Posts Tagged ‘Biodiversity’

E.O. Wilson, 'Darwin's natural heir,' dies at age 92
E. O. Wilson examining a leaf. He advocated for a world where all species have the space and resources to survive. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

E. O. Wilson died yesterday at the age of 92. The sciences of entomology, biodiversity, biology, ecology, and evolutionary biology have suffered a huge loss. Beyond those specific scientific disciplines, the world has lost an amazing science communicator and advocate of nature.

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Birmingham Alabama, USA on June 10th, 1929. He grew up chasing snakes and birds and insects around Birmingham, Washington D.C., the various other towns he grew up in (his parents were divorced and each moved several times during his childhood) and also on the many hiking and camping trips he took into the surrounding areas. This early interest in the natural world solidified into an obsession with ants which he studied throughout his undergraduate and graduate work.

In his early career, E. O. Wilson worked with another scientist named Robert MacArthur to develop a way of explaining why species tend to be scattered across the planet in the patterns that we see. Originally, these two focused on explaining, with mathematical equations, why and to what extent big islands have more species than small islands, and islands close to continents have more species than remote islands. This set of concepts became known as Island Biogeography. It was quickly recognized as having much wider applications. Not only did it work for islands, but for other features as well. Lakes could be seen as ‘islands’ set in land masses. And even further, nature preserves could be seen as ‘islands’ set in inhospitable and highly modified landscapes. Island biography can be used to predict how large a nature preserve is needed to save a certain number of species. It can be used to determine how far apart nature preserve ‘islands’ can be and still maintain viable populations of animals, plants, and fungi.

On top of island biogeography, E. O. Wilson pioneered work in sociobiology by exploring how behaviors of insects and behaviors of humans and other vertebrates are similar in many ways. He popularized the term biodiversity and spent considerable effort in working toward the preservation and documentation of life on this planet.

E. O. Wilson was also a tremendous writer. His list of written works includes over 30 books and 430 scientific articles, and these span a range of scientific and popular science material. He made scientific topics accessible to a wide range of public readers and inspired countless people (including myself) to pursue these topics further. His book “Letters to a Young Scientist” is one of the best and most inspiring books I have ever read.

Without a doubt, Wilson was a giant in the field. He developed really impactful ideas. He mentored a huge number of other scientists. To popularized science to the wider world.

We have all lost a treasure.

Thanks for visiting my blog! If you are interested in other ways to connect with me, here are a few options:

Follow this blog!

View and subscribe to my YouTube channel – A Birding Naturalist

Follow me on Instagram – abirdingnaturalist

Read Full Post »

Bee populations have been having a hard time for a while now. Species of bee all around the world have experienced significant population declines that have persisted for decades. But it has been difficult to get a sense of the full magnitude of the issue since so many of the bee population studies focused on a single species, or a relatively small geographic area.

In 2020, researchers at the National University of Comahue in Argentina took a more global look at the loss of bee diversity. These researchers published a paper used data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility which is a platform where researchers and citizen scientists can record sightings of bee species, and that is available to the public.

By examining observations of bees around the world they found that the number of bee species observed from 2006 to 2015 was only about 75% of the number of species observed before 1990. That is not a very long period of time, and these declines were despite the fact that more and more observers are adding more and more observations to the platform each year. To clarify, this does not mean that 25% of the world bee species have gone extinct, but it does mean that they have become so rare that people are not encountering them. Although, becoming extinct is one potential reason for no longer being observed.

One of the bee species, in particular, that has declined rapidly is the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) which was once found across much of the mid-western and northern USA. This species has declined by nearly 80% since the late 1990s. This decline lead the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species as federally endangered in 2017. This was the first species of wild bee in the continental USA to ever be federally listed and so gain the protection of the Endangered Species List (several species of bee native to Hawaii have been given this status prior to the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee).

Rusty-patched bumble bee on culver’s root at University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum. Photo: Susan Day/UW–Madison Arboretum.

The listing of the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee and the research on the dramatic and sustained reduction in abundance of global bee biodiversity both serve to highlight the loss of bees and other insects. This is an often overlooked section of lost biodiversity. The extinction of a rhino species is much more eye-catching than the extinction of a bee species. But loosing bees and other insects is having, and will continue to have, profound impacts on the natural world around us, and so should not go unnoticed!

Read Full Post »

There are currently ten state conservancies operating in California. Each of these state agencies was established to promote and protect a certain part of the California landscape that was deemed by the California legislature to be of particular importance. All the state conservancies operate within the California Resources Agency. Each conservancy is under the guidance of a board of directors that is comprised of a range of individuals who represent federal, state, and local agencies and NGOs that advise each conservancy’s staff on how to accomplish their core mission. Since I started working for one of these conservancies a few months ago, I thought it might be interesting to introduce the whole set. So here they are, in order of when they were created, the California State Conservancies.

1. The California Coastal Conservancy was founded in 1976. It’s mission statement is “…to preserve, protect, and restore the resources of the California coast, ocean, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Our vision is of a beautiful, restored, and accessible coastline, ocean and San Francisco Bay Area.” This agency is tasked with managing the 1,100 miles of coastline that runs from Oregon to Mexico. In 2014, their operating budget was around $8 million.

2. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy was founded in 1979. It’s mission statement is “…to strategically buy back, preserve, protect, restore, and enhance treasured pieces of Southern California to form an interlinking system of urban, rural and river parks, open space, trails, and wildlife habitats that are easily accessible to the general public.” To accomplish this, the SMMC owns or manages thousands of acres from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Ocean.

3. The California Tahoe Conservancy was founded in 1984. It’s mission is “…to restore and sustain a balance between the natural and the human environment and between public and private uses at Lake Tahoe.” Since its founding, it has acquired over 6,500 acres in the Tahoe Basin, and has worked to control invasive species, improve water quality, and restore forests and wetlands in the Tahoe Basin. In 2014, their operating budget was approximately $9.5 million.

4. The Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy was founded in 1991. It’s mission statement is “…to protect the natural and cultural resources of the Coachella Valley: the scenic, wildlife, cultural, geologic, and recreational resources that make this such a splendid place for people and all the other life forms with which we share this special place.” With only limited staff and funds, this conservancy has ensured the conservation of over 46,200 acres.

5. The San Joaquin River Conservancy was founded in 1995. It’s mission includes, “…develop and manage the San Joaquin River Parkway, a planned 22-mile natural and recreational area in the floodplain extending from Friant Dam to Highway 99. The Conservancy’s mission includes acquiring approximately 5,900 acres from willing sellers; developing, operating, and managing those lands for public access and recreation; and protecting, enhancing, and restoring riparian and floodplain habitat.”

6. The San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy was founded 1999. It’s mission is “…to preserve open space and habitat in order to provide for low-impact recreation and educational uses, wildlife habitat restoration and protection, and watershed improvements within our jurisdiction.” The area covered by this conservancy is across eastern Los Angeles County and western Orange County.

7. The Baldwin Hills Conservancy was founded in 2001. It’s mission is… “to acquire open space and manage public lands within the Baldwin Hills area and to provide recreation, restoration and protection of wildlife habitat within the territory for the public’s enjoyment and educational experience.” The Baldwin Hills are a small area of unincorporated Los Angeles near Culver City about 450 acres in size.

8. The San Diego River Conservancy was founded in 2003. This Conservancy’s enabling legislation states that… “The agency’s mission, the restoration and conservation of the San Diego River Area, is accomplished by (1) acquiring, managing and conserving land; and (2) protecting or providing recreational opportunities, open space, wildlife species and habitat, wetlands, water quality, natural flood conveyance, historical / cultural resources, and educational opportunities.” One of the major goals of this Conservancy is to create a river-long park and hiking trail that will run from the river’s headwaters near the town of Julian to the Pacific Ocean.

9. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy was founded in 2004. It’s mission states that the “Sierra Nevada Conservancy initiates, encourages, and supports efforts that improve the environmental, economic and social well-being of the Sierra Nevada Region, its communities and the citizens of California.” The Sierra Nevada Conservancy operates throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing funding for projects that support it’s mission.

10. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy was founded in 2010. It’s mission is… “Working collaboratively and in coordination with local communities, the Conservancy will lead efforts to protect, enhance, and restore the Delta’s economy, agriculture and working landscapes, and environment, for the benefit of the Delta region, its local communities, and the citizens of California.” The Delta Conservancy operates throughout the legal boundary of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Suisun Marsh by providing funding, support, and project management to efforts that further it’s mission.


Read Full Post »

Going through photos from the trip my family, friends and I took to Ireland last month, combined with telling people about the trip and general reminiscing, has gotten me thinking about a few different aspects of Ireland. One of the big ones that has been on my mind was the low numbers of raptors I saw. Over the course of the entire 10 day trip, I was a total of 2 Common Buzzards, 1 Eurasian Kestrel and 1 Eurasian Sparrowhawk. That was it! My brother and I talked about this and he added that on other trips to Great Britain that he has taken, the overall raptors numbers were always much smaller than he expected. Where were all the raptors?

Well, I got to reading and found out that what I saw in Ireland was pretty typical. There are very low population numbers of raptors on the emerald isle, and this is mostly because of humans. Over the past several hundred years, humans have persecuted raptors extensively. During the 1700s and 1800s raptors were killed in Ireland (and many other parts of the world) for sport and because it was thought that they preyed upon domestic chickens and ducks. This resulted in a massive reduction in all species of raptor that occurred on the island and outright extirpation of four species. None of the species of bird of prey (diurnal or nocturnal) have rebounded completely, and there is little public support for birds of prey.

Several groups are currently monitoring raptors of Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service is the government branch in charge of designating important habitat for protection and monitoring bird populations. In Northern Ireland, the corollary governmental organization is the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Additionally, there are four non-governmental organizations that are working on raptors in Ireland. The Irish Raptor Study Group (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Irish-Raptor-Study-Group/345679678896374?sk=info&tab=page_info) is an all volunteer organization that is working on raptor monitoring and conservation in the Republic of Ireland. The Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group (http://www.nirsg.com/) is a similar, all volunteer organization that works in Northern Ireland to monitor raptor populations. The Golden Eagle Trust (http://www.goldeneagletrust.org/) has lead reintroduction programs for Golden Eagles, White-tailed Eagles, and Red Kites to Ireland where they once were native. BirdWatch Ireland (http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/), which is the Irish branch of BirdLife International, is dedicated to the conservation of all birds and launched the Raptor Conservation Project a few years ago in Ireland.

And significant human caused treats still exist. Poisoning of rodents, and the resulting poisoning of raptors, is still a major problem in Ireland (as it is also here in California, for that matter). large numbers of raptors die every year due to exposure to toxic chemicals from eating poisoned prey animals. The organization BirdWatch Ireland is currently working on a project to monitor raptor populations, educate the public of the benefits of raptors in ecosystems, and outlawing and prosecuting poisoning of raptors. Learn more about them at: http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/Ourwork/WingandaPrayerRaptorAppeal/tabid/1204/Default.aspx

It is impressive to me how much the state of birds of prey in Ireland are similar to the state of birds of prey in the USA maybe 50 years ago. Now we in the USA have much stronger regulations protecting the raptors that live here, a very broad base of research and monitoring across the continent, and broad public support for raptors as amazing creatures that should not be targeted. It will be interesting to see if Ireland is able to follow a similar path. Hopefully, they will do so faster than we did, and protect their birds of prey quickly.

Read Full Post »

Biodiversity is a the total number of species that exist. Biodiversity can be assessed on many scales. People can look at the biodiversity of a particular park or reserve, a county, a state, a habitat type, a continent, or they can assess the total number of species on the entire planet. Biodiversity is an incredibly important measure of ecosystem health because so much of what keeps ecosystems working are in interconnections of all the various species that live in them. As those species are lost, all are effected and many more may be lost as a result of the loss of the first. This ecological interactions reason is one of the arguments put forward to protect biodiversity, and it is one of the most important in my opinion, but there are many other.

A fewof the more prominent reasons to protect biodiversity come on moral/ethical grounds. For example there is the argument that each species has a right to exist. Just as each human as a inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so to does each species. By the very dint of the fact that they have made it this far in evolutionary history, they should be protected. Another reason that is put forward to protect biodiversity is that we, the people, have an obligation to act as stewards of the earth. Since we are the ones who are most responsible for much of the habitat disruption that is occurring planet-wide, we have the responsibility to also be the ones who minimize the negative effects of those disruptions on the other species that call Earth home. A third ethical argument for preserving biodiversity is that we all have a duty to our descendents. Someday, our great-great-great grand kids will be wandering around and wondering how the Earth got be the way they see it. It is up to decide what Earth those descendents will look at, at is seems prudent to make sure it is a good one.

But some people are not moved by these kinds of arguments. They say that if a action benefits humans, then that action is worth taking. Working towards the betterment of humanity is a high and worth goal. So, if you are one of those people that does not put a lot of weight in the wish-washy philosophical arguments of moral rights and wrongs, here is a very human-centered reason to protect biodiversity.

Mantis Shrimp can see cancer.

Yes, you read that right. Mantis Shrimp, which are really cool shrimp that can hit things harder than anything else in the animal kingdom, can see cancer cells. Part of how these shrimp see is by using polarized light. When given choices between tissues that contained cancer cells and healthy tissues, they were able to pick the two apart! Researchers are now in the process of using the same polarized light detection ability in a camera so that doctors, and anyone else, will also be able to see cancer cells in a person. This may even become something as everyday as a cellphone app. that you could download and use to scan yourself. Talk about early detection!

Now here is a non-philisophical argument to protect biodiversity. There was really no way to predict that Mantis Shrimp would have this ability. There was no way to predict that Horseshoe Crabs would have bacteria detection agent in their blood (another amazing story). The only way we were able to find these abilities in other animals was to have those animals around and then have some scientist get lucky enough to try something crazy. That is how science works, but there would be no way for these discoveries to be made in the Mantis Shrimp had already gone extinct before anyone had the chance to find out what it could do! Who knows what else is out there waiting to be discovered! But if those species, what ever they are, go extinct before we get a chance to study them, we will never know what we have lost.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Read Full Post »

Biodiversity is the number of species in a given area. The largest measure of biodiversity is the estimated total number of species on the planet (somewhere around 10 million, although estimates of as high as 40 million are not unreasonable). Other scales are often more useful such as how many species occur in a country or mountain range or nature preserve. Ecologists have several measures for comparing diversity in different places.

Species Richness is the number of species found in a particular community. Measures of species richness such as the Shannon Diversity Index are weighted to show that one community if made of many species that all are equally numerous versus another community that has just as many species, but a small number are extremely numerous and the rest are quite rare. Species Richness can also be viewed at different special scales. Alpha Diversity is the number of species in a particular designated area suchas a park or reserve. For example, in the diagram below, Area 1 in Region 1 has an Alpha Diversity of 5. Region 1 has an average Alpha Diversity of 6 ((5+6+7)/3). Gamma Diversity is the number of species in a larger geographic area such as a mountain range or continent. For example, Region 1 has a Gamma Diversity of 7 (ABCDEFG). Beta Diversity is a measure of how species composition changes along an environmental or geographic al gradient such as moving from headwaters to mouth of a river. For example, Region 1 has a Beta Diversity of 1.2 indicating that most of the species that occur at one end of the gradient still occur at the other, in other words, there is low species turnover.

Region 1:     Area 1          Area 2          Area 3               Alpha     Gamma     Beta

Species:          BCDEF        ABCDEF      ABCDEFG              6                7            1.2

Region 2:     Area 1          Area 2          Area 3

Species:           ABC              DEFG            DGHIJ               4               10           2.5

Region 3:     Area 1          Area 2          Area 3

Species:           ABC               DEF                GHI               3                 9            3.0

As can be seen by comparing Region 1, Region 2 and Region 3 to each other, different arrangements of species can be represented with different measures of diversity. For example, while Region 2 has the highest total number of species (Gamma Diversity), Region 1 has the highest number of species per specific location (Alpha Diversity), and Region 3 has the highest turnover of species across the whole region (Beta Diversity).

There are other measures of diversity that are also useful in ecology. Genetic Diversity indicates how much variation exists at the DNA level in a species or population and is often used as a measure of how evolutionarily adaptable that species or population is. Ecological Diversity is a measure of how many different types of communities occur in a given ecosystem.

Read Full Post »

The phylum Mollusca is one of the most diverse groups of animals in the world.  It includes familiar organisms, like the snail in our gardens, and not-so-familiar organisms, like the recently discovered Colossal Squid that cam grow to up to 33 ft long and weight 1,100 lbs!  This group is comprised of three major classes the Gastropods (slugs and snails), the Cephalopods (squid, octopus, cuttlefish, nautilus), and the Bivalves (clams, mussels, oysters, scallops).  Several more smaller groups exist as well.  In total, all these groups combined account for about 200,000 living species!  Ecologically, molluscs interact in many complex and important ways from decomposers to predators to prey.

Of the 200,000 species of molluscs, most are marine, but as we all know from everyday lives there are plenty of terrestrial molluscs as well.  At least for now.  Terrestrial molluscs have been experiencing dramatically high rates of extinction in the past half century.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes a Red List which identifies the conservation status of all species every five to ten years.  The IUCN has identified about 800 in the last 500 years, and of those about 300 are molluscs.  That means that about 40% of all extinctions belong to this one group, and some people have estimated the number of molluscs we have lost to be as much as double the IUCN estimate.

Most of these extinctions have taken place on small oceanic islands which is not surprising.  Ecosystems on oceanic islands are notoriously delicate, and extinctions often occur in response to ecological disturbances such as the introduction of some new predator, the clearing of land for agriculture, or competition with other newly introduced species.  Their fragility makes oceanic islands the canaries in the coal mines giving us early warnings of what might befall continents if we do not stop, or at least slow, the current rates of ecosystem disturbance.  On the Gambier Islands, for example, there were 46 species of terrestrial snail.  Of those 46 species, 43 are now extinct.  Many of them have not even been given names.

An interesting footnote is that while terrestrial molluscs are disappearing disturbingly quickly, marine molluscs are not.  Is there something about the marine environment that makes species that live there less prone to extinction?  Is it just that there have been fewer introduced pests and predators to oceans and to land (since land is where humans spend most of their time)?

Read Full Post »