What do mummy seals tell us about climate change?

Antarctica has one of the worlds driest deserts, which it turns out is perfect for preserving seals. For thousands of years. For next summer this means a new mummy movie, Seal Mummies!

But seriously, Paleontologists Paul Koch and Emily Brault from UCSC are using these mummies for something besides next summer’s blockbuster. They are looking at the long term ecological impacts of the changing climate in Antartica. What’s more, there are a TON of seal mummies just lying around. Over 500 in fact, some of them hundreds or thousands of years old. What this can tell us about the changing ecosystem is invaluable. Read about it over at Forbes.

A seal mummy on the Taylor Glacier (Picture via brookpeterson on flickr.com CC BY-ND 2.0)

A living crabeater seal in Antarctica (Image via Liam Quinn on Wikimedia Commons CC-BY 2.0)

The War over Wood

The title of this post isn’t something clever I came up with, but rather what the locals have named the conflict over protecting trees and biodiversity in the Amazon rain forest.Self proclaimed “Guardians of the Forest” (local rubber tappers, read about them here) are defending the forest that gives them their livelihood. And they are defending it against not massive scale deforestation, but rather the selective logging of high value wood by what essentially are criminal entities.

In an excellent post over at NPR, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro describes a day on the front lines. What is remarkable is how insightful and dedicated these local people are to conserving their forest, rather than giving in to the desire to cash in on its value.
“Rubber tapper Helenílson Felix stands near the stump of a tree that was felled by illegal logging. The tappers explained that this is how deforestation begins: The forest is thinned of its biodiversity, picked apart tree by tree.”


And it appears that despite putting up a strong effort, they are losing the fight.

One of three illegal logging camps dismantled and set on fire by Elizeu Berçacola and his crew.


Find fireflies, help keep the forests alight


Across eastern North America, one of the most magical signs of summertime is the beginning of firefly activity—hundreds or thousands of flying beetles, their abdomens glowing or flashing, filling twilight backyards and woodland clearings with floating lights.

But those displays—which fireflies put on to attract mates—are getting rarer. Or seem to be, anyway—but we don’t have the kind of comprehensive census of firefly activity that could really tell us how they’re doing. A citizen science project out of Clemson University aims to change that by enlisting anyone with a smartphone or a home internet connection:

The objective of the Clemson Vanishing Firefly Project is to promote environmental
sustainability and stewardship through the participation of local communities in environmental science research. The Clemson Vanishing Firefly Project offers a mobile app that everyone – from elementary students to seniors – can use to measure firefly populations in their communities from neighborhoods, to parks and anywhere in the world they may go!

To help, you follow the project site’s instructions for learning how to count fireflies, then use a smartphone app or a webpage form to report what you see, when, and where. Why not collect some data while you admire the lights in the forest?

(Hat tip to Erik Runquist, on Twitter.)

An artichoke with legs: the pangolin

c026c5902911ebd8cf6c7c912cca0631Some days I just need a pick me up. While others take to the internet and fine photos of kittens telling them to hang in there, I seek the adorable face of the pangolin._80790888_cape_pangolin_spl624

Also known as the spiny anteater, it is the only mammal wholly covered in scales. They resemble artichokes on legs. Oh and they are beyond adorable.  415e1bec42a96a15e13e0323be919600

However, all 8 species of pangolins are endangered because they have one more distinction: the worlds most trafficked mammal. Their meat has become a delicacy in vietnam, which has rapidly wiped out populations of pangolins across South East Asia.

Read about their plight over at BBC, and for a little Friday pick me up, enjoy these lovely photos of my favorite mammal.


Monarch butterflies aren’t quite extinct yet!

The New York Times reports that monarch butterflies migrating from North America to central Mexico appear to be doing better than last year, when the over-wintering colony occupied just 1.7 acres. This year’s survey finds the butterflies have filled 2.8 acres, which seems like a solid improvement until you consider that the peak colony size, since record-keeping started, was 44.5 acres.

(Incidentally, 44.5 acres is more than 40 American football fields of forest covered with roosting monarch butterflies.)

The monarchs that migrate to Mexico aren’t the only population — there’s another migratory route on the U.S. Pacific coast, and there are non-migratory populations in Florida, Hawaii, and even New Zealand. But the Mexico overwintering site represents what used to be the single largest monarch population, butterflies that spend summer across most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. Logging in Mexico and the loss of summer habitat to farming in the Midwest has been hitting the butterflies hard for years, and while this rebound is encouraging, it might still make sense to put the monarch on the Endangered Species List, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering.

Under selection, an endangered species runs low on evolutionary “fuel”

Atlapetes pallidiceps

A pale-headed brushfinch, Atlapetes pallidiceps. (Wikimedia Commons:Aves y Conservación/NBII Image Gallery)

The pale-headed brushfinch, Atlapetes pallidiceps, is a conservation success story, or at least the first chapter of one. The birds were thought to be extinct, until a 1998 survey [PDF] of Ecuador’s Yunguilla Valley found four nesting pairs, and observed them foraging for insects and fruit. Following that rediscovery, the Fundacion Jocotoco secured a reserve encompassing the brush finches’ known territory, and took steps to control brood-parasitic cowbirds that were threatening them. Now, the population is five times bigger, with as many as 200 of the birds living in the reserve.

Have the brush finches’ rebounded enough to secure their population for the future? Populations that decline so precipitously can lose genetic variation, and may not regain it even if their numbers increase again. With reduced genetic variation, species that have undergone such a “population bottleneck” event may be unable to respond to natural selection imposed by disease or changing environments.

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Bringing back the “king” of American forests

The American chestnut used to be one of the most common trees in North American hardwood forests, providing enormous crops of nuts that supported birds and other wildlife, and a source of robust, rot-resistant lumber for human use. But American chestnuts were nearly wiped out by the introduction of a virulent chestnut blight from Asia.

But now, after years of selective breeding and some careful genetic engineering, biologists at the State University of New York and the American Chestnut Foundation have produced blight-resistant chestnuts and they’re getting ready to start restoring the population with a crowd-funding campaign. If American chestnuts couldn’t evolve to cope with blight on their own, they may be one of the first species to get an evolutionary helping hand from humans.