Mar 31

Now in its seventh year, Earth Hour is a global event symbolising solidarity in the fight against one of the greatest threats to our planet – climate change.

In 2011, more than 5,200 cities and towns in 135 countries switched off their lights for WWF’s Earth Hour, sending a powerful message to global leaders that the world wants immediate action on tackling climate change. Hundreds of millions of people are set to join in again this year, with many going ‘Beyond the Hour’ to commit to lasting action for the planet.

Earth Hour 2012 takes place at 8:30 pm local time on Saturday 31st March, so get ready to flick those switches and join in the fight for a healthier planet! Here at ARKive, we’re taking a peek at a few species which are pretty good ambassadors of energy conservation and efficiency, as well as a species which functions quite well without light!

Mexican tetra

Mexican tetra image

The Mexican tetra lacks functioning eyes

The Mexican tetra is a primarily carnivorous fish, of which there are two different forms. One of these forms lives in dark caves, and as a result it does not have functioning eyes. If this fishy fellow can survive without light its whole life, I reckon we can cope for an hour or so!

Sea otter

Sea otter image

Sea otters often hold their paws out of the water to retain heat

Sea otters are able to keep warm by having the densest fur of any mammal, with about one million hairs per square centimetre of skin. While resting on its back, this marine mammal is often seen holding its paws out of the water; this helps to reduce the amount of body heat lost to the water, and can also help keep the sea otter’s body temperature up by absorbing radiant heat from the sun.

Emperor penguin

Emperor penguin image

Emperor penguins huddle together to keep warm in harsh, icy winds

Emperor penguins live in one of the harshest environments on the planet, braving temperatures as low as -60°C. In order to survive the extreme cold, penguins often huddle together in large groups to conserve body heat. The penguins rotate positions within the swarm of feathery bodies, so that no single individual is constantly on the colder exterior of the group.

California condor

California condor image

California condors soar on thermals created in their arid environment

The California condor may be big and bulky, but it is an energy-efficient flyer. It takes advantage of the hot air currents formed in its arid environment, and simply uses its large wings to soar on these thermals, expending little energy in doing so. This species has also developed its own answer to air-conditioning; the California condor urinates on its own legs to take heat away from its body through evaporation. The cooled blood is then circulated through the rest of the body.

Cheesman’s gerbil

Cheesman's gerbil image

Cheesman's gerbils are well adapted to conserving water

Cheesman’s gerbil lives in desert areas where water is a luxury, and this rodent has developed a highly efficient digestive system which enables it to extract as much water as possible from its food.

Dung beetle

Dung beetle image

Dung beetles are some of nature's best recyclers

Dung beetles are rather ‘green’ creatures, as they play a huge role in the removal and breakdown of dung in the environment, and help to recycle nutrients into the soil. There are many species of dung beetle, and the work of these recycling champions improves soil structure and fertility.

Don’t forget, Earth Hour is on Saturday 31st March at 8:30 pm local time, so join the ARKive team and millions of other people worldwide and switch off those lights!

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author

Mar 30

Researchers in Madagascar have discovered the world’s smallest species of reptile, a tiny chameleon, Brookesia micra, that reaches just 29 millimetres in length.

Brookesia micra image

Juvenile Brookesia micra on finger

Miniature chameleons

While people may be familiar with the appearance of a chameleon, with its slightly comical jerking gait and rotating eyes, to see these features in such miniature proportions is extraordinary. A research team of German scientists discovered Brookesia micra, along with three other new species while conducting field work at night in the forests of Madagascar.

They mostly live in the leaf litter in the day… But at night they climb up and then you can spot them,” said Dr Glaw.

The tiny reptiles were spotted using torches and headlamps shone into likely roosting places.

Brookesia tristis image

Another new species, Brookesia tristis, on a leaf

Brookesia confidens image

Brookesia confidens on hand

Brookesia micra, the smallest of the newly discovered species, was discovered on a remote limestone islet where its small size is believed to have evolved as an adaptation to its restricted habitat. Genetic testing has not only proven that these tiny chameleons are indeed four separate species, but that they separated from each other millions of years ago. 

Brookesia desperata image

Brookesia desperata

Brookesia desperate image

Female Brookesia desperata with eggs

Conservation concern

As the newly discovered chameleons inhabit such small ranges, they are extremely vulnerable to habitat disturbance. The names given to the new species reflect their precarious position, with Brookesia desperata, named for the desperate loss of habitat currently facing the species, and Brookesia tristis named after the French for ‘sad’, due to the proximity of its forest habitat to a rapidly expanding city.

Read about the discovery on BBC Nature.

View all Brookesia species on ARKive.

Becky Moran, ARKive Species Text Author

Mar 29

Fires raging in an Indonesian swamp forest are severely threatening the rare Sumatran orangutan that occurs there, and may have already contributed to the deaths of around a third of individuals in the population.

Photo of Sumatran orangutan male, female and infant

Sumatran orangutan male, female and infant

Fire hazard

The Tripa forest in Aceh province, Indonesia, provides crucial habitat for the world’s densest population of the Critically Endangered Sumatran orangutan. However, according to conservationists, a third of the orangutans in the forest may already have died as a result of the fires, while the rest of the population remains seriously at risk.

Habitat loss driving declines

In the past twenty years, 80% of orangutan habitat in Indonesia has been lost to illegal logging, gold mining and conversion to permanent agriculture, notably palm oil plantations.

In the Tripa forest, palm oil companies have drained large areas of peat swamp which, in addition to severely fragmenting and degrading the orangutan’s forest habitat, has created fire ‘hot spots’ at many of the palm oil plantations.

A total of 92 fire hot spots were recorded between 19 and 25 March 2012, and recent images show that only just over 12,000 hectares of the original 60,000 hectare forest now remain.

Photo of male Sumatran orangutan swinging through trees

Male Sumatran orangutan swinging through trees

The frequency and severity of these fires have had a huge impact on the wildlife in the region. The scale of the problem is reminiscent of the 1997 and 1998 forest fires which raged through much of Borneo, during which time it was estimated that around one third of the island’s orangutan population was killed.

Graham Usher, of the Foundation for a Sustainable Ecosystem, said that, “If there is a prolonged drought and the fire continues … then orangutans, tigers and sun bears within it will be exterminated before the end of 2012.

Photo of Sumatran orangutan mother and infant feeding

Sumatran orangutan mother and infant feeding

A global tragedy

Tripa used to be home to around 3,000 Sumatran orangutans in the 1990s. Today, fewer than 200 individuals are thought to survive there. According to Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, “It is no longer several years away, but just a few months or even weeks before this iconic creature disappears. We are currently watching a global tragedy.

Between 2009 and 2011, 100 orangutans died, and estimates suggest that a further 100 individuals have been killed in recent months, either in the conversion of the forest to palm oil plantations or by starvation and malnutrition.

Read the article in the Guardian: Rare Sumatran orangutans dying as fires rage in Indonesian swamp forest.

Find out more about the Sumatran orangutan on ARKive.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

Mar 28

Hector’s dolphins living off the coast of Christchurch, New Zealand, have benefitted from the designation of a Marine Protected Area, according to scientists.

Photo of Hector's dolphins

Sliding towards extinction

One of the world’s smallest dolphin species, Hector’s dolphin is also one of the most highly endangered, with fewer than 7,500 individuals remaining. Found only in waters around New Zealand, the species is gradually sliding towards extinction, due mainly to entanglement in fishing nets.

A subspecies from New Zealand’s North Island, known as Maui’s dolphin, is particularly endangered, with recent figures suggesting it is down to just 55 mature individuals.

Increased survival rates

The Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary was established in 1988 in an attempt to protect the dolphins from fatalities associated with the fishing industry. Researchers who have studied the dolphins in the area for 21 years found that their survival rate has increased by 5.4% since the sanctuary was declared.

This is the first evidence that Marine Protected Areas can be effective for marine mammals. We found a significant improvement in the survival rate,” said Dr Liz Slooten, one of the researchers.

Photo of Hector's dolphin

The team of scientists used regular photo identification of Hector’s dolphins in the Marine Mammal Sanctuary to monitor their population, starting two years before the area was officially protected. The results of the research are published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Estimating population changes in marine mammals is challenging, often requiring many years of research to produce data accurate enough to detect these kinds of biological changes,” said Dr Slooten. “It seems to take a long time for a dolphin population to respond to protection, and therefore a long-term study to detect [any] improvement.”

Good news and bad news

Unfortunately, although the increased survival rate of the dolphins is a positive step, the researchers were surprised that it had not increased further.

Once the Banks Peninsula area was protected, we had expected the problem to be solved and the population to be healthy and recovering,” said Dr Slooten.

Instead, the team found that the dolphins were not spending the whole year in the protected area, with some moving up to 16 nautical miles outside of the area in winter. Continuing mortality in fishing nets means that the species as a whole is still on course to becoming extinct.

Photo of Hector's dolphin in typical habitat

According to Dr Slooten, “The good news is that the situation has improved. The population was doing a nose-dive, declining at 6% per year, and now it’s only declining slowly [at] about 1% per year.”

The bad news is that the protected area is still too small. It would need to be extended further offshore to allow the population to stop declining and better still to grow and recover towards its original population size.”

Step in the right direction

Although the Marine Protected Area has not yet ensured the long-term survival of Hector’s dolphin, it is thought to be a major step in the right direction. The New Zealand government is now considering whether to extend Marine Protected Areas where Hector’s dolphins are found.

Photo of Hector's dolphin leaping

Speaking about the findings of the research, Dr Barbara Maas, Head of Endangered Species Conservation at NABU-International – Foundation for Nature, said, “This is excellent news because it proves that the removal of fishing nets from their habitat benefits threatened marine mammals. However, it also shows that unless a Protected Area is large enough, this positive influence cannot compensate for mortality caused by fishing. The net effect is continued decline.”

Conservationists are calling for a ban on all gillnet and trawl fishing throughout the entire range of Hector’s dolphin.

Read more on this story at the BBC and Hector’s and Maui’s Dolphin SOS.

View photos and videos of dolphin species on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

Mar 27

According to new research, Mexico is at risk of losing a substantial portion of its cloud forest to climate change over the next few decades.

Black-handed spider monkey image

The Endangered black-handed spider monkey is found in Mexico's cloud forests

Cloud forests at risk

The results of this new research, published in Nature Climate Change, indicate that Mexico could lose almost 70% of its cloud forest by 2080 due to the effects of global climate change. These findings may also have implications for cloud forests worldwide.

Cloud forests are unique ecosystems, typically defined as being tropical forests growing at an altitude of more than about 2,500 to 3,000 metres. These forests obtain the majority of their moisture from fog, and are home to a wide variety of species which are not found anywhere else, including certain species of orchid, hummingbird and amphibian.

Rocio Ponce-Reyes, lead author of the study from the ARC Center of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and The University of Queensland, explains her fears for these species-rich ecosystems, “Given the narrow environmental tolerance of cloud forests, the fear is that human-induced climate change could constitute an even greater peril [than deforestation] in the near future.”

Yellow-blotched palm-pitviper image

The yellow-blotched palm-pitviper, another cloud forest species, is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List

Double trouble for biodiversity

Researchers discovered that rising temperatures and changing climatic conditions could potentially destroy 11,685 square kilometres of cloud forest in Mexico alone, which equates to 69% of the country’s total cloud forest cover.

Yet unfortunately the bad news does not stop there for this unique ecosystem. The majority of Mexico’s cloud forest (88%) remains unprotected, which means that it is incredibly vulnerable to deforestation and degradation. The great worry is that if the unprotected forests are cleared and climate change simultaneously impacts the remaining areas of forest as predicted, Mexico could lose a massive 99% of its cloud forest, as well as most of its species.

Researchers are calling for immediate action to protect those cloud forests which are deemed to be the most resilient to the impacts of climate change, such as the Sierra de Juárez which is known to house 22 of Mexico’s most threatened species. “At present only about 12 percent of Mexico’s cloud forest is protected – and it is not clear how effective that protection will be by the latter part of this century,” says Ms Ponce-Reyes.

Horned guan image

The horned guan is an Endangered cloud forest species

Wider implications

Although the recent study focuses on Mexico, the startling results have global implications, raising questions about the future status of cloud forests in other areas such as Central America, South America, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and the Malay Archipelago.

Cloud forests remain largely unstudied by researchers, despite harbouring a wealth of endemic and undiscovered species, and unfortunately these rich ecosystems are now rapidly disappearing as a result of logging and deforestation for agricultural land.

The research scientists highlight that their results have produced a stark warning for the future, “If bold measures are not taken very soon to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases, these forests are unlikely to survive in their present form, with anything near their present diversity, very far into the twenty-first century.”

Read more on this story at – Cloud forests may be particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Learn more about climate change on ARKive.

Explore species found in Mexico on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author


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