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Bittersweet Findings – Scientists Discover Three New Marsupial Species, but They Are All Likely Extinct

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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Some specimens of mulgaras used in this investigation from the Western Australian Museum Mammology collection. Credit: Photo by Jake Newman-Martin. Courtesy WA Museum Researchers from Curtin University have made a bittersweet discovery, identifying three new species of mulgaras, small Australian marsupials. While this finding expands our understanding of marsupials related to Tasmanian Devils and quolls, it is marred by the likelihood that these newly discovered species are already extinct. These mulgaras, known for their carnivorous nature, play a significant role in the ecosystems of arid and semi-arid regions in South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland. Led by Curtin Ph.D. student Jake Newman-Martin, a collaboration with Dr. Kenny Travouillon from the Western Australian Museum, Associate Professor Natalie Warburton from Murdoch University, and Associate Professor Milo Barham and Dr. Alison Blyth both from Curtin analyzed preserved specimens of mulgaras from museums across the country, including bones found in caves which had previously not been identifiable. Importance of Mulgaras in Ecosystems Mr Newman-Martin said the research had identified six species of mulgaras, as opposed to the previously accepted two and it also concluded that a third previously named mulgara was indeed a valid species. However, four of the proposed species appeared to be already extinct. “Known as ‘ecosystem engineers’, mulgaras are immensely important to the regions they inhabit as they help control the population of insects and small rodents and assist in turning over the desert soils by burrowing,” Mr. Newman-Martin said. “By taking precise measurements of the skulls and teeth of preserved mulgara specimens, we were able to differentiate the species, the exact number of which had previously been the source of some debate. “Using the skulls and teeth of mulgaras had previously not been achievable because no study had documented and measured the bones in detail. Our study shows that mulgaras are actually far more diverse than previously thought.” Challenges Faced by Australian Marsupials Research co-author Dr Kenny Travouillon, Curator of Mammalogy at the Western Australian Museum, said while the discovery of more species of mulgaras may sound like good news, the fact they were likely already extinct was disconcerting. “While Australia is renowned for its diverse and unique marsupials, it also has the highest mammalian extinction rate in the world, with many species suffering from the impacts of environmental degradation and introduced predators such as foxes and cats,” Dr Travouillon said. “The most at-risk species are often overlooked small marsupials, which have suffered a great drop in their abundance and distribution since European colonization. The mulgaras may even represent the first recorded Australian extinction within the broader family of related animals (Dasyuridae) and are sadly disappearing with even less recognition than their now infamous ‘cousins’ the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine). It is likely that many more undescribed species have already become extinct before they could be known to science, highlighting the need to better understand Australian wildlife and the growing threats to our ecosystems.” Reference: “Taxonomic review of the genus Dasycercus (Dasyuromorphia: Dasyuridae) using modern and subfossil material; and the description of three new species” by Jake Newman-Martin, Kenny J. Travouillon, Natalie Warburton, Milo Barham and Alison J. Blyth, 30 November 2023, Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology.DOI: 10.1080/03115518.2023.2262083

Researchers from Curtin University have made a bittersweet discovery, identifying three new species of mulgaras, small Australian marsupials. While this finding expands our understanding of...

Dasycercus Specimens in Tray

Some specimens of mulgaras used in this investigation from the Western Australian Museum Mammology collection. Credit: Photo by Jake Newman-Martin. Courtesy WA Museum

Researchers from Curtin University have made a bittersweet discovery, identifying three new species of mulgaras, small Australian marsupials.

While this finding expands our understanding of marsupials related to Tasmanian Devils and quolls, it is marred by the likelihood that these newly discovered species are already extinct. These mulgaras, known for their carnivorous nature, play a significant role in the ecosystems of arid and semi-arid regions in South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland.

Led by Curtin Ph.D. student Jake Newman-Martin, a collaboration with Dr. Kenny Travouillon from the Western Australian Museum, Associate Professor Natalie Warburton from Murdoch University, and Associate Professor Milo Barham and Dr. Alison Blyth both from Curtin analyzed preserved specimens of mulgaras from museums across the country, including bones found in caves which had previously not been identifiable.

Importance of Mulgaras in Ecosystems

Mr Newman-Martin said the research had identified six species of mulgaras, as opposed to the previously accepted two and it also concluded that a third previously named mulgara was indeed a valid species. However, four of the proposed species appeared to be already extinct.

“Known as ‘ecosystem engineers’, mulgaras are immensely important to the regions they inhabit as they help control the population of insects and small rodents and assist in turning over the desert soils by burrowing,” Mr. Newman-Martin said.

“By taking precise measurements of the skulls and teeth of preserved mulgara specimens, we were able to differentiate the species, the exact number of which had previously been the source of some debate.

“Using the skulls and teeth of mulgaras had previously not been achievable because no study had documented and measured the bones in detail. Our study shows that mulgaras are actually far more diverse than previously thought.”

Challenges Faced by Australian Marsupials

Research co-author Dr Kenny Travouillon, Curator of Mammalogy at the Western Australian Museum, said while the discovery of more species of mulgaras may sound like good news, the fact they were likely already extinct was disconcerting.

“While Australia is renowned for its diverse and unique marsupials, it also has the highest mammalian extinction rate in the world, with many species suffering from the impacts of environmental degradation and introduced predators such as foxes and cats,” Dr Travouillon said.

“The most at-risk species are often overlooked small marsupials, which have suffered a great drop in their abundance and distribution since European colonization. The mulgaras may even represent the first recorded Australian extinction within the broader family of related animals (Dasyuridae) and are sadly disappearing with even less recognition than their now infamous ‘cousins’ the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine). It is likely that many more undescribed species have already become extinct before they could be known to science, highlighting the need to better understand Australian wildlife and the growing threats to our ecosystems.”

Reference: “Taxonomic review of the genus Dasycercus (Dasyuromorphia: Dasyuridae) using modern and subfossil material; and the description of three new species” by Jake Newman-Martin, Kenny J. Travouillon, Natalie Warburton, Milo Barham and Alison J. Blyth, 30 November 2023, Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology.
DOI: 10.1080/03115518.2023.2262083

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The Extinction of the Giant Ape: Scientists Solve Long-Standing Mystery

In the karst landscapes of southern China, giant apes, known as Gigantopithecus blacki, once traversed the terrain. These massive creatures, standing three meters tall and...

An artist’s impression of a group of G. blacki within a forest in southern China. Credit: Garcia/Joannes-Boyau (Southern Cross University)In the karst landscapes of southern China, giant apes, known as Gigantopithecus blacki, once traversed the terrain. These massive creatures, standing three meters tall and weighing about 250 kilograms, are considered distant relatives of humans. Although they vanished before humans settled in the area, the reasons for their extinction remain largely a mystery. The only evidence of their former presence consists of approximately 2000 fossilized teeth and four jawbones.New evidence from this region published in Nature, uncovered by a team of Chinese, Australian, and US researchers, demonstrates beyond doubt that the largest primate to walk the earth went extinct between 295,000 and 215,000 years ago, unable to adapt its food preferences and behaviors, and vulnerable to the changing climates which sealed its fate.“The story of G. blacki is an enigma in paleontology – how could such a mighty creature go extinct at a time when other primates were adapting and surviving? The unresolved cause of its disappearance has become the Holy Grail in this discipline,” says paleontologist and co-lead author Professor Yingqi Zhang, from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IVPP). “The IVPP has been excavating for G. blacki evidence in this region for over 10 years but without solid dating and a consistent environmental analysis, the cause of its extinction had eluded us.”Extensive Research ProjectDefinitive evidence revealing the story of the giant ape’s extinction has come from a large-scale project collecting evidence from 22 cave sites spread across a wide region of Guangxi Province in southern China. The foundation of this study was the dating.“It’s a major feat to present a defined cause for the extinction of a species, but establishing the exact time when a species disappears from the fossil record gives us a target timeframe for an environmental reconstruction and behavior assessment,” says co-lead author, Macquarie University geochronologist Associate Professor Kira Westaway.Digging into the hard cemented cave sediments containing a wealth of fossils and evidence of G. blacki. Credit: Kira Westaway (Macquarie University)“Without robust dating, you are simply looking for clues in the wrong places.”Six Australian universities contributed to the project. Macquarie University, Southern Cross University, Wollongong University and the University of Queensland used multiple techniques to date samples. Southern Cross also mapped G. blacki teeth to extract information on the apes’ behaviors. ANU and Flinders University studied the pollen and fossil-bearing sediments in the cave respectively, to reconstruct the environments in which G. blacki thrived and then disappeared.Dating Techniques and Environmental AnalysisSix different dating techniques were applied to the cave sediments and fossils, producing 157 radiometric ages. These were combined with eight sources of environmental and behavioral evidence, and applied to 11 caves containing evidence of G blacki, and also to 11 caves of a similar age range where no G. blacki evidence was found.The location of many caves including two G. blacki bearing caves. Credit: Yingqi Zhang (IVPP- CAS)Luminescence dating, which measures a light-sensitive signal found in the burial sediments that encased the G. blacki fossils, was the primary technique, supported by uranium-series (US) and electron-spin resonance (US-ESR) dating of the G. blacki teeth themselves.“By direct-dating the fossil remains, we confirmed their age aligns with the luminescence sequence in the sediments where they were found, giving us a comprehensive and reliable chronology for the extinction of G. blacki,” says Southern Cross University geochronologist Associate Professor Renaud Joannes-Boyau.Insights from Dental AnalysisUsing detailed pollen analysis, fauna reconstructions, stable isotope analysis of the teeth, and a detailed analysis of the cave sediments at a micro level, the team established the environmental conditions leading up to when G blacki went extinct. Then, using trace element and dental microwear textural analysis (DMTA) of the apes’ teeth, the team modeled G. blacki’s behavior while it was flourishing, compared to during the species’ demise.The G. blacki bearing cave of Zhang Wang lies 150 m above the valley floor making for a tough climb every day to conduct excavations. Credit: Kira Westaway (Macquarie University)“Teeth provide a staggering insight into the behavior of the species indicating stress, diversity of food sources, and repeated behaviors,” says Associate Professor Joannes-BoyauThe findings show G.blacki went extinct between 295,000 and 215,000 years ago, much earlier than previously assumed. Before this time, G. blacki flourished in a rich and diverse forest.Environmental Changes and Comparative AdaptationBy 700,000 to 600,000 years ago, the environment became more variable due to the increase in the strength of the seasons, causing a change in the structure of the forest communities.Orangutans (genus Pongo) – a close relative of G. blacki – adapted their size, behavior, and habitat preferences as conditions changed. In comparison, G. blacki relied on a less nutritious backup food source when its preferences were unavailable, decreasing the diversity of its food. The ape became less mobile, had a reduced geographic range for foraging, and faced chronic stress and dwindling numbers.“G. blacki was the ultimate specialist, compared to the more agile adapters like orangutans, and this ultimately led to its demise,” says Professor Zhang.Associate Professor Westaway says: “With the threat of a sixth mass extinction event looming over us, there is an urgent need to understand why species go extinct.“Exploring the reasons for past unresolved extinctions gives us a good starting point to understand primate resilience and the fate of other large animals, in the past and future.”Reference: “The demise of the giant ape Gigantopithecus blacki” by Yingqi Zhang, Kira E. Westaway, Simon Haberle, Juliën K. Lubeek, Marian Bailey, Russell Ciochon, Mike W. Morley, Patrick Roberts, Jian-xin Zhao, Mathieu Duval, Anthony Dosseto, Yue Pan, Sue Rule, Wei Liao, Grant A. Gully, Mary Lucas, Jinyou Mo, Liyun Yang, Yanjun Cai, Wei Wang and Renaud Joannes-Boyau, 10 January 2024, Nature.DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06900-0

Survivors of the Ice Age: How Did the Brown Bear Beat Extinction?

The brown bear is one of the largest terrestrial carnivores alive today, with a broad distribution throughout the Northern Hemisphere. In contrast to numerous other...

The study of ancient brown bear genomes reveals that their survival through the last Ice Age involved significant losses in range and genetic diversity, underscoring the importance of historical genetic studies in conservation efforts and future wildlife management. Credit: SciTechDaily.comThe brown bear is one of the largest terrestrial carnivores alive today, with a broad distribution throughout the Northern Hemisphere. In contrast to numerous other large carnivores that faced extinction by the end of the last Ice Age (cave bear, sabretoothed cats, cave hyena), the brown bear is one of the lucky survivors that made it through to the present. The question has puzzled biologists for close to a century – how was this so?Brown bears are ecologically flexible and have a broad dietary range. While they are carnivores, their diets can also consist primarily of plant matter making them adaptable to environmental changes. However, brown bears also experienced extensive range reductions and regional extinctions during the last Ice Age. Brown bears used to occupy a much wider range including Ireland, Honshu, the largest island of Japan, and Quebec (Canada).Did the decline or disappearance of bear populations in certain areas happen because bears left those places for better ones that they still currently live, or did unique groups of bears with distinct genes inhabit those areas and go extinct, leading to a loss in the overall diversity of the species? Genetic Studies and InsightsBy studying the genomes of ancient brown bears dated to between 3,800 and 60,000 years old, including several individuals from outside their current range, researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and the University of Yamanashi, Japan sought to address this question by investigating the evolutionary relationships between brown bears across space and time.Their study showed that brown bears did not simply move with the shifting environment, but populations went extinct. “Our analyses showed that ancient brown bears represent genetic diversity absent in today’s populations,” says Takahiro Segawa, lead author of the study. “While brown bears survived global extinction, they suffered considerable losses of their historical range and genetic diversity.” This new perspective highlights a crucial period in the brown bear’s history and that they also faced challenges during and after the last Ice Age.“As we continue to grapple with the challenges of coexistence between humans and wildlife, insights from the deep past are invaluable in shaping a sustainable future,” adds Michael Westbury, the senior author of the study. “Although studying recent specimens can provide some insights, by including samples from the past and from areas a species no longer exists, we can better quantify how patterns of current diversity arose, and inform predictions about how they may respond to future environmental change.”Reference: “The origins and diversification of Holarctic brown bear populations inferred from genomes of past and present populations” by Takahiro Segawa, Alba Rey-Iglesia, Eline D. Lorenzen and Michael V. Westbury, 24 January 2024, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2023.2411

Inner ear of extinct ape species is overlooked aspect of human bipedal evolution, study finds

Described by scientists as a "bony labyrinth," the inner ear provides many clues as to the origin of our species

The inner ear may not seem like a particularly bony place, but human ears in fact have three small bones (also known as ossicles): the malleus, the incus and the stapes. While most people would assume that these bones are necessary for hearing, one would not imagine that they relate much to how we walk. Yet according to Chinese and American scientists working together for a study in the journal The Innovation, the ear bones of ancient apes can teach us a lot not only about our primate ancestors, but also about ourselves. In a sense, the inner ear bones of the Lufengpithecus is a missing link in the evolutionary history of human locomotion. It all comes down to bipedalism, or the fact that humans walk on two legs. Because our various primate ancestors were often quadrupedal (walking on four legs), evolutionary scientists have often wondered how we made the shift from being a four-legged species to one that relies on two legs. The experts turned to the seemingly obvious places for answers: They studied the bones of ancient monkeys when they came from their limbs, pelvis, shoulders and spine. Yet in The Innovation study, the team of scientists looked instead to the inner ear. They specifically chose the remains of a Lufengpithecus, an ape from China that has been extinct for 7 to 8 million years. "The semicircular canals, located in the skull between our brain and the external ear, are critical for our sense of balance and position when we move, and they provide a fundamental component of our locomotion that most people are probably unaware of," Zhang Yinan, first author of the study and a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, said in a press statement. "The size and shape of the semicircular canals have mathematical correlation with how mammals, including apes and humans, move around their environment. Using modern imaging techniques, we are able to visualize the internal structure of fossil skulls and study the anatomical details of the semicircular canals to reveal how extinct mammals moved." After doing this, the scientists observed that the Lufengpithecus inner ear revealed an animal that moved in ways unlike anything previously known about ancient or modern primates. Instead, it is believed that the primate moved around by combining various motion types — clambering, climbing, bipedalism, quadrupedalism and forelimb suspension. The ancestors of the Lufengpithecus did not move anything like this — their locomotion was more analogous to what we see today among gibbons in Asia — and humans developed their bipedalism afterward. In a sense, the inner ear bones of the Lufengpithecus is a overlooked connection in the evolutionary history of human locomotion. As the authors of the study explain, it is because the inner ear bones yield information about the locomotion of primates that cannot be found through traditional methods. "The bony labyrinth of the inner ear of vertebrates houses the peripheral vestibular system comprised of three fluid-filled semicircular canals that are functionally tied to sense of balance, spatial orientation, posture, and body movements," the authors explain. "This, in turn, is linked to modes of locomotion among living and extinct taxa." Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter Lab Notes. "The dramatic increase in the average evolution rate of semicircular canals" within these apes may illuminate that "the rapid evolution of bipedalism in the human lineage in response to gradual global cooling." Interestingly, natural climate change may have also played a role in this ear evolution. After observing that evolutionary rates tend to slow down as global temperatures rise, the authors point out that "the dramatic increase in the average evolution rate of semicircular canals" within these apes may illuminate that "the rapid evolution of bipedalism in the human lineage in response to gradual global cooling." The Lufengpithecus lived during a warm period in the Pliocene era, one that "marks the beginning of Plio-Pleistocene continuous cooling and the onset of Northern Hemisphere alaciation. Against the backdrop of global cooling, the increase of grassy vegetation driven by regional-scale environmental factors may be the trigger for the accelerated evolution of" primates and humans walking on two legs in Africa. Studying our primate relatives has shed enormous light on our own evolution. A paper last year in the journal iScience studied chimpanzees and bonobos to determine if they possess a trait known as "vocal functional flexibility." Vocal functional flexibility refers to an animal's ability to produce complex sounds that form speech, as opposed to the more simple sounds that come forward from screaming, crying, laughing or making other basic sounds. Humans are not born with vocal functional flexibility but rather develop it over stages, and it is considered one of the prerequisites to creating actual speech. In their research, the authors of the iScience study discovered that grunting chimpanzees from newborns through to ten-year-old youths display vocal functional flexibility. "The logic is, if we find good evidence for something in humans and good evidence for something in chimpanzees, then we’re kind of justified in making the inference that this was also a trait that was held by the last common ancestor," Dr. Derry Taylor, the paper's corresponding author and a professor at the University of Portsmouth, told Salon at the time. "So we can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that whatever those vocal communication systems were like, they probably at least had this type of flexibility.” Another study — this one published last year in the journal Current Biology — involved scientists performing a magic trick known as the "French drop effect" in front of three types of monkeys: common marmosets, Humboldt's squirrel monkeys and yellow-breasted capuchin monkeys. The trick involves a scientist putting food in one hand, presenting it to the money and then putting their other hand over the treat while appearing to grab it. In fact, the scientists did not grab the treat with their second hand, therefore leading those monkeys that had opposable thumbs to be surprised when discovering it was still in the first hand. Yet the one species of monkey in the group that lacks opposable thumbs, the marmosets, were less likely to be fooled by the trick because they lacked the same digital frame of reference. "It tells us something about how we think without work," Dr. Nicky Clayton, a professor at the University of Cambridge and corresponding author on the paper — explained to Salon at the time. "We know this because we know . . . there's this massive power in this non-verbal communication. And then I think of seeing non-human animals respond in that way to these non-verbal stimuli. It creates all kinds of questions in your mind, doesn't it? Why is it so soothing to us? What does it mean for the animals that watch it?" Whether it is in shedding light on the origins of human locomotion and speech or helping us understand our very sense of selves, scientists who study primates both living and extinct continue to learn a lot more about human beings.

Costa Rica University Brings Bees and Farmers Together for Sustainability

Bees have long been at risk of extinction, posing a grave threat to global food production, which relies on them for pollination of approximately 75% of foodstuffs worldwide. Some analyses suggest that if bees were to vanish, life on Earth could be sustained for a mere five years longer. Recognizing the critical need to protect […] The post Costa Rica University Brings Bees and Farmers Together for Sustainability appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

Bees have long been at risk of extinction, posing a grave threat to global food production, which relies on them for pollination of approximately 75% of foodstuffs worldwide. Some analyses suggest that if bees were to vanish, life on Earth could be sustained for a mere five years longer. Recognizing the critical need to protect these vital insects and the benefits they bring to both flora and humanity, the Interdisciplinary Experimental Farm of Agroecological Models (Feima) at the Atlantic Campus of the University of Costa Rica (UCR), situated in Turrialba, has launched the Social Action Project: Establishment of Meliponariums. Meliponariums are structures constructed of wooden boxes where bees, specifically meliponas, build their hives. Notably, these boxes are crafted from entirely natural materials without any added chemicals and can be made from various types of wood readily available in the country, making their production straightforward. The primary goal of this initiative is twofold: to demonstrate that agricultural and human activities need not be detrimental to bees and to educate various stakeholders, including farm owners and institutions, about the management and vital contributions of these structures to bee preservation and environmental health. The bees housed at the Atlantic Campus are unique in that they belong to the meliponas species, which lack stingers and thus pose no threat to humans. While they typically produce minimal honey, they are exceptionally adept at generating propolis, a resin used by bees in nest construction. Notably, propolis possesses potent antibiotic and antiviral properties, making it a valuable resource in natural medicine for combating viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Dennis Barquero Bejarano, a researcher at the Atlantic Campus and agronomy instructor, elucidated the distinctive traits of meliponas and underscored the importance of preserving their habitat for their continued survival. The presence of bees hovering over crops heralds two pieces of good news: firstly, agricultural production benefits from their pollination, and secondly, it signifies the adoption of sound farming practices conducive to bee preservation. The meliponariums at the Atlantic Campus serve as indicators of environmentally friendly cultivation practices, particularly concerning meliponas. Professor Barquero highlighted practices such as abstaining from burning or using agrochemicals on weeds, as bees play a vital role in pollinating these plants. These spaces serve as valuable learning environments for students to acquire knowledge about sustainable agricultural practices. The impact of meliponariums extends beyond university grounds, reaching agricultural farms, environmental institutions, and local communities in Turrialba. Through outreach efforts such as workshops and the dissemination of agricultural best practices manuals, knowledge about bee conservation and sustainable farming techniques is shared and promoted in the region. The post Costa Rica University Brings Bees and Farmers Together for Sustainability appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

‘A frenzy of bodies in the chamber of death’: Italian fishers fight to preserve an ancient tradition

A sustainable technique for catching tuna that goes back thousands of years is on the verge of extinction in Italy – but not for a lack of fishOn an overcast morning, several miles off Sardinia’s east coast, four men jump into a net where 49 giant Atlantic bluefin tuna are fighting for their lives. For 30 minutes, the men struggle in a frenzy of nets, tails, fins and sleek silvery bodies before finally securing a metal hook through the gills of the nearest fish.From one of seven wooden boats framing this càmira dâ morti (“chamber of death”), Luigi Biggio yells for his men to pull.Death comes quickly, in a technique that, while bloody, may be more humane than suffocation in trawler nets. But the men in among them can end up in hospital from a whack of the thrashing fishes’ tails Continue reading...

On an overcast morning, several miles off Sardinia’s east coast, four men jump into a net where 49 giant Atlantic bluefin tuna are fighting for their lives. For 30 minutes, the men struggle in a frenzy of nets, tails, fins and sleek silvery bodies before finally securing a metal hook through the gills of the nearest fish.From one of seven wooden boats framing this càmira dâ morti (“chamber of death”), Luigi Biggio yells for his men to pull.As 28 men look on, a majestic creature about three metres long, weighing 120kg (265lb), is raised from the water with a pulley. On the biggest boat, one man swiftly cuts its jugular and the vessel fills with blood.Biggio, 57, runs a tonnara, Italy’s version of an ancient Mediterrranean fishing custom, which traps and harvests bluefin tuna in the intimate, gruesome struggle known in Italian as the mattanza (“killing”). He comes from a long line of raís (from the Arabic for chief), almost sacred leaders of the hunt – a mantle passed from father to son in designated families.Death comes quickly, in a technique that, while bloody, may be more humane than suffocation in trawler nets. But the men in among them can end up in hospital from a whack of the thrashing fishes’ tails The harvest is violent and can seem barbaric, as the dying tuna are hooked, stabbed and hoisted on to boats. However, fisheries experts regard it as a rare sustainable method of catching bluefin tuna, one of the world’s most overfished species.Despite its merits, Italy’s tonnare face extinction. But they are not disappearing due to a lack of fish. While the practice was threatened in the early 2000s by a collapse in tuna populations due to commercial overfishing, EU regulations helped tuna numbers recover over the past decade.They fish tuna with Italian quotas and then sell the fish through Malta all over the world – except in Italy“We carry on a tradition that’s thousands of years old,” Biggio says. “We continue it with pride.”But Italy’s small-scale, traditional fishers have largely failed to secure permits under successive governments under the quota system, and are now struggling to compete with big fleets in the region.While in the 1920s, more than 50 groups fished this way across Italy, Giuliano Greco and his family, who own the tonnara that Biggio runs, also own half of the only other such fishery still active.“[The tonnara] is the only eco-friendly system for bluefin tuna fishing because it does not touch or disturb the rhythms and biorhythms of tuna stocks,” says Greco, who has been working with Sardinia’s Tonnara di Carloforte since the early 90s, taking over the business from his father.Unlike modern seine-net and trawler fishing vessels that catch everything in their paths, the tonnara nets are designed to catch only adult tuna, which ensures the fish return the next season. It also employs dozens of people in the community.With its swift harvest, the fish may suffer less compared with the slow suffocation in trawler nets. However, even the WWF – which considers the tonnara as sustainable – warned against making a spectacle of it.Italy’s tuna quotas are held by a few boats. “They fish tuna with Italian quotas and then sell the fish through Malta all over the world – except in Italy,” says Fabio Micalizzi, a Sicilian fighting for fairer distribution of quotas.Atlantic bluefin tuna are among the world’s most expensive and sought-after fish, occasionally selling for millions of dollars in Asia. In the 1960s, as global demand grew, large-scale fishing methods such as purse-seine fishing and longline fishing spread.Purse-seine fishing, the most common commercial method, involves dropping a cylindrical net around entire schools and closing it up at the bottom. This results in the highest bycatch of unwanted fish and other sealife.As a result, bluefin tuna populations in the Mediterranean plummeted to critical levels by the early 2000s.In an effort to stop overfishing, the EU implemented an extensive recovery plan in 2009. It allocated fishing quotas to member states, put limits on the number of boats allowed to fish and mandated a 30kg minimum weight for fished tuna.The ambitious plan seemingly paid off. Tuna populations rebounded so successfully that, since 2014, large boats “capture their yearly tuna quota in a day”, according to Alessandro Buzzi, of the WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative.“Many newspapers still report today that tuna is an endangered species,” he says. “Luckily, the tuna can’t read the stupid things that humans write because otherwise it would get worried.”But the quotas that have helped fish numbers to recover have been “truly disastrous” for artisanal fishers, says Greco. The EU plan anticipated member states distributing quotas among local communities. But in Italy these became skewed toward larger companies.“If I could, I would sue the Italian government because of what it has forced us to lose in recent years,” Greco says, pointing out that, in 2023, Spain distributed 24% of its allotted fishing quotas among its tonnara, known there as almadraba, while the Italian government only managed 8%.As a result of the quota distribution, it is illegal for many small fishers in Italy to catch tuna. Even landing tuna as bycatch while fishing for other species can be penalised. “Whether you want it or not, the tuna jump into your boat,” says Micalizzi in Sicily. “If we professional fishermen catch it, we become killers and thieves.”In 2023, the Italian government redistributed a quota for 295 tonnes (roughly 1,200 adult tuna) out of 5,282 tonnes in total to small operators. But Micalizzi says that is far too little, especially since most of the Italian quota is allocated to a few seiners and longliners.Meanwhile, in Sicily, there have been multiple reports of people becoming sick with scombroid poisoning from eating badly conserved tuna, potentially fished without the right permits.“In these games who is the loser? The smallest,” says Antonio Di Natale, a UN expert on sustainable fisheries and former research director at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).In these last few years, the tuna have got bigger and bigger. So in that sense, the quota workedAs one of the oldest human industrial activities, according to Di Natale, the tonnara should be protected as a Unesco “intangible cultural heritage”. It is also invaluable as a sustainable fishing practice as it so easily controlled and highly selective, he adds.Today, much of the wild tuna caught in Italy is slowly transported in large floating cages to Malta, Spain and Croatia. There, they are fattened for up to six months to appease lucrative markets such as Japan that prize large and fatty fish.“There is nothing illegal in this practice,” Buzzi says. “But the impact of farming a tuna in a cage is not even comparable to the environmental impact of catching a wild tuna.”This year, before the harvest, Greco’s team released a shoal of 1,200 young tuna from their nets because they were too small. “What other fishing system allows for such selection?” he asks. But running a tonnara is neither quick nor cheap.While a big seine boat can go out with a small crew and catch the entire year’s quota in a week, the preparation of the tonnara takes about six months. The multi-chambered nets spanning 3km (and 40 metres deep) take two months to prepare and two days to mount at sea using 122 anchors.Greco says he invests €1.5m a year in the tonnara, and employs about 50 people. However, to fund what is one of Italy’s last two tonnara, he reluctantly sells 75% of his trapped fish to large-scale tuna cagers.“I don’t like fattening them,” says Greco. “It certainly doesn’t create first-rate fish and it pollutes … I would have declared cages illegal.”But Greco is also hopeful. His tonnara is open to tourists who want to learn about the ancient practice – and it helps that they buy his premium-quality tinned tuna for €25 a pop.Fausto Siddi takes a break between sessions of pulling the nets as they wait for the tuna shoal to swim further within the tonnara trap. Renato Calabró, exhausted from a morning of work and the final, straining tuna mattanza, has been working at the tonnara for the past decade At sea, the harvest is done, and one of the fishers calls for silence. “May the holy sacrament be thanked. In the name of Saint Anthony, let go,” he says. The others respond: “Aoooohh!” Most of Biggio’s team return to shore with their 49 giants, weighing six tonnes in total.But one boat stays behind. On it, several exhausted fishers sip local Ichnusa beer and bask in the sun.“In these last few years, the tuna have got bigger and bigger,” muses Stefano Sanna, a tonnara fisher for 25 years. “So in that sense, the quota worked.”

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