Weekly round-up: April 18

Areas of rainforest in the Amazon and Congo basins are among the most ecologically intact areas on Earth

Just 2.8 per cent of the Earth’s land area remains ecologically intact, according to a new study, significantly lower than the 20-40 per cent mapped previously.

Researchers measured loss of species instead of habitat intactness and areas free of human development such as roads and settlements – the results estimated a maximum 2.9 per cent of the Earth’s surface can be considered faunally intact, with no loss of animal species.

“We know intact habitat is increasingly being lost and the values of intact habitat have been demonstrated for both biodiversity and people,” said lead author Dr Andrew Plumptre, “but this study found that much of what we consider as intact habitat is missing species that have been hunted by people, or lost because of invasive species or disease.”

Only 11 per cent of functionally and faunally intact areas were under any sort of protection, while many were in territories managed by indigenous communities, who play a vital role in their conservation. Areas identified as functionally intact included east Siberia and northern Canada, parts of the Amazon and Congo basin tropical forests, and the Sahara desert.

However, the authors predict that damaged areas could be restored through the introduction of native species.

“The results show that it might be possible to increase the area with ecological intactness back to up to 20 per cent through the targeted reintroductions of species that have been lost in areas where human impact is still low, provided the threats to their survival can be addressed and numbers rebuilt to a level where they fulfil their functional role.”

In a separate study, researchers found only 30 per cent of forest loss in protected areas had been prevented. The review of almost 55,000 protected areas also revealed some high-profile sites had suffered a loss of wildlife.

The authors highlighted the importance of scrutinising the effectiveness of protections and regulation put in place, noting that simply declaring an area protected is not enough.
Publication Frontiers in Forests and Global Change/Science of the Total Environment

Polar bears are losing hunting habitat as sea ice extends less in winter and melts earlier in spring

The number of polar bear/grizzly bear hybrids, or ‘pizzly’ bears, appears to be growing, with an increase in the number of sightings over the last decade.

Researchers believe climate change is behind the rise, with temperatures in the Arctic rising about twice as fast as elsewhere across the globe – not only reducing sea ice, which polar bears need to hunt, but potentially increasing the range of grizzly bears further north.

Speaking to The Independent, paleontologist and Vanderbilt University associate professor Larissa DeSantis said: “Climate change and in particular Arctic warming is definitely playing a role. The warming arctic is resulting in grizzly bears moving north due to warming conditions, while at the same time polar bears are having difficulty hunting from sea ice and [finding] bowhead whale carcasses where these bears engage in opportunistic mating.

“Unfortunately, what we are learning about the polar bear and what we know about hyper-specialised apex predators in the past, such as sabertooth cats, does give us reason to be concerned with the ability, or rather inability, of polar bears to adapt to a warming Arctic, especially when climate change is occurring at an unprecedented rate. 

“The hybrids do have certain features like intermediate skull forms that may make them better suited for eating mechanically challenging food, but this comes with trade offs: they are not as strong swimmers as polar bears. 

“If the warming Arctic makes seal hunting from sea ice untenable, then perhaps the hybrid pizzly or grolar bears can give hope for the survival of these types of bears. That being said, more research and monitoring is needed.”
Source The Independent

Travunijana djokovici

A new species of snail discovered in Montenegro has been named after 18-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic.

Researchers Jozef Grego and Vladimir Pešić, from the University of Montenegro, said: “To discover some of the world’s rarest animals that inhabit the unique underground habitats of the Dinaric karst, to reach inaccessible cave and spring habitats and for the restless work during processing of the collected material, you need Novak’s energy and enthusiasm.”

The snail, Travunijana djokovici, which has an elongated, milky-white shell, is the only member of its genus to be found outside the Trebišnjica river basin in Herzegovina. Because of its small range, it has been classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Publication Subterranean Biology

Spreading salt on roads and pavements during snow storms and icy weather is threatening the global freshwater supply, according to a new study.

Salt has the potential to react with infrastructure and soils, risking the release of metals, dissolved solids and radioactive particles into the environment, which Sujay Kaushal from the University of Maryland and his team suggest has contributed to a global rise in chloride concentration. 

“We used to think about adding salts as not much of a problem,” said Kaushal. “We thought we put it on the roads in winter and it gets washed away, but we realised that it stuck around and accumulated. Now we’re looking into both the acute exposure risks and the long-term health, environmental, and infrastructure risks of all these chemical cocktails that result from adding salts to the environment, and we’re saying, ‘This is becoming one of the most serious threats to our freshwater supply’. And it’s happening in many places we look in the United States and around the world.”

Changes in salinity can allow more salt-tolerant species to outcompete native species in freshwater systems, while chemicals released by salts can change the balance of microbes in soil and water – upsetting delicate cycles and potentially leading to the release of more salts, nutrients and heavy metals into the environment.

However, salts can also degrade the roadways they are deployed on, and if making their way into drinking water systems, corrode water pipes – potentially releasing heavy metals into supplies as occurred in Flint, Michigan, with significant health effects.
Publication Biogeochemistry

Canada is to halt all logging in the forests home to its last three wild northern spotted owls in an attempt to prevent extinction of the species.

The remaining population includes one breeding pair, down from an estimated 500 in British Columbia before the arrival of industrial logging.

The joint announcement included the local Spô’zêm First Nation, in southern British Columbia, which called the move a “monumental step”.

Spô’zêm chief James Hobart said in a statement: “For years the province systematically swathed throughout our nation extracting major old growth forests while desecrating any chances of livelihood for the spotted owl.”

He added that the owls are considered messengers, and their health is indicative of the health of the environment.

A number of chicks have been removed from the surviving breeding pair over the years for a captive breeding programme, which now includes nine breeding-suitable female owls. 

The next steps in the conservation programme include releasing owls into the wild, with the aim of establishing 125 breeding pairs.
Source The Guardian/Society of Environmental Journalists

Read How Texas’s zombie oil wells are creating an environmental disaster zone

Watch Climate crisis pushing polar bears to mate with grizzlies, producing hybrid ‘pizzly’ bears

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