Feb 2
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Guest blog: WWT and World Wetlands Day

Wetlands are some of the world’s most important habitats, supporting a great variety of wildlife as well as playing vital roles in the environment, such as helping to clean water and control flooding.

Every year, February 2nd marks World Wetlands Day, an annual celebration that aims to raise awareness of the importance of wetland habitats.

Photo of Bewick's swans in flight

Bewick’s swans in flight

The Big 9 Challenge

In the run-up to World Wetlands Day, One Show presenter Mike Dilger has been on a 9-day whistle-stop tour of WWT’s Wetland Centres all round the UK, so knows exactly what’s worth going out to see right now.

You can find out more about his challenge in the video below:

Mike’s latest report said: “The UK is one of the world’s great places to experience the spectacle of thousands of swans, geese and ducks grazing across a dramatic and beautiful wetland landscape. Winter is a great time to get out there because our bird numbers are swelled by winter migrants from the Arctic.”

Photo of bittern walking

An rare and elusive wetland inhabitant, the bittern is now recovering in Britain

“World Wetland Day is a great time to get your wellies on and find out just how amazing these habitats are. Don’t be afraid of the slightly muddy and soggy reputation of wetlands, that’s exactly why they’re so fantastic for wildlife. Wetlands are among the most abundant habitats in the world, but you really don’t have to travel the world to explore them. Ponds, lakes, marshes, riverbanks and moors are great places to spot the likes of dragonflies, water voles, otters and swans.

The easiest access to these, with guaranteed abundance of wildlife, is to find a Wetland Centre near you. Wetland Centres are designed and managed to bring close encounters with nature to as many people as possible. It’s incredible to see the variety and abundance of birds and other creatures that live in and visit our wetland habits.”

Photo of common otter feeding on eel in estuary

Common otter eating eel

“In nine days I’ve seen something different and amazing at every WWT centre (where you get the full wetland experience and the added advantage of having somewhere dry and a nice cup of tea after all the fun).”

Photo of common blue damselfly portrait

Wetlands are not just good for birds and mammals – they also support a range of other wildlife, including this common blue damselfly

For details of locations and what’s on, on World Wetlands Day and beyond, visit http://www.wwt.org.uk/visit/.

If you can get to WWT’s London Wetland Centre today, you’ve a chance to add Mike himself to your spotters list.

Jan 28
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In the News: More species described than extinct

A team of researchers has published a paper claiming that ‘most of the world’s plant and animal species could be named before they go extinct’ and, furthermore, it could be achieved this century.

Describing and naming new species is important as it helps drive interest in conservation. A species, once identified, can then become the focus of efforts to monitor and conserve it. The more we know about biodiversity, the more evolutionary gaps are filled, and the more we are able to explain the life histories of species on Earth. The millions of species that share our planet provide many free and valuable services which are vital for human health and well-being.  These services range from providing clean air and to fresh water, recycling nutrients, pollinating flowering plants and controlling the climate.

The Vulnerable Brazil-nut tree from Colombia provides valuable oil that is harvested by humans and used in a variety of products

Naming a species gives formal recognition to its existence, making conservation easier,” said lead author of the paper Associate Professor Dr Mark Costello, from The University of Auckland.

The researchers propose that the target is possible due to an increase in taxonomists (people who classify, characterise and describe species), combined with a reduction in the estimate of the number of species on earth. An increase in both amateur and professional taxonomists has been driven by the growth of publicly available information on taxonomy via the internet. This increase has been seen predominantly in areas where it is needed most – areas rich in biodiversity such as Asia and South America. The recent surge in the number of taxonomists will also have gone some way towards reducing what the Convention on Biological Diversity has acknowledged as the ‘taxonomic impediment’. This is an issue created by knowledge gaps in our taxonomic system and a shortage of trained taxonomists, which in turn has affected our ability to conserve and understand the benefits gained from biodiversity.

We believe that with just a modest increase in effort in taxonomy and conservation, most species could be discovered and protected from extinction,” said Dr Costello.

This long-nosed tree frog is one of the many new species to be discovered in the last five years

New species estimates

Current species estimates range from 2 to 8.7 million species on Earth, compared to previous estimates that have been as high as 100 million. Around 1.7 million species have already been described, with a large number still to be described, and potentially many more yet to be discovered. However, recent estimates are still significantly lower than those previously suggested, leading Dr Costello and his colleagues to conclude that with a small increase in the number of employed taxonomists, and more financial support and coordination within the international scientific community, the remainder of the world’s species could feasibly be described within the current century.

We’ve discovered three times more people now naming species than there were ever before. We’re in the golden age of taxonomy,” added Dr Costello.

The Caquetá titi monkey is one of the most recently discovered primates, described formally in 2010

Controversy over the prioritisation of naming new species

While it may seem plausible to Dr Costello and his colleagues that the number of species on Earth, and therefore the rate of species extinction, is lower than previously thought, and that ‘species are more likely to be described than become extinct’, some remain sceptical. Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Species Programme is less convinced:

Extinction is usually underestimated. It’s more important to fight extinction than to describe or catalogue all species…. I am worried by the message implying that to conserve species you need to know everything about them. You can do a lot of protection even in the absence of knowledge.”

Vié points out that conservation of species is possible without knowing every single species within an area. Although he believes it possible that we could catalogue life on Earth, he also reminds us that ‘we don’t have the luxury of time’.

Professor Georgina Mace, from the Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College London, is also cautious about praising the new publication. Like Vié, she is not convinced about the idea that the names of all species must be known.

She states that once conservation plans are in place for places rich in biodiversity, species within these areas will benefit ‘whether named or not’.

This leaf chameleon, Brookesia confidens, was first discovered in 2007 already protected within the Ankarana National Park, Madagascar

A cautionary tale

Although there has been a decided increase in the number of described and named species, maintaining the same rate of species discovery in the field will become more difficult the fewer species there are to discover. As the backlog of collected specimens are named, and the discovery of new species slows, the current rate of newly described species will fall. Mace concludes that efforts therefore must be strategically triaged between ‘discovering, describing, monitoring and conserving’.

The researchers of this paper acknowledge the tentative good news for the conservation of biodiversity. However, co-author Professor Nigel Stork warns that ‘Climate change will dramatically change species’ survival rates, particularly when you factor in other drivers such as over-hunting and habitat loss’. This is no time to be complacent when life on Earth is at stake.

 

Read more on these stories at BBC News – World’s unknown species ‘can be named’ before they go extinct and The Telegraph – Extinction of millions of species ‘greatly exaggerated’.

Find out more about the importance of newly discovered species on ARKive’s Newly Discovered Species topic page.

Kaz Armour – ARKive Text Author

 

Dec 11
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UN International Mountain Day

Today marks UN International Mountain Day which aims to promote the sustainable development and awareness of mountains and highlands around the world and highlighting their importance for biodiversity as well as human settlements.

Covering roughly a quarter of the world’s surface, mountains are hugely diverse in the habitat they offer, from forest, desert, grassland or permanent ice and can be some of the most volatile places on earth with volcanic eruptions, avalanches, landslides and earthquakes being frequent occurences for the species living there to contend with.

Many of ARKive’s eco-regions feature mountainous habitats, not to mention the large collection of species we have that make their living on the mountain tops of the world. To celebrate UN International Mountain Day we thought we would highlight some of our favourite mountainous eco-regions.

Western Ghats – A biodiversity hotspot

UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Western Ghats are an Indian mountain range running 1,600 kilometres across the peninsular parallel to the western coast. Though not conforming to the ‘traditional’ snow-capped mountain image of the Alps or the Rockies, the Western Ghats wins out on sheer biodiversity, hosting a phenomenal amount of plants and animals, many of which can’t be found anywhere else on earth.

Western Ghats

The undulating grasslands of the Western Ghats

At higher altitudes much of the Western Ghats are expansive grass plateaus, on which species like the Nilgiri tahr graze on. The Nilgiri tahr is also very much at home on the numerous narrow cliff ledges in the area.

Nilgiri tahr

The Nilgiri tahr in it's mountain habitat

 

Gutianshan National Nature Reserve – Nanling Mountains

Eastern China’s Gutianshan National Nature Reserve protects part of the ancient evergreen broadleaved forest of the Nanling Mountains. Large amounts of annual rainfall provide ideal conditions for plants to grow as well as feeding many mountain streams and tributaries that flow down the mountain.

Gutianshan National Nature Reserve

The montane forest of Gutianshan National Nature Reserve

The aptly named big-headed turtle lives in these cold and fast flowing mountain streams. As a nocturnal and aquatic reptile, it spends the day underwater and out of site either burrowed into the gravel bed or hidden in rock crevices at the stream edge and the nights foraging either in or near the stream.

Big-headed turtle photo

The big-headed turtle depends on the water streams that run off the mountain

 

Mediterranean Basin – Greek mountains of myth and legend

The Mediterranean Basin eco-region contains a vast amount of different habitats from coasts all the way up to mountains and everything in between. The most famous of these mountains is of course Mount Olympus: the mythical home of Greek gods. This mountain range hosts 1,700 different species of plant, 25 percent of Greece’s total. Not to mention the many roe deer, grey wolves and wild cats that can also be found there.

Mount Olympus

The limestone cliffs of Mount Olympus are packed with plant life

While not limited to habitats at high elevation, the venomous Meadow viper can be found in the European mountain pastures feeding on a wide variety of birds, mammals and invertebrates.

Meadow viper

The meadow viper on the grassy foothills of Gran Sasso d'Italia

George Bradford, ARKive Researcher

Dec 5
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In the News: African savanna may be more endangered than rainforests

The iconic savannas of Africa have been found to be under greater threat than rainforests, a ground-breaking study has revealed.

White rhino image

White rhinos are a popular sight in Africa’s grasslands

Iconic Africa

Africa’s sprawling savanna ecosystems, defined as areas that receive between 300 and 1,500 millimetres of rain each year, are home to well-known, charismatic species such as giraffes, rhinos and elephants, and are at the heart of Africa’s wildlife tourism. However, a new study published recently in Biodiversity Conservation has found that 75% of the continent’s large-scale, intact grasslands have been lost.

These savannas conjure up visions of vast open plains. The reality is that from an original area a third larger than the continental United States, only 25 percent remains,” said co-author Stuart Pimm from Duke University.

While routine global assessments are carried out on tropical rainforest ecosystems to determine the rate of habitat loss, with the Brazilian Amazon being assessed every month, similar studies on dry woodlands and savannas are few. This new study has shown that, shockingly, a smaller proportion of grassland habitats are left than tropical rainforests, of which only 30% remain.

Giraffe image

Masai giraffes running across the savanna

High-resolution satellite imagery

Exacerbated by a greatly increasing human population across much of the continent, Africa’s vital savanna ecosystem is currently experiencing widespread destruction and loss as a result of ever-expanding agriculture and urbanisation.

Researchers used high-resolution satellite imagery to measure the extent of Africa’s savanna, enabling them to paint a more accurate picture of how much of this critical habitat remains.

Based on our fieldwork, we knew that most of the information out there from low-resolution satellite-based studies was wrong,” explained lead author Jason Riggio of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “Existing global maps are quite coarse and show large areas of African woodlands as being intact. Only by utilising very high-resolution imagery were we able to identify many of these areas as being riddled with small fields and extensive, if small, human settlements.”

African lion image

The African lion is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but some populations may be facing an even higher level of threat

Lion’s view

The study took a ‘lion’s view’ in order to determine how much intact savanna remains, focusing on habitat that is healthy enough to support the continent’s top predator, the African lion.

If areas retain lions, the continent’s top predator, they are likely to be reasonably intact ecosystems,” the scientists explained in their paper. “By considering the size of savanna Africa from the lion’s perspective, we can assess how much of it remains in large, relatively intact areas, not yet heavily modified by human influence. Clearly, smaller areas will still support less complete sets of species.”

The results of the study indicate that just 3.3 million square kilometres of savanna capable of containing African lions remains, with this vital habitat vanishing at an alarming rate.

Decline of Africa’s top predator

Lion populations have suffered a dramatic and unprecedented decline in the last few decades, with numbers decreasing from around 100,000 individuals just fifty years ago to as few as 32,000 today, a worrying decline of 68%.

In addition to declines as a result of degradation and loss of its savanna habitat, the African lion, currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, faces a whole host of other threats. Legal hunting, poaching and human-wildlife conflict are all taking their toll on this iconic species, and there are concerns that lions are being killed to fuel the Chinese traditional medicine market as an alternative to tiger bones.

African lion image

Urgent action is needed to safeguard the future of the charismatic African lion

Urgent action

The recent study found that 24,000 African lions, a disconcerting 75% of the total remaining population, are located in just ten separate strongholds. All of these strongholds are in eastern and southern Africa, with Tanzania alone housing 40% of the global population.

Worryingly, researchers found that approximately 6,000 African lions exist in populations which may not be viable in the long term, and the study also produced evidence of local extinctions of lions, even in protected areas.

There is evidence of strong declines and even extirpation of lions in some range countries. Especially in West and Central Africa, declines have been dramatic and conservation measures are urgent,” said the researchers. “While lions are protected in some of the lion areas, in many they are not, and in others they are hunted.”

A lack of lions in West Africa’s national parks is of particular concern to conservationists, with the region housing just 525 individuals. West African lions are considered by some to be a separate subspecies, Panthera leo senegalensis, and recent genetic studies have indicated that this population may actually be more closely related to the Asiatic lion than to other African lions.

This research is a major step in helping prioritise funding strategies for saving big cats,” said co-author Luke Dollar of National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative (BCI), which helped fund the study. “The research will help us better identify areas in which we can make a difference.”

Giving these lions something of a fighting chance will require substantial increases in effort,” added co-author Andrew Jackson from Duke University. “The next 10 years are decisive for [West Africa], not just for lions but for biodiversity, since lions are indicators of ecosystem health.”

 

Read more on these stories at Mongabay.com – Africa’s great savannahs may be more endangered than the world’s rainforests and Lion population falls 68 percent in 50 years.

Learn more about lions on ARKive.

Find out about species found in Africa on ARKive.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Nov 15
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In the News: Cook Islands to create world’s largest marine park

With support from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Government of the Cook Islands is set to establish the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) – the Cook Islands Marine Park.

Reef manta ray image

Majestic manta rays are among the species found in the waters surrounding the Cook Islands

A landmark decision

Plans to create the new marine park were announced back in August of this year, with the aim of contributing to the conservation of the region’s rich marine biodiversity as well as to the health of oceans on a global scale, while boosting local economic growth.

Encompassing approximately 1.07 million square kilometres of marine habitat – an area more than twice the size of Papua New Guinea – the Cook Islands Marine Park will become the largest marine park ever declared by a single country for integrated ocean conservation and management, and has been hailed as a great achievement.

This is a landmark decision and should be treated as an example to follow by countries around the world,” said Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme. “With just over 2% of the world’s ocean currently protected, this is a major step towards safeguarding our planet’s marine realm and the priceless services it provides us, including oxygen, food and water.”

Pacific protection

With support from IUCN, the Cook Islands Marine Park will serve to protect a wide variety of marine habitats, from remote atolls and reefs to high volcanic islands and underwater mountains. These important ecosystems are home to a whole host of marine species, including rare seabirds, blue whales, manta rays and several shark species, many of which are listed as threatened on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Longfin bannerfish image

Longfin bannerfish in coral habitat

Conservation measures

Different levels of protection will be applied to a variety of zones within the Cook Islands Marine Park, with the establishment of areas where all fishing will be banned, and buffer areas where tourism and carefully monitored fishing will be allowed. The designation of such zones will depend upon the identification of several key factors, including what natural resources and habitats the marine park hosts and how they are being used, and how such resources can be used sustainably.

Protecting the Pacific, one of the last pristine marine ecosystems, is the Cooks’ major contribution to the well-being of not only our people but of humanity in general,” said Henry Puna, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands. “The marine park will provide the necessary framework to promote sustainable development by balancing economic growth interests such as tourism, fishing and deep sea mining with conserving biodiversity in the ocean.”

The IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas will be on hand to provide assistance with regards to the rights of local people, ensuring that traditional methods of management and use of natural resources are taken into consideration when developing new, innovative, large-scale conservation initiatives for the region. IUCN believes that this will ‘foster community ownership of marine conservation areas and support scientific and policy research by national and regional institutions’.

Blue whale image

The world’s largest living animal, the blue whale

A step forward

Thanks to initiatives like this one, small island nations such as the Cook Islands and Kiribati are beginning to confidently act as ‘large ocean developing states’, leading the way to conserve large areas of national Exclusive Economic Zones in the Pacific Ocean – places where the state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources,” said Jan Steffen, IUCN Oceania Regional Marine Programme Coordinator.

IUCN’s involvement in the establishment of the Cook Islands Marine Park will be financially supported by Global Blue – a traveller service-related company headquartered in Switzerland. Other conservation partners that signed the memorandum of understanding with the Government of the Cook Islands include the Secretariat of the Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Conservation International and the Marine Science Institute of the University of California Santa Barbara.

 

Read more on this story at IUCN.org – IUCN supports Cook Islands to create the world’s largest marine park.

Find out more about the world’s protected areas.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

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