People waking up in the Australian Outback Friday morning, along with other parts of the Pacific, were among the lucky few to witness a “ring of fire” solar eclipse, as the moon slipped between the Earth and the sun, covering everything but a blazing ring of light around the edges.
(DETAILS: Solar Eclipse Turns Sun into ‘Ring of Fire’)
The eclipse lasted between three and six minutes, depending on its location, and blacked out around 95 percent of the sun at its peak.
Source: The Weather Channel
- ‘Ring of fire’ eclipse crosses Australia, Pacific (miamiherald.com)
- ‘Ring of Fire’ solar eclipse puts on a dazzling show in Australian Outback (science.nbcnews.com)
- Solar Eclipse: ‘Ring of Fire’ Eclipse Expected in Australia on Friday (scienceworldreport.com)
- ‘Ring of fire’ eclipse crosses Australia, Pacific (nzherald.co.nz)
Australia’s iconic marsupial is under threat. Formerly hunted almost to extinction for their woolly coats, koalas are now struggling to survive as habitat destruction caused by droughts and bushfires, land clearing for agriculture and logging, and mining and urban development conspire against this cuddly creature.
In the past 20 years, the koala population has significantly declined, dropping by 40 percent in the state of Queensland and by a third in New South Wales (NSW). The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) estimates that there are between 45,000 and 90,000 koalas left in the wild.
Shrinking habitat and climate change is compounding the risk of disease, while attacks from feral and domestic dogs and road accidents add to a long list of risks that this arboreal mammal faces as it moves across the landscape in search of food.
It is estimated that around 4,000 koalas are killed each year by dogs and cars alone.
Climate scientists warn that forecasts of longer dry periods, rises in temperature, more intense bushfires and severe droughts pose a significant risk to the koala, which is endemic only to Australia.
“In the past decade, we have experienced the hottest temperatures on record followed by floods and cyclones. The koalas are highly susceptible to heat stress and dehydration,” University of Queensland koala expert Dr. Clive McAlpine told IPS.
“Our climate envelope modelling found that koalas occur at a maximum temperature of 37.7 degrees centigrade. Across western Queensland and New South Wales, temperatures remained in the mid to high 40-degree centigrade (range) for consecutive days, pushing them beyond their climatic threshold.”
The name koala is derived from the aboriginal word meaning “no drink”, as the creatures feed on and derive much of their moisture needs from the nutrient-poor eucalyptus leaves. An individual Koala may have to consume 500 grammes of leaves or more each day in order to grow and survive.
“Climate-induced changes will not only reduce their food resource, but also the nutritional quality and moisture content of leaves. Most recently an 80 percent decline was documented in Queensland’s Mulga Lands following the 10-year drought,” McAlpine told IPS.
According to the AKF, protecting the existing koala eucalypt forests is also an imperative step towards reducing greenhouse emissions in Australia. Since 1788, nearly 65 percent (116 million hectares) of the koala forests have been cleared and the remaining 35 percent (41 million hectares) remains under threat from land clearing for agriculture, urban development and unsustainable forestry.
As koalas and humans vie for space amidst growing urban and infrastructure development on Australia’s eastern seaboard, koalas have been venturing out of their confined eucalyptus forest habitat, often crossing major roads in search of trees or mates.
“Koalas’ continuous move into urban areas makes them highly vulnerable to road (accidents) and attacks by dogs. In the rapidly developing region of southeast Queensland, the species has suffered a 60 percent decline in the past decade due to the combination of disease, dog attacks, but mostly collisions with cars,” Darryl Jones, deputy director of the Environmental Futures Centre at the Queensland-based Griffith University, told IPS.
Jones, who is the lead author of a recent study aimed at assisting the safe movement of koalas, said, “When forced out of their natural habitat, koalas use all resources available to them including backyard trees, tree-lined road verges and median strips. Retention of these marginal habitats in urban areas is important for koala movement and dispersal.”
Australia’s Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (WIRES) recently rescued a confused sub-adult male koala from the middle of a felled pine forest in NSW. He was sitting on top of a woodchip pile, with trucks and machinery operating close by.
WIRES General Manager Leanne Taylor said, “If koalas are moved out of their homes in preparation for planned logging activities, it is common for them to roam back to their home range afterwards and become confused to find nothing there.”
Koala advocacy groups say the government is putting mining interests above the environment. According to a spokesperson for the Wilderness Society, “Koala habitat is facing additional threat from expanding coal mining and coal seam gas operations, tree kills from coal seam gas spills, and increased infrastructural and vehicular traffic that comes with mining development. It is putting extra strain on the already declining koala populations in New South Wales and Queensland.”
The Australian Government last year listed the koala as “vulnerable” under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 on the recommendation of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee.
“It has taken 17 years of campaigning to get this listing and conservation groups like ours believe that in some regions the species requires a ‘critically endangered’ listing,” David Burgess, natural areas campaigner at the Total Environment Centre in Sydney, told IPS.
Deborah Tabart, CEO of the AKF, told IPS, “The protection does not go far enough and the Federal Government has underestimated the danger koalas face. We urgently need a Koala Protection Act.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the koala as “potentially vulnerable”. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the koala as “threatened” under the United States Endangered Species Act.
Two other deadly threats to the koalas’ survival are chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, and the koala retrovirus (KoRV), an HIV-like virus. According to some estimates, around half of all Australia’s koalas are infected with a strain of chlamydia, which causes infertility, blindness, respiratory and urinary infections and death.
Chlamydia affects male and female koalas, and even joeys who pick up the infection while suckling from their mother in the pouch. In some parts of Australia, koala infection rates are as high as 90 percent.
With a life span of between 10 and 14 years, koalas are slow breeders and usually produce one joey a year.
A joint team of researchers from the Australian Museum and the Queensland University of Technology have recently sequenced the koala interferon gamma (IFN-g) gene, a discovery that they call the “holy grail” for understanding the koala immune system. They are currently trialling a vaccine to protect koalas from chlamydia.
The government has formulated a National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy 2009 – 2014. But conservation groups say the major threat to the koala is inaction, lack of resources and willpower from both national and state governments.
Burgess warns, “Unless meaningful action is taken to protect the koala habitat, it may get to the point where the species relies on expensive captive breeding programmes for its survival.”
- Australia’s koala crisis: gene sequencing provides hope against killer diseases (guardian.co.uk)
- Chlamydia Is Killing Koalas – Will Genetics Find a Cure? (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- Genome the blueprint for saving koala (nzherald.co.nz)
For more than a decade, wine experts have discussed the impact of climate change on grapes. Now scientists are raising a new question: When grapes are transported to new areas, assuming climate change has made their former habitat unsuitable, what will the crop’s arrival do to the animals and plants already in residence?
Will there be a conflict between prosecco and pandas in China? Will the contentious wolf hunts near Yellowstone National Park be complicated by new vineyards that crowd out everything else - wolves, elk and hunters?
“One of the adaptation strategies for grape growers will be to move into areas that have a suitable climate,” said Rebecca Shaw, a scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and an author of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said such move shave ”the potential to threaten the survival of wildlife.”
Or, in the words of the new study, “Vineyards have long-lasting effects on habitat quality and may significantly impact freshwater resources.”
In addition to introducing sterilizing chemicals and fertilizer, mature vineyards ”have low habitat value” for native species ”and are visited more often by nonnative species.”
Dr. Shaw believes that the movement of agriculture of all types into land that was once cold and inhospitable should be guided to some extent by its impact on existing ecosystems.
The wine industry has undergone more than 15 years of climate-driven change, marked by newly rich vintages in once-chilly regions and the establishment of vineyards like Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in British Columbia in the Canadian west, or and Yaxley Estate in Tasmania, the island in southeastern Australia.
The paper’s authors predict that under most climate models,as much as 47 percent of land suitable for wine grapes will be lost in areas of Chile with a Mediterranean-like climate. In western North America - mostly in California - 59 percent of wine country will be severely stressed, and 74 percent of such land in Australia will no longer be compatible with viticulture.
The equivalent figure for Mediterranean areas of Europe is 85 percent of currently suitable lands becoming unfriendly to vineyards by 2050.
But it is the spread of wine country into wilder places that has conservationists most worried for the native animals and plants that may be displaced.
Lee Hannah, a scientist at the Arlington, Virginia-based Conservation International, predicts that ”Western North America has the greatest area of increasing ecological footprint” suitable for wine grapes, especially in the Rocky Mountains near the border between Canada and the United States. Much of that area has been coveted by conservationists who want to create a Yukon-to-Yellowstone corridor for unimpeded migration of wildlife, like pronghorn.
Robert Pincus, an environmental scientist at the University of Colorado, noted that a decade ago, Austrian winemakers were talking about moving their crop to higher altitudes where land had been undisturbed. “The tension is, do you want your Gruner Veltliner, or do you want some wild lands left in Europe?” he said.
He added: “Chile and California are going to have it harder - this is hard to argue with, this is robust.”
The New York Times
- Climate change will threaten wine production, study shows (guardian.co.uk)
- Conservation study: NJ wine production to be affected by climate change (nj.com)
- Study: California can kiss its vineyards goodbye (mercurynews.com)
- Study: Climate Change Will Threaten Wine Production (climatecentral.org)
- Climate Change Puts the Squeeze on Wine Production (ecowatch.com)
Whaling brings to mind visions of the 19th century. Harpoons into blubber. Captain Ahab versus Moby-Dick. The International Whaling Commission used to be a whalers’ club, but now is focused increasingly on new conservation measures. The International Herald Tribune reports
But in some parts of the world, whaling remains very much alive, despite a world moratorium on commercial whaling that took effect in 1986. In 2011, more than 1,500 whales were hunted and killed, according to figures compiled from the Web site of the International Whaling Commission, an intergovernmental body. That represents a decline from 2008, when more than 1,900 were killed.
Controversy about the practice continues. The International Court of Justice, a U.N. court based in The Hague, is considering a challenge by Australia against the whaling practices of Japan, which killed 540 whales in 2011, according to the commission.
“Australia has a very difficult case to make,” said Cymie R. Payne, an assistant professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who specializes in international and environmental law. However, she said, the court could side with Australia and order Japan to cease whaling.
Concerned about the over-hunting of whales, fifteen nations came together in 1946 to sign a treaty aimed at conserving the whale population. The treaty created an oversight body, the International Whaling Commission. In the 1980s, after public outcry against whaling intensified, members of the commission imposed a moratorium that allowed no commercial hunting of the animals. Some nations oppose the moratorium and have exercised what they consider their right to continue whaling.
Norway caught 533 whales for commercial purposes in 2011, and Iceland took 58, according to the commission. (Some of the 2011 numbers run roughly from spring 2011 to spring 2012; more recent figures were not available.) Hunters from aboriginal groups in Greenland, the United States, Russia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines collectively took 384 whales in 2011.
The nation that has hunted the most whales in recent years is Japan. It does so under a scientific exemption, saying that the whale hunts are for research purposes. But the whale meat is sold to consumers — officially, as a byproduct of the research. Environmentalists charge that the Japanese whaling program relies on heavy subsidies.
“The fact is that more than half a million Antarctic minke whales can easily support an annual harvest,” Yoshihiro Fujise, director general of the Institute of Cetacean Research, which conducts Japan’s Antarctic whaling program, said in a statement last year. Minke are the type that Japan mostly hunts.
The International Whaling Commission’s most recent estimate, published in 2012, shows that there were about 515,000 minke whales in Antarctic waters in the period between 1992 and 2004.
Tensions over Japan’s whaling practices have existed for years. An anti-whaling group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, regularly pursues Japanese whaling boats, igniting confrontations on the high seas. Japan has complained bitterly about these tactics. Recently, a three-judge panel of a U.S. court in San Francisco took its side.
In a dramatically worded ruling in February, the chief judge, Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, wrote: “You don’t need a peg leg or an eye patch. When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be.”
The Institute of Cetacean Research hailed the ruling, which enables a lawsuit brought against Sea Shepherd by the Japanese whalers to move forward.
Sea Shepherd, which is based in the United States, is seeking to have a larger, 11-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit review the case. The group also recently filed suit in the Netherlands, where some of its ships are registered, accusing the Japanese whalers of violent tactics.
The legal battle taking place at the International Court of Justice is not as animated but is potentially more significant. In 2010, Australia sued Japan over its whaling in Antarctic waters, saying it had breached its obligations under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the 1946 agreement. This year, New Zealand was allowed to join the case on Australia’s side.
Written arguments concluded about a year ago. Oral proceedings could start this year, although it is unlikely that a final decision will come before next spring at the earliest, according to Ms. Payne, the Rutgers professor.
The International Court of Justice case “hopefully will close legal loopholes in the Whaling Convention,” Peter H. Sand, who teaches international environmental law at the University of Munich, said in an e-mail. Mr. Sand is a former secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, also known as Cites, a group that oversees a multinational treaty.
Politics overlay the courtroom battles. “These are countries that interact with each other on a lot of different issues, and they don’t want this to become something that is going to harm their other political and commercial relationships,” Ms. Payne said.
In a blog post on The New York Times Web site this year, Jun Morikawa, a professor of international relations at Rakuno Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan, cited a “slight — very slight — possibility” that the Japanese government could move to end research whaling to strengthen relations with anti-whaling powers like the United States and the European Union, as well as Australia.
“Because the general public in Japan does not consider whaling a major issue,” he wrote, “a drastic shift in whaling policy could be a cheap, safe and a fairly effective bargaining chip.”
Meanwhile, the International Whaling Commission, which decades ago was considered something of a whalers’ club, is focused increasingly on new conservation measures. Some whale species are thriving, but others are not. Simon Brockington, the commission’s executive secretary, said that for whales, “being caught in nets or being run over by ships is perhaps as great a source of mortality” as the hunting. A whale entangled in a net can take months to die, he said.
The International Whaling Commission is working to remedy some of these problems, like researching pollution issues and rerouting shipping lanes in areas with heavy whale populations to avoid ship strikes, Mr. Brockington said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 3, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Simon Brockington. He is executive secretary of the International Whaling Commission, not executive director.
- Japanese whalers have ‘worst ever’ catch (stuff.co.nz)
- Japan Report Record Low Whaling Haul, Blames Activist ‘Sabotage’ (latinospost.com)
- Japanese whaling haul at record low (abc.net.au)
- Japan rues low whale haul (theage.com.au)
- Record low catch for Japan whaling season, Sea Shepherd blamed (japandailypress.com)
- Sea Shepherd activists confront whalers (bigpondnews.com)
- Whaling Haul Hits ‘Record Low’ In Japan (news.sky.com)
- Japan whaling haul at ‘record low’ (smh.com.au)
Some good news from ENN
With a small and declining population due to forest clearing and overhunting in New Guinea, the western long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijnii) is listed as “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s Red List of Threatened Species.
In Australia, the species has been thought to be extinct as fossil remains from the Pleistocene epoch demonstrate that the species lived here tens of thousands of years ago and no modern record of the species has been known. That is until scientists discovered one particular specimen in the overlooked cabinets of the Natural History Museum in London.
The western long-beaked echidna is one of the world’s five egg-laying species of mammal. Long-beaked echidnas are spiny monotremes – a small and primitive order of mammals that lay eggs rather than give birth to live young. The platypus, the short-beaked echidna, and the three species of long-beaked echidna are the only monotremes that still exist and are consequently only found in Australia and New Guinea. Little is known about the life of this long-beaked species because it is rarely seen and thus the reason why many have believed it to be extinct.
The newfound skin and skull specimen reveals that the species was reproducing in Australia at least until the early 20th century. The long-beaked echidna specimen was brought to the Natural History Museum in London in 1939. Seventy years later, Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution, the lead author of the new findings, visited the museum and came across the specimen.
Coming across such a specimen not only highlights the importance of maintaining museum collections, but also provides us with more insight into species of the past and present.
Learning whether the western long-beaked echidna still exists in Australia today will be a challenge, but is a goal for Helgen and his colleagues. Scientists will need to explore the Australian bush and will start looking in the region of Kimbereley in Western Australia where the specimen was collected by John Tunney back in 1901. Researchers will also interview native Aboriginal communities who might have other undocumented information that can lead researchers to the mammal.
Finding out the causes of the echidnas near extinction will help scientists predict and prevent other species from heading down the same path.
The findings can be found in the Dec. 28, 2012 issue of the journal ZooKeys.
Long-beaked Echidna image via EurekAlert. Photo credit by Tim Laman.
- Scientists discover that for Australia the long-beaked echidna may not be a thing of the past (esciencenews.com)
- ‘Extinct’ Australian echidna still living? (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- Australia’s Extinct Long-Beaked Echidna May Still Exist: Study (natureworldnews.com)
- Does the echidna still roam around Australia? (wildlifenews.co.uk)
- Extinct Long-Beaked Echidna Still Present in Australia: Study (naturenplanet.com)
- Scientists discover that for Australia the long-beaked echidna may not be a thing of the past (eurekalert.org)
- The Echidna that survived for thousands of years (earthtimes.org)
- Scientists discover that for Australia the long-beaked echidna may not be a thing of the past (phys.org)
- Odd mammal may not be extinct after all (msnbc.msn.com)
- Long-beaked echidna may not be a thing of the past (terradaily.com)