Humanity is ‘cutting down the tree of life’, warn scientists

The Guardian reports:

Humanity’s ongoing annihilation of wildlife is cutting down the tree of life, including the branch we are sitting on, according to a stark new analysis.

More than 300 different mammal species have been eradicated by human activities. The new research calculates the total unique evolutionary history that has been lost as a result at a startling 2.5bn years.

Furthermore, even if the destruction of wild areas, poaching and pollution were ended within 50 years and extinction rates fell back to natural levels, it would still take 5-7 million years for the natural world to recover.

Many scientists think a sixth mass extinction of life on Earth has begun, propelled by human destruction of wildlife, and 83% of wild mammals have already gone. The new work puts this in the context of the evolution and extinction of species that occurred for billions of years before modern humans arrived.

“We are doing something that will last millions of years beyond us,” said Matt Davis at Aarhus University in Denmark, who led the new research. “It shows the severity of what we are in right now. We’re entering what could be an extinction on the scale of what killed the dinosaurs.

“That is pretty scary. We are starting to cut down the whole tree [of life], including the branch we are sitting on right now.” Ecosystems around the world have already been significantly affected by the extermination of big animals such as mammoths, he said. [Continue reading…]

‘Hyperalarming’ study shows massive insect loss

The Washington Post reports:

Insects around the world are in a crisis, according to a small but growing number of long-term studies showing dramatic declines in invertebrate populations. A new report suggests that the problem is more widespread than scientists realized. Huge numbers of bugs have been lost in a pristine national forest in Puerto Rico, the study found, and the forest’s insect-eating animals have gone missing, too.

In 2014, an international team of biologists estimated that, in the past 35 years, the abundance of invertebrates such as beetles and bees had decreased by 45 percent. In places where long-term insect data are available, mainly in Europe, insect numbers are plummeting. A study last year showed a 76 percent decrease in flying insects in the past few decades in German nature preserves.

The latest report, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that this startling loss of insect abundance extends to the Americas. The study’s authors implicate climate change in the loss of tropical invertebrates.

“This study in PNAS is a real wake-up call — a clarion call — that the phenomenon could be much, much bigger, and across many more ecosystems,” said David Wagner, an expert in invertebrate conservation at the University of Connecticut who was not involved with this research. He added: “This is one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read.” [Continue reading…]

How the loss of Native American languages affects our understanding of the natural world

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Dance is a unique way of passing on cultural stories to a younger generation.
Aaron Hawkins/Flickr.com, CC BY-ND

By Rosalyn R. LaPier, The University of Montana

Alaska has a “linguistic emergency,” according to the Alaskan Gov. Bill Walker. A report warned earlier this year that all of the state’s 20 Native American languages might cease to exist by the end of this century, if the state did not act.

American policies, particularly in the six decades between the 1870s and 1930s, suppressed Native American languages and culture. It was only after years of activism by indigenous leaders that the Native American Languages Act was passed in 1990, which allowed for the preservation and protection of indigenous languages. Nonetheless, many Native American languages have been on the verge of extinction for the past many years.

Languages carry deep cultural knowledge and insights. So, what does the loss of these languages mean in terms of our understanding of the world.

[Read more…]

Bolsonaro has made grim threats to the Amazon and its people

Climate Change News reports:

No more Paris Agreement. No more ministry of environment. A paved highway cutting through the Amazon.

Not only that. Indigenous territories opened to mining. Relaxed environmental law enforcement and licensing. International NGOs, such as Greenpeace and WWF, banned from the country. A strong alliance with the beef lobby.

In a nutshell, this is what Jair Bolsonaro, who is sailing towards Brazil’s presidency after taking a near-majority in a first round vote on Sunday, has promised for the environment.

An enthusiast for torture and the 1964-85 military dictatorship, the retired army captain is famous for racist, homophobic, authoritarian and misogynistic rhetoric. But his views on how to manage Earth’s largest tropical rainforest are just as grim and appalling. [Continue reading…]

Human-caused climate change severely exposes the U.S. national parks

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Trees have died in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo., as climate change has intensified bark beetle infestations and drought.
Patrick Gonzalez, CC BY-ND

By Patrick Gonzalez, University of California, Berkeley

Human-caused climate change is disrupting ecosystems and people’s lives around the world. It is melting glaciers, increasing wildfires, and shifting vegetation across vast landscapes. These impacts have reached national parks around the world and in the United States. Until now, however, no analysis had examined climate change trends across all 417 U.S. national parks.

The United States established the first national park in the world, Yellowstone National Park, in 1872. U.S. national parks today protect some of the most irreplaceable natural areas and cultural sites in the world. Colleagues and I aimed to uncover the magnitude of human-caused climate change on these special places. We conducted the first spatial analysis of historical and projected temperature and precipitation trends across all U.S. national parks and compared them with national trends.

Our newly published results reveal that climate change has exposed the national parks to conditions hotter and drier than the country as a whole. This occurs because extensive parts of the parks are in extreme environments – the Arctic, high mountains, and the arid southwestern United States.

[Read more…]

Scientists fear that insects upon which humans depend are declining

The Associated Press reports:

A staple of summer — swarms of bugs — seems to be a thing of the past. And that’s got scientists worried.

Pesky mosquitoes, disease-carrying ticks, crop-munching aphids and cockroaches are doing just fine. But the more beneficial flying insects of summer — native bees, moths, butterflies, ladybugs, lovebugs, mayflies and fireflies — appear to be less abundant.

Scientists think something is amiss, but they can’t be certain: In the past, they didn’t systematically count the population of flying insects, so they can’t make a proper comparison to today. Nevertheless, they’re pretty sure across the globe there are fewer insects that are crucial to as much as 80 percent of what we eat.

Yes, some insects are pests. But they also pollinate plants, are a key link in the food chain and help decompose life.

“You have total ecosystem collapse if you lose your insects. How much worse can it get than that?” said University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy. If they disappeared, “the world would start to rot.”

He noted Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson once called bugs: “The little things that run the world.” [Continue reading…]

A good place to start raising awareness about the importance of insects for humanity would be to stop calling them “bugs” — and likewise stop calling the soil in which so many of them live, “dirt.”

Why do we love bees but hate wasps?

University College London:

A lack of understanding of the important role of wasps in the ecosystem and economy is a fundamental reason why they are universally despised whereas bees are much loved, according to UCL-led research.

Both bees and wasps are two of humanity’s most ecologically and economically important organisms. They both pollinate our flowers and crops, but wasps also regulate populations of crop pests and insects that carry human diseases.

“It’s clear we have a very different emotional connection to wasps than to bees—we have lived in harmony with bees for a very long time, domesticating some species, but human-wasp interactions are often unpleasant as they ruin picnics and nest in our homes,” explained study author, Dr. Seirian Sumner (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment).

“Despite this, we need to actively overhaul the negative image of wasps to protect the ecological benefits they bring to our planet. They are facing a similar decline to bees and that is something the world can’t afford.” [Continue reading…]

A growing wave of extinctions is sweeping across the continents

The Guardian reports:

Spix’s macaw, a brilliant blue species of Brazilian parrot that starred in the children’s animation Rio, has become extinct this century, according to a new assessment of endangered birds.

The macaw is one of eight species, including the poo-uli, the Pernambuco pygmy-owl and the cryptic treehunter, that can be added to the growing list of confirmed or highly likely extinctions, according to a new statistical analysis by BirdLife International.

Historically, most bird extinctions have been small-island species vulnerable to hunting or invasive species but five of these new extinctions have occurred in South America and are attributed by scientists to deforestation.

Stuart Butchart, BirdLife International’s chief scientist, said the new study highlighted that an extinction crisis was now unfolding on large continents, driven by human habitat destruction.

“People think of extinctions and think of the dodo but our analysis shows that extinctions are continuing and accelerating today,” he said. “Historically 90% of bird extinctions have been small populations on remote islands. Our evidence shows there is a growing wave of extinctions washing over the continent driven by habitat loss from unsustainable agriculture, drainage and logging.”

More than 26,000 of the world’s species are now threatened, according to the latest “red list” assessment, with scientists warning that humans are driving a sixth great extinction event. [Continue reading…]

Wildlife preservation depends on saving animals, their habitats, and their cultures

Ed Yong writes:

In the 1800s, there were so many bighorn sheep in Wyoming that when one trapper passed through Jackson Hole, he described “over a thousand sheep in the cliffs above our campsite.” No such sights exist today. The bighorns slowly fell to hunters’ rifles, and to diseases spread from domestic sheep. Most herds were wiped out, and by 1900, a species that once numbered in the millions stood instead in the low thousands.

In the 1940s, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department began trying to move bighorns back into their historic habitats. Those relocations continue today, and they’ve been increasingly successful at restoring the extirpated herds. But the lost animals aren’t just lost bodies. Their knowledge also died with them—and that is not easily replaced.

Bighorn sheep, for example, migrate. They’ll climb for dozens of miles over mountainous terrain in the spring, “surfing” the green waves of newly emerged plants. They learn the best routes from one another, over decades and generations. And for that reason, a bighorn sheep that’s released into unfamiliar terrain is an ecological noob. It’s not the same as an individual that lived in that place its whole life and was led through it by a knowledgeable mother.

“The translocated animals were literally let out of a livestock trailer and started looking around at their new environment,” says Matthew Kauffman from the University of Wyoming. “And they almost entirely failed to migrate.”

Kauffman knows this because the translocated sheep were often fitted with radio collars, allowing him and his colleagues to compare their movements to those of bighorns that lived in the same place for centuries. Within those longstanding herds, between 65 and 100 percent of the sheep migrated. But in the translocated herds, fewer than 9 percent migrated—only the sheep that had been moved into established populations that already knew the land. [Continue reading…]

Death toll from Hurricane Maria higher than 9/11

CBS News reports:

Hurricane Maria killed far more people in Puerto Rico than initially thought, accounting for an estimated 2,975 deaths on the island from September 2017 through February 2018, according to a new analysis. The study found that those in low-income areas, and elderly men, were at greatest risk of dying.

The independent analysis was commissioned by the governor of Puerto Rico and conducted by researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. CBS News obtained a report on the findings from Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

“The reality is that we take this very seriously,” Mercader said on CBSN. [Continue reading…]

The 9/11 attacks killed 2,996 people, while the toll from Maria is estimated as 3,057: 2,975 in Puerto Rico, 65 in Dominica, 5 in the Dominican Republic, 4 in the contiguous United States, 3 in Haiti, 2 in Guadeloupe, and 3 in the United States Virgin Islands.