Pacific killer whales are dying — new research shows why



A female killer whale leaps from the water in Puget Sound near Seattle.
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Stephen Raverty, University of British Columbia and Joseph K. Gaydos, University of California, Davis

Killer whales are icons of the northeastern Pacific Ocean. They are intimately associated with the region’s natural history and First Nations communities. They are apex predators, with females living as long as 100 years old, and recognized a sentinels of ecosystem health — and some populations are currently threatened with extinction.

There are three major types of killer whales in the region: the “resident” populations that feed mainly on salmon, the “transients” that prey on other marine mammals like seals and sea lions, and the “offshores” that transit along the continental shelf, eating fish and sharks.

In the 1990s, an abrupt decline in the fish-eating southern resident population dropped to 75 whales from 98, prompting both Canada and the United States to list them as endangered.

A dead killer whale lies on her side in shallow water.
Emaciated female killer whale from Hawaii.
(NOAA/NMFS/PIRO), CC BY

Since then, southern resident killer whales, whose range extends from the waters off the southeast Alaska and the coast of British Columbia to California, have not recovered — only 74 remain today. Because killer whale strandings are rare, scientists have been uncertain about the causes of killer whale mortality and how additional deaths might be prevented in the future.

As a pathologist and wildlife veterinarian, and with the help of countless biologists and veterinarians, we have carried out in-depth investigations into why killer whales in this region strand and died. If we don’t know what is causing killer whale deaths, we are not able to prevent the ones that are human-caused.

We can do better

Human activities have been implicated in the decline and lack of recovery of the southern resident killer whale population, including ship noise and strikes, contaminants, reduced prey abundance and past capture of these animals for aquariums.

Only three per cent and 20 per cent of the northern and southern resident killer whales, respectively, that died between 1925 and 2011 were even found and available for a post-mortem exam. And in most cases, only cursory or incomplete post-mortem exams can be done, generating a limited amount of information.

To figure out why these killer whales are dying — and what it means for the health of individual animals and the population as a whole — we reviewed the post-mortem records of 53 animals that became stranded in the eastern Pacific Ocean and Hawaii between 2004 and 2013. We identified the cause of death in 22 animals, and gained important insight from nine other animals where the cause of death could not be determined.

Human-caused injuries were found in nearly every age group of whales, including adults, sub-adults and calves. Some had ingested fishing hooks, but evidence of blunt-force trauma, consistent with ship and propeller strikes, was more common.

A dead killer whale lies on a beach
The 18-year-old male southern resident killer whale, J34, stranded near Sechelt, B.C., on Dec. 21, 2016. Post-mortem examination suggested he died from trauma consistent with vessel strike.
(Paul Cottrell/Fisheries and Oceans Canada), Author provided

This is the first study to document the lesions and forensic evidence of lethal trauma from ship and propeller strikes.

In recent years governments have focused on limiting vessel noise and disturbance. This study reinforces the need for this, showing that in addition to noise and disturbance, vessel strikes are an important cause of death in killer whales.

Direct human impact

We also developed a body condition index to evaluate the animals’ nutritional health — were they eating enough salmon, for example — to see what role food might play in the sickness and death of stranded animals. Observations of free-ranging killer whales from boats and by unmanned aerial drones have documented sub-optimal body condition or generalized emaciation in many southern resident killer whales.

In this study, we found that longer and therefore older animals tend to have thicker blubber. Our study also found that those animals that died from blunt-force trauma had a better body condition — they were in good health before death. Those that died from infections or nutritional causes were more likely to be in worse body condition.

This new body condition index can help scientists better understand the health of killer whales, and gives us a tool to evaluate their health regardless of their age, reproductive status and health condition.

Our team, working with numerous collaborators including the National Marine Mammal Foundation, is building a health database of the killer whales living in the northeastern Pacific Ocean so that their health can be tracked over time. This centralized database will let stranding response programs, regional and national government agencies and First Nations communities collaborate with field biologists, research scientists and veterinarians.

Ultimately, the information about the health of these killer whales must be conveyed to the public and policy-makers to ensure that the appropriate legislation is enacted to reverse the downward trend in the health and survival of these killer whales. We should now be able to assess future efforts and gain a better understanding of the impact of ongoing human activities, such as fishing, boating and shipping.The Conversation

Stephen Raverty, Adjunct professor, Veterinary Pathology, University of British Columbia and Joseph K. Gaydos, Wildlife Veterinarian and Science Director, The SeaDoc Society, University of California, Davis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Research reveals shocking detail on how Australia’s environmental scientists are being silenced



Authors provided

Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Bob Pressey, James Cook University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Noel D Preece, James Cook University

Ecologists and conservation experts in government, industry and universities are routinely constrained in communicating scientific evidence on threatened species, mining, logging and other threats to the environment, our new research has found.

Our study, just published, shows how important scientific information about environmental threats often does not reach the public or decision-makers, including government ministers.

In some cases, scientists self-censor information for fear of damaging their careers, losing funding or being misrepresented in the media. In others, senior managers or ministers’ officers prevented researchers from speaking truthfully on scientific matters.

This information blackout, termed “science suppression”, can hide environmentally damaging practices and policies from public scrutiny. The practice is detrimental to both nature and democracy.

A scientist kneels by a stream
When scientists are free to communicate their knowledge, the public is kept informed.
University of Queensland/AAP

Code of silence

Our online survey ran from October 25, 2018, to February 11, 2019. Through advertising and other means, we targeted Australian ecologists, conservation scientists, conservation policy makers and environmental consultants. This included academics, government employees and scientists working for industry such as consultants and non-government organisations.

Some 220 people responded to the survey, comprising:

  • 88 working in universities
  • 79 working in local, state or federal government
  • 47 working in industry, such as environmental consulting and environmental NGOs
  • 6 who could not be classified.

In a series of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, we asked respondents about the prevalence and consequences of suppressing science communication.




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About half (52%) of government respondents, 38% from industry and 9% from universities had been prohibited from communicating scientific information.

Communications via traditional (40%) and social (25%) media were most commonly prohibited across all workplaces. There were also instances of internal communications (15%), conference presentations (11%) and journal papers (5%) being prohibited.

A video explaining the research findings.

‘Ministers are not receiving full information’

Some 75% of respondents reported having refrained from making a contribution to public discussion when given the opportunity – most commonly in traditional media or social media. A small number of respondents self-censored conference presentations (9%) and peer-reviewed papers (7%).

Factors constraining commentary from government respondents included senior management (82%), workplace policy (72%), a minister’s office (63%) and middle management (62%).

Fear of barriers to advancement (49%) and concern about media misrepresentation (49%) also discouraged public communication by government respondents.

Almost 60% of government respondents and 36% of industry respondents reported unduly modified internal communications.

One government respondent said:

Due to ‘risk management’ in the public sector […] ministers are not receiving full information and advice and/or this is being ‘massaged’ by advisors (sic).

University respondents, more than other workplaces, avoided public commentary out of fear of how they would be represented by the media (76%), fear of being drawn beyond their expertise (73%), stress (55%), fear that funding might be affected (53%) and uncertainty about their area of expertise (52%).

One university respondent said:

I proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining […] The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from (the mining company).

vehicle operating at a coal mine
A university researcher was dissuaded from writing an article for The Conversation on mining.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Critical conservation issues suppressed

Information suppression was most common on the issue of threatened species. Around half of industry and government respondents, and 28% of university respondents, said their commentary on the topic was constrained.

Government respondents also reported being constrained in commenting on logging and climate change.

One government respondent said:

We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat […] In this way the public often remains ‘in the dark’ about the true state and trends of many species.

University respondents were most commonly constrained in talking about feral animals. A university respondent said:

By being blocked from reporting on the dodgy dealings of my university with regards to my research and its outcomes I feel like I’m not doing my job properly. The university actively avoids any mention of my study species or project due to vested financial interests in some key habitat.

Industry respondents, more than those from other sectors, were constrained in commenting on the impacts of mining, urban development and native vegetation clearing. One industry respondent said:

A project […] clearly had unacceptable impacts on a critically endangered species […] the approvals process ignored these impacts […] Not being able to speak out meant that no one in the process was willing or able to advocate for conservation or make the public aware of the problem.

a dead koala in front of trees
Information suppression on threatened species was common.

The system is broken

Of those respondents who had communicated information publicly, 42% had been harassed or criticised for doing so. Of those, 83% believed the harassers were motivated by political or economic interests.

Some 77 respondents answered a question on whether they had suffered personal consequences as a result of suppressing information. Of these, 18% said they had suffered mental health effects. And 21% reported increased job insecurity, damage to their career, job loss, or had left the field.

One respondent said:

I declared the (action) unsafe to proceed. I was overruled and properties and assets were impacted. I was told to be silent or never have a job again.

Another said:

As a consultant working for companies that damage the environment, you have to believe you are having a positive impact, but after years of observing how broken the system is, not being legally able to speak out becomes harder to deal with.

a scientist tests water
Scientists want to have a positive impact on environmental outcomes.
Elaine Thompson/AP

Change is needed

We acknowledge that we receive grants involving contracts that restrict our academic freedom. And some of us self-censor to avoid risks to grants from government, resulting in personal moral conflict and a less informed public. When starting this research project, one of our colleagues declined to contribute for fear of losing funding and risking employment.

But Australia faces many complex and demanding environmental problems. It’s essential that scientists are free to communicate their knowledge on these issues.




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Public servant codes of conduct should be revised to allow government scientists to speak freely about their research in both a public and private capacity. And government scientists and other staff should report to new, independent state and federal environment authorities, to minimise political and industry interference.

A free flow of information ensures government policy is backed by the best science. Conservation dollars would be more wisely invested, costly mistakes avoided and interventions more effectively targeted.

And importantly, it would help ensure the public is properly informed – a fundamental tenet of a flourishing democracy.The Conversation

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Bob Pressey, Professor and Program Leader, Conservation Planning, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Noel D Preece, Adjunct Asssociate Professor, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a scientific spat over how to name species turned into a big plus for nature



Shutterstock

Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Les Christidis, Southern Cross University; Richard L. Pyle, University of Hawaii, and Scott Thomson, Universidade de São Paulo

Taxonomy, or the naming of species, is the foundation of modern biology. It might sound like a fairly straightforward exercise, but in fact it’s complicated and often controversial.

Why? Because there’s no one agreed list of all the world’s species. Competing lists exist for organisms such as mammals and birds, while other less well-known groups have none. And there are more than 30 definitions of what constitutes a species. This can make life difficult for biodiversity researchers and those working in areas such as conservation, biosecurity and regulation of the wildlife trade.

In the past few years, a public debate erupted among global taxonomists, including those who authored and contributed to this article, about whether the rules of taxonomy should be changed. Strongly worded ripostes were exchanged. A comparison to Stalin was floated.

But eventually, we all came together to resolve the dispute amicably. In a paper published this month, we proposed a new set of principles to guide what one day, we hope, will be a single authoritative list of the world’s species. This would help manage and conserve them for future generations.

In the process, we’ve shown how a scientific stoush can be overcome when those involved try to find common ground.

Baby crocodile emerging from egg.
Scientists worked out a few differences over how to name species.
Laurent Gillieron/EPA

How it all began

In May 2017 two of the authors, Stephen Garnett and Les Christidis, published an article in Nature. They argued taxonomy needed rules around what should be called a species, because currently there are none. They wrote:

for a discipline aiming to impose order on the natural world, taxonomy (the classification of complex organisms) is remarkably anarchic […] There is reasonable agreement among taxonomists that a species should represent a distinct evolutionary lineage. But there is none about how a lineage should be defined.

‘Species’ are often created or dismissed arbitrarily, according to the individual taxonomist’s adherence to one of at least 30 definitions. Crucially, there is no global oversight of taxonomic decisions — researchers can ‘split or lump’ species with no consideration of the consequences.

Garnett and Christidis proposed that any changes to the taxonomy of complex organisms be overseen by the highest body in the global governance of biology, the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS), which would “restrict […] freedom of taxonomic action.”




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An animated response

Garnett and Christidis’ article raised hackles in some corners of the taxonomy world – including coauthors of this article.

These critics rejected the description of taxonomy as “anarchic”. In fact, they argued there are detailed rules around the naming of species administered by groups such as the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. For 125 years, the codes have been almost universally adopted by scientists.

So in March 2018, 183 researchers – led by Scott Thomson and Richard Pyle – wrote an animated response to the Nature article, published in PLoS Biology.

They wrote that Garnett and Christidis’ IUBS proposal was “flawed in terms of scientific integrity […] but is also untenable in practice”. They argued:

Through taxonomic research, our understanding of biodiversity and classifications of living organisms will continue to progress. Any system that restricts such progress runs counter to basic scientific principles, which rely on peer review and subsequent acceptance or rejection by the community, rather than third-party regulation.

In a separate paper, another group of taxonomists accused Garnett and Christidis of trying to suppress freedom of scientific thought, likening them to Stalin’s science advisor Trofim Lysenko.

Sea sponge under a microscope
Taxonomy can influence how conservation funding is allocated.
Queensland Museum

Finding common ground

This might have been the end of it. But the editor at PLoS Biology, Roli Roberts, wanted to turn consternation into constructive debate, and invited a response from Garnett and Christidis. In the to and fro of articles, we all found common ground.

We recognised the powerful need for a global list of species – representing a consensus view of the world’s taxonomists at a particular time.




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Such lists do exist. The Catalogue of Life, for example, has done a remarkable job in assembling lists of almost all the world’s species. But there are no rules on how to choose between competing lists of validly named species. What was needed, we agreed, was principles governing what can be included on lists.

As it stands now, anyone can name a species, or decide which to recognise as valid and which not. This creates chaos. It means international agreements on biodiversity conservation, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), take different taxonomic approaches to species they aim to protect.

We decided to work together. With funding from the IUBS, we held a workshop in February this year at Charles Darwin University to determine principles for devising a single, agreed global list of species.

Pengiuns embracing each other.
The sparring scientists came together to develop agreed principles.
Shutterstock

Participants came from around the world. They included taxonomists, science governance experts, science philosophers, administrators of the nomenclatural (naming) codes, and taxonomic users such as the creators of national species lists.

The result is a draft set of ten principles that to us, represent the ideals of global science governance. They include that:

  • the species list be based on science and free from “non-taxonomic” interference
  • all decisions about composition of the list be transparent
  • governance of the list aim for community support and use
  • the listing process encompasses global diversity while accommodating local knowledge.

The principles will now be discussed at international workshops of taxonomists and the users of taxonomy. We’ve also formed a working group to discuss how a global list might come together and the type of institution needed to look after it.

We hope by 2030, a scientific debate that began with claims of anarchy might lead to a clear governance system – and finally, the world’s first endorsed global list of species.


The following people provided editorial comment for this article: Aaron M Lien, Frank Zachos, John Buckeridge, Kevin Thiele, Svetlana Nikolaeva, Zhi-Qiang Zhang, Donald Hobern, Olaf Banki, Peter Paul van Dijk, Saroj Kanta Barik and Stijn Conix.

The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Les Christidis, Professor, Southern Cross University; Richard L. Pyle, Associate lecturer, University of Hawaii, and Scott Thomson, Research associate, Universidade de São Paulo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Taxonomy, the science of naming things, is under threat



File 20181112 83564 1tqrdu4.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Museum collections are repositories of specimens and data, including specimens, tissue samples and vocal recordings.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

Nic Rawlence

Museums are cathedrals of science, but they are under threat worldwide as part of a malaise of undervaluing museum collections and the field of taxonomy, the science of naming biodiversity.

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is the latest example. Te Papa confirmed a restructure in July, following leaked reports. Facing sustained backlash and disquiet in the science community, the museum announced an international review of its collections and has since scaled back its restructure plans.

But jobs remain on the line even though the review panel found the museum didn’t have enough staff to look after all of its collections.




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Taxonomy a keystone of natural history

Taxonomy underpins everything from health to conservation, and biosecurity to the economy.

The international review shows Te Papa is doing a good job in most areas, but needs to improve on several aspects, including access to collections, cataloguing a backlog of specimens and digitisation.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

These areas of concern were seriously exacerbated by the panel’s finding that Te Papa is understaffed.

The review panel was not asked to comment on the restructure. At that stage, the proposal was to cut 25 positions, 10 of which were in the collections team. This has now been scaled back to at least five jobs in the collections team.

Staff whose positions may be affected were told only a day before the review recommendations were made public.




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Museum collections more than sum of parts

Te Papa’s latest leaked restructure document remains a cause for concern. Curators are no longer in the firing line. However, the five natural history collections managers are gone, to be replaced by three assistant curators and two general technical positions. All of this would appear to fall at a lower pay scale.

I congratulate Te Papa on listening to internal and external feedback and increasing their curatorial expertise in neglected strengths, such as marine mammals and seaweeds. Ironically, in the case of marine mammals, this seems to rectify a mistake in making the previous marine mammal expert redundant in 2013.

A member of the international review panel, Tim White at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, told the public broadcaster RNZ:

Te Papa could use more professional collections staff. If they are going to promote the use of their collections … then they need
to think creatively about how they could get more staff.

Taking into account the recently published Decadal Plan for Taxonomy and Biosystematics and the 2015 Royal Society Te Apārangi report on National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand, this is a good opportunity to increase collections staff rather than, at best, approximate the status quo.

It is my hope that the filling of positions in the proposed structure will not result in a loss of areas of taxonomic expertise. Many of Te Papa’s scientists are leaders in their fields, including in areas where Te Papa leads the way internationally. One should not boost the curatorial team at the expense of collections management.

The bigger picture

As an isolated archipelago with unique flora and fauna, New Zealand needs diverse taxonomic expertise to appropriately handle biosecurity and conservation crises. If Te Papa, or museums in general, shed their taxonomic expertise like an unwanted sloughed-off snake skin, it will be up to other institutions to pick up the slack. If not, our biodiversity will suffer.

The greyling is New Zealand’s only extinct freshwater fish.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

There has already been a 10% decline in the taxonomic workforce in Australia in the past 25 years, with declines of around 22% in New Zealand over a similar time period. In both countries, a steadily increasing proportion (currently around a quarter) of taxonomists are unpaid or retired. Let’s not make it any worse.

Undervaluing museum collections and taxonomic expertise is not just limited to New Zealand. The scientific world does not want to see another museum disaster, like the preventable fire that destroyed Brazil’s National Museum.

Whether it is collections under threat or museum libraries being lost in the digital age, or even false assumptions resulting in the closure of a museum, if chief executives and museum boards listen to their scientists and the scientific community, hope remains.The Conversation

Nic Rawlence, Lecturer in Ancient DNA

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.