When deciding whether or not to clear a patch of rainforest land for development, scientists are often called in to quantify how many different species exist there. But determining the number of rare and threatened species living in a section of jungle isn’t easy. If they are very rare, the individual members of the species will be hard to find; if the area being surveyed is along a steep slope it may be difficult to access the area; if there are lots of species to identify, you might need to hire a dream team of biologists—each specialized within a different area of biodiversity—and that can get expensive. However a new study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Journal by an international group of scientists suggests a more cost-effective and efficient way to rapidly assess local biodiversity: instead of spending time and money looking at everything—searching for rare and threatened individuals in a forest patch or on a hillside—focus instead on the biological difference which can easily be determined within a few, easy-to-find, common species.
“We show how regions where common species exhibit high genetic and morphological divergence among populations can be used to predict the occurrence of species of conservation concern,” Trevon Fuller, postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Tropical Research at UCLA, told mongabay.com.
Scientists from UCLA, Boston University, Stony Brook, and the Universities of Florida Gainseville, North Carolina, Arizona, Texas, as well as from institutions in Ecuador, Spain, and the UK, hypothesized that there would be more threatened species at selected sites based on intraspecific (in a single species) variation within common species.
While past studies have found correlations between diversity within a single species and the total number of species in an area, they have not focused on conservation.
“The new contribution of our work is to show that genetic and phenotypic diversity within species is a good predictor of species that face a high risk of extinction because they have small ranges or are experiencing rapid habitat loss,” Fuller explains.
The scientists chose western Ecuadorian rainforest for their research. They focused on quantifying genetic variation and morphological orphenotypical variation (observable variation in the form, appearance, or structure of organisms, i.e. their specific structural features) among easy to find, common species. Threatened by human impacts, this biodiversity hotspot represents a transition zone between humid and dry tropical forests.
“We analyzed Ecuador west of the Andes, which is a global hotspot of plant endemism [uniqueness] with 6,300 species, 20% of which are endemic, and has 650 bird species”�The diversity of this area is due to the fact that it is a transition zone between dry forest and rainforest. However, the area is also under threat due to high rates of deforestation for timber extraction and the expansion of cattle pastures,” Manuel Peralvo, Geographer at The Consortium for the Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion (CONDESAN, Consorcio para el Desarrollo Sostenible de la Ecorregión Andina, told mongabay.com.
The study site was chosen for its steep slopes and hillsides (“elevational gradients”), areas that Peralvo explains are especially worthy of conservation focus as they support a high number of threatened specialist and niche species.
“Elevational gradients also have some of the last forest remnants in western Ecuador since lowlands have already been cleared. As a result, they are subject to accelerating deforestation and hence have a high number of threatened species,” Pervalo adds.
The scientists chose three birds, three bats, and one frog species (to serve as proxies for threatened species) along the gradient because they were abundant and easily sampled, in addition to representing a range of different niches, locations, diet types, altitudes, and life histories. The scientists also surveyed select plants of conservation concern, representative of vegetation communities at high risk of deforestation. They focused on the intraspecific differences (variations observed within a single species) of the seven common populations to predict the presence of dozens of threatened Ecuadorean species.
“We analyzed a diverse set of 29 threatened species that are hard to sample including mammals such as jaguars and ocelots, birds including the Guayaquil woodpecker, and plants. We also analyzed a set of seven common species that are easy to sample including bats, birds, and a frog,” Fuller explains. “We had genetic for five of the common species and phenotypic data (such as wing length) for all seven. We found that genetic and morphological diversity within common species was a better predictor of threatened species than the number of species at a site, or environmental variables such as precipitation, temperature, or elevation.”
In fact, sites selected based on genetic and morphological divergence of common species contained a higher proportion of threatened species than any other method, including sites selected at random or regions selected using environmental variables or bird and amphibian occurrences as a proxy.
“Our results show that the genetic and morphological variation exhibited by common species effectively predicts the occurrence of threatened species in western Ecuador,” the authors summarize in their article, Intraspecific morphological and genetic variation of common species predicts ranges of threatened ones.
Sites selected based on genetic and morphological traits contained 2.1 times as many threatened species as sites selected based on environmental variables, and 1.7 times as many as sites based on bird and amphibian occurrences.
“Intraspecific variation of common species of birds, bats and frogs from Ecuador were found to be a significantly better predictor for the occurrence of threatened species than suites of environmental variables or the occurrence of amphibians and birds. Fully 93 % of the threatened species analyzed had their range adequately represented by the geographical distribution of the morphological and genetic variation found in seven common species,” Fuller explains.
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South Africa maps first deep-sea preserve
Underwater canyons, deep-sea coral reefs and sponge banks are part of a unique ecosystem that South Africa wants to save within its first deep-sea marine protected area. After 10 years of consultations, South Africa has mapped the boundaries for the proposed reserve stretching 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the eastern KwaZulu-Natal coast.The mapping required synthesising the many divergent interests in the Indian Ocean waters, with 40 industries from fishing to gas lines to jet skis operating in an area home to about 200 animal species and their ecosystems.”All of this data was then entered into conservation planning software in order to identify areas of high biodiversity while avoiding areas of high (economic) pressure,” said Tamsyn Livingstone, the researcher who heads the project.The conservation area is being born in a spirit of compromise, which will allow people and companies to continue using the protected waters in zones designated as lower-risk threats to biodiversity.The scheme still needs to be passed into law, but would join South Africa’s existing network of marine preserves strung along its 3,000-kilometre (1,800-mile) coast stretching from the warm Indian Ocean to the cold southern Atlantic.South Africa has embraced this “participatory” method to protecting species living in its water, an approach pioneered in California and Australia.Global goals for protecting biodiversity have been debated for two weeks at a UN summit in Nagoya, Japan (http://www.cbd.int/cop10/), in an effort to set goals on saving habitats which would help to end the mass extinction of species.Environmental groups want 20 percent of coastal and marine areas protected, they say China and India are lobbying for six percent or lower. Talks are supposed to wrap up on Friday.Part of the challenge is in protecting species that are more often than not still unknown. Only one quarter of the estimated million species in the oceans have been discovered.A global census of the oceans unveiled in early October uncovered prehistoric fish thought dead millions of years ago, capturing researchers’ imaginations about what else lurks in the deepest parts of the sea.”Offshore biodiversity is not well known,” said Kerry Sink of the South African National Biodiversity Institute.Exploring the seas remains an expensive project, prompting South African researchers to reach agreements to share information with fisheries, coastal diamond mines and the oil industry.”South Africa’s plan is unique in covering all industry sectors to ensure that biodiversity planning minimizes the impact on industry,” she said.”Healthy offshore ecosystems underpin healthy fisheries and keep options open for future generations.”With growing worries about climate change, scientists say the deep seas could become an important source of protein for the planet, because water temperature changes less at great depths.That assumes that the growth of industry can be managed alongside the marine life, especially as oil companies find ways to drill in ever-deeper waters.The explosion of a BP oil rig in April off the Louisiana coast, rupturing a 1,500-metre deep well, highlighted the risks.It took five months to shut off the leak which caused the biggest the oil spill in US history, with 205 million gallons of oil flowing into the Gulf.
Marine Reserves in UK http://www.marinereserves.org.uk/
South African Biodiversity Inst http://www.sanbi.org/
In The Independent on Sunday: A decade after the first legal moves to protect them, they are still under attack – and now they could fall victim to spending cuts
They are the living seams that have typified the British countryside for centuries. But now hedgerows are disappearing fast, and a report published tomorrow will say we are not doing enough to protect them.
Although “important” hedgerows are protected by law, the majority can be taken down if a landowner wishes, which has resulted in many being dug up to create larger fields that are easier to harvest. For the past 20 years, the Government has provided financial help to landowners to restore and manage hedgerows. But most have still been left unmanaged, sometimes growing into larger trees offering fewer benefits to wildlife because they are less dense at ground level.
The CPRE study focused on England, but the picture nationwide is similarly grim.
Nigel Adams, vice-chairman of the National Hedgelaying Society, said: “The hedgerow is the unsung hero of our countryside. It’s often overlooked, but visitors to England say it’s what makes it so special. The majority are not used for their original purpose [as an animal barrier], but people recognise their importance in terms of wildlife and history.”
Since 1998, the number of legally protected hedgerows has risen by 18 per cent. Currently, 42 per cent of the UK’s hedgerows are protected, but the CPRE fears that the narrow criteria required to register a stretch of hedge as “important” will mean many more are lost.
To qualify for legal protection, a hedge must be at least 20 metres long, 30 years old and meet strict criteria on heritage and numbers of animals and plants relying on it. Some hedges were easy to register, such as Judith’s Head in Cambridgeshire, which is Britain’s oldest, having stood for more than 900 years. But for non-celebrity hedges, the future is dicey. More than two-thirds of local authorities surveyed by CPRE said that the current Hedgerow Regulations needed to be simplified to make them more effective.
Emma Marrington, author of the report, said: “The length of hedgerows in the country is declining, which is worrying. They’re a part of our heritage, but they also offer huge benefits to wildlife and the environment in general. It’s over a decade since the introduction of the Hedgerows Regulations, and the time is ripe for the Government to make improvements that give local authorities the power they need to better protect the great diversity of England’s hedgerows.”
The CPRE is concerned that hedgerow protection programmes could be at risk when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) makes spending cuts in the autumn. “The Defra spending cuts could affect the money for schemes like this,” Ms Marrington said. “I can see how hedgerows could be overlooked; they’re taken for granted as being a part of the English countryside, and people don’t realise how much they’re at risk.”
If hedgerows in Britain decline further, so too will those species that depend on them. Jim Jones of the People’s Trust for Endangered Species is running a study of the impact of disappearing hedgerows on dormice, a species whose population has declined by 40 per cent in 20 years. “Dormice have disappeared from seven counties where they existed in the 1800s, at the same time as hedgerows have declined,” he said. “Hedgerow corridors are crucial because they allow them to forage and move around.”
Species in peril: An ecosystem teeming with life
Dormice, harvest mice, hedgehogs, six species of bat, and polecats are all at risk as hedgerows decline. They rely on the covered corridors that allow them to move around.
The copse bindweed and the Plymouth pear are among the plants that flourish in hedgerows.
Fungi and lichens
From the sandy stilt puffball to the weather earthstar fungus, many fungi do particularly well in hedgerows. Lichens such as the orange-fruited elm lichen and the beard lichen are also at risk.
Stag beetles, brown-banded carder bees and large garden bumblebees are among those at risk. More than 20 of Britain’s lowland butterfly species breed in hedgerows, including the brown hairstreak and the white-letter hairstreak butterfly.
Reptiles and amphibians
Hedgerows connecting with ponds are vital for great crested newts to move through the countryside. The common toad, grass snake, slow worm and common lizard are also at risk.
Many woodland birds rely on taller hedges for breeding. The turtle dove, grey partridge, cuckoo, lesser spotted woodpecker, song thrush, red-backed shrike and yellowhammer are all in danger.
Research from the Campaign to Protect Rural England has found that though hedgerows enjoy more protection than ever before, in England their overall length fell by 26,000 kilometres between 1998 and 2007. The study, England’s Hedgerows: Don’t Cut Them Out!, calls for current legislation to be strengthened.
As well as having a nostalgic place in the aesthetics of the countryside, hedgerows are a vital part of the ecosystem. Research by Hedgelink, a network of British hedge conservation groups, shows that without them some 130 species – from the hedgehog and the dormouse to stag beetles and the cuckoo – would be under threat.
The Government is expected to axe its environmental watchdog this week as part of Whitehall budget cuts. If the Sustainable Development Commission is to be cut, it is a blow on a nunber of fronts -logic, the environment, sustainable government, indeed the concept of sustainability - are all losers!
Shadow energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband: “They promised to be the greenest government ever but they’re completely betraying that promise.”
Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping Government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality – as well as keeping a critical check on progress.
Jonathon Porritt: As the former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission from 2000-2009, I’m clearly going to be a bit biased about the Government’s decision yesterday to get rid of the Commission.
The Government is expected to axe its environmental watchdog this week as part of Whitehall budget cuts.
An announcement that the Sustainable Development Commission is to be abolished is expected tomorrow, just as the environmental and sustainability watchdog publishes its latest report outlining the savings departments could make from being greener.
The report will detail how the Government could make hundreds of millions of pounds of savings over the next Parliament by reducing transport, water use, energy waste and rubbish – savings worth many times the £3 million expenditure on the SDC.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was unable to confirm today if the arms-length body, which is jointly operated by the UK Government and devolved administrations, is to be disbanded, saying no final decision has been made.
But reports of its imminent demise have raised concerns in the Welsh Assembly, where it was last week described as playing an important role in Wales’s efforts to become greener.
The SDC has helped central government departments save the equivalent of £16 million in carbon emissions reductions and £13 million in reducing water waste.
The commission has also worked with the NHS and schools to reduce their emissions and energy use and recommended the “whole-house” green makeovers to make them more energy efficient, a policy that was adopted by all three parties before the General Election.
Its advice on whether a Severn barrage could be built sustainably also paved the way for consideration of tidal schemes in the Severn Estuary.
Greenpeace campaigner Louise Edge condemned the decision to axe the SDC as “incredibly short-sighted”.
“The commission has always given great value for money, cutting wasteful energy use across Whitehall and providing vital advice on how departments can slash their carbon emissions.
“You have to wonder about the thinking behind scrapping a £3 million body with a record of success while pushing ahead with the multibillion-pound Trident replacement, which the military doesn’t even want. This is muddled thinking,” she said.
Margaret Ounsley, head of public affairs at WWF-UK, said: “Everybody knows that we are facing a heavy deficit, and we should not be too prescriptive about how the Government deals with it.
“However, it would be the worst sort of mindless hacking from Government if we were to lose the capacity to measure and report on its moves towards meeting its own commitments to become leaner and greener.
“Shooting the watchdog does not make always make for savings.”
And Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping Government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality – as well as keeping a critical check on progress.
“The coalition must be held to account on its promise to be the greenest Government ever – and explain how it will continue to green Britain, saving money and creating jobs at the same time – without the Sustainable Development Commission’s expert guidance and overview.”
Shadow energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband said: “The coalition has made some terrible decisions on the environment – scrapping the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, shelving Labour’s plan for the Green Investment Bank.
“They promised to be the greenest government ever but they’re completely betraying that promise.”
As the former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission from 2000-2009, I’m clearly going to be a bit biased about the Government’s decision yesterday to get rid of the Commission. So I’ve been working really hard to put myself in Ministers’ shoes in terms of the ‘rationale’ they’ve advanced for this reprehensible decision. They’ve put forward four justifications:1. It will save moneyThe SDC costs the taxpayer around £4 million a year, around 50% of which come from Defra. The rest comes from the Devolved Administrations and other Whitehall Departments – all of which wanted to carry on working with the SDC. As George Monbiot has pointed out, the SDC’s advice on reducing costs through increased efficiency has already saved the Government many, many times that negligible amount, and would have gone on doing so year after year.2. Sustainable development is now mainstreamed across government.Defra Ministers are now claiming that sustainable development has been embedded in every department. In other words, no specialist capability at the centre is any longer required, simply because the Government ‘gets it’.Like hell it does. To hear Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State in Defra make such a totally fatuous claim after a few weeks in power is irritating beyond belief. She clearly knows nothing of the constant slog required (of the SDC and many other organisations) to achieve the limited traction that is all that can be laid claim to today.There’s a rich irony here. The SDC is a UK-wide body. Neither Wales nor Scotland was in favour of getting rid of the Commission, no doubt because both Countries have done an infinitely better job than Whitehall on ‘mainstreaming’ sustainable development.3. It will avoid duplicationThis is a bit trickier, simply because the SDC does a number of different things. It advises Ministers – and there are indeed lots of other people who do that. But rarely if ever from an integrated sustainable development perspective. It helps countless public sector bodies (from the Audit Commission to the Department of Education, from Local Authorities to Primary Care Trusts in the NHS) to make sense of sustainable development, and no other government body does any of that. And it scrutinises government performance on a completely independent basis across the whole sustainable development agenda – not just on climate change. And no other body does that.4. Sustainable development is too important to delegate to an external bodyIt’s worth recording Caroline Spelman’s actual words here: “Together with Chris Huhne, I am determined to take the lead role in driving the sustainable agenda across the whole of government, and I’m not willing to delegate this responsibility to an external body.”Even after nine years working with dozens of Government Ministers, I’m astonished at such utterly brazen cynicism. The only thing Mrs Spelman has done so far as Secretary of State at Defra is publish a new strategy for the Department. This has not one serious reference to sustainable development in it. Such is the depth of her concern.If Defra’s next step is to get rid of what’s left of it’s own internal Sustainable Development Unit, then it will have literally no capacity to ‘drive the sustainable agenda’ even within Defra, let alone ‘across the whole of government’. And how can you drive anything if you haven’t the first clue what it actually means? And it just got rid of the only part of the system capable of providing you with a basic primer for beginners?So let’s not beat around the bush: their justification for getting rid of the SDC is transparently vacuous, if not downright dishonest. This is an ideological decision – in other words, a decision driven by dogma not by evidence-based, rational analysis.And the only conceivable reason for allowing dogma to dominate in this way is that the Government doesn’t want anyone independently auditing its performance on sustainable development – let alone properly-resourced, indisputably expert body operating as ‘a critical friend’ on an inside track within government.I don’t suppose the Prime Minister was even consulted about such a footling little matter. But it’s clear that his advisors hadn’t the first idea about the kind of signal this dogma-driven decision sends out, ensuring that his claim that this will be the ‘greenest government ever’ is in deepest jeopardy. It’s too early to make any definitive judgement about how the Green agenda will fare under the Coalition. But it’s not encouraging. ‘Greenest ever’ has to mean something substantive. Simply smearing a sickly ideological slime over everything just won’t cut it.
In the school in the Chilterns where I have been supply teaching, the red kites ‘play’ in the thermals …. a sign that wildlife is once again returning to parts of the United Kingdom. Nature’s Place in Town is being restored, to the benefit of both Children and Nature! These provide excellent examples of how this magnificent species can live with others and alongside humans – ironically, also showing how us – humans – almost drove them to extinction! That’s environmental education in action!
Red kites were almost extinct in the UK by the early 1900s, reduced to very low numbers in Wales. In the last two decades, they have been re-introduced to England and Scotland, with magnificent results.
Between 2003 and 2008 the Chilterns Conservation Board ran a red kite ‘Nest Watch’ project, to bring the public up close and personal with a family of red kites. The project used Big Brother style CCTV technology to get an insight into the breeding behaviour of a pair of red kites, as they built their nest, laid and incubated eggs and reared their chicks. The following clips reveal the highs and lows of family life.
Red kites were almost extinct in the UK by the early 1900s, reduced to very low numbers in Wales. In the last two decades, they have been re-introduced to England and Scotland, with magnificent results.
- Phase of recovery: Recovery
- Amber list Bird of Conservation Concern
Red kites were persecuted to extinction throughout the UK, with the exception of Wales, during the 19th century. In Wales, during the 20th century, the small population was carefully protected, and red kites have slowly increased in numbers and range since the Second World War. Bringing them back
In 1989 a re-introduction programme was set up by the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council because of concerns about the slow rate of population expansion in Wales, and the improbability of natural re-colonisation of other suitable parts of the UK by red kites from Wales or the continent. In England, red kites have been re-introduced to four areas since 1989: the Chilterns, East Midlands, Yorkshire and north-east England. The first birds were brought from Spain, but as the Chilterns population grew quickly it produced enough young birds to donate small numbers to establish populations in the other areas. The final project, Northern Kites near Gateshead in north-east England, began in 2004.
Red kites were brought from Sweden and Germany to North and Central Scotland, and breeding populations have been successfully established. In Dumfries & Galloway, 100 red kites were brought from the Chilterns and North Scotland, and breeding is now becoming regular.
The RSPB, together with its partners, has worked hard to ensure local support for the red kite reintroduction projects. It has been important to reassure landowners and gamekeepers that red kites pose no risk to game shooting interests or livestock. Most have seen this for themselves, and are now proud to have kites nesting on their land, protecting them and monitoring their success.
Christopher Ussher, resident agent at the Harewood Estate, was quoted in Shooting Times and Country Magazine as saying: ‘Initially we received comments from neighbours about how the birds would affect the estate, but there is no conflict at all.’
Support from local residents has been important too and we have often started by visiting schools, inviting children to see kites being released and helping them with associated project work. The children find out that kites are exciting and spectacular birds and share their enthusiasm with family and friends.
Local economies have benefited from ‘kite country’ green tourism initiatives. Touring red kite trails have been set up, and enterprising farmers have set up kite-feeding stations which draw high numbers of visitors.
A bright future
The prospects for red kites in the UK are extremely good, with increasing numbers at most of the release locations. The population in Wales has increased to over 400 pairs and populations in most of the release areas in Scotland and England are already self-sustaining. This is particularly welcome as the European red kite population has declined dramatically and is now listed as globally-threatened by the IUCN/BirdLife International. In the UK, only in northern Scotland do we have serious concerns about the future. Numerous incidents of illegal poisoning appear to be preventing the population from increasing.
The same number of red kites were released in the Chilterns as in North Scotland between 1989 and 1993, but while the Chilterns population has grown to over 200 pairs, the north Scottish population has remained at only 35 pairs. The population produces lots of young, but fewer survive and so the population has stopped growing.
Here we will be moving a small number of birds over the next five years to a new area to the north-east to hasten recovery of red kites in that area. We believe persecution is the main limiting factor in north Scotland, and we are carrying out a persecution study, using radiotelemetry to identify persecution hot spots. We are working with Police wildlife crime officers to track down those responsible.
The original re-introduction projects were developed by the RSPB, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage. The Gateshead release project ‘Northern Kites’ is run by the RSPB and English Nature. Other partners are Gateshead Council, Northumbrian Water, National Trust and Forestry Commission England, and we have funding support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and SITA Environmental Trust.
In the English Midlands, a public viewing scheme is run at a Forestry Commission England visitor centre. In the Chilterns red kites are monitored by the Southern England Kite Group, who assist in translocation of birds for other re-introduction areas. In Yorkshire, the release project was a collaboration between the RSPB, EN, Harewood Estate and Yorkshire Water.
In Scotland, reintroduction projects have been carried out in collaboration with SNH, Forestry Commission Scotland and the Scottish Raptor Study Groups. We have also received funding for kite work from LEADER+, and Making Tracks.
In Wales, we are grateful to the Welsh Kite Trust who monitor many of the nesting pairs.