Weekly round-up: February 28

Bornean orangutans are critically endangered

Ten orangutans were released in the Borneo rainforest earlier this month as part of ongoing conservation efforts – but only after testing negative for Covid-19.

Operations by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation have been hampered by the global pandemic since March last year, with rehabilitation centres closed to visitors, volunteers and researchers, and releases on hold. However, following the introduction of strict new protocols including rapid testing and PPE for all personnel involved, plus the use of helicopters for transportation to avoid lengthy road trips through numerous villages, releases are back on the cards.

Seven orangutans, five males and two females, were released in the Bukit Batikap Protection Forest, Central Kalimantan, while three further individuals, two males and a female, were released in Kehje Sewen Forest, East Kalimantan. 

Dr Jamartin Sihite, BOS Foundation CEO, said: “For an entire year, we have not been able to release orangutans due to the global pandemic, but we are still strongly committed to the orangutan conservation effort. We have taken advantage of this one-year gap to rewrite and finalise a new set of protocols for implementing activities in the midst of a pandemic, which allow us to continue saving orangutans. We conduct regular tests on staff to ensure that those who interact with orangutans are safe from Covid-19, as well as ensure the orangutans released from our rehabilitation centres are also healthy and free of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Bornean orangutans are critically endangered due to habitat loss and fragmentation, forest fires and poaching.
Source Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation

Whipsnade Zoo’s elephants seen through the thermal imaging camera

Researchers from the Zoological Society of London hope to be able to reduce human-wildlife conflict through the use of thermal-imaging after ‘training’ cameras to recognise elephants.

Using 30,000 images of Asian and African elephants taken at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo and Colchester Zoo, the vast bank of data has allowed the team to develop technology that can detect the animals up to 30 metres away, including at night.

The team has developed AI capable of detecting elephants

Human-elephant conflict is a significant problem, particularly for the endangered Asian elephant, with increasing land development leading to smaller and more fragmented habitat.

The team, in conjunction with the Arribada Initiative, will now work on developing prototype cameras before deploying them in the field.
Source ZSL

Whale sharks are increasingly coming into contact with humans (MarAlliance2018)

Scientists have discovered that the endangered whale shark is able to heal remarkably quickly from external injuries – and in the case of one juvenile, regrow a fin tip – but researchers studying the species noted that such lacerations and abrasions are increasingly caused by collisions with boats.

Whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, each have unique markings – a mix of white spots and stripes – allowing the examination and identification of individuals from photos taken by the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles in Djibouti, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme in the Maldives, the whale shark tourism industry and ‘citizen scientists’. Comparison of images showed all injuries reached a point of 90 per cent surface area closure at 35 days, while the most rapid recovery showed a 50 per cent reduction in surface wound size within four days.

In the case of the amputated dorsal fin tip, spotted on a juvenile whale shark in 2006 but regrown when the individual was sighted again five years later, researchers noted it was the first documented case of any elasmobranch (sharks, rays, skates and sawfish) re-growing part of an appendage.

Whale sharks are popular within the tourism industry – these gentle giants can grow up to 18 metres and are found in both coastal and ocean habitats – resulting in increasing interactions with boats.

A comparison of injuries 11 days apart (University of Southampton)

Lead author Freya Womersley said: “By using our new method, we were able to determine that these sharks can heal from very serious injuries in timeframes of weeks and months. This means that we now have a better understanding of injury and healing dynamics, which can be very important for conservation management.”
Publication Conservation Physiology

A study of North America’s vast forests has shown that while younger trees are producing more seeds due to climate change, older trees are less responsive – which could result in a continental divide as more mature forests in the west are less able to recover from large-scale diebacks following temperature increases and droughts.

The research involved new statistical software designed to analyse decades of raw data and information from almost 100,000 trees. The results showed that fecundity – trees’ capacity to regenerate after diebacks through seed dispersal – increases as trees grow larger to a point, then begin to decline.

Lead author James S Clark, distinguished professor of environmental science at Duke University, said: “This explains the East-West divide. Most trees in the East are young, growing fast and entering a size class where fecundity increases, so any indirect impact from climate that spurs their growth also increases their seed production.

“We see the opposite happening with the older, larger trees in the West. There are small and large trees in both regions, of course, but the regions differ enough in their size structure to respond in different ways. 

“Now that we understand, in aggregate, how this all works, the next step is to apply it to individual species or stands and incorporate it into the models we use to predict future forest changes.”
Publication Nature Communications

The black-browed babbler has been rediscovered in Borneo (M. Suranto)

The black-browed babbler, not seen in 180 years, has been rediscovered in Borneo by two local bird enthusiasts.

Only one specimen of the species existed having been caught by Charles Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, on an expedition to the region in the 1840s. Named to science as Malacocincla perspicillata, it was never seen in the wild again – until October last year, when Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan spotted the bird in the rainforests of the island’s South Kalimantan province. After catching the individual and taking photographs they released it back into the forest, sharing the images with the birding and scientific communities, who identified it as the elusive black-browed babbler.

Speaking to The Guardian, Fauzan said: “It feels surreal to know that we have found a species of bird presumed by experts to be extinct. We didn’t expect it to be that special at all – we thought it was just another bird that we simply have never seen before.”
Publication BirdingASIA

Vital terrestrial and marine ecosystems across Australia and Antarctica are collapsing, warns a team of 38 scientists from across the globe – recommending a three-step framework to prevent irreversible damage.

Examining 19 ecosystems, including across all Australian states on land and marine environments from the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north to Antarctica, the team found evidence of collapse in every case study – supported by empirical evidence, not modelling.

Drivers of ecosystem collapse include climate change and human pressures, such as land conversion, introduction of invasive species and pollution – classes as chronic ‘presses’ – and acute ‘pulses’, short-term events such as storms, heatwaves and fires.

 To combat permanent damage, the team recommended the ‘3As’ framework of awareness of the importance of the ecosystem, anticipation of the risks from current and future pressures and action to reduce the pressures identified.

Co-author and emeritus professor at Exeter University Michael Depledge said: “Our paper is a further wake-up call that shows ecosystems are in varying states of collapse from the tropics to Antarctica. These findings from Australia are a stark warning of what is happening everywhere, and will continue without urgent action. 

“The implications for human health and wellbeing are serious. Fortunately, as we show, by raising awareness, and anticipating risks there is still time to take action to address these changes. 

“We can already observe the damaging consequences for the health and wellbeing of some communities and anticipate threats to others. Taking stronger action now will avoid heaping further misery on a global population that is already bearing the scars of the global pandemic.”
Publication Global Change Biology

Read Consider the Oyster: why economics still has so much to learn from the natural world

Watch Australian slug descends down a thread of slime in ‘never seen before behaviour’ 

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