Giant manta ray nursery discovered in Gulf of Mexico

June 22, 2018 by  
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Researchers have identified the first recognized giant manta ray nursery in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico , about 70 miles offshore from Galveston, Texas . Graduate student and executive director of  Manta Trust Josh Stewart first made this discovery while studying adult mantas in the area for the first time. “I was there trying to get a genetic sample from a full grown manta, and that’s when I saw it. It was a juvenile male manta, which is a very rare,” Stewart told NPR . After expressing his excitement to local researchers, he was informed that young manta sightings were quite common there. He said, “And that’s when I knew that this was a really special, unique place.” The local researchers at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration had misidentified the young manta rays as another species, neglecting to recognize the importance of this place until the arrival of an outside perspective. Typically, adult manta rays live in deep tropical and subtropical waters, making the study of these majestic sea creatures quite difficult. Young manta rays are almost never seen with adults. Related: Microplastic pollution poses particular threat to filter-feeding rays, sharks and whales “The juvenile life stage for oceanic mantas has been a bit of a black box for us, since we’re so rarely able to observe them,” Stewart explained. “We don’t know much about their movements, their feeding behavior and how that compares to the adults. Now we have a pool of juveniles that we can study.” The recognition of the nursery will ensure that these young mantas, now an endangered species in the U.S., are protected while also providing a road map for the protection of juvenile habitats around the world. “This research backs up the need for protection of other critical habitat, especially since manta rays have recently been designated as threatened species,” study co-author Michelle Johnston told the Herald Sun . “Threatened species need a safe space to grow up and thrive and live.” + Scripps Institution of Oceanography Via NPR and  The Herald Sun Images via G.P. Schmahl / FGBNMS

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Giant manta ray nursery discovered in Gulf of Mexico

Dutch town helps out rare bat species by installing "bat-friendly" streetlights

June 7, 2018 by  
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Street lighting can impact bats’ feeding patterns and internal compasses, as well as the activity of their insect prey, but a town in the Netherlands is taking steps to help the bats out. Zuidhoek Nieuwkoop , a housing development of around 90 sustainable homes near the Nieuwkoopse Plassen nature reserve, has installed what are thought to be the world’s first bat-friendly streetlights. The red LED  lights from Signify , formerly Philips Lighting, brighten the road for humans, but the the bats still perceive the light as darkness. The town and surrounding area are part of the Natura 2000 , a network of nesting and breeding sites for rare and threatened species across the European Union. These sites don’t all exclude human activities; in fact, most of the land is privately owned. The approach to conservation on these sites revolves around “people working with nature rather than against it,” according to the European Commission. Related: Bat bridge provides shelter for our winged friends in the Dutch town of Monster Bat-friendly lighting could fit that bill. Zuidhoek Nieuwkoop , according to Signify, is a key feeding ground “for some rare bat species.” The energy-efficient streetlights emit red with a wavelength that won’t interfere with the flying mammals’ internal compasses. The lighting is based on 2017 research from Wageningen University , the Netherlands Institute of Ecology , and Philips Lighting. Nieuwkoop city council member Guus Elkhuizen said, “Nieuwkoop is the first town in the world to use smart LED street lights that are designed to be friendly to bats. When developing our unique housing program, our goal was to make the project as sustainable as possible, while preserving our local bat species with minimal impact to their habitat and activities. We’ve managed to do this and also keep our carbon footprint and energy consumption to a minimum.” + Signify + Zuidhoek Nieuwkoop Images courtesy of Signify

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Volkswagen says it will stop all animal testing

June 6, 2018 by  
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German automaker Volkswagen came under fire earlier this year for funding an experiment subjecting macaque monkeys to diesel fumes — tests PETA  described as cruel and outrageous. But PETA has also  just announced a victory : CEO Herbert Diess told PETA Germany the company would “never again use animals in testing unless required to do so by law.” In January, the New York Times reported  on a study involving 10 macaque monkeys at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute (LRRI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In the experiment, equipment pulled exhaust from tailpipes of a Volkswagen Beetle and a 1999 Ford pickup. The gas was diluted and sent into airtight chambers where the monkeys were kept. The laboratory played cartoons for the monkeys as they sat for four hours breathing fumes. The Beetle used, provided by Volkswagen, had been rigged to generate pollution levels less harmful in a laboratory than on a street. Related: Volkswagen to pay $4.3 billion to US following emissions scandal The European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT), funded by Volkswagen , BMW, and Daimler, commissioned the Albuquerque experiment. The group shut down in 2017 during controversy about its work. EUGT wanted the Albuquerque experiment to challenge a World Health Organization finding that classified diesel exhaust as a carcinogen. EcoWatch said a new Netflix series called Dirty Money, from which the above YouTube video was taken, also documented diesel emissions tests on monkeys. PETA said due to biological and genetic differences between monkeys and humans, “the results of experiments on them are useless in predicting human responses to things like inhaling diesel exhaust.” They also said LRRI has a history of abusing and neglecting animals. Diess told PETA Germany that Volkswagen will update their code of conduct later in 2018 with the ban on animal testing. PETA credited the victory to communications with company executives, protests at Volkswagen headquarters, and emails sent to the car company. They said over 160,000 people in the United States alone took action. + PETA Via EcoWatch and The New York Times Image via Depositphotos

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Soil Algae aims to improve soil quality through algae cultures

June 6, 2018 by  
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Algae : it’s not just for bodies of water anymore. Algae Research and Supply , a company based in Carlsbad, California that historically provides algae products for educational purposes, aims to bring its algae cultures to farmers across the world through a line of products called Soil Algae , so that farms may improve the health of their soil and boost production. In addition to offering its own algae cultures, Soil Algae also offers products that will allow farmers to cultivate the indigenous varieties of algae found in their fields. “Twenty percent of the microbial biomass in natural, healthy soil is algae, but many farmers only monitor and maintain bacteria and fungi.” said Matthew Huber, Chief Scientist at Algae Research and Supply, in a statement. “We want to bring Soil Algae to the public consciousness.” The company is now running a Kickstarter campaign to do just that. Algae Research and Supply originally became intrigued by algae’s agricultural potential when farmers continued to buy algae cultures from them. Upon digging into research, the company concluded that algae’s benefits for agricultural production should be more widely promoted, particularly as the world faces a crisis of growing populations and degrading soils. Some of the benefits of adding algae directly into irrigation lines include increased water retention through algae-produced polysaccharide, reduced erosion through its cementing effect in soil , more aerated soil, and a reduction of nutrient runoff through a process known as luxary uptake, which also decreases algal bloom in bodies of water. Related: Light-manipulating algae could boost solar power technology Soil Algae, specifically through bluegreen algae or cyanobacteria, is also capable of pulling nitrogen from the air and converting it into usable nitrogen within the soil. The added algae increases soil biodiversity, organic biomass, and the total humus found in soil, all good things for farmers keen to produce in healthy soils. “Algae in our soil has long been neglected but it is nevertheless important for soil ecology . We intend to correct that gap in knowledge,” said Huber. Via Soil Algae Images courtesy of Algae Research and Supply

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Conservationists sound alarm over US House bill that weakens Endangered Species Act

May 25, 2018 by  
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Activists and scientists are concerned over the inclusion of a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that could threaten the survival of the endangered Greater Sage-Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chicken. The provision would prevent the Lesser Prairie-Chicken from receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act for at least ten years, despite evidence of population decline suggesting that the Prairie-Chicken needs to be legally protected. It would also weaken safeguards put in place to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse, while clearing away regulatory obstacles for oil and gas development. “We urge U.S. Representatives to oppose the grouse and prairie chicken rider,” Steve Holmer of American Bird Conservancy said in a statement . “This provision has nothing to do with national defense, will place imperiled species on the path to extinction and should be stricken.” Both species live in isolated populations that are greatly diminished from their pre-contact levels, with the number of grouse falling from 15 million to fewer than 300,000 today. The prairie-chicken population dropped 50 percent between 2012 and 2013, and its range continues to shrink. Congressional changes to the Endangered Species Act could further threaten the birds . “Endangered Species Act protection provides an essential backstop to hedge against species extinction, particularly in light of major increases in oil and gas drilling in priority grouse habitats in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Montana and Colorado ,” Holmer explained. Related: ‘Acoustic lighthouses’ could warn birds about wind turbines While a 2015 review of the status of the Greater Sage-Grouse led to more favorable protections, it did not result in its listing on the Endangered Species Act. Now, those limited protections could be rolled back by Congress . Perhaps the more impactful provision requirement is that the Lesser Prairie-Chicken not be placed on the Endangered Species list for ten years, regardless of scientific opinion. Holmer said, “Potentially the most devastating provision is the one that precludes judicial review of these listing moratoria, which prevents the public from seeking protection for these species even if they are on the very brink of extinction .” Via American Bird Conservancy Images via USFWS Mountain-Prairie (1)

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Conservationists sound alarm over US House bill that weakens Endangered Species Act

500-mile-long shark highway could become a protected wildlife corridor

May 23, 2018 by  
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For the very first time, scientists filmed sharks traveling along a 500-mile-long shark highway in the Pacific Ocean  that stretches between the Galapagos Islands and Cocos Island. The reason for filming? While Cocos and the Galapagos have protected areas for fish , the shark highway is not included, and scientists want to transform it into a protected wildlife corridor . Costa Rica group Fundación PACÍFICO , a collaboration of four environmental funds, organized an expedition to videotape the shark highway. President Zdenka Piskulich told NPR it’s difficult to get people interested in a corridor out in the ocean , but “finally we have visual evidence that there is a huge abundance in this area that needs to be protected, that there really is a highway.” Related: Russia built a critical wildlife corridor to help save endangered big cats The scientists utilized GoPro-style cameras, fish bait and metal frames to create what are called baited remote underwater video systems, or BRUVS. They dragged these behind a research boat for nearly two weeks. Biologist Mario Espinoza said, “We actually documented over 16 species of sharks and fish, also sea turtles and dolphins …It’s really surprising to see that many animals .” Sharks — including hammerhead, thresher and silky sharks — were the predominant marine animal. The shark highway follows an underwater mountain range, or seamounts, according to Fundación PACÍFICO . Espinoza said this was “the first time we actually documented animals using these seamounts. We don’t know exactly whether they are feeding or they’re like stopping by or using these seamounts as navigation routes.” Lee Crockett of the Shark Conservation Fund said sharks straying outside of protected areas are at risk of being caught on the long lines of high seas tuna fishing. Some species of hammerhead sharks are endangered ; others are declining. He described protecting this shark highway as “the next step in conservation .” + Fundación PACÍFICO Via NPR Image via Depositphotos

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Trump Administration proposes to sell protected land in Arizona for fracking

May 23, 2018 by  
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The Trump Administration has announced a proposal to sell 4,200 acres of public, protected land in northern Arizona for oil and gas development. The area in question crosses the Little Colorado River and is located only three miles from Petrified Forest National Park. It also is close to the habitat for the Little Colorado spinedace, a threatened species of fish. Oil and gas industrial activity, such as fracking , could also threaten the groundwater in the Little Colorado River Basin, potentially affecting drinking water. In September, the Bureau of Land Management is planning to auction the land to the highest bidder, without sufficient environmental and public review. The Center for Biological Diversity is pushing back against the Trump Administration as it advances its pro-industry agenda. “This dangerous plan puts national parks, precious groundwater and wildlife in the crosshairs. We’ll do everything we can to stop it,” said Taylor McKinnon at the Center for Biological Diversity . “Fracking is a dirty, dangerous business that consumes enormous amounts of water and threatens wildlife and public health. Northern Arizonans won’t tolerate public lands being sacrificed as gifts from Trump to the fossil fuel industry.” Related: France completely bans fracking and oil extraction Under guidelines issued in January 2018 by the Trump Administration, the Bureau of Land Management has made several assumptions in its approval process and has delayed any detailed analysis until the drilling permit stage. At that point, the site will already have been sold for oil and gas development. “Fracking or drilling development could be catastrophic for the region’s groundwater,” McKinnon said. “This is Trump’s energy dominance policy at work, where nothing matters except fossil-fuel interests.” The Center for Biological Diversity previously sued the Trump Administration for its expedited oil and gas development policy in Colorado and Ohio, and sued once again in April after the administration enacted a more widespread policy of sidelining the public interest at the Bureau of Land Management. + Center for Biological Diversity Via EcoWatch Images via  Glenn Scofield Williams ,  Chris English  and  Scott Loarie

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Florida coral reefs plagued with mysterious disease

May 16, 2018 by  
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With coral reefs under threat worldwide, researchers in Florida are racing to understand and treat a mysterious disease that threatens to decimate the third-largest coral reef on Earth. Over the past four years, the as-yet unidentified, potentially bacterial disease has already had a significant impact on Florida’s coral species, half of which are fatally vulnerable to the disease. “When they’re affected by this, the tissue sloughs off the skeleton,” Erinn Muller, science director at Mote Marine Lab’s Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration in the Florida Keys, explained to NPR . “And we see that once a coral is infected, it usually kills the entire coral, sometimes within weeks. And it doesn’t seem to stop.” After being hired by the State of Florida to study the health of coral reefs near Miami , scientist William Precht first observed the disease moving from coral to coral, with particularly devastating effects on star and brain coral. “This is essentially equivalent to a local extinction , an ecological extirpation of these species locally,” Precht told NPR . “And when you go out and swim on the reefs of Miami-Dade County today, it would be a very rare chance encounter that you’d see some of these three or four species.” Related: Scientists made a liquid ‘umbrella’ to protect coral reefs from sun damage Researchers at Mote Marine Lab are hard at work to determine how to protect coral from the mysterious disease . “Anything from… looking at chlorine-laced epoxy as an antiseptic, and even looking at how antibiotics interact with the disease,” Muller said. “Because if it is bacterial, then antibiotics would be a way to stop it.” Mote Marine Lab is also serving as a nursery for baby coral, which are released into the wild when they are ready. At this moment, the reefs under siege will need all the help they can get. “We’re really at a critical juncture right now, where we have corals left on the reef,” said Muller. “Before we lose more corals, now is the time to start making a change.” Via NPR Images via  NOAA National Ocean Service   (1)

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A spike in tailless whale sightings worries scientists

May 8, 2018 by  
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People have occasionally glimpsed tailless whales in western North America, but a recent spike in sightings has troubled scientists. This year alone, at least three flukeless gray whales have been spotted near California. Ship collisions or killer whale attacks probably aren’t to blame for the injuries; entanglement in fishing equipment is likely the cause. National Geographic reported that when whales are feeding in areas with debris, man-made objects or fishing gear, nets or ropes can get stuck at their tail’s base, slowly sawing off their flukes. Ropes and nets can also cut off blood circulation, causing a whale’s tail to wither away. Entangled whales may not survive, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ‘s (NOAA) California stranding network coordinator Justin Viezbecke. “The majority of them — if not all of them — are going to most likely die from these injuries,” Viezbecke said. Related: Unusually high number of humpback whale deaths prompts NOAA inquiry Losing a tail makes life difficult for whales. Feeding becomes a challenge; the limb serves as a propeller as they navigate to the seafloor and seek out crustaceans. The long migration from Mexico birthing grounds to Arctic feeding grounds can also be hard without a tail. Flukeless mother whales are less capable of defending their babies from killer whales . According to whale biologist Alisa Schulman-Janiger, some whales can adapt to the handicap. Brooke Palmer — who posted a YouTube video of a tailless whale near Newport Beach, California earlier this year — said in the video description that the whale was doing “seemingly well as it adapted to the loss of an integral limb. It is sad, but inspirational how resilient and adaptive these beautiful mammals can be.” The increase in tailless gray whale sightings matches up with what National Geographic called a general increase in whale entanglements. There was an average of 10 incidents a year between 2000 and 2012, but in 2017, there were 31 incidents, according to NOAA whale disentangler Pieter Folkens. Folkens said the reason behind the rise is unknown, although it could be possible that people are better at spotting the whales. Via National Geographic Images via Depositphotos (1, 2)

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11-year-old discovers rare 475-million-year-old fossil in Tennessee

May 8, 2018 by  
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While enjoying an evening walk at Douglas Lake in East Tennessee , 11-year-old Ryleigh Taylor stumbled upon a magnificent discovery: the 475-million-year-old fossilized remains of an ancient sea creature called a trilobite. Taylor brought her find to the University of Tennessee , where it was examined by paleobiology professor Colin Sumrall. “Typically when we look at fossils of trilobites, they molt when they grow,” Sumrall told WATE.com . “So what happens is, when the trilobite skeleton just crumbles into hundreds of little pieces. To find one where all the pieces are intact, it’s actually a pretty lucky find.” Related to modern crustaceans, spiders and insects , most closely to horseshoe crabs, trilobites were a widespread arthropod group during the Cambrian period, reaching 60 different species at its peak. The group began to shrink during the Devonian period, then eventually went extinct in the wake of the Permian extinction. Named trilobite for its “three-lobes” body structure, the group is thought to be one of the first organisms to experience vision. While some trilobites could not have been seen without a microscope, others, such as isotelus rex , could grow to be several feet in length. Related: Treasure trove of Triassic fossils found at Bears Ears Taylor was thrilled with her discovery. “To find something like that, it’s really really cool,” Taylor told WATE . “I looked down while I was walking and I found it, I just saw it.” Taylor hopes that her unexpected fossil find will inspire other young people to get outside and explore. “I can show kids that are my age that they don’t have to sit inside and play games . They can actually go outside and find different things,” said Taylor. “To find something like that, it could spark this youngster into a whole career,” explained Sumrall. “Maybe she’ll become a great paleontologist one day.” For now, Ryleigh Taylor is simply content to continue exploring. Via The TeCake Images via  Depositphotos (2)

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