Deep in the wilderness of Finnish Lapland, far above the Arctic Circle, brothers Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki herd the last wild reindeer. The filmmaker, ethnobiologist Jessica Oreck, has gained renown for her study through film of the way humans interact with nature. The documentary is not yet available to the public, but was nominated for best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival. A short clip is available here, and I highly recommend taking a look and considering seeing it in its entirety when it comes out!
All over the world, eel populations are in steep decline. These mysterious creatures have a complex life cycle that includes a stage (following the larval stage), in which they are referred to as glass eels and are only a few inches long. In the U.S., the decline of the American Eel prompted a 2007 petition to have them added to the endangered species list. The proposal was denied; however, there will be another chance to have them added in 2015. In Japan, the country with the highest eel consumption rate (70% of the global catch), has listed one species as endangered. This act alone, though, is not nearly enough.
Vast quantities of glass eels are captured and sent to Japanese aquaculture farms to be raised for sushi, in addition to being threatened by “changing ocean currents, disease, pollutants, fisheries, barriers to migration [such as dams] and freshwater habitat loss.” The issue of over harvesting, which has profoundly negative effects on eel populations, is not being helped by the rising value of the eels. In Europe, only 1% of previous number of glass eels migrating are still doing so.
In America, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is closing fisheries on the East Coast to allow for eel recovery. Japanese researchers are taking perhaps more direct steps to heal eel populations. At the National Research Institute of Aquaculture in Shibushi, scientists have developed an efficient captive breeding system. Although the sustainability of the program may not be perfect due to fossil fuel heating and use of fish meal as a food source for the eels, 99% of glass eels cultured survive into the next life stage. While the glass phase seems simple enough to support, it is the life stage preceding the glass stage that proves problematic.
What makes the the larval eel, or Leptocephali, so unique is the “transparent gelatinous material [making up their bodies] that functions to store energy.” The Leptocephali are so difficult to culture because of their unique diet, which is unlike that other marine larvae that feed on zooplankton. At this point in their life cycle, the eels feed on marine snow, which is “composed of materials released by phytoplankton that mix with other free material in the ocean and are colonized by microorganisms.” Naturally, this food source is difficult to develop for use in captivity. Researchers have developed a pink paste substitute made of shark eggs, soy protein, and various vitamins. This method will only last so long, however, because the preferred shark, the Spiny dogfish, is listed as vulnerable.
Despite a few set backs, it does seem that the Japan’s captive breeding programs will, and are already, make a positive impact.
Cousin to the Oncilla (AKA the tigrina), the newly dubbed Southern tigrina bears a strong resemblance to the species it was mistaken for. The only physical characteristics that distinguish it from the Oncilla are its slightly darker coloration, slightly larger spots, slightly shorter tail, and slightly more rounded ears. Analysis of DNA, however, has revealed striking differences. The genetic “gulf” between the two cats is as great as between any two cat species, despite their ultra-similar appearances. The two cats are, in fact, two different species.
Interestingly enough, one species turning out to be two has happened before. The Nile crocodile, along with the tigrina, is what scientists are calling “cryptic species.” The Nile crocodile is actually a group of two species that are only distantly related.
Who better to take nature photography than the rangers of the U.S. Department of the Interior?
A rather common marine creature with an unusual ability, the parchment tube worm (Chaetopterus variopedatus) secretes a mucus that glows blue. The worm is named for its habit of forming paper-like cylindrical tubes around itself and inhabits shallow coastal waters in temperate and tropical climates.
The bioluminescence of the parchment tube worm is uncommon for several reasons. For one, most other species of tube worms have no form of bioluminescence at all. In addition, the striking blue color of the slime is itself a rarity. The reason that green bioluminescence is more common is because of the frequency of green light, which is longer than that of blue and purple light and will therefore travel farther through water.
Although the bioluminescence of the parchment tube worms is not a new discovery, scientists with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC San Diego and Connecticut College have decided to reopen the case after a 50 year dormancy in order to learn more. One scientist, Dimitri Deheyn, has determined that the glow is made possible by a specific “photoprotein” that does not require oxygen to function, a noteworthy characteristic as bioluminescence normally occurs when two chemicals react in the presence of oxygen.
Scientists are unsure of the practical function of the mucus, but say it is likely either a way to attract prey or to ward off potential invaders of the worm’s home (“the glowing mucus could stick to an intruder, making it more visible to its own predators”). Another theory is that the mucus somehow plays a role in the formation of the worm’s tubes. However, the blue color remains a mystery.
In another plot twist, the strange bioluminescence seems also to depend on vitamin B12, or riboflavin, yet it cannot be synthesized by the worm itself. Researchers have come to believe that the worms must either be consuming the riboflavin or obtaining it through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that is able to synthesize it.
Inside a government warehouse in Denver, Colorado sat six tons of illegal elephant ivory. On November 14, all of it was be crushed in the jaws of a rock-crushing machine. President Obama insisted upon this course of action, and “the crush” was done in front of visiting foreign dignitaries, as well as TV cameras. The hope is that the President’s dedication to ending the illegal ivory trade will inspire other world leaders to do the same, as well as send a message to illegal traffickers that the trade will soon grind to a halt. Those six tons of ivory, however, represent only a small fraction of the ivory circulating through the back channels of the illegal market.
One way to combat the poaching is to pass laws making the trade less profitable and increase the penalty for those guilty, and the Obama administration is beginning to do just that. Unfortunately, elephants have already been pushed to the edge. Every day, roughly 100 elephants are killed for their ivory, feeding the voracious $10 billion dollar industry. With a new surge in demand, traffickers now have the means to poach elephants using more advanced methods. In Zimbabwe, poachers killed 300 elephants using cyanide.
Aside from the obvious detriment to elephants, some nations descending into terrorist-induced chaos also have the ivory trade to blame. Al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization that attacked the Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi, obtains 40% of its funds from ivory blood money. In 2012, incumbent secretary of state Hillary Clinton became so concerned with the terrorism link that she declared wildlife trafficking a national security threat.