This Week in Biodiversity News – 17th June

Climate Crisis 

Wildfires are threatening the unique ecosystems of Brazil’s tropical wetlands. The Pantanal encompasses the world’s largest tropical wetland and contains a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The wildfire season has arrived earlier than normal – state climate experts, and has already destroyed 32,000 hectares of land. Since the start of 2024, there have been over 1,300 recorded wildfires, and as the region moves into the dry season, dry winds and reduced rainfall increase the risk of further environmental deterioration. Brazil’s federal government has announced that it will be working with other state governments to combat the fires, emphasising preventative measures for these disasters.  

Specialist pollinators in the tropical rainforests of South America are under threat from land use change. A study revisiting historic data on the baseline diversity of orchid bees in Brazil found that deforestation and intensifying agriculture has caused significant disruption in the abundance and diversity of the group. Important both economically and ecologically, this vibrant group are key pollinators of over 30 plant families in the region and play a vital role in agriculture. In 1997, Brazil was considered one of the most diverse regions for orchid bees across the globe, but this changed with significant losses of tree cover. Their loss is part of a broader picture of the Amazon’s native pollinators, and without them, agriculture and natural ecosystems could collapse. This study highlights the need for regular monitoring, allowing us to observe the impacts of destruction more clearly. 

A forest burning under wildfire
Wildfires are increasing in severity and frequency across the planet. Image by Thibaud Moritz

Exposure to toxic particles from wildfires has led to the death of over 50,000 Californians in a decade. The first study to quantify long-term impacts of chronic exposure to PM2.5 from wildfires, found that over 52,000 premature deaths were attributed to exposure and over $432 billion was spent on wildfire smoke-related health expenses from 2008–2018. PM2.5 microscopic particles can bury into lung tissue before entering the blood stream – they are associated with various health conditions and can cause heart attacks, premature birth and early death. The study has conjured a call to action for forest management and mitigation of climate change.   

Conservation 

After an absence of around 200 years, a small group of the world’s last truly-wild horses have been translocated to Kazakhstan. Seven Przewalskis’s Horses, one stallion and six mares, have been translocated from zoos in Prague and Berlin. Historically part of steppe grasslands in central Asia over 5,000 years ago, these animals have returned to their native Kazakhstan to improve the biodiversity of the landscape. Their dung can spread seeds and fertilise the land, and foraging behaviours can encourage water absorption in the soil. This translocation is part of a plan to relocate 40 horses to the region over the next five years. This follows a similar project undertaken in Mongolia, with nine flights of Przewalski’s Horses relocated with great success – there are now over 1,500 wild horses in the region with a stable population.  

Przewalkski’s Horses are returning to Kazakhstan after 200 years. Image by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr.

A new tool has been developed which allows conservationists to forecast coral disease. Led by the University of Hawai’i, researchers have developed an ecological forecasting technology using environmental indicators to better predict disease outbreaks in coral. This allows conservationists to intervene at the appropriate time, improving conservation outcomes for affected coral species. Coral species are increasingly threatened by pollution, human impact and climate change, yet we depend on coral-based ecosystems for many things, including medicine and coastal protection from storms and erosion. The use of ecological forecasts could prove to be critical in conserving and managing marine ecosystems, ensuring environmental resilience in the face of climate change. 

Wildlife 

Australia’s foxes are contributing to devastating declines of freshwater turtle populations across the country. It is estimated that 1.7 million foxes kill around 300 million native Australian animals a year, including reptiles, and have been consuming entire nests of turtle eggs and reproductive females. The Eastern Long-necked Turtle, the most common species along the Murray River, has experienced 90% declines since 1980. Nearly half of all freshwater turtle species are listed as threatened in at least one state in Australia, and with foxes found in over 80% of the mainland, the threats to the species are mounting. To counteract these pressures, the 1 Million Turtles scheme is hoping to hatch one million eggs, eventually returning the turtles to the water while overcoming data gaps for the group. The scheme is also looking at preventative measures through the construction of fox proof fences and artificial islands.  

African Elephant
Elephants have been found to call each other by name. Image by Mandy Goldberg via Flickr

Research has shown that elephants call each other by name. This is the first recorded example of naming in wild animals that does not involve imitation, as seen with parrots and dolphins. Researchers have used AI to analyse the vocalisations of two wild herds in Kenya, identifying over 400 distinct calls. The study found that the herds were using specific sounds to address an individual, and were able to recognise and react to calls addressed to them, even reacting positively to calls from family members. Names were more commonly used by adults and were typically used over long distance or when addressing young elephants. There have been calls for further research, but this study suggests that elephants may have the ability for abstract thought.  

This Week in Biodiversity News – 3rd June

Wildlife 

Ambitious project in south-west Wales aiming to restore one of the world’s most important habitats is getting underway. Two species of seagrass, Eelgrass (Zostera marina) and Dwarf Eelgrass (Zostera noltii) are being grown in ponds fed with seawater pumped in from the nearby Carmarthen Bay, and over the past two years alone this project has processed 1.5 million seeds. These have subsequently grown tens of thousands of plants that are now being reinstated in the wild to help restore the UK’s underwater seagrass meadows, 90% of which have vanished in the past 30 years alone. 

Photo taken with a camera lens half under water and half above water showing a thick seagrass forest.
Seagrass near body of water during daytime by Benjamin L Jones via unsplash.

Thriving Ecuador bird tourism is incentivising farmers to turn their agricultural land into nature reserves. Ecuador is home to over 1,600 species of bird, almost double the number found across the whole of Europe. As the country’s birding tourism grows, increasing numbers of farmers are turning their agricultural land into nature reserves to help preserve their stunning local wildlife. This is not only benefiting nature, but also the country’s economy as wildlife tourism offers a much more profitable livelihood than farming, resulting in some farmers expanding their land’s potential further than any traditional farming model would have provided. 

Critically endangered Devils Hole Pupfish population reaches a 25 year high. This rare species lives in the smallest known desert habitat of any vertebrate and is only found in the upper areas of a single limestone cave in the Mojave Desert, Nevada, where the whole population resides on a single shallow rock shelf. They have evolved to be able to withstand harsh desert conditions, including very high water temperatures and extremely low oxygen levels. In 2013, their population fell to just 35 individuals, but careful conservation efforts over the past 11 years have offered hope for this rare species as their population has now reached a 25-year record high of 191 fish. 

Environment 

The North Atlantic is set to be hit by more than double the normal number of hurricanes this season, warns NOAA. Researchers have suggested that this is predominantly due to high sea surface temperatures as a result of the upcoming transition between El Niño and La Niña which helps these storms grow more easily. Although there is no evidence showing that climate change is a contributing factor, it is likely to exacerbate the severity of these weather patterns. Contrastingly, NOAA have predicted a below-normal hurricane season for the central Pacific region where El Niño and La Niña work in opposition. 

Hurricane Matthew hits Haiti aerial photograph.
Hurricane Matthew hits Haiti by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s photostream, via flickr.

Purbeck Heath begins its transformation into an ancient savannah habitat to help precious species thrive. The National Trust’s lead ecologist for Purbeck, David Brown, explained that the project hopes to use domestic grazers such as wild cattle, pigs, ponies and deer to mimic their wild ancestors and shape the 1,370 hectares of open grassland in Dorset into a dynamic, complex and biodiverse ecosystem. Purbeck Heath is already one of the most diverse areas in the UK, and this project will aid the recovery of rare and threatened species such as Purbeck Mason Wasps, Heath Tiger Beetles and Sand Lizards. 

Climate 

Increased ocean temperatures are undercutting the Thwaites Glacier and causing glacial melt from below. This glacier is currently losing 75 billion tons of ice per year, accounting for nearly half the total ice lost from Antarctica per annum. Scientists have revealed that an estimated 150 million kilowatts of thermal power are injected into the ice with each undercutting intrusion, which could melt 20 meters of ice off the bottom of the glacier each year. Recent simulation to assess the effects saltwater invasion may have on retreat rates has revealed it could double the overall rate of ice loss for some glaciers. 

Thwaites Glacier photograph showing the edge of the glacial shelf with some small icebergs floating along the side of it.
22-01-21 04 Thwaites Glacier by Felton Davis, via flickr.

New research reveals the catastrophic effects of extreme heat, deoxygenation and acidification in the oceans due to fossil fuels and deforestation. In the top 300 meters of affected oceans, these compounded events are lasting three times longer and are six times more intense than in the 1960s. A fifth of the world’s ocean surface is susceptible to all three of these stresses at once, which has been further exacerbated in recent decades as extreme weather conditions have become more intense. Scientists warn that the extra CO2 absorbed by the oceans has increased the temperature and acidity of seawater, is dissolving the shells of sea creatures and starving the ocean of oxygen. This series of events is comparable to those experienced at the end of the Permian period 252 million years ago when the planet experienced the largest known extinction event in its history. 

This Week in Biodiversity News – 20th May

Climate crisis

Unusual spring weather is affecting bird migrations. The Wood Warbler, Redstart and Pied Flycatcher migrate from sub-Saharan Africa to British oak woods every spring and depend on Oak Moth caterpillars to feed their young. In recent years, these caterpillars had already emerged and were pupating by the time the birds arrived, resulting in their chicks starving. This year, however, they are facing a new issue: as spring has been so wet and cold, many birds have not reached Britain yet, while those that have are having to search for food in cool weather and have not begun nesting. These shifts in long-term weather patterns are likely to continue to cause migration issues going forward due to their unpredictability. 

Pied flycatcher stood on the ground amongst small plants and grass.
Pied Flycatcher by hedera.baltica, via flickr.

The final Venezuelan glacier has been downgraded to an ‘ice field’ following large-scale glacial melt. This follows the loss of at least six other glaciers across the country in the last century due to an increase in global temperatures. In March 2024, researchers revealed that the Humboldt glacier had shrunk from 450 hectares to just two hectares. More recent observations show that, in the last two months it has reduced in size further to the area of just two football pitches. The latest projections suggest that between 20–80% of glaciers worldwide will be lost by 2100 as a result of climate change, with some of this loss already inevitable despite attempts to combat climate breakdown. 

Environment 

New record of Asian Hornet sightings threatens native pollination species. While Asian Hornets aren’t yet established in the UK, recent flooding and warm temperatures are increasing the risk of this species spreading across the country. Defra has warned that early detection and irradiation is the key to saving our native pollinator species who are known to feed on Honeybees. Since 2016, there have been 108 sightings of Asian Hornets, 56 of which were recorded last year alone. A further eight have been reported in the UK so far this year. Kent is on the front-line of the battle against this species with many of the UK sightings recorded in this county. 

Close up photo of an Asian hornet stood on some moss on a branch.
Asian hornet by Gilles San Martin, via flickr.

Pioneering project that makes eco-friendly concrete from crushed shells may be the answer to extreme flooding. A team at the University of Central Lancashire has developed an innovative, sustainable, permeable concrete made from recycled crushed scallop and whelk shells that would otherwise go to landfill when discarded by fishmongers. Trials are being undertaken in Blackpool to assess its effectiveness in gardens, footpaths and car parks, and early results are very positive. 

Over 8,000 hectares of land ‘left to nature’ to increase biodiversity. This restoration project, run by Forestry England and supported by both Forest Holidays and the Government, will be implemented in four areas across the UK: Castle Neroche, Somerset; Kielder Forest, Northumberland; Newtondale, North Yorkshire and Purbeck, Dorset. The project aims to minimise human involvement, allowing nature to shape these forest landscapes itself. Andrew Stinger, The Head of Environment at Forestry England, stated that, although the team is uncertain how these areas will evolve once human activity is reduced, they are confident they will become more biodiverse with the help of reintroduction initiatives, aid flood mitigation, improve air quality, and restore soil health.

Science 

Sea Otter coming up from under the water holding a crab.
Sea Otter by Bureau of Land Management California, via flickr.

Study reveals that female Sea Otters are using tools to help preserve their teeth. Researcher Chris Law documented the moment that a female Sea Otter used a rock anvil to open the shell of its next meal, a type of behaviour which has previously been witnessed in very few animals. Further investigation revealed that, when there’s a decline in their preferred food, female Sea Otters have evolved to use tools to allow them to overcome their weaker biting ability when compared to their male counterparts, which allows them to consume alternative, larger prey without damaging their teeth.

 

This Week in Biodiversity News – 29th April

Environment 

Half the world’s estuaries have been altered by humans, with 20% of estuary loss occurring in the past 35 years alone as a result of urban or agricultural land expansions. Ninety percent of this has occurred in rapidly developing Asian countries, whereas very little estuary loss has been noted in higher income countries within the same period. This is because waterway alterations in these higher income countries were made many decades prior during their own urban development stages. With much of the world now trying to undo this damage and rewild urbanised areas, countries are now investing in programmes to return these areas to wild mudflats and salt marshes which will increase climate resilience, replenish aquatic populations, reduce flood risk and aid nature’s recovery. 

An aerial view of Dawlish estuary on a sunny day with boats on the water and the tide partially in.
An aerial view of a large body of water by Nick Russill, via unsplash.

The introduction of new diseases via open import systems are destroying EU trees and crops, with outbreaks on the rise once again. This comes after a mutation of one of the major killers of Olive trees in Italy, Xylella fastidiosa, was detected in America and is now wiping out US vineyards alongside its Italian counterparts. New data has revealed that an average of 70 foreign plant diseases were introduced to the EU between 2015–2020, despite legislation being enforced to prevent their spread in 2016, and scientists are holding open systems accountable. According to international protocols, only 2% of imported plants travelling through open systems are inspected for the presence of diseases, meaning that an alarming number of plant pests may be brought into the EU undetected. Although some pathogens are harmless in areas where ecosystems have evolved alongside them, they can be deadly when introduced to a new area. As global temperatures continue to rise, the problem is only likely to get worse. 

Conservation 

A UK study has proven that wilder gardens boost butterfly population numbers, with long, uncut grass likely to almost double butterfly abundance. This research, co-authored by the head of science at Butterfly Conservation, recorded a 93% increase in butterflies in gardens within farmed landscapes who did not cut their lawns, while gardens in urban areas noted an 18% rise in population numbers. These wilder habitats attract species whose caterpillars live and feed on the grass, provide greater quantities of nectar that are necessary for butterfly survival, and create important breeding habitats, which subsequently increases population numbers. The study advises that long grass should be left until late September or early October before cutting as some species require longer grass nearly all year round. 

Close up of two holly blue butterflies perched on the end of a plant in the sunshine.
Holly blue butterflies by Nikk, via flickr, (image rotated).

Music featuring the sounds of nature earn royalties that will be donated to environmental causes. This new initiative, launched by the Museum for the United Nations, will recognise nature as an official artist on major music streaming platforms. A share of the royalties earnt when these songs are played will be donated to environmental causes and initiatives who are working hard to protect nature for the future. Nature itself will also have its own artist page on Spotify which will showcase ambient recordings of nature’s sounds, with 70% of the profits from these tracks funding conservation programmes. 

The south coast’s only breeding Osprey pair have laid a fourth egg. These birds became the first nesting Ospreys on the south coast for 180 years after their reintroduction seven years ago. They returned to Poole Harbour in late March after their migration to West Africa and laid their first egg on the 15th April 2024. As female Ospreys usually only lay 3 eggs due to the challenges of feeding 4 young, researchers were surprised to find a fourth, but due to the exceptional job the pair did while caring for 3 chicks in 2023 they have high hopes for success this season.

Osprey mid flight holding a fish in its claws.
Osprey by texaus1, via flickr.

Discovery 

Common Eastern Bumblebee queens have adapted so they can survive underwater for up to a week during hibernation, which is thought to be responsible for the species’ continual population stability, despite a third of all other bumblebee species currently in decline. This study was conducted as a result of water leaking into containers housing hibernating queens; results revealed that over 80% of the bees survived when submerged for up to seven days. Scientists noted that these findings are unusual as most overwintering insects cannot cope when submerged in water. However, it is hoped that this flood tolerance will help the species continue to thrive in the wild. 

Common Eastern Bumblebee collecting nectar on a yellow flowers.
Common Eastern Bumblebee by Judy Gallagher, via flickr.

The largest snake that ever lived has been discovered in Western India, measuring up to 15m long and weighing a tonne. The fossil of the Vasuki indicus snake was discovered in a mine in western India and included 27 vertebrae, a few of which remained in the correct anatomical position. Scientists concluded that it would have lived in marshy swamps around 66m years ago during the Cenozoic era and, due to its size, it would have been a slow-moving ambush predator who attacked its prey through constriction. 

This Week in Biodiversity News – 15th April

Environment 

The UK’s first national assessment of earthworms has revealed that their populations decrease by 2% annually, and overall earthworm population numbers have fallen by a third over the past 25 years. This study, conducted by an ecologist at the British Ornithology Trust (BTO), also concluded that the largest decline in this species has been observed in broadleaf woodland ecosystems. This may now be having detrimental effects on other species, such as woodland birds, who have seen a subsequent population decline of 37% since 1970. Barnes’ study concludes that, if these results are found elsewhere, the long-term decline of this keystone species could affect our ability to grow crops, as worms aid the growth of 140m tonnes of food a year. It may also have catastrophic effects on soil health, ecosystem structure, function, and above-ground wildlife.

Earthworm diving into the soil between some blades of grass with leaves on the floor.
20060131 earthworm dives by schizoform, via flickr.

Global rainforest deforestation continues at a rate of ten football pitches per minute. Despite widespread efforts to minimise deforestation across the Brazilian and Colombian Amazon, new data has revealed that 37,000 sq km was still removed from previously undisturbed rainforests in 2023. Large increases were noted in Bolivia, Laos and Nicaragua, which has now offset the positive progress made by other countries in the reduction of deforestation. Experts have warned that governments are unlikely to meet their climate and biodiversity commitments due to the continuation of mass deforestation, with many going against the COP28 agreement to halt and reverse the loss and degradation of forests in the next six years. This puts the 2030 zero-deforestation target even further out of reach. 

New research has revealed that national parks are failing to tackle the biodiversity crisis, despite these important areas covering 10% of England and 20% of Wales. Due to lack of government funding, the direct grant set aside for national parks has been cut by 40% since 2010, resulting in poor peatland condition, no change in woodland biodiversity in a 5-year period, and a significant decline in river and lake health. Aside from a lack of funding, national parks are not restoring nature as only 13.7% of the land is publicly owned, with the remaining 86.3% privately owned and often intensely farmed. Campaign for National Parks is calling for a new deal that ensures the government sets a clear mission to increase nature protection and restoration in the UK’s national parks, and subsequently double core national park grants to reinstate this vital funding to its 2010 level. 

Dartmoor landscape with cloudy sky but sun shining on the grass, with the moors in the background and a tor stone in the foreground.
Dartmoor by dreamgenie, via flickr.

Discovery and reintroduction 

One of the world’s most elusive moles has been sighted in Australia. The Northern Marsupial Mole, or Kakarratul, lives in one of the most remote parts of Australia and is only sighted a few times each decade. Due to their rarity, authorities are still unsure of their population size and these creatures remain a mystery to most of the world. However, the Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa Martu rangers discovered the rare, blind Northern Marsupial while working in the Great Sandy Desert, making this the second species sighting in six months. 

Progress has been made in the first ever shark translocation project, which aims to reintroduce Zebra Sharks to the Raja Ampat archipelago in Indonesia after the species was declared functionally extinct due to overfishing and habitat degradation. This is the first initiative attempting to translocate shark eggs from an aquarium to a hatchery before releasing them into the wild. Two sharks have recently hatched on the island of Kri and will be kept in tanks until they are strong enough to be released into the wild. The project aims to release 500 Zebra Sharks by 2032 in the hope of creating a genetically diverse breeding population that will aid long-term species recovery. If successful, this rewilding project will set a strong example of how to re-establish endangered species populations in marine ecosystems and would be a breakthrough for future conservation efforts. 

Zebra Shark swimming in the sea over a rocky seabed with fish swimming above it.
Zebra Shark by Daniel Sasse, via wikimediacommons.

Climate crisis 

A record hot March leads to fears of faster rates of climate change. Last month was the hottest March on record, reaching 1.68°C warmer than in pre-industrial times. This marks the tenth record breaking monthly temperature in a row, and scientists are concerned that they may not temporarily fall, as expected, after the El Niño period due to the warm weather experienced at the end of 2023. Researchers are now trying to ascertain whether the changes in El Niño are a phase shift or just an anomaly in long-term climate trends. Although they are unsure how conditions in the Pacific Ocean will evolve over the coming months, current predictions suggest it could be replaced by a full La Niña cooling phase. 

This week in Biodiversity News – 1st April

Conservation

Increasing shortages of early season food threatens bumblebee populations. A new study published by the Universities of Oxford and Exeter has revealed that pollinator-friendly plant species are now flowering up to a month too late to aid bee conservation, resulting in low colony survival rates and reduced queen production. The reduction in pollen and nectar availability during the March to June period, which is critical during the early stages of colony formation, can have catastrophic effects on colony populations, with research suggesting that a two week gap in pollen supply reduces the production of daughter queen bees by up to 87%. To combat this decline, it is recommended that existing hedgerows should be populated with early blooming species such as Ground Ivy, cherry, and Hawthorn, which would increase colony success rates from 35% to 100%. 

Photograph of a bumblebee flying towards a yellow flower.
Bumblebee by James Johnstone, via flickr.

A pioneering translocation project aimed at saving a rare species of fungus in now underway in Cumbria. The Willow Glove fungus is a critically endangered species that can now only be found in two woodlands in Scotland, with the majority of it living on a single fallen tree. Scientists have recently removed sections of dead wood that the fungus is living on and relocated it to three receptor sites in an attempt to prevent the species’ impending extinction. The fungus is being transported to protected sites of special scientific interest where the fungus was last recorded before it became extinct in England 50 years ago. Host trees have been selected due to their plentiful supply of willow glue, a parasite that the Willow Glove depends on for survival. The success of this relocation technique will be monitored by volunteers from Cumbria Fungi Group for the next five years.

RHS Rosemoor aims to rediscover lost, native apple varieties to help the fruit survive climate breakdown. This spring, horticulturalists are searching for lost varieties of apple trees that used to be abundant in ancient orchards, with the goal of discovering the genetic traits of those species that are still thriving today. The University of Bristol and Sandford Orchards will each receive the genotypes of apple species that have been deemed important from across England and plan to investigate the rare ‘survivor varieties’ that have not been propagated, collected or recorded before. The hope is that their genetic code can be preserved for future use in an attempt to safeguard biodiversity and boost the UK apple industry’s resilience to climate change, particularly for those species that are native to this country. This project will play a vital role in the sustainability of the UK’s commercial orchards, 80% of which have been lost since 1900.

Closeup image of Apples hanging off a tree in an orchard.
Apple Orchard by Sue Thompson, via flickr.

Discovery

A newly discovered orchid species boasts the longest nectar spur of any known plant relative to its flower size. The Solenangis impraedicta, found in the forest canopies of central Madagascar, is the first orchid discovered since 1965 that has made extreme adaptations to allow only a certain species to access its nectar and facilitate pollination. Its hyper-long nectar spur, measuring 33cm, makes it the longest of any known plant when compared to its small flower size of only 2cm, and researchers suggest it may only be accessible to the Long-tongued Hawkmoth. The significance of this discovery has been noted due to the similarities between this species and Darwin’s Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale), which is also native to Madagascar. Darwin speculated that only a moth with an exceptionally long proboscis could reach the nectar, while Alfred Russel Wallace further built on this in his predication that a hawkmoth would be the only species able to do so. Finding this rare orchid highlights the urgency of conservation measures in Madagascar that are necessary to combat the rapid rate of deforestation occurring on the island.

Hummingbird Hawkmoth in flight while feeding off a purple flower.
Hummingbird Hawkmoth by Peter Stenzel, via flickr.

An ancient species of river dolphin has been discovered in the Peruvian Amazon. A team of palaeontologists have found a giant fossilised skull on the shores of the Napo River that belonged to the largest-known species of river dolphin in history. This colossal creature, measuring 3-3.5 metres in length, is not related to the native Amazon River (Pink) Dolphins, but rather the South Asia river dolphins who are found 10,000km away. Researchers suggest that the dolphins’ ancestors originally lived in the ocean but ventured into the abundant freshwater ecosystems of the proto-Amazonia, before becoming extinct when new habitats emerged and their prey vanished.

Environment

The earliest-ever sighting of the Asian Hornet suggests they may now be established in the UK. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has recently confirmed that an Asian Hornet was sighted and captured on the 11th March in Kent – one month earlier than the first hornet sighting of last year. Once hornets are established, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them, and with Asian Hornet numbers having skyrocketed in the UK in 2023, scientist are concerned that they are now overwintering in the UK. This may have detrimental effects on wild pollinators emerging from hibernation, particularly Britain’s bee populations which play a key role in agricultural pollination. 

This week in biodiversity news – 18th March 2024

Climate 

The price of bananas is set to rise permanently as a result of climate change, according to experts. This follows a noticeable absence of the much-loved fruit in several UK supermarkets within the past few weeks due to sea storms. Senior economist at the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation states that increasing temperatures are compounding the impacts of fast spreading diseases, including the Fusarium Wilt TR4 infection, which continues to pose an enormous threat to supply chains. Once a banana plantation has been infected with the virus, it kills the trees, therefore halting production. The infection is very difficult to eradicate once present. Increases in more extreme weather conditions, such as widescale flooding and strong winds, allow the virus to spread more easily and may be why it has now been detected across four continents. 

Ground level image of Redwood Trees with the sun shining on the bark and ferns covering the ground.
Redwoods.jpg by David Wood, via flickr.

The world’s largest species of tree is thriving in the UK due to the moist climate, and now outnumbers those in their native home of California. A study into Giant Redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) has revealed that those imported to the UK around 160 years ago are growing at a similar rate to those in the US. However, as these trees are still young, they are 39% smaller than their American counterparts. Due to their sheer size, it has also been revealed that they store large quantities of carbon dioxide, with those measuring 45m tall in Wakehurst storing between 10-15 tonnes of carbon per tree. Whilst the trees are flourishing in the UK climate, there is little chance of them invading native forests as they require very specific conditions to seed. 

Environment 

An African project aiming to replace barren lands with wildlife-rich, biodiverse forests has restored more than 41,000 hectares of woodland in ten years. Trees for Future (TREES) is an organisation that aims to restore landscapes in developing communities, while also combating poverty. Following the launch of their mass reforestation campaign in 2015, they have worked with locals to plant tens of millions of trees across nine African countries. They also intend to create 230,000 jobs by 2030 via their ambitious initiative. Working with thousands of smallholder farmers for a duration of four years, they provide training, tools, seeds and grants to allow locals to plant biodiverse woodland and create environments that are self-sustainable for both communities and nature. 

Dartmoor sunset taken from behind some rocks looking over Dartmoor's heathland with clouds in the sky and the sun setting behind them.
Dartmoor sunset by Simon Vogt, via flickr.

The government has pledged a £25m scheme to restore critically endangered habitats for England’s fastest-declining wildlife. In light of the recent announcement of the EU’s first nature law to restore 30% of degraded ecosystems by 2030, this government funding will help improve over 3,300 hectares of land, including 49 hectares of wetland around chalk river habitats in south-east England. The ‘species survival fund’ will also support schools, farmers and landowners across mid-Cornwall to ensure woodland, heathland and acidic grassland restoration across the moors, and help to create vital nature corridors across the Medlock Valley, with the collective aim of restoring nature and supporting iconic species such as Water Voles, waxcaps and rare Great-crested Newts. 

Science 

According to a new study, playing healthy reef sounds through underwater speakers could save damaged coral reefs. Fifty percent of the worlds coral reefs have been lost since the 1950s. However, scientists working in the Caribbean have revealed that simulating healthy coral reef environments through soundscape recordings may be the key to recovery. Working across three reefs, each at different stages of degradation, the team of scientists installed speakers at all three sites, but only played recordings taken from a thriving reef at one: Salt Pond reef. Results showed that, on average, 1.7 times more coral larvae settled there than on the other two sites. The rate of settlement decreased further away from the speakers, suggesting that the sounds played an important role in larval retention. Research is now underway to understand whether other coral species respond in the same way, and to find out whether the corals thrive after settling. 

Bulbous green coral in a healthy coral reef with a red pointed fish swimming in the foreground.
More bulbous green coral by Ed Ralph, via flickr.

Pollution 

Air pollution levels throughout Europe have continually decreased over the last 20 years, despite increasing threats of climate change. Research conducted by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health studied 1,400 regions across 35 countries and have concluded that the two main forms of overall suspended particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have been falling annually throughout this period. PM10 has decreased annually by 2.72%, while PM2.5 dropped by 2.45% and NO2 levels reduced by 1.72%. Even so, according to the WHO, 98% of Europeans are living in areas with unhealthy levels of PM2.5. These tiny pollution particles are known to cause an array of health problems, and are estimated to be linked to over 400,000 premature deaths a year across Europe.

This week in biodiversity news – 4th March 2024

Rediscoveries and Recovery 

The Norfolk hawker dragonfly is no longer extinct, with the species set to be taken off the British Red List of endangered species after a large-scale population surge. Since its extinction in the Cambridgeshire Fens in the 1890s, the Norfolk Hawker’s small population has been restricted to the Norfolk Broads. However, in recent years they have been found in Kent, Hertfordshire, Sussex, Dorset and Devon due to an increase in suitable habitats across Britain resulting from climate breakdown. This has been the driving force behind the species recovery, however, the gaps in the current population distribution need filling to ensure the Norfolk Hawker’s long-term survival.? 

Norfolk Hawker Dragonfly perched on a plant in the sun.
Norfolk Hawker by Jo Garbutt, via flickr.

A breeding population of an incredibly rare species of turtle has been discovered in India. The Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle is native to south and south-east Asia and has been classed as critically endangered. The discovery of a breeding female on the banks of the Chandragiri River in Kerala, however, provides hope for this illusive species. The study was led by a group of international conservationists who worked alongside local communities to record the first documentation of a female nest, and subsequently rescue the eggs from flooding. The hatchings have since been released into the river, and the team are now working closely with the local community to set up a hatchery and nursery near the original nesting site.?

Climate 

Since 2000, more than a third of Antarctica’s glacier anchors have reduced in size. These anchors, or “pinning points,” are important braking mechanisms that hold the glaciers in place and subsequently reduce the rate of ice detachment from the continent. New research conducted by the University of Edinburgh suggests that an increase in global sea temperatures is causing these points to thin at a much faster rate than previously estimated. Since 2000, 37% of pinning points have either shrunk or completely disappeared, and, as a result, the glacier’s braking force is weakening.? 

Amazing shapes and deep blue tumbled down the huge glaciers that lined the shores.
Antarctica 162 – dramatic landscape by McKay Savage, via flickr.

The UK has had the wettest February on record, according to the Met Office. Between December 2023 and January 2024, the UK experienced 90% of the total expected winter rainfall. This increase in wet weather continued throughout February with some areas of the UK seeing two and a half times their normal rainfall for this month alone. These adverse weather conditions, a result of climate change, is having detrimental effects on farmers due to increased crop flooding, with some farms in Lincolnshire having been underwater since October. 

Science and Environment 

A 12mm long, transparent fish has been found to make a sound as loud as a pneumatic drill. Scientists in Berlin were studying the Danionella cerebrum in their lab when they began hearing strange clicking noises coming from the male fish in the tank. Upon investigation, they discovered that this miniscule species can make a sound of 108 decibels when measured at a distance of one metre away – this is roughly equivalent to the noise made by a bulldozer and is likely to be the volume at which other fish hear the sound. This noise is created by the contraction and release of the fish’s swim bladder, and it is one of the loudest noises ever discovered in a fish of this size.?

Ancient trees play an irreplaceable role in supporting forest life, according to experts. The results from a recent study in the Spanish Pyrenees show that ancient trees no longer exert energy on reproduction, and instead prioritise stress tolerance, durability and slower growth. It has also been revealed that, over time, sections of older trees die and decay, which allows them to host more diverse and greater quantities of different species than younger trees, as juveniles don’t possess the unique physical and physiological features to support them. Although the number of old growth trees continue to decline worldwide, researchers Munne-Bosch and Pasques hope their report will highlight the importance of our ancient trees’ ecological role.? 

Old, twisted Silver Birch tree near Owler Tor in the Peak District.
Silver Birch by Steve Batch 61, via flickr.

Policy 

The government are expected to announce a move to 100% badger culling under exceptional circumstances in the coming weeks. The current policy on badger culling aims to reduce badger numbers by 70% in each cull area, however the government may increase the target to 100% in certain circumstances, subject to consultation, as of January 2026. The Government had previously stated that the cull would end in 2025 and be replaced by increased badger vaccinations, however some fear that the new 100% cull policy may become standard practice instead.

Parliament has implemented the first EU nature law to restore 30% of the EU’s degraded ecosystems by 2030. This comes into effect after recent findings reveal that over 80% of all European habitats are in poor shape, and aims to ensure the restoration of 60% of these environments by 2040, and 90% by 2050. The EU has pledged that once these ecosystems are restored, they will ensure that the area does not significantly deteriorate once more in a bid to aid the long-term recovery of damaged natural areas. 

This week in biodiversity news – 1st January 2024

Policy

A final vote on the Nature Restoration Law (NRL) will be taking place in the European Parliament early this year. This regulation aims to halt and reverse biodiversity loss in Europe by implementing restoration measures on a minimum of 20% of land and marine areas by 2030. Specific targets to rewet peatlands and increase pollinator populations are also included in the law. Financial support for the NRL will come from funds provided by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Svalbard Reindeer herd by Smudge 9000 via Flickr.
Research

New research conducted at the Quinney College of Natural Resources has shown that Barnacle Geese have a bigger impact on Svalbard’s ecosystem than Reindeer, and that their impact is increasing over time. Since the Arctic climate is shifting faster than other places under global climate change, and Svalbard is one of the most rapidly warming regions on Earth, understanding the effects of these herbivore populations on ecosystem functioning is important and will allow scientists to predict how this region is likely to be affected in the future.

It is no secret that pesticides are harmful to honey bees. However, new research from the University of Illinois has provided more information on how such pesticides impact the sense of smell in bees with consequences for social signalling such as the detection of colony pheromones. This research has also shown how fungicides, previously thought to be harmless to bees, can be toxic, especially when used in combination with insecticides and adjuvants (chemicals that help the insecticide to stick to the target plant).

Flesh-footed Shearwater by patrickkavanagh via Flickr.

A researcher at the Natural History Museum, London, is using machine learning to find out more about the types of plastic that seabirds are feeding to their young. Birds such as the Flesh-footed Shearwater often mistake small pieces of plastic for food, but it isn’t currently known whether they target certain types of plastic based on appearance. This information would help in identifying the types of plastic that need to be removed from the ocean most urgently.

Conservation

Since 2009, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative has conducted a horizon scan each year which aims to predict which threats, changes and technologies will be most significant over the next twelve months. This year, the final list included fifteen topics including several relating to sustainable energy, declining invertebrate populations and changing marine ecosystems. The list of issues, as in many of the recent years, reflects both anthropogenic impacts on biodiversity alongside the technological advances designed to deal with those impacts.

Climate

Following a year of unprecedented global temperatures, scientists are now trying to understand what this can tell us about climate change and the rate at which it is accelerating. Although one exceptional year would not be enough to suggest the inaccuracy of current climate prediction models, researchers are now trying to find out whether something unexpected may be occurring due to the interactions between two or more climate influences.

With climate change, Oak trees are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the Oak Processionary Moth. Image by peterichman via Flickr.

A recent audit by the National Trust has found that the weather is “causing chaos for UK flora and fauna”. A lack of reliable seasonal patterns, accompanied by extreme weather events, droughts and floods are putting a huge amount of stress on plants and animals. The National Trust say that more action is urgently required from politicians to ensure that tackling the associated biodiversity and climate crises is a priority, particularly as we enter an election year.

Biodiversity Net Gain: Key guidance and secondary legislation published

2024 is set to bring big changes to development law with Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) measures becoming mandatory for most developments in England from 1st January. Small sites will not be subject to BNG laws until April 2024, while laws pertaining to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) are expected to come into force in November 2025.

East Devon View by Alison Day via Flickr.
The Biodiversity Net Gain timeline to date

Following the Environment Act 2021 receiving royal assent in November 2021, provision was made for BNG to be introduced in England commencing in 2023. It was set out that gains could be delivered onsite, offsite or through the purchase of biodiversity credits.

In February 2023, Defra published its consultation response which provided more details on how BNG would be implemented, and suggested that the law would come into effect in November 2023. This has now been revised to January 2024.

At the end of September 2023, Defra and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) published a timetable for the introduction of BNG. They also confirmed that it would only apply to new planning permission applications and not applied retrospectively to applications submitted prior to 1st January 2024.

This week, on 29th November, key guidance documents and secondary legislation were published by the Government.

Guidance documents

Step-by-step guidance has been provided for developers, land managers and local authorities which lead users through the BNG process.

Guidance for developers includes information on measuring the impact of a specific development on biodiversity, deciding how to achieve BNG, and ensuring that the 10% gain is maintained for at least 30 years.

Guidance for land managers looks at the options available for their land type and quantity, preparation and selling of biodiversity units, registering and recording the sale of the units to a developer, and the subsequent long-term management of the habitat.

Guidance for local authorities includes information on setting local policies to support biodiversity net gain, approving planning applications and biodiversity gain plans, reviewing the biodiversity gain plan, checking metric calculations and habitat surveys, checking developers selling excess on-site gains, checking the biodiversity gain sites register for off-site gains, monitoring BNG, and working with developers who wish to buy statutory biodiversity credits.

New housing estate in Stowmarket by Andrew Hill via Flickr.
Secondary legislation

Secondary legislation are laws that add more detail to primary legislation, allowing them to be enacted and enforced. In the case of BNG, these laws will provide the practical details required for measures to be implemented under the primary legislation of the Environment Act 2021.

Statutory instruments (SIs) are the documents created that must be laid in Parliament before the law can be changed. There are six BNG statutory instruments that will need to be approved by Parliament before they can be brought into effect on 1st January. These include:

The Biodiversity Gain (Town and Country Planning) (Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2023 – These regulations make amendments to the existing primary legislation on planning so that the BNG framework can be included.

The Biodiversity Gain Site Register (Financial Penalties and Fees) Regulations 2023 – This allows for fees to be incurred when registering land in the biodiversity gain register and financial penalties to be charged where incorrect information is provided.

The Biodiversity Gain Site Register Regulations 2023 – This sets out the details and eligibility criteria for the creation of a publicly available “biodiversity gain site register”. The register will be established and maintained by Natural England.

The Biodiversity Gain Requirements (Exemptions) Regulations 2023 – This sets out the categories of development that are exempt from creating biodiversity net gain.

The Biodiversity Gain Requirements (Irreplaceable Habitat) Regulations 2023 – This lists the habitats that are considered irreplaceable and for which the standard 10% requirement will not be applied.

The Biodiversity Gain (Town and Country Planning) (Modifications and Amendments) (England) Regulations 2024 – These regulations details how the BNG process will work within the existing planning application procedure. It also includes details of how appeals should be made.

The first two SIs were laid in Parliament on 30th November and will shortly be published on the Government’s legislation website. The remaining four still require approval by Parliament, although draft versions can be viewed using the links above.

Wild flower meadow by gailhampshire via Flickr.
Next steps

In January 2024 BNG will become mandatory for new applications for planning permission, with the exclusion of small sites* where BNG will not need to be delivered until April 2024, and NSIPs which will be covered from November 2025.

Having lost nearly half of our biodiversity since the 1970s, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries; we are ranked in the worst 10% globally for biodiversity intactness. Overall, 41% of species in the UK have declined in the last 50 years, with 26% of mammals at risk of extinction. We’ve lost 97% of our meadows, 90% of our wetlands and 80% of lowland heathland.

A scheme where development will no longer lead to biodiversity loss, but instead to net gain, is a step in the right direction to preventing further loss and helping to begin repairing our degraded environment.

* (Small sites are defined as (i) For residential: where the number of dwellings to be provided is between one and nine inclusive on a site having an area of less than one hectare, or where the number of dwellings to be provided is not known, a site area of less than 0.5 hectares. (ii) For non-residential: where the floor space to be created is less than 1,000 square metres OR where the site area is less than one hectare.).

Further reading

NHBS blog: Biodiversity Net Gain – Information about the scheme, including who will be affected, how it will be measured and potential barriers to its effectiveness.

NHBS blog: Biodiversity Net Gain: Credit Creation and Metric 4.0

Defra land use blog – articles on everything relating to BNG.

Government guidance on BNG