mechanism of parental care that involves providing the growing larvae with carrion upon which to feed. At night, beetle pairs will locate a suitable carcass and then cooperate to bury it in the soil, thus protecting their find from competition with other species. Once the carcass is beneath the soil, the beetles strip away the fur or feathers and produce a compact ball; the female then lays her eggs in a chamber created above the carcass. Unusually for insects, the parents both remain to provide for the larvae after they have hatched, regurgitating food for the growing grubs until they are able to feed for themselves. Roughly a week later, the larvae pupate in the soil nearby, having consumed the entire food supply; they will emerge as adults around a month later and overwinter in this stage.

The American burying beetle has disappeared from much of its former range, with one of the major causes of the decline believed to be loss and fragmentation of available habitat. This species is now being monitored, with plans to breed it in captivity and reintroduce it in the future.

Find out more about the American burying beetle from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

View images of the American burying beetle on ARKive.

Becky Moran, ARKive Species Text Author

Jan 27
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RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch 2012

This coming weekend sees the return of the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch in the UK, an annual event in which members of the public are encouraged to spend one hour recording the birds that visit their garden or local park, and then submit their results as part of the world’s biggest bird survey. Over 600,000 people took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch 2011 and counted over 10 million birds, and this year the RSPB hope to make the survey even bigger.

If you’d like to take part, it couldn’t be simpler. You can pre-register online to make submitting your results even quicker, and download a recording sheet to help you with keep track of what you’ve seen. To get you in the mood, we’ve rummaged through the ARKive collection for the top ten species you might see…

House sparrow

House sparrow photo

One of Britain’s most well-known birds, the vocal house sparrow, produces a great range of familiar chattering and chirping sounds, and a ‘cher’r'r‘ when squabbling. Although still the most commonly seen bird in the survey, the Big Garden Birdwatch has helped highlight drastic declines in house sparrow numbers, an estimated 71 percent decrease between 1977 and 2008.

European starling

Starling photo

A conspicuous species, the European starling is another common sight in gardens across the UK. It is perhaps its best known for its dramatic aerial displays, in which huge swirling flocks gather together at dusk in the winter.

Blackbird

Blackbird photo

While adult male blackbirds are, as the name suggests, totally black; females are brown in colour, with dark, streaky mottling. A frequent garden visitor, the blackbird can often be seen carefully stalking the lawn whilst listening with its head cocked to one side for worms.

Blue tit

Blue tit photo

An acrobatic and inquisitive bird; the blue tit is able to exploit unusual food sources, for example obtaining milk by pecking at milk-bottle tops on doorsteps. It’s colourful plumage of blue, yellow, white and green make it instantly recognisable.

Chaffinch

Chaffinch photo

The second most common breeding bird in the UK, both the male and female chaffinch can be easily identified in flight when they reveal the double white flashes on their wings and white tail-sides. The males have colourful plumage, with a rosy-red breast and cheeks and a bluish-grey crown.

Woodpigeon

Woodpigeon photo

The largest and most common of Britain’s doves and pigeons, the woodpigeon is found almost everywhere in the UK except on high hills and mountains. It has a pretty, dusky pink breast and a white neck patch, which earns the species its alternative name of ‘ringed dove’ or ‘ring dove’.

Great tit

Great tit photo

The largest of the UK’s tit species, the great tit is easily recognised by its yellow underparts with a black band running down the centre, its black head and large white cheek patches. Great tits have been known to lay their eggs in nest boxes, pipes and even letter boxes!

Collared dove

Collared dove photo

Believe it or not, the collared dove only arrived in the UK in the 1950s. As its common name suggests, it has a distinctive black collar, and its repetitive cooing is a familiar sound in towns and villages across the country.

Robin

Robin photo

The robin is undoubtedly one of Britain’s most dearly loved birds, instantly recognisable due to its rusty-red breast. Robins are very territorial all year round, and territories are defended by means of singing from a prominent perch, making the robin one of the few birds to sing throughout the winter.

Goldfinch

Goldfinch photo

A colourful bird, the goldfinch has a bright red face, a black and white head and a deep golden yellow bar on its otherwise jet-black wings. Outside of the breeding season, goldfinches roam in flocks in search of food, and flocks of up to 100 birds are not uncommon.

If you would like to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch on 28 and 29 January 2012, you can head over to the RSPB’s Birdwatch homepage for more information.

We’d love to hear how you get on, please feel free to leave a comment below and let us know your sightings.

Claire Lewis, ARKive Media Researcher

Jan 26
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In the News: Pet trade threatens world’s only venomous primate

An increase in the demand for ‘cute’ exotic pets is placing slow loris species at risk, according to scientists.

Javan slow loris image

Lorises, such as this Javan slow loris, are currently threatened by the pet trade

Peculiar primate

Slow lorises, such as the Javan slow loris, are nocturnal, carnivorous primates native to Southeast Asia. As well as having a missing finger to help them move around and catch their chosen prey more easily, slow lorises are unique within the primate world in being venomous. The venom is secreted from glands in their elbows, and is mixed with saliva to create a toxic bite.

Yet with their large eyes and baby-like qualities, coupled with an increasing demand for exotic animals as pets, these primates are currently under threat from the pet trade, with many being taken from the wild and sold in markets.

Javan slow loris image

Slow lorises are unique among primates in being venomous

Dwindling numbers

Over recent years, primatologist Dr Anna Nekaris has seen the number of slow lorises fall drastically in their forest homes, and explains that many are caught to supply the pet trade. “Java is a biodiversity hot-spot, and lots of wealthy people can afford and want lorises as exotic pets,” she says.

Dr Nekaris believes that video clips of captive lorises on social networking sites have added to the recent surge in demand for these and other ‘cute’ exotic animals as pets. The slow lorises are not captive-bred, and as a result wild populations of these species are being decimated in order to continue supplying the ever-increasing pet trade.

Despite the fact that it is illegal to catch a loris, and that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) prohibits the commercial trade of these animals, Dr Nekaris found crates of these intriguing species being sold on the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia.

The potentially venomous bite leads to further complications for slow lorises destined for captivity. “The real threat to the slow loris is that, in order to avoid being bitten, [pet traders] pull out the loris’s teeth with pliers or nail clippers,” says Dr Nekaris. She explains that once this has occurred, these animals cannot be rehabilitated and released back into the wild, as they will have no way of feeding themselves.

Greater slow loris image

The greater slow loris is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List

Primates in peril

All five species of slow loris are classified as either Vulnerable or Endangered on the IUCN Red List. A combination of the rarity of these species and the fact that they live in such isolated areas means that even small changes to their population numbers or habitat could have a profound impact on their survival.

Dr Nekaris explains that, as slow lorises usually sleep during the day and are not particularly fast movers, they are relatively easy to catch, making them prime targets.

While filming a documentary on the enigmatic lorises, Dr Nekaris was struck by how difficult it was to find one of these peculiar primates to film in its forest home. “We knew that we would see lots for sale in markets where they are being sold openly as pets. The conservation side was very easy to film because they’re so prevalent in trade and rescue centres, but the science side was harder to film because there are so few left in the wild,” she says.

A proposal has been put to the IUCN to uplist the Javan slow loris, the most threatened of its kind, to Critically Endangered, as a result of its severely limited geographic range.

Read more on this story at BBC – World’s only venomous primate ‘under threat from pet trade’.

View photos and videos of slow lorises and their relatives on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author

Jan 26
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The ARKive Team’s Favourite Species – Kathryn Pintus

Has marine life captured the heart of this week’s ARKive team member like it did for Lauren Pascoe, or will something more terrestrial be triumphant this week?

Kathryn Pintus – ARKive Species Text Author

Favourite species? West Indian manatee

Why? 

I’m a big fan of marine mammals in general, but I think the manatee just about tops the list for me! Firstly, aren’t they just adorable?! They have such cute little faces, and I love the way they use their front flippers to scoop food into their mouths, or to ‘walk’ along the bottom of the estuaries and rivers in which they live. It’s also rather amazing how such massive animals can survive just on aquatic vegetation! I went on holiday to Florida last year, where I was fortunate enough to see manatees in their natural habitat, and I got the chance to swim with them, which was a truly incredible experience. They are such docile and peaceful creatures, you can’t help but be fascinated by them.

Favourite West Indian manatee picture on ARKive?

West Indian manatee photo

West Indian manatee underwater

The West Indian manatee is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List. This species was hunted for meat, hide and oil, but more recent threats include boat collisions and coastal development causing habitat loss.

See more photos and videos of the West Indian manatee.

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