Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Sea snakes are the most diverse group of marine reptiles in the world, but they are poorly understood and threatened by development. Blanche D’Anastasi is among the scientists working to save them.
( Re-printed/copied to allow those without newspaper subscriptions an opportunity to read articles)
By Devi Lockwood - Aug. 19, 2019 - NY Times Science Section
“Six to eight million years ago, a snake related to swamp snakes or tiger snakes slithered into the sea. Over evolutionary time, descendants of that snake developed flattened paddle tails, an ability to breathe through the skin and a valve to stop water from entering the lungs. Today these creatures live their entire lives in the water. Clad in spots, triangles and stripes, they undulate across coral reefs or meadows of sea grass.
There are some 70 species of sea snakes in the world; they live in the Indian and Pacific oceans, in water less than 600 feet deep. Half of all species can be found in Australia, and they are particularly visible during their mating period, in July and August.
But sea snake populations have been declining rapidly for the last 20 years worldwide, as a result of climate change, pollution, fishing, habitat loss, mining exploration and disease. Although sea snakes are the most diverse group of marine reptiles — they outnumber sea turtle species by 10 to one — less is known about their ecology than that of any other group of reptiles.
This is because the research is difficult. If you want to find a sea snake, you have to go out searching for one.
Blanche D’Anastasi, a sea snake researcher at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, travels to remote regions like Exmouth Gulf, on the country’s northwest coast, to find sea snakes in the wild. Sometimes she scuba dives or snorkels, but the most efficient technique is to be towed behind a boat while wearing a snorkel. When she spots a snake, Ms. D’Anastasi dives down to catch it in a bag.
“Sometimes one will swim up to me and lick my mask and neck,” she said. Others hide by swimming to the floor and sticking their heads in the sand near sea grass. Perhaps they are impersonating it.
Back on the boat, she collects a sliver of tail tissue, takes photos, measures the snake and sets it free. In her lab, she analyzes the animal’s genetic diversity.
Ms. D’Anastasi initially pursued a Ph.D. on the genetic diversity of sharks and rays. She shifted her focus to sea snakes after learning about the decline in their numbers.
The switch “felt like setting myself adrift in a warm, wild ocean current,” Ms. D’Anastasi said. “It was a scary step to take. I didn’t fully comprehend, at the time, the positive impact that this would have on my life and the conservation of sea snakes.”
Land-based lizards and snakes have sensilla, bumps on their head scales that are used to sense objects through touch. The sensilla of sea snakes are dome-shaped and protrude farther, possibly enabling them to detect vibrations underwater.
“I have always wondered how sea snakes seem to know I am there before they see me,” Ms. D’Anastasi said. “Sometimes I see a tail or body coil sticking out from under a ledge, and before I get close the snake has popped its head out for a look.”
This sensitivity to underwater vibrations also makes sea snakes vulnerable to engines and other human-generated noises. Seismic testing, which relies on loud underwater blasts to explore for oil and gas, likely damages their hearing, which would disrupt their ability to hunt and hide in the wild.
Sea snakes occupy the middle of the food web. Most feed on fish and eels. Sea eagles, ospreys, crocodiles and sharks eat them. They gravitate toward structurally complex habitats that provide places to hunt, rest and hide: coral reefs, estuaries, sea grass beds and mud flats. Many sea snakes are specialized to hunt particular prey — damselfish eggs, frog fish, gobies. As a result, 10 or more species may live in the same habitat.
Where they occur, they are abundant. “Turtle-headed sea snakes are reluctant to move even one kilometer to breed with snakes in the next bay,” Ms. D’Anastasi said. At least 15 species of sea snakes live in Exmouth Gulf, including two species previously thought to be extinct: the leaf-scaled sea snake, Aipysurus foliosquama, and the short-nosed sea snake, Aipysurus apraefrontalis. To protect the full range of genetic diversity, management is necessary.
The Timor Sea, extending from Australia’s northwest coast to the southern coast of Timor, is a hot spot of sea snake biodiversity. Exmouth Gulf, a 1,600-square-mile estuary nearby on the Indian Ocean, has remained relatively untouched. It supports more than 1,800 species of fauna; critically endangered sawfish use the area as a pupping ground, and at least 15 species of sea snakes live there. Seven of them are genetically highly distinctive, compared to snakes on the Great Barrier Reef, and they may be new species entirely. “I am sure that once we start looking, we’ll find more,” Ms. D’Anastasi said.
“This place is teeming,” said novelist and environmental activist Tim Winton. “It’s alive.”
But the region has experienced rapid industrialization in the past two decades. Outside the Middle East, Australia’s northwest shelf is one of the largest oil- and natural-gas producing regions in the world. A development project proposed by Subsea 7, an energy company, would allow six-mile-long lengths of pipeline to be towed through a shallow portion of Exmouth Gulf. The proposal is currently being evaluated by the Environmental Protection Authority in Western Australia.
Although some jobs would be created from industrializing Exmouth Gulf, this “seems like a poor deal when you consider the environmental impact,” said Ben Fitzpatrick, ecologist and director of Oceanwise Australia, a research organization. The group recently published a report highlighting the biodiversity in Exmouth Gulf and the scientific research ongoing there.
Conserving Exmouth Gulf may allow Western Australian sea snakes, including those yet to be described by scientists, a chance at survival, Dr. Fitzpatrick said. The Ningaloo Reef, near Exmouth Gulf, is a World Heritage Site. Scientists like Ms. D’Anastasi are trying to extend the protection to Exmouth Gulf and the sea snakes that live there.
“As a scientist, sometimes it’s hard because you need to be the honest broker and walk that neutral line and just provide the advice,” Ms. D’Anastasi said. “But we’re in an age where that’s just not enough.”
Monday, August 19, 2019
The Thick Gray Line: Forest Elephants Defend Against Climate Change
If the species is wiped out by poachers, Africa’s vast rain forest will lose 7 percent of its carbon storage ability, scientists estimate.
( Re-printed/copied to allow those without newspaper subscriptions an opportunity to read articles)
By Rachel Nuwer - NY Times 19 August ‘19
“Poaching destabilizes nations, disrupts ecosystems and threatens biodiversity. A recent study suggests still another consequence: Some types of poaching may also accelerate climate change.
Forest elephants — the smaller, endangered relatives of African savanna elephants — promote the growth of large trees that excel at storing carbon, according to research published in the journal Nature Geoscience.
Should forest elephants disappear, scientists estimated, Central Africa’s rain forest will lose about three billion tons of carbon — the equivalent of France’s total CO2 emissions for 27 years.
“This new paper points to something that we in Central Africa have suspected for a long time, but now this group has thrown some serious science at the issue,” said Fiona Maisels, a conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and at the University of Stirling in Scotland.
“With the loss of forest elephants,” she added, “loss of carbon stocks can be added to the list of ecosystem services that are no longer provided by these animals.”
Over recent years, researchers have gained a more detailed understanding of the links between animals and climate. Wild grazers, for instance, can reduce the intensity and frequency of fires that emit greenhouse gases. Methane emissions from livestock significantly contribute to global warming.
Scientists have also known for decades that large herbivores such as elephants play important short-term roles in ecosystems by promoting biodiversity, recycling nutrients and dispersing seeds.
Fabio Berzaghi, an ecologist at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in France and the lead author of the new study, suspected that elephants might also play a profound long-term role in shaping Africa’s rain forest, second in size only to the Amazon’s.
The Amazon lost its large herbivores 12,000 years ago, among them ground sloths that weighed over three tons, elephant-like creatures called gomphotheres, and armadillo-like glyptodonts that were the size of small cars.
The loss of these and other large herbivores likely contributed to the Amazon’s higher density of smaller trees, with a lower overall amount of vegetation compared with Africa’s rain forest.
“We were thinking elephants may play a role in the differences between these two continents’ forests,” Dr. Berzaghi said. “We also really wanted to know what the long-term consequences of losing this species would be.”
Dr. Berzaghi and his colleagues selected two field sites. One lies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, from which elephants disappeared 30 years ago because of poaching; the other is the Republic of Congo, where elephants lived at high numbers until recently.
Both sites were relatively pristine and differed only in the presence or absence of elephants. The researchers measured the trunk size of all the trees in the study areas and noted the species, giving them an idea of the short-term effects of elephant loss.
To determine the long-term effects, they created a computer model that simulated the basic functions of the African rain forest, including tree growth and death, competition, photosynthesis and reproduction. The model allowed them to include or exclude elephants.
Forest elephants almost exclusively stomp down trees with a diameter of 12 inches or less, and they prefer to eat fast-growing softwood trees. By clearing the understory of vegetation, the researchers found, elephants not only alter plant composition but also affect light penetration and water availability.
This results in an ecosystem that favors large, slow-growing hardwood trees. Such species store significantly more carbon than the equivalent volume of smaller softwood trees.”
Sunday, August 18, 2019
The Species Act, Endangered: ‘Like a Plan From a Cartoon Villain’
The president and his Interior Department undermine the landmark Endangered Species Act in the service of “energy dominance.”
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In early May, a United Nations panel on biodiversity released a deeply troubling 1,500-page report warning that as many as one million plant and animal species were at risk of extinction worldwide. It strongly urged nations everywhere to accelerate efforts to save the marine and terrestrial life that remain — the mammals, the birds, the fish, the plants, even the insects that pollinate the world’s food supply. The report also noted that global warming had become a major driver of this alarming decline, shrinking or shifting the ecosystems in which wildlife had evolved.
Now comes what amounts to a thumb in the eye from the Trump administration: The Interior Department announced a set of ruleson Monday that, far from enlarging protections, will weaken how the nation’s most important conservation law, the Endangered Species Act, is applied. The proposed changes would make it harder to shield fragile species not only from commercial development like logging and oil and gas drilling, but also from the multiple threats posed by climate change. Specifically, the rules would complicate the task of getting species listed as threatened or endangered in the first place, and would reduce the habitat judged necessary for their survival.
These changes should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to this administration’s environmental and energy policies over the past two years. They are fully consistent with a broader pattern of regulatory moves aimed at reducing costs and burdens on business. They are in keeping as well with a host of other actions supporting President Trump’s policy of “energy dominance,” including but not limited to a pell-mell rush to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, the evisceration of two national monuments in Utah to make way for drilling and mining, and clawing back nine million acres in several oil-rich Western states that the Obama administration had set aside to protect the imperiled sage grouse.
The announcement of the new rules was accompanied by predictably pious boilerplate from David Bernhardt, the interior secretary and a former oil lobbyist, to the effect that the changes were necessary to modernize and simplify the law and make it more transparent. Neither he nor the dozen or so Republicans from Western states recruited to sing his praises mentioned anywhere in their public statements the act’s popularity with the general public and its rich bipartisan pedigree. Strongly endorsed by President Richard Nixon, and approved by huge margins in both chambers of Congress (the House vote was an astounding 355 to 4), the act would stand zero chance of passage in today’s poisoned political climate. The moderate Republicans who thrived in Congress in Nixon’s day are themselves an endangered species, if not, for all practical purposes, extinct.
Nor was there any mention of the act’s striking successes, the species brought back from the edge, including, among other creatures small and great, the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the American alligator and the gray wolf. Instead, we heard the tired and irrelevant complaint that, of the more than 1,650 species listed as threatened or endangered, only 47 have been delisted because their populations have rebounded to fully sustainable levels. But that’s a nutty way of measuring success; species once hurtling toward extinction can hardly be expected to rebuild healthy populations overnight. And only a relative handful have actually gone to their doom, while many are deemed stable and on the road to recovery.
There are several shortcomings to the Trump administration’s new rules, but two stand out. The first would allow regulators for the first time to calculate economic costs when deciding whether a species warrants protection — for instance, estimating lost revenue from logging operations prohibited in habitat set aside for species. Under current law, listing decisions must be made solely on the basis of science “without reference to possible economic or other impacts.” An administration official insisted that future listings would still be based solely on science and that economic studies would be for informational purposes only.
But let’s not be naïve. First, there’s the mind-set of senior officials; from Day 1, this administration has shown disregard bordering on contempt for science when making important decisions about the environment. Economic information could covertly influence regulators who are already suspicious of science, from Mr. Bernhardt on down, and really didn't much like the Endangered Species Act to begin with. It could also be used to tilt public opinion against a controversial listing.
The second major shortcoming in the new rules is their failure to squarely confront the problem of climate change. Indeed, the rule makers appear to have gone to some lengths to dodge the problem. The law defines two categories of at-risk species — threatened and endangered. Currently, a threatened species is one “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” “Foreseeable future” is not defined. The new rules do so, in some detail and in ways that critics believe will invite the government to discount the future effects of global warming.
Under the new rules, “foreseeable future” extends only as far as officials can “reasonably determine” that the future threats are “probable.” This leaves substantial room to dismiss the far-off threats of climate change as excessively speculative. It might have made it difficult, for instance, back in 2008, to designate the polar bear as a threatened species and, two years later, set aside more than 187,000 square miles of sea ice and barrier islands in Alaska as critical habit and thus off limits to development. At the time, officials relied on climate models that extended many decades into the future, which under the new rules might not have been acceptable.
The ability of species to adapt to global warming could be further undermined by new language addressing critical habitat, the land that can be kept off limits to development to help species recover. Current rules define critical habitat as not only the land where the threatened or endangered species live but also the land they once occupied and land they might need in the future. As the world warms, species will move, their ranges will shift and that unoccupied land could become important to their survival. But that land gets short shrift in the new rules, and it could now be opened for mining, timbering, oil drilling or other forms of exploitation.
For all of Mr. Bernhardt’s talk of transparency and efficiency, some of the new rules seemed deliberately designed to throw sand in the machinery (which may, of course, be the whole point). Under present practice, known as the “blanket section 4(d) rule,” the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the law, automatically extends many of the same protections to threatened species as it does to endangered ones. The point of the act is to keep species from becoming endangered or, even worse, blinking out.
This rule is now history, replaced by a system in which the agency will, case by case, develop species-specific protection plans. This could be a cumbersome and time-consuming task, of little benefit to the species awaiting help. Mr. Bernhardt’s team has already slowed the listing process. The Obama administration added an average of 49 species a year to the threatened and endangered lists. The Trump administration has added no more than 11 in one year. In 2019, it has added only the trispot darter, a type of fish from the Southeast listed as threatened in late January.
Like other Trump environmental rule changes and rollbacks, this one will undoubtedly face challenges. Environmentally inclined senators have been talking about invoking congressional oversight procedures to overturn the rules, which is possible if they move quickly enough, but unlikely. The best hope lies with the courts, which in several cases — notably Mr. Trump’s efforts to roll back Obama-era protections against drilling in Arctic waters — have not been at all reluctant to slam on the brakes, and in general have been a bulwark against Trumpian overreach. The California attorney general, Xavier Becerra, and his Massachusetts counterpart, Maura Healey, citing findings from the alarming United Nations extinctions study in May, have said they will take the administration to court for what they believe are multiple violations of the law’s basic purpose.
We hope they, and the environmental groups that join them, will persist. Ms. Healey likens the new rules to “a plan from a cartoon villain,” ignoring everything we know about biodiversity, its uses and its alarming decline in pursuit of Mr. Trump’s reckless energy agenda. At issue is the full expression of one of the country’s noblest and most ambitious environmental laws.
See www.letkidsbekids.org on how you can help.
Wednesday, May 22, 2019
The Couple Who Sat With Lincoln on the Night of His Assassination
"It's been 154 years since assassin John Wilkes Booth crept into the Presidential Box at Ford's Theater and fatally shot Abraham Lincoln. You know how the story ends: Lincoln died the next morning, Booth was shot and killed days later on April 26, and Mary Todd Lincoln was left to mourn her shattered family.
But the Lincolns weren't alone at the performance of Our American Cousinthat night. General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, declined an invitation to accompany the President and the First Lady, deciding to visit their children in New Jersey instead. This was an unfortunate turn of events for Booth, who had been hoping to take out both Grant and Lincoln in one fell swoop.
The Lincolns extended invitation after invitation, but were repeatedly turned down for various reasons. They finally received a "yes" from Clara Harris, daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris. The senator's daughter had become friends with Mary Todd from attending various social engagements in Washington. Harris's date for the evening was her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone (who was also her step-brother).
After Lincoln was shot, Rathbone tried to grab the assassin. Booth responded by using a Bowie knife to slash Rathbone's arm, splitting it open from shoulder to elbow and slicing through a major artery. The massive amounts of blood later found in the Presidential Box mostly belonged to Rathbone, not Lincoln, who actually bled very little.
In 1867, after all of the assassination hoopla had calmed down, Rathbone and Harris were finally married. They had three children (one born on what would have been Lincoln's 61st birthday) and, in 1882, moved to Germany, after he was appointed the U.S. Consul to Hanover.
In the nearly two decades that had passed since Lincoln's assassination, however, Rathbone's mental health had severely declined. He became increasingly obsessed with the idea that Clara was going to leave him, to the point that he forbade her from sitting by windows. He began hallucinating, and even admitted that he was afraid of himself.
G.W. Pope, Rathbone's doctor, believed the night at Ford's Theater had caused post-traumatic stress: "He never was thoroughly himself after that night . . . I have no hesitation in affirming that the dreaded tragedy, which preyed upon his nervous and impressionable temperament for many years, laid the seeds of that homicidal mania."
On December 23, 1883, an erratic Rathbone made a move toward the children's bedrooms that alarmed Clara. Believing that he intended to harm them, Clara blocked his way and managed to get him back to their bedroom. That's when he shot her several times, then stabbed her with a knife, which he then turned on himself.
Rathbone was admitted to a hospital for the criminally insane, residing there until his death in 1911. Their children were raised by Clara's sister and her husband. Henry and Clara's son, Henry Riggs—the one born on Lincoln's birthday—later became a Congressman. Proving that he wasn't bitter about his parents' fateful night out with the Lincolns, Henry Riggs Rathbone headed an unsuccessful attempt to get the government to make a Lincoln Museum at Ford's Theater. When that failed, he worked to help preserve the Petersen House where Lincoln died, including a collection of artifacts from the evening. One artifact that he didn't preserve: his mother's blood-soaked dress. He had it burned in 1910, believing that it had been a curse upon his family."
* "In 1910, the year before his father’s death, Henry Riggs Rathbone reportedly broke down the brick wall his mother had built decades ago to shut out the past, recovered her blood-stained dress, and set it ablaze—an attempt to put an end to what he felt was a family curse." Smithsonian