Weekly round-up: October 18

The Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven wonders of the natural world, has lost half of its corals in the past 30 years, a new report shows. Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies studied populations along the length of the 1,250-mile reef between 1995 and 2017, finding the numbers of small, medium and large corals had all declined, with branching and table-shaped corals – which provide structure to the reef and form important habitats for marine residents – the worst affected.

Co-author Professor Terry Hughes says: “The decline occurred in both shallow and deeper water, and across virtually all species – but especially in branching and table-shaped corals. These were the worst affected by record-breaking temperatures that triggered mass bleaching in 2016 and 2017.”

On the future of the reef, lead author Dr Andy Dietzel said: “A vibrant coral population has millions of small, baby corals, as well as many large ones – the big mamas who produce most of the larvae. Our results show the ability of the Great Barrier Reef to recover – its resilience – is compromised compared to the past, because there are fewer babies, and fewer large breeding adults.”

Losing more complex coral structures means habitats for fish are also lost (Andreas Dietzel)

The authors add: “There is no time to lose – we must sharply decrease greenhouse gas emissions ASAP.”

A second study released this week showed that many Australians do not connect climate change with damage to the Great Barrier Reef. Of 4,285 Australians asked “what types of actions could people like you do that would be helpful for the Great Barrier Reef?” via an online survey, one in four responses related to a reduction in plastic pollution, but only 4.1 per cent mentioned a specific action related to climate change, with a further 3.8 per cent referencing climate change but no specific action. 
Publication Proceedings of the Royal Academy B/Conservation Letters

Investigations are underway after around 5,000 Cape fur seal pups were born prematurely and subsequently died on a beach at Pelican Point in Namibia. The seals usually give birth between mid-November and early December, but can abort their pregnancies due to lack of food. Naude Dreyer, a marine biologist with Ocean Conservation Namibia, has suggested possible causes as toxins, disease, or an absence of the fish they normally eat. The country’s ministry of fisheries, which sanctions a cull of the seals every year, is investigating.
Source Ocean Conservation Namibia

The embrace (Sergey Gorshkov)

The intimate moment of a Siberian tigress rubbing her scent on an ancient fir tree in Russia caught on camera by Sergey Gorshkov has earned him the title of Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the prestigious awards – patience rewarded after waiting 11 months using hidden cameras to capture the image, called ‘The embrace’.

Dr Tim Littlewood, the Natural History Museum’s executive director of science and jury member, says: “Hunted to the verge of extinction in the past century, the Amur population is still threatened by poaching and logging today. The remarkable sight of the tigress immersed in her natural environment offers us hope, as recent reports suggest numbers are growing from dedicated conservation efforts. Through the unique emotive power of photography, we are reminded of the beauty of the natural world and our shared responsibility to protect it.”

The fox that got the goose (Liina Heikkinen)

Liina Heikkinen’s striking image ‘The fox that got the goose’ won Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Source Natural History Museum

A continued decline in habitat and species was highlighted in this week’s UK Biodiversity Indicators Report, in which 14 of 24 markers showed long-term deterioration. The report also revealed a real-term decrease in public sector funding of 33 per cent. Abundance and distribution of UK priority species, the UK habitats and species of European importance and fish size classes in the North Sea were among the areas failing, but designation of protected sites and public engagement were among the areas to improve, with conservation volunteering rising 11 per cent between 2013 and 2017 and a further five per cent in 2018. 
Source UK Biodiversity Indicators 2020

The Chinese government has yet to fully ban commercial trade in a number of threatened wild species including pangolins, tigers and leopards. Revisions to legislation were made in February preventing commercial breeding and trade in most terrestrial wildlife for human consumption following public health concerns amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency suggests no amendments will be made concerning the trade in threatened species intended for non-food purposes, including in medicine and ornaments. Pangolins are the most-trafficked animal in the world, while illegal fishing for the critically endangered totoaba fish in the Gulf of California intended for the Chinese market is driving the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, to the brink of extinction. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates there are just 18 mature individuals remaining.
Source Environment Investigations Agency/IUCN

Elephant populations in Côte D’Ivoire have suffered a catastrophic decline in recent decades, with the animals confirmed in only four of 25 protected areas across the country. Côte D’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), so-named because of its once large elephant population, has developed much of the species’ original habitat into farmland and human settlement – including more than half of the areas designated as protected. In the 1990s the population was estimated at between 63 and 360. Although the most recent study does not report a new estimation, it questions the viability of the remaining populations given their reduced size – analysed using dung counts on line transects, records of human–elephant conflict, media reports, sign and interview surveys – and isolation.

The authors conclude: “Aggressive conservation actions including law enforcement for the protection of their remaining habitat and anti-poaching actions are needed to protect the remaining forest elephant populations.”
Publication PLoS One

A bar-tailed godwit (Pixabay)

A bar-tailed godwit has broken the world record for avian non-stop flight, travelling more than 7,500 miles in just 11 days. The epic migration started in south-west Alaska on September 16 and finished near Auckland, with a total flight time of around 224 hours. The bar-tailed godwit can double in size before migration – the record-breaker in question had been feeding on clams and worms for the summer – but can also shrink their internal organs to ease the load while flying.
Source The Guardian/Global Flyway Network

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