The Research Brief is a short take on interesting academic work.
THE BIG IDEA: Coyotes are poised to expand their range to a new continent. The North American canine native has now reached the Darién Gap – a dense wilderness on the border of Colombia and Panama, at the very doorstep of South America. If the coyote succeeds, it would be a new chapter in an amazing evolutionary story that’s played out over the past half century.
WHY IT MATTERS: The historical range of the coyote was originally from western Canada to Mexico. But over the past few decades, it has mixed with wolves and dogs, and its adaptability has allowed the species to expand both east and south, making them commonplace everywhere from New York City to Panama City. My colleagues and I study how humans affect the distribution of wildlife on the planet. Usually this is in a negative way – some endangered species are declining because humans are destroying their habitat or hunting them to near extinction. However, some species are quite good at dealing with the changes people bring to the landscape, and coyotes are an example.
WHAT STILL ISN’T KNOWN: If coyotes will actually reach South America, or if jaguars in the Darién will keep them out. Few coyote biologists, including myself, are betting against the coyote. We also don’t know if coyotes, presuming they make it to South America, will have a negative impact on wildlife there. These native species already live with other canine predators in South America, including foxes, so the coyote might not be so bad for native species. People with free-ranging chickens, however, may think that is a different matter!
HOW I DO MY WORK: We set up camera traps, then go back to see what images they captured, and enter everything in a database called eMammal. It’s great to visit a place, see it with your own eyes and speculate about what might be there. Then, a few weeks later, pick up the camera and see all these animals for yourself. Checking the camera memory card is like Christmas every time.
ONE OTHER THING HAPPENING IN THE FIELD: Ricardo Moreno of Yaguara works to save the jaguar in Panama. He is monitoring the Darién to see how the jaguars are doing and working with locals to prevent poaching. He is also running cameras to see if the coyotes move into the Darién.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU: We have just completed #SnapshotUSA, a survey of wildlife across all 50 states, including lots of coyotes! We are in the process of going through the 6 million photos now to identify all the species. We are also working with Wildlife Insights, a data collection site for pictures of wildlife around the world, and Google to develop artificial intelligence to help process all these pictures we get. Maybe this will help us keep an eye on how the coyotes do in Panama.
With all of the burning and clearing happening in the Amazon rainforest, it was only going to be a short matter of time before a tipping point was reached and now a tipping point appears on the horizon. It would seem only a matter of 1 or 2 years before the Amazon is unable to sustain itself through rainfall. The link below is to an article reporting on the threat posed to the Amazon.
Record fires are raging in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, with more than 2,500 fires currently burning. They are collectively emitting huge amounts of carbon, with smoke plumes visible thousands of kilometres away.
Fires in Brazil increased by 85% in 2019, with more than half in the Amazon region, according to Brazil’s space agency.
Ironically, farmers may not need to clear new land to graze cattle. Research has found a significant number of currently degraded and unproductive pastures that could offer new opportunities for livestock.
New technical developments also offer the possibility of transforming extensive cattle ranches into more compact and productive farms – offering the same results while consuming less natural resources.
2. Why the world should care
The devastating loss of biodiversity does not just affect Brazil. The loss of Amazonian vegetation directly reduces rain across South America and other regions of the world.
The planet is losing an important carbon sink, and the fires are directly injecting carbon into the atmosphere. If we can’t stop deforestation in the Amazon, and the associated fires, it raises real questions about our ability to reach the Paris Agreement to slow climate change.
The Brazilian government has set an ambitious target to stop illegal deforestation and restore 4.8 million hectares of degraded Amazonian land by 2030. If these goals are not carefully addressed now, it may not be possible to meaningfully mitigate climate change.
3. What role politics has played
Since 2014, the rate at which Brazil has lost Amazonian forest has expanded by 60%. This is the result of economic crises and the dismantling of Brazilian environmental regulation and ministerial authority since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.
Regulations and programs for conservation and traditional communities’ rights have been threatened by economic lobbying.
Over the last months, Brazil’s government has announced the reduction and extinction of environmental agencies and commissions, including the body responsible for combating deforestation and fires.
4. How the world should react
Although Brazil’s national and state governments are obviously on the front line of Amazon protection, international actors have a key role to play.
International debates and funding, alongside local interventions and responses, have reshaped the way land is used in the tropics. This means any government attempts to further dismantle climate and conservation policies in the Amazon may have significant diplomatic and economic consequences.
For example, trade between the European Union and South American trading blocs that include Brazil is increasingly infused with an environmental agenda. Any commercial barriers to Brazil’s commodities will certainly attract attention: agribusiness is responsible for more than 20% of the country’s GDP.
Brazil has already developed a pioneering political framework to stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Deforestation peaked in 2004, but dramatically reduced following environmental governance, and supply change interventions aiming to end illegal deforestation.
Moreover, private global agreements like the Amazon Beef and Soy Moratorium, where companies agree not to buy soy or cattle linked to illegal deforestation, have also significantly dropped clearing rates.
We have financial, diplomatic and political tools we know will work to stop the whole-sale clearing of the Amazon, and in turn halt these devastating fires. Now it is time to use them.
Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world with more than 56,000 recorded species, some 9,000 of which are unique. However protecting and researching this natural treasure has been extraordinarily difficult during Colombia’s nearly 55 years of internal conflict.
Since the 2016 peace agreement 21 scientific bio-expeditions have been carried out, most in areas that were previously conflict zones. This has led to the discovery of more than 150 new animal and plant species.
This flowering of research offers a new opportunity to the thousands of ex-combatants now looking for productive and peaceful work. We worked with former guerrillas in our project GROW-Colombia to train them to protect Colombia’s biodiversity.
Who are the ex-combatants?
A huge effort to reincorporate these combatants back into civilian life is under way. Paramount is finding suitable jobs, to rebuild the country and offer stable wages.
A recent census found the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC-EP) consists of some 10,000 people. Ranging between their 20s and 40s, around three-quarters are men.
Around 40% of these ex-guerrillas have experience in environmental conservation, and 70% have agricultural skills. Some 10% would like to work in veterinary, aquaculture and animal production fields, 60% in agriculture, and 84% in terrestrial and river environmental restoration.
Their interests, the new political environment, and nearly 20 tourism initiatives in the ETCRs provide a unique opportunity to promote biodiversity as part of the peace process.
Training ex-combatants to protect biodiversity
We wanted to teach ex-FARC-EP combatants some basic conservation skills and identify the potential of nature to create sustainable business opportunities.
We started with a national workshop with the representatives of 16 ETCRs from across the country. These members reflected on their personal and scientific perceptions of the natural world, mapped ecosystems in their local areas and canvassed ecotourism projects. We then discussed the contributions they made to protecting biodiversity before the peace agreement.
One participant, Curruco* had his own farm before being displaced by the armed conflict. He told us,
our participation in the workshops is evidence of our commitment to peace. We protected the fauna and flora during the conflict.
We then used case studies to teach our workshop members how to take inventory of the species in a given area, explored tourism of nature and conservation in Colombia and discussed business models for the use of biodiversity in ecotourism enterprises.
One of the most interesting parts for the ex-combatants was learning techniques for making inventories. We used teaching stations where they learnt about indirect surveys, for example using footprints and faeces, and direct observation and capture. We covered the use of binoculars, trapping cameras, tablets and mobiles, access to taxonomic identification resources and some basic non-invasive sampling methods.
One of the participants, Solangie, had a remarkable knowledge of the Amazon forest. She said:
I enjoyed all the content of the training but I like the bird sightings and plant cataloguing the most because during my time as a combatant we were living among the fauna, including tapirs, reptiles, frogs and butterflies.
I was impressed with the training about plants because in our time in the jungle we used plants as medicine and health treatments.
We then used these skills in practical field work to collect and inventory plants, sight birds and explore caves. The resulting notes and photographs were documented with iNaturalist, an online repository considered a major drawcard in engaging the public in science around the world.
Turning knowledge into business
We also wanted to give our participants a clear idea of how this knowledge could become profitable work. We hosted a business network forum, and 60 meetings were organised so FARC-EP ex-combatants could meet representatives of the major Colombian research institutions and agencies and gain support for their ecotourism and biodiversity initiatives.
Yesenia*, a mother of two, joined FARC at a young age after the paramilitary killed her parents. During the research, she said:
If we want this peace process to succeed it will require the continued involvement of the various components of society, including scientific institutions and universities.
Our work established two levels of organisation: a national biodiversity committee of ETCR representatives from across the country, and a committee of government and non-government institutions and agencies to coordinate and support their biodiversity and ecotourism initiatives.
All of this may sound relatively simple, but this is new and life-changing knowledge for people who were part of an armed conflict, fighting in the jungle against the government.
One of us, Jaime, lived part of his life under this conflict, and found it very moving to see how the climate of trust has been changing. While there are, of course, considerable challenges, this was unimaginable before the peace agreements.
The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the University of Amazonia, Research Institute of Biological Resources Alexander Von Humboldt, Sinchi Amazonic Institute of Scientific Research, COLCIENCIAS-Colombia BIO, United Nations Development Programme, National Natural Parks Colombia, Vice-Ministry of Tourism, Social Economies of the Common, Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, Verification Mission of the United Nations, British Embassy in Colombia, ETCR participants, the GROW Colombia team at Earlham Institute, The University of East Anglia and The University of Sydney.
A parasite known to infect beaks in some iconic Darwin finches on the Galapagos Islands is changing the mating song of male birds.
Our research, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reveals how the parasite deforms the beak. This has the effect of weakening the male bird’s mating call, and making it no longer clearly distinguishable from that of other closely related species.
A changed song can have an important effect on the male finch’s ability to find a mate.
It’s another factor that could contribute to declining numbers of these already threatened birds on the Pacific archipelago, about 1,000km off the coast of South America.
A family song to impress
A male finch learns the mating song from his father, and produces the same song for the rest of his life.
It’s a simple tune consisting of one syllable repeated 3 to 15 times, depending on what species of finch he belongs to. Larger-bodied finch species produce a slower song with few syllable repeats, and smaller-bodied finch species produce faster song with many syllable repeats.
Whatever species of finch you belong to, hitting the high notes is important – because females prefer males who can produce such vocally challenging songs.
In the case of the Medium Tree Finch (Camarhynchus pauper), a critically endangered species that only occurs on Floreana Island of the Galapagos Islands, its species-typical song has a bright resonance that rings across the forest canopy.
Medium Tree Finch. Author provided35.5 KB(download)
An accomplished male singer that can hit the high notes is quickly swooped up by a female looking to pair with a proficient singer.
Many Darwin’s finch species now have beaks with massively enlarged nostrils because of damage the feeding fly larvae have caused during the nestling stage. We discovered that a changed beak apparatus measurably affects the song of Darwin’s tree finches with consequences for pairing success.
A Medium Tree Finch male with extremely enlarged nostrils is unable to hit the high notes.
Medium Tree Finch with enlarged nostrils. Author provided32.2 KB(download)
We found the same pattern in Small Tree Finches (C. parvulus) with enlarged nostrils.
Male finches that produce song with a narrower frequency bandwidth, because their song has a lower maximum frequency, have poor quality song. These males are less likely to be chosen by females, a pattern we documented in both the Medium Tree Finch and the Small Tree Finch.
Also, the song of Medium Tree Finches with enlarged nostrils sounds like the song of the Small Tree Finch.
Small Tree Finches. Author provided29 KB(download)
When species merge
But confusion among the species and their mating songs may not necessarily be a bad thing for the future survival of individual finches – though it could herald the collapse of species lineages.
Previously, we discovered evidence of hybridisation in Darwin finches. This is where two separate species of finch breed which could potentially produce a new species, phase out one of the species, or cause the collapse of the two existing species into one.
When a female Medium Tree Finch inspects male Small Tree Finches in the forest, she pairs with one who produces high quality song, even if that male is from another species.
This female choice seems to be paying dividends, because hybrid pairs with greater genetic diversity also sustained fewer of the parasitic larvae in the nest. And that could lead to fewer birds with infected beaks.
There are concerted efforts underway to develop control and eradication methods for P. downsi on the Galapagos Islands, building on a collaborative relationship between the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Parks. The Philornis downsi Action Group is an international consortium of concerned scientists working to develop biological control methods.
Our new research is an important step towards understanding how this invasive fly may be changing the evolutionary pathway of Darwin’s finches by literally changing the beak of the finch.
The effects of European consumption are being felt in Brazil, driving disastrous deforestation and violence.
But the destruction can end if the European Union demands higher environmental standards on Brazilian goods. Hundreds of scientists and Indigenous leaders agree: the time to act is now, before it’s too late.
In an open letter published today in the journal Science, more than 600 scientists from every country in the European Union (EU) and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups asked the EU to demand tougher standards for Brazilian imports.
The letter calls on the EU to ensure a trade deal with Brazil respects human rights and the natural world.
Brazil’s Indigenous people and the forests they protect are facing annihilation.
Controversial president Jair Bolsonaro is opening the Amazon rainforest to business and threatening Indigenous people who stand in the way. In his first hours in office, Bolsonaro gave power over Indigenous land to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is widely seen to be controlled by corporate lobbyists.
As Bolsonaro scraps environmental laws, forests are being cut down faster than they have been in years. And the EU is helping drive this carnage: more than a football field of Brazilian rainforest is cut down every hour to produce livestock feed and meat for Europe.
Although the situation may seem dire for the Amazon and its inhabitants, ongoing trade talks provide a chance to act.
Billions of euros flow to Brazil from business with the EU, its second-largest trade partner. Goods flowing in the other direction include environmentally and socially destructive livestock feed (usually soy grown on deforested land) which enters the EU on a tariff-free basis. Right now, European consumers have no way of knowing how much blood is actually in their hamburger. The ongoing EU-Brazil trade talks are therefore a powerful opportunity to curb Bolsonaro’s appetite for destruction.
It is hard to overstate the case for strong action from Europe. People in Brazil – especially Indigenous and local communities – are being violently repressed when trying to defend their land against agricultural and mining companies.
Even losing part of the Amazon could cause a tipping point where the forests no longer create enough rain to sustain themselves. This would cause droughts that would drive many species to extinction, devastate farming in the region and likely cause further violence.
We must act now
We are not just at an ecological tipping point, but a social one, too. The world is waking up to the risks posed by destroying our climate and natural world. Climate change is considered the number one security threat by Brazilian people and by many European nations.
As scientists, we use emotive words carefully. But our open letter calls on the EU to take urgent action because we are terrified of the consequences of Brazilian deforestation, both locally and globally.
We beg the EU to stand up for its citizens’ values and our shared future by making sure trade with Brazil protects, rather than destroys, the natural world on which we all depend.
Visit EUBrazilTrade.org for more information – including a list of parliamentary members standing in the European election who support this initiative. Register to vote in the EU elections here.