In a major triumph for freshwater conservation, Colombia’s Bita River basin was recently announced by President Juan Manuel Santos as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention—an intergovernmental treaty that that provides the framework for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. This decree spans 824,500 hectares, establishing the river basin as the largest of the country’s 11 Ramsar sites and one of very few protected sites in the world to encompass an entire free-flowing river watershed.
Running unimpeded for more than 372 miles before flowing into the Orinoco River, the Bita River is a treasure trove of biodiversity. It harbors at least 1,474 species of plants, 254 fish species, 201 bird species, and 63 species of mammals—from tapirs to deer and jaguars—and its extensive freshwater habitats and gallery forest ecosystems are home to iconic species such as river dolphins, the blue arowana, and the charapa turtle.
It also supports local communities who rely on the river for everything from fishing to tourism to survive.
The historic protection of the river is the result of joint efforts by WWF-Colombia and the Alliance for the Bita, comprised of the Omacha Foundation, the von Humboldt Institute, Vichada Provincial Government, the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and other partners. The Alliance has been working with citizens and the government in recent years to define a sustainable future for the Bita River. After years of studies and consultations, stakeholders agreed to give the river a protected status that would allow for sustainable use, ensuring that the river’s incredible biodiversity—and the important ecological processes on which its survival hinges—are safeguarded in the long term.
“The designation means that a vast wealth of species along the Bita River will be protected with support from local inhabitants and institutions,” said WWF-Colombia freshwater specialist Saulo Usma. “Critical wetland complexes, such as floodable savannah, drainage channels, and miriti palm ecosystems—which are home to a wide variety of fish—will be conserved. These are a vital source of income for local inhabitants.”
PLASTIC PROBLEM | Blue-footed boobies like the one above and a vast array of other species are threatened by plastic pollution in our oceans.
Six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador lie the volcanic islands of the Galápagos, famous for a wealth of unique plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. The Galápagos Islands were the source of Darwin’s theory of evolution and remain a priceless living laboratory for scientists today.
Unfortunately, plastic pollution in our oceans threatens this unique part of the world.
Humans produce an estimated 1.3 billion tons of plastic waste per year, a number is set to increase to 2.2 billion by 2025. In countries such as Ecuador that have limited garbage collection services, some of this plastic waste inevitably ends up back in the oceans or on beaches, where it has the potential to harm wildlife and human health. It’s an issue that WWF, local community and other partners are confronting head-on in the Galápagos.
Today, more than 50% of the overall waste, including recycle and organic materials, generated in Santa Cruz island are being recycled.
The next step is to prevent plastic products from getting to the Galápagos Islands in the first place. A recent law bans the distribution or commercialization of plastic drinking straws, disposable plastic shopping bags, styrofoam food containers and dinnerware, and non-returnable bottles of sodas and beers on the islands, though those products are unevenly used. WWF helped the Galápagos Governing Council develop the provincial ordinance regulating some of these products and continues to serve as a member of the Plastics Management Committee of the archipelago.
It is high summer in Madagascar and the sun beats down relentlessly on our dusty field camp. I huddle beneath an invasive pine tree in this impacted landscape, trying to protect my laptop from the bright glare of the masoandro — the “eye of the day,” as the Malagasy call their sun.
“Mamay ny andro,” says my coworker, Ando Rabemiafara. It burns today.
I nod in agreement, wiping my sweaty hands on my shorts before returning my attention to last night’s netting data, which I type into an Excel spreadsheet. I marvel that these 2018 entries follow upon those most recently entered in January 2016. I am faintly horrified to admit that it has been two full years since I last held a fruit bat — though in my defense, I spent those last two years earning my PhD.
National Geographic Explorer Cara Brook pulls a Pteropus rufus fruit bat from the net. Ambakoana, Madagascar, February 2018. Photo by Christian Ranaivoson.
In 2016, I wrote to you as a doctoral student at Princeton University, where I studied the infection dynamics of potentially zoonotic (or human-infecting) fruit bats in Madagascar. Bats have received much attention in recent years for their role as natural reservoir species for several emerging viral infections in humans, including Ebola and Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, and SARS coronavirus. The unique island ecosystem of Madagascar is home to three endemic fruit bat species (found nowhere else in the world), and each boasts a lineage previously implicated in a major viral zoonosis: the genus Eidolon with Ebola, the genus Rousettus with Marburg, and the genus Pteropus with Hendra and Nipah viruses. In Madagascar, all three fruit bats are widely consumed by humans as food.
Now a postdoctoral fellow with the Miller Institute at UC Berkeley, I am building on my dissertation work to investigate seasonal drivers of viral transmission in these bats under an NIH-funded research initiative, led by Dr. Jean-Michel Héraud, head of the Virology Unit at the Institut Pasteur de Madagascar (IPM). My trusty research partner, Christian Ranaivoson, now a doctor himself, is ever by my side — a new postdoc on our grant — in addition to a IPM-based laboratory postdoc, Dr. Vololoniaina Raharinosy.
Previous work has demonstrated a distinctive seasonality in spillover events of most bat-borne viruses to humans, or other secondary animal hosts (i.e. pigs, horses, and civets — respectively implicated in cross-species transmission of Nipah, Hendra, and SARS). Typically, this seasonality has been linked to wet-dry season transitions and the yearly birth pulse of the bat species in question. My dissertation work highlights similar seasonality in immune signatures of filo and henipavirus exposure in our Malagasy fruit bats. As a postdoc, I am keen to build a more finescale longitudinal dataset to help differentiate between several existing hypotheses of the mechanistic drivers underlying this pattern.
Baby Nicolas watches the bat team. Angavokely, Madagascar, February 2018. Photo by Cara Brook.
I’ve spent the past two years building laboratory and modeling skills to help me make the most of our Madagascar field data, but I admit that, at times, it has felt like I have lost touch with my roots. A year ago, while teaching a quantitative data analysis workshop to Malagasy students, I surprised an observer by claiming my identity as a field biologist. “I thought you were a mathematician!” she exclaimed, choosing a title I would have never envisioned for myself. As Yun-Yun Li, an undergraduate research assistant from my dissertation days, once wisely noted, “I think you are still trying to decide what kind of scientist you want to be.”
After two years away, it’s refreshing to revisit our age-old field sites but a little bit sad, as well. I’ve seen much of Christian in the intervening time, but for many of the local community members in the regions where we work, it has been two years since I have seen fit to mandalo — to stop by. In that time, the cast of characters has not much changed: there’s Zervé, the landowner, his sweet wife Lalao, and their cute son, Tojo, whose cuteness has now been eclipsed by that of a baby brother, Nicolas. And there is our longtime coworker, Ando — once bat hunter, now simply net-maker — and Rabesty’fanihy, father of the bats, who has never told me his real name. Rabetsy has been independently monitoring the local Pteropus rufus roost for no gain beyond personal interest since funding for a former conservation project dried up back in 2007.
Rabetsy, Ando and Gervé all still cycle through the same handful of T-shirts I knew them in last, though their hems are much more ragged and their faces much more tired than I remember. Ando has lost his four front teeth to a taxi-brousse accident.
“I guess I’m still wearing the same clothes, too,” I say to Christian, glancing down at the tattered boys overshirt and threadbare soccer shorts in which I’ve been so professionally cavorting around Madagascar for the past five years.
“True,” says Christian, “though for you, it is a choice.”
Ekipa Fanihy, the ‘Bat Team.’ Ambakoana, Madagascar, February 2018. From left, Ando Rabemiafara, Christian Ranaivoson, Rabetsy Fanihy, Angelo Andrianiaina, Hary (Madama Rabetsy) and Cara Brook. Photo by Jules Rakotonirina.
The skills and pace of field life come back to Christian and me quickly, for we were both born for this work. But I have mellowed with age and experience, and the worries that consumed me as a PhD student seem somewhat trivial now. In a previous life, I used to insist that we split all the field tasks as we processed and released each captured bat. But I no longer care so much that Christian is better at drawing blood than me; in fact, I’m happy — and proud — to let him collect us better data. Likewise, I used to be saro-piaro — jealous, in the possessive sense — about being the one to pack our field materials up in their respective boxes. These days, it occurs to me that it maybe does not matter that the eager new PhD student, Angelo Andrianiaiana, puts the calipers in a different box than I would have chosen. I guess wisdom and perspective improve with time and I am preparing myself to become obsolete to my own work.
Under our new NIH grant, we’ll be sampling these bat roosts monthly for the next five years — news that makes Rabetsy leap to his feet and actually kiss my cheek in gratitude. But I won’t be here all 12 months of every year. As Yun-Yun said so wisely, I’m trying to be many kinds of scientist all at once, and there are skills to learn and resources to exploit back in Berkeley, too. Still, I feel guilty — both to leave and to stay. But when I confess my anxiety to Christian, he just smiles and assures me, with his characteristic calmness, “You are doing the best you can.”
I remember a lecture I attended back in graduate school, in which University of Pennsylvania Professor Daniel Janzen, described his celebrated conservation and development project in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Janzen has been employing dozens of local community members in conservation-based caterpillar research for much of the past 35 years. When asked, “Why caterpillars?” Janzen’s reply, was simply, “Why not?” In his opinion, the development consequences of his work alone fully justify the science.
As a scientist, I have no doubt that I’ll be chasing answers to my thrilling research questions for a lifetime. But as a human, I vow, that should there someday come a time when I am no longer excited about my work, I need only remember Rabetsy’s face upon hearing of our grant success and dig deep within myself to ask, “Why fruit bats? Why not?”
Fires are burning across the savanna landscape of Nyikina Mangala country. The fires are lit and managed by the Nyikina Mangala rangers together with cultural adviser and senior elder Mr. John Darraga Watson. Watson prefers to use matches while his younger crew dons drip torches. Soon, the grass is engulfed in flames. Just as quickly, it smolders out.
When it comes to managing these landscapes, “the most important thing is to listen to elders, I reckon, and the traditions and laws,” explains Ashton Howard at another burn site. Howard is a member of the Bardi Jawi ranger group based in Ardyaloon (One Arm Point) on the Kimberley’s Dampier Peninsula. “They know what’s best for the country because they live there and have been monitoring for years.”
Monitoring the glowing embers, he points out, “This is a cool burn because the flames are real low. It’s early in the year when it’s still green. We burn to reduce the fuel load and stop the late season wildfires that burn much hotter.”
In 2016, staff from The Nature Conservancy visited these areas in northern Australia to film virtual reality (VR) videos with our Indigenous partners, documenting their work in this vast landscape where their ancestors lived and worked for tens of thousands of years.
Transport yourself to Australia where Indigenous leaders and scientists will take you on a journey through the bush.
Editor’s Note: For the best experience, use your mobile device or a virtual reality headset to view these videos.
For more than 50,000 years, Indigenous Australians practiced careful management of the land that provided their food, shelter and livelihoods. Traditional fire practices centered on clearing bush to hunt for food, as well as regenerating the bush through new growth—and as a result, Australian landscapes evolved in the presence of fire for tens of thousands of years and have come to depend on it to regrow and flourish. But prescribed burning and the traditional way of life were interrupted due to European settlement.
As a result of European settlement, Indigenous groups suffered cultural and social dislocation from the land and waters that served as their source of life. Dry grasses built up and much larger wildfires sparked from natural causes like lightning. These larger and hotter fires devastate vegetation and animal habitat—and release a greater volume of greenhouse gases.
Aboriginal people have a deep connection to country—the surrounding natural territory—a major part of their identity. Having managed the land for tens of thousands of years, country is ingrained within their culture and that sense is passed down through generations. Hear from members of the Jarlmadangah Burru community about the role country plays in their lives.
The Bardi Jawi community, at the tip of the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley, is helping native plant species to recover in this landscape. Watch to learn more about why managing these lands is so important to the Bardi Jawi culture.
What’s the economic significance of commercializing traditional land management activities for Aboriginal peoples in the Kimberley? Learn more about how the Kimberley Land Council is helping to better livelihoods from Acting CEO Tyronne Garstone.
Preserving biodiversity, connecting to country and earning a sustainable livelihood are possible all at once through the Indigenous Ranger Program. It also saves lives.
Uncontrollable fire is the prime example of the environmental damage resulting from disruption to these traditional ways of landscape management. But a quiet revolution is taking place across the Australian Outback as Indigenous Australians are beginning to return to their ancestral lands to both manage them for conservation and provide a livelihood for their families as they did for thousands of years. The Indigenous Ranger Program, begun in 2007, is supported by a variety of organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) and the Australian Government. This program allows Indigenous people to maintain their relationship with the land, ensuring both the land and their culture continue to thrive.
“I think the ranger program has probably saved a lot of young people on country… You can see their self-confidence … has grown dramatically…They’ve become a good role model for kids.” – Bibido, Bardi Jawi Ranger Coordinator
In addition to fire management, the rangers also work on weed and feral animal control, take care of cultural heritage sites, and protect endangered species across the landscape.
“Being a ranger…You’re using traditional knowledge and western science to look after country…It makes me feel proud of who I am and my identity as an Aboriginal person. I’m glad to be out on my ancestors’ country burning.” – Robin Dann, Head Ranger, Wungurr Rangers
Indigenous knowledge and stewardship has been critical to protecting landscapes across the globe for millennia. The fire management work conducted by Australian Indigenous groups demonstrates the importance of retaining this body of cultural practice and knowledge and its potential to provide livelihoods for Indigenous peoples living in remote communities. Furthermore, this work with fire has prevented the emission of hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere across millions of hectares – the equivalent of taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road – while also generating millions in revenue for conservation work.
To date, Indigenous fire managers have secured contracts for 9.1 million tons of avoided CO2 emissions, generating at least US$81 million in funding for indigenous-led conservation and employing 250 people. By 2025, a robust carbon economy could create 500 full-time equivalent jobs for 1,000 Aboriginal people, lead to 28.2 million tons of emissions reductions and bring $339 million in income for Aboriginal land managers.
“Our People … have … a long history that goes back forty, fifty thousand years. This knowledge has been passed on from generation to generation, from the old people to the young people. We say that Aboriginal people are the first conservationists, and it’s because of those values, because of that cultural relationship that Aboriginal people have with land.” – Nolan Hunter, CEO, Kimberley Land Council
Picking through the vegetation looking for bushfood, Linda Nardea paused to take in the view. The low sun made the cliffs particularly red and the spring resulted in a striking green burst of trees and shrubs. It was rough country, but breathtakingly beautiful. She pointed to the boots of the people around her. “Look at your shoes – I don’t need no shoes. The land knows me. She protects my feet. We belong here and we take care of each other. There’s no other way.”
Rudolf von May, a National Geographic Society grantee, studied habitat shifts and physiology of ground-breeding frogs across Andes-Amazon elevational gradients. Last month, von May’s research paper, “Evolutionary radiation of earless frogs in the Andes: molecular phylogenetics and habitat shifts in high-elevation terrestrial breeding frogs” was published in PeerJ, a leading open access peer-reviewed scientific journal. We asked Dr. von May about his findings.
You studied terrestrial breeding frogs living at high elevations in the Andes, specifically earless frogs. What is an earless frog and how many other species of frog are similar? What some of the key findings in your research?
Earless frogs are those that lacka tympanum, which is visible as aneardrum surrounded by a ring of cartilage in most eared frogs.More specifically, the eardrum is called tympanic membrane, the ring is called tympanic annulus, and both are part of thetympanic middle ear, which also includes a bone called columella. Altogether, these structures aid in the transmission of airborne sound to the inner ear.
The amphibian tree of life contains hundreds of species of earless frogs. The most prominent example includes those in the true toad family, Bufonidae, which has approximately 200 earless species out of a total of 609 known species. The loss of hearing structures has occurred multiple times in this and other amphibian families. However, in most cases, male earless frogs have retained the ability to call and species evolved alternative sensory pathways that enable the transmission of sound to the inner ear. For example, the earless Gardiner’s Seychelles Frog (endemic to the Seychelles) use the mouth cavity as a resonating chamber to amplify the sound and transmit it to the inner ear.
The Andean frog genus Phrynopus [see photos] represents a special case where the large majority of species (>90%) have lost the tympanic membrane and tympanic annulus, and we have identified a single evolutionary event that involved the loss of both structures and that appears to have predated the increase of species diversity in this group. We also observed that the loss of hearing structures is correlated with the absence of advertisement calls. This is interesting because, although the loss of hearing structures has occurred multiple times throughout the evolutionary history of frogs, the existence of earless frogs that do not produce advertisement calls is far less common.
Can you explain evolutionary radiation and how it related to the species of frogs you studied?
An evolutionary radiation is the process by which many species evolve from a common ancestor, resulting in an increase of species diversity through time. This increase in species diversity is often correlated with morphological changes and the colonization of new habitats.
The frogs we studied belong to a large family of land-breeding or terrestrial-breeding frogs called Strabomantidae.Terrestrial breeding frogshave undergone an extraordinary evolutionary radiation that resulted in nearly 700 species. These frogs use a specialized reproductive mode called direct development in which embryos hatch directly into froglets (i.e., there are no free-living tadpoles) — a strategy that allows the group to exploit a wide variety of habitats, as long as those habitats contain sufficient moisture. We were interested in studying this group because a recurrent theme is the loss of hearing structures and loss of advertisement calls.
Your findings show an “absence of advertisement calls.” Can you explain further and why it’s important to understand in breeding frogs?
Advertisement calls are the main form of acoustic signal used by male frogs to attract potential mates. As such, advertisement calls are recognized as a premating isolation mechanism. Speciation in the absence of common acoustic signals and the associated sensory system in frogs, such as the one observed in Phrynopus, raises questions about the factors that affect speciation. Why frogs lost their ear and why they don’t call are questions that remain elusive, and motivate further scientific research.
What role does high elevation play in the biology of these frogs?
We found that species’ phenotype changes with elevation.Specifically, we detected a significant pattern of increasing body size with increasing elevation, and that species at higher elevations tend to develop shorter limbs, shorter head, and shorter snout than species living at lower elevations. Our findings strongly suggest a link between ecological divergence and morphological diversity of terrestrial breeding frogs living in montane gradients.
Phrynopus peruanus found in Andean grassland in Peru. (Photograph by Rudolf von May)
How did you collect the data in your research and what technology was crucial in your work?
My colleague Edgar Lehr and I conducted several field expeditions between 2012 and 2014, in a region where mountains taller than 13,000 feet are common. We collected ecological data, museum specimens, and DNA sequence data that were used tobuild an evolutionary tree for the current study.Some of our fieldwork was carried out in collaboration with other colleagues from Peru and the Czech Republic, an included the participation of local guides who provided invaluable help in the field. Also, when we surveyed protected areas, we worked with the park administration and several rangers.
We used standard laboratory methods including polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and a Sequence Analyzer to obtain DNA sequences that we then included in molecular phylogenetic analyses to infer an evolutionary tree for the species under study. The resulting phylogenetic tree was used to perform different analyses that took into account the phylogenetic relatedness (or evolutionary relatedness) among species. For example, wemapped the tympanum condition on to the evolutionary tree to identify a single evolutionary transition that involved the loss of both the tympanic membrane and tympanic annulus. Our phylogenetic analysis also resulted in the discovery of new species such as Phrynopus inti [see photo on top of page], described in 2017.
We used X-ray computed tomography (CT) imaging to test if the absence of external hearing structures is associated with the loss of the auditory skeletal elements such as the columella (also known as stapes;see image below). Our analysis demonstrated that the absence of tympanum is associated with complete loss of columella in at least one member of the genus.
Courtesy of Rudolf von May and Erin Westeen
What would you like teachers and students to know about the work you and your team did in South America?
The number of known frog species in the world continues to increase as a result of new discoveries and descriptions (on average, between 100 and 200 new species are described per year).In the Andean genus Phrynopus, about one third of the currently known species (34) were described over the past decade; only in 2017 alone, seven new species of Phrynopus were described.The discovery of new species demonstrates the need for further scientific exploration of poorly known areas in South America, as these areas often contain unique habitats and species living in them.
Study coauthors are Edgar Lehr, Professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and Daniel Rabosky, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan (Museum of Zoology and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology). The study received financial support from the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and several other organizations. Research permits and logistical support were provided by Peru’s wildlife service (SERFOR) and the national park service (SERNANP).
As WWF works with communities around the world to preserve habitats, wildlife, and natural resources, we know that it is critical to engage both women and men for the best results—environmentally, socially, and economically.
In sub-Saharan Africa, women make up at least half of subsistence, smallholder farmers, yet have far less access to farming inputs, from seeds and fertilizer to finance and markets. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if men and women in rural areas around the world had equal access to agricultural resources, they could increase yields on their farms by 20%-30% and lift 100 million-150 million people out of hunger.
Working with communities in Mozambique and Tanzania, the CARE-WWF Alliance empowers women to improve their livelihoods and sustainably manage the natural resources on which they depend. In this partnership, we have witnessed firsthand how important women are to organizing communities, conserving natural resources, creating economic opportunities, and setting up the next generation for success. Here are a few who have inspired us over the years: