Leatherbacks turn up by the tens of thousands

The largest population of leatherback sea turtles in the world has been identified off the coast of Gabon, Africa, and is estimated at somewhere between 15,700 and 41,400 female turtles. This seems to be a big bounceback for the endangered turtles, which are the largest living members of the sea turtle superfamily. This rough estimate was compiled during three nesting seasons between 2002 and 2007, using video to capture footage along Gabon’s 372-mile coastline, in addition to terrestrial monitoring. The study, which appears in Biological Conservation, also identifies the key sites for leatherback nesting, which can be used in assessing and developing management strategies. Beginning about 25 years ago, leatherback populations in the Indo-Pacific oceans were reduced to less than 10 percent of their former size. Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists leatherback turtles as critically endangered on a global scale, adequate population assessments across much of the Atlantic, especially along the African coast, are in short supply. In a press release, lead author Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter said: “We knew that Gabon was an important nesting site for leatherback turtles but until now had little idea of the size of the population or its global ranking. We are now focusing our efforts on working with local agencies to coordinate conservation efforts to ensure this population is protected against the threats from illegal fisheries, nest poaching, pollution and habitat disturbance, and climate change.” The study also showed that about 79 percent of nesting in Gabon occurs within national parks and other protected areas. Good news for the turtles, as these areas will be much easier to manage than privately owned lands. Photo courtesy Matthew Witt. Witt, M., Baert, B., Broderick, A., Formia, A., Fretey, J., Gibudi, A., Moussounda, C., Mounguengui Mounguengui, G., Ngouessono, S., & Parnell, R. (2009). Aerial surveying of the world’s largest leatherback turtle rookery: A more effective methodology for large-scale monitoring Biological Conservation DOI:...

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Blue whales picking up where they left off?

New movement patterns may be a sign of good news for blue whales. Blue whales have begun moving around the ocean in ways that strongly resemble their historical patterns before the advent of the whaling trade. A century ago, about 300,000 blue whales existed. But in the early 1900s, humans hunted and killed 99.9 percent of them. The population decimation made them disappear from northern waters. A new paper published online in the journal Marine Mammal Science has shown, however, that 15 individual whales have been spotted both in the waters of southern California and the Pacific Northwest since 1997 — some even as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. But scientists can’t yet be sure if this is in fact a return to historical migration patterns. From the New York Times Dot Earth blog by Andy Revkin: “It’s not yet possible to determine whether the whales are resuming long-abandoned migratory feeding journeys or shifting their patterns to match cyclical shifts in the Pacific Ocean that affect  krill, their dietary mainstay, Jay Barlow, a federal whale biologist and author of the paper, said in a phone interview.” Calambokidis, J., Barlow, J., Ford, J., Chandler, T., & Douglas, A. (2009). Insights into the population structure of blue whales in the Eastern North Pacific from recent sightings and photographic identification Marine Mammal Science DOI:...

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Forests might flip from carbon sink to source

Ecologists point to forests as important sinks for atmospheric carbon. But a new report suggests that climate change could induce environmental stresses that would chnge the role of forests into a net carbon source. The report, titled “Adaptation of Forests and People to Climate Change – A Global Assessment,” was coordinated by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF). The findings came from an analysis of how different forest ecosystems worldwide would be affected under specific climate change scenarios developed by the IPCC report. The report brings together 35 international forest scientists, some of whom contributed to the IPCC. The study reports that higher temperatures would usher in the probability of prolonged droughts, more intense pest invasions, and a host of other environmental stresses, which would lead to forest destruction and degradation. Climate change could thus create a dangerous feedback loop in which damage to forests significantly increases global carbon emissions, which then exacerbates the greenhouse effect. This scenario is likely to occur if the world warms more than 4.5 degrees Farenheit. According to Andreas Fischlin of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a lead author of the study and a coordinating lead author with the IPCC: “Even if adaptation measures are fully implemented, unmitigated climate change would, during the course of the current century, exceed the adaptive capacity of many forests. The fact remains that the only way to ensure that forests do not suffer unprecedented harm is to achieve large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” The report will be formally presented at the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) session taking place April 20-May 9 at the UN Headquarters in New York...

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Replanting the bluffs of the sea

“We have been replanting forests for 4,000 years, but we are only just now learning how to revive a coral reef.” Mineo Okamoto is a marine biologist at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology. He’s one of the  researchers leading the charge to restore Japan’s coral reefs, which have suffered a reported 90 percent dieback in the last decade.  Coral reefs worldwide are suffering, due mostly to bleaching induced by warming waters and runoff from agriculture and industry. Among the many techniques being used to save the reefs is coral transplantation, a method that involves taking bits of healthy coral and replanting them on and around decimated reefs. A New York Times article published yesterday describes the painstaking efforts of the Japanese government to restore its largest reef, near the southern end of the Okinawa archipelago. Initiated in 2005, the program has planted 13,000 pieces of coral and cost around $2 million. At first the, the effort showed little success. Only a third of the replanted corals in Japan’s Sekisei Lagoon have survived, falling victim to typhoon- force waves and coral bleaching.  But new technologies are brightening the picture: Okamato and others developed ceramic stands for the corals to root in as they grow, and divers now plant young corals in areas more protected from waves. Both of these techniques have begun to improve coral recruitment and survivorship. Read the article to find out more about the labor-intensive effort, the Environment Ministry’s political stake and the “friendly race” among scientists to develop the best coral transplanting technology. Photo credit: Ko Sasaki for The New York...

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Invasive tree disease disrupts pine/bird mutualism

Many trees with large seeds rely on vertebrate seed predators to disperse their seeds. The whitebark pine, a key subalpine species, has coevolved with the Clark’s nutcracker into a tight mutualism.  In their paper in the April Ecological Applications, Shawn McKinney, a post-doc at the University of Montana, and his colleagues studied a natural disruption to this mutualism: an invasive tree fungus. Clark’s nutcrackers feed on whitebark seeds throughout the summer. Beginning in late summer, the nutcrackers extract ripe whitebark pine seeds from pinecones and bury them in the ground for use as food during the winter and spring. Although the nutcrackers harvest and cache seeds of other pines, whitebark pines depend nearly exclusively on nutcrackers for seed dispersal. White pine blister rust, a disease caused by a tree pathogen that kills cone-bearing branches, has been spreading through the subalpine forests and now occurs in almost all whitebark pine populations. According to the researchers, mortality from blister rust reaches 90 percent or higher in some populations in the northern Rocky Mountains. For the trees, this disease can spell disaster: When whitebark pine seeds are scarce, the nutcrackers often leave subalpine forests in search of food at lower altitudes. Decimated by disease and left without dispersers to spread what few seeds they produce, whietbark pines can dwindle rapidly. McKinney and his colleagues quantified forest conditions and ecological interactions between nutcrackers and whitebark pines in three Rocky Mountain ecosystems that differed in levels of rust infection and mortality. They estimated that within each hectare, a threshold level of 1000 pinecones, or more than a 5-meter square area of trees, is needed for a high likelihood of seed dispersal by nutcrackers. The researchers say that their estimates can be used by forest managers to assess when and where to plant new stands of whitebark pines to encourage nutcrackers to stick around. They say the estimates will be especially useful in Montana, where pinecone production and tree density fell below threshold levels. McKinney, S., Fiedler, C., & Tomback, D. (2009). Invasive pathogen threatens bird–pine mutualism: implications for sustaining a high-elevation ecosystem Ecological Applications, 19 (3), 597-607 DOI:...

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ESA Policy News Update

Here are some highlights of the most recent Policy News Update, written by ESA’s Policy Analyst, Piper Corp. You can read the full update at ESA’s Policy News page. Details of Waxman-Markey climate bill: On March 31, Representatives Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Ma.) released their draft climate change and energy bill — the “American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009” — reiterating plans to hold a final committee vote on the measure before the Memorial Day recess. The Policy News has an in-depth summary of the titles within the bill. Greenhouse gas endangerment finding: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in an internal presentation that she plans to sign a document stating that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health — known as an “endangerment finding” — on April 16. The White House has begun its review of the report, which EPA sent over on March 20th. If finalized, it could trigger a series of Clean Air Act regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. Drilling opponents consider ocean zoning: The Obama administration plans to make drilling part of a broader energy strategy, so some opponents of offshore drilling are eyeing zoning plans as a way of protecting key marine resources and habitat from drilling, wind and wave energy projects. Senior members of the House Natural Resources Committee have said that zoning language should be incorporated into any new energy legislation brought up this year. Upcoming legislation: Bills considering mountaintop coal mining, black carbon reduction, illegal fishing, international science and technology coordination, e-waste reduction research and water research have been referred to or passed by their respective committees. Approved legislation: The House approved the Clean Energy Corps program as part of the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, an Obama-endorsed bill that would triple the number of AmeriCorps volunteers while increasing the educational reward for service. President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, a bipartisan measure representing the most significant piece of conservation legislation in the last 15...

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World Water Day 2009

Yesterday marked the 16th annual United Nations World Water Day, a day of advocacy for sustainable and careful management of clean freshwater supplies worldwide. This year’s theme was “Shared Water – Shared Opportunities.” The goal of the theme is foster goodwill and collaboration among neighboring nations to promote working together to preserve their waterways. More than 45 percent of the world’s surface is covered by river basins shared by more than one country, according to the WWD site, and 40 percent of the world’s people live in these basins. An impressive host of events is taking place to raise awareness worldwide. In Washington, DC, proceeds from glasses of tap water purchased at selected restaurants will benefit clean water programs. “Water walks” have taken place across the world, from India, Pakistan and Malaysia to Germany and Greece. Citizens of Canada have even started the National Toilet Seat petition, in which residents will send signed toilet seats to Parliament to “make a stink” about the world water crisis. The shortage of clean water is a sleeper issue that has slowly crept up on humanity and been mostly overshadowed by the seemingly more pressing specter of climate change. But shifts in ecosystems that come with a changing climate can upset natural water systems and in turn create a negative feedback loop. Like the world’s climate, our water supplies know no political boundaries, and the decisions (or lack thereof) of one country have the potential to greatly affect others. Of course ecologists like to think they’re good about conserving in general. But are you doing all you can to avoid wasting water?  Here’s a 100-point checklist. Logo courtesy...

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The state of the union’s birds

A comprehensive analysis of the current condition of birds in the U.S. was released yesterday by The Nature Conservancy, USGS, the Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and many other non-profit groups. Dubbed The State of the Birds, the document reports that of the nation’s approximately 800 bird species, 67 are federally listed as endangered, 184 are of conservation concern and many others are declining due to dwindling habitat. The report highlights precipitous declines in Hawaiian birds, where introduced predators have decimated native bird populations. Seabirds and shorebirds are also suffering from pollution, overfishing and warming oceans, according to the report, and lack of management in arid lands and grasslands have led to neglect and decline in birds adapted to these habitats. On the other hand, Wetland birds are shown to be quite resilient to disturbance. The report draws attention to several successful conservation efforts, such as for the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, and emphasizes the need for conservation programs tailored to threatened species. The report brings together data from three surveys that include biologists and citizen scientists: the North American Breeding Bird Survey, administered by the U.S. Geological Survey and Canadian Wildlife Service; the Christmas Bird Count, conducted by the National Audubon Society; and the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service. Listen to NPR’s All Things Considered story about the...

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