2012 July 08 Sunday
White Abalone Endangered Off Southern California

Plummeting white abalone populations off of SoCal.

Scientists from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service report a significant decline of endangered white abalone off the coast of Southern California in the journal Biological Conservation.

"Since 2002, we have been surveying white abalone off San Diego using an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV)," said Kevin Stierhoff, research fisheries biologist at NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, and lead author of the journal article. "In the absence of fishing, we hoped to see the population stabilize or increase. However, our latest assessment using data collected in 2008 and 2010 indicates that the white abalone population has continued to decline by approximately 78 percent over the last ten years."

The abalone breeding strategy does not work well when their population densities get too low.

These results confirm predictions made by scientists in 2001 suggesting that wild populations had dwindled to levels that were too low to support successful reproduction, and that as animals died of natural causes, a new generation would not emerge to replace them. White abalone are "broadcast spawners," projecting eggs and sperm into the water column at the same time for fertilization. If there is not a suitable partner close by, it is unlikely any offspring will be produced.

"Unfortunately we have continued to see white abalone grow larger, older and further apart with no evidence of significant numbers of offspring for the last ten years," said John Butler, a research biologist at NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center and co-author of the article. "While it could be the juveniles are hiding or too difficult to see, it is more likely that the species is just failing to reproduce."

The scientists see a need for captive breeding programs, or else the species will not survive. Wow.

By Randall Parker    2012 July 08 06:59 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2012 April 03 Tuesday
Forage Fish Harvests Should Be Halved

The oceans are being overfished (which is more olds than news).

WASHINGTON – Fishing for herring, anchovy, and other "forage fish" in general should be cut in half globally to account for their critical role as food for larger species, recommends an expert group of marine scientists in a report released today. The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force conducted the most comprehensive worldwide analysis of the science and management of forage fish populations to date. Its report, "Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a crucial link in ocean food webs," concluded that in most ecosystems at least twice as many of these species should be left in the ocean as conventional practice.

A thriving marine ecosystem relies on plenty of forage fish. These small schooling fish are a crucial link in ocean food webs because they eat tiny plants and animals, called plankton, and are preyed upon by animals such as penguins, whales, seals, puffins, and dolphins. They are primary food sources for many commercially and recreationally valuable fish found around North America, such as salmon, tuna, striped bass, and cod. The task force estimated that, globally, forage fish are twice as valuable in the water as in a net—contributing US$11.3 billion by serving as food for other commercially important fish. This is more than double the US$5.6 billion they generate as direct catch.

But what are the prospects for halting the tragedy of the commons on a global scale?

The United States has taken needed steps. But how to do this on a global scale?

In an effort to sustain commercial and recreational fishing for the next several decades, the United States this year will become the first country to impose catch limits for every species it manages, from Alaskan pollock to Caribbean queen conch.

Human populations continue to grow along with buying power for fish. How to stop overfishing in international waters? Also, countries that have short coast lines which cut fishing just leave more fish to be caught by neighboring countries. For example where's the incentive to cut overfishing off of African coasts? Many African countries have short coast lines.

By Randall Parker    2012 April 03 10:28 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2012 March 28 Wednesday
Newly Found Hammerhead Shark Species Endangered

You might think that in the 21st century it should be possible to discover a shark species. Surely big fish have been examined closely enough that all the major fish species have been identified. But no. A new shark species that looks like the scalloped hammerhead has 20 fewer vertebrae (170 versus 190) and they are unfortunately both endangered due to overfishing to get their fins.

Identity confusion between a new, yet unnamed shark species, originally discovered off the eastern United States by Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center (NSU-OC) researchers, and its look-alike cousin—the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark—may threaten the survival of both species.

When an animal or fish has a unique feature that has appeal due to fairly irrational reasons (e.g. belief in aphrodisiac qualities by some large affluent population) I'm hard pressed to see how its extinction (at least outside of zoos and aquariums) can be prevented. We could do with less widespread irrational belief in imaginary medical benefits of rare animals and fish.

This shark ranges over thousands of miles. So how come nobody noticed before it is unique?

According to an April 2012 article in the scientific journal Marine Biology, the new look-alike hammerhead species has now been discovered more than 4,300 miles away near the coast of southern Brazil. This confirms that the original finding was not a local oddity and the new species is much wider spread. The look-alike species may face the same fishery pressures as the real scalloped hammerhead, which is being fished unsustainably for its highly prized fins.

It slip off from the scalloped hammerhead 4.5 million years ago. Will they both go extinct at the same time?

By Randall Parker    2012 March 28 10:17 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2011 January 01 Saturday
Revive Extinct Species?

DNA from several extinct species has been found in good enough condition to enable sequencing. Some of those samples (e.g. for Neanderthal) are undergoing sequencing. So for a likely increasing number of species we will soon have DNA sequences essential to efforts to revive extinct species. Some day the biotechnology will be developed to enable the conversion of DNA sequences into living instances of lost species. Then what?

Once it becomes technologically possible will species revival be done? Think about it from a legal perspective. The world has about 200 sovereign countries. It only takes one country to allow species revival for this to happen. My guess is that at least one government will see an advantage from revival of extinction species. For example, the revived species would draw in tourists, especially if the species had unusual characteristics. Species revival will enable scientists to study the behavior and capabilities of now extinct species. So species revival can be justified on scientific grounds as well.

So what's available for eventual revival? Turns out egg shells retain DNA for a long time. Fossil eggshells from 19,000 year old extinct emus, the 880 lb elephant bird Aepyornis, moas, and other species have been recovered. Since some of these species were likely driven extinct by humans in the first place one justification for their revival would be to right an ancient wrong. Now, not everyone will see species driven to extinction by humans a few tens of thousands of years ago as a wrong in the first place. But some will find that a compelling argument.

Hominid competitors to humans have also been sequenced including Neanderthals and Denisovans (which Greg Cochran thinks might have been late surviving homo erectus). Did we humans drive these other hominds to extinction? Possibly.

What about more recent extinctions? The passenger pigeon, the last of which died in 1914, as recently as the early 19th century numbered in the billions. Should we bring it back once we have the ability to do so?

Numerous other species are headed for extinction. We should collect many DNA samples from them so that if the human population ever reduces its footprint on the Earth these species could be reintroduced.

What about downsides to species revival? Depends on the species. We do not have to worry about ecological disturbances from any species we bring back that can be easily wiped out again. So, for example, the 880 lb Aepyornis will not pose a problem. The biggest threat from a species is most likely that it could spread so successfully that it would wipe out other species. We already face that problem from large numbers of invasive species that humans are moving between continents and islands and even between bodies of water (e.g. Asian carp in the Mississippi River system). Smaller species that are not airborne are probably most potentially problematic.

By Randall Parker    2011 January 01 11:34 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2010 November 21 Sunday
Meeting On Tiger Species Extinction Threat

After a 97% decline in the number of tigers from around 100 years ago the number of countries with tigers in their borders has dropped from 25 to 13.

The International Tiger Forum in St Petersburg is being staged in response to a calamitous 97% decline in tigers in the wild over a century.

We could be a dozen years away from total tiger extinction.

Jim Leape, director general of WWF, said that 40 years of conservation efforts had failed to halt poaching, loss of habitat and the decline of prey species. As a result, several subspecies have already died out, the wild population has shrunk to just 3,200 tigers and the number continues to shrink every day.

"The reasons for this disaster are well known," Leape said. "Unless we take drastic action, there will be no tigers by the next year of the tiger in 2022."

I do not see how the tigers are going to be saved given continued population growth, industrialization, and rising demand for tiger parts. They might survive in zoos.

It would make sense to gather DNA samples from as many of the surviving tigers as possible so at least their genetic sequences can be preserved in case the US population ever drops low enough to make realistic to reestablish wild tiger populations. The same makes sense for many other threatened species: get their DNA safely sequenced and stored in databases.

By Randall Parker    2010 November 21 05:34 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2010 October 27 Wednesday
IUCN Report On Species Extinction Trends

You weren't expecting good news, were you?

A new assessment conducted by 174 scientists from around the world underscores a growing concern about the health of the world's biodiversity, quantifying the rate of decline among vertebrate species on a global scale for the first time. The team's results support the idea that our planet is currently experiencing its sixth mass extinction—nearly one fifth of all known vertebrate species are currently classified as Threatened on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and an average of 52 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians move one category closer to extinction each year. The team, which includes California Academy of Sciences mammalogist Dr. Galen Rathbun, notes that over the past four decades, species extinction rates have exceeded normal background rates by two to three orders of magnitude. However, the team reports that species losses and declines would have been 20% worse in the absence of conservation efforts to protect threatened species. Thus, while current conservation efforts remain insufficient to offset the main drivers of biodiversity loss—including habitat loss, over-exploitation, and invasive alien species—targeted conservation efforts have had a measurable positive impact on the planet's vertebrate species. The research is reported in the October 26 issue of Science Express, the website for the journal Science (publication in the print version of Science will follow at a later date).

It could have been 20% worse. But the extinction acceleration is three or four orders of magnitude above the natural background rate. So human interventions against extinctions have pretty small impacts as compared to human interventions that cause faster rates of extinction.

Accomplished entomologist E. O. Wilson says we are losing biodiversity.

"The 'backbone' of biodiversity is being eroded," said the great American ecologist and writer Professor Edward O. Wilson, at Harvard University. "One small step up the Red List is one giant leap forward towards extinction. This is just a small window on the global losses currently taking place."

The tropics are especially hard hit.

To assess the status of the world's vertebrates, a large, international research team lead by Michael Hoffmann of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission and Conservation International analyzed data for over 25,000 vertebrate species categorized on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

They report that one-fifth of species is classified as Threatened, and this figure is increasing. On average, 52 species of mammals, birds and amphibians move one category closer to extinction each year. The tropics, especially Southeast Asia, are home to the highest concentrations of Threatened animals, and the situation for amphibians is particularly serious.

A third of all shark, skate, and ray species are threatened with extinction.

Dr. Jack Musick, emeritus professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has overseen a global study suggesting that 33 percent of shark, skate, and ray species are threatened with extinction.

The work is part of a major new study of vertebrates by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world's oldest and largest environmental network. The IUCN study shows that conservation actions have benefitted a few species of vertebrates around the world during the last few decades, but are too few and far between to slow an overall rapid increase in the number of threatened species.

A summary of the study, "The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World's Vertebrates," will appear in this week's issue of the flagship journal Science. The study is based on an on-going appraisal of the IUCN Red List, the worldwide standard for assessing the status of species. Red List categories run from "least concern" to "near threatened," "vulnerable," "endangered," "critically endangered," "extinct in the wild," and "extinct."

Will we lose another 15% of global forest cover in 20 years?

Among the brightest spots of hope: recent scenarios show that slowing climate change and deforestation can go hand-in-hand to reduce biodiversity loss thanks to "significant opportunities to intervene through better policies, such as those aimed at mitigating climate change without massive conversion of forests to biofuel plantations" says Dr. Leadley. But action must be taken quickly, as the study indicates the window of opportunity is closing rapidly, as differences in policy action taken now could either lead to an increase in global forest cover of about 15% in the best case or losses of more than 10% in the worst case by 2030.

Overfishing is one cause of extinctions. With rising human populations and rising buying power I expect that trend to continue.

For example the continuing overall decline in populations of large-bodied fish species due to over-fishing, the poleward migration of marine species at a rate of more than 40 km per decade due to climate change, and the 10 to 20% decline in the abundance of terrestrial species by mid-century primarily due to land-use change.

Regards the land use changes: The human population has gotten so large and its demands on the planet so great that humans are out-competing and wiping out other species. Expanding cities and farms and logging operations all cut into habitats. That trend will continue.

I do not expect the gloomier predictions of species losses to be prevented. Human population growth and industrialization will drive humans to use more of the Earth's surface and oceans for human purposes. Less of the planet will be left in its natural state.

By Randall Parker    2010 October 27 12:20 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2010 September 30 Thursday
Plants As Threatened With Extinction As Animals

Habitats keep shrinking with no end in sight.

A global analysis of extinction risk for the world's plants, conducted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew together with the Natural History Museum, London and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has revealed that the world's plants are as threatened as mammals, with one in five of the world's plant species threatened with extinction. The study is a major baseline for plant conservation and is the first time that the true extent of the threat to the world's estimated 380,000 plant species is known, announced as governments are to meet in Nagoya, Japan in mid-October 2010 to set new targets at the United Nations Biodiversity Summit.

Some highlights:

  • Of almost 4,000 species that have been carefully assessed, over one fifth (22%) are classed as Threatened

  • Plants are more threatened than birds, as threatened as mammals and less threatened than amphibians or corals

  • Gymnosperms (the plant group including conifers and cycads) are the most threatened group

  • The most threatened habitat is tropical rain forest.

  • Most threatened plant species are found in the tropics

  • The most threatening process is man-induced habitat loss, mostly the conversion of natural habitats for agriculture or livestock use

Population growth and industrialization will both accelerate the conversion of habitats to agriculture. The next couple billion growth in human population will much more environmental damage than the previous two billion because the reserves have shrunk so far. Plant and animals that could still survive in, say, half the original area can't survive in a tenth the area or after their natural environment is totally gone.

By Randall Parker    2010 September 30 10:42 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (26)
2010 August 24 Tuesday
Humans Drove Cave Bear To Extinction?

I'm thinking Darryl Hannah's slingshot skills were passed down to her descendants and they carried out the extinction. That clan she hooked up with were already living in a cave and so cave bears were driven out onto the street (or mountain trail). The human cave-dwellers caused a homeless cave bear crisis.

"The decline in the genetic diversity of the cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) began around 50,000 years ago, much earlier than previously suggested, at a time when no major climate change was taking place, but which does coincide with the start of human expansion", Aurora Grandal-D'Anglade, co-author of the study and a researcher at the University Institute of Geology of the University of Coruña, tells SINC.

According to the research study, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, radiocarbon dating of the fossil remains shows that the cave bear ceased to be abundant in Central Europe around 35,000 years ago.

"This can be attributed to increasing human expansion and the resulting competition between humans and bears for land and shelter", explains the scientist, who links this with the scarce fossil representation of the bear's prey in the abundant fossil record of this species.

Humans wiped out lots of species wherever they showed up. The co-evolution of humans and other species in Africa gave those species time to evolve ways to avoid death and human hands. But where humans showed up relatively suddenly other animals often didn't have enough time to evolve defenses.

By Randall Parker    2010 August 24 10:38 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (29)
2010 July 27 Tuesday
What Would Happen If Sharks Disappeared?

Check out this clip from Discovery Networks. Apex predators serve useful functions in ecosystems and should not be overfished. Currently dozens of shark species are being killed at unsustainable rates. Countries should stop doing this.

We need to stop overfishing the oceans.

By Randall Parker    2010 July 27 05:20 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (23)
2009 November 29 Sunday
Siberian Tiger Numbers Down On Poaching, Habitat Loss

A familiar story for many species around the world.

NEW YORK (November 24, 2009) -- The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced today a report revealing that the last remaining population of Siberian tigers has likely declined significantly due to the rising tide of poaching and habitat loss.

WCS says the report will help inform Russian officials of what needs to be done to protect remaining populations of the world's biggest cat.

The report was released by the Siberian Tiger Monitoring Program, which is coordinated by WCS in association with Russian governmental and non-governmental organizations. It revealed that a recent tiger survey over a representative part of the tiger's range showed a 40 percent decline in numbers from a 12-year average.

Annual tiger surveys are conducted at 16 monitoring sites scattered across tiger range to act as an early warning system to detect changes in the tiger population. The monitoring area, which covers 9,000 square miles (23,555 square kilometers), represents 15-18 percent of the existing tiger habitat in Russia. Only 56 tigers were counted at these monitoring sites. Deep snows this past winter may have forced tigers to reduce the amount they traveled, making them less detectable, but the report notes a 4-year trend of decreasing numbers of tigers.

The scientists estimate that about 500 of these beasts remain.

I think an international effort should be made to collect many DNA samples from each threatened species so that even if the species go extinct in the wild the DNA could be studied, sequenced, and recorded. Then in some later century if human populations ever decrease enough to open up big areas for habitats then lost species could be reintroduced with the help of some embryo engineering.

Since the world's human population is headed toward over 9 billion people I believe we need to get realistic about the dismal prospects for habitat protection. If we admit to our future losses of species we'll have a better chance of organizing collection efforts to at least record the DNA sequences of these many species we are going to lose.

By Randall Parker    2009 November 29 07:42 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2009 October 11 Sunday
Extinction Rates Highest For Freshwater Species

Saltwater and land species are not getting hit as hard as freshwater species by habitat loss and habitat decay.

Massive mismanagement and growing human needs for water are causing freshwater ecosystems to collapse, making freshwater species the most threatened on Earth with extinction rates 4 to 6 times higher than their terrestrial and marine cousins, according to conference experts.

Klement Tockner of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Berlin, says that while freshwater ecosystems cover only 0.8% of the earth's surface, they contain roughly 10% of all animals, including more than 35% of all vertebrates.

"There is clear and growing scientific evidence that we are on the verge of a major freshwater biodiversity crisis," says Prof. Tockner. "However, few are aware of the catastrophic decline in freshwater biodiversity at both local and global scale. Threats to freshwater biodiversity have now grown to a global scale."

The human implications of this trend are "immense," he adds, because freshwater species in rivers, lakes, ground waters, and wetlands provide a diverse array of vital natural services - more than any other ecosystem type.

Makes sense. Pollution is less dilute in freshwater and also humans are nearer to freshwater and intervene more in lakes and streams.

The human footprint on the Earth has reached a critical mass where we can't ignore our effects on the ecosystem.

By Randall Parker    2009 October 11 08:06 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2009 August 01 Saturday
Alan Weisman: The World Without Us

Alan Weisman's excellent book The World Without Us engages in the thought experiment of asking how the world would change if humans all suddenly died off or disappeared for some reason. If you think you know the answer from watching The History Channel's Life After People TV series, well, TV can't do the question justice. The amount of information in a good book is much greater and Weisman has definitely written a good book.

The book explores many more facets of the departure of humanity and does an especially excellent job of explaining the ecological effects of humanity's end. The most notable aspect of the book is its exploration of humanity's impacts of ecosystems. Our impacts are probably far greater than most of you imagine. I was surprised on some points and I read (and post) a lot on species extinction and habitat loss. Think you've seen natural reef life in underwater TV show documentaries? Unless you saw a show on Kingman Reef you've seen only very pale shadows of what a real natural reef looks like. The amount of biomass around reefs today is a small fraction of what they looked like a few hundred years ago. (and can anyone point to reefs as unsullied as Kingman?)

In order to explain to what the world will be like without humans Weisman has to explain what the world used to be like. The reefs are just one example of how different the world used to look before the human imprint grew so large. For political reasons a forest in Poland has been little disturbed for hundreds of years. Weisman starts the book with a description of how that forest differs from almost any other forest you may have visited. Also, the Korean DMZ provides a refuge for species that might by now otherwise be extinct. These accidental nature preserves give us an idea of just how much we humans have changed the world.

Weisman's book covers how long homes, skyscrapers, and assorted other products of civilization will last. Biological life forms do much (I get the impression most) of the damage. The sections of the book about decay of our creations are humbling about our accomplishments to date. While we like to think our decisions and our work matter for more than just the moment and that we create enduring legacies the book makes clear that almost everything we do is pretty ephemeral. devices built from noble metals (e.g. gold, silver, platinum, palladium) will last the longest. Copper-based sculptures and other copper-based structures will far outlast steel structures. Plastics will last because no organisms have evolved the ability to break them down - yet.

Many of our longer lasting creations were done by more primitive humans hundreds and thousands of years ago. Ancient underground cave modifications last longer than almost any above ground structure. One reason why: far less life can grow underground. Vines, weeds, and trees will rip apart what we do on the surface because the plants are powered by sunshine. But below the surface plants have far less energy to work with.

One of the thoughts I kept having while reading the book was whether we build using cost effective materials. Roofs can be (and have been) built to last centuries. Should we use more enduring materials and designs? I suspect greater attention to durability could boost return on investment in structures.

Another recurring thought: We really ought to build more resilience and fail safety into our infrastructure. We are all just one solar Carrington event away from massive starvation and collapse lasting months. While I'm generally a supporter of nuclear power (because it pollutes less and has a smaller footprint on ecosystems) I am disturbed to read in Weisman's book what happens to nuclear reactors after a few weeks of no humans to attend to them. These reactors ought to have better passive failure designs. What if a Carrington Event broke down delivery of fuel for powering water pumps? The picture painted is not pretty.

I recommend this book. I could not read it all the way through in a couple of days mostly because it tells a tragic tale. But I did keep going back to it because it tells a tale we should all hear.

By Randall Parker    2009 August 01 08:07 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (17)
2009 July 28 Tuesday
Humanity Causing 6th Great Extinction Event

Once we are gone and millions of years have elapsed to destroy all record of our existence will some future newly evolved intelligent species become puzzled over what caused the planet Earth's 6th major extinction event? Or will they decide the absence of evidence for an asteroid strike or volcano could only mean a smart super predator was at work? Habitat loss and species extinction characterize our era.

Governments must act urgently to halt loss of habitats and invading species that are posing major threats to biodiversity and causing species extinctions across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, according to a landmark new study.

Published in the international journal Conservation Biology, the report is the first comprehensive review of more than 24,000 scientific publications related to conservation in the Oceanic region. Compiled by a team of 14 scientists, it reveals a sorry and worsening picture of habitat destruction and species loss. It also describes the deficiencies of and opportunities for governmental action to lessen this mounting regional and global problem.

"Earth is experiencing its sixth great extinction event and the new report reveals that this threat is advancing on six major fronts," says the report's lead author, Professor Richard Kingsford of the University of New South Wales.

Well, we are historical in our impact. Gotta give us that. Way to go us.

On oceanic islands the biggest extinction cause is invasive species brought (accidentally or intentionally) from other parts of the world.

  • Loss and degradation of habitat is the largest single threat to land species, including 80 percent of threatened species.
  • More than 1,200 bird species have become extinct in the Pacific islands and archipelagos.
  • In Australia agriculture has modified or destroyed about 50 percent of woodland and forest ecosystems, and about 70 percent of remaining forests are ecologically degraded from logging.
  • Invasive species, particularly vertebrates and vascular plants, have devastated terrestrial species of the Pacific Islands and caused 75 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate extinctions on oceanic islands.
  • More than 2,500 invasive plants have colonized New Zealand and Australia – representing about 11 percent of native plant species.
  • Many invasive weeds, vertebrate pests, and fishes were introduced by government, agriculturalists, horticulturalists and hunters.

I'm thinking we need to systematically collect DNA samples so that some of the species could be reintroduced once we die off and space aliens uncover a specially constructed highly durable DNA sample storage facility. Think we could design a DNA storage vault underground that could last 100,00 years? Otherwise the losses will be considerable.

  • Nearly 17,000 of the world's 45,000 assessed species are threatened with extinction (38 percent). Of these, 3,246 are in the highest category of threat, Critically Endangered, 4,770 are Endangered and 8,912 are Vulnerable to extinction.
  • Nearly 5,500 animal species are known to be threatened with extinction and at least 1,141 of the 5,487 known mammal species are threatened worldwide.
  • In 2008, nearly 450 mammals were listed as Endangered, including the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), after the global population declined by more than 60 percent in the last 10 years.
  • Scientists have catalogued relatively little about the rest of the world's fauna: only 5 percent of fish, 6 percent of reptiles, and 7 percent of amphibians have been evaluated. Of those studied, at least 750 fish species, 290 reptiles, and 150 amphibians are at risk.
  • The average extinction rate is now some 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the rate that prevailed over the past 60 million years.

Extinctions might end up being our most enduring legacy. Just about everything else we've created won't last very long.

By Randall Parker    2009 July 28 11:26 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2009 July 22 Wednesday
Bluefin Tuna Species Racing Toward Extinction

A Wired article reports on efforts of scientists to breed and raise tuna in captivity in order to save wild tuna from extinction. While the scientific results in Australia and elsewhere look promising the news about tuna in the wild looks pretty grim.

News of breeding success comes with the three bluefin species — Northern, Southern and Pacific — speeding towards extinction, the victim of something close to a marine version of the 19th century buffalo slaughter. In the last 30 years, bluefin populations around the world have collapsed. Fishing fleets with spotter planes have chased ever-smaller, ever-younger fish, catching them at sea and hauling them to shoreline pens to be fattened and killed before they’re even old enough to reproduce.

The tuna sells for very high prices and the tuna stocks are heading toward collapse.

That’s left the seas nearly barren of breeding-age bluefin. In April, the World Wildlife Federation declared that current overfishing rates would cause an irreversible collapse of Northern bluefin within three years. The Southern is considered critically endangered, and it’s thought that any increase in fishing pressure will put the Pacific on a track to oblivion.

In my recent review of $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Chistopher Steiner I did not mention his section on the high energy intensity of an international tuna fishing industry that ships expensive tuna via air freight - mostly to Japan. Steiner expects oil prices to push up the cost of air freight for fish so high that the Japanese will stop depleting fish species around the world for sushi. Unfortunately, Steiner puts this collapse of the world tuna market in $16 per gallon chapter. I think that'll come too late if the report above paints an accurate picture.

As the Wired article above reports, the Japanese consume 75% of the bluefin tuna caught in the oceans. Their driving of this fish to the edge of extinction hasn't lessened their ardor for bluefin. At the same time, exhaustion of oil reserves will come too late to save tuna. We humans need to support stronger political restrictions on overfishing of tuna and other fish species. We need to loudly tell the Japanese (and sushi eaters in Western countries) find something else to eat instead.

Update: James Joseph of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) says in a New Scientist piece that while the bluefin tuna species are threatened most other tuna species are in far better shape.

Of the remaining three overfished stocks, North Atlantic albacore is recovering and is nearly back to its optimum level; the eastern Pacific bigeye stock is slightly overfished, but management measures due to be implemented this year may allow it to rebuild; and yellowfin in the Indian Ocean may recover thanks to recent pirate activity, which has led many vessels to leave the area.

The other tuna stocks are reasonably healthy. Three of the six fully utilised stocks are at risk of becoming overfished, but conservation measures are being put in place. Overall, about 90 per cent of tuna catches come from stocks that are not overfished.

By Randall Parker    2009 July 22 06:53 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2009 July 08 Wednesday
Species Extinctions Measured Since Year 1500

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species report finds several hundred species have gone extinct since year 1500.

The report analyses 44,838 species on the IUCN Red List and presents results by groups of species, geographical regions, and different habitats, such as marine, freshwater and terrestrial.

It shows 869 species are Extinct or Extinct the Wild and this figure rises to 1,159 if the 290 Critically Endangered species tagged as Possibly Extinct are included. Overall, a minimum of 16,928 species are threatened with extinction. Considering that only 2.7 percent of the 1.8 million described species have been analyzed, this number is a gross underestimate, but it does provide a useful snapshot of what is happening to all forms of life on Earth.


In the oceans, the picture is similarly bleak. The report shows that a broad range of marine species are experiencing potentially irreversible loss due to over-fishing, climate change, invasive species, coastal development and pollution. At least 17 percent of the 1,045 shark and ray species, 12.4 percent of groupers and six of the seven marine turtle species are threatened with extinction. Most noticeably, 27 percent of the 845 species of reef building corals are threatened, 20 percent are Near Threatened and there is not enough data for 17 percent to be assessed. Marine birds are much more threatened that terrestrial ones with 27.5 percent in danger of extinction, compared with 11.8 percent of terrestrial birds.

Many more species went extinct during this period of time without first becoming recognized and classified by humans.

Here is the full report.

Every sector, whether it be trade, fi nancial, or health, has its metrics for monitoring trends. For biodiversity The IUCN Red List is that metric. Around 45,000 species have been assessed to-date. This is a tiny fraction (2.7%) of the world’s described species (with current estimates of the total number ranging from 5 to 30 million). We now know that nearly one quarter of the world’s mammals, nearly one third of amphibians and more than 1 in 8 of all bird species are at risk of extinction. This allows us to come to the stark conclusion that wildlife (the word used in more technical circles is biodiversity) is in trouble, and the extent of the current risk of extinction varies between different species groups. For this reason IUCN is increasing the number of conservation assessments of species in the marine and freshwater realms, and for plants and invertebrate groups. Some early fi ndings of this work are presented here.

See page 41 for a table of threatened species by type.Vertebrates are most threatened. The lichens, assorted algae, and mushrooms so far are not threatened at all.

By Randall Parker    2009 July 08 12:52 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2009 May 06 Wednesday
Predator Fish Disappearing From Caribbean Coral Reefs

The growing and hungry human population is eating its way thru large fish species.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Sharks, barracuda and other large predatory fishes disappear on Caribbean coral reefs as human populations rise, endangering the region's marine food web and ultimately its reefs and fisheries, according to a sweeping study by researcher Chris Stallings of The Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory.

While other scientists working in the Caribbean have observed the declines of large predators for decades, the comprehensive work by Stallings documents the ominous patterns in far more detail at a much greater geographic scale than any other research to date. His article on the study, "Fishery-Independent Data Reveal Negative Effect of Human Population Density on Caribbean Predatory Fish Communities," is published in the May 6, 2009 issue of the journal PLoS One (www.plosone.org/).

"Seeing evidence of this ecological and economic travesty played out across the entire Caribbean is truly sobering," said Associate Professor John Bruno of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who served as the PLoS One academic editor for Stallings' paper.

We are eating our way thru the big fish predator species. As the human population continues to grow our impact on habitats and species will become much more severe.

Humans are eating their way down fish food chains.

"I examined 20 species of predators, including sharks, groupers, snappers, jacks, trumpetfish and barracuda, from 22 Caribbean nations," said Stallings, a postdoctoral associate at the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory. "I found that nations with more people have reefs with far fewer large fish because as the number of people increases, so does demand for seafood. Fishermen typically go after the biggest fish first, but shift to smaller species once the bigger ones become depleted. In some areas with large human populations, my study revealed that only a few small predatory fish remain."

Should we care that we are eating our way thru food chain after food chain? Should we care that additional billions of additional humans will come along to feed on food chains that are already severely depleted?

By Randall Parker    2009 May 06 12:02 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2009 April 19 Sunday
SUNY ESF Profs Rank Overpopulation Above Global Warming As Problem

Professors who work on environmental research place human overpopulation as the top environmental problem on planet Earth.

Overpopulation is the world’s top environmental issue, followed closely by climate change and the need to develop renewable energy resources to replace fossil fuels, according to a survey of the faculty at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF).

Just in time for Earth Day (April 22) the faculty at the college, at which environmental issues are the sole focus, was asked to help prioritize the planet’s most pressing environmental problems.

Overpopulation came out on top, with several professors pointing out its ties to other problems that rank high on the list.

“Overpopulation is the only problem,” said Dr. Charles A. Hall, a systems ecologist. “If we had 100 million people on Earth — or better, 10 million — no others would be a problem.” (Current estimates put the planet’s population at more than six billion.)

Dr. Allan P. Drew, a forest ecologist, put it this way: “Overpopulation means that we are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we should, just because more people are doing it and this is related to overconsumption by people in general, especially in the ‘developed’ world.”

Charles Hall is correct that with a much smaller population our environmental problems would be far smaller. I think the optimal human population is well above 10 million though. We need more scientists and engineers to develop the technologies we need to live longer and healthier lives. 10 million people just could not accomplish that much scientifically and technologically. But 1 billion would probably be enough.

With only 1 billion people our rate of consumption of oil, coal, and other natural resources would be a smaller and tolerable rate. Our resources would last longer. Ocean overfishing wouldn't be a problem. Species extinctions would be a small fraction of the current rate. Much more of the world would be covered with forests. Particulate pollution would be much lower and greenhouse gases would be much lower as well.

What I would like to know: If environmental scientists and other types of scientists from many more universities were asked to rank human problems how would they rank them? In the mainstream press global warming (now rebranded as climate change) gets by far the most attention. Species extinctions, habitat loss, and resource depletion attract very little attention in comparison. But these environmental scientists at SUNY ESF rank human overpopulation as the top environmental problem on planet Earth.

I agree with these professors. The larger the human population gets the more it impinges on all the other species on the planet. But as long as human reproduction is seen as a basic right I expect the human population to continue to grow. Even the projected peaking of human population later in the 21st century is probably overoptimistic because selective pressures to raise fertility are bound to cause a rebound eventually. Humanity is under heavy selective pressure for genes that raise fertility. That selective pressure will eventually change the frequency of genes that govern reproductive behavior and humans will make more babies as a result.

By Randall Parker    2009 April 19 01:36 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (15)
2009 April 03 Friday
Commercial Hunters Seen As Bigger Threat To Great Apes

Market forces are wiping out our distant relatives.

Commercial hunters from towns are exacting a much bigger toll on great apes than subsistence hunters from small villages, according to an analysis of ape nest density near human settlements.

The finding that numbers of gorillas and chimpanzees appear to have dwindled twice as much near towns in Gabon than near villages supports a focus on conservation efforts that tackle commercial hunting over those that aim to convince villagers to give up subsistence hunting, says Hjalmar Kühl at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who conducted the study with colleagues.

The 2009 human population growth rate in Gabon is 1.934%. From 2007 to 2050 one projection has the Gabon population growing 56%. The hunting of the great apes and other primates will only intensify.

By Randall Parker    2009 April 03 11:48 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2009 January 21 Wednesday
Frog Overharvesting Threatens Populations

Frogs, members of the amphibian order Anura, make up 5000 species. Some of those species are getting hard hit by human consumption.

The global trade in frog legs for human consumption is threatening their extinction, according to a new study by an international team including University of Adelaide researchers.

The researchers say the global pattern of harvesting and decline of wild populations of frogs appears to be following the same path set by overexploitation of the seas and subsequent "chain reaction" of fisheries collapses around the world.

The researchers have called for mandatory certification of frog harvests to improve monitoring and help the development of sustainable harvest strategies.

Lots of frog eating going on.

The annual global trade in frogs for human consumption has increased over the past 20 years with at least 200 million and maybe over 1 billion frogs consumed every year. Only a fraction of the total trade is assessed in world trade figures.

The overharvesting comes on top of habitat loss due to increased human populations, industrialization, and spread of a killer chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd).

Where Bd thrives, generally moist cool habitats, 50% of amphibian species and 80% of individuals can be expected to disappear within 1 year (Lips et al. 2006; www.amphibianark.org/Lips%20et%20al%202006.pdf). Currently it cannot be stopped in the wild and a minority of species seem able to survive with a Bd infection as larvae or as adults and these animals likely serve as a reservoir and vectors for future outbreaks. Notable among resistant species are worldwide invasive pest species including marine toads, American bullfrogs and African clawed frogs.

By Randall Parker    2009 January 21 10:13 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2008 October 21 Tuesday
Amphibian Losses Cut Ecosystem Productivity

Some wonder whether loss of species diversity has costs. Here's an example such a cost. The loss of frogs to the global spread of a killer fungus causes streams to produce less biomass.

Athens, Ga. – Streams that once sang with the croaks, chirps and ribbits of dozens of frog species have gone silent. They’re victims of a fungus that’s decimating amphibian populations worldwide.

Such catastrophic declines have been documented for more than a decade, but until recently scientists knew little about how the loss of frogs alters the larger ecosystem. A University of Georgia study that is the first to comprehensively examine an ecosystem before and after an amphibian population decline has found that tadpoles play a key role keeping the algae at the base of the food chain productive.

“Many things that live in the stream depend on algae as a base food resource,” said lead author Scott Connelly, a doctoral student who will graduate in December from the UGA Odum School of Ecology. “And we found that the system was more productive when the tadpoles were there.

The results, which appear in the early online edition of the journal Ecosystems, demonstrate how the grazing activities of tadpoles help keep a stream healthy. The researchers found that while the amount of algae in the stream was more than 250 percent greater after the amphibian population decline, the algae were less productive at turning sunlight and nutrients into food for other members of the ecosystem. Without tadpoles swimming along the streambed and stirring up the bottom, the amount of sediment in the stream increased by nearly 150 percent, blocking out sunlight that algae need to grow.

Which species losses due to human activity will cut into the amount of biomass produced by ecosystems? We are going to find out.

By Randall Parker    2008 October 21 09:32 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2008 October 20 Monday
Species With No Close Relatives Worst To Lose

We are in the early stages of a massive human-caused mass extinction. Some biologists at UC Santa Barbara ask an important question: since most of the threatened species can't be saved is there some way to identify which species are the worst to lose? Their answer: loss species with no evolutionary close relatives in their ecosystem will cause the biggest impact and most deserve saving.

(Santa Barbara, Calif.) –– The Earth is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of both plants and animals, with nearly 50 percent of all species disappearing, scientists say.

Because of the current crisis, biologists at UC Santa Barbara are working day and night to determine which species must be saved. Their international study of grassland ecosystems, with flowering plants, is published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The current extinction event is due to human activity, paving the planet, creating pollution, many of the things that we are doing today," said co-author Bradley J. Cardinale, assistant professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology (EEMB) at UC Santa Barbara. "The Earth might well lose half of its species in our lifetime. We want to know which ones deserve the highest priority for conservation."

Think of this as development of rules for triage. Technology combined with the human instinct for reproduction is going to wipe out a large fraction of other species. For those few of us who believe that such species loss is a really bad thing what types of species conservation should we support? It is an important question.

Recent studies show that ecological systems with fewer species generally produce less biomass than those with more species. Less plant biomass means that less carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere and less oxygen is produced. So, as the biomass of plants plummets around the globe, the composition of gasses in the atmosphere that support life could be profoundly affected. Additionally, there are fewer plants for herbivorous animals to eat. Entire food chains can be disrupted, which can impact the production of crops and fisheries.

The loss of species that are not closely related to other species in the ecosystem reduces productivity more than the loss of species with close relatives. And the more genetically distinct a species is, the more impact it has on the amount of biomass in an ecosystem.

"Losing a very unique species may be worse than losing one with a close relative in the community," said Oakley. "The more evolutionary history that is represented in a plant community, the more productive it is."

Cadotte explained that the buttercup is a very unique species, evolutionarily. Losing the buttercup, where it occurs in grasslands, would have a much bigger impact on the system than losing a daisy or a sunflower, for example. The latter species are closely related. Each could therefore help fill the niche of the other, if one were to be lost. The daisy and sunflower also have a more similar genetic make-up.

"These 40 studies are showing the same thing for all plants around the world," said Cardinale. "It is not a willy-nilly conclusion. This study is very robust. It includes studies of plants that are found throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia. We can have a high degree of confidence in the results. And the results show that genetic diversity predicts whether or not species matter."

Cheap DNA sequencing will tell us more about species relatedness. But even if we can find out which species are most important to save will we even be able to protect enough ecosystems to keep the important species around? I'm skeptical. 9 billion people are going to cause massive habitat destruction.

By Randall Parker    2008 October 20 10:36 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2008 October 13 Monday
Chimp Numbers In Ivory Coast Fall Another Order Of Magnitude

Looks like chimp numbers in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast - and why not call it that?) have dropped two orders of magnitude since the 1960s.

In a population survey of West African chimpanzees living in Côte d'Ivoire, researchers estimate that this endangered subspecies has dropped in numbers by a whopping 90 percent since the last survey was conducted 18 years ago. The few remaining chimpanzees are now highly fragmented, with only one viable population living in Taï National Park, according to a report in the October 14th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.

Maybe in 50 years the human population of Africa will stop growing. Then again, maybe not. But long before that happens lots of primate species, cat species, and other species in Africa are going to be toast. Time to start doing massive DNA sample collection so that perhaps a couple of centuries from now these species can be reintroduced into the wild.

This alarming decline in a country that had been considered one of the final strongholds for West African chimps suggests that their status should be raised to critically endangered, said Geneviève Campbell of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The booming human population in Côte d'Ivoire is probably responsible for the chimpanzees' demise.

"The human population in Cote d'Ivoire has increased nearly 50 percent over the last 18 years," said Christophe Boesch, also of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "Since most threats to chimpanzee populations are derived from human activities such as hunting and deforestation, this has contributed to the dramatic decline in chimpanzee populations. Furthermore, the situation has deteriorated even more with the start of the civil war in 2002, since all surveillance ceased in the protected areas."

Back in the late 80s the chimps in Ivory Coast were half the remaining chimps. Maybe they still are if the chimps in the rest of Africa are fairing just as poorly.

In the 1960s, the population of chimpanzees in Côte d'Ivoire was estimated at about 100,000 individuals. At the end of the 1980s, when the first and last nationwide chimpanzee survey was carried out, the total population of chimpanzees was estimated at 8,000 to 12,000 individuals. While that already represented a drastic decrease from the expected numbers, it nonetheless meant that Côte d'Ivoire harbored about half of the world's remaining West African chimpanzee populations.

In the new study, Campbell and Boesch's team conducted another nationwide survey, revealing a 90 percent drop in the chimpanzee nest encounter rate since the time of the last survey. That catastrophic decline in chimpanzees is especially strong in forest areas with low protection status, where the researchers saw no sign of the chimps. Even in protected areas like Marahoué National Park, chimpanzees have clearly suffered since surveillance and external funding support were disrupted by civil unrest in 2002.

Ivory Coast women are producing more than 4 babies per woman. While it has a population of 20.1 million today you can pay a visit to the US Census Bureau's web site's international database and do a query for population projections for 2050 and find that they expect a population of over 37 million. Even with the current population there's probably enough people in Ivory Coast to wipe out all the chimps. I doubt the chimps stand a chance with 37 million. So bye bye wild chimps. You can visit them in some zoos.

To my commenters who do not believe massive species extinctions are in store: Where are those chimps hiding?

By Randall Parker    2008 October 13 10:45 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2008 October 08 Wednesday
Nearly Quarter Of Mammals Threatened With Extinction

This looks like a sign of human over population to me.

Barcelona, Spain, 6 October, 2008 (IUCN) – The most comprehensive assessment of the world’s mammals has confirmed an extinction crisis, with almost one in four at risk of disappearing forever, according to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, revealed at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona.

Some claim to believe that every additional human life is an asset to us all. But if all the people in countries with rapidly growing populations had fewer babies I think we'd be better off.

I expect this problem to get worse because the human population looks set to increase by at least a couple billion more people.

The new study to assess the world’s mammals shows at least 1,141 of the 5,487 mammals on Earth are known to be threatened with extinction. At least 76 mammals have become extinct since 1500. But the results also show conservation can bring species back from the brink of extinction, with five percent of currently threatened mammals showing signs of recovery in the wild.

“Within our lifetime hundreds of species could be lost as a result of our own actions, a frightening sign of what is happening to the ecosystems where they live,” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General. “We must now set clear targets for the future to reverse this trend to ensure that our enduring legacy is not to wipe out many of our closest relatives.”

The real situation could be much worse as 836 mammals are listed as Data Deficient. With better information more species may well prove to be in danger of extinction.

“The reality is that the number of threatened mammals could be as high as 36 percent,” says Jan Schipper, of Conservation International and lead author in a forthcoming article in Science. “This indicates that conservation action backed by research is a clear priority for the future, not only to improve the data so that we can evaluate threats to these poorly known species, but to investigate means to recover threatened species and populations.”

Asian industrialization adds to the demand for timber and food crops. This results in more habitat loss. World demand growth for energy pulls more land into biomass crop production and further reduces habitat for wild animals. Plus, population growth pushes humans into more areas which previously were wild. The human footprint has become too large.

Less visibly, the oceans were once far more full of fish and other marine creatures. Now they show more signs of plastic waste and fewer signs of fish. While privately owned fisheries might help some for the oceans I do not see how private ownership of land is going to save many land species.

By Randall Parker    2008 October 08 11:08 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2008 September 09 Tuesday
Almost 40% Of North American Fish Species Threatened

The world is overpopulated by humans. Isn't 6 billion enough? Human encroachments are cutting back on the numbers of fish.

Nearly 40 percent of fish species in North American streams, rivers and lakes are now in jeopardy, according to the most detailed evaluation of the conservation status of freshwater fishes in the last 20 years.

The 700 fishes now listed represent a staggering 92 percent increase over the 364 listed as "imperiled" in the previous 1989 study published by the American Fisheries Society. Researchers classified each of the 700 fishes listed as either vulnerable (230), threatened (190), or endangered (280). In addition, 61 fishes are presumed extinct.

The new report, published in Fisheries, was conducted by a U.S. Geological Survey-led team of scientists from the United States, Canada and Mexico, who examined the status of continental freshwater and diadromous (those that migrate between rivers and oceans) fish.

"Freshwater fish have continued to decline since the late 1970s, with the primary causes being habitat loss, dwindling range and introduction of non-native species," said Mark Myers, director of the USGS. "In addition, climate change may further affect these fish."

If immigration continues unabated the United States alone will have 450 million people by the middle of the century. Habitats will shrink further and we'll lose lots of these species of fish along with other types of species.

Lots of types of fish are threatened.

The groups of fish most at risk are the highly valuable salmon and trout of the Pacific Coast and western mountain regions; minnows, suckers and catfishes throughout the continent; darters in the Southeastern United States; and pupfish, livebearers, and goodeids, a large, native fish family in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. 

Nearly half of the carp and minnow family and the Percidae (family of darters, perches and their relatives) are in jeopardy. Fish families important for sport or commercial fisheries also had many populations at risk. More than 60 percent of the salmon and trout had at least one population or subspecies in trouble, while 22 percent of sunfishes — which includes the well-known species such as black bass, bluegill and rock bass — were listed. Even one of the most popular game species in the United States, striped bass, has populations on the list.

This problem is going to get worse. Population growth and economic growth along with depleting fossil fuels all push more land into human uses.

By Randall Parker    2008 September 09 10:00 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2008 August 18 Monday
Thousands Of Amazon Tree Species Headed For Extinction

The rarer tree species are especially vulnerable to extinction.

Common tree species in the Amazon will survive even grim scenarios of deforestation and road-building, but rare trees could suffer extinction rates of up to 50 percent, predict Smithsonian scientists and colleagues in the Aug. 12 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

How resilient will natural systems prove to be as they weather the next several decades of severe, human-induced global change? The debate is on between proponents of models that maximize and minimize extinction rates.

The Amazon basin contains about 40 percent of the world's remaining rainforest. One of the fundamental characteristics of tropical forests is the presence of very rare tree species. Competing models of relative species abundance, one based on Fisher's alpha statistic and the other based on Preston's lognormal curve, yield different proportions of rare trees in the forest.

It isn't clear how much of the expected extinction they expect will come from climate change versus logging and conversion of forests to pasture and farm land.

A few thousand tree species might be lost.

In this offering, the authors use the neutral theory to predict the number of tree species and to test predictions of the Millenium Ecosystems Assessment that forecasts major tree extinctions in the Amazon over the next several decades. First, they estimate that the Brazilian Amazon has (or had) 11,210 large tree species, and, of these, 5,308 species are classified as rare.

Based on optimistic and non-optimistic scenarios for road construction in the Amazon published by the Smithsonian's William Laurance and colleagues in the journal Science in 2004, they predict that the rare species will suffer between 37 and 50 percent extinction, whereas the extinction rate for all trees could be from 20 to 33 percent overall.

How much rain forest will survive the growth in demand for trees, livestock grazing land, and farm land for food and biomass energy crops? Economic development, population growth, and depletion of oil and natural gas fields each create pressures to convert more and more wild lands into industrial uses. Jungles look to become rare.

By Randall Parker    2008 August 18 09:46 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2008 August 14 Thursday
Ocean Dead Zones Growing Around The World

Want some meat on part of the argument for why a Scripps researcher expects big ocean extinctions? Here's a pretty impressive indicator of bad trends in the oceans: the hypoxic (oxygen deficient) dead zones are growing in size.

A global study led by Professor Robert Diaz of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary, shows that the number of "dead zones"—areas of seafloor with too little oxygen for most marine life—has increased by a third between 1995 and 2007.

How much of that dead zone size growth is due to expanded use of nitrogen fertilizers? All of it? The only development I can see on the horizon that will change this trend is Peak Oil. Declining availability of fossil fuels will push up the cost of nitrogen fertilizer made using natural gas. But at some price of fertlizer the use of wind, solar, or nuclear electric power will become competitive for nitrogen fertilizer production. So I do not expect a permanent shift toward lower nitrogen fertilizer usage.

Diaz and collaborator Rutger Rosenberg of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden say that dead zones are now "the key stressor on marine ecosystems" and "rank with over-fishing, habitat loss, and harmful algal blooms as global environmental problems."

The study, which appears in the August 15 issue of the journal Science, tallies 405 dead zones in coastal waters worldwide, affecting an area of 95,000 square miles, about the size of New Zealand. The largest dead zone in the U.S., at the mouth of the Mississippi, covers more than 8,500 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey.

Diaz began studying dead zones in the mid-1980s after seeing their effect on bottom life in a tributary of Chesapeake Bay near Baltimore. His first review of dead zones in 1995 counted 305 worldwide. That was up from his count of 162 in the 1980s, 87 in the 1970s, and 49 in the 1960s. He first found scientific reports of dead zones in the 1910s, when there were 4. Worldwide, the number of dead zones has approximately doubled each decade since the 1960s.

As China develops, the US population grows by 50%, and other areas grow in population and industry this these dead zones will grow much larger. Is it possible for farmers to maintain high levels of crop production without nitrogen fertilizer run-off so high that it causes dead zones at the mouths of rivers?

Diaz and VIMS colleague Linda Schaffner estimate that Chesapeake Bay now loses about 10,000 metric tons of carbon to hypoxia each year, 5% of the Bay's total production of food energy. The Baltic Sea has lost 30% of its food energy—a condition that has contributed to a significant decline in its fisheries yields.

From 1974 to 2000 world nitrogen fertilizer usage grew by about a factor of 2.5. The economic development of China, southeast Asia, and India creates the possibility of a far larger growth in nitrogen fertilizer demand in the next 25 years. How big will the dead zones become?

The outlook for fertilizer demand is up up up.

The FAO report estimates that world fertilizer supply (nitrogen, phosphate and potash nutrient) will increase by some 34 million tonnes representing an annual growth rate of 3 percent between 2007/08 and 2011/12, comfortably sufficient to cover demand growth of 1.9 percent annually.

Total production is expected to grow from 206.5 million tonnes in 2007/08 to 241 million tonnes in 2011/12. Fertilizer demand will increase from 197 million tonnes today to 216 million tonnes in 2011/12.

World nitrogen supply is forecast to rise by 23.1 million tonnes by 2011/12; world phosphate fertilizer supply will increase by 6.3 million tonnes and potash supply by 4.9 million tonnes.

The Daily Telegraph has a worldwide map of hypoxic areas.

Update: A Time article reports use of winter wheat crops could catch nitrogen released by spring thaws. But that costs money and the incentive isn't there to do this.

By Randall Parker    2008 August 14 05:39 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2008 August 13 Wednesday
Scripps Researcher Sees Mass Ocean Extinctions On Horizon

Jeremy Jackson sees a downward spiral in the health of the world's oceans.

Human activities are cumulatively driving the health of the world's oceans down a rapid spiral, and only prompt and wholesale changes will slow or perhaps ultimately reverse the catastrophic problems they are facing.

Such is the prognosis of Jeremy Jackson, a professor of oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, in a bold new assessment of the oceans and their ecological health. Publishing his study in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Jackson believes that human impacts are laying the groundwork for mass extinctions in the oceans on par with vast ecological upheavals of the past.

Many forms of environmental damage are acting synergistically to cause a greater impact.

He cites the synergistic effects of habitat destruction, overfishing, ocean warming, increased acidification and massive nutrient runoff as culprits in a grand transformation of once complex ocean ecosystems. Areas that had featured intricate marine food webs with large animals are being converted into simplistic ecosystems dominated by microbes, toxic algal blooms, jellyfish and disease.

Jackson, director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, has tagged the ongoing transformation as "the rise of slime." The new paper, "Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean," is a result of Jackson's presentation last December at a biodiversity and extinction colloquium convened by the National Academy of Sciences.

The nutrient run-off from farms will get worse as more farms automate in response to high world food prices and growing demand from industrializing countries. The same will happen with overfishing. More countries need to impose more severe restrictions on fishing.

Jackson sees 3 main drivers of this coming ecological disaster.

To stop the degradation of the oceans, Jackson identifies overexploitation, pollution and climate change as the three main "drivers" that must be addressed.

"The challenges of bringing these threats under control are enormously complex and will require fundamental changes in fisheries, agricultural practices and the ways we obtain energy for everything we do," he writes.

If we slowed, stopped, and reversed human population growth that would greatly reduce the strain on the oceans. But even a shrinking population that is rapidly industrializing (e.g. China) will put a growing strain on the environment. We also need for developing countries to put a greater priority on controlling pollution. But they are far more interested in raising their living standards.

The world faces a big problem with China's industrialization in particular. The US industrialized with a much smaller population than it has now. So it went through its dirtiest stage with perhaps an eighth or tenth of China's current population. To have a country as big as China industrialize and go through its most polluting stage with so many people means a massive scale of pollution. Add in India, south east Asia, and other industrializing areas and the quantities of pollutants going into the atmosphere and oceans exceeds the pollution from European and American industrialization and comes up top of the remaining quantities of pollutants still emitted in the West.

I expect world pollution to get much worse before it gets better.

By Randall Parker    2008 August 13 08:50 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2008 August 05 Tuesday
Half Of Primate Species In Danger Of Extinction

Humans are diverting a rising fraction of all biomass for their own purposes. The politically sponsored push for biomass energy just accelerates that trend. Population growth and industrialization also lead to more habitat destruction. One result: half the world's primate species are threatened with extinction.

Edinburgh, Scotland – Mankind’s closest relatives – the world’s monkeys, apes and other primates – are disappearing from the face of the Earth, with some literally being eaten into extinction.

The first comprehensive review in five years of the world’s 634 kinds of primates found that almost 50 percent are in danger of going extinct, according to the criteria of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Issued at the 22nd International Primatological Society Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, the report by the world’s foremost primate authorities presented a chilling indictment on the state of primates everywhere. In Asia, more than 70 percent of primates are classified on the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered – meaning they could disappear forever in the near future.

This problem is going to get far worse as the human population hits 7, 8, 9 billion and as rising Asian buying power surpasses Western buying power to cause more tearing down of rain forests for food, crop land, and grazing land. Expanding cities also convert land from farming and necessitate the conversion of more forests and savannahs into agricultural uses.

Southeast Asia is especially hard hit.

With the input of hundreds of experts worldwide, the primate review provides scientific data to show the severe threats facing animals that share virtually all DNA with humans. In both Vietnam and Cambodia, approximately 90 percent of primate species are considered at risk of extinction. Populations of gibbons, leaf monkeys, langurs and other species have dwindled due to rampant habitat loss exacerbated by hunting for food and to supply the wildlife trade in traditional Chinese medicine and pets.

“What is happening in Southeast Asia is terrifying,” said Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Head of the IUCN Species Program. “To have a group of animals under such a high level of threat is, quite frankly, unlike anything we have recorded among any other group of species to date.”

Elsewhere, species from tiny mouse lemurs to massive mountain gorillas face challenges to survive. In Africa, 11 of the 13 kinds of red colobus monkeys assessed were listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered. Two may already be extinct: Bouvier’s red colobus (Procolobus pennantii bouvieri) has not been seen in 25 years, and no living Miss Waldron’s red colobus (Procolobus badius waldroni) has been seen by a primatologist since 1978, despite occasional reports that some still survive.

“Among the African species, the great apes such as gorillas and bonobos have always tended to grab the limelight, and even though they are deeply threatened, it is smaller primates such as the red colobus that could die out first," said IPS President Richard Wrangham.

Market solutions will not prevent this disaster. Ecotourism can save only a small fraction of the threatened land because far more people will buy food, biomass energy, and wood products than will pay to visit wilderness areas. The buying power (both mass market and political market) is lined up against habitat preservation.

By Randall Parker    2008 August 05 10:46 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2008 July 31 Thursday
Poaching Driving Down African Elephant Populations

Lax enforcement of anti-poaching laws has allowed a resurgence of the poachers.

African elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory at a pace unseen since an international ban on the ivory trade took effect in 1989. But the public outcry that resulted in that ban is absent today, and a University of Washington conservation biologist contends it is because the public seems to be unaware of the giant mammals' plight.

The elephant death rate from poaching throughout Africa is about 8 percent a year based on recent studies, which is actually higher than the 7.4 percent annual death rate that led to the international ivory trade ban nearly 20 years ago, said Samuel Wasser, a UW biology professor.

But the poaching death rate in the late 1980s was based on a population that numbered more than 1 million. Today the total African elephant population is less than 470,000.

"If the trend continues, there won't be any elephants except in fenced areas with a lot of enforcement to protect them," said Wasser.

Poaching got cut down in the last 1980s and could be again.

In 1989, most international ivory trade was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (http://www.cites.org/), which regulates trade in threatened and endangered species. The restrictions banned ivory trade except for ivory from elephants that nations legally culled from their herds or those that died naturally.

At the time the treaty was enacted, poachers were killing an average of 70,000 elephants a year. The ban instigated much stronger enforcement efforts, nearly halting poaching almost immediately. However, that sense of success resulted in waning enforcement. Western aid was withdrawn four years after the ban was enacted and poaching gradually increased to the current alarming rates, Wasser said.

"The situation is worse than ever before and the public is unaware," he said, "It's very serious because elephants are an incredibly important species. They keep habitats open so other species that depend on such ecosystems can use them. Without elephants, there will be major habitat changes, with negative effects on the many species that depend on the lost habitat.

Continued rapid human population growth also poses a big threat to elephants and other wild animals of Africa. We need international agencies to make a serious effort to cut down the fertility rate in Africa. Too many people means more poverty, disease, and habitat loss.

By Randall Parker    2008 July 31 11:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2008 February 18 Monday
Shark Numbers In Sharp Decline Due To Overfishing

Yet another sign that the human population has become too big:

Sharks are disappearing from the world’s oceans. The numbers of many large shark species have declined by more than half due to increased demand for shark fins and meat, recreational shark fisheries, as well as tuna and swordfish fisheries, where millions of sharks are taken as bycatch each year.

This is going to get much worse. The human population is increasing and Asian industrialization is massively increasing the number of people who can afford to eat fish caught in the ocean.

Now, the global status of large sharks has been assessed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which is widely recognized as the most comprehensive, scientific-based information source on the threat status of plants and animals.

“As a result of high and mostly unrestricted fishing pressure, many sharks are now considered to be at risk of extinction,” explained Julia Baum, a member of the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group who will be speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Conference in Boston, which runs from February 14 to 18. She will outline management measures required to conserve sharks at an afternoon press conference on February 17.

“Of particular concern is the scalloped hammerhead shark, an iconic coastal species, which will be listed on the 2008 IUCN Red List as globally ‘endangered’ due to overfishing and high demand for its valuable fins in the shark fin trade,” added Baum, who is an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The capture of sharks makes more fish from lower in the food chain available for human consumption. Humans are basically displacing other predators at the top of large numbers of food chains.

It is always open season in shark fishing in international waters. Every year the amount of capital available to sweep the oceans free of fish keeps going up.

Baum pointed out that fishing for sharks in international waters is unrestricted, and she supports a recently adopted United Nations resolution calling for immediate shark catch limits as well as a meaningful ban on shark finning (the practice of removing only a shark’s fins and dumping the still live but now helpless shark into the ocean to die).

Will growing Asian buying power overwhelm any attempt to stop fisheries shrinkage?

By Randall Parker    2008 February 18 09:36 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2007 May 27 Sunday
China Wiping Out SE Asian Species

A boat discovered off of China draws attention to Chinese demand for endangered species.

Endangered, hunted, smuggled and now abandoned, 5,000 of the world's rarest animals have been found drifting in a deserted boat near the coast of China.

The boat had lots of rare species.

According to the local media, the cargo included 31 pangolins, 44 leatherback turtles, 2,720 monitor lizards, 1,130 Brazilian turtles as well as the bear paws. Photographs showed other animals, including an Asian giant turtle.

All of these south-east Asian species are critically endangered, banned from international trade and yet openly sold in restaurants and markets in China's southern province of Guangdong, which is famous for its exotic cuisine.

The accidental discovery highlights the negative impact that the growing power of Chinese consumption is having on global conservation efforts.

Growing Chinese demand is wiping out species in a growing list of countries.

As a result of demand, the pangolin populations of China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have been wiped out. With traders moving further and further south, the animal is declining even in its last habitats in Java, Sumatra and the Malaysian peninsula. It is a similar story for many species of turtle, tortoise, frog and snake.

As the buying power of Chinese consumers continues to grow rapidly this problem will only get worse. Brian Wang thinks China might surpass the United States in GDP terms by 2020. Brian also believes the rate of urbanization in China is faster than generally believed.

The United States went through industrialization with a much smaller population than it has now and a far smaller population than China has now. Mass Chinese demand for environmental protections will not happen until Chinese per capita GDP rises to some multiple of what it is today. That means Chinese economic growth will cause far larger amounts of environmental damage than US economic growth did when the US passed through the same stages of development. Hence the wiping out of many species in southeast Asia.

Global warming gets all the press. But if you want to look at it from the standpoint of the many endangered species why care about global warming? These species will go extinct and therefore won't still be around to experience global warming.

Industrialization and population growth pose huge problems for remaining shrinking habitats. They pose far larger problems than the possibility of global warming. Western intellectuals who have worked themselves up into a tizzy about global warming are ignoring problems that should be treated as much higher priority.

By Randall Parker    2007 May 27 01:35 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2007 May 23 Wednesday
Sixth Of European Mammal Species Face Extinction

I wish species extinctions got one tenth the attention that global warming gets. Many European mammalian species are at risk of extinction.

One-sixth of Europe's mammal species are threatened with extinction, according to a comprehensive survey by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Unless the trend is reversed, conservationists fear that the European Union will not be able to meet its self-imposed target of halting biodiversity loss by 2010.

Of the roughly 250 mammal species that live in Europe and western Russia, some 15% are classed as 'vulnerable' or worse, according to the IUCN's criteria. This means that they face a "high risk of extinction in the wild" if action is not taken.

The Europeans could reduce the pressure on species by stopping immigration. Fewer people means more room for animals.

The world as a whole has even bigger problems.

OSLO -- Human activities are wiping out three animal or plant species every hour and the world must do more to slow the worst spate of extinctions since the dinosaurs by 2010, the United Nations said Tuesday.

Scientists and environmentalists issued reports about threats to creatures and plants including right whales, Iberian lynxes, wild potatoes and peanuts on May 22, the International Day for Biological Diversity.

The UN calculates its estimates based on the loss of habitats rather than based on specific species previously known that can't be found. But lots of species haven't been cataloged and for some species no one is going out to check.

Some people think the world's population growth is no longer a problem due to a projected peaking at 9 billion. But the next 3 billion humans are going to wipe out a lot of habitats before the problem stops getting worse. Also, biotechnological advances will increase human life expectancy and human fertility. Natural selection for higher fertility (especially for a stronger desire to have kids) will also exert effects that could make the current growth projection excessively optimistic.

The embrace of biomass energy by political elites is also going to contribute to species extinction since land used to grow biomass energy crops is land that ceases to support assorted plant and animal species.

By Randall Parker    2007 May 23 10:52 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
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