Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Creating Conservation Communities

There's a bold new idea on the front edge of conservation: Let's treat people as well as we treat animals.

By Elizabeth Hightower

Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy
Courtesy of Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy

IN MAY AND JUNE 2004, scientists from the Nature Conservancy ran a Rapid Ecological Assessment of the Solomon Islands. For 35 days, they cruised 2,000 miles down the 950-island archipelago in their liveaboard dive ship, counting spinner dolphins and clownfish, Maori wrasses and beaked whales. The place was an astonishing hot spot of bio­diversity, teeming with 494 coral species and at least 1,019 species of reef fish, including several previously unknown to science.

The scientists also found significant evidence of overfishing, confirmation that these waters needed protection—and fast. But what they did next reflects an ongoing shift in conservation philosophy. Instead of just setting up a marine park to keep local fishermen out, the Nature Conservancy and its partners engaged the islands' tribal leaders, allowing them to manage the fishery for their own long-term economic interests. The conservationists scrapped pristine nature as the goal and put people first; the people, in turn, found a way to both create a protected area and keep fishing. Sea turtle numbers have almost tripled. And livelihoods have doubled.

The rest of the world is not made up of "affluent white people who enjoy nature hikes," says Nature Conservancy scientist Peter Kareiva. Conservation today means meeting everybody's needs.

"Too much conservation is about sequestering nature," TNC's chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, says. Environmentalists have always worked with local people, he points out; that's not new. "The difference is that now we're being more explicit about it. Instead of collecting data to see how the birds and trees are doing, we do household surveys to see, if we set up a marine protected area, whether the people in those communities feel better off. That's a down-to-earth, concrete change."

People? Really? Since John Muir first walked the Sierra, hasn't the point of conservation been to protect nature from people?

Not anymore. In a slow but dramatic shift, the world's biggest environmental NGOs—the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and Conservation International—have retooled their goals. Saving chunks of nature by fencing people out is too piecemeal, too arrogant, they've come to believe. What's more, it doesn't work on the scale we need.

"The historic approach will fail," says Peter Seligmann, Conservation International's co-founder and CEO. If we don't rethink our tactics, he believes, "we will have islands in a sea of development, and islands are always eventually eroded."

That's a strong statement coming from Mr. Biodiversity himself. CI invented the term "hot spots"; since its founding, in 1987, when Seligmann and others peeled off from the Nature Conservancy, the group has championed the preservation of wild places above all else. But over the past two years, CI has embarked on a painful journey of consultant-aided soul searching. This fall, it announced a new mission: "to empower societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature for the well-being of humanity."

In some ways, CI can afford this kind of drama; it's the only big conservation NGO not beholden to public members. But the turnaround required some harsh reexamination of its past successes. "With our conservation partners, we've put some 500 million acres of priority lands and waters in protected status," Seligmann told me. "That's an area about 30 miles wide that wraps around the equator. It seems really big—until you go to outer space and you look at the earth and you see it's actually a tiny bit of land. You look at the issues of climate change, consumption, and the state of the world's oceans and you realize that, although we've succeeded in putting a lot of land and waters into what I like to refer to as ‘the conservation pantry,' we haven't changed the hunger of development, nor have we reduced the capacity of development to reach into that pantry whenever they want something and pull it out."

Biodiversity is still crucially important to CI, he says, "but it has now become the indicator of the health of the ecosystem we're focusing on, as opposed to the driver of where we're going to work."

On the face of it, using biodiversity—the glorious variety of nature in all its forms—in the service of human well-being sounds pretty cynical. Tough times, snail darter! Nice knowin' you, polar bear! For those of us raised on the American idea of wilderness—on the sacred mission of keeping some places immune from being paved, bulldozed, and mined—scrapping that notion rips at the foundation of our beliefs. When I brought this up with Kareiva, he reminded me, quite gently, that the rest of the world is not made up of "European or North American affluent white people who enjoy taking nature hikes."

"As the conservation movement has gotten outside of the U.S.," he said, "it's had its eyes opened to global realities, and the realities are that it's not about the affluent U.S. having nature reserves. It's about meeting lots of needs."

Some of those needs have been ignored ever since the U.S. first pushed Native Americans out of Yosemite, in 1864. "Fortress conservation," the practice of fencing off protected forest or savanna, has created a new class of "conservation refugees"—people forced from subsistence living within a landscape to straight-up poverty outside of it after it gets "preserved."

"If we continue to embitter millions of people by moving them off the land and settling them in these shabby little settlements outside their land, many of them are going to go back in and poach and cut trees and sell trees and make life impossible for conservation," says Mark Dowie, author of the book Conservation Refugees, a searing indictment of the big NGOs published last spring. "We said, Duh—it's not working."

A couple of things finally led the big NGOs to their "a-ha moment," as Kareiva describes where we are today. One was a global pushback from local people, which led the World Wildlife Fund to adopt a set of principles for the treatment of local peoples as early as 1996 and which has gained more steam in the past ten years. In 2003, Nelson Mandela told the World Parks Congress, "I see no future for parks, unless they address the needs of communities as equal partners." The next year, Masai leader Martin Saning'o stood up at the Bangkok summit of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), speaking on behalf of more than 100,000 Masai herders who'd been displaced in the name of biodiversity. "We were the original conservationists," he said. "Now you have made us enemies of conservation."

Like the UN, the IUCN has limited authority. But it can, and did, adopt resolutions concerning the treatment of traditional people, which filtered down to the foundations that fund the big NGOs. One way to look at this awakening is that, to get funding, they had to play nice. The other is that more and more scientists, especially younger ones, became convinced that the old ways wouldn't work.

"There's been a growing awareness among conservation biologists that, even in the best projections, we won't secure more than 5 percent of the world's biological diversity in protected areas," says Steve McCormick, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (conservation's single biggest foundation funder) and the former Nature Conservancy CEO who pushed TNC in this direction as early as 2001. Meanwhile, he says, "scientists are making the direct correlation between conservation and human well-being. To me, that is a very hopeful precept."

That's the second factor in this shift: the rise of a powerful conservation idea called ecosystem services. Think of the economic value of the Louisiana wetlands in mitigating storm surges, or tropical forests in sequestering carbon. This idea will play big in December at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Copenhagen, where proponents will push a program called REDD (short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). To grossly oversimplify, REDD involves the West paying developing countries to keep forests intact.

But conservation for people is anything but unanimous. Noticeably absent from this trend is the fourth major NGO, the Wildlife Conservation Society. "The Nature Conservancy has made aggressive statements in the last few years about the need to reorient their targets toward places and dimensions that meet human needs," says Kent Redford, director of the Wildlife Conservancy Society Institute, WCS's internal think tank. "Now, that is a shift. We're not doing that, and we're not going to do that. We are a proud and unabashedly a nature-conservation organization focusing on wild­life and wild places."

There are several flaws in the new philosophy, says Redford. First, if you work primarily where you can help people, you're going to be working in places where wildlife is not. Second, conservationists should keep their eye on the ball. If you're saving tigers in the Hukong Valley, in Burma, count tigers. If you're saving people, do that. The WCS works with local populations all the time, he says, "but that's not because we're interested as an organization in making their lives better. It's just that making their lives better is an important thing to do to achieve the conservation of the forest and the animals living in it."

The link between conservation and poverty alleviation is highly contested, Redford says. "It's a leap of faith on the part of many of us in our profession. And it's closing your eyes and jumping and just hoping somebody's got a big sheet at the bottom."

"This is not without controversy," agrees McCormick. "In some cases where you have human activity, it's not going to be 100 percent conservation. For those for whom it's all-or-nothing, accepting some loss of [wildlife] populations because humans are taking some use of landscapes—that's not acceptable."

Am I one of those all-or-nothing people? I don't like to think so, but I wonder, Is it OK to tell the polar bear and the Siberian tiger to just hold on, that we'll save them by saving ourselves? Realism has its promise—we'll never succeed by merely putting Band-Aids on hot spots. But I miss that romantic old idea that other species have as much right to this world as we do.

For Kareiva, that's what it comes down to: a matter of rights. "For me at least," he wrote on TNC's blog this spring, "the rights of people for self-determination take supremacy over any species or biodiversity tally." When I asked him about that, he brought up a riddle, an impossible dilemma first posed by conservation biologist Michael Soulé.

"You're down to one snow leopard, and that leopard is a pregnant mom," Kareiva said. "And if she lives and has a litter of four or five, you could maybe recover the whole species. And you're up on a ridge and she's creeping up and about to kill and eat a small two-year-old child. You have a gun, and you have a choice: You can either kill the leopard and save the child's life, or you can sit by and watch the leopard kill it. That's your only choice. I would save the child."


Monday, December 21, 2009

Endangered crab falls prey to poachers for medicine testing

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ants Save Mates Trapped in Sand

Helpful acts, such as grooming or foster parenting, are common throughout the animal kingdom, but accounts of animals rescuing one another from danger are exceedingly rare, having been reported in the scientific literature only for dolphins, capuchin monkeys, and ants. New research shows that in the ant Cataglyphis cursor, the behavior is surprisingly sophisticated.

Elise Nowbahari of the University of Paris North, Karen L. Hollis of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and two colleagues mimicked a natural situation—an ant restrained by collapsing sand and debris.

But hidden beneath the sand was a nylon snare holding the ant firmly in place. The ant’s nestmates consistently responded by digging around the victim and tugging at its limbs until they found the trap, then biting at the nylon strand. Potential rescuers did not, however, do the same for unrelated ants or insects of other species.

The ants’ ability to discern and then tackle the unfamiliar nylon snare demonstrates cognitive and behavioral complexity, unlike such simple actions as digging or limb pulling, which could arguably be elicited by a chemical distress signal. Nowbahari and Hollis distinguish rescue behavior from other cooperative acts in that both participants risk physical harm (rescuing ants could themselves be trapped under falling sand), with no possibility of reward for the rescuer aside from the benefits of kin selection.

An ant bites a nylon thread, attempting to free its lassoed nestmate. Credit: Elise Nowbahari

The research was detailed in the journal PLoS ONE.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Scientists plan ‘genome zoo’

6 November 2009

An international consortium of scientists plans to collect DNA sequences for 10,000 vertebrate species, approximately one for every vertebrate genus.

Known as the Genome 10K Project, it involves gathering specimens of thousands of animals from zoos, museums, and university collections worldwide, and then sequencing the genome of each species to reveal its complete genetic heritage.

The project was launched in April 2009 and now involves more than 68 scientists, calling themselves the Genome 10K Community of Scientists (G10KCOS). The group outlined its proposal in the Journal of Heredity this month.

According to one of the lead authors, the cost of genome sequencing has been dropping steadily over the past decade, making the sequencing of 10,000 genomes a realistic possibility.

So far, the online database contains samples from more than 16,000 different species of vertebrate animals compiled from more than 50 institutions.

Participants expect the Genome 10K Project to help understand the genetic basis of recent and rapid adaptive changes within vertebrate species and between closely related species. The results can help conservation efforts by enabling scientists to predict how species will respond to climate change, pollution, emerging diseases, and invasive competitors.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Climate change causes extinction of 13 species of animal in Bangladesh

Climate change and man-made adverse environment have so far caused extinction of 13 species of animal and endangered 800 other species in Bangladesh.

Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh (WTB), a national institution committed to conserving the biological diversity of Bangladesh, said the extinct animals are: peacock, crocodile, wolf, wild buffalo, nilgai and rhinoceros, national news agency BSS reported on Wednesday.

Chief Executive Officer of the WTB Anwarul Islam said half of the country's 1,600 species are endangered.

Emphasizing the need for protection of biological diversity, he said political and social commitment are needed in this connection, otherwise 150 more species will be extinct gradually.

The endangered species include 50 species of fish, 41 species of mammal, eight species of amphibian and 58 species of reptile.

At present, the South Asian country has 708 species of fish, 22 species of amphibian, 126 species of reptile, 528 species of bird, 113 species of mammal and 3,006 species of algae.

Source: Xinhua


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Butterfly Payload To Launch Nov. 16 On Space Shuttle

ScienceDaily (Nov. 10, 2009) — When NASA's space shuttle Atlantis launches for the International Space Station on Nov. 16 it will carry a University of Colorado at Boulder butterfly experiment that will be monitored by thousands of K-12 students across the nation.

The butterfly payload was designed and built by BioServe Space Technologies in CU-Boulder's aerospace engineering department and will carry two butterfly habitats containing monarch and painted lady butterfly larvae and enough nectar and other food to support them as they develop. CU-Boulder, with the help of elementary and middle school students, will compare the growth and development of butterfly larvae in the weightless environment of the International Space Station with butterfly larvae being raised simultaneously in participating classrooms on Earth.

Dubbed "CSI 03 -- Butterflies in Space," the project is the fourth K-12 educational experiment to be flown by CU-Boulder on ISS, said BioServe Director Louis Stodieck, principal investigator on the project. "One of the most exciting things about this project is that we can use the International Space Station to bring spaceflight experiments into classrooms around the country," he said. "Our continuing goal is to inspire K-12 students around the country in science, technology, engineering and math."

About 100 elementary and middle schools across the nation -- including classrooms in the Denver Public Schools and Jefferson County schools -- are receiving official classroom kits with butterfly habitats that will allow them to participate in the project, said BioServe Payload Mission Manager Stefanie Countryman. Hundreds of additional schools will be participating informally and will be building their own classroom butterfly habitats, she said.

The experiments will fly on BioServe's Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus, or CGBA, a suitcase-sized payload that has been used to carry out BioServe experiments in space since the early 1990s. BioServe has designed, built and flown over 50 different payloads on more than 35 space flight missions, including NASA space shuttles, the ISS and Russia's MIR space station and Soyuz spacecraft.

Countryman said the painted lady butterfly larvae will be six days old and the monarch butterflies will be about 10 days old at launch and will be transferred from Atlantis to the ISS about two days later. It will take the butterfly larvae about five days to pupate and form a chrysalis, or cocoon, and another seven to 10 days to emerge, she said.

Participating teachers have been provided with classroom kits that contain the butterfly larvae and will allow the students to compare differences in growth rates, feeding, pupation and the emergence of butterflies between environments on Earth and in space.

Once the habitats are transferred into the BioServe payload on ISS, images of the larvae will be taken every 15 minutes. The images will be downlinked from the ISS daily to Earth and uploaded to Internet sites for students to view.

The butterfly experiment is sponsored in part by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute based in Houston and is being conducted in collaboration with several nonprofit educational organizations. Participating students and the public will be able to view the butterfly images online at, a science support and teacher training site of the Baylor College of Medicine's Center for Education Outreach, which developed the curriculum guide for teachers and Web site support.

The butterfly images from ISS also will be available at the Monarch Watch Web site, an educational and research group at the University of Kansas, which supplied the monarch butterflies. The painted lady butterflies were provided by Gulf Coast Butterflies in Naples, Fla., and Clearwater Butterflies in Clearwater, Fla.

The Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colo., is providing science support and teacher training.

BioServe flew similar educational CSI payloads on shuttle missions in 2006, 2007 and 2008 that reached more than 10,000 students around the world, said Countryman.

BioServe payloads -- including biomedical and life science experiments conducted in conjunction with industrial partners -- have been manifested on every shuttle flight until the space shuttle program is retired in 2011. "Between now and then, we are seeking sponsors for our educational payloads to enhance the learning opportunities for the K-12 community in Colorado and around the world," said Countryman.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Studies 'overstate species risks'

By Mark Kinver
Science and environment reporter, BBC News

Alps and valley, Switzerland (Image: BBC)
Different models predicted differing outlooks for Alpine species

Some large-scale computer simulations may be overestimating the impact of climate change on biodiversity in some regions, researchers have suggested.

They said models that analyse vast areas often failed to take into account local variations, such as topography and microclimates.

Local-scale simulations, which did include these factors, often delivered a more optimistic outlook, they added.

The findings have been published in the journal, Science.

One of the studies cited in the paper looked at the fate of plant species in the Swiss Alps.

"A coarse European-scale model (with 16km by 16km grid cells) predicted a loss of all suitable habitats during the 21st Century," the researchers wrote.

"Whereas a model run using local-scale data (25m by 25m grid cells) predicted (the) persistence of suitable habitats for up to 100% of plant species."

Micro v macro

Co-author Shonil Bhagwat, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, UK, said when vegetation was looked at on a smaller scale, scientists saw a different picture.

"For example, smaller plots give data on microclimatic variations, whereas large-scale models predict (uniform) changes throughout the landscape."

Advances in computing power meant that more large-scale datasets were being made available to scientists, Dr Bhagwat explained.

"There is more interest in predicting widespread, large-scale effects," he told BBC News, "that is why coarser-scale models are normally used.

"However, the changes in communities of vegetation occur at a much smaller scale."

In the paper, Dr Bhagwat and co-author Professor Kathy Willis, wrote: "These studies highlight the complexities that we are faced with trying to model and predict the possible consequences of future climate change on biodiversity."

The researchers called for more micro-scale studies to be carried out that complement the overall picture presented by larger models.

However, they added that the overall picture for biodiversity loss was still bleak, especially once the rate of habitat loss and fragmentation was taken into account.

"Predicting the fate of biodiversity in response to climate change combined with habitat fragmentation is a serious undertaking fraught with caveats and complexities," they observed.

For example, Dr Bhagwat explained, the current system of having fixed nature reserves may need to be reconsidered.

"We have 12% of the Earth's land surface covered in protected areas, but climate change is likely to push species out of their home ranges and out of reserves," he added.

"So we need to look beyond reserves and create the conditions that allow the migration of species."


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Species' extinction threat grows

Kihansi spray toad (Image: IUCN/Tim Herman)
The Kihansi spray toad is now considered to be extinct in the wild

More than a third of species assessed in a major international biodiversity study are threatened with extinction, scientists have warned.

Out of the 47,677 species in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 17,291 were deemed to be at serious risk.

These included 21% of all known mammals, 30% of amphibians, 70% of plants and 35% of invertebrates.

Conservationists warned that not enough was being done to tackle the main threats, such as habitat loss.

"The scientific evidence of a serious extinction crisis is mounting," warned Jane Smart, director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Biodiversity Conservation Group.

At what point will society truly respond to this growing crisis?
Professor Jonathan Baillie,
Zoological Society of London

"The latest analysis... shows that the 2010 target to reduce biodiversity loss will not be met," she added.

"It's time for governments to start getting serious about saving species and make sure it's high on their agendas for next year, as we are rapidly running out of time."

The Red List, regarded as the most authoritative assessment of the state of the planet's species, draws on the work of thousands of scientists around the globe.

The latest update lists amphibians as the most seriously affected group of organisms on the planet, with 1,895 of the 6,285 known species listed as threatened.

Of these, it lists 39 species as either "extinct" or "extinct in the wild". A further 484 are deemed "critically endangered", 754 "endangered" and 657 "vulnerable".

infographic (BBC)

The Kihansi Spray Toad (Nectophyrnoides asperginis) is one species that has seen its status change from critically endangered to extinct in the wild.

It was only found in the Kihamsi Falls area of Tanzania, but its population had crashed in recent years from a high of an estimated 17,000 individuals.

Conservationists suggest that the rapid decline was primarily the result of of a dam being constructed upstream from the toads' habitat, which resulted in a 90% reduction in the flow of water.

"In our lifetime, we have gone from having to worry about a relatively small number of highly threatened species to the collapse of entire ecosystems," observed Professor Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation programmes at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

"At what point will society truly respond to this growing crisis?"

The updated data from the 2009 Red List is being made publicly available on the IUCN website on Tuesday. [IUCN Red List]


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bad memories written with lasers

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Fruit fly head (SPL)
This work in flies will help understand how the human brain makes memories

Laser-controlled flies may be the latest addition to the neuroscientist's tool kit, thanks to a new technique.

Researchers have devised a way to write memories onto the brains of flies, revealing which brain cells are involved in making bad memories.

The researchers said that in flies just 12 brain cells were responsible for what is known as "associative learning".

They describe their findings in the journal Cell.

Associative memories are made when an animal learns to link a cue to a particular outcome. It might for example learn that a certain odour is a sign that a predator is nearby.

"So the appearance of that odour predicts that something bad is going to happen," explained Gero Miesenbock from the University of Oxford, UK, who led this study.

Previous research had already identified that the brain cells or neurons responsible for this type of learning are those that produce dopamine. This is a chemical which acts as a signal that can be transmitted from cell to cell in the brain.

Professor Miesenbock and his team "tapped into these gene regulatory mechanisms" of the neurons - programming them to respond to a laser.

Fly brain (Science)
A laser flash releases a chemical that activates the neurons

They modified the neurons by adding a sort of trigger, or receptor, to each one. This receptor was activated by a chemical called ATP.

"Since there's no ATP floating around in the fly's brain, the [modified] receptors remain closed and the flies behave just like normal flies that don't have the receptor," said Professor Miesenbock.

Now for the laser-activated trickery.

The scientists injected ATP into the flies' brains, in a form that was locked inside a light-sensitive chemical cage.

"[Then] we turned on the laser light and the light sensitive cage fell apart," Professor Miesenbock explained. "The ATP was released and acted only on the cells [with] the receptor."

Memory circuit

The laser flash was paired with an odour, which allowed the scientists to find out if their memory-writing experiment had been successful.

They gave the flies a simple choice between two odours - one of which the flies had been exposed to just before the laser flash.

"[The flies] moved along a narrow chamber and at the midpoint they were presented with an odour on the left and an odour on the right," said Professor Miesenbock.

He knew that the laser had successfully written a bad memory into the fly's brain when the insect avoided the odour that had been paired with the laser flash.

This is a real breakthrough in our understanding of how memories are formed
David Shepherd, neuroscientist

The flies associated the smell with a bad experience, so the laser flash gave the fly a memory of a bad experience that it never actually had.

Simply by looking inside the flies' brains with a microscope, the researchers were able to narrow this memory formation process down to just 12 neurons.

"We labelled the cells .... that were made responsive to light and which ones were not, so by elimination we could narrow it down."

This finding, said Professor Miesenbock, has begun to unravel how animals and humans learn from mistakes and how "error signals" drive animals to adapt their behaviour.

"In the fly we have isolated and manipulated these error signals, so what we can now do is try to understand how these signals are calculated in the brain and how this works mechanistically.

"I have every expectation that the fundamental mechanisms that produce these error signals are the same in the brain of the fly as they are in the brain of the human.

David Shepherd, a neuroscientist from the University of Bangor in North Wales described the study as "a fantastic piece of work".

Professor Shepherd, who was not involved in this study, told BBC News: "We have known for years that flies are capable of sophisticated behaviours such as learning and memory. We have also been able to manipulate gene and cell function in flies.

"This work combines these elements to make a real breakthrough in our understanding of how memories are formed."


Friday, October 30, 2009

Endangered species list released

KOCHI: The Ministry of Environment and Forests has issued a notification under the Biological Diversity Act (2002) and released a revised list of endangered species in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala.

The National Biodiversity Authority has issued alerts to protect 13 animal species and 26 plant species threatened with extinction in Kerala, the state with the most number of threatened species in the list.

Uttarakhand comes next, with 16 plant species and 15 animal species, while Himachal Pradesh has eight plant species and Uttar Pradesh has just one plant species threatened with extinction.

As per the conditions, no plant or animal species shall be collected live or dead by any person, except for scientific research, by herbariums and museums of scientific and academic institutions and for scientific investigation only. This can be done only with a State Biodiversity Board approval.

The notification, issued by MoEF joint secretary A K Goyal, has asked the State Biodiversity Board to conduct awareness programmes and provide educational material on notified species to Forest Department personnel, biodiversity management committees, ecotourism programmes, forest dwellers and tribals.

The 13 threatened species in Kerala include Fruit bats, the Malabar Large- Spotted Civet, Blue Whales, Sea Cows, Tigers, the Indian Vulture, Leatherback Sea Turtles, Hawkbill Sea Turtles, Hawkbill Sea Turtles, Murthi’s Frog, the Toad-skinned Frog, Green Saw Fishes and the Philautus Chalaziodes.

The 26 plant species named include Syzygium Palghatense, Syzygium Periyarensis (Wild Jamuns), Vanda Thwaitesii (Nyarapazham) and Janakia aryapathra (Aryalpathram).


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Family comes first, among plants too


Caring and sharing within the family are traits we associate with humans and animals. But a startling new study has found that for plants too, “blood is thicker than water”.

They cannot speak, move, see or hear, but plants apparently recognize family and respect their space, says the study. It was conducted by scientist Harsh Bais and his colleagues at the University of Delaware. “At least 3,000 plants were researched and it took us three years,” Bais tells Eureka via email. He says that Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the mustard family and widely used as a model organism in plant biology, behaves nicely to ‘siblings’ – i.e. plants grown from seeds from the same ‘mother’. Interestingly, it is intensely competitive with strangers.

Fascinating and unbelievable though this may be, talk of plants and their ‘siblings’ is not new. In 2007, a team of Canadian researchers showed that plants can indeed identify ‘siblings’. But Bais and his team went a step further by discovering how a plant recognizes its ‘brother’ or ‘sister’, namely by root secretions. When the plant sensed unfamiliar root secretions, it began competing by growing more roots in order to absorb more of the soil’s mineral nutrients and water. But with ‘siblings’, they threw out fewer roots. When Bais treated
a plant to a chemical that blocked the secretions, it seemed to lose its discriminatory sense. Clearly, there is something in these secretions that tells a plant whether it is related to others around it.

Strangers planted next to each other are often shorter, it noted, because so much of their energy is concentrated on root growth. “It’s possible that when kin are grown together, they may balance their nutrient uptake,” says Bais.

Harsh Bais with a PhD student at the University of Delaware


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Secrets of frog killer laid bare

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Signs of infection

Scientists have unravelled the mechanism by which the fungal disease chytridiomycosis kills its victims.

The fungus is steadily spreading through populations of frogs and other amphibians worldwide, and has sent some species extinct in just a few years.

Researchers now report in the journal Science that the fungus kills by changing the animals' electrolyte balance, resulting in cardiac arrest.

The finding is described as a "key step" in understanding the epidemic.

Karen Lips, one of the world authorities on the spread of chytridiomycosis, said the research was "compelling".

This is lethal across a broad range of hosts, so it's really important to look at what's happening in other amphibians
Jamie Voyles, James Cook University

"They've done an incredible amount of work, been very thorough, and I don't think anybody will have problems with this.

"We suspected something like this all along, but it's great to know this is in fact what is happening," the University of Maryland professor told BBC News.

Skin deep

Amphibian skin plays several roles in the animals' life.

Most species can breathe through it, and it is also used as a membrane through which electrolytes such as sodium and potassium are exchanged with the outside world.

A world of amphibians

The mainly Australian research group took skin samples from healthy and diseased green tree frogs, and found that these compounds passed through the skin much less readily when chytrid was present.

Samples of blood and urine from infected frogs showed much lower sodium and potassium concentrations than in healthy animals - potassium was down by half.

In other animals including humans, this kind of disturbance is known to be capable of causing cardiac arrest.

The scientists also took electrocardiogram recordings of the frogs' hearts in the hours before death; and found changes to the rhythm culminating in arrest.

Drugs that restore electrolyte balance brought the animals a few hours or days of better health, some showing enough vigour to climb out of their bowls of water; but all died in the end.

Grail quest

Lead scientist Jamie Voyles, from James Cook University in Townsville, said the next step was to look for the same phenomenon in other species.

"This is lethal across a broad range of hosts, whether terrestrial or aquatic, so it's really important to look at what's happening in other susceptible amphibians," she said.

Dead Atelopus frog
Ways to stop chytrid in the wild are the "holy grail" for researchers

Another step will be to examine how the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis - Bd) impairs electrolyte transfer.

"What this work doesn't tell us is the mechanism by which chytrid causes this problem with sodium," said Matthew Fisher from Imperial College London.

"It could be that Bd is excreting a toxin, or it could be causing cell damage. This causative action is actually the 'holy grail' - so that's another obvious next step."

The finding is unlikely to plot an immediate route to ways of preventing or treating or curing the disease in the wild.

Curing infected amphibians in captivity is straightforward using antifungal chemicals; but currently there is no way to tackle it outside.

Various research teams are exploring the potential of bacteria that occur naturally on the skin of some amphibians, and may play a protective role.

Understanding the genetics of how Bd disrupts electrolyte balance might lead to more precise identification of protective bacteria, suggested Professor Lips, and so eventually play a role in curbing the epidemic.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rare species of mangrove tree found along Sindhudurg coast

Kalyani Sardesai | TNN

Pune: City-based amateur botanist and photographer Shrikant Ingalhalikar and Narendra Page, a doctorate student of forest ecology from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, recently came across the Sundari (Heritiera littoralis), a rare mangrove tree, along the Sindhudurg coast. This is the first such recording of the tree in Maharashtra and probably on the West coast, they said.

The tree is also known as the ‘looking-glass tree’, probably because the leaves are silver-coated. It is found in large numbers in the Sundarbans in Bengal and to a lesser degree at Bhitarkanika at the delta of the Mahanadi river in Orissa.

“This is an important find, and the forest department must be made aware of this rare natural resource,” said Ingalhalikar. “This is the first record in Maharashtra and may be the only
record of a living specimen on the west coast. A century ago, a specimen of this tree was reported on the Kali river at Karwar in north Karnataka. There is also an old report from Kerala. In recent times the tree was believed to be extinct on the west coast.”

The duo say they have also found four other species of rare mangrove trees in the adjoining areas of Sindhudurg. “The Sindhudurg habitat also supports Xylocarpus granatum, Cynometra iripa, Dolichandrone spathacea and Rhizophora apiculata. These species exist in small, scattered populations in Goa and Karnataka as well. This unusual diversity makes the coastal habitat of Sindhudurg ecologically sensitive as it is very much the ‘hot spot’ for rare mangrove species,” Ingalhalikar said.

“Besides protecting the mangrove forests, it is necessary to cultivate such rare species for preservation of biodiversity,” he stressed.

A Sundari tree (Heritiera littoralis)


'Snakeman' Ranade was city's best rescuer

Mumbai: On Sunday, Mumbai lost its best and most experienced snake rescuer. For Kedar Bhide, 33, who runs the Reptile Rescue and Study Centre (RRSC), Sunil Ranade's death is a personal loss.

Thirty-seven-year-old Ranade was credited with rescuing over 15,000 snakes in the past 15 years. Ironically, it is this passion for the venomous reptiles that cost him dearly -- he died after being bitten by a Vinocellate Cobra.

"He was passionate to the point of being obsessisive about these reptiles," said Bhide, who had known him for over ten years.

Ranade was working as an animal inspector with the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Parel for the past five years. "But it was more than a job to him. He did not have scientific education. It was sheer passion that drove him," said Bhide, who, a day later, cannot help but rue the fact that Ranade's death could have been prevented.

"Had someone, who knew first aid for snake bite, been nearby, he could have been saved," he said.

The worst part is, Ranade had four vials of anti venom in his house -- all snake rescuers are told to keepthe anti- venom handy, due to the dangerous nature of their job.

About 50 to 60% of the time, the bite of the cobra is what is termed a 'dry bite', where the venom doesn't come out of its teeth. "Maybe, Sunil assumed it must have been a dry bite. He was also quite afraid of hospitals and injections, so he may have waited for the symptoms to come up," he added.

"Mumbai has many snake catchers, but not all of them are trained. And as far as anti-venom is concerned, all government hospitals have an emergency stock," said Bhide, who, with a group of snake rescuers, now plans to start a fund to help Ranade's two daughters.

Mumbai's top snake-man falls to cobra attack

Mumbai's well-known snake-catcher and conservationist Sunil S. Ranade, credited with rescuing over 15,000 snakes in the past 15 years, died after he was bitten by a cobra Sunday, an official said.

Ranade, 37, was rescuing snakes, reptiles and other wild creatures since over two decades. He was working as animal inspector with the 136-year old Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in its Parel hospital, according to Col. J. C. Khanna, the SPCA secretary.

"Yesterday (Saturday), he had rescued a cobra from somewhere and had kept it in a container in his home in the hospital premises. Around 2.30 a.m., he had gone to feed the creature when it suddenly attacked him. It's a truly an unfortunate incident." Khanna, a member of Animal Welfare Board of India, told IANS.

At the time of the incident, his wife with their two daughters - aged 10 and 3 - had gone to his father-in-law's home in Malad suburb.

Hearing a commotion from Ranade's quarters, some neighbours and other staffers rushed there to see him lying semi-conscious and writhing in pain.

They summoned an ambulance and shifted him to a nearby hospital where he succumbed after a few minutes.

"He was an expert on reptiles, especially snakes. He even had emergency vaccines and a pump to remove poison at home. Despite all precautions, we are sad that he met his end in this manner," Khanna said.

The incident is akin to the death of the famous Australian conservationist Steve Irwin in September 2006 when he was shooting for a Discovery Channel programme undersea when a poisonous stingray (fish) attacked him. Steve died later.

Khanna assured Ranade's family that since he was the sole breadwinner, the organisation would provide all necessary assistance to his surviving family members.

Ranade was the first person Mumbaikars would contact in case of any encounters with reptiles or other wild creatures in and around the city.

During the great Mumbai floods of July 26, 2005, Ranade had rescued nearly 100 snakes from different parts of the city and after treating them, released them in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP).


Monday, October 26, 2009

वाइल्ड लाइफ तिच्या 'डोळ्यां'तून

अंड आणि त्याला पडलेलं छोटसं भोक आणि त्यातून कोणीतरी अन्नरस शोषून घेतल्याची फ्रेम... लहान मुलांचं होणारं शोषण यावर काढलेला हा फोटो पाहिल्यावर मन विचार करायला लागतं..

काळसर तपकिरी रंगाची विंचवाची मादी आणि तिच्या पाठीवर असलेली छोटसं पिल्लू... आक्रमकतेने दंश करण्यासाठी तयार असलेला हिरवा साप... निसर्गातल्या विविध वन्य प्राण्यांना आपल्या कॅमेरारूपी डोळ्यांनी टिपलंय ठाण्यातल्या तरुण वाइल्डलाइफ फोटोग्राफर वेदवती पडवळने.

नुकताच अमरावतीच्या 'नेचर कन्झरव्हेशन सोसायटी', 'मेळघाट टायगर रिर्झव्ह', झूओलॉजी विभाग आणि एसजीबी, अमरावती युनिर्व्हसिटी यांच्यावतीने घेण्यात आलेल्या फोटोग्राफी स्पधेर्मध्ये वेदवतीच्या 'स्कॉपिर्अन विथ बेबीज' या फोटोला प्रथम पारितोषिकाने सन्मानित करण्यात आलंय. तसंच डिपार्टमेण्ट ऑफ सायन्स अॅण्ड टेक्नॉलजीने आयोजित केलेल्या राष्ट्रीय स्तरावरच्या फोटोग्राफी स्पधेर्मध्ये 'कॉन्सेप्टच्युअल' विषयातल्या 'चाइल्ड अॅब्यूज' या छायाचित्राला दुसऱ्या क्रमांकाचं पारितोषिक जाहीर झालं आहे.

युरोप खंडामध्ये २४ मे 'नॅशनल पार्क डे' म्हणून साजरा केला जातो. त्यानिमित्ताने तिथे जगभरातल्या नामांकित फोटोग्राफर्सची निवडक छायाचित्र प्रदशिर्त केली जातात. गेली दोन वर्षं वेदवतीचे फोटो या आंतरराष्ट्रीय प्रदर्शनात प्रदशिर्त होत आहेत. 'फोटोग्राफी सोसायटी ऑफ इंडिया'च्या बाराव्या आंतरराष्ट्रीय फोटोग्राफी प्रदर्शनात तिचे फोटो रसिकांच्या पसंतीस उतरले होते. गेल्या वषीर् केरळमध्ये 'बटरफ्लाय आर्ट फाऊंडेशन'ने भरवलेल्या प्रदर्शनात तिला 'सटिर्फिकेट ऑफ एक्सलन्स'ने सन्मानित केलं होतं. ४९व्या महाराष्ट्र राज्य कला प्रदर्शनातही तिची छायाचित्रांना रसिकांच्या मनाचा ठाव घेतला.

वेदवती जे. जे. इन्स्टिट्यूट ऑफ आर्टच्या कमशिर्यल आर्ट शाखेची पदवीधर. फोटोग्राफी हा तिचा खास विषय आणि तिची पॅशन. गेली पाच वर्षं सातत्याने ती फोटोग्राफी करत आहे. त्यातही नेचर आणि वाइल्डलाइफ फोटोग्राफी हा तिचा आवडता विषय. ठाण्यातले वाइल्डलाइफ फोटोग्राफर युवराज गुर्जर यांच्यासोबत ती साताऱ्याजवळच्या कास पठारावर गेली होती. तिथे तिथला निसर्ग आणि तिथल्या अद्भुत वन्यजीवनाशी, सजीवांशी परिचय झाला. जंगलातली जैवविविधता, निसर्गाचे विभ्रम यांनी तिच्या मनाला भुरळ घातली आणि तिचा वाइल्डलाइफ फोटोग्राफीचा प्रवास सुरू झाला. त्यानंतर तिने मागे वळून पाहिलेच नाही. भारतातल्या गोरूमारा, गीर, वेलावदार, जिम कॉबेर्ट, कान्हा, बांधवगड, भरतपूर, रणथंबोर, बोंडला अशा अनेक जंगलांत आणि अभयारण्यांमध्ये जाऊन तिने आपली 'पॅशन' जपली. याकाळात तिने वन्यप्राण्याचं जीवन आपल्या कॅमेऱ्याने अत्यंत कल्पकतेने टिपलं. त्यातही तिने टिपलेले वाघांचे फोटो पाहण्यासारखेच आहेत. वाघांचे फोटो काढणं ही तिची खास आवड असल्याचं ती सांगते.

आपलं वेड जोपासण्यासाठी ती दर रविवारी येऊरच्या जंगलामध्ये फिरायला जाते. तिथेच तिला एक नवी वाट मिळाली ती 'मायक्रो' फोटोग्राफीची. यामध्येही तिने आपलं कसब दाखवलं आहे. कमी वयात वेदवतीने आपल्या करिअरचा खूप पुढचा टप्पा गाठला असून तिने व्यवसाय म्हणूनही हेच क्षेत्र निवडलं आहे. ठाण्यात तिचा स्वत:चा स्टुडिओही आहे.

तिच्या या पॅशनबद्दल ती सांगते, जंगलातल्या खाचखळग्यांच्या आणि धुळीच्या रस्त्यांवरून फिरणं, जीपमधून तासन्तास भटकणं मला आवडतं. निसर्गाची अद्भुत रूपं पाहिल्यावर मन चकित होतं आणि तेच मी माझ्या कॅमेरात पकडण्याचा प्रयत्न करते. जंगलामध्ये जीपमधून १५-२० फुटांवरच्या वाघाचं किंवा प्राण्याचा फोटो काढण्यासाठी मानसिक संतुलन पक्कं असावं लागतं. त्यासाठी मेहनत आणि सरावाची गरज असते.

- प्रकाश पिटकर

Sunday, October 25, 2009

'Giant' orb web spider discovered

Orb-weaviing spider Nephila inaurata
Orb-weaving spiders can spin webs of up to 1m (3ft 3in) in diameter

A new and rare species of "giant" orb web spider has been discovered in Africa and Madagascar.

In the journal Plos One, researchers describe Nephila komaci as the largest web spinning spider known to science.

Only the females of this groups of species are giants, with a leg span of up to 12cm (4.7in); the male spiders are tiny by comparison.

Scientists say the female spiders are capable of spinning webs that reach up to 1m (3ft 3in) in diameter.

Orb-weaving spiders are a widespread group which take their name from the round webs they typically spin.

Diagram of orb-weaving spider body Nephila komaci
The few preserved female specimens had bodies almost 4cm (1.5in) long

The new spider was identified by Matjaz Kuntner, a biologist from the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and his colleague Jonathan Coddington, from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

Dr Kuntner told BBC News that the discovery was "very unusual" because Nephila spiders were so well-studied and so large.

But this species is so elusive that even Dr Kuntner has not seen one live. He was able to identify the species from a specimen he first examined in 2000.

The giant female was in a collection belonging to the Plant Protection Research Institute in Pretoria, South Africa.

"It did not match any described species," said Dr Kuntner.

In his search through more than 2,500 samples from 37 museums, no further specimens turned up and he assumed the spider must be extinct.

But when a colleague in South Africa found three more of the spiders, it became apparent that they belonged to this same new species.

Nephila komaci
Male Nephila spiders look tiny in comparison to "giant" females

The discovery will enable scientists to study the evolution of the dramatic size difference between male and female Nephila spiders.

Dr Kuntner explained that the widely accepted theory was that evolutionary pressure was causing female "gigantism", with the females increasing in size in order to produce larger numbers of offspring.

He and his colleague, Jonathan Coddington, from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, fear the rare spider might be endangered.

"Its range is restricted and all known localities lie within two endangered biodiversity hotspots: Maputaland and Madagascar," said Dr Coddington.

Dr Kuntner named the species in honour of his best friend and fellow scientist Andrej Komac, who recently died in an accident.