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The world’s spectacular animal migrations are dwindling. Fishing, fences and development are fast-tracking extinctions

News Feed
Monday, February 12, 2024

Alec Taylor/ShutterstockIn 1875, trillions of Rocky Mountain locusts gathered and began migrating across the western United States in search of food. The enormous swarm covered an area larger than California. Three decades later, these grasshoppers were extinct. This fate is all too common for migratory species. Their journeys can make them especially vulnerable to hunting or fishing. They may move between countries, meaning protecting the species in one jurisdiction isn’t enough. And it’s hard for us to even know if they’re in trouble. Today, we get a global glimpse of how migratory species are faring, in the first-ever stocktake produced by the United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species. The report shows falling populations in close to half (44%) the 1,189 species tracked by the convention. The problem is much worse underwater – 90% of migratory fish species are threatened with extinction. Their decline is not inevitable. After all, the migratory humpback whale was headed for rapid extinction – until we stopped whaling. Why are migratory species at higher risk? Every year, birds weighing about 300 grams leave Siberia and fly non-stop to Australia. Some bar-tailed godwits fly 13,000 km without stopping – one of the longest known continuous migrations. Their journeys are critical for their life cycles – to find food, mates or a better climate. To undertake these journeys, animals must be in good condition with plenty of fat stores, and they must have safe flyways, swimways and pathways. On land, roads and fences carve up migratory routes for animals like wildebeest. At sea, fishing trawlers chase migrating schools of fish and often accidentally collect sea turtles, albatrosses and whales. On seashores, development or land reclamation take away vital resting points for migrating shorebirds. What the report shows us is that migration between countries is getting harder and harder. While a few species are benefiting greatly from farming and artificial wetlands, many more are being severely harmed. Even the largest migrations can be stopped by fences or other barriers. Mcknub/Shutterstock Overexploitation is the top risk Human exploitation of migratory species – taken as food, bycatch or exterminated as “pest” species – is the main reason why these species are in decline. Animals often migrate in large groups, making them an appealing target for hunting or fishing. This is why we no longer have species such as the passenger pigeon, once numbering in their billions but hunted to extinction in 100 years. Marine species are often out of sight, out of mind. But this report is a huge red flag for ocean ecosystems. Oceanic shark and ray populations have fallen 71% since 1970, which coincides with an 18 fold increase in fishing pressure. Bycatch in commercial fisheries is a huge problem for sharks, turtles, mammals and birds, but it can be massively reduced with existing technology, if deployed across all fleets Overexploitation can be stopped. In 1981, Australia and Japan agreed to stop hunting Latham’s Snipe, a migratory shorebird that travels between the two countries. It’s the same story for humpback whales, which have returned in large numbers – and created a new industry, whale-watching. Populations of sharks and rays have plummeted since 1970 – and fishing pressure is to blame. Orin/Shutterstock On fences and stepping stones Direct killing of migratory animals isn’t the only threat. Clearing forests and grassland for farming destroys habitat. Light pollution can mess with navigation, climate change plays havoc with the timing of migration, and underwater noise pollution can confuse marine migrants. Even simple actions like building fences, roads and dams can disrupt migrations over land and through rivers. Many migratory species need stepping stones: resting sites linking up their whole migratory route. If just one site is lost – or if animals are intensely hunted there – the whole chain can collapse. Once identified, key areas have to be protected, which is where we often get stuck. But there are glimmers of hope. Last year conservation of these areas in the ocean got a boost when the world’s nations agreed to better protect the high seas beyond national jurisdictions, which fills a planet-sized gap in biodiversity governance. Read more: We now have a treaty governing the high seas. Can it protect the Wild West of the oceans? What the report didn’t cover This is a groundbreaking report, but it has limitations. First, it only covers species listed under the UN convention, a tiny fraction of all migratory species. Listing unlocks stronger protections and urgently needs to be rolled out to more species. For instance, around 60 migratory fish species are covered – but more than 1,700 others are not. Of these unprotected species, almost 25% are threatened, near threatened or there’s not enough data to know. That’s to say nothing of insects. To date, only one insect is listed on the convention, the famous Monarch butterfly which migrates from the United States to Mexico. But millions of tonnes of insects migrate through the airspace each year, and we have largely no idea what they are, where they’re going or how they’re faring. Monarch butterflies get the press – but many more insect species migrate. Gudkov Andrey/Shutterstock Can we save these species? We now know much more about why migratory species are in decline. But we’re still not acting to protect them adequately. More than 90% of the world’s migratory birds aren’t adequately protected by national parks and other protected areas. Only 8% of the world’s protected land is joined up, preventing migrating animals from moving safely across their routes. Because of this, animals have to make daring sorties across unprotected land or sea to complete their journeys. So what can be done? Agreements between countries can create more action, but in practice, each country needs to actually do what it has already promised. Policymakers can turn to a bevy of new tools, including Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas and the Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean system, to provide easy access to knowledge on how migratory species use and move through the world. Animal migrations have collapsed on our watch. We need to do all we can to stem the losses and begin recovery if we want future generations to be able to experience nature in all its glory. Read more: From Australia to Africa, fences are stopping Earth's great animal migrations Richard Fuller receives funding for migratory species research from the Australian Research Council and the National Environmental Science Program. Daniel Dunn receives funding from the Australian Research Council for a Discovery Project focused on understanding migratory connectivity in the ocean, and leads the development of the Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO; mico.eco) system, which has been previously supported by the German International Climate Initiative (IKI) and UNEP-WCMC, the authors of the UN report.Lily Bentley works on the Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO; mico.eco) system, which has been previously supported by the German International Climate Initiative (IKI) and UNEP-WCMC, the authors of the UN report.

Wildebeest herds churning dust. Sturgeon seeking spawning grounds. Shorebirds flying from Siberia. These iconic animal migrations could soon be a memory.

Alec Taylor/Shutterstock

In 1875, trillions of Rocky Mountain locusts gathered and began migrating across the western United States in search of food. The enormous swarm covered an area larger than California. Three decades later, these grasshoppers were extinct.

This fate is all too common for migratory species. Their journeys can make them especially vulnerable to hunting or fishing. They may move between countries, meaning protecting the species in one jurisdiction isn’t enough. And it’s hard for us to even know if they’re in trouble.

Today, we get a global glimpse of how migratory species are faring, in the first-ever stocktake produced by the United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species. The report shows falling populations in close to half (44%) the 1,189 species tracked by the convention. The problem is much worse underwater – 90% of migratory fish species are threatened with extinction.

Their decline is not inevitable. After all, the migratory humpback whale was headed for rapid extinction – until we stopped whaling.

Why are migratory species at higher risk?

Every year, birds weighing about 300 grams leave Siberia and fly non-stop to Australia. Some bar-tailed godwits fly 13,000 km without stopping – one of the longest known continuous migrations.

Their journeys are critical for their life cycles – to find food, mates or a better climate. To undertake these journeys, animals must be in good condition with plenty of fat stores, and they must have safe flyways, swimways and pathways.

On land, roads and fences carve up migratory routes for animals like wildebeest. At sea, fishing trawlers chase migrating schools of fish and often accidentally collect sea turtles, albatrosses and whales. On seashores, development or land reclamation take away vital resting points for migrating shorebirds.

What the report shows us is that migration between countries is getting harder and harder. While a few species are benefiting greatly from farming and artificial wetlands, many more are being severely harmed.

wildebeest
Even the largest migrations can be stopped by fences or other barriers. Mcknub/Shutterstock

Overexploitation is the top risk

Human exploitation of migratory species – taken as food, bycatch or exterminated as “pest” species – is the main reason why these species are in decline.

Animals often migrate in large groups, making them an appealing target for hunting or fishing. This is why we no longer have species such as the passenger pigeon, once numbering in their billions but hunted to extinction in 100 years.

Marine species are often out of sight, out of mind. But this report is a huge red flag for ocean ecosystems. Oceanic shark and ray populations have fallen 71% since 1970, which coincides with an 18 fold increase in fishing pressure. Bycatch in commercial fisheries is a huge problem for sharks, turtles, mammals and birds, but it can be massively reduced with existing technology, if deployed across all fleets

Overexploitation can be stopped. In 1981, Australia and Japan agreed to stop hunting Latham’s Snipe, a migratory shorebird that travels between the two countries. It’s the same story for humpback whales, which have returned in large numbers – and created a new industry, whale-watching.

dead manta ray fishing
Populations of sharks and rays have plummeted since 1970 – and fishing pressure is to blame. Orin/Shutterstock

On fences and stepping stones

Direct killing of migratory animals isn’t the only threat. Clearing forests and grassland for farming destroys habitat. Light pollution can mess with navigation, climate change plays havoc with the timing of migration, and underwater noise pollution can confuse marine migrants. Even simple actions like building fences, roads and dams can disrupt migrations over land and through rivers.

Many migratory species need stepping stones: resting sites linking up their whole migratory route. If just one site is lost – or if animals are intensely hunted there – the whole chain can collapse.

Once identified, key areas have to be protected, which is where we often get stuck. But there are glimmers of hope. Last year conservation of these areas in the ocean got a boost when the world’s nations agreed to better protect the high seas beyond national jurisdictions, which fills a planet-sized gap in biodiversity governance.


Read more: We now have a treaty governing the high seas. Can it protect the Wild West of the oceans?


What the report didn’t cover

This is a groundbreaking report, but it has limitations. First, it only covers species listed under the UN convention, a tiny fraction of all migratory species. Listing unlocks stronger protections and urgently needs to be rolled out to more species.

For instance, around 60 migratory fish species are covered – but more than 1,700 others are not. Of these unprotected species, almost 25% are threatened, near threatened or there’s not enough data to know.

That’s to say nothing of insects. To date, only one insect is listed on the convention, the famous Monarch butterfly which migrates from the United States to Mexico. But millions of tonnes of insects migrate through the airspace each year, and we have largely no idea what they are, where they’re going or how they’re faring.

monarch butterfly
Monarch butterflies get the press – but many more insect species migrate. Gudkov Andrey/Shutterstock

Can we save these species?

We now know much more about why migratory species are in decline. But we’re still not acting to protect them adequately.

More than 90% of the world’s migratory birds aren’t adequately protected by national parks and other protected areas. Only 8% of the world’s protected land is joined up, preventing migrating animals from moving safely across their routes. Because of this, animals have to make daring sorties across unprotected land or sea to complete their journeys.

So what can be done? Agreements between countries can create more action, but in practice, each country needs to actually do what it has already promised.

Policymakers can turn to a bevy of new tools, including Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas and the Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean system, to provide easy access to knowledge on how migratory species use and move through the world.

Animal migrations have collapsed on our watch. We need to do all we can to stem the losses and begin recovery if we want future generations to be able to experience nature in all its glory.


Read more: From Australia to Africa, fences are stopping Earth's great animal migrations


The Conversation

Richard Fuller receives funding for migratory species research from the Australian Research Council and the National Environmental Science Program.

Daniel Dunn receives funding from the Australian Research Council for a Discovery Project focused on understanding migratory connectivity in the ocean, and leads the development of the Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO; mico.eco) system, which has been previously supported by the German International Climate Initiative (IKI) and UNEP-WCMC, the authors of the UN report.

Lily Bentley works on the Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO; mico.eco) system, which has been previously supported by the German International Climate Initiative (IKI) and UNEP-WCMC, the authors of the UN report.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

What Will It Take for the EPA to Ban a Pesticide Linked to Parkinson’s?

Pesticides, Rachel Carson wrote in 1962, have “the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil—all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should be called … ‘biocides.’”Carson’s book, Silent Spring, helped launch the modern environmental movement. But more than six decades later, we are still struggling to heed her warning. Farmlands and lawns in the United States are drenched in about a billion pounds of pesticides per year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.The Environmental Protection Agency recently reapproved paraquat, a toxic herbicide, even though a group of environmental and public health groups have been suing the agency for ignoring multiple studies showing paraquat exposure increases a person’s odds of developing Parkinson’s disease. That’s in addition to paraquat’s short-term effects, which can include heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure, and lung scarring if even a small amount of it is ingested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the CDC fact sheet on paraquat includes the striking recommendation that if you get any on your clothes you should cut the affected garment off your body—because it is too dangerous to pull it over your head and risk ingesting paraquat—and see a doctor immediately. The company that sells paraquat, according to documents leaked to The Guardian in 2022, has known about possible long-term neurological effects since 1975 and deliberately downplayed them.What’s particularly grim about the paraquat decision is that it was Rachel Carson’s writing—and the environmental movement her book helped to inspire—that led to the creation of the EPA in 1970, precisely to stem the flood of poisons she warned about. As Richard Nixon envisioned it, studying and regulating the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment was one of the new agency’s major tasks. Then, in 1972, Congress greatly strengthened the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA, creating a much stricter regulatory framework for the EPA to follow.Over the last half-century, however, industry has grown ever more adept at creating and widening loopholes in that framework. The EPA also doesn’t make full use of its power. For example, despite having enormous authority to protect endangered species, the agency has never studied the impact of a pesticide on an endangered animal or plants prior to approving its use. When other organizations and government agencies have studied the effect of pesticides on biodiversity, they’ve concluded that the harm is staggering; a 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study found that just two widely used pesticides alone posed an existential threat to some 1,300 species.Another example is the agency’s struggle to curb Roundup, a weed killer that has proved extremely dangerous to humans. Roundup contains glyphosate, which the World Health Organization has described as “probably carcinogenic.” In 2022, the CDC found that 80 percent of urine samples taken from U.S. adults and kids had traces of glyphosate in them. A follow-up by CDC and National Institutes of Health scientists found that people with glyphosate in their urine also have cancer biomarkers in their urine. Bayer, the company that owns the agrochemical manufacturer Monsanto, which makes Roundup, has faced numerous lawsuits over the herbicide’s toxic health effects. Courts have often ruled in favor of the company, but Bayer has spent billions settling many of the lawsuits, and more cases are currently proceeding. Plaintiffs have been winning some of them. Last week an appeals court in Georgia turned down Bayer’s effort to dismiss a suit arguing that Roundup caused cancer, and the previous week, a Philadelphia jury awarded $2.25 billion to a man who developed lymphoma after using the product on his own property for decades.Here again, the EPA has not been of much help and seems markedly less concerned than other U.S. government agencies. The EPA in 2020 said Roundup posed no “risks of concern to human health.”For decades, an anti-regulatory ideology has seeped into our government like atrazine leaching into our groundwater. But the EPA’s problems are more directly a result of deliberate interference by industry. Agribusiness spends heavily on lobbying the EPA and on extensive strategies to compromise research at the agency, according to exhaustive reporting by the Intercept in 2021.  But recent weeks have shown that the United States isn’t the only government struggling to regulate these poisons, 60 years after Rachel Carson’s death. The European Union announced that it was dropping an ambitious plan to cut pesticide use in half, following weeks of disruptive protests by farmers across Europe using tractors to block highways and railways and burning hay bales and tires. The farmers argued that the new rules would mire them in bureaucracy and hurt their businesses. Death threats and right-wing disinformation on the topic didn’t help matters. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, announcing the decision to abandon the bill, described the effort to reduce pesticides as “worthy” but said that it had become “a symbol of polarization.” Those still hoping, in the tradition of Rachel Carson, to stanch the flow of toxins, can claim some recent victories and momentum. Those most harmed by pesticides—from human babies to honeybees—are widely loved. It’s always politically fruitful to evoke that love, as Carson did when she confronted us with the threat of silencing some of our favorite sounds: the song of the birds and the leaping of the fish in our streams. That’s probably why in December, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, not usually a politician feared by earth-ravaging special interests, signed the Birds and Bees Protection Act, prohibiting neonicotinoid pesticides, which are toxic to birds and pollinators, as well as other wildlife. Beekeepers in Vermont are pushing for a similar law.We have known about the damage from pesticides for such a long time—even longer than we’ve known about global warming. These “biocides” are every bit as dangerous as Rachel Carson once described, and our knowledge of their harms has only grown more horribly specific. It’s decades past time for our governments to choose life over disease, suffering, and death.  

Pesticides, Rachel Carson wrote in 1962, have “the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil—all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should be called … ‘biocides.’”Carson’s book, Silent Spring, helped launch the modern environmental movement. But more than six decades later, we are still struggling to heed her warning. Farmlands and lawns in the United States are drenched in about a billion pounds of pesticides per year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.The Environmental Protection Agency recently reapproved paraquat, a toxic herbicide, even though a group of environmental and public health groups have been suing the agency for ignoring multiple studies showing paraquat exposure increases a person’s odds of developing Parkinson’s disease. That’s in addition to paraquat’s short-term effects, which can include heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure, and lung scarring if even a small amount of it is ingested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the CDC fact sheet on paraquat includes the striking recommendation that if you get any on your clothes you should cut the affected garment off your body—because it is too dangerous to pull it over your head and risk ingesting paraquat—and see a doctor immediately. The company that sells paraquat, according to documents leaked to The Guardian in 2022, has known about possible long-term neurological effects since 1975 and deliberately downplayed them.What’s particularly grim about the paraquat decision is that it was Rachel Carson’s writing—and the environmental movement her book helped to inspire—that led to the creation of the EPA in 1970, precisely to stem the flood of poisons she warned about. As Richard Nixon envisioned it, studying and regulating the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment was one of the new agency’s major tasks. Then, in 1972, Congress greatly strengthened the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA, creating a much stricter regulatory framework for the EPA to follow.Over the last half-century, however, industry has grown ever more adept at creating and widening loopholes in that framework. The EPA also doesn’t make full use of its power. For example, despite having enormous authority to protect endangered species, the agency has never studied the impact of a pesticide on an endangered animal or plants prior to approving its use. When other organizations and government agencies have studied the effect of pesticides on biodiversity, they’ve concluded that the harm is staggering; a 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study found that just two widely used pesticides alone posed an existential threat to some 1,300 species.Another example is the agency’s struggle to curb Roundup, a weed killer that has proved extremely dangerous to humans. Roundup contains glyphosate, which the World Health Organization has described as “probably carcinogenic.” In 2022, the CDC found that 80 percent of urine samples taken from U.S. adults and kids had traces of glyphosate in them. A follow-up by CDC and National Institutes of Health scientists found that people with glyphosate in their urine also have cancer biomarkers in their urine. Bayer, the company that owns the agrochemical manufacturer Monsanto, which makes Roundup, has faced numerous lawsuits over the herbicide’s toxic health effects. Courts have often ruled in favor of the company, but Bayer has spent billions settling many of the lawsuits, and more cases are currently proceeding. Plaintiffs have been winning some of them. Last week an appeals court in Georgia turned down Bayer’s effort to dismiss a suit arguing that Roundup caused cancer, and the previous week, a Philadelphia jury awarded $2.25 billion to a man who developed lymphoma after using the product on his own property for decades.Here again, the EPA has not been of much help and seems markedly less concerned than other U.S. government agencies. The EPA in 2020 said Roundup posed no “risks of concern to human health.”For decades, an anti-regulatory ideology has seeped into our government like atrazine leaching into our groundwater. But the EPA’s problems are more directly a result of deliberate interference by industry. Agribusiness spends heavily on lobbying the EPA and on extensive strategies to compromise research at the agency, according to exhaustive reporting by the Intercept in 2021.  But recent weeks have shown that the United States isn’t the only government struggling to regulate these poisons, 60 years after Rachel Carson’s death. The European Union announced that it was dropping an ambitious plan to cut pesticide use in half, following weeks of disruptive protests by farmers across Europe using tractors to block highways and railways and burning hay bales and tires. The farmers argued that the new rules would mire them in bureaucracy and hurt their businesses. Death threats and right-wing disinformation on the topic didn’t help matters. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, announcing the decision to abandon the bill, described the effort to reduce pesticides as “worthy” but said that it had become “a symbol of polarization.” Those still hoping, in the tradition of Rachel Carson, to stanch the flow of toxins, can claim some recent victories and momentum. Those most harmed by pesticides—from human babies to honeybees—are widely loved. It’s always politically fruitful to evoke that love, as Carson did when she confronted us with the threat of silencing some of our favorite sounds: the song of the birds and the leaping of the fish in our streams. That’s probably why in December, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, not usually a politician feared by earth-ravaging special interests, signed the Birds and Bees Protection Act, prohibiting neonicotinoid pesticides, which are toxic to birds and pollinators, as well as other wildlife. Beekeepers in Vermont are pushing for a similar law.We have known about the damage from pesticides for such a long time—even longer than we’ve known about global warming. These “biocides” are every bit as dangerous as Rachel Carson once described, and our knowledge of their harms has only grown more horribly specific. It’s decades past time for our governments to choose life over disease, suffering, and death.  

Scientists shocked to discover new species of green anaconda, the world’s biggest snake

Green anacondas are the world’s heaviest snakes, and among the longest. it’s remarkable this hidden species has slipped under the radar until now.

Source: Jesus RivasThe green anaconda has long been considered one of the Amazon’s most formidable and mysterious animals. Our new research upends scientific understanding of this magnificent creature, revealing it is actually two genetically different species. The surprising finding opens a new chapter in conservation of this top jungle predator. Green anacondas are the world’s heaviest snakes, and among the longest. Predominantly found in rivers and wetlands in South America, they are renowned for their lightning speed and ability to asphyxiate huge prey then swallow them whole. My colleagues and I were shocked to discover significant genetic differences between the two anaconda species. Given the reptile is such a large vertebrate, it’s remarkable this difference has slipped under the radar until now. Conservation strategies for green anacondas must now be reassessed, to help each unique species cope with threats such as climate change, habitat degradation and pollution. The findings also show the urgent need to better understand the diversity of Earth’s animal and plant species before it’s too late. Scientists discovered a new snake species known as the northern green anaconda. Bryan Fry An impressive apex predator Historically, four anaconda species have been recognised, including green anacondas (also known as giant anacondas). Green anacondas are true behemoths of the reptile world. The largest females can grow to more than seven metres long and weigh more than 250 kilograms The snakes are well-adapted to a life lived mostly in water. Their nostrils and eyes are on top of their head, so they can see and breathe while the rest of their body is submerged. Anacondas are olive coloured with large black spots, enabling them to blend in with their surroundings. The snakes inhabit the lush, intricate waterways of South America’s Amazon and Orinoco basins. They are known for their stealth, patience and surprising agility. The buoyancy of the water supports the animal’s substantial bulk and enables it to move easily and leap out to ambush prey as large as capybaras (giant rodents), caimans (reptiles from the alligator family) and deer. Green anacondas are not venomous. Instead they take down prey using their large, flexible jaws then crush it with their strong bodies, before swallowing it. As apex predators, green anacondas are vital to maintaining balance in their ecosystems. This role extends beyond their hunting. Their very presence alters the behaviour of a wide range of other species, influencing where and how they forage, breed and migrate. Anacondas are highly sensitive to environmental change. Healthy anaconda populations indicate healthy, vibrant ecosystems, with ample food resources and clean water. Declining anaconda numbers may be harbingers of environmental distress. So knowing which anaconda species exist, and monitoring their numbers, is crucial. To date, there has been little research into genetic differences between anaconda species. Our research aimed to close that knowledge gap. Read more: Stop killing brown snakes – they could be a farmer's best friend Green anaconda have large, flexible jaws. Pictured: a green anaconda eating a deer. JESUS RIVAS Untangling anaconda genes We studied representative samples from all anaconda species throughout their distribution, across nine countries. Our project spanned almost 20 years. Crucial pieces of the puzzle came from samples we collected on a 2022 expedition to the Bameno region of Baihuaeri Waorani Territory in the Ecuadorian Amazon. We took this trip at the invitation of, and in collaboration with, Waorani leader Penti Baihua. Actor Will Smith also joined the expedition, as part of a series he is filming for National Geographic. We surveyed anacondas from various locations throughout their ranges in South America. Conditions were difficult. We paddled up muddy rivers and slogged through swamps. The heat was relentless and swarms of insects were omnipresent. We collected data such as habitat type and location, and rainfall patterns. We also collected tissue and/or blood from each specimen and analysed them back in the lab. This revealed the green anaconda, formerly believed to be a single species, is actually two genetically distinct species. The first is the known species, Eunectes murinus, which lives in Perú, Bolivia, French Guiana and Brazil. We have given it the common name “southern green anaconda”. The second, newly identified species is Eunectes akayima or “northern green anaconda”, which is found in Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. We also identified the period in time where the green anaconda diverged into two species: almost 10 million years ago. The two species of green anaconda look almost identical, and no obvious geographical barrier exists to separate them. But their level of genetic divergence – 5.5% – is staggering. By comparison, the genetic difference between humans and apes is about 2%. Read more: The forgotten Amazon: as a critical summit nears, politicians must get serious about deforestation in Bolivia The two green anaconda species live much of their lives in water. Shutterstock Preserving the web of life Our research has peeled back a layer of the mystery surrounding green anacondas. This discovery has significant implications for the conservation of these species – particularly for the newly identified northern green anaconda. Until now, the two species have been managed as a single entity. But each may have different ecological niches and ranges, and face different threats. Tailored conservation strategies must be devised to safeguard the future of both species. This may include new legal protections and initiatives to protect habitat. It may also involve measures to mitigate the harm caused by climate change, deforestation and pollution — such as devastating effects of oil spills on aquatic habitats. Our research is also a reminder of the complexities involved in biodiversity conservation. When species go unrecognised, they can slip through the cracks of conservation programs. By incorporating genetic taxonomy into conservation planning, we can better preserve Earth’s intricate web of life – both the species we know today, and those yet to be discovered. Professor Bryan G. Fry is a National Geographic Explorer and has previously received funding as part of this role.

The Mysterious 280-Million-Year-Old Fossil That Fooled Scientists for Decades

Paleontological analysis shows renowned fossil thought to show soft tissue preservation is in fact just paint. A 280-million-year-old fossil that has baffled researchers for decades...

Tridentinosaurus antiquus was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931 and was thought to be an important specimen for understanding early reptile evolution – but has now been found to be, in part a forgery. Its body outline, appearing dark against the surrounding rock, was initially interpreted as preserved soft tissues but is now known to be paint. Credit: Dr. Valentina RossiPaleontological analysis shows renowned fossil thought to show soft tissue preservation is in fact just paint.A 280-million-year-old fossil that has baffled researchers for decades has been shown to be, in part, a forgery following new examination of the remnants.The discovery has led the team led by Dr. Valentina Rossi of University College Cork, Ireland (UCC) to urge caution in how the fossil is used in future research. Tridentinosaurus antiquus was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931 and was thought to be an important specimen for understanding early reptile evolution.Its body outline, appearing dark against the surrounding rock, was initially interpreted as preserved soft tissues. This led to its classification as a member of the reptile group Protorosauria.Uncovering the TruthHowever, this new research, published in the scientific journal Palaeontology, reveals that the fossil renowned for its remarkable preservation is mostly just black paint on a carved lizard-shaped rock surface.The purported fossilized skin had been celebrated in articles and books but never studied in detail. The somewhat strange preservation of the fossil had left many experts uncertain about what group of reptiles this strange lizard-like animal belonged to and more generally its geological history.Dr. Valentina Rossi with an image of Tridentinosaurus antiquus. The fossil, discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931, was thought to be an important specimen for understanding early reptile evolution – but has now been found to be, in part a forgery. Its body outline, appearing dark against the surrounding rock, was initially interpreted as preserved soft tissues but is now known to be paint. Credit: Zixiao YangDr. Rossi, of UCC’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, said:“Fossil soft tissues are rare, but when found in a fossil they can reveal important biological information, for instance, the external coloration, internal anatomy, and physiology.“The answer to all our questions was right in front of us, we had to study this fossil specimen in detail to reveal its secrets – even those that perhaps we did not want to know.”The microscopic analysis showed that the texture and composition of the material did not match that of genuine fossilized soft tissues.Deception and DiscoveryPreliminary investigation using UV photography revealed that the entirety of the specimen was treated with some sort of coating material. Coating fossils with varnishes and/or lacquers was the norm in the past and sometimes is still necessary to preserve a fossil specimen in museum cabinets and exhibits. The team was hoping that beneath the coating layer, the original soft tissues were still in good condition to extract meaningful paleobiological information.The findings indicate that the body outline of Tridentinosaurus antiquus was artificially created, likely to enhance the appearance of the fossil. This deception misled previous researchers, and now caution is being urged when using this specimen in future studies.The team behind this research includes contributors based in Italy at the University of Padua, Museum of Nature South Tyrol, and the Museo delle Scienze in Trento.Co-author Prof Evelyn Kustatscher, coordinator of the project “Living with the supervolcano,” funded by the Autonomous Province of Bolzano said:“The peculiar preservation of Tridentinosaurus had puzzled experts for decades. Now, it all makes sense. What was described as carbonized skin, is just paint.”However not all is lost, and the fossil is not a complete fake. The bones of the hindlimbs, in particular, the femurs seem genuine, although poorly preserved. Moreover, the new analyses have shown the presence of tiny bony scales called osteoderms — like the scales of crocodiles — on what perhaps was the back of the animal.This study is an example of how modern analytical paleontology and rigorous scientific methods can resolve an almost century-old paleontological enigma.Reference: “Forged soft tissues revealed in the oldest fossil reptile from the early Permian of the Alps” by Valentina Rossi, Massimo Bernardi, Mariagabriella Fornasiero, Fabrizio Nestola, Richard Unitt, Stefano Castelli and Evelyn Kustatscher, 15 February 2024, Palaeontology.DOI: 10.1111/pala.12690

Unmasking Chlormequat: Toxic Pesticide Found in 80% of People Tested

A study by the Environmental Working Group found chlormequat, a pesticide associated with health risks in animals, in 80% of participants, highlighting the need for...

A recent study by the Environmental Working Group found chlormequat, a pesticide linked to health risks in animals, in 80% of participants, indicating widespread exposure through oat consumption and raising questions about its impact on human health.A study by the Environmental Working Group found chlormequat, a pesticide associated with health risks in animals, in 80% of participants, highlighting the need for regulatory oversight and further research on its impact on human health.A new Environmental Working Group peer-reviewed study has found chlormequat, a little-known pesticide, in four out of five people tested. Because the chemical is linked to reproductive and developmental problems in animal studies, the findings suggest the potential for similar harm to humans.EWG’s research, published February 15 in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, tested the urine of 96 people for the presence of chlormequat, finding it in 77 of them. “EWG’s new study on chlormequat is the first of its kind in the U.S.,” said EWG Toxicologist Alexis Temkin, Ph.D, lead author of the study. “The ubiquity of this little-studied pesticide in people raises alarm bells about how it could potentially cause harm without anyone even knowing they’ve consumed it.”Some animal studies show chlormequat can damage the reproductive system and disrupt fetal growth, changing development of the head and bones and altering key metabolic processes.This research raises questions about whether chlormequat could also harm humans.Increasing Exposure and Regulatory ConcernsFor its study, EWG sourced urine samples collected between 2017 and 2023 from 96 people in the U.S. and tested them for chlormequat at a specialized lab in the United Kingdom.The tests found chlormequat in the urine of more people and at higher concentrations in samples collected in 2023, compared to earlier years – suggesting consumer exposure to chlormequat could be on the rise.Environmental Protection Agency regulations allow the chemical to be used on ornamental plants only – not food crops – grown in the U.S.But since 2018, the EPA has permitted chlormequat on imported oats and other foods, increasing the allowed amount in 2020. Both regulatory changes took place under the Trump administration. Many oats and oat products consumed in the U.S. come from Canada.In April 2023, in response to an application submitted by chlormequat manufacturer Taminco in 2019, the Biden EPA proposed allowing the first-ever use of chlormequat on barley, oats, triticale, and wheat grown in the U.S. EWG opposes the plan. The proposed rule has not yet been finalized.“The federal government has a vital role in ensuring that pesticides are adequately monitored, studied, and regulated,” Temkin said. “Yet the EPA continues to abdicate its responsibility to protect children from the potential health harms of toxic chemicals like chlormequat in food.”EWG’s Call to ActionEWG urges the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration to test foods for chlormequat and requests that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention add chlormequat to its biomonitoring program. The organization also calls for more research on the effects of chlormequat on human health.EWG conducted its own tests of oat-based foods in 2022 and 2023, finding chlormequat in numerous non-organic oat-based products. Organic oat products had little to no detections of the chemical.Reference: “A pilot study of chlormequat in food and urine from adults in the United States from 2017 to 2023” by Alexis M. Temkin, Sydney Evans, Demetri D. Spyropoulos and Olga V. Naidenko, 15 February 2024, Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology.DOI: 10.1038/s41370-024-00643-4

Another Endangered Whale Was Found Dead off East Coast. This One Died After Colliding With a Ship

Federal authorities said the second critically endangered North Atlantic right whale found dead in the last month showed injuries consistent with a collision with a ship

Federal authorities said the second critically endangered North Atlantic right whale found dead in the last month showed injuries consistent with a collision with a ship.The whales number less than 360 and they have experienced decline in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was notified of a dead right whale floating off Savannah, Georgia, on Feb. 13.The agency said late Friday that a necropsy of the animal “found evidence of blunt force trauma including fractures of the skull” and that those “injuries are consistent with a vessel strike prior to death.” The announcement came just days after NOAA released more details about a dead right whale off Massachusetts that showed signs of entanglement in fishing gear, which is the other major threat the animals face.The back-to-back deaths of the rare whales that both showed evidence of the species' two major threats should motivate rule changes, numerous environmental groups said Saturday. The groups have long pushed for stricter rules governing shipping and commercial fishing to help protect the whales.“The North Atlantic right whale’s nursery is becoming a crime scene," said Greg Reilly, southeast marine campaigner for International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Without enhanced protections, the North Atlantic right whale is doomed to extinction. Lawmakers need to get out of the way and let the administration finalize the amended vessel speed rule.”NOAA has proposed new vessel speed rules to try to protect whales, but they have yet to go into effect. Environmental groups have sued to try to force a deadline for the new rules. New fishing standards designed to protect the whales from entanglement in rope are also the subject of ongoing lawsuits involving environmentalists, fishing groups and the federal government.The whale that died off Massachusetts that was found in January showed signs of entanglement in fishing lines that originated in the Maine lobster fishery, NOAA said this week. Entanglement of whales in Maine rope is very rare, said Kevin Kelley, a spokesperson for the Maine Lobstermen's Association.“Maine lobstermen have made significant changes to how they fish over the last 25 years to avoid entanglement and continue gear testing,” he said.The right whales were once abundant off the East Coast, but they were decimated during the commercial whaling era and have been slow to recover. The whales migrate from the waters off Florida and Georgia to New England every year and face hazards like collisions and entanglement along the way. Some scientists have said warming ocean waters has caused them to stray from protected zones during the journey.Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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