Why the mystifying axolotl must be saved from extinction

February 20, 2020 by  
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Today’s axolotls are experiencing extirpation, but scientists and pet enthusiasts are saving them from true  extinction . Why? Axolotls have long fascinated the learned and laymen alike, thanks to the animal’s powers of regenerating and self-healing. While all organisms can regenerate to some degree, the axolotl’s capabilities are far more advanced. Historical documentation cites Spallanzani, in 1768, as the first Western observer of an axolotl’s complete regeneration of tail and limb. Then in 1804, renowned naturalist Alexander von Humboldt collected the first wild specimens, shipping them to Europe . By 1863, axolotls first debuted in official science laboratories when a French expedition shipped 34 of them to the Natural History Museum in Paris. French zoologist Auguste Duméril received six of those original 34. His successfully bred lines launched the global axolotl diaspora as he shared line progeny with international colleagues. Related:  Light pollution, habitat loss and pesticides push fireflies toward extinction Present-day wild axolotls have not fared well. Despite its status as “the most widely distributed amphibian around the world in pet shops and labs,” the wild axolotl is nearing extirpation, said Richard Griffiths, an ecologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, to  Scientific American . The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)  catalogs axolotls on the Red List, delineating threat risks from  habitat loss ,  water pollution , fierce competition with non-native species, predation by invasive species, climate change-induced droughts, disease and inbreeding. Only popularity in both the pet and laboratory industries keeps axolotls from all-out extinction. But what are axolotls exactly? They are  amphibians  in the Ambystomatidae family of mole salamanders and are identified by neoteny. That is, they retain larval traits or juvenile characteristics. What distinguishes them from juveniles of other salamander species is retention of their unmetamorphosed larva appearance, even as adults. Peculiarly, they appear as “sexually mature tadpoles,” spending entire lives underwater , veritably breeding in that form, unlike other salamanders that metamorphose and crawl onto land. Of course, with iodine, axolotls can be induced into metamorphosis, even developing into bona fide salamanders that phenotypically resemble tiger salamanders. However, metamorphosed axolotls experience much-diminished lifespans compared to neotenous counterparts. The most widely recognized axolotl is  Ambystoma mexicanum , whose only remaining natural  habitat  is Mexico City’s canal system. Legend says while the Aztecs built Tenochtitlan, their capital, they discovered, in the lake, a large, feathery-gilled salamander. They named it after Xolotl, their fire and lightning deity. As Quetzalcoatl’s twin brother, Xolotl enjoyed shapeshifting powers.  Live Science  explains how Xolotl apparently “transformed into a salamander, among other forms, to avoid being sacrificed so the sun and moon could move in the sky,” showcasing even then how axolotls captivated the fancy of this ancient civilization and garnered placement in their pantheon. Regrettably, Mexico’s endemic axolotls are dwindling drastically. From JSTOR Daily , the “first robust count of axolotls” in their natural habitat amounted to an estimated 6,000 axolotls per square kilometer. That population survey transpired in 1998. By 2015, the population plummeted, numbering “only 35 per square kilometer,” therefore revealing precipitous extirpation. Formerly at the  food chain  apex, what changed for axolotls? Development sprawl, tourism and recreational use drained the natural water levels of axolotl habitats. Whatever water has remained is polluted by litter and offal, pesticides and non-organic fertilizers, heavy metals and toxic chemical runoff. Because axolotls breathe through their highly permeable skin, they are incredibly susceptible to pollution, which adversely affects axolotl health, growth and development. Moreover, from the 1970s to 1980s, tilapia and carp, non-native fish that reproduce faster than can be caught, were released into the canals, disrupting local food webs and  ecosystems . Tilapia and carp also forage around the canals’ aquatic plants, where axolotls lay eggs, further reducing offspring numbers even more in a prelude to the grim species-level extirpation of wild axolotls. Additionally,  climate change  and severe weather, which the IUCN acknowledges as threats to the axolotl, in turn, perpetuate drought conditions, again decimating the axolotls’ natural habitat. It is feared only a few hundred axolotls remain in the wild. Whereas wild axolotls might not all be rescued from Mexico’s canals, the species are nonetheless thriving in captive breeding programs at universities and scientific laboratories as well as in private aquariums of pet owners. Indeed,  Scientific American  documented that “tens of thousands can be found in home aquariums and research laboratories around the world. They are bred so widely in captivity that certain restaurants in Japan even serve them up deep-fried.” In fact, from Duméril’s progeny lines, scientists continue to successfully breed axolotls to this day. This accounts for the  Journal of Experimental Zoology ’s assertion of axolotls being “the oldest self-sustaining laboratory animal population.” Duméril’s generosity ignited Europe and America’s axolotl breeding craze, says  Scientific American , giving way to the 1930s breeding stock at the University at Buffalo, New York. That stock was then hybridized with both wild axolotls and tiger salamanders ( Ambystoma tigrinum ). As that hybridized lineage population flourished, it was then relocated to the University of Kentucky – Lexington, where the current Ambystoma  Genetic Stock Center has evolved into academia’s epicenter of global axolotl breeding. From there, tens of thousands of axolotl embryos are sent to contemporary research labs. For more than 150 years, the scientific community has remained intrigued by axolotl regenerative abilities, which are quite unlike those in mammals . Axolotls, for one, can completely regenerate amputated limbs, even after multiple amputations, with each new limb as functional as the original. From  American Zoologist , their cells ‘know’ what to regrow, even supernumerary limbs when regenerating tissue grafted onto other body quadrants. Should axolotls have damaged internal organs, they would be regrown. Crushed spinal cords can be fully repaired as well. In other words, no other animal comes close to axolotl regeneration and self-healing. Likewise,  Science  journal has documented axolotls readily receiving transplanted heads. By the same token, back in 1865, “Duméril’s second generation of axolotls spontaneously transformed into air-breathing adults.” This hidden developmental stage led to 20th-century researchers discovering thyroid hormones, explains  Nova . Nowadays, the axolotl  genome  has been sequenced, and  Max Planck Institute  reveals it “is more than ten times larger than the human genome.” Besides being the largest genome decoded so far, the axolotl’s genome contains an “enormous number of large repetitive sequences.” Could these account for axolotl plasticity in developmental, regenerative and evolutionary assets, such as why it retains its tadpole-like qualities into adulthood? By studying the axolotl genome, scientists hope for ample opportunities to understand the gene regulation processes that make regeneration possible. These findings would revolutionize medicine and aging science. Meanwhile, laboratory-bred axolotls are still vulnerable to loss — from inbreeding,  disease  or laboratory disasters like fires. Crossbreeding is not without its challenges. For more genetic diversity, the lab-bred stock must be crossbred with wilds, but wilds are being extirpated, making their collection difficult. That leaves hybridization with tiger salamanders, but the true axolotl gene pool gets diluted as a result. With numbers in the wild not likely to rebound without help, it’s imperative to strengthen axolotl  conservation  efforts. Perhaps establishing sanctuaries and ecological refuges in the wild, as well as enacting more enforceable legislation, can help save axolotls from extirpation. No matter the case, axolotl conservation will require heavy human involvement. Once this exceptional organism goes extinct, the world loses out on all the knowledge they can provide. Via Nova and Scientific American Images via Pexels and Pixabay

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Check out Glasir, the tree-shaped urban farming solution

February 20, 2020 by  
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In a bid to revolutionize agriculture, New York City and Bergen-based innovation studio  Framlab  has proposed Glasir, a community-based system for urban farming that combines the flexibility of modularity with aeroponics to vastly reduce the environmental footprint for growing food. Created in the likeness of a tree, the space-saving conceptual design grows vertically and can be installed in even the densest of urban areas. The high-yield, vertical farming proposal would be integrated with smart technology, sensors, and renewable systems such as solar panels to optimize production and minimize its carbon footprint. Named after a fabled and supernatural tree in Norse mythology, Glasir was conceived by Framlab as a response to the World Health Organization’s estimates that half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2025. To curb the water-guzzling and land-intensive processes of modern  agriculture , Framlab developed Glasir as an alternative that would provide neighborhoods with affordable, local produce year-round. The self-regulating system comprises a monopodial trunk that is expanded with branch-like modules and would occupy only a two-by-two-foot space, about the same size needed for a small street tree on a sidewalk.  The basic components for a Glasir system comprise ten base  modules : five growth modules, three production modules, and two access modules. The modules are all interconnected and feed information to one another through an artificial intelligence program. Environmental sensors track and evaluate site conditions such as solar gain, temperature levels, and winds to optimize growth. The system can be assembled in a variety of configurations to fit the needs of the community that it serves.  Related: Sustainable agriculture cleans up rivers in Cuba In addition to the use of extremely water-efficient aeroponic growing methods, Glasir reduces its environmental impact with translucent photovoltaic cells that power its electricity needs. A  rainwater collection  system stores, purifies and redirects runoff for irrigation in the production modules. The exterior of the modules will also be coated in Titanium Oxide to help clean air pollutants.  + Framlab Images via Framlab

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Marc Thorpe designs live/work buildings built from earth bricks

February 20, 2020 by  
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New York-based architecture studio Marc Thorpe Design has unveiled renderings for the Dakar Houses, a series of live/work spaces for the artisans of furniture brand Moroso, located on the outskirts of the Senegalese capital of Dakar. Designed with compressed earth bricks, a common building material in western Senegal, the multipurpose units take inspiration from the local architectural vernacular. The economical earth bricks also have the advantage of thermal mass to provide comfortable indoor temperatures without artificial heating or cooling.  Created to house Moroso’s Dakar-based artisans, the Dakar Houses will consist of two apartments that flank a central workshop for manufacturing the furniture brand’s decade-old line of handcrafted and brightly colored outdoor furnishings. In echoing the furniture line’s celebration of local craftsmanship, the Dakar Houses also pay homage to building materials and techniques common to the West African region.  Related: Ancient green building technique helps ease West Africa housing crisis “The intention was to create a work-based community allowing a village to develop around a central economic constituent,” Marc Thorpe Design explained. “The units are designed to house the workers as well as various parts of the manufacturing process of M’Afrique’s furniture , such as the handicraft work of welding and weaving. The apartments would be designed based on the required space for each individual family.” Each unit comprises three volumes — two apartments and a central workspace — that are staggered to create favorable solar shading conditions. Steeply pitched roofs top the minimalist units, which are left unadorned to emphasize the earth bricks. Made from local soil, the bricks are cured over several weeks. Next, they are soaked in water each morning, then baked in the sun beneath a tarp until they are ready for construction. During the day, the earthen walls absorb heat to provide a cool indoor environment; at night, that heat is slowly dissipated and warms the air.  + Marc Thorpe Design Images via Marc Thorpe Design

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Home on a sloped ravine uses natural materials to blend into the landscape

February 20, 2020 by  
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Built by Chicago-based firm Wheeler Kearns Architects , the Ravine House is a beautiful home that sits tucked into a natural forest setting just outside of Highland Park, Illinois. Working directly with the nature-loving homeowners, the architects strategically focused on blending the minimalist home, which was built with natural materials , into the idyllic surroundings while reducing its impact as much as possible. The Ravine House comes in at more than 4,500 square feet across a single-story, rectangular volume. Sitting adjacent to a deep ravine, the home’s layout was designed to include the native vegetation that covers the area.  In fact, one corner of the volume is “broken” and set apart in order to create an entrance courtyard, where the vegetation is first incorporated into the living space. The courtyard’s local stones and birch trees pay homage to the homeowners’ love of nature. Related: The low-impact Bridge House hovers over a stream in Los Angeles In addition to incorporating the native plants and trees into the design, the home uses a variety of natural materials to blend into its natural forest backdrop. The exterior cladding is comprised of dark metal siding and a vertical rain screen made out of panels of American Black Locust, which was chosen for its durability. On the interior, walls of American Walnut and continuous white oak floors run throughout the living space. Large expanses of glass wrap around the Ravine House, further blending the exterior with the interior. A minimalist, yet cozy, interior design deftly puts the focus on the surrounding views while providing a comfortable living area for the family. In addition to the various uses of wood for a more sustainable design, protecting the landscape was also an essential element to the Ravine House project. During the construction process, the homeowners began to restore the adjacent ravine, which was being damaged by invasive species. They planted no-mow meadows to surround the home as well as multiple beds of vegetable gardens. + Wheeler Kearns Architects Photography by Tom Rossiter via Wheeler Kearns Architects

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Home on a sloped ravine uses natural materials to blend into the landscape

Light pollution, habitat loss and pesticides push fireflies toward extinction

February 7, 2020 by  
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There are more than 2,000 species of fireflies, and scientists are sounding the alarm that some of these species are on the brink of extinction . Research published in BioScience indicates that habitat loss, light pollution and pesticides are threatening these delightful insects. According to Tufts University biology professor Sara Lewis, the study’s lead author, “If people want fireflies around in the future, we need to look at this seriously. Fireflies are incredibly attractive insects, perhaps the most beloved of all insects, because they are so conspicuous, so magical.” Related: New Animal Endangerment Map shows global distribution of threatened animal species Habitat loss is the main culprit disrupting the environmental conditions and cues conducive to firefly development and lifecycle completion. One example cited was the Malaysian firefly species Pteroptyx tener , which needs particular mangroves and plants to breed appropriately, but their mangrove swamp habitats have been displaced by aquaculture farms and palm oil plantations. The second issue leaving fireflies vulnerable is light pollution . As CNN reported, light pollution can arise from “streetlights and commercial signs and skyglow, a more diffuse illumination that spreads beyond urban centers and can be brighter than a full moon.” Artificial lights can interfere with firefly courtship. Male fireflies flash particular bioluminescent patterns to attract females, who must flash responses in return. Unfortunately, artificial lights can mimic and thus confuse the signals. Or, worse yet, light pollution can be too bright for the fireflies to emit and properly recognize their ritual signals for mating to be initiated or completed. Thirdly, pesticides have been a significant driving factor in the decline of firefly populations. The Center for Biological Diversity has documented that “Systemic pesticides like neonicotinoids that get into the soil and water harm firefly larvae and their prey. Also, because fireflies are generally found in wetland habitats, they are threatened by insecticide spraying targeting mosquitoes.” As a result, the larvae either starve or have developmental anomalies that prevent population growth. Public outcries by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Firefly Specialist Group as well as the Fireflyers International Network have raised some awareness about the dwindling firefly populations. Yet, as stated by the Center for Biological Diversity, “There are at least 125 species of fireflies in the United States, but despite the many threats they face, none are protected by the Endangered Species Act.” To protect these luminous insects that have long captivated the imagination with their fairytale-like lights, much work still needs to be done, especially given the U.K. Wildlife Trusts ’ similar report on the ‘quiet apocalypse’ taking place now, wherein 41% of global insect species face extinction. + BioScience Via CNN , the Center for Biological Diversity and The Guardian Image via Shutterstock

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Light pollution, habitat loss and pesticides push fireflies toward extinction

Trump administration moves to weaken Endangered Species Act amid global extinction risks

August 13, 2019 by  
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It’s no secret that endangered species around the globe continue to face extinction, and the dilemma could get worse with the recent revamp of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) . On August 12, the Trump administration unveiled new changes to the ESA, which was first passed in 1973. The new ESA rules will change how federal agencies implement portions of the conservation law, making it easier to remove recovered species from the protected list and allow for more drilling and development. First proposed in July 2018, the changes will allow federal agencies to weigh economic factors into decisions on assigning species protections. The law previously prohibited this. The administration believes the new changes will  “modernize” and “improve” the law, lifting regulatory burdens while continuing to protect species . Karen Budd-Falen, the Interior Department’s deputy solicitor for fish, wildlife and parks, said the changes will “ensure transparency” in the ESA process and “provide regulatory assurances and protection for both endangered species and the businesses that rely on the use of federal and private land.” However, environmentalists have a different view and believe the new rules only help industry and will continue hurting ecosystems , ultimately resulting in their downfall. Alarmingly, a three-year United Nations study found up to 1 million species wildlife are at risk of extinction by human actions if current trends continue. The changes to the ESA could speed up the process. Related: 1 million species are at risk of extinction, says new UN report Today, the ESA protects more than 1,600 plants and animals, as well as the habitats important to their survival, according to one report. The ESA has prevented 99 percent of listed species from becoming extinct . “The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal ? recovery of our rarest species,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, an ex-oil and gas lobbyist, said. “The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation.” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra promised to battle the new ESA changes in court. “I know that gutting the Endangered Species Act sounds like plan from a cartoon villain, not the work of the president of the United States, ” Healey said during a call with journalists. “But unfortunately, that’s what we’re dealing with today.” Via Huffington Post Image via Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

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Eaten to Extinction

August 9, 2019 by  
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In downtown Reykjavik, several restaurants catering to tourists offer whale … The post Eaten to Extinction appeared first on Earth911.com.

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Earth911 Inspiration: Steven Johnson — Innovation Is Like Time Travel

August 9, 2019 by  
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Earth911 inspirations. Post them, share your desire to help people … The post Earth911 Inspiration: Steven Johnson — Innovation Is Like Time Travel appeared first on Earth911.com.

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Koalas declared "functionally extinct"

May 16, 2019 by  
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The Australian Koala Foundation declared koalas officially “functionally extinct,” a term which means that though there are still about 80,000 koalas, they are either unlikely to reproduce another generation, prone to inbreeding due to low numbers or may no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem. The iconic Australian animal is on a fast track to extinction and has suffered from deforestation , disease, climate change-driven drought and a massive slaughter for fur in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Australian government listed the species as “vulnerable” in 2012 when there was thought to be between 100,000 and 500,000 koalas. Since the declaration, the government has done very little to develop or implement a protection and recovery plan. Related: 1 million species are at risk of extinction, says new UN report With an estimated population that could even be as low as 43,000, koalas are very likely to inbreed and become even more susceptible to disease. At these small population numbers, the marsupial has very little impact on its ecosystem, the eucalyptus forest. Koalas were once critical to the nutrient cycling of the forest, with their feces an important source of fertilizer. Large koalas can consume up to 1 kilogram of eucalyptus leaves per night. Logging and urban development has encroached into what was once an abundant forest ecosystem, leading many to believe that the government needs to declare and expand protected areas of the forests. The Australia Koala Foundation has proposed a Koala Protection Act that focuses on conserving the forest as the primary strategy for protecting koalas. “The koala is one of Australia’s most recognizable symbols, but its survival hangs in the balance,” the  San Diego Zoo said  in a statement. “Formerly thought to be common and widespread, koalas are now vulnerable to extinction across much of its northern range.” According to fossil records, Koalas are native to Australia and have been there for at least 30 million years . Via EcoWatch Image by Mathias Appel

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A Chinese highway becomes a vibrant, community-centered ‘livable street’

May 16, 2019 by  
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London-based design studio WallaceLiu has given the residents of the southwestern Chinese city Chongqing a new “livable street” to enjoy. The firm was recently tasked with converting a half-mile long, 65-foot-wide highway into a  serene linear urban park , now named Yannan Avenue Park. The green space comes complete with an open-air promenade lined with ample lounge areas, playgrounds and a series of vibrantly colored canopies that light up the area with playful pops of color. The city of Chongqing has experienced rapid growth over the last decade, and as such, the city has been developing at a breakneck pace. Unfortunately, the city’s green space has been quietly disappearing to make way for new property developments — until now. Thanks to the WallaceLiu team, local residents now have a new linear park that has something for just about everyone. Related: A disused railway will become a sustainable green corridor in Taiwan According to the architects, the inspiration behind the design was to reclaim some of the city’s urban space for the residents, replacing asphalt with greenery and a welcoming public space to enjoy fresh air. The firm said, “We imagined the entire highway to be transformed into a walkable and playful place, where the elements of a highway-dominated urban landscape — curbstone, road markings, traffic signage, pedestrian fences, hedge boundaries and limited pedestrian crossings — would be replaced by a characterful and vibrant open promenade.” Lined with shade trees, seasonal shrubs and flowers, the serene walkway includes several “nooks” that were designed to encourage neighborhood interaction. Ample benches and seating are located throughout the park, with most configured as sociable places that foster conversation. Additionally, there are more than a few spaces for children in the linear park , including a rock-climbing wall. To add a sense of whimsy to the design, the firm installed six colorful canopies that provide respite from the searing summer heat as well as reflect colorful plays of light onto the landscape. + WallaceLiu Images via WallaceLiu

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