Can Microfragmenting Save Coral?

A Healthy Reef in Indonesia

A Healthy Reef in Indonesia

In the lower Florida Keys, a coral breakthrough has been made. Due to the warming and acidification of the oceans, almost ¼ of all the world’s coral has died in the past few decades. But now, there may be a solution.

Dr. David Vaughan, a marine biologist and the executive director of Mote Tropical Research Laboratory, accidentally found a “quick grow” technique for coral, which he now calls “microfragmenting.”

Eight years ago, while moving a coral colony from one tank to another, some polyps that had grown over the substrate onto the bottom of the tank broke off. Vaughan assumed he had killed those polyps, but a few days later they had doubled in number on the glass bottom.

This is how Vaughan discovered the amazing healing ability of coral. When damaged it races to regrow, perhaps to prevent territory loss. This is the basis of Vaughan’s latest ambitious project – one of the largest attempted coral restorations ever. With this technique, transplanted coral can grow up to fifty times faster than they would in the wild.

Vaughan and his team have already begun transplanting 4,000 microfragments from the nursery into the wild. And, although some parrotfish predation halted initial efforts, new steps are effectively combating this issue.

It seems that microfragmenting holds much promise. Dr. Vaughan is optimistic: “At worst, we’re buying time. At best, we could restore the ecosystem.”

 

Strange Species Believed Extinct Spotted in Afghanistan

For the first time in 60 years, the Kashmir musk deer was spotted in Afghanistan. Four individual deer were reported in a study recently published in Oryx Magazine. The last recorded sighting of the vampire-like fanged species dates back to 1948, when it was seen by a Dutch survey team passing through the area.

This news comes long after the species was believed to have gone extinct. The small deer were relentlessly targeted by poachers and wildlife traffickers who sought their scent glands, worth their weight in gold. The glands contain a pheromone frequently used in perfume and currently fetch $45,000 per kilo on the black market.

The deer are small, standing below two feet, and are native to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. They prefer rocky alpine habitats and rugged forested areas. Six similar species are found in Asia, but the Kashmir species is the only one listed as endangered. The “fangs” for which the deer are known are actually tusks that males use during rutting (mating) season to spar with other males and attract females.

The authors of the study are quick to note that while the recent sightings bode well for the deer, the species is still at risk. Efforts to end poaching and reduce habitat loss must be ongoing in order for the species to fully recover. One of the authors, Peter Zahler, calls the musk deer “one of Afghanistan’s living treasures” and, along with the snow leopard, comprises the “natural heritage of this struggling nation,” and must be saved.

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Saving the White Lion

A few weeks ago, two white lion cubs were born in a Belgrade Zoo and are reported to be in great health.  A zoo volunteer reports that they will not, however, be staying there long.  This is due to both the popularity of the rare cubs and the exchange program in which the Belgrade Zoo participates.

White lions are not albino. Their coloring is a recessive trait that results from a less potent mutation in the same gene that causes albinism. Their condition, technically referred to as leucism, is characterized by reduced production of all pigments, not just melanin (as in albinism). White tigers are so colored because of a similar mutation.

Their white or light blonde coat makes these lions quite striking and has accorded them significant spiritual importance in Africa. Although the first recorded sighting of one of these big cats was not until 1938, they are thought to be indigenous to the Timbavati region of South Africa. Zulu shamans believe these cats come from the stars and inhabit Earth to fulfill a special purpose as messengers from God.  The white lions are a sacred animal in South Africa and have come to be regarded as guardians of the land.

Sadly, the presence of the white lions in their native habitat has dwindled because of the commercial demand from zoos and circuses. In addition, the cats are often used in camps where tourists go to pay to hunt various exotic African species.

One woman is fighting to protect these remarkable cats. In 2002, Linda Tucker purchased 5,000 acres of land in Timbavati, home to several white lions, and started the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT). Today, several lion ecologists live on the property to ensure the health of the animals and discourage poaching.  This approach seems to be working, as three small prides are thriving on the WLT land.   To watch a video of the white lion cubs in Serbia, click here.   Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset   Linda-Story-2

Ingenious New Way to Track Polar Bears

Formerly, scientific researchers studying polar bears had no choice but to tranquilize the animals in order to fit collars and collect samples if they needed information.  Now, learning more about the white bear of the north may be as simple as locating a few footprints.

A new research method involves collecting snow around the prints the bears leave behind as they trek across the Arctic, melting down that snow, and filtering it to extract DNA from the remaining cells.

On a recent WWF expedition to the Svalbard Islands of Norway, researchers had great success using this procedure.  Snow was collected from 10 prints left by a female polar bear.  DNA evidence showed that a seal and seagull were both present.  The seal blood present indicated that the bear had killed the seal.  Scientists at the French genetic firm Spygen speculated that the seagull arrived later to feast on the leftovers.

The implications of extracting DNA from footprints are far reaching, as just one cell can provide much information.  This technique has also been used successfully on a brown bear track left in the mud and Scientists at the University of Grenoble are hoping to use a similar method to analyze water samples and determine what species of fish and amphibians are present.

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WWF Cameras Catch Rare Asiatic Black Bear

The endangered species was spotted in the Quang Nam Province of Vietnam.  Its presence in the forests there indicates increased ecosystem health after the start of the ambitious Carbon and Biodiversity Programme.  The initiative, which tracks wild animals with camera traps and implements a “forest guard” of law enforcement officers trained to combat poaching, seems to be off to a great start.

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Obama’s Expansion of Marine Reserve is a Huge Victory

As a part of his year of action, President Obama has just expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. It is now the largest marine reserve in the world, and six times larger than the original reserve at 490,000 square miles (nearly twice the size of Texas). The protected area surrounding 7 U.S. controlled islands between Hawaii and American Samoa represents a major conservation victory.

The reserve is completely off limits to commercial fishing, dumping, and deep sea mining in order to better protect the vulnerable coral reefs, seamounts, and unique marine ecosystems of this area.  (Seamounts are undersea mountains formed by volcanic activity often host to incredible biodiversity hotspots.)  The expansion will also better protect marine animals with “large migration and foraging ranges that stretch throughout the area,” like sea turtles, many marine mammals, seabirds and manta rays.

This proclamation comes on the heels of the National Climate Assessment which states that climate change is causing sea levels and temperatures to rise, putting reefs at greater risk for damage.  The coral is also threatened by ocean acidification, which is increasing 50 times faster than any previously recorded change in millions of years.

Such a monumental project does not, however, come without complications.  Policing such a large territory will be difficult.  The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard was already stretched thin protecting the former boundaries of the reserve.  Enforcing the fishing ban will require finding individual boats conducting illegal activity, or “pirate fishing,” over an immense territory.  So far, the Obama administration has not made public any plans for enforcing the proclamation, but the use of drones and GPS tracking is being considered.

A more preemptive strategy is also in the works.  Secretary of State John Kerry hopes the Port State Measures agreement, an international treaty to ban illegal fish from the market, will reduce the need for vast security measures in the new reserve.  11 nations have already signed, but before the treaty is official, 25 nations must agree.  Nonetheless, Kerry hopes to have it done within a year.

Although the plan requires some further development, experts laud Obama’s efforts.  The new Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is testament to the expanding political interest in protecting our oceans.

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