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Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Interesting news articles on the BBC’s website today discuss animals with extraordinarily long life-spans, including a lobster that can live to age 85 and a jellyfish that is essentially immortal, and how time-lapse photography has revealed how emperor penguin huddles function to keep all the group members warm at -45 degrees C. Well worth a read.

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This fortnight’s highlight is a collection of photos by the Smithsonian Institute taken by scientists using camera-traps. Camera-traps are an important tool in zoology research nowadays. Essentially a camera-trap is an infra-red (or, less usually, pressure pad) triggered camera (sometimes pair of cameras) set up across a trail or at a place where the target animal is likely to pass (such as a scent-marking point, salt lick, or waterhole) that takes a photo automatically when an animal breaks the infra-red beam (or stands on the pressure pad). They allow scientists to see rare and cryptic (camouflaged) animals, to make population estimations of animals in dense habitat such as rainforests where you don’t usually see the animals, and to prove that certain species are present or using particular habitats. And as a nice bonus, you get some interesting and beautiful photos of some of the rarer and more secretive animals on our planet.

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The New York Times website has a slideshow of species recently lost to extinction, or currently hanging on by a thread. I’d recommend having a look, although it makes for very depressing reading.

There are continual arguments about why we should bother to save animals that are on the verge of extinction – or why we should care if a species does go extinct. My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that I find animals inherently beautiful (e.g. the golden toad) and/or interesting (who knew there was a snail that used to give birth to live baby snails [which is what ‘viviparous’ means]?!) and it is absolutely tragic that no one will see a golden toad alive ever again. From a more selfish, human-centric point of view, many animal and plant species could provide us with medical help (e.g. this amazing frog – now extinct). Finally, although extinctions have always happened naturally, the current rate at which species are disappearing is far higher than the usual background rate of extinction (I’ll look for some refs to back this up, but it is published data) – and, far too often, it is human-related effects, such as overhunting, deforestation, the building of dams, or the introduction of invasive species to an ecosystem, that is to blame for a species’ demise. Frankly, what right does any of us have to wipe out a complete species; what gives another species any less right to live on this planet than a human?

Further Information

Strange Behaviours: lost and gone forever
Action BioScience: the sixth extinction

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Blue tit on feeder (thanks to Alan Weir)

Spring is on its way in the UK, despite grey and drizzly days that try to claim otherwise, and today I watched a group of blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) squabbling in the trees outside my office while I was on a call… a very welcome distraction. So this fortnight’s photo is of this charming bird, found in gardens and woodlands across the UK and Europe.

Interesting random fact: birds and insects can see ultraviolet light (which is invisible to humans), and many flowers that have avian or insect pollinators take advantage of this ‘extra’ vision by advertising the path to their nectar in this spectrum – it often looks like a glowing airplane landing strip!

Further Information

RSPB         
British Garden Birds       
People’s Trust for the Environment      
Elizabeth & Malcolm’s blue tit diary (with live webcam of a nest)       
Britsh Trust for Ornithology      
BBC Springwatch

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The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) compiles a ‘Red List’ where each species is described and their status classified – from Critically Endangered (50%+ probability of extinction within 10 years or 3 generations (whichever is longer)) through Endangered (20% probability of extinction within 20yrs or 5 generations) and Vulnerable (probability of extinction of 10% within 100yrs) to Near Threatened and Least Concern (Fig 1).  A paper by Hoffmann et al (2010) published in Science today has analysed this data on 25,780 species of the world’s vertebrates (all mammals, birds, amphibians, and cartilaginous fish (sharks and rays), and most reptiles and bony fish) and found that one-fifth of Earth’s vertebrates are Threatened and that this figure is increasing yearly.

Figure 1. Red List categories (from IUCN website)

This is sad, but not wholly unexpected news – after all, although extinctions have always happened in our planet’s history, the current levels are 100-1000 times above pre-human rates (Pimm et al 1995) and it’s well known that a vast number of species are in trouble. Fortunately it’s not all bad news as Hoffman’s study also demonstrates that conservation does work and, although current levels of conservation are not enough to overcome the significant threats to animals, there have been successes with species being downgraded in recent time due to the efforts to conserve them. Hoffmann mentions that the Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae has moved from Vulnerable to Least Concern since the commercial whaling ban in 1955, and Butchart et al (2006) calculated that between 1994 and 2004 at least 16 bird species were saved from extinction by the conservation programmes implemented for them; so a turn-around of the extinction trend is possible with concerted effort, political will, and public support.

With Hoffmann concluding that, on average, 52 species move one category closer to extinction each year, the time for us all to take action is now.

References and Further Info

Butchart SHM et al 2006. How many bird extinctions have we prevented? Oryx 40: 266-278

Hoffmann M et al 2010. The impact of conservation on the status of the World’s vertebrates. Science – published online 26 Oct 2010 (doi 10.1126/science.1194442)

IUCN Red Data category specifications

Pimm SL et al 1995. The future of biodiversity. Science 269: 347-350

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An article in The Times today mentioned an unusual wildlife sighting by a British photographer. On the crowded beaches of South Georgia a young king penguin apparently decided it had had enough of being blocked from reaching its water hunting grounds by a female elephant seal. In a rather surprising David vs Goliath fit of pique, the 2kg penguin slapped the 650kg seal round the face with its flipper before presumably realising its chances didn’t look too promising and leaving to find a different route to the ocean.

OK, so it’s a massively anthropomorphic view of events, but the mental image of this unlikely encounter certainly gave me a bit of a giggle!

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