Aug 30
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ARKive Geographic: Australia

Beyond the signature kangaroo or koala, did you know that Australia is also home to a wide range of lesser-known and somewhat bizarre-looking species such as the spotted handfish or the southern hairy-nosed wombat?  With astounding habitats including Barrow Island, the Great Barrier Reef, and the outback, we thought we would take the opportunity to highlight just some of the unique species found in this spectacular land!

Weedy wader Leafy seadragon swimming

The leafy seadragon is endemic to Australia, meaning it is found nowhere else on Earth. Living in shallow coastal waters, these slow-moving creatures call underwater seagrass meadows home, blending in perfectly due to their leaf-like appendages.

King croc

Immature saltwater crocodile swimming underwater

The largest of all crocodilians, the saltwater crocodile roams both the land and sea. By using its powerful tail and webbed hind feet, this species is an effective aquatic predator. The saltwater crocodile feasts on large land animals such as wallabies, dingoes, and even humans!

The face of climate change

Found only in northern Australia, the lemuroid ringtail possum may become Australia’s first victim of global climate change. Being unable to withstand temperatures over 86°F (30°C), this species is extremely vulnerable to heatwaves, which are expected to increase in frequency as the climate changes. In fact, a heatwave in 2005 was thought to have wiped out the entire population until a few individuals were finally discovered in 2009.

Misunderstood marsupial

Adult Tasmanian devil

Known for its frightening nocturnal screeches, the Tasmanian devil is the largest of the carnivorous marsupials. Contrary to its savage reputation, the Tasmanian devil is actually quite shy and is only aggressive when feeling threatened or when in competition with other devils.

Snack and swim

Dugong with remoras

Strictly feeding on plants, the dugong is often referred to as the ‘sea cow’, but it is actually more closely related to elephants than cows! Found off the coast of northern Australia, the dugong uses its flexible upper lip to rip whole plants apart, leaving ‘feeding trails’ on the sea floor. What a messy eater!

Water-free wallaby

Black-footed rock wallaby with young on rock

Found throughout Australia, the black-footed wallaby lives its life in groups of 10 to 100 individuals. Found primarily in rock piles and granite outcrops, this wallaby feasts mostly on grasses and fruit, and, interestingly, obtains nearly all of its water through its food.

Burrow builder

Southern hairy-nosed wombat

An expert digger, the southern hairy-nosed wombat is able to construct burrows that support a constant inside temperature of 78°F in the summer and 57.2 °F in the winter. These burrows are often formed as networks of up to thirty meters long that can host five to ten wombats.

Smooth sailing

Sugar glider on branch preparing to leap

The softly furred sugar glider uses the membrane along its body to glide distances of up to 150 feet between trees. This agile possum also has a rather distinctive alarm call, which is said to resemble a yapping dog!

Cultural croaker

Northern corroboree frog

Found only in the northern Australian Alps and the Australian Capital Territory, the northern corroboree frog has a local cultural story attached to its name. ‘Corroboree’ is an aboriginal word used to describe a gathering, where traditionally attendees are adorned with brightly colored yellow markings similar to those of this frog.

Aquatic ambler

Spotted handfish

A fish with ‘hands’ that can walk the ocean floor? It’s true! The spotted handfish, one of the world’s most endangered fish, is able to use its characteristic ‘hand-like’ fins to walk the sea floor, occasionally sucking on prey like shrimp and small fish. Threatened by development, a restricted distribution and a low reproductive rate, the spotted handfish population may be restored in the future through successful re-introduction programs.

If you’re looking to continue your ‘walkabout’ around Australia on ARKive, check out the new Barrow Island topic page or search the 1,200+ Australian species on ARKive today. Feel free to share your favorite Aussie species in the comments below!

Jade Womack, Education & Outreach Intern, Wildscreen USA

Aug 28
Share 'In the News: Sea otter return providing lifeline for dwindling seagrass in California' on Delicious Share 'In the News: Sea otter return providing lifeline for dwindling seagrass in California' on Digg Share 'In the News: Sea otter return providing lifeline for dwindling seagrass in California' on Facebook Share 'In the News: Sea otter return providing lifeline for dwindling seagrass in California' on reddit Share 'In the News: Sea otter return providing lifeline for dwindling seagrass in California' on StumbleUpon Share 'In the News: Sea otter return providing lifeline for dwindling seagrass in California' on Email Share 'In the News: Sea otter return providing lifeline for dwindling seagrass in California' on Print Friendly

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

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

Sea otter image

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

Seagrass decline

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

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

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

Sea otter feeding image

Sea otters feed on crabs and other shellfish

Seagrass saviour

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

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

Testing the hypothesis

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

Sea otter image

Sea otters

Fighting climate change

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

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

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

Benefits

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

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

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

See more photos and videos of sea otters on ARKive.

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

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Aug 8
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ARKive’s Top 10 Strange-Looking Sharks

As Shark Week continues to float on here in the US, we think it’s the perfect time to shine the spotlight on some of the strangest-looking sharks found on Earth. We all know what the great white shark looks like but have you seen a shark with an ‘executioner’ style hood over its head or one with a beard? Read on to see how many of these bizarre sharks are new to you!

 10. Trendy trim

Photo of leopard shark swimming along sea bed

With a chic patterning of splotches over its body, the leopard shark roams the ocean in the day and night. Despite the fear that all sharks are dangerous, the leopard shark is actually harmless to man and even approachable when it lounges on the sea floor during the day.

 9.  An immense encounter

Photo of whale shark filter feeding, surrounded by other smaller fish

We think this shark merits an appearance on this list just for its sheer size. The largest fish in the sea, the whale shark can weigh up to 13 tons. Perhaps ironically, the biggest fish in the world feeds primarily on some of the smallest organisms, tiny planktonic organisms.

8.  Hard-headed

Photo of kitefin shark swimming

The blunt snout of this species along with its large eyes makes the kitefin shark a perfect addition to our list. The kitefin shark is uniquely ovoviviparous meaning it gives birth to live young instead of laying eggs like most other fish species.

7. Hooded hider

Photo of hooded carpetshark showing spriacle

With a black mask over its head and snout, the hooded carpet shark is said to resemble an eerie ‘executioner’s hood’. The addition of white spots that cover most of its body helps this species to blend into surrounding coral until this nocturnal shark comes to life at night.

6. Wide-eyed wonder

Photo of crocodile shark speciman close up

Check out the blinders on this fish! The crocodile shark is a small slender shark known for its short head and large eyes likely used to hunt effectively at night. Following its prey towards the water surface at night and away during the day, the crocodile shark is an active hunter which enjoys a wide variety of prey including squid, fish, and shrimp.

5. See a saw

Photo of green sawfish swimming

Aptly named, the green sawfish has an elongated snout with over 23 pairs of teeth.  By using this impeccable nozzle, the green sawfish is able to feed on slow-moving fish by clubbing at them with a side of its saw. Cleverly, the green sawfish uses its saw to act as a shovel-like instrument to rake out crustaceans.

4. Face of an angel

Photo of angel shark on the seabed at night

Sometimes mistaken for a large ray due to its appearance, the angel shark has a remarkably flat body and well-placed eyes on the top of its head that are perfect for ambush-style predation. The angel shark is Critically Endangered, likely due to its prevalence in by-catch – the accidental capture of species through standard fishing practices such as trawling. Sadly, this species has been declared extinct in the North Sea.

3. Mega mouth

Photo of basking shark feeding

As the second largest fish in the sea, the basking shark is one to impress. Perhaps a good kisser, the basking shark uses its three-foot-wide mouth to filter feed while it ‘basks’. Not too interested in the social scene, the solitary basking shark is thought to hibernate in deep water.

2. Ancient allure

Photo of filled shark swimming

The frilled shark is one of the most primitive species of living shark. Having perfected its look to have a lizard-like, blunt-ended snout and a very large mouth, the frilled shark possesses an unconventional beauty. Living primarily in the deep-water darkness, this three-foot-long and mysterious beast has had few observations made in its natural environment.

1. Camouflaged charmer

Photo of tasselled wobbegong

Literally meaning ‘well fringed nose with shaggy beard’, the tasselled wobbegong is an exceedingly unusual looking shark. With its branching skin flaps and a lofty lattice-like ‘beard’ the wobbegong’s bristles provide it with a sagacious camouflage and overall appearance. We challenge you to find a weirder-looking shark on ARKive!

Were any sharks on our list new to you? Or do you have a favorite to add to the list? Surf the ARKive site for more sharks and share your favorites in the comments below!

Jade Womack, Education & Outreach Intern, Wildscreen USA

Jul 27
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Endangered Species of the Week: Balearic shearwater

Photo of Balearic shearwater in flight

Balearic shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus)

Species: Balearic shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: Like other shearwaters, the Balearic shearwater is named for its ‘shearing’ flight, in which it flies with stiffly held wings just centimetres above the ocean waves.

Considered to be the most threatened seabird in the Mediterranean, the Balearic shearwater is a medium-sized shearwater which breeds only on the Balearic Islands, in the western Mediterranean Sea. This species spends most of its time out at sea, where it dives into the water to catch fish and squid, using its long, sharp beak to capture its slippery prey. The Balearic shearwater returns to land to breed between February and June, and each pair lays a single large egg, usually in a small cave, cavity or under a boulder. Breeding pairs may remain together for many years. At the end of the breeding season, some Balearic shearwaters migrate northwards to winter in the Bay of Biscay, and may reach as far north as the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.

The main threats to the Balearic shearwater include predation by introduced mammals and entanglement in fishing gear. The breeding habitat of this species is threatened by urbanisation and by introduced rabbits, which compete with the birds for nesting sites, and the Balearic shearwater may also be negatively affected by pollution, oil spills and a reduction in prey abundance. As part of a recovery plan in place for the Balearic shearwater, rats have been eradicated from a number of breeding sites and a number of protected areas have been created. Studies into the species’ biology and populations are also being carried out. Efforts are underway to assess the problem of bycatch in fisheries, and awareness campaigns, together with mitigation measures, will be important in addressing this threat.

Find out more about seabird conservation at the BirdLife International Global Seabird Programme.

You can also read more about UK marine species in our National Marine Week guest blog.

See images of the Balearic shearwater on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Jul 27
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Guest Blog – National Marine Week 2013

The UK has been experiencing some uncharacteristically hot weather over the last few weeks, so what better time to get out to our beautiful coast? Take this opportunity to find out more about the fantastic diversity of species and habitats we have off our shores, and join in The Wildlife Trusts’ annual National Marine Week! This celebration of all things marine actually runs for more than two weeks, from Saturday 27 July to Sunday 11 August, to make the most of the tides.

Velvet swimming crab image

Velvet swimming crab

We are fortunate in the UK to have an awe-inspiring range of habitats and species around our coasts. From shallow seagrass meadows and kelp forests to gullies and canyons over 2,000 metres deep, these habitats provide homes and feeding grounds for countless species, including colourful sea slugs, charismatic fish such as the tompot blenny, and the bottlenose dolphin, one of 11 species of whale, dolphin and porpoise regularly seen in our waters! Our seas are also home to the second largest fish in the world, the basking shark. This gentle giant can be spotted in the summer as it comes close to the shore, filter feeding micro-organisms.

Basking shark image

Basking shark

All around our coasts, Wildlife Trusts staff and volunteers will be sharing their knowledge, so whether you want to find out more about minke whales or molluscs, velvet swimming crabs or strawberry anemones, breadcrumb sponges or butterfish, and seals or seabirds, there will be events where people can enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the sea and learn more about its riches.

The Wildlife Trusts hold these events to showcase some of the UK’s marine wildlife, and to educate and enthuse people about this fantastic resource on our doorstep. As well as being a source of wonder, our seas are also a playground, a food supply, a conduit for our imports and exports, and a climate regulator that absorbs vast quantities of greenhouse gases while releasing the oxygen we breathe. We are an island nation, and the sea is a vital part of our national identity.

Jewel anemone image

Jewel anemones

However, the seas are not as productive as they once were. For years, we have taken too much with too little care. Our seas’ resources are not inexhaustible, and their ability to cope with the pressures we put on them – damage from fishing, industrial pollution and the impacts of a changing climate – is limited. Much of our marine wildlife is in decline. Two species of whale and dolphin have become extinct in UK waters in the last 400 years, and basking shark numbers have declined by 95%. Commercial species are also under pressure, and in 2009 the EU Commission declared that 88% of marine fish stocks were overexploited.

Grey seal image

Grey seal

In order to provide better protection for our marine environment, here at The Wildlife Trusts we are campaigning for an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas – areas that offer protection not just to our most rare and vulnerable species, but to the full range of species and habitats found in the seas.

These areas will protect marine life within their boundaries, and with careful management they can also have an influence beyond these boundaries, as burgeoning populations spill out into the surrounding sea. A well-designed and effectively managed network will help boost the health of the marine environment as a whole, helping it to recover from past impacts and sustain current pressures. Although we have made a start on our network, we still have a long way to go, and at the moment progress towards achieving the network is slow.

The Wildlife Trusts’ National Marine Week and our events provide us with a crucial opportunity to highlight the need to continue to put pressure on UK Governments to ensure that this vital ambition is achieved. It offers countless opportunities for people to savour the seaside and find out so much more about what our coasts have to offer. Why not head over to The Wildlife Trusts’ marine wildlife weeks page to find an event near you!

Ali Plummer, Living Seas Officer for The Wildlife Trusts

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