School of Evolutionary Astrology
  • Welcome to School of Evolutionary Astrology Forum. Admin.


Started by Rad, Nov 21, 2015, 11:16 AM

Previous topic - Next topic


Discovered in the deep: the squid that makes a decoy out of its own skin

Self-camouflage is just one of the tricks of Brenner's bobtail squid, a newly found species that is also helping research into microbes in the human gut

Helen Scales
Wed 23 Nov 2022

Bobtail squid are the second smallest group of squid in the world, at between 1cm and 5cm from neck to rounded, stumpy butt, and they only come out at night.

In 2019, scientists named a new species, Brenner's bobtail squid (Euprymna brenneri), after finding them while night-diving off the Japanese island of Okinawa. "When you shine a light on them, they freeze," says Oleg Simakov from the University of Vienna, one member of the squid-finding team. This makes them easy to catch in a hand net.

While they might have been easy for the scientists to capture at night, during the day bobtail squid adopt a fascinating form of camouflage. They bury themselves in the seafloor, and flick sand grains over their head and body – sticking them in place with mucus produced by cells in their skin.

If a keen-eyed predator still spies them, they have another trick in their arsenal. By releasing acid from their skin, they quickly shed their gooey, sandy coat, which then hangs in the water as a decoy, distracting the attacker while the squid escapes. At night, when they hunt, the bobtail squid use a different form of disguise: camouflaging themselves against the light of the moon beaming down by switching on dim lights across their bellies.

When scientists brought the living squid from Okinawa into the laboratory, they started sequencing its DNA. "We found that there was one species that didn't match with any other previously reported," says Gustavo Sanchez, from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. On closer examination, this new squid also looks different from the others. The females have enlarged suckers on their arms, something that has previously only been seen in males.

The new species is named after Nobel prize winner, Prof Sydney Brenner, who several members of the team worked with before he died in 2019. Brenner was especially interested in cephalopods, the big-brained group of invertebrates, including squid, octopuses and cuttlefish.

Compared with octopuses, which are aggressive and usually try to eat each other, bobtail squid are much more peaceable and easier to keep in captivity. Studies of other bobtail squid species and their symbiotic glowing bacteria have been giving scientists insights into the relationship between humans and the microbes in our guts.

Brenner's bobtail squid appeared in a 2021 study that casts light on their evolution. "The lineage that corresponds to this new species can be clearly separated into two groups," says Sanchez. One in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the other, including Brenner's bobtail squid, in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

"These have different evolutionary roots," says Sanchez. The two geographically distinct groups of bobtail squid split apart at the end of the Oligocene epoch, roughly 30m years ago, when the ancient Tethys Sea was coming to an end, blocking the connection between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.


Two Lives Long Harnessed Together, Until One Could Not Go On

Rush may have been the longest-lived thoroughbred in American history when he died at 39. For three decades, his owner said, "He would fight for me, and I would fight for him."

By Mike Wilson

Mike Wilson, a deputy Sports editor who is a Connecticut native, reported this story from Windsor, Conn.

Nov. 23, 2022

WINDSOR, Conn. — Bridget Eukers paused in the barn, her thoughts seemingly far away, and touched her horse's halter like an amulet. On the floor just outside his empty stall lay a scattering of yellow chrysanthemums left by a sympathetic friend.

Eukers explained she hadn't often used the halter on the horse. She and Rush had an understanding.

"I would only really put it on to exercise him because we could go in and out of the barn without it," she said, her fingers lingering on a strap. "I would just put my hand on his mane and we'd walk in and out."

It had been just over a week since Rush had died on the concrete floor a few feet from where she stood. Eukers was still grieving, but also celebrating Rush's extraordinary legacy. He was 39 years and 188 days old when he died, making him perhaps the longest-lived thoroughbred ever in the United States.

The record is hard to pin down. The Jockey Club, the industry's breed registry, does not keep longevity statistics, so people in horse racing go by word of mouth. The horse thought to be the previous American record-holder was 38 years and 203 days old when he died in 2016, according to the racing publication BloodHorse, which first reported Rush's death. An Australian thoroughbred lived to be 42, according to Guinness World Records. A typical thoroughbred lives into its late 20s.

Whatever Rush's rank among senior horses, his death marked the end of a 30-year partnership — Eukers's word — with horse and owner showing a level of dedication to each other that would be extraordinary for any two beings, equine or human.

"He would fight for me, and I would fight for him," Eukers said. "Whether it's your relationship with your horse, with your friends, or with your life partner, that's what it comes down to. You'll fight for me, and I'll fight for you."

They forged their relationship competing in equestrian events. Six days a week for six years, separated only by a saddle, they honed their skills, moving fluidly together and soaring over obstacles, three feet high at first and then three and a half. For Eukers, being with her horse became a way of life.

She attended college close to home so she could stay near Rush, turned down jobs that would have cut into her time with him, didn't socialize much and never went on vacation. The longest she ever spent away from Rush was one week, for a school trip.

In return, he gave her joy by carrying her on his back — around show rings and across Windsor's quilt of farmlands, often at a thundering pace fit for a racetrack. "It really is a special thrill to feel a racing thoroughbred at full speed underneath you. It's just magic," she said.

Beyond that, he gave her a purpose, and a measure of peace. The simple routines of feeding Rush, cleaning his stall and giving him medicine made her feel useful and freed her mind. He was a job she loved doing. "It's one of those Zen things," Eukers said. "You have that rhythm, and it somehow centers your life."

Through all of life's challenges — angst about the prom, hard days at work, dates that didn't happen, her father's death — Rush was there for her. Eukers said she occasionally wept into his neck. He actually didn't love that.

"He would sit and listen," she said, "but he would get to a certain point that was like, 'OK Mom, you cried. We're good. I'm going to go have my hay now.'"

The horse who became known as Rush was foaled in Kentucky on May 4, 1983. He was sold as a yearling for $60,000 ($170,000 today) and registered as Dead Solid Perfect. He ran 16 times and won once, in 1986 at the Meadowlands, according to the horse racing statistics site Equibase, with the Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone up. After his racing career, he was sold to a new owner and trained in dressage.

Eukers's parents bought the horse for her when she was in her early teens. Already named Rush, he was a beautiful athlete, Eukers said, with massive shoulders that swayed like a lion's when he walked. He was also a scaredy cat, unnerved at different times by flowers, squirrels and a mosquito lamp.

"His mission in life at that point was to worry about things and he was really good at it," Eukers said.

They grew to understand each other. She fed and groomed him and protected him from everyday objects. And when she asked him to clear a fence, he did, even though he was afraid.

"If I asked him to try, he would always try, and he would try and try," she said. She still keeps the ribbons they won in riding competitions.

Eukers believes Rush's diet contributed to his longevity. At 30, he indicated that he wanted a change from commercial horse feed. ("He started to tell me: 'You know what? This just doesn't work.'") She began giving him organic meals of alfalfa pellets and whole grains. When the grains were too hard for Rush to chew, she turned them to mush in a slow cooker.

Last week, she still had two bags of bright green hay in the back of her car. It was made for guinea pigs, but Rush liked it.

Eukers stopped riding Rush when he was 35. He was still able to carry her, she said, but she now had a different priority: Her father had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Caring for Rush had to be balanced with researching treatments for her dad and just being with him. When her father died in 2019, she said, Rush was no longer fit to be ridden.

The once-brown horse was now mostly gray. He spent his days at Windsor Hunt Stables under an apple tree, communing with dogs named Wilson and Lola, red-winged blackbirds, wrens, a yellow barn cat and a quarter horse called Cowboy, who stole his hay.

Day after day, Eukers walked Rush up and down the little hill next to the barn, steering him away from the gravel path because the stones hurt his feet. She massaged him with essential oils while he napped. She tied a rope to him and had him trot in a circle around her. She experimented with all kinds of dietary supplements, and Dr. Michael Stewart, Rush's veterinarian for more than 20 years, gave him steroids to keep him strong.

People would ask Eukers how old Rush was, and when she told them, they would follow up with what she considered an indelicate question: "How long do horses live?"

Last summer, Rush somehow hit his head when he was alone. Eukers could tell by the swelling and his behavior. It took him a long time to recover. He also suffered from an abscess on his left front hoof and persistent breathing difficulties. Amid it all, Cowboy, his companion of 14 years, died at 26, leaving Rush bereft.

About that time, Eukers, who worked in administration for an aerospace company, began receiving frequent texts at work alerting her that Rush was lying down, and she'd have to hurry to help him.

It is fine for horses to lie down, Dr. Stewart said in an interview, but because of the way their digestive systems work, they must get up to survive. Eukers always managed to get Rush back on his feet, often with help, but as time passed she felt less and less comfortable leaving him alone. She began to spend nights in the barn, placing a chair outside Rush's stall and wrapping herself in horse blankets as she listened to his breathing.

"You and I would be lucky to have somebody care for us like she cared for him," Dr. Stewart said.

On the night of Nov. 7, Eukers stayed with Rush until late, then went home to get a couple of hours' sleep in her bed. When she returned at 5:30 a.m., Rush was down, spilling out of his stall onto the cold barn floor. Eukers called her mother, then Dr. Stewart. For hours they worked to get him up, but the cramped space and the slope of the floor worked against them.

In recent years, Eukers said, people often told her that animals can sense when they are dying. He'll tell you when it's time, they would say to her. But Rush didn't do that, she said. Even after she rubbed his forehead and told him, "You've done enough, you don't have to try anymore," he kept struggling to lift his head and scrabbling to get his feet under him.

Finally, Eukers asked Dr. Stewart if he thought this was the end, and when he said yes, she made her decision. She had fought for Rush as long as she could. She knew that even if they got him up, they would be back here again soon, and Rush would be suffering, and he would try for her again.


Oil is even worse for birds than we thought

Crude oil can be very harmful to sealife, even in small amounts.

Mihai Andrei   
November 23, 2022

In 2010, a BP oil rig suffered a catastrophic failure. It started spewing oil into the sea, triggering what would become one of the worst environmental disasters in human history. The oil spill made big headlines and drew scorching criticism and ultimately landed BP the largest fine in US history. But oil spills, especially smaller ones, don't always make the headlines.

Oil kills birds

Oil spills happen more often than you may think, and aside from local media, they rarely get a lot of attention. But these smaller spills can also be very damaging.

Oil pollution can pose a considerable threat, in addition to all the other threats sea birds are already exposed to. The problem stems from how oil interacts with water and with birds' feathers.

When oil gets spilled into the water, it creates a thin sheen on the water. Lead author Emma Murphy and colleagues from the University College Cork wanted to see how this sheen interacts with feathers and how it affects them.

Feathers play a number of important roles for birds. They provide thermal insulation and keep the birds waterproof — two essential roles for birds making a living at sea. But oil seems to impair these abilities, and previous studies have shown that birds who are exposed to oil are cold, waterlogged, and less buoyant.

Murphy wanted to see how this oil affects individual feathers. She used contour feathers, the feathers that define the body outline, and exposed them to different thicknesses of oil sheen, measuring their resistance to water permeation, the increase in mass, and the clumping of feather barbules.

Ultimately, the researchers conclude that even an extremely thin oil layer 0.1 micrometers thick was enough to significantly affect the feather structure and impact waterproofing.

The silver lining is that the number of oil spills has dropped significantly in recent years, but this means that it doesn't even have to be a big oil spill — even when the oil is released in smaller amounts, for instance from extraction and transport infrastructure, it can spread across the sea and coat seabirds, affecting them and reducing their chances of survival.

"Chronic small-scale oil pollution is commonly overlooked in the marine environment, though it has been shown to have serious implications for the fitness and survival of seabirds. This study examined one species, but the results can be extended to other species that rely on waterproofing to stay healthy when at sea for long periods," Murphy said.

The study was published in Royal Society Open Science.


Tiny clam species has been found alive and well, despite our presuming it went extinct 40 millennia ago

That's a pretty long time to not notice a clam.

Alexandru Micu   
November 23, 2022

Cyamatioa cooki, a species that was believed to have gone extinct over 40 millennia ago, has been rediscovered alive and well off the coast of California.
Cymatioa cooki. Image credits J. Goddard.

In today's world of ecological uncertainty, it's not often we get to hear of species going un-extinct — the norm is hearing about species disappearing, instead. But a new paper is now reporting on what may be the longest-yet period after which a species has been found alive after being presumed extinct. The species in question is Cymatioa cooki, a clam that has previously only been seen as a fossil and presumed extinct over the last 40,000 years.

The white, translucent clam was rediscovered in 2018 by a team looking for sea slugs in tide pools off the coast of California, where individuals were growing up to 11 millimeters in length.

Longest interlude

The clam was first spotted by marine ecologist Jeff Goddard while doing fieldwork. Unsure of what he was seeing but not willing to disturb the creature, Goddard took a few pictures of the unusual bivalve and carried on with his duties. When he got back home, Goddard shared the pictures with a colleague, Paul Valentich-Scott, the curator of malacology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Valentich-Scott was, too, unsure of what species he was looking at — and this actually made him happy.

"New discoveries are part of why we're in science," Valentich-Scott says.

So they set to work on finding out. The pair captured a live specimen in 2019 and brought it back to the museum for comparison with other known species and the fossil record. This step allowed them to see a striking resemblance between the tiny bivalve and a fossil clam first described by paleontologist George Willett in the 1930s. At the time, Willet named the species after the amateur shell collector who first recognized the fossil as being unique among a collection of 30,000 shells, Edna Cook.

The team immediately recognized their clam after seeing the original specimen of Cyamatioa cooki that Willett used to describe the species. This would mark the species out with the very rare distinction of being known first as a fossil, and only after that as a living organism. Such a feat places C. cooki firmly in the exclusive club of Lazarus taxons.

For now, we're still left scratching our heads as to how this species eluded us for so long a time. One hypothesis that the team is investigating is that the clam's preferred habitat actually lies in the more remote regions of Baja, California, which have received comparatively little attention up to now. It is possible, however, that warming climates are allowing C. cooki larvae to move closer to Santa Barbara, where they were discovered by chance.

Valentich-Scott and Goddard have found at least two confirmed, and up to four potentially-living clams in the tide pools of the area.

The paper "A fossil species found living off southern California, with notes on the genus Cymatioa (Mollusca, Bivalvia, Galeommatoidea)" has been published in the journal ZooKeys.


Emotional moment chimpanzee mother reunited with her baby – video


Nurses at Sedgwick County zoo in Kansas captured this video showing the moment a chimpanzee, Mahale, saw her baby, Kucheza, after two days. She gave birth via emergency C-section after natural labour stopped progressing. Kucheza, meaning 'play' in Swahili, wasn't breathing well on his own so he stayed in the hospital with the zoo's medical team for two days until he could be reunited with mum, the zoo wrote on Facebook.



This huge bird seems to self-medicate on plants used in traditional medicine

More research is needed, but it could be a big discovery.

Fermin Koop   
November 24, 2022

Self-medication in animals would have once seemed like a crazy idea, but now, researchers have spotted several instances where it seems to be happening. Dolphins have been spotted rubbing against corals and chimpanzees applying insects to their wounds. Now, researchers were able to confirm self-medication behavior in a specific type of bird.

The great bustard (Otis tarda) is a massive and colorful bird that can be found in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. They are listed as vulnerable by the Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with 70% of the world's population living in the Iberian Peninsula. They walk with an upright stance and fly with powerful and regular wing beats.

A group of researchers in Spain collected over 600 droppings from male and female great bustards and counted the abundance of recognizable remains of plant species that are grown locally and are known to be on the birds' menu. As it turns out, the two species of plants that were eaten more than other foods in the diet had antiparasitic effects.

    "Great bustards seek out two species of weeds that are also used by humans in traditional medicine. We show that both contain antiprotozoal and nematicidal (ie, worm-killing) compounds, while the second also contains antifungal agents," Azucena Gonzalez-Coloma, a Spanish researcher and study co-author, said in a statement.

A nutritive and healthy diet

By analyzing the dropping, the researchers found the birds ate corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and purple viper's bugloss (Echium plantagineum). The first one is used in traditional medicine as a pain reliever and immune booster, while the second one is toxic for humans if eaten in large quantities. They also have a large nutritional value.

These plants are eaten by the great bustards, especially during the mating season, which researchers believe was to block the effects of increased exposure to parasites during that time. These birds are known as lek breeders, which means males put on a display for the visiting females, who then choose a mate based on the quality of the show.

    "Great bustards select corn poppies and purple viper's bugloss mainly in the mating season, in April, when their energy expenditure is greatest. And males, who during these months spend much of their time and energy budgets on sexual display, prefer them more than females," Luis Bautista-Sopelana, study co-author, said in a statement.

The researchers isolated water- and fat-soluble compounds from both species and determined their chemical identity. They focused on lipids, essential oils, and alkaloids, produced by plants as a defense against herbivores. They then tested the activity of the isolated molecular fractions against three common parasites that usually affect birds.

As it turns out, the extract of both plants was very effective at inhibiting or killing two of these parasites (protozoon Trichomonas gallinae and the nematode Meloidogyne javanica), while the purple viper's bugloss was moderately active against the fungus Aspergillus niger. However, the researchers cautioned more research is still needed.

    "The ultimate proof of self-medication requires experimental protocols developed in the biomedical, veterinary, and pharmacological sciences," said Bautista-Sopelana. "Until then, we continue with our fieldwork."

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.


This study shows why you should keep your cat inside: for its own sake, and for the sake of the environment

Snuffles, you're having an indoor adventure today.

Mihai Andrei   
November 24, 2022

As I'm writing this, about a half dozen cats are roaming around the neighborhood, roaming the great (and highly urbanized) outdoors. Most owners who let their cats roam think they're doing a good thing, enabling their furry friends to do some exercise and harmless exploring. But the exploring isn't harmless at all: for cats, the outdoors are filled with risks — both for themselves, and for local wildlife.

Ever since cameras and motion sensors became small, people wanted to put them on cats and see what they're doing. Cats that are allowed to go outdoor do roam, and they roam a lot, putting themselves and local wildlife at risk. The new study followed cats in Washington DC over three years, using cameras and sensors to track how cats interact with local wildlife.

The authors, from the University of Maryland, note that there's a lot of overlap with the territories of other wild animals that could pose risks to house cats — either through violence or through disease.

"We discovered that the average domestic cat in D.C. has a 61% probability of being found in the same space as racoons—America's most prolific rabies vector—61% spatial overlap with red foxes, and 56% overlap with Virginia opossums, both of which can also spread rabies," said Daniel Herrera, lead author of the study and Ph.D. student in UMD's Department of Environmental Science and Technology (ENST). "By letting our cats outside we are significantly jeopardizing their health."

While the study focused on Washington DC, the findings likely carry out in many other cities as well. For instance, in late 2021, news of a "cat killer" in London made waves killing over 300 cats in a short period of time, but DNA analyses found that the killer was actually foxes.

It's not uncommon for cats to get into fights with other cats or, more dangerously, wild animals that can pose great peril to them. In addition, the risk of cats contracting diseases from other wildlife is very real, the researchers found. Whether it's diseases that can be passed on to humans (like rabies or toxoplasmosis), or diseases that can only affect the cats themselves, cats that roam outside are far more exposed to diseases.

In addition for the cats being more at risk, they are also a risk to other, smaller wildlife that they often hunt. The study found that cats also share the same space with gray squirrels, chipmunks, cottontail rabbits, groundhogs, and white footed mice, animals which cats have been known to hunt. Notably they don't seem to be that good at catching rats, contrary to popular belief.

"Many people falsely think that cats are hunting non-native populations like rats, when in fact they prefer hunting small native species," explained Herrera. "Cats are keeping rats out of sight due to fear, but there really isn't any evidence that they are controlling the non-native rodent population. The real concern is that they are decimating native populations that provide benefits to the D.C. ecosystem."

The study found that cats didn't really like roaming across natural landscapes. They seemed to dislike things like open water and canopy cover, and only roamed more when they were surrounded by man-made elements. In other words, cats roam more in highly urbanized environments — so the negative outcomes that result from cats interacting with wildlife arises mostly from human activities.

    "These habitat relationships suggest that the distribution of cats is largely driven by humans, rather than natural factors," explained Travis Gallo, assistant professor in ENST and advisor to Herrera. "Since humans largely influence where cats are on the landscape, humans also dictate the degree of risk these cats encounter and the amount of harm they cause to local wildlife."

Since humans heavily influence the spatial distribution of cats, it's up to humans to be responsible and minimize the risks faced by cats and the risks that cats impose on native wildlife, the researchers conclude. It's important to at least consider prohibiting the release of cats, at least in areas where there is a lot of urban wildlife. While owners may not like this, they should consider that indoor cats are healthier and live longer than their outdoor counterparts.

It should also be noted that while we may not notice it, urban or suburban wildlife is often thriving right in front of us. Many species have adapted to the urbanized environment and are abundant but elusive. Animals are understandably shy of humans, but go out more when humans are less active — often, this means during the night.

The researchers also emphasize that feral cats are equally at risk of contracting diseases and causing native wildlife declines, and municipalities should start working on measures to prevent them from roaming freely where the risk of overlap with wildlife is high.

Journal Reference: Daniel J. Herrera et al, Spatial and temporal overlap of domestic cats (Felis catus) and native urban wildlife, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.3389/fevo.2022.1048585


Hen harriers to be bred in captivity and released on to Salisbury Plain

Raptor has not bred in southern England for decades – with only breeding populations found on northern moorlands

Patrick Barkham
24 Nov 2022

Hen harriers are to be bred in captivity in England for the first time and released on to Salisbury Plain in a new attempt to revive the endangered bird of prey in southern England.

The raptor's only English breeding populations are on northern moorlands, where the bird has been subject to huge persecution in recent decades because its prey includes red grouse – a lucrative gamebird.

The hen harrier hasn't bred in southern England for decades but it nests on the ground in lowland grassland and arable fields on the continent, and scientists believe it can thrive again on English farmland without persecution – if birds are returned there.

Twelve birds – six males and six females – have been brought from France and Spain to establish breeding pairs, in a Natural England project in collaboration with the International Centre for Birds of Prey, which aims to release at least 100 birds over the next five or more years.

Young hen harriers in France were rescued from the wild overseas by volunteers, who ensure that if a harrier nests in a wheat field, the chicks are saved before the combines move in. Two additional birds are being brought in from Spain. The birds will begin to breed next spring, although the new pairs may not produce enough chicks for release into the wild until 2024.

Hen harrier pairs produce up to six chicks each year but they are timid and must be kept in special aviaries where they are not disturbed by noise or human activity.

Simon Lee, a senior adviser at Natural England, the government's conservation watchdog, said: "The southern reintroduction project is an excellent example of international collaboration to drive species recovery. Working together, we hope to create a sustainable population, which supports the long-term revival of this much-loved species.

"Hen harriers are a magnificent bird of prey, which sadly face many challenges including persecution and habitat loss. We are committed to driving down persecution to ensure permanent recovery of the species."

Hen harriers have rarely been bred in captivity because they are considered by falconers to be "untameable". Now considered an "upland" bird in Britain, where they feed mainly on voles while also taking some small birds such as meadow pipits, they were once widespread across the country before populations were decimated by persecution.

The University of Exeter researched suitable sites for reintroduction and concluded it made more sense to reintroduce them on to areas of grassland and farmland, which are commonplace in southern England, rather than isolated moorlands such as Exmoor and Dartmoor.

"They are not fussy birds at all," said Lee. "Hen harriers just want vegetation of the right height and density in an open landscape for nesting and roosting; it doesn't matter if it's cereal crops or rough grassland or even potatoes. They will eat any available prey as long as it's the right size. They are really generalists. From a reintroduction point of view, that gives the best opportunity in the quite anthropogenic landscapes we have in the UK."

While much of Salisbury Plain is Ministry of Defence land, where the birds should therefore be free from persecution, Natural England has spent four years talking to farmers and game shoots in surrounding Wiltshire.

"We were nervous when we started to talk to people about it because of the history of persecution and the dynamic between conservationists and the shooting industry but we were very, very pleasantly surprised by the reaction," said Lee.

"The overwhelming response was actively supportive. The one thing harriers have no impact on whatsoever is typical pheasant and red-legged partridge shoots. Harriers are way too small to take a pheasant."

Hen harriers have spent winters in southern England since the 1970s so gamekeepers are used to seeing the birds around. "Harriers have been present in southern England in good numbers when the vast majority of shoots take place, to my knowledge without a single issue," said Lee.

The overwintering birds have not settled in southern England because they often return close to their birthplace to mate and raise chicks, and also because there simply aren't the numbers of harriers in the skies in springtime to encourage male birds to perform their famous "sky-dancing" aerobatics to attract a mate.

Releasing captive-bred birds will aim to create a southern breeding population of at least 100, after which it is hoped hen harriers will spread across the landscape as red kite populations have since their successful reintroduction in 1990.

The hen harrier was virtually wiped out in England and Wales by 1900 and after birds returned in the second half of last century they were almost wiped out again: no hen harriers bred in England in 2013. France has 10,000 pairs.

Recent conservation efforts have led to a revival in northern England: this year 119 chicks fledged from 34 hen harrier nests across uplands in County Durham, Cumbria, Lancashire and Northumberland, the most productive year for more than a century.

Part of this success is attributed to the government's controversial policy of "brood management" whereby grouse shoots are given licences to remove hen harrier nests, with the chicks reared in captivity and then released. This mechanism prevents the buildup of harrier nests on grouse moors, where they predate red grouse. But conservation groups including the RSPB are opposed to such management, arguing that does not confront the problem of illegal persecution.


Why Did the Chicken Cross the Barn? To Sign Up for the Scientific Study

A farm sanctuary in New York is investigating the inner lives of cows, pigs and chickens — but only if they volunteer.

By Emily Anthes

In the course of reporting this story, Emily Anthes met with two cows, seven pigs and countless chickens.

Nov. 24, 2022

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — It was a crisp October day at Farm Sanctuary, and inside the small, red barn, the chicken people were restless.

A rooster, or maybe two, yodeled somewhere out of sight. A bruiser of a turkey strutted through an open door, tail feathers spread like an ornamental fan. And a penned flock of white-feathered hens emitted tiny, intermittent squeaks, an asynchronous symphony of chicken sneezes.

The hens were experiencing a flare-up of a chronic respiratory condition, said Sasha Prasad-Shreckengast, the sanctuary's manager of research and animal welfare, who was preparing to enter the chicken pen. She donned gloves and shoe covers, threw on a pair of blue scrubs and then slipped inside, squatting to bring herself face-to-face with the first hen who approached.

"Who are you?" she cooed.

Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast meant the question literally. She was trying to find the birds that were enrolled in her study: an investigation into whether chickens — animals not often heralded for their brainpower — enjoy learning.

But her question was also the big philosophical one driving the new, in-house research team at Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit that has spent more than 35 years trying to end animal agriculture.

They have their work cut out for them: The United States alone keeps more than 90 million cattle and slaughters more than 9 billion chickens (and 200 million turkeys) a year. But there are some signs of a societal shift. In a 2019 Gallup poll, nearly one in four Americans said that they had curbed their consumption of meat. A jury recently acquitted activists who ferried two piglets away from a factory farm. Fast-food giants are adding faux meat to the menu, and just last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to lab-grown chicken.

And a growing body of research suggests that farmed species are brainy beings: Chickens can anticipate the future, goats appear to solicit help from humans, and pigs may pick up on one another's emotions.

But scientists still know far less about the minds of chickens or cows than they do about those of apes or dogs, said Christian Nawroth, a scientist studying behavior and cognition at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany. "I'm still baffled how little we know about farm animals, given the amount or the numbers that we keep," he said.

Farm Sanctuary, which was founded in 1986, has always held that farm animals are sentient beings, even referring to its feathered and four-legged residents as "people."

"They have their own desires, and their own wants and preferences and needs, and their own inner lives — the same way that human people do," said Lauri Torgerson-White, the sanctuary's director of research.

Now, the sanctuary is trying to collect enough data to convince the general public of the humanity of animals.

"Our hope," Ms. Torgerson-White said, "is that through utilizing really rigorous methodologies, we are able to uncover pieces of information about the inner lives of farmed animals that can be used to really change hearts and minds about how these animals are used by society."

The sanctuary is conducting the research in accordance with its own strict ethical standards, which include giving the animals the right to choose whether or not to participate in studies. Consequently, the researchers have sometimes found themselves grappling with the very thing that they are keen to demonstrate: that animals have minds of their own.

And today, the birds in "West Chicken" seemed a bit under the weather. Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast crossed her fingers that a few of them might still be up for a brief demonstration.

"Hopefully," she said, "people will be feeling like — chicken people will be feeling like — they're eager and interested in participating."

'Somebody, not something'

Farm Sanctuary began not as a home for rescued animals but with a group of young activists working to expose animal cruelty at farms, stockyards and slaughterhouses.

"We lived in a school bus on a tofu farm for a couple of years," said Gene Baur, the president and co-founder of the organization. But in the course of its investigations, the group kept stumbling upon "living animals left for dead," he recalled. "And so we started rescuing them."

They ultimately opened sanctuaries in New York and California, establishing educational programs and political advocacy campaigns. (They raised money, in part, by selling veggie hot dogs at Grateful Dead concerts.)

And in 2020, the organization, which now houses about 700 animals, began assembling an internal research team. The goal was to assemble more evidence that, as Mr. Baur put it, "these animals are more than just pieces of meat. There's emotion there. There is individual personality there. There's somebody, not something."

The research team worked with Lori Gruen, an animal ethicist at Wesleyan University, to develop a set of ethics guidelines. The goal, Dr. Gruen explained, was to create a framework for conducting animal research "without dominance, without control, without instrumentalization."

Among other stipulations, the guidelines prohibit invasive procedures — forbidding even blood draws unless they are medically necessary — and state that the studies must benefit the animals. And participation? It's voluntary.

"Residents must be recognized as persons," the guidelines state, "and always be provided with choice and control over their participation in an experimental study."

The idea is not entirely novel. Zoo animals, for instance, are often trained to cooperate in their own health care, as well as in studies that might stem from it. But such practices remain far from the norm.

For the researchers at Farm Sanctuary, voluntary participation was not only an ethical imperative but also, they thought, a path to better science. Many prior studies have been conducted on farms or in laboratories, settings in which stress or fear might affect animals' behavior or even impair their cognitive performance, the researchers note.

"Our hope is that they're able to tell us more about what the upper limits are for their cognition and emotional capacities and social structures because of the environment that they're in and because of the way we are performing the research," Ms. Torgerson-White said.

Although the approach is unconventional, outside scientists described the sanctuary's ethical guidelines as admirable and its research questions as interesting.

"The idea that you could study these species, who are usually only studied in sort of pseudofarm conditions, in more naturalistic environments that actually meet not just their needs but even their most arcane preferences — I think they're right," said Georgia Mason, who directs the Campbell Center for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph. "I think that really allows you to do something special."

Putting a wing up

The researchers decided to start with a study on the much-maligned chicken and the birds' emotional response to learning. "We call it 'The Joys of Learning,' but we don't know that for sure, that they're going to experience joy," Ms. Torgerson-White said. "That's our hypothesis."

To recruit their avian volunteers, Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast and her colleague, Jenna Holakovsky, worked slowly and methodically. They started last fall by spending a few days just sitting in the chicken pen, before opening the door to the hallway where the experiment would eventually take place.

Then, they began adding elements of the experimental infrastructure — a window screen, a piece of plywood — and doling out food pellets to any birds brave enough to approach. After about three weeks, they had the entire experimental arena set up and 13 birds who regularly chose to enter it, becoming their volunteer chicken corps.

The researchers offered some of these chickens an opportunity to learn something new — how to knock a lid off a bowl — and assessed their overall emotional states, using what is known as a judgment bias test. The test, variations of which have been used with a wide variety of species, involved measuring how quickly the chickens approached a mysterious bowl and its unknown contents.

The theory was that a chicken in a generally positive mood would be more likely to assume that the bowl contained something good, like food, and would stride toward it more quickly than a down-in-the-dumps chicken would.

So far, the researchers have tested eight chickens, half of whom were in the control group, and it is too early to draw firm conclusions about chickenkind. (The original group of recruits dwindled after one bird died, another failed to meet the study criteria, and three others dropped out — in one case, to spend time in the nest box instead. "I think she really just was highly motivated to sit on some eggs," Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast said.)

But the preliminary data suggest that learning did seem to boost the mood of some of the birds. (Here's looking at you, Shirley and Murielle.)

Then there was Yoshi, who had attempted to bypass the learning challenge altogether. Instead of completing the task for her reward, she went straight for the food, trying to hop over the intervening window screen. Although Yoshi did eventually deign to complete the task, she did not seem to enjoy the experience. She probably found it frustrating, Ms. Torgerson-White said: "She knows how to jump over screens, so why did she need to perform this task?"

The researchers were initially disappointed by the result, but they were also charmed by Yoshi's intransigence, viewing it as evidence of her individual personality.

Personality remains a tricky issue. By limiting their study to chickens who, in essence, raised their wings to volunteer, they may have enrolled an unusually bold group of birds, potentially skewing their results. So the researchers are now administering personality assessments and may try to repeat the study with more birds.

"Can they work out protocols to get all the chickens so calm and used to them that all the chickens volunteer?" Dr. Mason wondered. "Then their problem is solved."

Barnyard blues

The researchers are also investigating whether farmed animals can develop symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder — and, if so, whether spending time in a sanctuary helps them heal.

"As a part of a normal life of a farmed animal, honestly, almost no matter the species, they are undergoing or experiencing the types of trauma that human psychologists use to diagnose PTSD," Ms. Torgerson-White said.

Some of the sanctuary's residents have escaped from slaughterhouses or suffered serious injuries on farms, and scientists have reported PTSD-like symptoms in elephants and chimpanzees exposed to violence or abuse.

"If PTSD exists in humans, then clearly it will exist in other species as well," said Donald Broom, an emeritus professor of animal welfare at the University of Cambridge. "So to look into that would be an interesting thing to do."

The study is primarily observational, involving a careful analysis of the behavior of new residents, such as Bella, a Holstein who arrived at the sanctuary this fall after watching her companion, a steer named Buck, be euthanized. But the team is also measuring the animals' cortisol levels, inviting residents to cough up some saliva samples.

Lizzie and Robbie, a bonded pig pair with bristly coats and a fondness for mouthing visitors' shoelaces, were absolute champs, happily slobbering all over the big cotton swabs proffered by the scientists. But Hayes, a steer with impossibly fuzzy ears, showed absolutely no interest in mouthing the swabs, not even when the researchers tried to sweeten the deal with molasses.

"He had just gotten access to pasture for the first time in his life, and nothing, not even molasses, was more interesting or exciting than grazing," said Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast, whom Hayes nuzzled affectionately when she stopped by the pasture.

Some of their studies may not pan out, the researchers acknowledged, and their methods are still evolving. There are some clear areas for improvement: They did not conduct the chicken study "blind," which means that they knew which chickens were in the control group and which were not. As a result, the researchers could have unconsciously influenced the birds' behavior, especially if they were hoping for a specific result.

"We did our best to avoid unintentional cuing by remaining still, keeping our heads down and stepping away from the testing arena when possible," Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast said. But, she acknowledged, "We recognize this is a limitation of our study design and plan to address it in our eventual manuscript."

The researchers may be unusually upfront about their mission and values, but they are not alone in bringing a point of view to their work, Dr. Gruen, the animal ethicist, noted. After all, many biomedical scientists have made their own calculations that the possibility of alleviating human suffering outweighs the suffering that lab animals experience. "Values enter into scientific practice at every level," Dr. Gruen said. "I don't think it's unusual that the values are there — I think it's unusual that those values are there."

The sanctuary said it was committed to publishing its results, no matter what they are. The scientists also run their research proposals through an advisory committee, a group of six outside experts tasked with ensuring that the studies are both ethically and scientifically sound.

"To be ethical," said Becca Franks, an animal welfare scientist at New York University and a member of the committee, "to spend people's time and energy and money on this and engage with the animals, the science also has to be good

Small steps

The researchers are working to expand their PTSD study to animals living on other farm sanctuaries, with financial support from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which also provided funding for the chicken study. Next year, the researchers hope to explore aspects of animal culture, as well as the emotional lives of turkeys. And they are eager to spread the word about their ethics guidelines, which they hope other animal researchers will adopt.

"If they can show this model works, I think that could really motivate more people to try it," Dr. Mason said.

Although the sanctuary wants to end animal agriculture, other scientists view this kind of research as a path to improving the system. If chickens enjoy learning, for instance, then poultry farmers should give their birds opportunities to do just that, Dr. Broom said.

"I'm not against the use of animals for a variety of purposes," he said. "But I'm very strongly in favor of providing for needs in such a way that the welfare of each individual animal is good."

How will the sanctuary's staff members feel if their work is used to tweak, rather than eliminate, the existing system? "If we can lessen the suffering of animals in the near term, I think that is positive," Mr. Baur said. "However, we don't want to further entrench the idea that these animals are here for us to be exploiting."

Changing public attitudes and societal practices is a long-term project, Ms. Torgerson-White acknowledged. But she and her colleagues are trying to nudge it along from the pastures in Watkins Glen, where the animals are people and the residents are not scientific subjects but research partners.

"We're not extracting information or knowledge from them," Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast said. "Together, we're learning, and they're teaching us what they want and what they're capable of."


The 2022 BirdLife Australia photography awards – in pictures

A shy albatross, a skydiving kestrel and a curious galah are among the shortlisted and winning photos in this year's bird photography prize, chosen from more than 5,600 images. Funds raised by the competition support bird conservation programs

24 Nov 2022

Click to see all:


Lost and found: noisy, tame and very active, Argentina delights in giant otter's return

Decades after the world's biggest otter disappeared from the country, a kayaking trip revealed a lone male swimming in the Bermejo River

Graeme Green
25 Nov 2022

"This really is a big animal," says Sebastián Di Martino, conservation director of Rewilding Argentina, emphasising the "giant" in giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis). "It can be 1.7 metres long ... the biggest otter in the world."

Until its recent rediscovery, the giant otter was feared extinct in the country as a result of habitat loss and hunting. "Family groups were last seen in the 1980s in the Misiones province of north-eastern Argentina," Di Martino says. "In the Bermejo River, the last sightings occurred 130 years ago, in 1898."

In May 2021, Di Martino captured a lone male giant otter on his phone while kayaking on the Bermejo River in El Impenetrable national park, in the Chaco province of north-east Argentina. It wasn't an animal he was searching for or expecting to see. "I saw the otter by chance," he recalls. "The first time I saw it, I was in the tent of our biological station in El Impenetrable national park, which is by a lagoon of the Bermejo River ... but I wasn't able to take a picture. Days later, I was kayaking on the lagoon and I heard something jump into the water. Then the animal made a noise, an alarm sound I know well, because we have giant otters in a pre-release pen in Iberá." Di Martino turned the kayak around and started to film. "When the giant otter saw me, it showed the upper part of its body out of the water and I saw its white chest."

Di Martino was overjoyed to see the remarkable animal, which can weigh more than 30kg (66lb), back in the Bermejo. "It is considered endangered worldwide by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)," Di Martino says. "They are big predators in South America's aquatic systems. They're diurnal, very noisy, very tame towards people and very active, so watching them is incredibly entertaining: they never stop doing things, like coming in and out of the water. This behaviour is also why they went extinct. Most historic records of giant otters are of people shooting them from boats."

Giant river otter feared extinct in Argentina spotted – video:

Argentina has been working to bring giant otters back to the country since 2018, concentrating efforts in the Iberá wetlands. Di Martino's discovery kickstarted a plan to reintroduce them to El Impenetrable, too. "After seeing giant otters in the Bermejo, we could see the river is a good habitat for this species, very connected with other waterways and likely Paraguay – the closest place where there are still wild giant otters and where this one probably came from," Di Martino explains.

"It shows us there is still hope to connect populations we are reintroducing in Iberá, and now in El Impenetrable, with the Pantanal, [which has] one of the strongest populations of giant river otters."

Though the male otter disappeared from Impenetrable and wasn't seen for several months, it recently reappeared, and work has begun to build an enclosure in a lagoon by the Bermejo River.

Sofía Heinonen, biologist and director of Rewilding Argentina, says: "We know it is a male because we saw its testicles on camera-trap photos. It's likely a young male that has dispersed from his family group to find a female. We hope this male will get anchored here at Impenetrable national park, thanks to the presence of a female that we'll bring there from Iberá.

"The female otter was born in a pen in Iberá, so she's a semi-wild animal. If it succeeds, we can think of releasing them and having the first wild family of giant otters here after decades of extinction."


The road to Cop15: Humans v nature: our long and destructive journey to the age of extinction

The story of the damage done to the world's biodiversity is a tale of decline spanning thousands of years. Can the world seize its chance to change the narrative?

by Phoebe Weston
Fri 25 Nov 2022

The story of the biodiversity crisis starts with a cold-case murder mystery that is tens of thousands of years old. When humans started spreading across the globe they discovered a world full of huge, mythical-sounding mammals called "megafauna", but by the end of the Pleistocene, one by one, these large animals had disappeared. There is no smoking gun and evidence from ancient crime scenes is – unsurprisingly – patchy. But what investigators have learned suggests a prime suspect: humans.

Take the case of Genyornis, one of the world's heaviest birds, which was more than 2 metres tall and weighed in excess of 200kg. It lived in Australia until, along with many other megafauna, it went extinct 50,000 years ago. In North America, giant beavers weighing the same as a fridge and an armadillo-like creature called a glyptodon, which was the size of a small car, existed until about 12,000 years ago, when they, too, went extinct. In all, more than 178 species of the world's largest mammals are estimated to have been driven to extinction between 52,000 and 9,000BC.

For a long time, these extinctions were thought to be linked to natural changes in the environment – until 1966, when palaeontologist Paul S Martin put forward his controversial "overkill hypothesis" that humans were responsible for the extinctions of megafauna, destroying the romantic vision of early humans living in harmony with nature.

Prof Mark Maslin, from University College London (UCL), suggests that the unsustainable hunting of megafauna may have been one of the driving forces that led humans to domesticate plants and animals. People started farming in at least 14 different places, independently of each another, from about 10,500 years ago. "Weirdly enough, I think the first biodiversity crisis was at the end of the last ice age, when early humans had slaughtered the megafauna and therefore they'd sort of run out of food, and that precipitated, in many places, a switch to agriculture," he says.

Although the debate is far from settled, it appears ancient humans took thousands of years to wipe out species in a way modern humans would do in decades. Fast forward to today and we are not just killing megafauna but destroying whole landscapes, often in just a few years. Farming is the primary driver of destruction and, of all mammals on Earth, 96% are either livestock or humans. The UN estimates as many as one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction.

After the spread of farming and significant population increases, it was European expansion that would be the next big blow to the planet's biodiversity. While Indigenous peoples across the world lived mostly within the limits set by nature, recognising their dependency on it and protecting it, while hunting to survive, all that was about to change.

Spanish explorers and settlers arrived in central and southern America in the 15th and 16th centuries. In The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, Maslin and Prof Simon Lewis, also from UCL, describe maps of that time showing large tracts of lands with not much on them. These places already had names, but the Europeans claimed them for themselves. "Religion and notions of the superiority of Europeans loomed large as justifiers of both the conquest of land and the names themselves. The heyday of geologists naming vast portions of Earth's history was also the European colonial era," they write.

Their arrival also heralded the displacement, persecution and killing of Indigenous peoples. Researchers from UCL, including Maslin and Lewis, found the European colonisation of the Americas caused the death of 56 million people by 1600 – 90% of the Indigenous population. Today, Indigenous people make up just 6% of the world's population but protect 80% of the planet's biodiversity.

    Humans use everything up without renewing anything

Georges-Louis Leclerc, French naturalist, 1778

European scientists' interest in the diversity of life peaked in the Victorian era. Great natural history museums are testament to this excitement of discovery – they wanted to show off the exotic animals and plants collected from all over the British empire to the public at home. For the first time, they began to understand the immense diversity of the natural world and that humans were destroying it.

In the 18th century, one of the most significant missions to understand the diversity of life on Earth was that of the Swedish natural philosopher Carl Linnaeus. He is known as the "father of taxonomy", naming more than 12,000 species of plants and animals. His Systema Naturae, published in 1735, still shapes how we classify flora and fauna today. Modestly, he is said to have commented: "God created, but Linnaeus organised." To be fair, he was pretty much right.

The 18th century was also when people realised humans were having big local impacts on the climate and environment. In 1778, the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc noted the decimation of fish populations and destruction of forests, warning that humans "use everything up without renewing anything", according to one account in Elephant Treaties: The Colonial Legacy of the Biodiversity Crisis, by Rachelle Adam.

At the end of the century, the explorer Alexander von Humboldt was on the loose. He was writing at a time when nature was generally seen as something that humans had to control, but he saw that it was humans who had the power to damage ecosystems and the climate through activities such as deforestation, mining and water extraction.

His work was a great inspiration for Charles Darwin. The British naturalist did not use the term biodiversity (which wouldn't be coined for another 150 years) but he had worked out a key premise of it – that all species are linked and can be traced back to a single origin, as most notably laid out in On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. The decline of specific species was turning into an understanding about the broader, more far-reaching impacts of ecosystem decline, because of this premise that everything is connected.

In 1881, Darwin published a book about earthworms in which he showed how they aerate the soil, breaking down organic matter into nutrients that can be used by plants. He proved agriculture – and, therefore, our food supply – is heavily dependent on the amount of worms that we have. "That kind of analysis was already there," says Ted Benton, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Essex. "But there is a distinction between the analysis being there and how far it is widely understood. And furthermore, how far that understanding filters into government action. That's what makes a difference."

Neither Humboldt nor Darwin were activists, unlike Darwin's collaborator, Alfred Wallace. In his book Island Life, published in 1880, Wallace criticised the "reckless destruction of forests, and with them of countless species of plants and animals".

Although often critical of colonialism, slavery and the destruction of ecosystems, these early explorer scientists were products of that world. The colonialists needed people capable of deciphering the ecology of new territories, for commercial interests and for the health and safety of those onboard the ships.

Scientists are still debating the official start of the Anthropocene, but some argue that it began towards the end of the 18th century with the advent of the industrial revolution. The majority believe it was more like the 1950s, with the testing of nuclear weapons and the start of the "Great Acceleration", when destructive human activity surged across the planet. It marks a period when humans ("anthropo") have altered the planetary boundaries to such a degree it has its own geological epoque.

In the 20th century, a series of natural crises made people more aware nature was under threat, as the planet started being damaged at a faster rate than ever before. The "roaring 20s" gave way to the "dirty 30s" with a decade of dust storms in the US and south-east Australia. In 1935, the dramatic dust clouds of the American midwest loomed over New York and left three-quarters of western states parched. They were caused by a combination of extreme weather – heatwaves and drought – and unsustainable farming practices, which replaced native prairie vegetation.

Ecologist Francis Ratcliffe was sent from London in 1929 to find out more about what was going on in Australia and later wrote Flying Fox and Drifting Sand. He described soil erosion as a "creeping mortal sickness" and said the only solution was to reduce the number of farmers in the area. In response to his reports, soil conservation bodies were created in New South Wales in 1938 and Victoria in 1940.

After the second world war, amateur naturalists started documenting a decline in birds and butterflies. In the US, populations of the bald eagle – the national bird – were rapidly falling. Synthetic pesticides developed during the war, including DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), used to prevent insect-borne diseases such as typhoid and malaria, were identified as the culprits as more insecticides were used in the push to intensify agriculture.

But it was probably not until the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 that the wider public began to understand the implications of the loss of nature. She wrote about how DDT and other chemicals were damaging ecosystems, killing insects and birds and eventually reaching humans.

Immediately there was great public interest. She was sued by American chemical giants who launched a publicity campaign that criticised her for being an unmarried, hysterical and unscientific woman who kept cats and loved birds. Oil and gas giants used similar tactics to distort science on the climate crisis from the 1980s onwards.

In 1972, DDT was banned in the US, and today a ban on its use in agriculture is worldwide. Carson's book led to numerous laws being passed to protect the environment as well as the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. In 1969, Friends of the Earth was set up in the US and two years later Greenpeace was founded in Canada. Awareness about the environment was at an all-time high.

Meanwhile, in the UK, a popular TV presenter was seen lying down beside a mountain gorilla, called Poppy, in Rwanda. It was 1979 and the presenter was David Attenborough, whose series Life on Earth was watched by 25 million people. For the first time, huge swathes of the public witnessed lifeforms they never could have imagined and learned about wildlife far away.

"I think that was an iconic moment, particularly in the UK," says Maslin. "It starts off as the importance of these as species ... I don't think it was until much later that we realised that ecosystems are essential for the functioning of the biosphere."

In 1989, the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, made a 30-minute speech to the UN about the importance of the environment. She spoke about the ozone layer, acid rain and climate change and mainstreamed issues previously associated with "tree-hugging weirdos".

A trio of biodiversity researchers – Richard Leakey, Edward O Wilson and Thomas Lovejoy, who all died in the space of 10 days over Christmas and new year 2021 – were key in driving forward an awareness about threats to the natural world. Lovejoy persuaded famous people such as Tom Cruise to go the Amazon to raise awareness of its immense diversity and why it needs protection.

    We may well witness the summary demise of ... one half of our fellow species

Norman Myers, the Guardian, 1987

The term "biological diversity" appears to have been used for the first time in 1916 in an article by J Arthur Harris titled The Variable Desert, but it was not until 1980 that Lovejoy used the term in scientific work. It was picked up rapidly and contracted to biodiversity in the mid-80s, although there is some dispute about the exact date. Scientists found the term useful to communicate the fundamental problem of the decline of nature – the loss of natural variety.

In 1986, nine prominent US scientists attending the National Academy of Sciences forum on biodiversity warned that species loss was the most serious challenge facing the world, "second only to the threat of thermonuclear war". The first mention of "biodiversity" in the Guardian was a write-up of that conference.

Libby Robin, emeritus professor at the Australian National University, notes that this was before the public had picked up that the climate crisis was an issue. She says: "Climate scientists (physicists) elsewhere were starting to be concerned about carbon/global warming but this emphasis came later in the public mind, particularly with James Hansen's message to the American Congress at the height of the hot 'greenhouse' summer in 1988."

Looking back at Guardian coverage, it is clear scientists were communicating how alarming the situation was 50 years ago. In 1972, American biologist Barry Commoner was quoted as saying that the "rate of exploitation of the ecosystem, which generates economic growth, cannot increase indefinitely without overdriving the system and pushing it to the point of collapse".

Many ideas we perceive as "new" are not. In 1980, Prof Norman Moore wrote a piece about "biological diversity" in the Guardian (the first time the term appeared in the paper) about how to make compromises that would promote productive farming and conservation, which sounds very familiar to current discussions about the British government's proposed subsidy system (environmental land management schemes, or Elms) to encourage nature-friendly farming.

Moore wrote: "Generalised statements about the desirability of conserving wildlife will have no effect unless we can order our affairs so that the individual farmer can be helped to conserve wildlife on particular bits of ground." He suggested the best agricultural land should be used for farming, while less productive places should be given over to wildlife.

In 1982, the Guardian wrote about the Brandt Report, that said: "Few threats to peace and survival of the human community are greater than those posed by the prospects of cumulative and irreversible degradation of the biosphere on which human life depends." In the same article, British environmentalist Norman Myers, who was responsible for a lot of the Guardian's early biodiversity coverage, wrote about the importance of soils, water, forests, grasslands and fisheries as ecosystems that "underpin our material welfare". If a nation lost them "its economy will quickly decline", he said. This is the basic premise of the landmark and much-celebrated Dasgupta review, published almost 40 years later, in 2021.

In 1987, Myers wrote that "life may be in its death throes". He said: "Within the lifetimes of many readers, we may well witness the summary demise of at least one quarter, and possibly one half, of our fellow species." He wrote about a statement from the US National Academy of Sciences written at the time. "They are unanimous in their view that we already have enough scientific information to urge political leaders and policymakers to get to vigorous grips with the extinction crisis forthwith."

So people had recognised biodiversity loss, and its importance, but what to do about it?

One of the first and most important organisations set up to try to protect biodiversity was the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It was founded in the French town of Fontainebleau in 1948, and supported the creation of international law to protect the planet's wildlife.

Today, the IUCN is a leading force in shaping international conventions, developing rules and principles for conservation and management of ecosystems. It first established its Red List of Threatened Species in 1964, as a way to mobilise funding and experts to tackle extinction threats. It continues to be the global authority on biodiversity loss, regularly releasing reports and updates.

The IUCN helped push through legislation to tackle wildlife loss by creating the first draft of what would become the UN's convention on biological diversity (CBD).

The birth of the CBD was at the Rio conference in 1992, when the UN created the conventions on climate change (IPCC), biodiversity (CBD) and desertification (UNCCD). It was a moment of celebration. The conference involved many world leaders and there was general recognition our form of civilisation was exhausting the world we depend on. The first draft was based firmly on the idea that "biodiversity was a global and common heritage", writes Adam.

The three goals of the CBD are: the preservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of its components; and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of genetic resources.

Every 10 years, it aims to set targets on biodiversity for the following decade. But the targets are not legally binding and the world failed to meet a single one of the 20 set out at Aichi in Japan in 2010.

Which brings us to today and nature's next big moment – the UN biodiversity conference Cop15, which will be held for two weeks in Montreal, Canada, from 7 December. The more than 20 targets expected to be set will probably include preserving 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, reducing the rate of introduction of invasive species by 50% and cutting pesticides by at least two-thirds.

The meeting comes weeks after the Cop27 climate meeting in Egypt. Ever since the Rio summit, biodiversity has taken second place to the climate on the international stage. But it is increasingly being recognised that the two crises cannot be separated.

Cop26, the UN climate conference held in Glasgow in 2021, included a special day for nature, the first time biodiversity and the climate crisis were linked at the international level. Destroying biodiversity by chopping down forests also results in carbon being released, while climate change in the form of extreme weather, such as droughts and heatwaves, damages ecosystems. Some think the two crises never should have been split. "I'm not sure that we should be placing biodiversity loss and climate change in separate boxes; they are all part of the planetary crisis that human activities have caused," says Adam.

The climate crisis generally gets more media attention because flooding and fires make headline news, whereas biodiversity loss is harder to see.

Victor Anderson, a visiting professor in sustainability at Anglia Ruskin University, also argues biodiversity loss has been seen by some as a middle-class, trivial or even rightwing issue. He says: "There has been a connection between nature conservation and the aristocracy. In the 19th century, the protection of the countryside came about because of responses to rising industry. And then there is also the big game issue. If you look back at the beginning of WWF, it's really well-off people wanting large African animals to continue, in some cases because they still wanted to hunt them."

He says the issue continues to be difficult, not least because every aspect of industry is entwined with nature's destruction. "I think tracing through the causes of biodiversity loss is a bit frightening, because it does lead you to the whole way in which the world economy operates."

The story of the biodiversity crisis is a tale of decline spanning thousands of years. From hunting huge mammals to extinction to poisoning birdlife with pesticides, humans have treated nature as an inexhaustible resource for too long. Environmentalists, Indigenous peoples and scientists have been sounding the alarm about the biodiversity crisis for more than half a century, and yet no meaningful action has been taken. Much has already been lost, but there is still lots to play for. Cop15 is an opportunity to start to change the narrative.


Wildlife summit to vote on 'historic' shark protections

Agence France-Presse
November 25, 2022

A summit on the international trade in endangered species will decide Thursday whether to ratify a "historic" proposal to protect sharks, a move that would drastically restrict the lucrative global shark fin trade.

The proposal would place dozens of species of the requiem shark and the hammerhead shark families on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

That appendix lists species that may not yet be threatened with extinction but may become so unless their trade is closely controlled.

The initiative was one of the most discussed at this year's CITES summit in Panama, with the proposal co-sponsored by the European Union and 15 countries. The meeting began on November 14, and ends on Friday.

If Thursday's plenary meeting gives the green light, "it would be a historic decision, since for the first time CITES would be handling a very large number of shark species, which would be approximately 90 percent of the market," Panamanian delegate Shirley Binder told AFP.

Shark fins -- which represent a market of about $500 million per year -- can sell for about $1,000 a kilogram in East Asia for use in shark fin soup, a delicacy.

The vote follows a hectic debate that lasted nearly three hours, with Japan and Peru seeking to reduce the number of shark species that would be protected.

"We hope that all of this will (now) be adopted in plenary," said Binder.

The plenary will also vote on ratifying a proposal to protect guitarfish, a species of ray.

Heated debate

Several delegations, including hosts Panama, displayed stuffed toy sharks on their tables during the earlier Committee I debate.

After the heated debate, the request to protect requiem sharks went to a vote, garnering above the needed threshold and calming the waters for the subsequent hammerhead shark debate.

Delegates and directors of conservation organizations, who are observers at the summit, are confident that both proposals will be ratified.

"We hope that nothing extraordinary happens and that these entire families of sharks are ratified for inclusion in Annex II," Chilean delegate Ricardo Saez told AFP.

'Extinction crisis'

The world is currently in the middle of a major shark extinction crisis, Luke Warwick, director of shark protection for the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), told AFP at the beginning of the summit.

During the committee debate, Japan had proposed that the trade restriction be reduced to 19 species of requiem sharks and Peru called for the blue shark to be removed from the list.

However, both suggestions were rejected.

Participants at the summit considered 52 proposals to change species protection levels.

CITES, which came into force in 1975, has set international trade rules for more than 36,000 wild species.

Its signatories include 183 countries and the European Union.

© 2022 AFP


New device can reduce shark bycatch by electrifying the bait

Shark population is declining fast, and this could make a big difference.

Fermin Koop   
November 25, 2022

Tens of millions of sharks are caught every year as bycatch — a term that refers to the capture of non-target species. There are only a few fisheries that don't catch sharks as bycatch, according to the UN, and some actually catch more sharks than their targeted species. However, a new device could offer a possible solution.

SharkGuard is a small battery-powered device. The device is attached to a baited hook on a line, producing a small, pulsing electrical field. When used, it dissuades sharks from taking the bait, while not affecting other targeted fish.

SharkGuard was able to reduce the number of blue sharks (Prionace glauca) accidentally caught by commercial fishing gear in a French longline tuna fishery by 91% — and as an added bonus, it also reduced the stingray bycatch by 71%, according to a new study.

    "The main implication is that commercial longline fishing may continue, but it won't always necessarily result in the mass bycatch of sharks and rays," Robert Enever, study author, said in a statement, "This is important in balancing the needs of the fishers with the needs of the environment and contributes to biodiversity commitments."

Testing the device

To find out how well the device worked, Enever and the group of researchers did a set of sea trials between July and August 2021 in southern France. Two fishing vessels fished 22 longlines on 11 trips, deploying over 18,000 hooks. The findings show SharkGuard significantly reduces the number of bycatches in blue sharks and stingrays.

Catch rates of bluefin tuna weren't significantly influenced by the presence of SharkGuard on the hook, the study showed. The device offers a more comprehensive solution than catching and releasing bycaught species. If scaled up to the level of whole fisheries, it would reduce interaction between sharks and fishing gear, the researchers argued.

However, SharkGuard also comes with limitations, such as the need for frequent battery changes. The researchers are working to overcome this, so fishers can deploy it and forget about it while protecting species from bycatch. A full set of SharkGuard devices for 2,000 hooks would cost about $20,000 and last from three to five years.

The researchers hope the device will be commercially available by 2024. As well as working on the batteries, they wish to make it smaller so it can be operationally viable for fishermen. Based on the results obtained in the trial, they have high hopes the SharkGuard can make a big difference in reducing shark bycatch once deployed.

    "Against the relentless backdrop of stories of dramatic declines occurring across all species, it is important to remember that there are people working hard to find solutions," Enever said in a statement. "SharkGuard is an example of where, given the appropriate backing, it would be possible to roll the solution out on a sufficient scale."

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.


Country diary: A heron has come a-hunting

Hitchin, Hertfordshire: Once abundant here, grey herons are now outnumbered by their egret cousins. This one has come to us

Nic Wilson
25 Nov 2022

Henry VIII lost his footing in the wetlands around Hitchin in 1525, so the story goes, and plunged face-first into the fen. He was rescued by his footman, Edmond Mody, whose quick reactions saved the monarch from an undignified fate. I can see why Henry might have escaped the tumultuous world of the court to visit this placid backwater, with its reedbeds, rush meadows and chalk streams. But the king wasn't here for peace and seclusion – he was indulging his passion for hunting.

Fourteenth-century manor records show a flourishing heronry at Purwell Ninesprings, just east of Hitchin. In 1373, 41 "branchers", or young birds, were sent from Purwell to London, perhaps to sate the medieval appetite for heron roasted with ginger, mustard and vinegar. Grey herons were hunted there with hawks, and it was while leaping a ditch in pursuit of his quarry that Henry tripped and pitched into the water.

I often walk beside the River Purwell, but only occasionally see a lone heron, passing overhead on heavy wings. I'm more likely to see little egrets, or even the cattle egret that spent last spring in the wet meadows, than meet their grey cousins. Instead, the herons come to us. This afternoon the rallying cry goes up from my son's bedroom. "The heron's here!" It's our cue to dash to the upstairs windows. There, poised impossibly tall on a nearby rooftop, a majestic figure dominates the skyline.

Although motionless, every inch of the bird's body is latent with purpose, from its oversized feet, up the length of slate-grey back and neck, to the tip of the rapier bill. It looks almost sculptural, frozen in silhouette against the clouds, until a stiff gust of wind ruffles the feathers at the top of the wings and the heron stirs into life.

We marvel as it sets off along the ridge with the sinuous grace of a gymnast on a beam, then laugh when it changes tack and descends the far side of the roof like a comedian performing the fake staircase routine. I suspect the households with goldfish ponds may be less enthusiastic. For the heron has come a-hunting.

Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary