Dec 17
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In the News: Leaping to the Rescue – Million-Dollar Fund for Frogs

The Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA), Rainforest Trust, Global Wildlife Conservation and the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation have committed one million dollars to protect vital frog habitats around the world in the coming year.

Current figures from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimate that around 30.2% of amphibian species are currently under threat of extinction, with 12.5% of birds and 20.6% of mammals also at risk. These statistics show that amphibians are by far the most threatened group of species and its members are in dire need of conservation efforts to secure their future survival. Amphibians are at the forefront of what is being described as the ‘sixth mass extinction event on earth’, with 120 species disappearing in recent years and around 7,000 amphibian species in decline.

Southern gastric-brooding frog image

The southern gastric-brooding frog is thought to have gone extinct in 1981

Sensitive souls

The class Amphibia contains frogs, salamanders, caecilians and toads, among many others. As a group, amphibians are extremely sensitive to environmental change and are often the first species to become locally extinct in a disturbed habitat.

It is thought that habitat loss is the primary threat to amphibian populations around the world, and the Leapfrog Conservation Fund will be used for management and protection of key habitats. Don Church, Executive Director of the ASA, said, “Habitat loss is the single biggest threat to the survival of amphibians worldwide. This million-dollar commitment represents a landmark in the battle to stem the alarming loss of frogs, salamanders and caecilians. We hope that it will encourage others to step forward and make a commitment to protecting amphibians and habitats.”

Although habitat loss is thought to be the primary cause of global declines, many other factors are also decreasing amphibian population numbers, including climate change, invasive species, over-collection and diseases such as chytridiomycosis.

Lemur leaf frog image

The Critically Endangered lemur leaf frog exists in just a few pockets of its former range due to the negative effects of habitat loss and chytridiomycosis

Action plan

The million-dollar Leapfrog Conservation Fund will be dispersed through the ASA and will be used to manage key amphibian habitats around the world. It is thought that there are around 940 amphibian species living in unprotected areas around the world, and many of these species have a very restricted range, which may be as small as a single stream or pond. The most threatened habitats will be prioritised and targeted for protection. As well as having a positive effect on the amphibians within the habitat, the fund will undoubtedly help to boost populations of other species.

Western Ghats waterfall image

Areas such as the Western Ghats rely on their amphibian biodiversity to sustain the ecosystem

Success story

Previous alliances between the ASA and other conservation organisations have been very successful. The forest of Sierra Caral in Guatemala was at risk of being destroyed for agriculture, before a team of amphibian specialists surveyed the area, finding 12 amphibian species, 5 of which were endemic to the area. Funds are now being raised to further protect the area and the species which inhabit it.

Partnerships are the key to success,” said Robin Moore, Conservation Officer with the ASA, Rainforest Trust and Global Wildlife Conservation. “We all have a stake in the future of our environment, and what is truly exciting about the Leapfrog Conservation Fund is that it represents an opportunity for unique collaborations to achieve a common goal – saving amphibians and habitats upon which we all depend.”

Hidden salamander image

The hidden salamander is one of Sierra Caral’s Critically Endangered amphibians

The future is bright

Dr Paul Salaman, Chief Executive Officer of the Rainforest Trust, said, “Amphibians represent an opportunity to stem biodiversity loss through relatively modest investments. We can literally save entire species through strategic habitat protection. We are thrilled to be able to make this commitment to protecting the most threatened vertebrate group in priority sites worldwide.”

For some amphibian species, such as the golden frog, it may be too late, but the Leapfrog Conservation Fund is definitely a step in the right direction to protect other species from a similar fate.

Golden frog image

The extinct golden frog has not been seen in the wild since 1989

For more information on the Leapfrog Conservation Fund or to apply for funding for a project, visit the Amphibian Survival Alliance homepage or contact Robin Moore at rdmoore@amphibians.org.

See the top 50 amphibians on ARKive, and many more amphibian photos and videos.

Hannah Mulvany, ARKive Content Officer.

Dec 9
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Ecosystem engineers – Armoured animals help shape their habitat.

The fascinating role of giant armadillos as ecosystem engineers has recently been described, thanks to the hard work and dedication of researchers in Brazil.

Giant armadillo image

Giant armadillo

The Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project has been running since July 2010, establishing a long-term ecological study of giant armadillos and other species of Xenarthra at the Baía das Pedras Ranch in the Nhecolandia sub-region of the Brazilian Pantanal. One of the project’s main goals is to research the ecology and biology of giant armadillos in the region, and understand the contribution this species makes to its ecosystem.

Armoured animals

The giant armadillo is the largest species in a group of animals known as the Xenarthra, which also includes sloths and anteaters, and can reach up to 1.5 metres in length and weigh up to 50 kilograms. This nocturnal species is highly adapted to life underground, with large scimitar-shaped claws on its forefeet that help it to dig deep burrows.

Found east of the Andes, from Colombia and Venezuela southwards to Paraguay and northern Argentina, the giant armadillo occurs in a wide variety of habitats, including tropical forests and open savannahs. However, it is rare across its entire range, and very little is known about this rather secretive species. The giant armadillo has declined as a result of habitat loss and hunting, and is now classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and as Critically Endangered on many State lists in Brazil.

Giant armadillo camera-trap image

Camera-trap image of a giant armadillo from the project
© Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

Fact-finding mission

In the Pantanal, most local people have never seen a giant armadillo, and there are fears this species could go extinct before its natural history is properly understood. The Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project set out to use a variety of methods, including camera trapping, fitting radio transmitters, conducting burrow surveys, resource mapping and interviews, to get a better insight into the life of this mysterious mammal. What the researchers discovered showed the true importance of the giant armadillo to the species with which it shares its habitat.

Camera traps

For over two years, giant armadillo burrows were monitored using camera traps set up near the burrow entrance. These cameras are triggered by motion, and hundreds of images of 57 different species were obtained in this way during the research period. Interestingly, it was found that giant armadillo burrows provide new habitats and influence resources for at least 24 of these species.

It’s amazing to see that such a secretive species which occurs at such low densities can play such an important role within the ecological community,” said Arnaud Desbiez, Project Coordinator from The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

Crab-eating fox camera-trap image

Crab-eating fox resting in a burrow during a hot day
© Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

Unexpected visitors

Giant armadillo burrows can be up to five metres deep, and the camera trap images showed that 16 different species used these areas as a refuge against predators or against temperature extremes, as well as places to seek certain resources. The three other armadillo species found within the study area were all registered spending prolonged periods of time in the giant armadillo’s burrows, but the most surprising discovery came in the form of another member of the Xenarthra: the southern tamandua. The southern tamandua is known to be a tree-dwelling species, yet astonishingly it was the animal most often documented using the giant armadillo’s underground dwelling place. A whole host of other species, including ocelots, crab-eating foxes, lizards, tortoises and collared peccaries were also photographed entering the burrows.

Southern tamandua camera-trap image

Southern tamandua emerging from a burrow after a long period of rest
© Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

The sand mound

The researchers found that it wasn’t just the refuge provided by the deep burrows which was of use to other species. Giant armadillo burrows have a characteristic large mound of sand in front of them, and the study showed that this area, too, was used by a surprising number of other species. White-lipped peccaries, collared peccaries and feral pigs were all seen using the sand mound to wallow in, rest and cool down, while giant anteaters were also photographed taking sand baths in the mound. Lowland tapirs and pumas were discovered using the pile of earth as a resting spot, whereas various raccoons, ocelots, lizards, small rodents and various other species were captured on film searching for their prey in the mound.

White-lipped peccary camera-trap image

White-lipped peccary enjoying a rest in the humid sand in front of a burrow
© Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

Ecosystem engineers

Through the creation of burrows, the giant armadillo physically alters its surroundings, and creates a host of new habitats which have now been found to influence the resources of at least a further 24 species – this is known as ecosystem engineering. As ecosystem engineers, giant armadillos are extremely important components of their environment, with their burrows and the large sand mound affecting the characteristics of the ecosystem, from geomorphology and hydrology to the vegetation and animal communities in the area, both on a small and large scale. The role of giant armadillos as ecosystem engineers has also been recorded in the Amazon by Dr Renata Leite Pitman, who documented the rare short-eared dog, as well as several other species, using giant armadillo burrows.

Short-eared dog camera-trap image

Short-eared dog emerging from a giant armadillo burrow
© Renata Leite Pitman

Climate change is predicted to increase maximum air temperatures. Our data loggers placed inside giant armadillo burrows demonstrate that temperatures within the burrow remain constant at 24 degrees Celsius,” said Desbiez. Giant armadillo burrows offer an important refuge from extreme conditions, and their role may become more important as impacts from climate change increase.”

Although rarely seen, the giant armadillo plays a key role in the ecological community in which it lives, and it is vital that this species is better understood and protected.

 

Find out more about the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project.

Read more about this and other Xenarthrans with the IUCN SSC Anteater, Sloth and Armadillo Specialist Group.

View more images and videos of giant armadillos on ARKive.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content Officer

Nov 28
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Happy Thanksgiving from the ARKive Team!

The observance of Thanksgiving Day is primarily associated with the United States, and is a tradition which is thought to date back to colonial times following the safe arrival of the first European settlers to the untamed shores of North America. Nowadays, families and friends congregate to give thanks for what they have, so to celebrate Thanksgiving in our own wild way, we’ve gathered together a few of nature’s special inhabitants that we think owe each other thanks: symbiotic species!

 

Exclusive residence

Common clownfish image

Common clownfish are able to live among the tentacles of stinging sea anemones

Simply speaking, symbiotic species are those that interact in some way, to the benefit of one or both of the critters in question. A classic example, and one that many Disney fans will be familiar with, is the relationship that exists between clownfish and sea anemones.

Sea anemones usually sting fish that come into contact with their tentacles, but clownfish have developed a clever, yet rather gross, method of disguise. By covering its skin in mucus, the clownfish can trick the anemone into thinking it is touching itself, and so does not get stung. In return for a safe place to live and food in the form of debris and parasites found amongst the anemone’s tentacles, the clownfish is thought to scare away fish that may prey upon the anemone, and even lure fish in for its tentacled home to eat – a classic win-win situation! The clownfish is also believed to provide the anemone with good water circulation through fanning its fins as it swims around.

Did you know?

There are different kinds of symbiotic relationships. Some benefit both species involved, and are known as ‘mutualistic’ symbioses, whereas ‘parasitic’ relationships are those in which one species profits at the expense of the other. In some cases, one species benefits but the other is affected neither positively nor negatively, and these are known as ‘commensalistic’ symbioses.

 

Nutritious nectar and pollen parcels

Small garden bumblebee image

Bees, such as this small garden bumblebee, play an important role in plant pollination

Bees feed on pollen and nectar sourced from a variety of flowering plants, with honey bees using the nectar to make their sticky, sugary treat. Although flowers appear to lose out by ‘donating’ nectar, they actually benefit from these flying visits. As a bee rummages around the flower head for food, some pollen gets stuck to its hairy body and legs, and this accidental cargo is then transferred to the next flower the insect visits, pollinating it and enabling the plant to reproduce.

Did you know?

The traditional origin of the modern Thanksgiving Day is commonly thought to be the festivities that occurred at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts in 1621, when the European settlers celebrated their safe voyage, peace and good harvest. However, there is some evidence to suggest that Spaniards in Florida were the first to truly celebrate Thanksgiving back in 1565.

 

Getting a little peckish…

Roan antelope image

Oxpeckers help remove parasites from large mammals such as this roan antelope

In the wilds of the African savanna, large mammals such as this roan antelope can quickly become covered in ticks and all sorts of other creepy crawlies, which doesn’t sound entirely pleasant! Luckily, help is at hand in the form of winged wonders known as oxpeckers. Oxpeckers are known to hitch a ride on the backs of a range of iconic species including hippos, buffalos, giraffe and various antelopes, gorging themselves on ticks, botfly larvae and other parasites – the mammals get cleaned, and the birds get fed, and so this has often been classified as a mutualistic relationship. However, more recent studies have shown that oxpeckers often pick at scabs and cuts to keep them open to get more food, subjecting the wounds to possible infection and potentially harming the host mammal, making this symbiotic relationship more of a parasitic one.

 

Helpful houseguests

Acropora formosa image

Reef-building corals rely on tiny blue-green algae to survive

Reef-building corals provide homes for single-celled blue-green algae known as zooxanthellae, and in return these microscopic plants provide energy-containing compounds for the coral through the process of photosynthesis. The coral uses these vital compounds to build its calcium carbonate skeleton. In a way, these tiny blue-green algae are like live-in coral chefs…and they even clean up after themselves by removing any waste products! Brilliant!

 

Nature’s six-legged gardeners

Leaf-cutter ant image

Leaf-cutter ants tend to their fungus garden by creating ‘mulch’ from leaf fragments

Leaf-cutter ants are known as nature’s gardeners, as they spend their time foraging for leaves and cutting them into suitably sized fragments before transporting them back to their huge underground nests where the leaves are used to cultivate a fungus garden. While the ant colony is entirely dependent upon this fungus supply for food and so greatly benefits from this situation, the fungus benefits by being cultivated by the ants but also loses out by being eaten, and so this relationship could be classified as a more commensalistic one.

Did you know?

Most of us think of the US in relation to Thanksgiving, but did you know that several other countries observe similar days, too? These include Canada, Puerto Rico and Liberia. Additionally, the city of Leiden in South Holland celebrates the traditional US Thanksgiving Day, making the Netherlands the only non English-speaking country to formally celebrate this particular occasion.

 

Food on the go…

Dugong image

Dugong

Loggerhead turtle image

Loggerhead turtle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leopard shark image

Leopard shark

Giant manta ray image

Giant manta ray

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scientists are somewhat divided over whether the relationship that exists between specialised fish known as remoras and a variety of larger ocean species is a mutualistic or commensalistic one. Also known as suckerfish, remoras have a specially adapted first dorsal fin which has been modified into a sucker-like organ. Remoras use this to attach themselves to other marine animals such as sharks, rays, sea turtles and dugongs, feeding on material dropped by the host species while also getting a free ride and protection from potential predators. This seems rather one-sided, but some scientists believe that the remoras may also feed upon certain parasites on the host’s body or gills, therefore providing a great cleaning service to their marine meal providers.

If these beholden bovids, indebted invertebrates and contented chondrichthyans haven’t quenched your thirst for wild Thanksgiving-related information, why not check out last year’s blog, which features a whole host of awesome animals that the first European settlers might have seen upon arriving in North America.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

 

Aug 28
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In the News: Sea otter return providing lifeline for dwindling seagrass in California

A significant improvement in the health of seagrass in a central Californian estuary is due to the return of sea otters, according to recent research.

Sea otter image

Researchers have found that the presence of sea otters may be improving the health of seagrass beds

Seagrass decline

Seagrass has been suffering drastic declines worldwide, and coastal California is no exception. Urbanisation has led to a massive increase in nutrient pollution along the state’s coast, with run-off from fields treated with nitrogen-rich fertilisers being blamed for the reduction in seagrass beds in the region. However, new research has revealed that the return of sea otter populations to the area may be enabling seagrass levels to recover.

Sea otters were hunted to near extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly for their dense pelt which was extremely sought-after for the fur trade. This latest research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggests that the drastic reduction in sea otter numbers may have exacerbated the decline of seagrass in the region.

Sea otters are now returning to the area, and, despite the continued pollution of the ocean, the water-dwelling plants are now doing much better. It is thought that the return of sea otters has triggered a complex ecological chain reaction which favours the survival of seagrass.

Sea otter feeding image

Sea otters feed on crabs and other shellfish

Seagrass saviour

Scientists assessed seagrass levels in part of Monterey Bay, California, over the past 50 years, mapping increases and declines. A whole host of factors which could potentially affect seagrass levels were studied, but the only one which matched the recorded changes was sea otter numbers. The health of the marine ecosystem relies upon a delicate balance of predator and prey species, and scientists have theorised that it is a readjustment in this balance that is now enabling seagrass to thrive.

Increased nutrients in the ocean due to fertiliser run-off have favoured the growth of a particular type of algae which grows on seagrass, shading the leaves and causing them to die off. Ordinarily, this algae is kept in check by small invertebrates which feed upon it, but with the reduction in sea otters came an increase in one of its main food sources – crabs. Crabs feed on marine invertebrates, so higher numbers of crabs meant fewer invertebrates to keep algae levels down, therefore contributing to the drastic reduction in seagrass.

Testing the hypothesis

To test their theory, the researchers set up experiments in similar estuaries with and without sea otters, and carried out other tests in the field as well as in the lab. One experiment involved putting cages on the seagrass, with some being accessible to sea otters and some not. The results of the tests confirmed the hypothesis.

Sea otter image

Sea otters

Fighting climate change

Brent Hughes, lead author of the study, described seagrass as being ‘the canary in the coalmine’, as it can be used to predict the levels of nutrient pollution in the water. He marvelled at the positive effect the return of the sea otters is having, saying, “This estuary is part of one of the most polluted systems in the entire world, but you can still get this healthy thriving habitat, and it’s all because of the sea otters. So it’s almost like these sea otters are fighting the effects of poor water quality.”

Seagrass plays an extremely important role in the marine ecosystem, acting as a nursery habitat for a wide variety of fish species, and taking in carbon dioxide from the water and the atmosphere, therefore potentially helping in the fight against climate change. In addition to this, seagrass contributes to the stability and protection of the shoreline.

It’s what we call a foundation species, like kelp forest, salt marsh or coral reef,” said Hughes. “The major problem from a global perspective is that seagrass is declining worldwide. And one of the major drivers of this decline has been nutrient inputs from anthropogenic sources, via agriculture or urban runoff.”

Benefits

A ban on sea otters that was in place to prevent them from impinging on fisheries in the southern California area was lifted last year, and so the findings from this latest research are particularly relevant.

That’s important because there’s a lot of these kind of degraded estuaries in southern California because of all the urban runoff from places like Los Angeles and San Diego,” said Hughes. “Coastal managers will now have a better sense of what’s going to happen when sea otters move into their systems. There’s a huge potential benefit to sea otters returning to these estuaries, and into these seagrass beds that might be threatened.”

Read more on this story at BBC News – Sea otter return boosts ailing seagrass in California.

See more photos and videos of sea otters on ARKive.

Learn more about the importance of food chains and food webs in our exciting Web of Wildlife education resource.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Aug 2
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In the News: Iraq creates first National Park

Iraq’s Council of Ministers has approved the designation of the country’s first national park, in the Mesopotamian Marshes of southern Iraq.

Photo of Basra reed warbler among reeds

The Basra reed warbler breeds in the Mesopotamian marshes of Iraq

Once the third largest wetland in the world, the Mesopotamian Marshes are widely thought to be the original ‘Garden of Eden’. However, they were nearly destroyed during the Gulf War in the 1990s, when Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, drained the area and reduced the marshland to less than ten percent of its original extent.

Since Saddam’s downfall in 2003, efforts have been made to re-flood and restore the marshes, with surprising success. The new designation as a national park will hopefully help to protect this vital habitat into the future.

Wildlife returns

The Mesopotamian Marshes are of great importance to Iraq’s wildlife, providing a source of fresh water and essential habitat in a region surrounded by deserts. Despite most of the marshes being destroyed, the region’s wildlife managed to survive and is now making a remarkable comeback.

Photo of marbled duck

Restoration of the marshes has allowed species such as the marbled duck to return

They had hung on in small spots. When the water spread again, so did the birds,” said Richard Porter, BirdLife International’s Middle East Advisor. “It shows how resilient nature can be, and gives hope that other lost wetlands can be restored.”

Water politics

Unfortunately, although many parts of the marshland have recovered, others have not. One of the main threats to the wetland is the region’s water politics, with countries upstream of Iraq increasingly restricting the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

To counter this threat, Nature Iraq, the NGO which led the campaign for the designation of the national park, has persuaded the Iraq government to build an embankment to allow water to be diverted into the marshes in spring.

Declaring a park isn’t just a bit of paper,” said Azzam Alwash, founder of Nature Iraq. “It will mean we can reserve a percentage of the water from the rivers for the marshes.”

Photo of bladetail in habitat

Restoration of Iraq’s marshes will benefit a range of different species

Long-term protection

A further threat to the marshes comes from Iraq’s increasing urbanisation and development. The building of roads, infrastructure and water systems could all threaten the country’s natural habitats if not properly regulated.

I see areas that have been the same way for thousands of years being obstructed by roads. Development is encroaching into the wildlife’s area and taking away habitats,” said Alwash, adding that, “I want progress, but I don’t want development to overtake the Iraqi tradition of living in harmony with nature.”

Long-term protection of Iraq’s marshes will depend on international agreements on water-sharing, as well as the availability of money, which could one day come from tourism.

Photo of greater flamingos in flight

Greater flamingos also occur in the marshes of Iraq

The team who worked on establishing the new national park see it as just one step towards the protection of many of Iraq’s other natural habitats. Next year, Alwash and his colleagues hope to establish four more parks across the country.

This park is not a destination,” he explained. “It’s just a piece in the roadway to protecting Iraq’s national and natural heritage.”

 

Read more on this story at:

View more photos and videos of species from Iraq on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

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