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

Mar 7

Around half of the United Kingdom’s deer population needs to be shot each year to prevent damage to woodlands and other wildlife, according to a group of scientists.

Photo of female roe deer standing alert

Native roe deer are increasing in the United Kingdom

The scientists carried out a census of roe deer and muntjac deer populations across 234 square kilometres of woodland and heathland in East Anglia in the UK, and the results suggest that current management strategies for deer are failing. Although deer numbers in the area appeared stable, it was only because thousands of individuals were being pushed out into the surrounding countryside.

The study indicated that a cull of 50 to 60% of the deer would be necessary to keep their populations under control – much higher than the 20 to 30% that had previously been recommended.

Deer damage

There are six deer species in the UK, of which four are introduced. The current UK deer population is thought to stand at around 1.5 million, meaning there are more deer in the country now than at any time since the last Ice Age.

In the absence of natural predators, deer populations are continuing to expand and are believed to be damaging woodlands, as well as causing road traffic accidents and damage to crops.

Photo of dead roe deer in road

Many deer are killed on the UK’s roads each year

According to Dr Paul Dolman, an ecologist at the University of East Anglia and one of the authors of the study, “We know deer are eating out the… vegetation of important woodlands, including ancient woodlands. Deer are implicated as the major cause of unfavourable conditions in terms of woodland structure and regeneration. There is evidence that deer reduce the number of woodland birds – especially some of our much loved migrant bird species like blackcap and nightingale, and resident species like willow tit. We have a problem.”

Dr Kristin Wäber, another of the study’s authors, said, “Native deer are an important part of our wildlife that add beauty and excitement to the countryside, but left unchecked they threaten our woodland biodiversity…. Current approaches to deer management are failing to contain the problem – often because numbers are being underestimated. Cull targets are often too low.”

Photo of red deer stag roaring during rut

The red deer is the largest native land animal in the UK

Venison market

The researchers have suggested creating a market for venison to make a cull more ethically and economically acceptable.

What we are advocating isn’t removing deer from the countryside – what we are advocating is trying to get on top of the deer population explosion and try to control the problems that are being caused. And in a way, [venison] provides a sustainable food source where you know where it comes from, you know it is ethically sourced, you know it is safe to eat, and that puts food on people’s tables,” said Dr Dolman.

Photo of Chinese water deer running

The Chinese water deer is one of four deer species introduced to the UK

However, others are opposed to a cull. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) said that it was “opposed in principle to the killing or taking of all wild animals unless there is strong science to support it, or evidence that alternatives are not appropriate.” It also added that any cull must be carried out in a controlled and humane way.

The study also reopens a debate about whether natural predators such as lynx and wolves should be reintroduced to the UK, but this remains a complex and controversial issue.

Read more on this story at BBC News – Deer: 50% cull ‘necessary to protect countryside’ and UEA Press Release – First in-depth deer census highlights need for increased culls.

View photos and videos of UK deer on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Mar 6

As you may be aware, not only is this week the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of CITES, it is also Climate Week in the UK. The biggest climate change campaign in Britain, Climate Week aims to inspire us to create a more sustainable future through a range of activities.

Climate week logo

Throughout the course of the week schools, businesses, charities, councils and many other organisations will run over 3,000 events attended by around half a million people interested in finding out more about the future of climate change and what we can do to safeguard against its impacts.

With such a wide range of events on offer there is bound to be something for everyone so do try to attend if you can. Not only will it be informative, by the sounds of it you will also have a lot of fun. Activities include test driving electric vehicles, growing your own food in community allotments, a green building show with a Climate Week Pledge Wall, swapping clothes, books, toys and DVDs, developing a Community Energy Plan and even an event at Manchester United hosted by none other than England football coach Gary Neville. There are too many to list but more information can be found on the Climate Week website.

Polar bear jumping between ice floes

Polar bears are dependent on sea ice for its survival, but climate change is causing drastic reductions in the extent of ice cover

If you are unable to attend any events near you (or, alas there are no events in your proximity), we’ll do our best in this blog to give you an overview of climate change and why it is so important for us to safeguard our wildlife and environment against it.

About climate change

Without wanting to be too accusatory, there is no doubt that climate change is caused by man-made impacts on our planet. You may have heard it referred to as ‘global warming’, due to the steady rise in the Earth’s temperature that is occurring. Both terms are correct, however they actually refer to different phenomena. Climate change refers to the changes in climate which arise as a result of the increasing global temperature. These can include changes in precipitation patterns, increased incidence of drought, heat waves and other extreme weather conditions. In essence, global warming does not mean that we will all have increasingly warmer weather; the planet’s steadily rising temperature will be associated with changes across the world in climate pattern, and more extreme and unpredictable weather. Some places may well become hotter, but some will become colder, and others wetter or drier.

Atlantic krill

Antarctic krill die due to ocean acidification

These changes in climate may not sound like much, but they are creating huge problems on a global scale for both wildlife and people. The severity of storms and floods are increasing, and ruthless droughts are on the rise. The acidity of our seas is rising, affecting species such as coral and krill and destroying marine food chains that ultimately maintain the balance of life in the oceans. The lack of arctic ice in the summer creates a dire situation for polar bears as well as compounding global warming because the ice would usually serve to deflect sunlight away from the planet. The increased heat absorbed due to the absence of this natural deflection in turn causes permafrost to thaw, releasing trapped methane gas. This gas, along with carbon dioxide released by the process of deforestation and the warming oceans both serve to increase what is known as the greenhouse effect; some gases trap and retain the sun’s heat giving rise to this phenomenon.

Hawksbill turtle

Rising sea levels could wash away hawksbill turtle nests and decrease nesting habitat

As we can see, this process is not pretty, and we’ve only scratched at the surface of what is happening in this blog. Mass extinction of wildlife is predicted in the near future, including species such as polar bears and emperor penguins that will lose their habitat to melting ice and rising sea levels. Colourful corals such as the Acanthastrea coral will die as a result of ocean acidification. Also affected are species that live and breed on low-lying remote islands, for example marine turtles like the giant South American, hawksbill and leatherback turtles. There are too many to name here, but you can check out more species that will be affected by climate change on ARKive.

Staghorn coral

Climate change is already having measurable impacts on coral reefs worldwide

 

So, even if it’s just spreading the word on climate change, will you do your bit this Climate Week?

Find out more about climate change, the species it affects and what we can do to mitigate the effects on our Climate Change topic page.

Download Climate Week resources from the Climate Week website.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

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