Nov 23

Today’s guest blog has been provided by ONCA, a UK-based charity which aims to cultivate environmental and social wellbeing through the arts. All their activities seek to inspire creativity and positive action in the face of environmental change, and to help galvanise the creation of a critical mass of work responding to and exploring these changes.

One of ONCA’s projects is the Remembrance Day for Lost Species which is held annually on 30 November and aims to raise awareness of the current biodiversity crisis, the Sixth Mass Extinction. Matt Stanfield from ONCA explains…

Lost Species Day logo designed by Julia Peddie

Extinction in and of itself is a normal part of life on Earth. What is absolutely not normal is the current rate at which species are going extinct. So serious has this problem become that many scientists now believe that we are living through the Sixth Mass Extinction, the worst period of global species loss since the end of the Dinosaur Age. Shockingly, there are only half as many individual wild animals alive today as there were forty years ago!

bombus franklini by Eti Meacock _photo by Abi Horn

Bombus franklini by Eti Meacock © Abi Horn

Unlike previous mass extinctions, the Sixth Mass Extinction is not due to some meteorite or volcano. It is being caused entirely by humans, and only human action has the power to stop it.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species (also known as Lost Species Day) began in 2010. An international grouping of artists and scientists felt that the Sixth Mass Extinction needed to be marked, as other tragedies are, with a day of remembrance.

martha procession_photo by robin taylor

Lost Species Day procession © Robin Taylor

One question which I am often asked in connection with Lost Species Day is “Why remember lost species?” My answer is that there are three main reasons to do so.

Firstly, I believe that in order to protect and restore the world’s ecosystem, it is vital to understand what is happening to it. Today’s children live in a severely depleted world but are mostly unaware of this, having never known anything else.

Second, many of the stories of species lost to human activity contain lessons to be learned. The stories of recent extinctions have recurring themes, especially those of overhunting and habitat loss, which between them remain by far the biggest threats to wildlife in today’s world.

Last but not least, Remembrance Day for Lost Species places a great emphasis on storytelling as a means of remembering extinct species. Extinction stories are often memorable, with exotic settings, colourful characters and creatures which it is hard to believe ever existed. Animals such as Steller’s sea cow, the upland moa and the Tasmanian tiger may sound fantastical but you wouldn’t even have to go back as far as the Middle Ages to have seen them all.

Thylacine marionette by Ben Macfadyen © Warren Draper

Thylacine marionette by Ben Macfadyen © Warren Draper

In telling the tales of vanished species, thoughts often turn to those species which still cling on. In the future, will Remembrance Day for Lost Species honour the memory of the Sumatran rhino, the Cuban crocodile or the blue whale? Their tales are not yet finished, a chance remains to change their narrative and it is a chance which we have the power to take.

Passenger pigeons by Emily Laurens © Keely Clarke

The hope of Lost Species Day is that, besides providing an opportunity to remember extinct organisms, it will inspire fresh commitments to the protection and restoration of the natural world.

The intention of Lost Species Day has always been for the event to be inclusive, diverse and global in scope. Anyone, anywhere, can commemorate species lost to human activity and commit anew to protecting the planet’s biodiversity as they see fit. This could involve anything from lighting a candle to holding a procession, and much more besides. The fundamental objective is to help people develop an emotional connection to the issue of species loss.

Artistic projects have played a big role in Remembrance Day for Lost Species so far, since the arts are an effective means of getting across the message behind the initiative in a way that truly resonates with people at a deep level.

Thylacine cabaret © Mari Opmeer

If this piece has inspired you to participate in this year’s Remembrance Day for Lost Species on 30 November, find an event near you or to let ONCA know about something which you are planning for this year’s Lost Species Day.

Oct 23

From saving the world’s most threatened species of sea turtle to bringing unusual amphibians back from the brink of extinction, no conservation conundrum is a lost cause if knowledge, dedication and strong partnerships are put into play. This is the message being championed by ARKive to celebrate its tenth anniversary this year.

Through its unparalleled collection of wildlife imagery, ARKive – an initiative of wildlife charity Wildscreen – has become a platform to inform, and a place to encourage conversation for conservation. To mark a decade spent educating, enthusing and inspiring people to care about the natural world and highlighting the importance of biodiversity, ARKive is flying the flag for conservation by featuring ten species which are set to improve in status over the next ten years should positive action continue.

Juliana's golden-mole image

Juliana’s golden-mole

ARKive’s chosen species, which were selected in consultation with species experts of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission (SSC), represent a variety of taxonomic groups, and reflect the fascinating array of organisms with which we share our planet. From Juliana’s golden mole, one of Africa’s oldest and most enigmatic mammals, to the Asian white-backed vulture, a bird which has suffered a 99.9% population decline in just over a decade, this selection of species aims to raise awareness of the myriad threats faced by wildlife, and demonstrate how targeted conservation action can truly make a difference.

ARKive is working with the world’s leading wildlife filmmakers, photographers, conservationists and scientists to promote a greater appreciation of our natural world and the need for its conservation,” said Wildscreen CEO, Richard Edwards. In this our tenth year, we wanted to celebrate not only the great diversity of life on Earth, but also the vital conservation work that is being carried out around the world, and highlight that by working together to raise awareness, share knowledge and take positive action conservation can and does work.

Lord Howe Island stick insect

Lord Howe Island stick insect

One particularly impressive conservation story is that of the Lord Howe Island stick insect, a large, flightless invertebrate endemic to Australia. Once common on Lord Howe Island, this unusual insect was driven to extinction following the accidental introduction of rats to the island, only surviving in an area of 180 square metres on a large rock to the southeast of its original habitat. Without detailed scientific knowledge of the reasons behind its decline, this fascinating species might, by now, have been added to the ever-increasing list of extinct species. However, thanks to scientific exploration and understanding, and with the invaluable application of appropriate conservation measures, it is believed that the Lord Howe Island stick insect could be re-introduced to its native habitat in the next few years.

Kihansi spray toad image

Kihansi spray toads

Another species on the road to recovery as a result of targeted conservation action is the Kihansi spray toad, a rare dwarf amphibian found only in a two-hectare area of habitat in eastern Tanzania’s Kihansi River Gorge. In addition to catastrophic population declines due to a devastating amphibian fungal disease, the Kihansi spray toad has suffered at the hands of habitat loss. The construction of a dam on the Kihansi River in 2000 caused the diminutive toad’s wetland habitat – which relied on being moistened by waterfall spray – to dry out, leading to the amphibian’s dramatic decline and its listing as Extinct in the Wild on the IUCN Red List.

By working in partnership, zoos and conservation organisations were able to set up successful captive breeding programmes for the Kihansi spray toad, boosting an initial captive population of 499 individuals to an incredible 6,000. Conservationists also took the unusual step of setting up an artificial sprinkler system, which by 2010 had restored the Kihansi spray toad’s habitat, and by December 2012 an international team of experts – including scientists from the IUCN SSC Amphibian and Re-introduction Specialist Groups – had re-introduced 2,000 toads to Kihansi. This incredible achievement marks the first time that an amphibian classified as Extinct in the Wild has been returned to its native habitat.

The state of the natural world is increasingly worrying, with many species teetering on the brink of extinction,” said Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN Species Survival Commission. “However, conservation does work and we should be greatly encouraged by success stories such as the re-introduction of the Kihansi spray toad. Many other admirable conservation achievements also show that the situation can be reversed thanks to the dedication and determination of experts and scientists worldwide. With continued effort and support, there is much we can achieve.”

Kemp's ridley turtle image

Kemp’s ridley turtle

Another case in point is that of the Kemp’s ridley turtle, a marine reptile which once numbered in the tens of thousands, but which declined dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s primarily due to the overexploitation of eggs and adult turtles. Thanks to the outstanding efforts of turtle biologists, a wealth of information on the Kemp’s ridley turtle’s biology, distribution and potential threats has been collected in recent years, which has contributed greatly to a special recovery plan for the species.

Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity have made a commitment, through the Aichi Targets, not only to prevent the extinction of threatened species but also to improve their conservation status – ARKive’s tenth anniversary campaign is a perfect opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of conservation and show that it really does work,” said Dr Jane Smart, Director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group. “Along with our extensive network of scientific experts, we look forward to working even more closely with ARKive, an IUCN Red List Partner, to strive towards achieving the important goals the world has set.

Asian white-backed vulture image

Asian white-backed vulture

While the work of conservationists and scientific experts is a vital component in the fight against species extinctions, ARKive is also keen to highlight the role that members of the general public can play in the future survival of Earth’s incredible biodiversity. By learning more about the natural world around them and understanding its importance, it is hoped that people will be inspired to take action in their daily lives to safeguard our invaluable species and ecosystems. From recycling and limiting plastic usage to making wiser seafood choices and supporting some of the many hundreds of organisations and scientists who devote their lives to conservation, we can all strive towards building a healthier planet.

Find out more about the ten species on the road to recovery on ARKive’s Conservation in Action page.

Aug 9

Hen harriers are dangerously close to extinction in England following failed breeding attempts by the country’s only two nesting pairs, according to the RSPB.

Hen harrier image

The hen harrier is also known as the northern harrier

Species on the edge

Described as one of the region’s most charismatic birds of prey, the hen harrier, also known as the northern harrier, was once widespread in the UK. However, this impressive species became extinct in mainland Britain at the turn of the 20th century as a result of persecution, only returning to England from Scottish island populations after World War II following land use changes and a decline in persecution.

Since the 1990s, populations of this species in England have fallen dramatically, with just 15 pairs breeding in the country in 2007. According to the RSPB, 2013 is the first year the species has not produced a chick in England since the 1960s, a situation which is considered by the organisation to be a huge setback.

Juvenile hen harrier image

This year is the first time the hen harrier hasn’t bred successfully in England since the 1960s

Nesting failure

The two nesting attempts, both of which occurred at sites in the north of England, were carefully monitored. At the County Durham nest site, although eggs were laid, the male deserted the site, forcing the female to abandon the nest in order to feed. In the second nesting attempt, which occurred in Northumberland, the eggs laid by the immature female were not viable, despite being incubated for the full term and the female being well tended to by the male.

Just two pairs attempted to nest this year in England, but both failed,” said an RSPB spokesperson. “At one of these sites the RSPB was working with the landowner to ensure the nest was protected. Sadly, the eggs never hatched. While conservationists believe that this nest failed naturally, the government’s own wildlife advisers say that the population had been forced into this precarious position by illegal killing.

Continued persecution

A study carried out by government scientists reported that more than 300 pairs of hen harriers could be supported in England’s upland areas, but showed that illegal persecution through shooting, trapping and nest disturbance was preventing this species from flourishing.

Hen harrier image

Providing alternative food sources for the hen harriers may help to reduce conflict with grouse moor estates

Conflict with gamekeepers

The Moorland Association cites the long, cold winter as the cause of the failure of the nesting pairs this season, but the RSPB believes that gamekeepers working for rogue moorland estate owners are to blame for the hen harrier’s struggle to survive in England, persecuting the majestic birds of prey for killing grouse chicks.

No new hen harriers this season means that the hen harrier is on the brink of extinction in England,” said RSPB spokesman Graham Madge. “Our belief is that on some estates there is a systematic approach to the removal of birds of prey. We are not asking that these people do anything more than respect the law. The loss is almost entirely due to the illegal persecution. It has to be by rogue grouse moor estates.”

Predator control

While methods to control other grouse predators such as red foxes and crows have led to a boost in hen harrier numbers, this has also resulted in more grouse being taken. According to research by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), the loss of grouse could make grouse moor estates economically unviable.

The RSPB is involved in an initiative to provide alternative food sources for hen harriers to avoid such conflict, enabling the species to successfully live alongside managed grouse moors.

Read more on this story at BBC News – Hen harriers ‘face extinction’ in England as nests fail and The Guardian – Hen harrier close to extinction in England, says RSPB.

See more photos and videos of the hen harrier on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Jul 2

The latest update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species highlights a worrying decline in many economically and medicinally valuable species, from small freshwater shrimps and cone snails to gargantuan conifers, some of the world’s oldest and largest organisms.

Bristlecone pine image

The bristlecone pine can live for up to 5,000 years

An impressive 4,807 species have been added to the IUCN Red List this year, bringing the total number of assessed species to 70,294, of which 20,934 are threatened with extinction. With the latest figures comes the upsetting news that three species have been declared Extinct: the Cape Verde giant skink (Chioninia coctei), the Santa Cruz pupfish (Cyprinodon arcuatus) and Macrobrachium leptodactylus, a freshwater shrimp.

Concern for conifers

These figures include the first global reassessment of conifers, a plant group which holds immense economic and medicinal value. For example, softwoods are used for paper and timber production, and the anti-cancer drug Taxol is derived from the bark of many species of yew. In addition, conifers take three times more carbon out of the atmosphere than temperate and tropical forests, making them the second most important biome on Earth for tackling climate change, after wetlands.

Worryingly, IUCN’s latest update shows that 34% of the world’s cedars, cypresses, firs and other cone-bearing plants are now threatened with extinction, an increase of 4% since the last complete assessment of this group 15 years ago.

Among the 33 conifer species whose conservation status has declined since the last assessment is the Guadalupe Island pine (Pinus radiata), which has moved from Least Concern – a category used for species at relatively low extinction risk – to Endangered. The most widely planted pine, valued for its pulp qualities and rapid growth, the Guadalupe Island pine faces several threats in its natural habitat, including illegal logging, feral goats and disease.

Guadalupe Island pine image

The Guadalupe Island pine is now classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Conservation success

Despite the alarming picture painted by the latest figures, there are some glimmers of hope. As a result of successful conservation action, Lawson’s cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) has changed status, moving from Vulnerable to Near Threatened. Once a heavily traded species also threatened by disease, this conifer has improved in status following the introduction of better management practices in California and Oregon, and it is thought that this species could be listed as Least Concern within ten years if conservation action continues.

Conservation works and the results for the Lawson’s cypress are reassuring,” said Aljos Farjon, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission‘s Conifer Specialist Group. “However, this is clearly not enough. More research into the status and distribution of many species is urgently needed. We suspect that there are many new species waiting to be described but it is likely that they will never be found due to the rate of deforestation and habitat conversion for oil plantations.

Mammal assessments

White-lipped peccary image

Hunting, habitat loss and disease are threatening the white-lipped peccary

Hunting, habitat loss and suspected disease are all thought to have contributed to the decline of the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), a member of the pig family found in Central and South America. This species has declined by an alarming 89% in Costa Rica and by 84% in Mexico and Guatemala, and is now listed as Vulnerable.

Newly assessed on the IUCN Red List is the Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis), a subspecies of the narrow-ridged finless porpoise. Found only in China’s Yangtze River and two adjoining lakes, this species is one of the world’s few remaining freshwater cetaceans, and its population has been declining by more than 5% annually since the 1980s. As a result of its small population size and increasing threats, including illegal fishing, high levels of vessel traffic and pollution, the Yangtze finless porpoise has been classified as Critically Endangered.

This latest Red List update is further evidence of our impact on the world’s threatened biodiversity,” said Richard Edwards, Chief Executive of Wildscreen, the charity behind the ARKive initiative. “Further evidence that extinction is real, and that we must all act, and act now, if we are to prevent this most tragic reality for many more of the world’s species.”

Yangtze finless porpoise image

The Yangtze finless porpoise is a subspecies of the narrow-ridged finless porpoise

First for freshwater shrimps

The first ever global assessment of freshwater shrimps has also been completed as part of this latest update, with the results showing that 28% of this group are threatened with extinction due to the effects of pollution, habitat modification and the aquarium trade. As well as being an important part of the freshwater food web, freshwater shrimps such as the giant river prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) are used for human consumption.

Another first for the IUCN Red List is the assessment of cone snails, of which 8% are at risk of extinction. These tropical invertebrates are important predators in their marine ecosystem, and in addition are extremely valuable to the medical industry, as their lethal toxins are used for the development of new pain-relieving drugs. The beautiful shells of these species have been collected for centuries and in some cases are worth thousands of dollars, although the greatest threats to cone snails are habitat loss and pollution.

Once again, an update of the IUCN Red List provides us with some disturbing news,” said Simon Stuart, Wildscreen trustee and Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “However, there are instances of successes. For example, increased survey efforts in Costa Rica have uncovered new subpopulations of the Costa Rica brook frog and the green-eyed frog. Sadly, much more needs to be done as the overall trend to extinction continues in many species.

Starrett's tree frog image

The rediscovered Starrett’s tree frog has been moved from Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct) to Critically Endangered

Trapdoor spider image

This Critically Endangered trapdoor spider, known only from a single cave in Malaysia, is a new addition to the 2013 IUCN Red List

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To learn more about the latest update to the IUCN Red List, read the IUCN Red List update press release.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Mar 21

Scientists in Australia have successfully cloned embryos of a unique but extinct species of frog that gives birth through its mouth.

Gastric brooder

The subject of this ground-breaking research is the southern gastric-brooding frog, also known as the platypus frog, one of only two known amphibian species that swallows its eggs and broods its young in its stomach. Following this remarkable behaviour, this strange amphibian, once a native of Australia’s rainforests, would then give birth through its mouth.

Unfortunately, this intriguing amphibian species went extinct in 1983, although the reasons for its disappearance remain unclear, with loss of habitat, pollution and parasites all being put forward as possible causes. This new and exciting research by scientists at the University of Newcastle, Australia, has sparked the possibility that this unusual species, once thought lost forever, could exist once again.

Southern gastric-brooding frog image

The southern gastric-brooding frog went extinct in the 1980s

Lazarus Project

The team of researchers on the aptly named ‘Lazarus Project’ were able to recover cell nuclei from samples of frozen frog tissue which had been collected in the 1970s. These nuclei were then implanted into fresh eggs from a related, extant frog species, the great barred frog, after which some of the eggs developed into an early embryo stage. Although none of these embryos survived for longer than a few days, the results are both ground-breaking and encouraging, with the scientists believing that this research could eventually lead to the resurrection of the extinct frog.

We are watching Lazarus arise from the dead, step by exciting step,” said University of New South Wales Professor Mike Archer, leader of the Lazarus Project. “We’ve reactivated dead cells into living ones and revived the extinct frog’s genome in the process. Now we have fresh cryo-preserved cells of the extinct frog to use in future cloning experiments.”

Golden toad image

The golden toad is also thought to have gone extinct in the 1980s

Archer and his team are confident that the hurdles faced by the Lazarus Project are technological and not biological, and that the project will ultimately be successful.

Importantly, we’ve demonstrated already the great promise this technology has as a conservation tool when hundreds of the world’s amphibian species are in catastrophic decline,” he said.

While bringing a biological curiosity back to life would, in itself, be a remarkable and exciting achievement, the work being carried out may also have wider-reaching implications. The southern gastric-brooding frog’s ability to shut down the secretion of its digestive acids has long fascinated scientists, and further research into this incredible trait could prove useful in developing treatments for gastric ulcers in humans.

The cloning of the southern gastric-brooding frog was announced a few days ago at the TEDx DeExtinction event in Washington, DC, which was attended by researchers from across the globe working towards resurrecting other extinct species including the woolly mammoth, dodo, Cuban red macaw and New Zealand’s giant moa.

Read more on this story at abc News – Frog that gives birth through mouth to be brought back from extinction and Mongabay – Scientists clone extinct frog that births young from its mouth.

View photos and videos of the southern gastric-brooding frog on ARKive.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

 

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