This Week in Biodiversity News – May 20th

Research carried out over a three-year period during a reintroduction project has shown that Pine Martens seem to establish their new territories more quickly with the presence of Pine Marten neighbours, but spend more time investigating their new habitat before settling when there are no other Pine Martens nearby.

A new study has hailed the rainforest fjords of southeastern Alaska as a global lichen hotspot. Over 900 lichen species have been documented in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, 27 of which are new to science. 

Researchers estimate that urban insect abundance would need to increase by a factor of at least 2.5 for urban Great Tit breeding success to match that of Great Tits living in forests. Providing nutritional supplementary food, such as mealworms, can help to boost urban Great Tit breeding success. 

Sauvages de ma rue (“wild things of my street”) is a chalking campaign that began in France to increase the awareness of plants growing in urban areas, encouraging the connection between people and surrounding wildlife. Botanical chalking has gone viral and can now be seen on the pavements of London, but chalking without permission is illegal in the UK.

Little is known about the threatened African Forest Elephant and this lack of knowledge hinders conservation efforts. A new study led by an international research team estimates that their population is between 40-80% smaller than previously thought.

This Week in Biodiversity News – May 6th

Until now, it was not known how Koalas drink in the wild, but now the mystery has been solved. For the first time, Koalas have been observed licking the water running down smooth tree trunks during rainy weather. 

An animatronic spy hummingbird has been used to film the mass flight of Monarch butterflies as they leave their wintering grounds in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. 

Animals that do not hibernate often use more energy to maintain their body temperatures during the winter. Common Shrews, however, do not need to increase their metabolic rate and instead maintain an equally active metabolism in both the summer and winter months.

Sinharaja is a lowland rainforest and a designated UNESCO world heritage site in Sri Lanka. It is here that a rare new orchid species has been discovered. This new species has been named Gastrodia gunatillekeorum after the two renowned forest ecologists Nimal and Savithri Gunatilleke. 

With the help of camera traps, a Brown Bear has been spotted in the Invernadeiro national park in Spain for the first time in 150 years. The Brown Bear has been a protected species in Spain since 1973.

This Week in Biodiversity News – April 22nd

A new species of bent-toed gecko has been described at the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Cambodia. This new discovery has been named Cyrtodactylus phnomchiensis after Phnom Chi mountain where it was found. 

Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis embryos are able to communicate with each other from within the egg. Studies have shown that eggs exposed to predator alarm calls hatch later than eggs that are not. Newly hatched chicks also produced less noise and crouch more than chicks that were not exposed to sound while in the egg. 

A five-year study looking at four species of flamingos at the WWT Slimbridge Wetlands Centre has shed light on the long-lasting social bonds flamingoes can form. Not only do they spend time with their mate, but they also regularly socialise with three or four others and have been shown to avoid certain individuals. 

A report by the National Capital Committee explains why poorly-planned tree planting on peat bogs could result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. 

The use of pheromones has been seen for the first time in a primate – male Ring-tailed Lemurs Lemur catta produce a fruity ‘perfume’ from the scent glands in their wrists to attract a mate.

This Week in Biodiversity News – April 8th

 

Seven new defence behaviours have been reported for the False Coral Snake Oxyrhopus rhombifer, one of which is the first registered for all Brazilian snakes. Cloacal discharge, body flattening, and false strikes are just a few examples of the variety of defence behaviours demonstrated by this species. 

The average wing size of two Nightingale populations in central Spain has fallen over the last twenty years. Nightingales migrate over vast distances from Sub-saharan Africa to Europe, where they breed. But, after their first journey to Africa, those with a shorter wing length are less likely to return to their breeding grounds. Climate change is the accused culprit; the timing of spring has changed and droughts are lasting longer in central Spain. Scientists believe this is having a knock-on effect on a series of adaptive traits that enable Nightingales to migrate effectively. 

Two new studies have shed light on the best way to achieve long-term success after giraffes are translocated for conservation. A founding population of at least 30 females and 3 males is amongst the recommendations given by scientists to achieve long-term population viability post translocation. 

The longevity of the largest fish in the world, the Whale Shark Rhincodon typus, has up until now proven difficult to determine. But past atomic bomb testing has given rise to an identifiable ‘time marker’ that can allow scientists to estimate the age of specimens. 

This Week in Biodiversity News – March 16th

 

Ecologists in England and Scotland, in collaboration with ecologist Christopher Sutherland and Joseph Drake at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, report on a new tool for identifying an “entire community of mammals”, including elusive and endangered species that are otherwise difficult to monitor, by collecting DNA from river water. 

The white stork is returning to the wild in the south of England for the first time in several hundred years. Hunting and loss of habitat are the main factors that have led to their near extinction. After a successful breeding programme in Oxfordshire they are returning to West Sussex. 

Projects to reduce grass cutting and increase the diversity of plants and wildlife along Britain’s roads are having dramatic results for local ecology, seeing the return of butterflies and invertebrates in large numbers. 

 In Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, a complex experiment is working to rebuild the park’s fauna, first by reintroducing herbivores; and, more recently, by establishing a healthy population of carnivores on an ecosystem that has learned to live without them.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 3rd March

 

Images of wild western lowland gorillas in central mainland Equatorial Guinea have been captured by camera traps for the first time in over a decade. The exciting discovery made by conservationists at the Bristol Zoological Society (BZS) and the University of West England, confirms the continued existence of gorillas despite heavy hunting pressure.

An exciting new campaign has been launched this week, to gather images of native oysters by the Native Oyster Network – a collaboration between international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and the University of Portsmouth, to help preserve the UK’s native oyster populations. Find out how to get involved here

The UN chief urges for a “more caring” relationship with nature as part of World Wildlife Day 2020, an important global event that takes place every year on the 3rd of March, to celebrate and raise awareness about wild animals and plants. Find out more on the World Wildlife Day website

The Taita Hills of South Eastern Kenya is an important bird and biodiversity area and is named after one of the rarest birds in the world: the Taita Apalis, Taita White-eye, and Taita thrush. Severe habitat loss in the area has made this bird species endangered. Read here about BirdLife Africa’s initiative to protect the Taita and other bird species, by working with local communities in the area. 

Researches at Tel Aviv University (TAU) have just discovered a unique non-oxygen breathing animal. The parasitic, tiny relative of the jellyfish that dwells in salmon tissue, breaks away from the assumption that aerobic respiration is ubiquitous in animals. This discovery bears enormous significance for evolutionary research. 

 

Biodiversity News

Oldest bee discovered

The oldest fossilised bee has been identified, complete with pollen and beetle parasites. The fossil, discovered in Myanmar, belongs to the mid-Cretaceous period approximately 97 to 110 million years ago. It has been shown that this is a completely new species, named Discoscapa apicula, belonging to a new family, Discoscapa. Morphologically, there are similarities with the modern bees that we are familiar with, such as the presence of plumose hairs and spurs on the hind tibia. But there is a difference too, namely a bifurcated scape (a two-segment antenna base), a trait unique to D. apicula. This is what led to its new name; Disco is Latin for ‘different’ and scapa is ‘stem’, alluding to the unique antennal structure (apicula is the Latin for ‘small bee’). But even more impressive, is the 21 beetle larvae, or triungulins, also found within the amber. Bees evolved from carnivorous apoid wasps, but little is understood about the evolutionary changes involved as bees moved to a pollen diet. The presence of pollen and triungulins show that this particular specimen had visited flowers shortly before becoming entrapped, but there are also some morphological similarities with apoid wasps – this kind of discovery can help researchers understand the changes involved as the pollen-eating bee lineage evolved. 

 

Colourful spiders lure prey

The Golden Orb-weaver Nephila pilipes, also known as the Giant Wood Spider, can be found in Australia and across most of Asia. They build their webs in different light levels and are active both at night and during the day. As this species also sports a distinct yellow and black colouration, researchers wanted to know whether this pattern helps to lure prey in different light conditions. Researchers used cardboard Golden Orb-weaver models to investigate how colour and pattern impact the foraging success of the spider. One of these models accurately matched the pattern of the Golden Orb-weavers, whereas the other models displayed variation in both colour and pattern. They found that the bright yellow colour was important in luring prey during both the day and night, whereas the pattern of the colour patches play an important role in prey attraction in the day. The scientists speculated that it is the association with yellow pollen and flower heads that attracts pollinators to the spider’s web in the day.

 

Foraging preferences of the Indian Pangolin

A new study on the Indian Pangolin Manis crassicaudata has emerged in time for World Pangolin Day. Despite its wide distribution across the Indian subcontinent, the Indian Pangolin is an endangered species and threatened by hunting, poaching, trafficking and habitat destruction. Researchers investigated the foraging behaviours of the Indian Pangolin, including the composition of their diets and what habitat they preferred to forage in. By searching though pangolin faeces, they learnt that their preferred food choice is termites; they are easier to digest compared to other insects, such as ants (their second favourite choice). Five habitat types were looked at to determine where pangolins preferred to forage for their food, including forests, oil palm plantations, cinnamon farms, rubber plantations, and tea plantations. Forests took first place. This is perhaps not too surprising, as there is less human activity occurring in this habitat type and a higher abundance of termites, but what surprised researchers was that rubber plantations came second. This has important conservation implications for the Indian Pangolin. In areas where forests have already been lost, it would be best to maintain them as the preferred rubber plantations instead of converting them to other types of plantation, such as oil palm.

Rewilding

 

Rewilding  provokes great debate among conservationists and the recently published book Wilding: The Return of Nature to an English Farm is likely to provide more fuel for future discussion.

British Wildlife editor Guy Freeman has sketched out the framework in which this debate takes place, and we have picked out some key books on this exciting new approach to nature conservation.

 

Rewilding – the process of returning land to nature – is rapidly gaining momentum. The concept itself is fairly simple, but its delivery is complicated by the question: ‘what exactly are we hoping to achieve?’ There is general agreement that rewilded landscapes should replicate those which existed before major human interference (i.e. prior to the development of farming during the Neolithic, around 6,000 years ago), but the significant point of contention comes when trying to establish what those landscapes looked like. The accepted view has long been that Britain became covered in a blanket of dense woodland – the ‘wildwood’ – as trees recolonised after the last glacial period.

This has been questioned however, and other theories have emerged, including one compelling alternative proposed by ecologist Frans Vera. Based on observations at the Oostvaardersplassen, a nature reserve in the Netherlands, Vera suggested that grazing animals would have dictated the distribution of different vegetation types and maintained a landscape that was far more open than previously thought.

This ongoing debate has important implications for rewilding and, in particular, the role that grazing animals should play. Based on the ‘wildwood’ or ‘closed-canopy hypothesis’, rewilding need entail little more than just leaving land untouched – Lady Park Wood, in Monmouthshire, provides a fascinating insight into how woodland develops without human intervention. Under Vera’s hypothesis, however, grazing animals need to be at the heart of the process – the Knepp Estate, in Sussex, is an impressive example of how nature responds when such an approach is taken.

Understanding historic vegetation patterns is important, and our knowledge is improving as analytical techniques develop and new strands of evidence are revealed. In reality, however, we will probably never know exactly what Early Holocene Britain was like, and we should not let the debate distract from the task at hand – in the many degraded parts of our landscape, any form of rewilding will be good news for nature.

Guy Freeman is the editor of British Wildlife  The Magazine for the Modern Naturalist

 

Further Reading

We have selected some further reading around the subject of Rewilding.  We suggest our top five below and you can click on the link to view our complete selection.

Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life
Paperback | June 2014
£7.99 £9.99

 

 

Wilding: The Return of Nature to an English Farm
Hardback | May 2018
£16.99 £19.99

 

 

Woodland Development: A Long-Term Study of Lady Park Wood
Paperback | Sept 2017
£34.99

 

Trees, Forested Landscapes and Grazing Animals: A European Perspective on Woodlands and Grazed Treescapes
Paperback | June 2017
£36.99

 

Rewilding European Landscapes
Paperback | Oct 2016
£44.99

 

 

Browse all our suggested further reading for Rewilding.

Please note that prices in this article are correct at the time of posting (April 2018) and may change at any time.

 

Britain’s Butterflies: some good news but mostly bad

Marsh Fritillary
The Marsh Fritillary is just one of the species currently experiencing long-term decline. Image by Mark Searle.

News that three-quarters of the UK’s butterfly species have declined in the last four decades despite intensive conservation efforts comes as a disturbing jolt.

Climate change and pesticides may be playing a more harmful role than previously thought, according to The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015, which can be read here.

Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, behind the annual report, also blame habitat deterioration due to agricultural intensification and changing woodland management, particularly for those butterflies who only live in particular habitats.

This year’s findings reveal a clear north-south split, with butterflies in England declining and those in Scotland showing no long-term trend. Less severe habitat loss in the north and different effects of climate change are thought to be among the reasons.

Image by Mark Searle.

For some species the situation is stark. The long-term decline of Wood White, White Admiral and Marsh Fritillary shows no sign of slowing, while once widespread species such as the Essex Skipper and Small Heath are now amongst the UK’s most severely declining butterflies.

The Wall, once a common farmland butterfly in southern Britain, has suffered a 25 per cent decline since 2005, the once abundant Gatekeeper a 44 per cent decline in the same period, while numbers of Small Skipper have been below average every year this century.

Sorry reading but there is a silver(ish) lining – and the report’s authors believe conservation efforts may be beginning to help.

The UK’s most endangered butterfly, the High Brown Fritillary, has been fairly stable in the last decade, while numbers of threatened Duke of Burgundy Fritillary, Pearl-Bordered Fritillary, Dingy Skipper and Silver-Studded Blue have increased.

Red Admiral
Image by Mark Searle.

Many common migrant species such as Clouded Yellow, Red Admiral, and Painted Lady, have increased dramatically. While rarer migrants such as the Scarce Tortoiseshell and Long-Tailed Blue have also been arriving in the UK in unprecedented numbers.

 

State of the Planet assessments

End Game: Tipping Point for Planet Earth

Ever since George Perkins Marsh’s seminal 1864 work, Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, books assessing the state of the planet have become a staple part of the environmental literature. Marsh’s magnificent work spawned some valuable retrospectives, including Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (1956) and The Earth as Transformed by Human Action (1993).

But, since 2000, most of the really good stuff on biosphere and ecosystems science has been beyond the reach of many, behind the paywall of scientific journals (e.g. John Estes’ superb Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth, Dirzo’s Defaunation in the Anthropocene, and Diffenbaugh’s Changes in Ecologically Critical Terrestrial Climate Conditions).

Following his 2012 paper in Nature, Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere, Anthony Barnosky might well have followed the same route – but thankfully this brilliant and passionate scientist is also a believer in reaching out to a broader public: see his latest book, End Game: Tipping Point for Planet Earth.

Another leading light of planetary ecological assessment is the Swedish scientist, Johan Rockstrom, inventor of the ‘planetary boundaries’ concept, and author of perhaps the most influential peer-reviewed paper of the last decade (A safe operating space for humanity). He also has a new book just out, Big World, Small Planet.

Other notable recent publications on this theme include: The God Species (Lynas), The Sixth Extinction, an Unnatural History (Kolbert), the magisterial Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Eaarth (McKibben), The Living Planet report 2014, (WWF), Here on Earth (Flannery), and Global Environmental Outlook 5.