Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pictures: 7 Cat Species Found in 1 Forest—A Record

Leopard Spotted

Photograph courtesy Kashmira Kakati
Caught by a camera trap, a leopard prowls under the dense canopy of the Jeypore-Dehing lowland rain forest in the northeast Indian state of Assam (map).

Released in February, the picture was taken during a two-year survey supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The research found seven cat species in a 354-square-mile (570-square-kilometer) range—the highest diversity of cat species yet photographed in a single area.

Wildlife biologist Kashmira Kakati had been studying the gibbons of Jeypore-Dehing and became curious about the predator tracks she kept finding on the ground.
"I said, I need to find out what's there," Kakati told National Geographic News. "Nobody had any clue. People who had been in the forest 30 years didn't know."

With 30 digital camera traps, Kakati captured not only the cats but a number of other rare forest animals between 2007 and 2009. "Even I was surprised by the result," she said. (See related pictures of a rare Chinese wildcat snapped by a camera trap.)

(Related: National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)

Cloudy Coat

Photograph courtesy Kashmira Kakati
The camera-trap pictures include this night shot of a rare clouded leopard, so named for the nimbus-like pattern of its coat.

The clouded leopard is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which means the species faces a high risk of extinction. The cat's population is on the decline, mostly due to loss of habitat from deforestation. (See a picture of rare clouded leopard cubs born at a Virginia zoo.)

In Jeypore-Dehing, the cat is so seldom seen that local villagers don't even have a name for it, Kakati said.

Little Leopard

Photograph courtesy Kashmira Kakati
Seen in another Jeypore-Dehing camera-trap picture, the leopard cat is a diminutive and distant relative of the better-known spotted predator from which it takes its name.
The species is commonly recorded across its range in Asia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Leopard cats are considered to have generally stable populations, except for a few subspecies that are close to extinction.

Golden Moment

Photograph courtesy Kashmira Kakati
The Jeypore-Dehing rain forest also houses the Asiatic golden cat, which is listed as near threatened—but on the verge of becoming vulnerable—by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In addition to the seven cat species, Kakati's camera traps recorded 12 other carnivore species in the Jeypore-Dehing range, including a dhole, or Asiatic wild dog; the Malayan sun bear; and several species of the catlike mammal the civet.

Jungle Cat

Photograph courtesy Kashmira Kakati
The Jeypore-Dehing range is hemmed in by oil, coal, and logging operations that threaten wildlife, Kakati said. Just 69 square miles (111 square kilometers) of the forest, an area known as the Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, is off-limits to development.

In addition, some animals—including the jungle cat pictured above—appear to be migrating to Jeypore-Dehing from adjoining forests to escape severe poaching, Kakati said.

"The range has become a refuge," she said. "Somehow the animals have managed to hold on."

Rear March

Photograph courtesy Kashmira Kakati
The camera traps recorded about 45 species of mammals—including primates, deer, porcupines, wild pigs, and rodents—that likely serve as prey for the rain forest's carnivores, such as the female tiger pictured above. (Related: "India's Tigers Number Half as Many as Thought.")

Although many cat species are at risk due to poaching for their bones and pelts, people in Jeypore-Dehing don't hunt the cats themselves, Kakati said. But locals do poach the wild deer and pigs, cutting in on carnivores' food sources.

Spotty Protection

Photograph courtesy Kashmira Kakati
The researchers hope the discovery of so many rare cat species in Jeypore-Dehing, including this threatened marbled cat, will encourage the Indian government to protect a wider portion of the Eastern Himalaya region from development and poaching.

"The entire forest here should be protected as a single conservation landscape, free of disturbance and connected by wildlife corridors between the disjunct sections," Ravi Chellam, of the Wildlife Conservation Society's India Program, said in a statement.

—Dan Morrison

National Geographic Daily News

Monday, March 22, 2010

Butterflies, beetles, and dragonflies declining in Europe

Habitat loss is having a serious impact on Europe's butterflies, beetles and dragonflies, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said today.

Nine percent of butterflies, 11 percent of saproxylic beetles (beetles that depend on decaying wood) and 14 percent of dragonflies are threatened with extinction within Europe, the Switzerland-based conservation organization said in a news release.


Photo of beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo meridionalis) by Jean-Pierre Boudot

"Some species are so threatened that they are at risk of global extinction and are now included in the latest update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species," IUCN said.

"When talking about threatened species, people tend to think of larger, more charismatic creatures such as pandas or tigers, but we mustn't forget that the small species on our planet are just as important, and are also in need of conservation action," said Jane Smart, Director, IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. "Butterflies, for instance, play a hugely pivotal role as pollinators in the ecosystems in which they live."


Nickerl's fritillary (Melitaea aurelia)

Photo by Chris van Swaay, De Vlinderstichting/Dutch Butterfly Conservation

According to the new studies commissioned by the European Commission and carried out by IUCN, Butterfly Conservation Europe and the European Invertebrates Survey, nearly a third (31 percent) of Europe's 435 butterfly species have declining populations and nine percent are already threatened with extinction.

"For example, the Madeiran large white butterfly (Pieris wollastoni) is Critically Endangered (possibly extinct), having not been seen on Madeira for at least 20 years, and the Macedonian grayling butterfly (Pseudochazara cingovskii) in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is also Critically Endangered because quarrying activities are reducing its habitat," IUCN said.


Coenonympha orientalis

Photo by Neil Thompson

A third of Europe's butterflies (142 species) are found nowhere else in the world, and 22 of these endemic species (15 percent) are globally threatened.

"Most butterflies at risk are confined to southern Europe; their main threat is habitat loss, most often caused by changes in agricultural practices, either through intensification or abandonment, or to climate change, forest fires and the expansion of tourism,"' said Annabelle Cuttelod, IUCN Coordinator of the European Red List.

For the first time, saproxylic beetles have been assessed for the IUCN Red List.


Cucujus cinnaberinus

Photo by Nicolas Gouix and Hervé Brustel

"These beetles are unique because they are highly dependent on decaying wood, particularly in forests, and play an essential role in recycling nutrients," IUCN said.

"A third of the 431 species assessed are unique to Europe. Almost 11 percent (46 species) are at risk of being lost from the region, and seven percent (29 species) are threatened with extinction at the global level. A further 13 percent (56 species) are listed as Near Threatened within Europe."

The main long-term threats to saproxylic beetles are habitat loss due to logging and the decline in the number of mature trees.

The violet click beetle (Limoniscus violaceous) is an Endangered species that typically lives in large tree cavities containing wood mould. It is under threat from changing woodland management practices, IUCN said.

Dragonflies occur almost everywhere in Europe, with the highest numbers in southern France, the foothills of the Alps and parts of the Balkan Peninsula, accfording to the IUCN study.


Black percher (Diplacodes lefebvrii)

Photo by Jean-Pierre Boudot

"Fourteen percent of the 130 dragonfly species assessed are at risk; five of these are threatened with global extinction. A further 11 percent are considered Near Threatened within Europe.

"Like butterflies, most of the threatened species are confined to southern parts of Europe. Increasingly hot and dry summers combined with intensified water extraction for drinking and irrigation are causing the dragonflies' wetland habitats to dry up."

Three of the most threatened dragonflies of Europe are endemic to the brooks and small rivers of Greece and nearby countries, including Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey. If no action is taken species like the Greek red damsel may become extinct during the first half of this century, IUCN said.

"Nature's future is our future, and if it fails, we will fail too," said EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik. "The ecosystem services nature provides, like the provision of food and water and climate regulation, are the vital backbone of our future prosperity. So when a Red List like this raises the alarm, the implications for our own future are clear. This is a worrying decline."


NatGeo News Watch

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Breezy Love, or the Sacking of the Bees

Olivia JudsonOlivia Judson on the influence of science and biology on modern life.

Birds do it. Bees do it. Beetles, bats and light summer breezes do it.

I refer, of course, to that raunchiest of sex acts: the pollination of flowers.

Bee on FlowerRuby Washington/The New York Times SEDUCTION Bee and flower meet.

When it comes to sex, plants have more headaches than the rest of us. One problem is that they can’t travel about to find a mate — they are, after all, rooted to the spot — so they have to depend on intermediaries to bring egg and sperm cells together.

For mosses and ferns, the intermediary is water. For conifers like pine trees and cypresses, the intermediary is wind. But for most flowering plants, the intermediaries are animals.

Flowering plants are the largest, most successful group of plants on the planet today. There are thought to be more than quarter of a million different species — nearly 10 times more than all the other types of plants added together. (To put things in perspective, the number of living species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals combined is less than 58,000.) The flowering plants include roses and waterlilies, grasses and oak trees, tulips and orchids. They include, in short, most of the plants that come to mind when one thinks of vegetation.

It was not always thus. Before the mid-Cretaceous, 100 million years ago or so, flowering plants were scarce: conifers and their relations ruled the landscape. But then, for reasons that are not well understood, flowering plants upstaged all others, and the Earth came into bloom.

Flowering plants were not the first to seduce animals into spreading their pollen for them. Fossils suggest that some earlier groups of plants, now extinct, had evolved a dependency on insects like scorpionflies. Nonetheless, the earliest flowers appear to have been pollinated by insects, and the full-scale blossoming of flowering plants coincides with the rise of animals as go-betweens. Bees, for example, buzzed onto the scene with flowering plants; the evolutionary history, and success, of both groups is intimately linked.

Red FlowersLibrado Romero/The New York Times

The appearance of flowering plants brought a new flamboyance to the planet. Flowers pollinated by animals tend to be big and colorful; they often smell. (To a human, flowers pollinated by bees typically smell pleasant; flowers pollinated by flies tend to smell foul, like rotting meat.) Often, flowers offer something for the animal to eat — a sip of nectar, perhaps. Sometimes, they provide heat.

(One plant that heats its flower is Philodendron solimoesense, an Arum from the South American tropics. In doing so, it turns itself into an assignation hotel for scarab beetles. The beetles arrive in the evening, spend the night feeding and mating, spend the morning recuperating and head off to a new flower later on — complete with pollen from their host. Sure enough, the heat saves the beetles energy. Beetles in a heated flower don’t have to use as many calories to keep warm as they would if they spent the night outdoors.)

Yet, from time to time, flowering plants abandon their animals, evolving instead to throw pollen to the wind. Wind-pollination — if you’re a vocabulary fiend, the technical term is “anemophily,” meaning lover of wind — has evolved at least 65 times in flowering plants, and around 10 percent of the species do it. Indeed, as I mentioned last week, many grasses are pollinated by the wind.

It’s not clear what causes this transition, though there are several ideas. One is that it happens in plants that, although generally pollinated by insects, already have a small capacity for wind pollination — small, light pollen grains, and flowers that can, in principle, catch pollen if it floats past on a breeze. Then, the balance between insects and wind can easily shift. In a tropical forest, for example, the advantages of insects are great: they provide highly targeted pollen-delivery in a complex milieu. But in big open spaces, the wind may do a better job — especially if the climate is inhospitable, and insects are few. Such circumstances may cause a shift away from traits that lure insects, and enhance those that seduce the wind.

A plant that has sacked bees or other insects can make its flowers smaller, less colorful and more aerodynamic. Liberated from the expense of making nectar, it can make more pollen instead. A bee, after all, can only carry so much pollen at once. The wind is not so limited.

And wind-pollinated plants tend to produce huge quantities of pollen. Whereas animal-pollinated plants produce a median of 3,450 pollen grains for every ovule, wind-pollinated plants produce almost 10 times as much. No wonder wind-pollinated plants are the chief causes of eye-itching, nose-tickling human misery. (It’s not just the anemophilous flowering plants that are to blame, though. Wind-blown cypress pollen is a major cause of allergies in some parts of the world.)

This massive production of pollen is usually put down to the inability of wind to make reliable deliveries.

Blue flowerLibrado Romero/The New York Times

Charles Darwin himself suspected the wind of being a fickle and inefficient messenger, and that view has largely held until this day. But there is little actual evidence that wind-pollinated plants have more difficulty getting themselves fertilized than other plants do. (Indeed, plants seem adept at plucking pollen of the right species out of the breeze. How they do this isn’t known.) Moreover, in animals, large numbers of sperm tend to evolve when competition between different males to fertilize a female’s eggs is fierce. In many wind-pollinated species, plants flower all together, and for a brief time. Perhaps wind-pollinated plants face greater competition from their rivals.

But whatever the causes, I’m glad that most plants have not sacked their bees. In a world pollinated only by gusts and breezes, spring would be less beautiful. And, for many of us, it would also be more tortured.

Story and additional Notes

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My Fathers Garden

I came across this really neat short file my Mirko Faienza called "My Fathers Garder". Thanks to Rahul Natu for sharing it.

It is a really short file of less than seven minutes, detecting a day in a small backyard garden. It has captures several insects and spiders. This I feel is an excellent example of how urban biodiversity can be preserved in such small gardens and how interesting it could be to spend some time watching it. I am sure you will enjoy it. Do leave your comments if you like it.

[For better viewing experience, enjoy it full screen]

My Father's Garden from Mirko Faienza on Vimeo.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fossils of snake eating dino eggs found in India

BANGKOK — The fossilized remains of a 67 million-year-old snake found coiled around a dinosaur egg offer rare insight into the ancient reptile's dining habits and evolution, scientists said Tuesday.

The findings, which appeared in Tuesday's issue of the PLoS Biology journal, provide the first evidence that the 11.5-foot- (3.5-meter-) long snake fed on eggs and hatchlings of saurapod dinosaurs, meaning it was one of the few predators to prey on the long-necked herbivores.

They also suggest that, as early as 100 million years ago, snakes were developing mobile jaws similar to those of today's large-mouthed snakes, including vipers and boas.

"This is an early, well preserved snake, and it is doing something. We are capturing it's behavior," said University of Michigan paleontologist Jeff Wilson, who is credited with recognizing the snake bones amid the crushed dinosaur eggs and bones of hatchlings.

"We have information about what this early snake did for living," he said. "It also helps us understand the early evolution of snakes both anatomical and ecologically."

Dhananjay Mohabey of India's Geological Survey discovered the fossilized remains in 1987, but he was only able to make out the dinosaur eggshells and limb bones. Wilson examined the fossils in 2001 and was "astonished" to find a predator in the midst of the sauropod's nest.

"I saw the characteristic vertebral locking mechanism of snakes alongside dinosaur eggshell and larger bones, and I knew it was an extraordinary specimen," Wilson said.

Mohabey theorized that the snake — dubbed Sanajeh indicus, which means "ancient gaped one" in Sanskrit — had just arrived at the nest and was in the process of gobbling a hatchling emerging from its egg. But the entire scene was "frozen in time" when it was hit by a storm or some other disaster and buried under layers of sediment.

"We think the hatchlings had just exited its egg, and the activity attracted the snake," Mohabey said, adding that the site in Western state of Gujarat has revealed about 30 sauropod nests and at least two other snake specimens.

Michael Benton of the University of Bristol, also writing in the PLoS Biology, said it can be difficult to determine the behavior of ancient organisms. But he said that it was "most likely, as the authors argue, that this snake was waiting and snatching juveniles as they hatched."

"Of course, we cannot be entirely sure unless further specimens come to light showing the bones of juvenile dinosaurs in the stomach region of the snake," Benton said.

Ashok Sahni, a senior scientist at the Indian National Science Academy who was also not involved in the dig, described the find as "truly remarkable" because it is rare for fossil bones to be preserved at the site of fossilized eggs.

"The scientific significance of the find is that it actually demonstrates behavior in early evolved snakes and the size of chosen prey," he said in an e-mail.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Abrupt end to king cobra research

Subhash Chandra N S, Bangalore, Feb 18, DH News Service:

A documentary film showing a king cobra devouring its female partner on one of the private television channels has turned out to be a bane for the world’s unique radio telemetric project initiated by well known herpetologist Romulus Whitaker to track the movement of the reptile.

The State Forest Department has decided to stop funding the project citing this as a reason.

What would have been a boost for the wildlife conservation in the Western Ghats, will end abruptly. The State Forest Department, in its letter to the expert dated January 4, 2010 has stalled the project citing the telecast in a private channel.

The letter refers to the channel which showed that a female cobra with an embedded chip is killed by a male cobra at the time of mating and says, “In view of this it is decided not to continue the permission beyond its expiry dated March 2010.” The letter also suggests that the research at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) at Suralihalla in Shimoga district should conclude by March 2010.

The research, which began in March 2008, was aimed at understanding the natural history of king cobra. The first ever such project in the world involved micro-chipping the largest venomous snake in the world to study its home range, distance travelled and other aspects so that they would arrive at the conservation strategy for the rare species. The snake is losing its habitat due to several reasons. With already five snakes micro-chipped, the team of five researchers headed by Romulus Whitaker had imported several expensive devices including chips and transmitters, and more than Rs 10 lakh had been spent on the research every year.

Certain results
“After two years, we have arrived at certain results. But they will be complete only after studying more number of cobras. We first embedded chips into five cobras of which one has been devoured and two have been lost. Two are being studied. We need to study their movement, population and other aspects if only granted more time,” informs one of the researchers here.

Expressing surprise over the Forest Department’s directions, he said, “These species naturally eat their own species. They are called as ophio phagus hannah which means snake-eating snakes,” he said.

B K Singh, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden when contacted confirmed about stopping the project.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Red Sanders Red Alert

Tricks carrying Red Sanders seized in Nepal: smugglers are getting increasingly sophisticated at smuggling the valuable timber out of India Click photo to enlarge © Samir Sinha / TRAFFIC India New Delhi, India, 23 December 2009—A series of seizures of Red Sanders, a valuable timber species native to southern India have taken place in the past 48 hours, and indications are that smugglers are getting increasingly more sophisticated in transporting the valuable timber out of India.

According to media reports, more than 50 tonnes of Red Sanders logs were seized on 22 December in Leh, in the far northern State of Jammu and Kashmir, where it was en route to China. One person has been arrested with more arrests expected.

Further reports state that in the Punjab, almost 11 tonnes of the valuable timber have been seized, with follow-up action netting a further 26 tonnes of Red Sanders from Delhi in recent days. Almost 5 tonnes of Organ Pipe Corals were recovered during the same operation, which has seen five arrests to date. Meanwhile, in Dimapur, in the far north-eastern State of Nagaland, close to the borders with Myanmar and China, Forest Department staff seized a truckload of the valuable timber on 22 December.

“It is evident from the spate of seizures taking place that smugglers of Red Sanders are operating on a massive scale and are running highly organized international smuggling rackets,” commented Samir Sinha, Head of TRAFFIC India.

Red Sanders Pterocarpus santalinus is endemic to the southern parts of India’s Eastern Ghats, mainly the State of Andhra Pradesh.

Today the wood, also known as Red Sandalwood, is in great demand in China and Japan, where it is used to make furniture and carvings as well as medicines. In India it is used to make a dye.

Preliminary research by TRAFFIC suggests that off-cuts of Red Sanders from the furniture industry are sold on into the traditional medicine trade in China Click photo to enlarge © James Compton / TRAFFIC Preliminary research by TRAFFIC suggests that while the use of the rare timber for furniture may be the most significant driver of recent Red Sanders smuggling, off-cuts from the furniture industry are then sold on into the traditional medicine trade.

However, the tree species has been heavily overexploited and its export, except in special circumstances, is prohibited under India’s Foreign Trade Policy. It is also protected under the Red Sanders and Sandalwood Transit Rules of Andhra Pradesh Forest Act, 1967 and international trade is controlled through the listing of Pterocarpus santalinus in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

According to their latest annual report, India’s Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) made 15 Red Sanders seizures in 2008–2009. This was slightly down from just over 20 in each of the years since 2005 when the largest total seized was 466 cubic metres of logs in 2005–2006.

Smuggling attempts uncovered often involve the concealment or misdeclaration of the timber in shipments as everything from jute bags to zinc oxide to mustard oil cake and even salt.

Logs have often been intercepted being transported by road from India to China via Nepal.

Since 2006, almost 1000 tonnes of Red Sanders has been recovered from near various Customs and border posts across India, including the Indo-Nepal border. On the Nepal side, over 400 tonnes of the wood has been seized during the same period, almost all of it destined for China.

However, other overland smuggling routes are becoming apparent. In October 2009, a consignment of around 2000 logs was intercepted by DRI officers near Aizawl, in north-eastern India, believed to be en route to China direct from India. Six Chinese nationals were arrested at the scene.

Elsewhere in north-eastern India, according to media reports, at least 100 tonnes of Red Sanders have been seized in Manipur and Mizoram since August 2009, and 600 tonnes seized by the forest department in transit in Dhubri and Burdawan.

According to the DRI report, in 2008–2009, on five occasions the DRI seized shipping containers with Red Sanders en route to Dubai, and in two cases each it was to UAE and Malaysia. However, a recent seizure finds criminals getting more sophisticated in getting the wood aboard ships to be smuggled out of India.

In November 2009, two clearing agents at Chennai port were arrested in a case involving 32 tonnes of Red Sanders logs. The men were said to have used the name of their regular export clients—who were unaware of the scam—and made duplicate shipping bills, complete with the signatures of all Customs officials concerned. They forged rubber stamps and even duplicated the time locks used by Customs to seal export containers meant to ensure their authenticity. The cargo was then cleared by the agents and loaded onto ships and cleared for export without any Customs check. In December 2009, part of the same consignment was uncovered after DRI officials recalled a container destined for Dubai and discovered 339 Red Sanders logs weighing 9 tonnes aboard.

“We are seeing several changes to the nature and scale of the illicit trade in Red Sanders,” said Sinha.

“For example, logs are being transported via different routes overland and are being shipped to the Middle East, although whether this is to markets in that region or it is just being used as a transit point, remains to be seen.

“The DRI are to be congratulated for their diligence in uncovering these smuggling routes and techniques, but as well as stopping the smuggling in India, we urgently need to find out more about what can be done to control the drivers of the Red Sanders demand in China, Japan and elsewhere.”

The Government of India's Ministry of Environment & Forests Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in New Delhi has published an Enforcer's manual on Red Sanders.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Whales, Like Trees, Slow Warming

Whales are the largest animals on the planet, and when it comes to storing carbon, they act like trees in a forest.

blue whale

Whales, like the blue whale here, act like the world's forests, sucking climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere over their lifetime and socking it away.


  • Whaling may have removed as much carbon from the oceans as deforesting much of northern New England.
  • Industrial whaling removed 90 -95 percent of many whale populations over the last 100 years.
  • Restoring whale populations may have the added benefit of sequestering carbon.

It's their parting gift to the world: Each dying whale carries tons of carbon to the sea floor as its massive body sinks, storing it there for centuries where it can't harm the climate.

In this way, whales are like the world's forests, sucking climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere over their lifetime and socking it away. And according to new research, repopulating the oceans with whales could be as good for battling climate change as planting trees.

"If you think about whales and fish in terms of their carbon, there is a potential for using carbon offset credits as an additional incentive for rebuilding this population," said Andrew Pershing of the University of Maine School of Marine Science and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute who presented his results yesterday at a meeting of ocean scientists convened by the American Geophysical Union in Portland, Ore.

Conversely, Pershing noted, commercial whaling may have released large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by pulling whales out of the ocean that would otherwise have fallen to the sea floor.

Related Links:

Pershing estimates that whaling released around 105 million tons of carbon over the last 100 years -- as much carbon as burning most of Oregon's forests, or driving 128,000 Hummers for 100 years -- although these calculations carry several uncertainties.

While the amount of carbon possibly released by whaling over the last 100 years is small compared with the amount that is released annually worldwide -- 7 billion tons -- the amount is comparable to some of the proposed strategies for combating warming, like many reforestation projects or seeding the ocean with iron to increase CO2 uptake by phytoplankton, Pershing said.

Trees convert CO2 directly into wood and leaves through photosynthesis. Whales capture CO2 indirectly. Marine phytoplankton build their tissues through photosynthesis and are eaten by zooplankton, which whales then eat and use to build their colossal bodies. A 90-ton blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, holds about 9.4 tons of carbon, which would be converted to 34 tons of CO2 if it were burned or decomposed completely.

"One key difference between whales and forests is what happens when you've reached your steady state, your maximum population size," Pershing said.

At some point, the forest reaches its maximum density where dying trees are balanced by new growth, and the forest can no longer store any additional carbon, he said. "Marine systems are unique in that the animals and plant life in the surface waters of the ocean, when they die, they can take that carbon with them down to the bottom. A fully populated whale stock will continue to export carbon through sinking of dead whales."

And Pershing notes that other large top predators like bluefin tuna and sharks can have the same effect.

"These guys are huge. They don't have predators. When they die they are very likely to sink and take their biomass to the bottom of the ocean."

Over the last 100 years, whaling removed more than 2 million whales from the Southern Hemisphere alone, said Phillip Clapham, director of the cetacean program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. For many species, this represented 90-95 percent of their total numbers.

Whale blubber was used to make margarine, as lamp or industrial oil, and the meat was sometimes consumed by animals or humans.

Some species have done better than others since the moratorium on whaling, which took effect in 1986. Humpback whales are doing extremely well in most places, Clapham said. But there are only about 2000 blue whales in the Antarctic now, compared to the 369,000 killed by whaling.

As for sequestering carbon, "It's a great idea. I love it." Clapham said. He cautions that he has no way of evaluating Pershing's calculations, but "presuming that they are correct, it certainly is a very novel and innovative idea and another reason to save whales."