Sep 30
Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przewalskii)

Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przewalskii)

Species: Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii)

Status: Endangered (EN)

Interesting Fact: The Przewalski’s horse is the only surviving ancestor of the domestic horse and is the last true wild horse.

The Przewalski’s horse is named after the Russian explorer Nikolai Przewalski, who first discovered the subspecies in the 1870s. Wild horses (Equus ferus) were once common across Europe and Asia, but habitat degradation, human activities including hunting, and competition with domestic livestock all helped drive this species to extinction in the wild. The last wild Przewalski’s horse was recorded in southwest Mongolia in 1968.

The subspecies clung on to existence in a number of small populations in various zoos around the world. In the 1990s, a number of individuals were introduced in small herds into the Hustai National Park in Mongolia. Today, more than a 120 survive in the area, and a further 50 exist in the Dzungarian Gobi in Southwest Mongolia. Hybridisation with domestic horses and competition with domestic horses for resources remains a threat to these reintroduced populations.

The return of the Przewalski’s horse to its natural environment is a success story for conservation and it is hoped that there will soon be at least two large, self-sustained populations in the wild.

For more information on the Przewalski’s horse conservation and release programme, see the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse (FPPPH) website.

See images and videos of the Przewalski’s horse on ARKive.

Lauren Pascoe, ARKive Researcher

Sep 30

World Rivers Day is an annual global celebration of the world’s waterways, observed on the last Sunday in September. Established in 2005 by the internationally renowned river conservationist Mark Angelo, World Rivers Day highlights the global importance of rivers and aims to increase public awareness and encourage greater stewardship of rivers around the world.

River running through the Northwoods, Wisconsin

River running through the Northwoods, Wisconsin

Celebrating World Rivers Day

Millions of people in more than 60 countries celebrate World Rivers Day. Here at ARKive, we’ve joined in by talking to Kevin Smith, a Programme Officer with the IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit, to find out more about the importance of rivers and the main issues they face.

‘Ribbons of life’

Rivers underpin many freshwater ecosystems and play a critical role in sustaining the lives of thousands of different species and habitats worldwide. Despite their importance, rivers and their associated freshwater ecosystems are actually extremely rare. Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and freshwater ecosystems account for less than 1% of the planet’s total surface area.

Riverine habitat

Riverine habitat

According to Kevin, “Rivers – and freshwater habitats in general – are real hotspots of biodiversity. They may only cover 1% of the Earth’s surface, but they support almost 10% of the world’s known species. These ribbons of life also provide livelihoods and economic benefits to billions of people across the world through what are known as ‘ecosystem services’ such as fisheries, water filtration or even tourism.”

Rivers shape the landscape; act as drainage channels; and transport fresh water and nutrients to lakes, wetlands and other freshwater habitats before eventually flowing out to sea. They provide the stage for some of nature’s most spectacular events, such as the annual migration of salmon from the sea to their spawning grounds upstream. Rivers, and the fresh water they contain, are also vital to human wellbeing, providing the water we drink, as well as sources of food, recreation and energy.

Sockeye salmon jumping up waterfall to spawn

Sockeye salmon jumping up waterfall to spawn

Rivers in danger

Many of the world’s rivers are also in danger, often due to human development, pollution and climate change.

Rivers and other freshwater habitats are among the most threatened on the planet. Rivers are highly interconnected systems that can transport threats to biodiversity, such as pollution or invasive species, long distances. The species that inhabit rivers also have limited dispersal ability as they can rarely escape onto land to avoid such threats,” says Kevin.

Fewer than 70 of the world’s 177 longest rivers remain free of man-made obstructions, such as dams and hydroelectric power plants.

Rivers have also been heavily modified, and have been used and viewed as a public resource (for water or waste dispersal) to be exploited for many years,” explains Kevin. “Because of this, many threats exist to rivers and their biodiversity, from agricultural and industrial pollution, excessive water extraction and dams, to the introduction of non-native and invasive species and the overharvesting of biodiversity.

Spotlight on: the world’s longest rivers

As it’s World Rivers Day, we’ve taken the opportunity to take a look at four of the world’s longest rivers and highlight some of the amazing species that inhabit them, as well as the threats that these magnificent rivers face.

Mississippi River3,902 miles (6,275 kilometres)

 

Pair of young North American river otters on log

Pair of young North American river otters on log

The largest river in North America, the Mississippi gets its name from the Native American Chippewa tribe’s words ‘mici zibi’, meaning ‘great river’. The Mississippi River provides food and shelter for hundreds of different species, from freshwater fish to mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and birds, including the 8,000,000 ducks, geese, swans and wading birds that use the river as a flyway.

The upper Mississippi region is home to one of the largest populations of nesting bald eagles in the United States, while the river also provides important habitat for the playful North American river otter. The otter was once common along the Mississippi, but unregulated trapping and habitat loss around a hundred years ago pushed this species towards the brink of extinction. Fortunately, improvements in water quality, trapping regulations and reintroduction efforts in the 1980s have enabled the otter population to grow and recover in recent years.

Yangtze – 3,917 miles (6,300 kilometres)

Baiji at waters' surface

Baiji at waters' surface

The Yangtze is the world’s third longest river, rising in west-central China and flowing across the Tibetan Plateau until it reaches the East China Sea near Shanghai.

The Yangtze River Basin has remarkably high levels of biodiversity and its waters are home to some amazing aquatic creatures, including the Yangtze finless porpoise and the baiji, the rarest cetacean in existence. The forests of the upper Yangtze are the only place where the giant panda can be found in the wild, while the central parts of the river and its lakes are known to be important for many migratory bird species, including an estimated 95% of the world’s Siberian crane population.

The Yangtze River Basin itself is faced with enormous environmental challenges and is being placed under severe strain as a result of growing pressures from the region’s expanding population and rapid economic development. The impacts of climate change, agriculture, pollution and infrastructure development are having hugely detrimental effects on the river’s species, habitats and the wider ecosystem.

Amazon – 3,980 miles (6,400 kilometres)

Amazonian manatee swimming beneath aquatic vegetation

Amazonian manatee swimming beneath aquatic vegetation

The world’s largest river by volume, and considered by many to be the longest river in the world, the Amazon begins in Peru and flows through Brazil where it reaches the Atlantic Ocean.

The drainage basin of the Amazon River supports the magnificent Amazon rainforest, home to an incredible diversity of animals and plants, from the curious Amazonian manatee to an array of colourful birds and insects, including over 4,000 species of butterfly. Despite its exceptional biodiversity, the Amazon River, as well as much of the surrounding rainforest, is under threat. The river itself is faced with a number of issues, including the construction of dams in areas of high conservation value.

Nile - 4,135 miles (6,650 kilometres)

Nile crocodile close-up

Nile crocodile close-up

Traditionally considered to be the longest river in the world, the Nile flows north through eastern Africa to where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The name of this imposing river is derived from the Greek word ‘neilos’, which means ‘river valley’.

As well as supporting a large number of species in its waters and along its banks, the Nile is depended on by more than 300 million people for their water supply and the irrigation of seasonal crops. Reptiles, such as the Nile crocodile, flourish in the waters of the Nile, while fish, birds and mammals also rely on the river as a source of food and water.

Find out more about World Rivers Day.

Learn more about the IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Education Officer

 

Sep 29

It’s nearly that time of year again, on Saturday 29th September every national park in the United States will open their gates, waive its entrance fees and invite everyone to come and explore stunning mountains, canyons, forests, beaches and more as part of National Public Lands Day.  The ARKive team in the US have been fortunate enough to visit many of the nation’s parks and have compiled a handy top 10 for you to add to your list of places to visit this Saturday.

Death Valley

Devil’s Hole pupfish photo

Travelers should heed the warning in the name of this national park, but please don’t let it scare you from visiting this natural wonder. Even though it is the hottest, driest and lowest point in the US, it actually provides vital habitat for a special little fish called the Devil’s Hole pupfish found only in a single, 20 square kilometre spring in Death Valley.

Great Smokey Mountains

Common snapping turtle photo

Watching the misty fog chase up over the peaks of the Great Smokey Mountains is truly a sight to behold, and being within a day’s drive of over half the citizens of the US, it’s worth the trek to visit. Wildlife abounds in this 800 square mile park from furry black bears to hard-shelled snapping turtles. Snapping turtles have an extremely varied diet and are sometimes bold enough to steal fish bait right from fishermen’s lines!

Everglades

Wood stork photo

There really are no words to describe the feeling of skimming over the marshy waters of the Everglades on an airboat with the wind whipping through your hair and birds of all shapes and sizes in flight around you. The wood stork is one such bird and, according to the National Park Service, a pair can consume nearly 440 pounds of fish feeding themselves and their young during breeding season.

Grand Canyon

Bighorn sheep photo

Canyon enthusiasts will agree that if you’re going to visit the Grand Canyon, timing your arrival to enjoy the sunrise or sunset is key. Seeing the ancient walls awash with the pinks, reds and oranges of the setting or rising sun is definitely something to add to your bucket list. Bighorn sheep are just one of the species which call the canyon home, and have been known to easily scale its vertical walls using their agile footing and keen eyesight.

Shenandoah

Shenandoah salamander photo

Just a 90 minute drive from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah offers miles and miles of blue-ridged mountains, sparkling waterfalls and peaceful woodland. Home to 14% of the world’s 535 salamanders, Shenandoah National Park is a premier biodiversity hotspot for these amphibians. The Shenandoah salamander is particularly interesting as it is a member of the family Plethodontidae, commonly known as the lungless salamanders, which obtain oxygen by breathing through their skin.

Mount Rainier

Snowshoe hare photo

Given its name, you could be forgiven for assuming that Mount Rainier is a mountain, although in fact it’s actually an active volcano! With over 35 square miles of snow and ice on the volcano, the snowshoe hare thrives in this winter wonderland, its coat changing from brown to white to camouflage with the seasons.

Point Reyes

Northern elephant seal photo

At Point Reyes National Seashore there are vast stretches of pristine Pacific shoreline just waiting be explored. Northern elephant seals have claimed a portion of these beaches as their annual breeding grounds and at the Elephant Seal Overlook location in the park, you can observe them here while keeping both you and the seals safe!

Acadia

Peregrine falcon photo

If rocky and rugged coastline is more your style then Acadia is just the ticket. Bird-watching enthusiasts will particularly enjoy spotting peregrine falcons soaring the skies around Mt. Cadillac. Thanks to the park’s Eastern Peregrine Falcon Reintroduction Program, there is now a vibrant population of these birds in the park, having been rescued from the brink of extinction due to hunting and environmental toxins.

Rocky Mountains

American pika photo

Seeing the Rocky Mountains erupt from the flat mid-Western plains of the United States is a spectacular vista. One tiny species that inhabits this massive park is the adorable American pika. The males of the species are particularly charming since they are known for performing a “song” to attract a mate during the breeding season.

Assateague Island

Bottlenose dolphin photo

Speaking from personal experience, it’s hard not to fall in love with Assateague Island while sitting on the sandy shore and watching bottlenose dolphins play in the ocean before you. Assateague also offers another unique experience, watching the ‘wild’ horses that roam freely in the park and along the beaches. The horses aren’t actually native to the park and legend has it that their ancestors were survivors of an old shipwreck off the coast of Virginia, although this has never been proven.

I’ll be traveling to Assateague this Saturday to enjoy the park for Public Lands Day and hopefully spot some wildlife through the lens of my camera. On Monday, I’ll upload my favorite shots from the day to ARKive’s Facebook page and if you’re able to visit a park, too, I encourage you to do the same. Let’s see how many folks we can get outside and enjoying US national parks this Saturday!

Liana Vitali, ARKive Science, Education and Outreach Officer, Wildscreen USA

Sep 27

The first traces of plastic debris have been found in the once pristine environment of the Southern Ocean, according to a new study.

Photo of small icebergs in Esperanza Bay, Antarctica

View of the Antarctic, in the Southern Ocean

The findings come after a 2.5-year, 70,000-mile voyage by the French scientific research vessel Tara, which has been sailing the world’s oceans to investigate the impacts of climate change.

Samples from locations in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica revealed traces of plastic waste at a rate comparable to the global average. This came as a surprise to the researchers, who had expected levels some ten times lower.

Discovering plastic at these very high levels was completely unexpected because the Southern Ocean is relatively separated from the world’s other oceans and does not normally mix with them,” said Chris Bowler, scientific co-ordinator of Tara Oceans.

Photo of southern rockhopper penguin, E. c. chrysocome, colony in typical habitat

The Southern Ocean is rich in wildlife, from penguins and fish to seals and whales

Fatal impacts

In addition to large items of waste, such as plastic bags, bottles and other plastic items, the world’s oceans also contain microscopic fragments that result from the degradation of larger items through years of exposure to seawater and sunlight.

The researchers were surprised to find that synthetic fibres, largely made up of clothing residues from washing machines, also comprised a significant portion of the plastic fragments they found.

Plastic pollution has many long-lasting and even fatal impacts on marine life. Birds, fish and other animals are known to regularly consume plastic waste, mistaking it for jellyfish or other prey, but it cannot be digested and remains in the stomach. Plastics also slowly release toxins and other chemicals, which can build up in the food chain.

Photo of dead Laysan albatross showing plastics in stomach

Dead Laysan albatross showing plastics in stomach

Human impacts ‘truly planetary’

Although it is difficult to identify the main source of the waste in the Southern Ocean, much of it is thought to originate from Africa, South America or Australia. Sadly, the fact that plastic debris has reached the Southern Ocean shows that our throw-away culture now has impacts around the globe.

Talking about the findings in the Southern Ocean, Chris Bowler said, “We had always assumed that this was a pristine environment, very little touched by human beings. The fact that we found these plastics is a sign that the reach of human beings is truly planetary in scale.”

Photo of green turtle feeding on jellyfish

Green turtle feeding on jellyfish. Turtles and other species often mistake floating plastic bags for prey.

Action against plastic waste

According to Bowler, it is too late to do much about the plastic already circulating in our oceans, as it will take thousands of years to degrade. However, we can take action against future pollution, for example by advocating the use of biodegradable materials and by changing consumer attitudes and behaviour.

The research ship Tara will continue its marine research in 2013, when it will travel to the Arctic to investigate the impacts of melting sea ice, a result of global climate change.

Read more on this story at The Guardian – Plastic debris reaches Southern Ocean, previously thought to be pristine.

Find out more about plastic waste with ARKive’s new teaching resource for 11 to 14 year olds: Human Impacts on the Environment.

Watch a video about the impact of plastics on the Laysan albatross.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Sep 26

Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters due to their armoured appearance, are secretive, elusive creatures, found in tropical and subtropical forests, dry woodlands and open savanna regions of Africa and Asia. Despite their slightly reptilian features, pangolins are, in fact, mammals, and although they are quite similar to anteaters and armadillos in many ways, these scaly critters come from a distinct taxonomic order.

Ground pangolin image

Ground pangolin

There are eight different species of pangolin, four of which are found in Africa, and four in Asia. Something all pangolin species have in common is a characteristic covering of hard, protective scales, which are comprised of keratin, the same substance found in our own hair and nails and in rhino horn.

Did you know?

Asian pangolin species are different from their African counterparts in that they have hair between their scales.

Sunda pangolin image

Sunda pangolin

Pangolins are predominantly nocturnal, and rely on their keen sense of smell to locate ant nests and termite mounds at night. Their strong claws are used to dig into the nests or even rotting logs, and their flexible tails come in handy for support and balance while the insect prey is captured using a long and extremely sticky tongue.

Did you know?

It has been estimated that an adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects each year. These mammals play an important ecological role in regulating social insect populations.

Black-bellied pangolin image

Black-bellied pangolin

While many pangolin species tunnel underground to nest and shelter in burrows, some pangolin species, such as the black-bellied or long tailed pangolin, are arboreal, and have certain adaptations to enable them to live in the trees. Tree-dwelling pangolin species have extremely long, prehensile tails, which are used when climbing and for hanging from branches.

Did you know?

Arboreal pangolin species have special tail pads which they use for climbing, and have hair on the lower parts of their forelimbs rather than scales.

Three-cusped pangolin image

Three-cusped pangolin

If threatened, pangolins attempt to deter attackers by hissing and puffing, and can protect themselves from predators by rolling up into a tight ball, with the tough scales forming an almost impregnable layer.

Did you know?

Pangolins protect themselves from insect attacks by sealing their nostrils and ears shut using specially adapted muscles.

Chinese pangolin image

Chinese pangolin

Sadly, two of the eight pangolin species are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with a further four being classified as Near Threatened. Pangolins are protected by both national and international legislation throughout their range, yet habitat loss and poaching are still major threats, particularly to the Asian species.

Did you know?

One of the major threats to Asian pangolins is illicit hunting for black market international trade, and there are fears that African pangolins could also be at risk. Pangolin meat is sold as food, while the scales are used in traditional medicine.

Thick-tailed pangolin image

Thick-tailed pangolin

It’s not all doom and gloom for pangolins, though, because several conservation and research projects are currently being conducted by the newly formed Pangolin Specialist Group, part of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission (SSC). These projects aim to find out more about pangolin ecology and biology, learn more about captive husbandry, rescue and rehabilitation, and understand the illicit trade in pangolin products. With this new information, it is hoped that effective conservation measures can be put into place to help save these intriguing mammals.

For more information on pangolins and their conservation, don’t forget to check out the Pangolin Specialist Group’s new website.

Learn more about pangolin species on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

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