New species discovered in the Greater Mekong

The freshwater loach fish from Cambodia sports striking black and brown stripes on its elongated body. So far these fish have only been found in smaller streams and not in any larger mainstream rivers, where large hydropower dams and agricultural runoff can threaten wildlife.

Since 1997, more than 2,500 species have been discovered in the Greater Mekong region. It’s a positive sign of biodiversity in a region where wildlife remains under tremendous threat. Intense development—from mines to roads to dams—threatens the habitats so many species call home. Poaching for bushmeat and the illegal wildlife trade puts wildlife at dire risk. As a result, many species could be lost before they are even discovered.

WWF is working to stop the illegal wildlife trade by shutting down the biggest illegal markets in the Greater Mekong. Working with partners and across borders, WWF aims to significantly reduce illegal trade in key threatened species such as elephants, tigers and rhinos through legislation, transboundary cooperation and improved law enforcement. By safeguarding these species, we protect biodiversity and keep important natural landscapes intact.

Originally posted 2017-12-19 13:00:00.

Artificial nests bring new hope for vulnerable shy albatross

“Shy albatross lay a single egg in late September and those eggs have now hatched,” said Dr. Rachael Alderman, a biologist with the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. “At this stage in the trial, the breeding success of pairs on artificial nests is 20% higher than those on natural nests. There are many more months ahead for all the chicks, and a lot can change, but so far it’s very promising.”

Endemic to Australia, shy albatross only nest on three islands off the coast of Tasmania—Albatross Island, Pedra Branca, and Mewstone. In some parts of the Albatross Island colony, birds struggle to find and keep sufficient nesting material, resulting in poor quality nests.

Conservation scientists and funding partners from the Tasmanian and Australian governments, WWF-Australia, WWF’s Wildlife Adaptation Innovation Fund, CSIRO Marine Climate Impact, and the Tasmanian Albatross Fund have worked together to place nests in areas where they were typically of lower quality. Recent monitoring shows that the birds are accepting the nests and personalizing them with mud and vegetation.

“Albatross Island gets hit with wild weather,” said Darren Grover, WWF-Australia’s head of living ecosystems who recently visited the project site. “Good quality nests keep eggs and chicks safe and sound. The artificial nests were all intact, but many of the natural nests were already starting to deteriorate. That’s not the best start in life for a chick.”

When the chicks are fully grown and about to fly from the island for the first time, scientists will attach tiny satellite trackers to them to capture the movements of their first few months at sea. This will provide crucial information about why fewer juveniles are surviving.

As the climate continues to change, scientists need to develop, test, and evaluate new approaches to protecting vulnerable species. This collaborative innovation is an encouraging step for the future of the shy albatross and can serve as a model for other wildlife recovery efforts.

“It’s fantastic to see this project come to fruition,” said Dr. Sally Box, Australia’s threatened species commissioner. “We all have a role to play in protecting our threatened species, and thanks to contributions by government, scientists, and non-government partners, we are starting to see some really positive outcomes for the shy albatross in Tasmania.”

Doubling Tigers in Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park

In less than a decade, Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park has achieved a big win for tiger conservation. From only 10 tigers in 2010, its population has now grown to 22.

Singye Wangmo, the Royal Manas National Park’s manager, credits the increase to the great teamwork, including strong transboundary collaboration with Indian counterparts in India’s Manas National Park and partnerships with local communities and WWF, and the leadership of the Royal Government of Bhutan to protect the endangered cat.

With a global population of as few as 3,890 wild tigers, every population increase matters. The latest numbers inside Royal Manas indicate the park may hold one of Bhutan’s largest tiger populations. It is a significant step towards achieving the goal of doubling the world’s wild tigers.

Bhutan is one of 13 tiger countries that committed to doubling the world’s wild tigers by 2022. The concerted conservation efforts spurred by that goal–often known as Tx2–have already seen wild tiger numbers grow from 3200 in 2010 to as few as 3,890 today, the first rise in populations in over 100 years. But there is still much work to be done to save this species.

Originally posted 2018-01-16 13:00:00.

What Migrating Songbirds Tell Us About Our Planet

Top photo: Kristen Ruegg of the Bird Genoscope Project. Photograph courtesy of Kristen Ruegg.

Songbirds roam every corner of our planet, and as global “canaries in the coal mine” could become our best indicators for the health status of life on Earth. So says Professor Martin C. Wikelski, Director of the Max-Planck Institute for Ornithology at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Wikelski has received numerous grants from the National Geographic Society to study animal migration and is a National Geographic Fellow. Much of his work involves tagging migrating animals with tiny instruments that record their movements by satellite. His latest Society grant goes further: He plans to fit 520 common cuckoos with newly developed tags that report GPS position, acceleration, magnetometer direction, temperature, humidity, pressure, and altitude, over two years.

A key feature in biodiversity are animals that move long distances, Wikelski explains. “They connect habitats in the most diverse areas across the globe.” Because humans have changed so much of Earth’s habitats, long-distance migrants are often the most endangered species. Songbirds in particular, many of which travel between continents every year, have suffered heavy losses as a group. In Europe alone, more than a quarter of songbirds have disappeared over the last 30 years; 380 million songbirds are lost every year.

As part of a year of activities to support birds and their habitats, National Geographic, BirdLife International, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the National Audubon Society are convening an event featuring two expert panels to explore how technology is expanding our understanding of migration and how creative new solutions are advancing conservation and policy. Watch Thursday’s live stream of the discussions.

Something wrong in the environment

“Similar to the old miners working in dangerous coal mines deep under the earth, we can now use ‘canaries in the coal mine,’ that is migrating songbirds on the global level to alert us to problems of life-threatening biodiversity loss,” Wikelski notes. “The general demise of songbirds should be indicative for all of us that something is wrong in the environment. However, it is often unclear what this ‘something’ is, because we do not yet have the capacity to understand where, when and why individual songbirds die. That is, we do not yet understand where the threats for biodiversity come from throughout the entire migration range of songbirds.”

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Wikelski and his team started studying songbird migration some years ago by tagging common cuckoos with satellite-tracking tags to monitor their patterns from northern Europe into Africa. It was found that European cuckoos migrate through eastern Africa to Angola, winter there, and migrate back through the Congo, western Africa, the Sahara, Italy and  back to central Europe. “But while we have learned a lot about the general patterns, timing and dangers of some good migration through these studies, it is still unclear how common cuckoos across their entire range are migrating, how they are navigating to apparently the same wintering areas, and especially how young cuckoos (or other migrating species) learn to migrate and navigate as they have never seen any of their parents,” Wikelski explains.

How the public can help

Wikelski’s latest project to fill important gaps in understanding of global songbird migration engages the public in conservation efforts by following birds virtually.

The main goal is twofold: “First, we want to understand the diversity of movement and migration patterns across the entire range of one songbird species,” Wikelski explains. This has never been achieved before. “Second, we want the public to participate in the global migration of enigmatic species to understand the dangers and joys of global movements. Because of the GPS accuracy of tracking tags, we can showcase exactly which tree or bush the birds are resting in and even alert local residents that birds from many thousand kilometers away have arrived in their neighborhood to rest or winter.”

The enigma of how young cuckoos learn to migrate

“Scientifically, the most exciting objective is to understand how young cuckoos develop the continental migration routes without ever seeing their parents,” Wikelski says. “This includes questions of navigation, orientation, habitat selection and imprinting, predation avoidance, food-searching, use of air space and winds, as well as interactions with other species in diverse species assemblages during breeding, migration and wintering.

“As an additional benefit for the global public, we will showcase cuckoos as ambassadors for the conditions of life across three continents,” Wikelski adds. “Cuckoos are often located in the vicinity of humans, but only if the local habitat is conducive for breeding and production of other songbird species. Therefore, cuckoo locations will indicate excellent biodiversity conditions across their entire range.”

Bird Genoscape Project

The National Geographic live event also featured the work of the Bird Genoscape Project, which harnesses genomics to conserve migratory birds. More than 50 percent of North America’s migratory bird species are estimated to be declining, and without coordinated conservation efforts many species face extinction, says Kristen Ruegg, National Geographic Society grantee and co-director of the Bird Genoscope Project.

“For migratory birds, knowledge of connections between breeding, wintering and migratory stop-over areas is essential for the development of effective conservation strategies, but such information has historically been difficult to attain,” Ruegg says. “To address these challenges, the Bird Genoscape Project uses the latest genomic methods to: 1) map the migratory routes of North American birds using DNA from feathers and 2) predict the impacts of future climate change on the ability of populations to adapt. Combined with other life history data, this fine-grained information enables conservation scientists to target limited resources to the places in the annual cycle where they are most needed.

“We are currently constructing population-specific flyway maps and mapping climate adaptation in 14 species of migratory birds, ranging from endangered to common, with plans to expand our efforts to additional species of concern over the next decade.

“Working with conservation groups and decision makers such as the National Audubon Society, Federal and State agencies, and renewable energy companies, our goal is to translate our results into action to help stem migratory bird declines. In my presentation, I describe recent discoveries that we have made from mapping population specific migratory routes and climate adaptation in the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and how they are helping guide to conservation efforts.”

Year of the Bird is a 12-month public campaign initiated by National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, BirdLife International, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, along with more than 175 supporting organizations from across the birding and conservation communities. The Year of the Bird aims to celebrate the beauty and importance of birds and nature, and to inspire people around the world to take action to help them. As we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, pivotal U.S. legislation signed in 1918, we recognize birds as a symbol of nature’s interconnectedness and look to the next hundred years of caring for the planet we share.

The migration event, titled “Taking Flight: Bird Migration and Conservation Across Hemispheres,” helps to kick off the Year of the Bird by focusing on the challenges and solutions for conservation policy through the lens of birds.

Migrations and Tech panel:

  • Andrew Farnsworth – Research Associate, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • Martin Wikelski – NGS Fellow
  • Gary Langham – VP and Chief Scientist, National Audubon Society
  • Kristen Ruegg, NGS grantee – Bird Genoscape project

Conservation in Action panel:

  • Amanda Rodewald – Conservation Science Director, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • David Yarnold – President and CEO, National Audubon Society
  • Jonathan Baillie, Chief Scientist and SVP for Science and Exploration, NGS
  • Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International

Moderator (for both):

  • Laura Helmuth – Health, Science and Environment Editor at The Washington Post

    Painting of various migratory songbirds whose numbers are declining. Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt.

It always starts with a question: Teaching science in Madagascar

In October of 2015, Tanjona Ramiadantsoa walked into my office at Princeton University. “They tell me you work in my country!” he said. I glanced up from the dissertation chapter looming on my computer screen to take in his stereotypical Maki-brand baobab T-shirt. “Malagasy ianao!” I said. “You are Malagasy!” And a new collaboration was born.

I wrote to you last as a Princeton doctoral student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where I studied the transmission dynamics of potentially zoonotic–or human-infecting–viruses carried by Malagasy fruit bats. Disease ecologists like myself use mathematical modeling tools to understand how pathogens persist in finite host populations over time–and to predict when such pathogens are most likely to pass from one individual to another. I wrapped up that PhD a few months ago and started a postdoctoral fellowship with the Miller Institute at UC Berkeley, but I’m still chasing answers to many of the same questions as before.

Tanjona is a Madagascar-born mathematical biologist who did his PhD training under the celebrated father of metapopulation theory, Ilkka Hanski, at the University of Helsinki. Like me, Tanjona is now a postdoctoral fellow – he at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – and he studies how environmental degradation affects biodiversity loss. Conservation biologists use metapopulation theory to model how species might survive habitat fragmentation by seeking refuge in neighboring patches of still-intact habitat. Typically, species with better dispersal capacities, or the ability to move between distant habitats, are more resilient to fragmented terrain. As Tanjona will tell you, disease ecology and conservation biology are essentially the same thing, except that disease ecologists typically are interested in making their pathogens go extinct, while conservation biologists are doing their utmost to help their species avoid such a fate.

Together, Tanjona and I organize the eight-person instructor team that teaches E2M2: Ecological and Epidemiological Modeling in Madagascar, a week-long workshop in quantitative biology aimed to introduce Malagasy graduate-level students in science and public health to the use of models in their research. We teach the course at Center ValBio, a research station in spectacular Ranomafana National Park, close to the offices of one of our partners, the health-care NGO, PIVOT. In keeping with the spirit of E2M2, PIVOT uses quantitative modeling tools to evaluate the impacts of their healthcare interventions, and their research advisor, Andres Garchitorena, is one of our instructors. Our course is additionally supported by Princeton’s Center for Health and Well-Being and the Institut Pasteur of Madagascar (IPM).

This year’s class of E2M2: Epidemiological Modeling in Madagascar gathers out front of Centre ValBio (CVB), Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar. January 2018. Photo by CVB staff.

“What is a model?” Tanjona asks on day one, showing a slide with an image of an attractive man in a tight sweater. The class laughs appreciatively.

Models are simplified versions of reality, and we use them to try to understand patterns in the real world. “All models are wrong,” statistician George Box, once famously said, “but some are useful.” As scientists, we know that we are largely incapable of explaining all complex processes in an ecosystem, but we hope that by building models of simplified subsets of reality, we might better understand at least a few aspects of the larger ecosystem. Tanjona and I primarily build models in the form of mathematical equations, which produce projections of interacting population densities over time – we can model populations of viruses, infected hosts, or endangered species in much the same way. And just as we hope that the sweater might look as good on us as it does on the model in Tanjona’s powerpoint, we aim for our equations to accurately recapture the past or predict the future.

It’s been a full year since I last set foot on the Eighth Continent, my longest absence from Madagascar since I started my doctoral research in 2013. The past year was exhausting and sometimes disillusioning—what with defending my dissertation, guiding my PhD chapters through peer review, and moving across the country. My Malagasy is “votsa” – rusty, like a dull knife – on arrival, and my mind is scattered. But it takes only a few breakfasts of sugary coffee and vary amin’anana (soupy rice) to feel at peace once more.

“Should I remake last year’s tutorial to match the model we went over in class today?” It is evening after a long day of teaching, and I peer at tomorrow’s schedule as I ask advice of Jessica Metcalf and Amy Wesolowski, fellow E2M2 instructors and assistant professors, respectively, at Princeton and Johns Hopkins University. “It will be more work but better teaching,” says Jess, and there is no question left in my mind. I feel rejuvenated, refreshed, and inspired to do the best I can for the students at hand. And I think to myself—this is how teaching is supposed to feel.

Next morning, I present the revised lesson on model fitting – how to adjust those equations to make the sweater fit the data a bit better – and the students are interested but also confused. “Rado would like to clarify a few points,” my longtime colleague and fellow instructor, Christian Ranaivoson, whispers to me as I wrap up the tutorial. And Rado J.L. Rakotonanahary, a scientist with IPM’s Plague Unit, steps in to explain the concept of maximum likelihood – a statistical method used to measure how closely a model replicates the data – in more sophisticated Malagasy than I am likely to ever learn to speak. I feel the pride of teacher-turned-student as I watch the class nod in comprehension.

At the end of the week, we return to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, and the students present their independent research questions and model frameworks in cautious but excellent English at Institut Pasteur. I smile as I watch Soa Fy Andriamandimby, of the Virology Unit of Institut Pasteur, present her theoretical approach to rabies eradication on Madagascar Island, and Andry Ny Aina Rakotomalala, of the Department of Entomology at the University of Antananarivo, passionately describe his network model on the behavioral dynamics of invasive-native ant interactions in Madagascar—and his plans for lab-based experiments to test it.

“In a few years, I am going to be obsolete here,” I laugh to fellow instructor Fidisoa Rasambainarivo (‘Fidy’), a Malagasy veterinarian and PhD student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Already, three course alumni—Jean-Marius Rakotondramanga, Ornella Assimini, and Antso Raherinandrasana, respectively of IPM, IPM, and the Madagascar National Institute for Public Health— serve as mentors who teach a subset of E2M2’s curriculum. In the future, we hope to take on even more.

Fidy tells me that he is in the process of starting up a new Madagascar-based laboratory, which he calls “Mahaliana” – to spark interest. His lab’s slogan – “It always starts with a question” – captures the sentiments of E2M2 well. Critical thinking and creative, independent research ideas are more valuable than any computational skill that we might teach. Yes, programming is one component of E2M2, but the art of building a useful model is what we are really striving to convey.

We close out the week with an instructors’ meeting with Julio Rakotonirina, Antso’s supervisor at the Madagascar National Institute for Public Health, who serves as our program evaluator. Julio meets with the students both during the week and after to gather anonymous feedback for how best to improve our workshop. There are criticisms, of course, but on the whole, the students are very happy. I close my eyes and recall their singing at our final banquet, momentarily lost in the magic of Madagascar and the euphoria of a job well done.

E2M2: Epidemiological Modeling in Madagascar in action.
From left to right, top to bottom: (a) Teacher Cara Brook and student Fabien Waibel, (b) Teacher Jessica Metcalf, (c) Teacher Amy Wesolowski, (d) Teacher Andres Garchitorena, (e) Teacher Tanjona Ramiadantsoa and student Ladintsoa Randrianary, (f) Teacher Cara Brook, (g) Mentor Antso Raherinandrasana, (h) teacher Fidisoa Rasambainarivo, (i) teacher Amy Wesolowski and student Elinambinina Rajaonarifara. Photo (h) by Tanjona Ramiadantsoa; all others by Fidisoa Rasambainarivo. 

Featured image caption: 

E2M2 student, Tsilavo Razafimanantsoa, investigates a brown leaf chameleon (Brookesia superciliaris) in Ranomafana National Park. January 2018. Photo by Cara Brook.

Belize ends oil activity in its ocean waters

Belize, home of the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere, permanently suspended oil activity in its ocean waters. The legislation marks the first time that a developing country has taken such a major step to protect its oceans—and all the life within—from oil exploration and extraction.

The new suspension of oil activity marks an enormous win for the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage site, the wildlife that live there, and the hundreds of thousands of Belizeans who rely on the reef for survival. 

“Today is a great day for Belize,” said Nadia Bood, Mesoamerican reef scientist at WWF. “Not only has its government listened to calls to protect the Belize Barrier Reef, which only last year was under threat from seismic oil exploration, it has stepped up to become a world leader in ocean protection by ending all oil activity in its waters.”

Ecosystems in the reef have already been damaged by coastal construction, and potential oil drilling posed a major threat. Harmful industrial activities would impact Belize’s economy, natural resources, and the 1,400 species found in the reef system.

More than 450,000 people from around the world joined WWF’s campaign to end oil exploration and other harmful activities in the reef.

Originally posted 2017-12-21 13:00:00.

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