May 27

Here at ARKive, we’re not just researchers, writers and website designers – we are also passionate about the natural world, and many of us enjoy getting outside and learning more about the wildlife around us.

While not writing and editing species profiles for the ARKive website, I have been busy setting up and helping to run the UK’s first national ‘Garden Bioblitz’ event. It takes place across the country this weekend (1st-2nd June) and everyone can get involved!

Photo of hedgehog in grass

Hedgehogs are common garden visitors, but are in decline in the UK

What is a BioBlitz?

The idea of a BioBlitz is to bring together scientists and members of the public to identify and record as many species as possible in a particular area over a limited time period, usually 24 hours.

The first BioBlitz was held in Washington, D.C. in 1996, and since then the idea has spread across the world, with more events being added every year.

Photo of buff-tailed bumblebee

Growing nectar-rich plants can help attract bees, butterflies and other insects

Most BioBlitzes work together with environmental records centres to ensure that the data collected will have the maximum value for science. As well as collecting scientific records, the events also give the public the opportunity to learn about biodiversity, be inspired by experts, and experience their local wildlife.

Why a Garden Bioblitz?

The idea of a Garden Bioblitz came about last year when a couple of wildlife enthusiasts got together online and decided it would be fun to record the wildlife in our gardens. We had so much interest from others who wanted to join in that we decided to turn it into a national event.

The Garden Bioblitz initially ran as a trial event in 2012 and was a huge success, with more than 2,231 records entered for 966 species by just 24 volunteers. This year, the event is open to everyone, and we hope that as many people as possible will take part.

Photo of robin singing

Putting out food and water can attract birds into your garden

Gardens cover a large area of the UK and are an important habitat for many native species. The only way for scientists to thoroughly survey the wildlife living in people’s gardens is through ‘citizen science’, with members of the public helping to collect this valuable information. The records collected will be made available to national recording schemes, which help researchers and local governments make conservation and land management decisions.

However, although these records are important, the main aims of the event are to get people outside, engaging with the species on their doorsteps, discovering something new, and hopefully being inspired to encourage more wildlife into their gardens. Above all, it’s about having fun!

How to take part

To take part in the Garden Bioblitz, all you need to do is choose a 24-hour period over the weekend of 1st-2nd June, then get outside and rummage through your flowerbeds, watch birds on your feeders, dip nets into ponds or crawl across your lawn to see what you can find.

Photo of slow worm

Compost heaps can provide shelter for many species, including slow worms, the UK’s only legless lizards

You don’t need to be a wildlife expert or have any special skills, and you don’t even need to count for the full 24 hours. The team are interested in all records – just go out, write down what you see, take lots of photos and submit your records online. There is even a downloadable ticksheet of 20 top species to spot, for those who want a bit more help with where to begin. Or you can view some of our handy hints and tips on how to go about your Bioblitz.

Experts will be online over the weekend to help identify finds, and anyone can take part in the event, whether they have a large garden or a tiny patio – it’s amazing what you can discover when you take a closer look. And if it seems a little daunting, why not get friends, family or neighbours to join in and help out?

Photos of daisies in flower

Lawns can be home to a surprising variety of wildflowers

Here are the five simple steps to taking part:

  • Go out into your garden and see what you can find! Use the downloadable tick sheet if you’re not sure where to start.
  • Take lots of photos – these can help with species identification.
  • Identify your finds – you can use books, online field guides, or ask the experts on iSpot or Twitter.
  • Upload your records to iRecord.
  • Have fun!

Although the Garden Bioblitz is currently based in the UK, you are welcome to take part wherever you are, and to submit records to your own local recording schemes.

Let us know how you get on!

Garden Bioblitz logo

To find out more about the Garden Bioblitz and how to take part, visit the Garden Bioblitz website or follow the Garden Bioblitz team on Twitter @GardenBioblitz.

You can also find out about other BioBlitz events on the National BioBlitz website and Encyclopedia of Life – BioBlitz.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author and Garden Bioblitz team member

May 24

Amphibian species in the United States are declining at an alarming rate, according to a new study published this week.

Photo of pickerel frog

Even common amphibians such as the pickerel frog are undergoing declines

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, gives the first estimate of how rapidly frogs, toads and salamanders in the U.S. are disappearing. Carried out by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), under the auspices of the USGS Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative, the research was undertaken over 9 years and looked at 48 amphibian species.

Worryingly, the results showed that amphibian populations across the country are affected, and even species that were thought to be stable and widespread are showing declines. Even more alarmingly, these declines are also occurring in protected areas such as national parks and wildlife refuges.

Significant concern

On average, the populations of the amphibians studied were disappearing at a rate of 3.7% a year. If this continues, these species would disappear from half of their current habitat in the next 20 years.

Photo of Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog in habitat

The Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog is listed as Endangered by the IUCN

Even though these declines seem small on the surface, they are not,” said Michael Adams, the lead author of the study. “Small numbers build up to dramatic declines with time. We knew there was a big problem with amphibians, but these numbers are both surprising and of significant concern.”

The outlook is even worse for species already listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List, which are vanishing at a rate of 11.6% each year. At this rate, these species could disappear from half the habitats they currently occupy in just six years.

Amphibians have been a constant presence in our planet’s ponds, streams, lakes and rivers for 350 million years or so, surviving countless changes that caused many other groups of animals to go extinct,” said Suzette Kimball, USGS Director. “This is why the findings of this study are so noteworthy; they demonstrate that the pressures amphibians now face exceed the ability of many of these survivors to cope.”

Photo of Flatwoods salamander on sand

The Flatwoods salamander is under threat from the loss and degradation of its habitat

Causes of amphibian declines

The study did not look at the causes of the amphibian declines, but amphibians worldwide are known to be facing a wide range of threats, including habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and disease, particularly the deadly fungal disease chytridiomycosis.

The surprise finding that amphibians are declining even in areas managed for conservation, such as national parks, suggests that the factors affecting these species are widespread.

The declines of amphibians in these protected areas are particularly worrisome because they suggest that some stressors – such as diseases, contaminants and drought – transcend landscapes,” said Michael Adams. “The fact that amphibian declines are occurring in our most protected areas adds weight to the hypothesis that this is a global phenomenon with implications for managers of all kinds of landscapes, even protected ones.”

Photo of Arroyo toad, close up

The Arroyo toad, another Endangered U.S. amphibian

Amphibians are important components of healthy ecosystems, providing food for other animals and helping to control pests. They also provide a source of medicines for humans, and are beautiful and fascinating creatures in their own right.

According to Brian Gratwicke of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, “[These findings are] very bad news for amphibians. Now, more than ever, we need to confront amphibian declines in the U.S. and take actions to conserve our incredible frog and salamander biodiversity.”

 

Read more on this story at the U.S. Geological Survey press release and Scientific American blog.

Find out more about amphibian conservation at ARKive’s amphibian conservation page and at the USGS Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative.

View photos and videos of amphibians from the United States on ARKive.

You can also have a go at becoming a conservation superhero and helping save amphibians on ARKive’s online game, Team WILD!

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

May 24

Many of you will have been as excited as we were to see Discovery’s latest series – ‘North America’ – burst onto our screens last week in a dazzling spectacle starring the world’s most accomplished performer: nature. The incredible footage of captivating landscapes and an impressive array of wildlife inspired us to delve further into North America’s natural history, so we’re bringing you a collection of some of the fascinating species that live in one of the continent’s most iconic ecosystems – the Great Plains.

With the Interior Lowland to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west, the Great Plains stretch across ten US states, including Colorado, Wyoming and Oklahoma, and up into parts of Canada, covering an area of approximately 2.9 million square kilometres. Roughly equivalent to a third of the United States, this broad expanse of flat land encompasses grassland, steppe and prairie habitats which were once covered with grasses and beautiful wild flowers. The Great Plains have undergone a big transformation over the years, with settlers bringing agriculture to the area, but they are still home to some interesting wildlife.

American bison

American bison image

North America’s largest mammal, and one of the continent’s most iconic species, the American bison once helped shape the Great Plains, influencing grass composition and the availability of habitat for a multitude of other species as it roamed across the grasslands in vast herds. However, while it historically had the widest natural range of any North American herbivore, the American bison is now restricted to small wildlife refuges and a few national parks, free-roaming over less than one percent of its original range. As a result of changes in land use, this tough species, with its characteristic towering shoulder hump and short, up-curving horns, is now no longer migratory, although it does still move in response to the availability of food.

Black-tailed prairie dog

Black-tailed prairie dog image

The highly social black-tailed prairie dog is actually not a dog at all but is, in fact, a species of stout, ground-dwelling squirrel. It is named for the dog-like ‘yip’ that it uses to communicate with other members of its extensive colony. Black-tailed prairie dog colonies, known as ‘towns’, have a complex structure and can contain from hundreds to millions of individuals which share an elaborate network of burrows; the largest recorded colony covered an area of 65,000 square kilometres! These huge underground tunnel systems are useful to the ecosystem in which they are found, as they aerate the soil and enable water to reach several feet below the surface of the plains.

Western diamond-backed rattlesnake

Western diamond-backed rattlesnake image

A species frequently associated with the arid southern United States, the western diamond-backed rattlesnake can be found on the grassy plains, as well as in woodland and deserts. As implied by its name, this species has a striking skin pattern, but its most distinctive feature is the tail rattle. This is formed of loosely connected segments of dead keratin, which produce a rattling sound as they knock together when the tail is vibrated. The western diamond-backed rattlesnake is highly venomous, dispatching its prey within seconds, and the toxic venom also plays a part in digesting its victims.

Coyote

Coyote image

The coyote, one of North America’s most resourceful and adaptable predators, is known for its piercing nocturnal howl, which can be heard across the plains at night. Understandably, given its appearance, this canine species is often confused with the red wolf and the grey wolf, as well as the domestic dog. Interestingly, coyotes have been recorded to form unlikely hunting partnerships with American badgers, with the coyote locating rodents with its acute sense of smell and the badger excavating the burrow to flush out the prey.

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly image

The striking monarch butterfly is perhaps one of the best-known butterfly species, and is renowned for its spectacular, long-distance annual migrations. This species is well suited to its environment, with the bright orange, black and white colouration on the upper parts of the wing serving as a warning to predators that it is poisonous, and the duller orange undersurface enabling the monarch butterfly to camouflage itself against tree bark when at rest.

Burrowing owl

Burrowing owl image

The burrowing owl is unique among owls in that it nests underground. This unusual owl species usually inhabits holes made by mammals such as prairie dogs, but will occasionally excavate its own nesting site. Another intriguing aspect of the burrowing owl is its method of finding prey; it deposits mammal dung around its burrow, which acts as attractive bait for the beetles it feeds on.

Black-footed ferret

Black-footed ferret image

The black-footed ferret is the only ferret native to North America, and has a fascinating conservation story. Once common throughout the Great Plains, this species was believed to be extinct in the 1970s, until a small wild population was discovered in 1981. The last remaining 18 black-footed ferrets were taken into captivity for captive breeding purposes in the mid-1980s, and by 1987 it was considered to be extinct in the wild. However, although still one of the world’s rarest mammals, thanks to conservation efforts the black-footed ferret now exists in populations in eight western states of the USA, as well as in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Lesser prairie-chicken

Lesser prairie-chicken image

Perhaps a less well-known species of the Great Plains, the lesser prairie-chicken is actually a medium-sized grouse, despite its name. Male lesser prairie-chickens have rather conspicuous bright yellow eye combs above the eye, and dull red ‘air sacs’ on the side of the neck which are inflated during their elaborate courtship displays. This species has what is known as a ‘lekking’ system, where the male performs a display in an area called a ‘lek’ and the female selects a mate. Lesser prairie-chickens can look rather comical during courtship displays, as they erect a tuft of elongated feathers on each side of the neck and make short jumps into the air.

Ornate box turtle

Ornate box turtle image

The ornate box turtle gets its name from its patterned shell, the two parts of which can be completely closed thanks to a special hinge, enabling the turtle to completely withdraw its head and feet into a protective ‘box’. There are two subspecies of the ornate box turtle, with one inhabiting plains and gently rolling open grasslands and the other tending to prefer more arid habitats including semi-desert and desert. Male and female ornate box turtles can be distinguished by the colour of their eyes; male ornate box turtles have red eyes, and females have yellowish-brown eyes.

Pronghorn

Pronghorn image

Although it looks much like an antelope, the pronghorn actually belongs to its own unique family, and is endemic to North America. The distinctive horns for which this species is named are interesting in that they consist of a keratin sheath on a bony core, like those seen in bovids, but are forked and have an outer layer which is shed annually, as in deer species. The pronghorn also has the distinction of being the fastest terrestrial mammal in the Americas, renowned for reaching top speeds of up to 86 kilometres per hour.

Find out more about the North American Plains:

Find out about Discovery’s new series – North America:

Find out more about North American species:

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Apr 29

Neonicotinoid pesticides blamed for bee deaths are to be banned across Europe after an EU vote which took place today.

Photo of honey bee heavily laden with pollen

Honey bees are vital pollinators, but are in decline

Wild species such as honey bees are believed to be responsible for the pollination of around a third of the world’s crops, and contribute billions of dollars each year to the global economy. However, there has been widespread concern about their rapid decline, which has been blamed on a number of factors, including habitat loss, disease and the use of insecticides.

Neonicotinoids are nicotine-like chemicals which are toxic to insects and which have been widely used as pesticides for more than a decade. They are usually applied to seeds, and are taken up by all parts of the growing plant, including its pollen and nectar.

Although less harmful than some of the pesticides they replaced, neonicotinoids have been blamed for contributing to bee declines, with a number of studies showing harmful effects on bee behaviour and survival. The combined effects of more than one pesticide have also been shown to put bumblebee colonies at risk.

Photo of buff-tailed bumblebee

Pesticides have also been shown to have negative effects on bumblebees

However, many farmers and chemical companies argue that the science is inconclusive and the studies do not necessarily reflect field conditions, and that a ban on these pesticides would harm food production.

Intense lobbying

There has been intense lobbying by both sides in the run-up to today’s vote, with nearly 3 million signatures collected in support of a ban, and campaigners rallying in London last Friday to call for action.

Some countries, including Germany, Italy and France, have already put restrictions on neonicotinoids, while some UK retailers have taken action by removing them from their shelves and supply chains.

A previous vote by the EU on whether to ban the chemicals was inconclusive, so the European Commission went to an appeals committee. Fifteen countries have now voted in favour of a ban, while eight voted against, including the UK, and four abstained. Although not a large majority, this was enough for the Commission to put in place a two-year ban on neonicotinoids.

Photo of honey bee bees at entrance of hive

Other threats to bees include habitat loss and disease

After the vote, the EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said, “I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over 22 billion Euros ($29 billion) annually to European agriculture, are protected.”

More to be done for bees

Speaking about the vote, Andrew Pendleton of Friends of the Earth said, “This decision is a significant victory for common sense and our beleaguered bee populations. Restricting the use of these pesticides could be an historic milestone on the road to recovery for these crucial pollinators.”

The new ban will prohibit the sale and use of seeds treated with neonicotinoids, and will also prohibit the sale of these chemicals to amateur growers. However, it will not apply to crops that are non-attractive to bees, or to crops that are grown over winter.

Some have warned that the ban could lead to the return of older, more harmful pesticides. However, supporters say that this has not happened in countries that have already banned the chemicals, and that the use of more natural methods of pest control can tackle any problems.

Photo of honey bee in flight carrying pollen

Bees are estimated to be worth billions of dollars to the global economy

Few people would disagree that we need to protect our food production, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of damaging the environment. Indeed, there are several alternatives to using neonicotinoids, and other pesticides, and this a great opportunity for farmers to adopt these practices to protect bees and other pollinators,” said Professor Simon Potts, a scientist at the University of Reading.

A short-term decision to keep using harmful products may be convenient, but will almost certainly have much greater long-term costs for food production and the environment,” he said.

Although the ban is good news for bees, these important pollinators still face a number of other threats, and more still needs to be done to protect them. A monitoring programme will also be needed to assess the effects of the two-year ban on bees and other pollinating insects.

 

Read more on this story at BBC News – Bee deaths: EU to ban neonicotinoid pesticides and The Guardian – Bee-harming pesticides banned in Europe.

View photos and videos of bees on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Apr 12

Although it may not feel like it with all the cold weather we’ve been having recently, here in the UK we are well into spring and heading towards summer. As the temperatures begin to creep up, now is the perfect time to get out and about and start exploring the diverse range of habitats the UK has to offer. Being an island, the UK boasts over 6,000 kilometres of shoreline, and heading down to the seaside is a popular pastime for people of all ages. It is said that in the UK you are never more than about 70 miles from the sea, so why not make a day of it and visit one of the beautiful sandy beaches that our coastline has to offer?

Beach photo

Sandy beach at Three Crowns Bay on the Gower Peninsula, Wales

While sandy shores may not seem an obvious place to find wildlife, a wealth of invertebrate and fish species live below the sand, buried out of sight. If you are lucky, you may also spot seals hauled out on the beach, or shorebirds foraging for prey in the sand or among the debris of the strandline. Visitors to beaches such as Studland on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast could be treated to an even rarer sight, as sand lizards can be spotted here in the dunes and heathland which border the beach.

Sand lizard photo

Sand lizard feeding on prey

Studland photo

Sandstone cliffs and sandy beach at Studland Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Certain beaches are renowned for their bird life, such as Titchwell Marsh on the north Norfolk coast. Here you can see curlew sandpipers, avocets, redshank and many other waders, particularly in the summer and autumn. Looking further north, Balranald on the Outer Hebrides is another haven for a number of bird species, inlcuding  little terns which can be spotted fishing along the shore.

Curlew sandpiper photo

Curlew sandpipers feeding at sunrise

Of course, part of the fun of heading to the beach is spotting signs of invertebrate life, and I’m sure that like me, many of you spent hours of your childhood searching for shells and other treasures. If you fancy re-living your youth, or you’d like to introduce the next generation to the wonders that wash ashore, make sure you take along a copy of our beach treasure hunt activity next time you visit the seaside; a PDF version can be downloaded here.

Common whelk photo

Common whelk shell on the beach

Coastal sand dunes are typically formed as the wind blows sand into drifts which get trapped around plants such as marram grass, the roots of which help to hold the dune together. These dunes are a great place to find other plant life too, including species such as sea holly, sea spurge, centaury and prickly saltwort.

Sea holly photo

Sea holly growing on sand dune

Why not take a look at our new UK sandy shore feature page for more information and inspiration, and start planning your next trip to the beach? We’ve got details of the species you might encounter, ideas and tips on choosing where to visit and even suggestions about how you can get involved and help to protect and preserve our coastline.

Claire Lewis, ARKive Researcher

About

RSS feedArkive.org is the place for films, photos and facts about endangered species. Subscribe to our blog today to keep up to date!

Email updates

Sign up to receive a regular email digest of Arkive blog posts.
Preferred frequency:

Arkive twitter

Twitter: ARKive