Science News in Brief
Scientists now have statistical evidence that whole branches from the tree of life are usually lost at once in large extinction events. So, essentially, related species vanish together because they are similar, putting them at risk to the same environmental pressure. This finding is based on an examination of past extinctions, but could help current conservation efforts.
A Not So Fun Fact: 24 of the 36 big cat species are either endangered or threatened.
A fragment of bone was recently unearthed in Devon, England. This 9,000 year old bone has cut marks from a knife-like stone tool. This suggests that the body was dismembered and possibly consumed. Archeologists believe that the bone damage is evidence that Britons in the Mesolitic Period practiced burial rituals and possibly even ritual cannibalism.
Greek Lesson: Mesos=middle; lithos=stone; So Mesolithic=middle stone age
Many scientists support the use of geo-engineering to slow the effects of global warming. These methods include giant solar mirrors and spraying a form of aerosol to create “false” clouds. However, new evidence suggests that this may exacerbate drought in many parts of the world., as they would cause drastic changes in precipitation levels. This does not mean that all geo-engineering must stop, however. Instead, the effects should be studied more closely.
Craziest Geo-Engineering Idea: According to Roger Angel of the University of Arizona, we should set up an array of deflecting lenses at a point between Earth and the Sun to form a sunshade.
Feature Story: Wildlife Under Increased Attack
What do European Bison, Freshwater dolphins, and African Elephants all have in common? In past months, they have been under intense pressures from humans, putting their future in jeopardy.
Freshwater dolphins living in the Amazon river basin are being attacked and killed by local fishermen at an increasing rate. Local fisherman have begun to hit the boto dolphins with machetes and harpoons and left to die. The reason for these attacks is not all together certain. The killings may be a response to the fear that the boto are stealing fish and ruining fishing gear. They also may be caused by the superstition that the animals bring bad luck, such as causing unwanted pregnancy. A research team found 18 dead dolphins, six of which were botos ( Inia geoffrensis ), also known as the Amazon river dolphin or pink river dolphin, and 12 were tucuxi ( Sotalia fluviatilis ), another species that lives in the Amazon basin. The dolphins were not injured beyond their fatal wounds, meaning that the people who killed them did so not for food or bait, but to eliminate them. Researchers stress that an education program which teach children to avoid superstitious and economic conflicts with animals needs to be employed.
At 2 meters tall, 3 meters long, and weighing in at 900 kilos, the European bison or Bison Bonasus is Europe’s largest mammal, but its size does not protect it from its dance on the brink of extinction. During World War I, the bison was poached for meat extensively, and they were almost hunted to extinction. There were none left in the wild. This was a terrible genetic bottleneck: when a population is decimated by some wide-scale event. Only the survivors are able to reproduce and pass on their genes, usually limiting the genetic alleles of the species. This in turn limits the species ability to adapt to environmental change. After the war, the 50 odd bison remaining in captivity were put into an extensive breeding program. There were only 4 bulls and 3 fertile females. The breeding program was successful, as the bison now number 800 individuals. However, the species is highly inbred. 90% of the gene pool of the species can be traced to one mating pair. Genetically, there are only 25 individuals left. This is well below the 50 genetic individuals required (according to conservation agencies) for a safe population. The remaining population resides in the Bialowieza forest in Poland.
Also, the number of African poached for their ivory is rising exponentially again. In the past five years, 38,000 elephants have been killed annually. This has lead to fears that another ivory holocaust (1970-1980), when Africa’s elephant population plummeted from 1.3 million to 5000,000. At this point in time, if this level of poaching continues, the elephant will be extinct in most of Africa in a mere 15 years. The market for ivory is primarily Asian, where the tusk is used for trinkets and art. This booming market has attracted many organized crime syndicates who can exploit the poor anti-poaching measures taken in many African country to boost their revenue. Once the tusks are shipped out of Africa, it is nigh impossible to determine the source of the ivory. Genetic testing is now being used: cross-referencing DNA found in the tusks to a database of elephant DNA. This reseach has found that poachers will often hammer at a single population repeatedly to obtain their quotas, decimating many populations. To counter this level of organization, Interpol must become increasingly involved in the charge against poaching and ivory trafficking.
The Cosmic Perspective
In the past century, a huge number of animals have gone extinct. These range from the Thylacine (a Tasmanian dog-like marsupial), to the Caspian tiger, to the Baiji (a Chinese fresh-water dolphin, which was declared extinct as recently as 2006). This die-off was not caused by a natural catastrophe. There was no giant meteorite; no ice age. We caused these extinctions. All of us, either directly or indirectly had some role in their demise. Whether you hunted them for sport, or just liked shampoos made from palm oil, we all facilitated their extinction. Thankfully, we humans have a unique ability. We have the chance to save them. And this is only one mere class of fauna! As Chief Seattle said,
You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.