Weekly round-up: March 7

Marmorated stink bugs originated in south-east Asia (Brett Hondow)

A brown marmorated stink bug has been trapped in Britain for the first time, with fears the fruit-loving insect could become established across the nation – causing millions of pounds of damage to crops.

The insect, which as its name suggests releases a strong odour when threatened, originated in south-east Asia, but has spread into Europe and the US. The bugs inject saliva into fruit, causing it to become stained and unsaleable.

Scientists at NIAB EMR, a Kent-based horticultural research institute, found the bug in a pheromone trap at the RSPB’s Rainham Marshes nature reserve in Essex.

NIAB EMR entomologist Dr Glen Powell said: “The discovery of this flying adult of the species shows that the pest is present in the UK, and supports our concerns that the bugs may be actively dispersing in search of mates and food plants this summer and in the future.”

Scientists are calling for a previously unknown breeding site used by endangered Mediterranean monk seals to be given protected status. The caves, found in northern Cyprus, were discovered using camera traps.

With a population of around 700, Mediterranean monk seals are the rarest of all pinniped species – a group including sea lions and walruses. Not all caves are suitable for seal resting and breeding, prompting the teams at the University of Exeter and the Society for the Protection of Turtles, who discovered the sites, to push for conservation efforts.

Dr Robin Snape, University of Exeter, said: “This area of coastline is being developed rapidly, especially for construction of hotels. A survey of the coast in 2007 found 39 possible breeding caves, and some of these have already been destroyed. 

“The main breeding site we identify in this study currently has no protected status, and we are working with local authorities to try to change this.”

Bycatch – accidental catching in fishing nets – is also a threat to the species.
Publication Oryx – the International Journal of Conservation

An emperor moth, one of around 700 species found in the UK (Ian Lindsay)

Larger moths in Britain have declined by a third in the past half century, with greater losses in the southern half of the nation.

A report by Butterfly Conservation, The State of Britain’s Larger Moths 2021, showed a decrease of 39 per cent in the south, compared to 22 per cent in the north. Long-term abundance trends in 427 species showed 175 species had fallen in number, while only 42 had increased – 210 species showed no significant change.

Distribution increased in 37 per cent of species, with climate change a principal driver in movement. Since the turn of the century, 53 new species of larger moth have become established in Britain, either arriving naturally with warmer temperatures or being accidentally imported through the global plant trade.

Lead author Dr Richard Fox, associate director of recording and monitoring at Butterfly Conservation, said: “This decline is worrying because moths play a vital role in our ecosystems. They are pollinators of many plants, with some wildflowers, such as orchids, relying on visiting moths for reproduction. They also provide essential food for thousands of animal species, including bats and many familiar birds. 

“We’re lucky enough to have almost 900 species of larger moths in Britain. Because moths are dwindling, we can be pretty sure that other wildlife is also in decline and that our wider environment is deteriorating.”
Source The State of Britain’s Larger Moths 2021

Neonicotinoids have previously been banned due to the risk to pollinators

Neonicotinoid pesticides will not be deployed on this year’s sugar beet crops as previously expected due to cold weather reducing the spread of yellow beet virus.

Environmentalists and conservation organisations lambasted the government in January when special dispensation was issued to use the previously banned pesticide, which is potentially lethal to bees and other pollinators. 

Last year the NFU reported yield losses of up to 80 per cent due to the virus, resulting in the application for use in a bid to eliminate virus-carrying aphids. At least nine per cent of this year’s crop needed to be at risk in order to approve neonicotinoid use, but a prolonged cold spell last month has killed off enough aphids to lower the risk below the threshold.
Source Defra

Wild pigs have been described as ‘accidental forest gardeners’ due to their newly-understood ability to enhance biodiversity.

Much maligned for their destructive behaviour, wild pigs – or boars – have now been shown to increase tree species diversity when building their nests from dominant tree seedlings, allowing rarer species to flourish in their place.

Dr Matthew Luskin, lead author of the study by the University of Queensland, said: “We’ve shown that wild pigs can support higher diversity ecosystems and are not just nuisances and pests, thanks to a beneficial effect of their nesting practices.

“Prior to giving birth, pigs build birthing nests made up of hundreds of tree seedlings, usually on flat, dry sites in the forest.

 “As they build their nests, the pigs kill many of the dominant seedlings and inadvertently reduce the abundance of locally dominant tree species, but usually not rarer local species, supporting tree diversity.”

The study took place in Malaysia, where the pigs are a native species – the team is now studying whether invasive wild pigs offer the same services in Australia.
Publication Proceedings of the Royal Society B

A study of peregrine falcons has provided the strongest evidence yet of the role played by genetics in bird migration patterns – the so-called ‘migration gene’.

A team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Cardiff University tracked 56 Arctic peregrine falcons, observing five routes across Eurasia – with a particular variant of the ADCY8 gene more common in birds taking longer routes. The gene has already been associated with long-term memory in other animals.

Peregrine falcons’ name comes from the Latin word for wanderer (Ray Miller)

Co-author Professor Mike Bruford, a molecular ecologist at Cardiff University, said: “Previous studies have identified several candidate genomic regions that may regulate migration – but our work is the strongest demonstration of a specific gene associated with migratory behaviour yet identified.”

The team also carried out simulations of migration under future global warming, predicting populations in western Eurasia are most at risk of decline if temperature increases continue at the current rate, and may stop migrating altogether.
Publication Nature

Loss of variation within species has been described as a ‘hidden biodiversity crisis’ by a study from UC Santa Cruz, with the authors calling for better understanding and conservation of intraspecific diversity to preserve ecosystem services.

A review of existing literature examining species diversity and its contributions or benefits to people found well-documented positive relationships – also highlighting examples where reductions in variation caused by human actions had a negative impact, such as subpopulations of salmon which are adapted to different watersheds. This variation means the overall population should remain stable despite environmental fluctuations, because while some will decrease, others will increase. However, loss of genetic variation caused by dams and hatchery production will be detrimental to the industry.

The authors also focused on plants with medicinal value. Co-author Eric Palkovacs, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, said: “Different varieties of the same plant species may have different compounds with different medicinal properties, such as different antimalarial drugs that depend on the genetic diversity of the plants they are derived from.”

Palkovacs and first author Simone Des Roches have called for global conservation efforts to address this aspect of biodiversity. 

“The available evidence strongly suggests that the benefits of studying and conserving intraspecific variation will far outweigh the costs,” said Palkovacs.
Publication Nature Ecology and Evolution

Read On forbes.com: How Green Is The New U.K. Budget? Climate Experts Deliver Their Verdict

Watch Bald eagles nesting on Santa Cruz, Channel Islands National Park

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