Arctic shipping routes could threaten "unicorns of the sea"

July 3, 2018 by  
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Narwhals, or the “unicorns of the sea,” could be at risk from additional Arctic shipping routes as polar ice continues to recede. A peer-reviewed study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests as many as seven marine mammal species may face new threats and uncertain consequences from increased ship traffic. The Arctic Ocean is home to hundreds of animals, like narwhals, polar bears and whales. However, as the polar ice caps retreat, more shipping companies are taking advantage of open waters to reduce travel time. To determine how the increase of ships could affect marine mammals , the research team from University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Washington studied wildlife during the fall shipping season. The group looked at 80 different subpopulations among the seven species to determine if they were directly exposed to the ships and how much these ships could affect the wellbeing of the marine life. Related: The melting Arctic is already changing the ocean’s circulation During the study period, over half of the subpopulations were impacted by ships, with narwhals inheriting the highest amount of risk. In addition to an increased risk of injury or death from collisions,  toothed whales also face communication challenges because of their audio sensitivity. Like dolphins, the ocean unicorn “talks” with a language of buzzing, clicking and calling. While narwhals could have the most to lose, polar bears and seals have the least risk because of the time they spend on land. But researchers note their populations also come with high long-term uncertainty, and the team concluded more data is required to determine how shipping affects their livelihood. The news wasn’t entirely bad for wildlife populations. The scientists noted through additional data collection, shipping companies could plan for environmentally-sustainable transportation options. “Regions with geographic bottlenecks, such as the Bering Strait and eastern Canadian Arctic, were characterized by two to three times higher vulnerability than more remote regions,” the researchers wrote in their study abstract. “These pinch points are obligatory pathways for both vessels and migratory [ocean mammals], and so represent potentially high conflict areas but also opportunities for conservation-informed planning .” Arctic planning groups are aware of the wildlife threats and are working out plans to balance shipping with environmental concerns. The Arctic Council instituted regulations on transport companies in January 2017, with the goal of making shipping safer for both crews and marine mammals. + Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Via Earther

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Arctic shipping routes could threaten "unicorns of the sea"

Scientists discover new gibbon species inside tomb of Chinese emperor’s grandmother

June 25, 2018 by  
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In a new study published in the journal Science , scientists detail the identification of a new species of gibbon, one that had gone extinct at some point over the past two millennia. The remains of Junzi imperialis were first discovered in 2004, when archaeologists at Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology in Xi’an discovered a mausoleum nearby the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China ‘s first emperor, which is famously guarded by thousands of terracotta soldiers. In addition to the partial skull of the gibbon, the mausoleum contained bones from numerous animals, such as panthers, lynxes, black bears and cranes. The gibbon likely would have belonged to the emperor’s grandmother, Lady Xia. “Having gibbons as pets appears to have been common among Chinese royals during ancient times,” study co-author Alejandra Ortiz told NPR . Years after the gibbon skull was uncovered, London -based archaeologist Samuel Turvey took an interest in its unusual characteristics. The remains were discovered “a huge distance from any of China’s surviving gibbon populations,” hundreds of miles south of the tomb, Turvey told NPR , “which immediately suggested that this specimen could be something extremely interesting.” Research suggests that through deforestation, humans were the likely cause of the gibbon’s extinction. Because of the gibbon’s dependence on the tree canopy ecosystem, it is very vulnerable to the destruction of its forest habitat. Related: Reforestation in China heralds the return of rare animals The discovery of a new, but extinct, ape species brings mixed emotions. “We feel that the discovery of Junzi imperialis is extremely important because it helps us to fill gaps in the understanding of gibbon diversity,” Ortiz said. However, the “discovery is sad, because it reinforces the idea that humans represent a major threat for the survival of species of gibbons and other apes, and our findings suggest that we have been a threat for quite a while.” + Science Via NPR Images via Benjamin Radzun and Eric Kilby

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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

West Antarctica’s bedrock is rising, providing some protection to melting ice

June 22, 2018 by  
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It seems that most news concerning Antarctica’s ice sheets is bad news, with two of the world’s fastest melting glaciers shrinking away in the continent’s western region. Fortunately, this same region is also home to an unusual geological feature that may provide some relief to the effects of climate change. In a new study published in the journal Science , researchers examined how the Earth’s surface seems to expand when heavy objects, such as glaciers , are no longer present and pushing down on the ground. According to data gathered from GPS sensors, the land beneath the Amundsen Sea Embayment in western Antarctica is rising at a rate of about two inches per year, one of the fastest rising rates ever recorded. As is often the case, the discovery of western Antarctica’s rising bedrock was made somewhat by chance. “[Study co-author] Terry Wilson and colleagues were extremely wise and lucky,” study co-author Valentina Barletta told Earther . “They had the really, really good idea [to place those sensors] with very few indication[s] that there might have been something special.” The researchers concluded that the land beneath the Amundsen Sea Embayment springs back because of a relatively fluid mantle beneath the surface, which is more capable of responding to changes above. Related: Scientists uncover giant canyons under the ice in Antarctica “This study shows this region of Antarctica has a very short memory,” Antarctica researcher Matt King told Earther, likening the local geological phenomenon to memory foam. Understanding the impact that rebounding land can have enables researchers to more accurately assess ice loss, the measurement of which has been incomplete due to a lack of knowledge about rising rock. The study also provides some hope to those who live in coastal areas, which may benefit from the potential slowing of melting ice by its rising higher than the warmer water . Via Earther Image via Depositphotos

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West Antarctica’s bedrock is rising, providing some protection to melting ice

Animals are becoming nocturnal to avoid humans

June 15, 2018 by  
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Researchers have learned that dozens of species of animals have reacted to increased contact with human beings by shifting their internal clocks to become more nocturnal. “It suggests that animals might be playing it safe around people,” study leader Kaitlyn Gaynor told Phys.org . “We may think that we leave no trace when we’re just hiking in the woods , but our mere presence can have lasting consequences.” In a new study published in the journal Science , Gaynor and her team analyzed data from 76 previous studies on 62 different animal species spread out over six continents and concluded that even relatively low-impact activities can affect animal behavior. Animals featured in this study, many of whom were mammals, include coyotes in California, wild boars in Poland, lions in Tanzania, tigers in Nepal, and otters in Brazil . To determine the effect of human behavior on sleeping patterns, researchers determined how long animals were active at night when affected by different kinds of human activities, such as hunting, hiking , and farming. The team concluded that human presence correlated with a 20 percent increase on average of nocturnal activity among the animals studied. Related: Dutch town helps out rare bat species by installing “bat-friendly” streetlights This research is among the first to explore and quantify how human behavior impacts animal activity and sleep patterns on a broad scale.  “No one else has compiled all this information and analyzed it in such a … robust way,” researcher Ana Benitez Lopez, who reviewed the study, told Phys.org. The study is a reminder that simply being in a wild space can fundamentally change it. “It’s a little bit scary,” ecologist Marlee Tucker, who did not participate in the study, told Phys.org. “Even if people think that we’re not deliberately trying to impact animals, we probably are without knowing it.” While some animals will struggle with adapting to night life, the shift may also provide benefits to animals who hope to share space with humans without ever dealing with them. Armed with new knowledge, I will nonetheless continue to hike and camp , because it helps me sleep. Via Phys.org Images via Depositphotos

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Animals are becoming nocturnal to avoid humans

New study shows some LED lights can harm wildlife

June 13, 2018 by  
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Researchers have concluded that certain types of LED lights can be harmful toward a wide variety of wildlife, calling attention to the potential hazards of the rapid expansion of LED light usage. Though LEDs made up only 9 percent of the global market in 2011, that number is expected to rise to 69 percent by 2020. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Ecological and Integrative Physiology , researchers concluded that blue and white LED lighting is the most harmful to wildlife , particularly animals such as sea turtles and insects, while green, amber and yellow are more favorable. As the urbanization of our planet continues, it is essential that policymakers and scientists understand the potential outcomes of altering a space so drastically from its natural state. “Outdoor environments are changing rapidly and in ways that can impact wildlife species,” study leader author Travis Longcore told Phys.org . The researchers incorporated existing ecological data into the study as the team examined the impacts of different kinds of LED lights on animals such as insects, sea turtles, salmon and Newell’s shearwater seabird. Related: New research links LED streetlights to increased risk of cancer LED lights seem to adversely affect species in different ways. Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings can be lured inland by artificial light rather than into the ocean , while migrating juvenile salmon’s attraction to light may leave them vulnerable to predators. To better inform the public regarding the risks of LED, the study includes the first publicly available database that documents how about 24 different kinds of light can impact wildlife. “If we don’t provide advice and information to decision-makers, they will go with the cheapest lighting or lighting that serves only one interest and does not balance other interests,” Longcore said. “We provide a method to assess the probable consequences of new light sources to keep up with the changing technology and wildlife concerns.” + Journal of Experimental Zoology Via Phys.org Images via Depositphotos (1, 2)

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New study shows some LED lights can harm wildlife

Some of the oldest and largest baobab trees are dying

June 12, 2018 by  
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A new survey of baobab trees throughout southern Africa has shown that most of the two dozen largest and oldest trees in the region have died in the past decade or are currently very ill. While human-caused physical damage to individual trees may explain specific die-offs, researchers believe that climate change, which is occurring faster in southern Africa than many places on Earth, may be the most significant factor in the trees’ poor health. “Such a disastrous decline is very unexpected,” chemist and survey organizer Adrian Patrut told NPR . “It’s a strange feeling, because these are trees which may live for 2,000 years or more, and we see that they’re dying one after another during our lifetime. It’s statistically very unlikely.” The iconic baobab are culturally important for many communities. A common myth explains the baobab’s unique shape as a result of gods punishing the tree for its vanity in its extraordinary size, with the baobab being uprooted and flipped upside down with its “roots” facing upwards. Baobabs can be cultivated for their nutritious leaves and fruit and may prove to be a source of economic development . The trees are also ecologically significant, providing habitat and food for a wide variety of mammals, birds, insects and reptiles. Related: Can this tree provide financial security for 10 million people in Africa? Because of their unique shape and growth patterns that distort their tree rings, accurate dating of a baobab is difficult. Despite some questioning of Patrut’s methods, researchers nonetheless recognize that baobab die-offs is an unsettling trend that deserves more study. As southern Africa likely faces intense temperature increases and drought , the urgency to understand and better protect the baobabs is clear. “The decline and death of so many large baobabs in recent years is so tragic,” ecologist David Baum told NPR . “It is heartbreaking that any should die — but even worse that we might be seeing the beginning of the end of all the giant baobabs on the planet.” Via NPR Images via Depositphotos (1, 2)

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Uranium-contaminated groundwater found throughout India

June 8, 2018 by  
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A new study from Duke University reports that uranium contamination in groundwater from aquifers is common in 16  Indian states. While much of the uranium contamination is natural in its origin, groundwater-table decline and nitrate pollution from agriculture also contribute to the widespread public health problem; high levels of uranium in drinking water have been linked to chronic kidney disease. “The results of this study strongly suggest there is a need to revise current water-quality monitoring programs in India and re-evaluate human health risks in areas of high uranium prevalence,” study co-author Avner Vengosh told Phys.org . “Developing effective remediation technologies and preventive management practices should also be a priority.” The research team gathered its data from 324 wells in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, as well as 68 previous studies on groundwater geochemistry in the same areas. Uranium is often found naturally in rocks , which, under varying environmental conditions, allows it to more easily seep into surrounding water. Much of the gravel, clay and silt that are found in India’s aquifers were brought there through the weathering of the Himalayan mountains, the rocks of which contain high levels of uranium. As India’s aquifers are over-harvested to support agricultural industry, oxidation of these rocks enable uranium to escape and contaminate its surrounding environment. Related: 26,000 tons of radioactive waste sits at the bottom of Lake Powell Although the World Health Organization has established an interim safety standard for uranium content in drinking water , a similar regulation has not been adopted by the Bureau of Indian Standards’ Drinking Water Specifications. “One of the takeaways of this study is that human activities can make a bad situation worse, but we could also make it better,” Vengosh said.”Including a uranium standard in the Bureau of Indian Standards’ Drinking Water Specification based on uranium’s kidney-harming effects, establishing monitoring systems to identify at-risk areas and exploring new ways to prevent or treat uranium contamination will help ensure access to safe drinking water for tens of millions in India.” + Duke University Via Phys.org Images via Nithi Anand (1, 2)

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Uranium-contaminated groundwater found throughout India

Climate change has transformed much of Alaska over the past three decades

June 4, 2018 by  
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Climate change disproportionately impacts the Arctic, where rising global temperatures wrought by the burning of fossil fuels have brought rapid, fundamental changes to places like Alaska. In a new study published in Global Change Biology , researchers conclude that 67,000 square miles of land in Alaska, 13 percent of the total land, have been affected over the past three decades. The land has been impacted by what the study calls ‘directional change,’ in which a location has experienced fundamental change in its ecology from historic levels. For example, some areas have become greener and wetter and others have dried out as glaciers shrink and wildfires rage across the state. Even trees have shifted, with treelines moving farther north to adjust to a warming Arctic. To study the drastic changes in Alaska , scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey used satellite and aerial imagery integrated with field data to create a mapping algorithm that assesses the level of change throughout the state. The study analyzed 540,000 square miles of land, noting the various kinds of changes in different Alaskan ecosystems. Near the tundra, the environment is becoming greener as trees and other plants spread beyond their traditional northern border. Meanwhile, interior forests are drying out, resulting in increased and more intense wildfires, which the researchers conclude is the greatest factor in Alaska’s ecological change. “What impressed me [was] how extensive and influential the fires were,” study co-author Bruce Wylie told Earther . Related: One-third of the world’s protected areas face ‘shocking’ human impact Climate change has also disrupted the state’s historic water patterns. Melting permafrost has led to depressions, allowing wetlands to form in unusual places. This has also exacerbated erosion along the coasts, which are being tested by an ever-shorter season of sea ice. The comprehensive study of these varied changes may be helpful as scientists and policymakers plan for Alaska’s future. “Now with this study we have spatially explicit interpretations of the changes on the land, with specific drivers identified and attributed to the changes,” NASA carbon cycle scientist Peter Griffith told Earther . However, there is still so much more to learn. The study’s results, limited by available technology and resources, do not tell the whole story. + Global Change Biology Via Earther Images via Depositphotos and USGS

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Climate change has transformed much of Alaska over the past three decades

Scientists uncover giant canyons under the ice in Antarctica

May 29, 2018 by  
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Researchers have discovered three large canyons frozen beneath the ice of Antarctica , each of which is hundreds of kilometers in length. The canyons, which move through tall mountains that lie beneath the snowy surface of the southernmost continent, were discovered through radar and may serve a key function in Antarctic ice flow. “These troughs channelize ice from the center of the continent, taking it toward the coast,” study co-author Kate Winter told the BBC . “Therefore, if climate conditions change in Antarctica, we might expect the ice in these troughs to flow a lot faster toward the sea. That makes them really important, and we simply didn’t know they existed before now.” The three canyons are the Patuxent Trough, the Offset Rift Basin and the Foundation Trough, the largest of the three, which is more than 350 kilometers long and 35 kilometers wide. The bottom of the Foundation Trough is buried beneath two kilometers of ice. All three canyons are located beneath and across the high ice ridge known as the ice divide that runs from the South Pole toward West Australia. This divide is similar to other continental divides, such as those found in North America , in which water, or ice, flows toward different bodies of water based on which side of the divide it falls. Related: Scientists dash to explore Antarctic ecosystem hidden by ice for 120,000 years These newly-discovered canyons have altered scientists’ understanding of Antarctica’s future in a warming climate . “People had called this area a bottleneck,” study co-author Tom Jordan said . “The thought was that if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to collapse, then ice could flood out from the east. But the mountains we’ve found effectively put a plug in that bottleneck.” The data, much of which was unobtainable through satellite imagery, was gathered using radar and sensors attached to planes that surveyed the continent from above. “Remarkably, the South Pole region is one of the least understood frontiers in the whole of Antarctica,” researcher Fausto Ferraccioli said. “Our new aerogeophysical data will … enable new research into the geological processes that created the mountains and basins before the Antarctic ice sheet itself was born.” + PolarGAP Project Via BBC Images via Depositphotos (1, 2)

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Scientists uncover giant canyons under the ice in Antarctica

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