Surfer Pushed into the Path of a Shark

Many people from shark enthusiasts to researchers would love to swim with sharks in their natural environment. We all know the possible dangers of certain species of shark that are exaggerated by films such as ‘Jaws’ and played up in many documentaries. Due to an increased exposure to wild animals via this medium, are some people becoming too relaxed around wild animals?

There is no doubt in many individuals’ minds of the worth of well written and executed documentaries, but what about sensationalist pieces which concentrate on Hollywood stereotypes and do not mention the ‘whole deal’ when it comes to different species? Are we losing a sense of how dangerous wild animals can be with the apparent ‘safeness’ of certain species?

A video has been posted recently of a surfer that is pushed into the path of a shark in the Irish Sea and reported by the media as ‘not as dangerous as it may look’ due the shark in question, being a basking shark. This may be a case of bad journalism, but it highlights a worrying underlying thought of a ‘safe’ wild animal.

Basking sharks are filter feeders, concentrating on plankton found in the sea. Even if they did develop a taste for larger prey, they would not be able to swallow it as their throat only measures 4 inches in diameter. For a shark that can measure up to 10 meters, that is a surprisingly small throat!

However, this does not mean they are ‘safe’ to play around with because they are not ‘as bite-y’ as other sharks. Basking sharks typically measure around 6 – 8 meters, all of which is mostly muscle. If that surfer had been hit by the shark’s tail, it would have resulted in a morbidly different story and no doubt, cries of ‘Jaws’ off the Irish coast.

Despite the basking sharks tag as a ‘safe shark’, it is a very large and powerful wild animal. It is a shame that some bad journalism is promoting the apparent safeness of some species, probably making the decision to push your friend into the path of a basking shark easier than if it was a great white!

Videos like this are making the protection of this vulnerable species and other species harder as disturbances to their behaviour by unregulated boats or flying surfers, will have severe consequences for their population.  Although social media is a great way to promote conservation, unfortunately, some irresponsible individuals are using it to get more hits, retweets and a popular hashtag.

 

Haley Dolton

 

 

It’s World Penguin Day!

I’m sure you’ve all got this marked down in your calendar, but it is world penguin day! So to celebrate, here are 10 facts about these beautiful birds:

1)            Some species of penguin can live up to 15 – 20 years old

2)            They spend 75% of their lives at sea

3)            Penguin biodiversity ranges from 17 – 20 species

4)            The tallest penguin, the emperor penguin, can reach the dizzy height of 3 feet 7 inches

5)            Penguins can dive further than any other bird species, the emperor penguin can dive 1,870ft for up to 22 minutes at a time

6)            A group of penguins is called a rookery

7)            They can swim at speeds of up to 25mph

8)            Penguins can survive more than 3 months without food or water

9)            The only penguin to cross the northern hemisphere is the Galapagos penguin

10)         The eyesight of penguins is far better underwater than on land

So now you’re armed with 10 fun facts about penguins, go and spread the word about world penguin day! Sadly, most of these penguins need your help to conserve them for future generations!

Haley Dolton

Slow Acting Pesticide To Blame For Bee Population Declines

During the past few years, you may have become aware of a decline in bee populations throughout North America and Europe. The sudden disappearance of adult bees from a nest has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and presently has the power to seriously disrupt the environment and economy of North America and Europe.

Bees play a vital role in all environments requiring pollinators such as crops and wild flowers. Not only do they enrich the natural environment, they also provide huge economic benefits from produce such as honey, fruits and vegetables for human consumption. They certainly are busy bees, in the U.S. alone, they are estimated to provide $8-12 billion to the economy!

Professor Chensheng (Alex) Lu and his team of Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) have shown that CCD is not caused by instantaneous death of bees by predators or disease as previously thought, but by the commonly used pesticide, imidacloprid.

Imidacloprid acts slowly on a bee’s central nervous system, often leaving adults unable to return to their nest. Researchers from HSPH exposed 16 hives to differing concentrations of imidacloprid and left 4 untreated. After 12 weeks, all bees were alive, but those exposed to higher levels of imidacloprid were weaker. By 23 weeks 15 out of 16 hives exposed to imidacloprid, entered CCD presenting almost empty nests!

CCD has been affecting bee populations since high – fructose corn syrup has been used to feed bees. In 2004 – 2005 producers of corn in the U.S. started to use imidacloprid to treat crops, a year later outbreaks of CCD occurred.

This research, along with others published last week, provides a vital step towards protecting highly important bee species, for both the environment and economy.

Haley Dolton

 

Shark Produce Consumption Potentially Life Changing

It is widely known that sharks are relentlessly persecuted every year in the finning industry to provide the ‘star’ ingredient in shark fin soup popular in Asia. In addition to this, individuals wanting to increase their general health consume other shark products such as oil supplements and cartilage pills.

The shark finning industry is a lucrative business around the globe and provides a vital income to poorer areas (although the majority of any profits from distributing shark fin soup will go to the established businesses which sell it). Estimates of how many sharks are killed per year range from 70 – 100 million due to finning and by – catch. Most shark species are listed as endangered by the IUCN red list due to overfishing, reaching sexual maturity later in life and not producing many offspring during their lifetime.

Finning is an extremely cruel practice involving the removal of the fins whilst the sharks are alive and then returning them to the sea. For a species that requires its fins for locomotion to allow water to flow over its gills to breath, they are left to suffocate on the ocean floor.

Researchers at the University of Miami have discovered that shark fins (collected from living specimens of 7 species of shark) that may be intended for consumption, contained high concentrations of β-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA). BMAA is a neurotoxin that is linked to neurodegenerative diseases in humans such as Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig Disease (ALS), significantly reducing people’s quality of life.

This research may come as quite a shock to those that like to tuck into a bowl of shark fin soup or consume shark liver oil, as this news is potentially life changing! As for the sharks, the results from this research is obviously very encouraging for the recovery of their populations, as it could potentially mean, the banning (or higher control) of shark produce around the world because of the very high concentrations of BMAA found.

Haley Dolton

President of wildlife commission sets bad example

Daniel Richards, the president of the California Fish and Wildlife Commission, has been pictured happily posing with a dead mountain lion (Puma concolor), enraging many around the world.

Mr Richards is believed to have shot the mountain lion in Idaho where hunting big cats is legal. However, the state where his jurisdiction applies, California, has protected the mountain lion from hunters since 1990.

Many in California are now calling for Mr Richards to resign, as the general public feels someone who is meant to be protecting their wildlife, has betrayed them. Not only is the mountain lion protected in California, $30 million of state funding has been set aside to purchase important habitats shared by mountain lions and many other species. This clearly demonstrates a degree of hypocorism to what Mr Richards has done by hunting a species that he has used millions to protect.

This story highlights the sad fact that not everybody at the top of wildlife organizations are as passionate as others when it comes to the wildlife they are meant to be protecting. Not only this, Mr Richards has betrayed the trust of those that employed him and that of the public.

Haley Dolton

Bootylicious Beyonce Horsefly Discovered

Photo courtesy of Bryan Lessard

A species of previously undescribed horsefly, held in fly collection since 1981, has been named after the singer Beyonce (Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae)). Mr Bryan Lessard, a researcher at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, chose to name the fly after Beyonce due to it’s dazzling golden behind.

Some people may have experienced the painful bite of a female horsefly whilst on a countryside walk. However, it is unknown whether this species feeds on nectar, pollen or if it is a bloodsucker. This is because a specimen of this particular horsefly has not been found in the wild despite attempts made by Mr Lessard in 2010. Encouragingly, Mr Lessard did obtain anecdotal evidence from locals of northeast Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands who had been bitten from a ‘gold bum fly.’

These statements suggest the Beyonce horsefly may rely on blood as a primary food source, but until more specimens are found or the flies are observed in the wild, this is speculation.

The discovery of a new horsefly species is significant to humans (despite their tendency to give us a nasty nip) as they are fundamental pollinators of plants, ensuring the survival of necessary food chains and for the aesthetic pleasures of diverse and plentiful flora.

Mr Lessard’s choice of name will encourage others who may be fans of Beyonce, to take an interest in something they might normally ignore. This is surely a good thing for conservation and perhaps we will see additional new species named after celebrities in the future? Maybe a Rickey Gervais beetle being chased by hoard of angry Madonna birds after presenting itself cheekily, one too many times?

Haley Dolton

X FACTOR OF THE ANIMAL WORLD

With all the hype of the X Factor in the media every week, a comparison between the talent of the natural world and the individuals that will appear on the show can offer an interesting comparison!

Mimic – each year a contestant will try and impersonate their favourite singer on the show for maximum effect. However, they are never going to be as good as mimicking abilities of the lyrebird which is endemic to Australia. Of all the passerines, the lyrebird has the most complex musculature surrounding the syrinx allowing this species to imitate a variety of natural and man made sounds including car alarms and chainsaws.

Loudest – some of the characters on the X Factor do not suffer from shyness in terms of their singing volume and neither does the blue whale. The blue whale call can reach up to approximately 188 decibels and can travel for hundreds of miles underwater. That is the equivalent of the noise produced by a rocket launch pad. If humans stood near to this without ear protection the noise would cause irreversible damage to our hearing.

Specialist – the occasional contestant will try and do something different during their audition to get noticed including rapping and beat boxing. An army of frogs all croaking at alternating times may give the beat boxers a run for their money as different pitches and styles are combined. The sound is produced via a space in the throat called the glottis which is surrounded by the vocal chords and arytenoid cartilage. The loud noise reverberates around the expanding vocal sac causing the croak to become louder.

Sounds to make you shudder – during the first few weeks of the X Factor, there will be plenty of contestants who think they can sing resulting in cutting comments from the judges. Vocalisations from some species have the same affect on people such as a cockerel crow or a noisy dog living next door to you. The near – threatened aye – aye gets a raw deal if it is heard in its native Madagascar due to superstitions. Indigenous people think of the aye – aye as a symbol of death and as a consequence, they will dispatch of any if they are seen or heard.

Surprising sound from an unlikely source – many auditions show macho men singing in high pitched tones or beautiful opera performed from an unexpected individual. In nature, various species also make surprising noises. A rabbit will generate a high pitched squeal when in distress and cheetahs make a chirping noise, quite dissimilar to the roar of most big cats. This chirp is a very intense noise and can be heard approximately one mile away!

By Haley Dolton

THE SLOW WADDLE OF A PREGNANT DOLPHIN

We are all used to seeing acrobatic dolphins surfing and jumping effortlessly through the ocean. But until recently, we were unaware of the expectant mothers lagging behind their pod.

Dr. Shawn Noren and her team observed dolphins (located in Hawaii) for 10 days before giving birth and followed their progress for 2 years after calving. Dr. Noren observed that during their 12-month gestation period, dolphins develop a ‘bump’ akin to the ‘bumps’ seen in humans. However, for a marine mammal designed to be streamlined, the ‘bump’ could drastically affect an expectant mother’s lifestyle and lifespan!

Dr. Noren explained how the drag experienced by an expectant mother effects their speed:

“When a pregnant animal is swimming at 1.7 metres per second, it has the same drag force acting on it as a non-pregnant dolphin swimming at 3.4 metres per second.”

“So the pregnant dolphin can only go half the speed as the non-pregnant dolphin before it gets the same drag force.”

Dr. Noren also observed the arc of the tail whilst swimming reduces by 13% in a pregnant female. This is thought to be down to the location of the foetus in the abdomen creating surface tension in the mother’s skin, reducing its flexibility. 

These two factors slow pregnant females to a maximum speed of 13km/h (8mph), which is markedly slower than a non – pregnant female whom can reach speeds in excess of 22km/h (14mph). This puts them in danger of becoming ‘easy prey,’ as the top speed of their natural predators would be equal to, or higher than, the maximum speed of a pregnant dolphin.

Pregnant humans may feel ‘less streamlined’ as the weeks pass by, but at least they are not reliant on their shape to glide through the world’s oceans like these graceful mammals!

By Haley Dolton

Seahorse trade devastating wild populations

Whilst on holiday, you have probably seen shells, dried starfish and maybe, even seahorses in curio shops around the globe. These curiosities are so popular; approximately 25 million seahorses are sold per year via this trade, the pet trade and their use in traditional medicines. With little known about the actual population of seahorses, it is very difficult for conservation strategies to establish if a sustainable catch is viable in the future.

It is estimated that seahorse populations have declined between 15 – 70% in recent years because of trading and the decline of their natural habitats. Coral reefs face difficulties such as climate change, curio trade, pollution, bleaching and destructive fishing practices.  Recently the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network have reported that globally, approximately 19% of coral reefs have already disappeared, 15% are under serious threat in the next 10 – 20 years and 20% will be lost in the next 20 – 40 years!

In addition to this, another habitat used by seahorses, seagrass meadows are also under threat from similar pressures. It has been estimated that losses of up to 90% have been seen in Chesapeake Bay (the U.S.) in the last 50 – 100 years and in just 20 years; approximately 50% of seagrass meadows have been lost in Vietnam.

Another factor contributing to seahorse declines is their biology. They reach sexual maturity late in life; consequently, they are often removed from the wild before they have time to reproduce. When they do reproduce, they have low birth rates when compared to other marine species such as fish. For example, cod can produce an estimated 200 000 eggs per spawn, whereas a seahorse will birth around 1000 young per year.

All these factors are negatively contributing to the global decline of seahorse populations. With increased awareness and education, attitudes towards seahorses are slowly changing. For example, individuals are beginning to see that seahorses are worth more alive to them because of tourism, rather than supplying them to the curio trade. This, combined with additional research into population levels, will hopefully see a sustainable conservation strategy put into place in the not too distant future before it is too late.

Haley Dolton

The helpful gardener: rats aid pollination and seed dispersal

Rats do not always provoke the best reaction from people, but hopefully, due to recent research, people may look upon them more favorably and get past their ‘creepy’ hairy tail and feet.

Historically, rats have been transported all around the world mainly by exploring travellers, making rats an invasive species across the majority of the globe. Some rat populations have played a major role in carrying diseases to new countries and devastating native flora and fauna species. However, new investigations into the role played by invasive rats in an ecosystem have been conducted and it turns out, they are not all that bad.

Recent declines in pollinating invertebrates such as bees, has resulted in pollination of flowering plants declining. This has a negative impact on food crops and the natural flora and fauna found in the wild. Insect pollination is approximately worth £141 billion per year, making a resolution to this problem not only ecologically important, but also financially beneficial.

Fortunately, other species can pollinate flowers such as bats, birds, mammals and reptiles. Dr. David Wilcove and his team have found the invasive rat (Rattus rattus) in New Zealand acting as a pollinator on the main Island. Unfortunately, this may only be because they have preyed upon the majority of endemic pollinators.

Although this research is somewhat of a double – edged sword, it was unexpected to find rats acting as pollinator for native plant species which may otherwise have suffered a major population deficit. Dr. Wilcove has suggested the rats make a successful substitute for pollinators in this instance because the plants studied do not rely on a specialist to pollinate them.

In another study, Dr. Pierre-Michel Forget and his team have discovered for the first time that the species, Kivu giant pouched rat (Cricetomys kivuensis) is helping flora seed dispersal in Africa.

Rodents in temperate climates are well known to disperse seeds far from a parent tree. For example, we have all seen a squirrel hiding their nuts for winter! Conversely, it was long thought that rodents living in tropical conditions in Africa only stored seeds deep in burrows, leaving no chance for them to germinate.

However, Dr. Forget established the Kivu giant pouched rat also scatter-hoarded large seeds, leaving any forgotten hidden seeds the chance to germinate. This not only benefits the ecosystem as whole, but also the rat directly as food will continue to be provided from new plants in years to come.

These two studies highlight the importance invasive species may be playing in certain ecosystems, which is vital to consider in future pest control schemes.