Why scientists need your help to spot blue whales off Australia’s east coast


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Vanessa Pirotta, Macquarie UniversityBlue whales, the largest animals to ever live, are surprisingly elusive.

They’re bigger than the biggest dinosaur ever was, capable of growing over 30 metres long and can weigh over 100 tonnes — almost as long as a 737 plane and as heavy as 40 elephants. They also have one of the loudest voices, and can talk to each other hundreds of kilometres across the sea.

Why, then, are they so difficult to find in some parts off Australia?

My new research paper recorded only six verified sightings of the pygmy blue whale off Sydney in the last 18 years. Two of these occurred just last year. This blue whale subspecies is known to mostly occur along Australia’s west coast.

Rare sightings like these are important because pygmy blue whales are a “data deficient” animal. Every opportunity we have to learn about them is crucial to help us better protect them.

Blue whales down under

Don’t let its name fool you, the pygmy blue whale can still grow shockingly large, up to 24 metres in length. It’s one of two blue whale subspecies that occur in Australian waters – the other being the Antarctic blue whale, the biggest whale of them all at around 33 metres long.

A blue whale lunging for krill.

Unfortunately, historical whaling hunted blue whales to near extinction in the Southern Ocean. The Antarctic blue whale was depleted to only a few hundred individuals and, while they’re slowly bouncing back, they’re still listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In contrast, we know little about pre- and post-whaling numbers for pygmy blue whales. Their listing as a data deficient species by the IUCN means we don’t have a full understanding of their population status.

Blue whales can grow to around 30 metres, almost the same length as a 737 plane.
Vanessa Pirotta, Author provided

One reason may be because blue whales are logistically challenging to study. For example, blue whales don’t just hang around in one area all the time. They’re capable of swimming thousands of kilometres for food and to breed.

They can also hold their breath for up to 90 minutes underwater, which can make them hard to spot unless they’re near the surface. To see them, people need to be in the right place at the right time.

This may require scientists to be on dedicated research vessels or in a plane to spot them, which can be expensive and weather-dependent.




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This also makes learning about them much harder compared to other, more accessible species, such as coastal bottlenose dolphins.

To learn more about pygmy blue whales in Australia, marine scientists have developed a variety of techniques, including listening to whales talking, taking skin samples and satellite tagging.

While this work is useful, it has focused mainly in areas where pygmy blue whales are known to occur, such as southern and western Australian waters.

Pygmy blue whales are known to feed in the Perth Canyon, Western Australia, and between the Great Australian Bight and Bass Strait during summer. They most likely breed in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans during winter.

But we don’t know much about pygmy blue whale presence in other parts of Australian waters, such as the east coast.

Two bottle nose dolphins
Bottlenose dolphins are more commonly seen.
Shutterstock

How can we conserve a species we know very little about?

Well, it can be tricky. The more information we know, the better we’re placed to assess their conservation needs. But focusing our efforts on species we know nothing about may require a conservative approach until we learn more.

Some would argue it’s better to protect a species we know needs our conservation dollar before spending precious resources on something uncertain.




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Fortunately, Australia has some of the world’s best protection policies for marine mammals, including whales. This means a precautionary approach is already in place to protect these creatures.

Since blue whales are listed as a threatened species, they’re protected under Australia’s primary environment law, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

And on an international level, Australia is a signatory to the International Whaling Commission (the global body for whale conservation) and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (which ensures wildlife trade doesn’t threaten endangered species).

Two blue whales near a boat
Citizen science sightings help contribute to our understanding of blue whale distributions in Australian waters.
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To help uphold this international and national protection, scientists must continue to learn more about data-deficient animals like the pygmy blue whale to help safeguard against known and future threats.

This includes collisions with ships, overfishing, entanglement with fishing gear, increased human activity in the ocean, and climate change, which may affect when and where whales occur.

We need extra eyes

There are more than 14,600 animal species listed as data deficient by the IUCN.

Some, like the pygmy blue whale, are poorly studied. One reason is because they’re cryptic or boat shy, such as the Australian snubfin dolphin.

Or, they might be tricky to see, such as the false killer whale, whose sightings remain irregular in Australian coastal waters. Opportunities to learn more about them occur when they become stranded.

A false killer whale pokes its head out of the water
False killer whales are another data-deficient marine animal.
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So while citizen science sightings of pygmy blue whales may be rare off the Australian east coast, they do help contribute to our understanding of their distribution in Australian waters.

The two sightings of pygmy blue whales off Maroubra, Sydney, last year were within two months of each other. This was thanks to drones (flown under state rules).




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This prompted my research review of blue whale sightings off Sydney, which found citizen scientists made similar sightings in 2002 – the first official sighting from land off Sydney — and between 2012-14.

We don’t know exactly what type of pygmy blue whales these are (three distinct groups are recognised: the Indo-Australian, New Zealand and Madagascar groups). However, whale calls detected along Australia’s east coast in previous years suggest they’re most likely New Zealand pygmy blue whales, and they could have been heading to breeding waters north of Tonga.

So, the next time you are by the sea, keep a look out and tell a scientist via social media if you see something interesting. You just never know when the world’s biggest, or shiest, animal may turn up out of the blue.




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The Conversation


Vanessa Pirotta, Wildlife scientist, Macquarie University

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

Don’t hike so close to me: How the presence of humans can disturb wildlife up to half a mile away


What are you looking at? Greg Shine, BLM/Flickr, CC BY

Jeremy Dertien, Clemson University ; Courtney Larson, University of Wyoming, and Sarah Reed, Colorado State University

Millions of Americans are traveling this summer as pandemic restrictions wind down. Rental bookings and crowds in national parks show that many people are headed for the great outdoors.

Seeing animals and birds is one of the main draws of spending time in nature. But as researchers who study conservation, wildlife and human impacts on wild places, we believe it’s important to know that you can have major effects on wildlife just by being nearby.

In a recent review of hundreds of studies covering many species, we found that the presence of humans can alter wild animal and bird behavior patterns at much greater distances than most people may think. Small mammals and birds may change their behavior when hikers or birders come within 300 feet (100 meters) – the length of a football field. Large birds like eagles and hawks can be affected when humans are over 1,300 feet (400 meters) away – roughly a quarter of a mile. And large mammals like elk and moose can be affected by humans up to 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) away – more than half a mile.

Elk viewed over a hiker's shoulder.
A hiker about 75 feet from a bull elk in Yellowstone National Park. Jacob W. Frank, NPS/Flickr

Many recent studies and reports have shown that the world is facing a biodiversity crisis. Over the past 50 years, Earth has lost so many species that many scientists believe the planet is experiencing its sixth mass extinction – due mainly to human activities.

Protected areas, from local open spaces to national parks, are vital for conserving plants and animals. They also are places where people like to spend time in nature. We believe that everyone who uses the outdoors should understand and respect this balance between outdoor recreation, sustainable use and conservation.

How human presence affects wildlife

Pandemic lockdowns in 2020 confined many people indoors – and wildlife responded. In Istanbul, dolphins ventured much closer to shore than usual. Penguins explored quiet South African Streets. Nubian ibex grazed on Israeli playgrounds. The fact that animals moved so freely without people present shows how wild species change their behavior in response to human activities.

Decades of research have shown that outdoor recreation, whether it’s hiking, cross-country skiing or riding all-terrain vehicles, has negative effects on wildlife. The most obvious signs are behavioral changes: Animals may flee from nearby people, decrease the time they feed and abandon nests or dens.

Other effects are harder to see, but can have serious consequences for animals’ health and survival. Wild animals that detect humans can experience physiological changes, such as increased heart rates and elevated levels of stress hormones.

And humans’ outdoor activities can degrade habitat that wild species depend on for food, shelter and reproduction. Human voices, off-leash dogs and campsite overuse all have harmful effects that make habitat unusable for many wild species.

Disturbing shorebirds can cause them to stop eating, stop feeding their young or flee their nests, leaving chicks vulnerable.

Effects of human presence vary for different species

For our study we examined 330 peer-reviewed articles spanning 38 years to locate thresholds at which recreation activities negatively affected wild animals and birds. The main thresholds we found were related to distances between wildlife and people or trails. But we also found other important factors, including the number of daily park visitors and the decibel levels of people’s conversations.

The studies that we reviewed covered over a dozen different types of motorized and nonmotorized recreation. While it might seem that motorized activities would have a bigger impact, some studies have found that dispersed “quiet” activities, such as day hiking, biking and wildlife viewing, can also affect which wild species will use a protected area.

Put another way, many species may be disturbed by humans nearby, even if those people are not using motorboats or all-terrain vehicles. It’s harder for animals to detect quiet humans, so there’s a better chance that they’ll be surprised by a cross-country skier than a snowmobile, for instance. In addition, some species that have been historically hunted are more likely to recognize – and flee from – a person walking than a person in a motorized vehicle.

Generally, larger animals need more distance, though the relationship is clearer for birds than mammals. We found that for birds, as bird size increased, so did the threshold distance. The smallest birds could tolerate humans within 65 feet (20 meters), while the largest birds had thresholds of roughly 2,000 feet (600 meters). Previous research has found a similar relationship. We did not find that this relationship existed as clearly for mammals.

We found little research on impact thresholds for amphibians and reptiles, such as lizards, frogs, turtles and snakes. A growing body of evidence shows that amphibians and reptiles are disturbed and negatively affected by recreation. So far, however, it’s unclear whether those effects reflect mainly the distance to people, the number of visitors or other factors.

Graphic showing distances at which human presence affects animals' behavior.
Human recreation starts to affect wild creatures’ behavior and physical state at different distances. Small mammals and birds tolerate closer recreation than do larger birds of prey and large mammals. Sarah Markes, CC BY-ND

How to reduce your impact on wildlife

While there’s much still to learn, we know enough to identify some simple actions people can take to minimize their impacts on wildlife. First, keep your distance. Although some species or individual animals will become used to human presence at close range, many others won’t. And it can be hard to tell when you are stressing an animal and potentially endangering both it and yourself.

Second, respect closed areas and stay on trails. For example, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, wildlife managers seasonally close some backcountry ski areas to protect critical habitat for bighorn sheep and reduce stress on other species like moose, elk and mule deer. And rangers in Maine’s Acadia National Park close several trails annually near peregrine falcon nests. This reduces stress to nesting birds and has helped this formerly endangered species recover.

 

 

 

Getting involved with educational or volunteer programs is a great way to learn about wildlife and help maintain undisturbed areas. As our research shows, balancing recreation with conservation means opening some areas to human use and keeping others entirely or mostly undisturbed.

As development fragments wild habitat and climate change forces many species to shift their ranges, movement corridors between protected areas become even more important. Our research suggests that creating recreation-free wildlife corridors of at least 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) wide can enable most species to move between protected areas without disturbance. Seeing wildlife can be part of a fun outdoor experience – but for the animals’ sake, you may need binoculars or a zoom lens for your camera.

[Get our best science, health and technology stories. Sign up for The Conversation’s science newsletter.]The Conversation

Jeremy Dertien, PhD Candidate in Forestry and Environmental Conservation, Clemson University ; Courtney Larson, Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Wyoming, and Sarah Reed, Affiliate Faculty in Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University

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

Repeating mistakes: why the plan to protect the world’s wildlife falls short


The forty-spotted pardalote is one of Australia’s rarest birds.
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Michelle Lim, Macquarie UniversityIt’s no secret the world’s wildlife is in dire straits. New data shows a heatwave in the Pacific Northwest killed more than 1 billion sea creatures in June, while Australia’s devastating bushfires of 2019-2020 killed or displaced 3 billion animals. Indeed, 1 million species face extinction worldwide.

These numbers are overwhelming, but a serious global commitment can help reverse current tragic rates of biodiversity loss.

This week the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity released a draft of its newest ten-year global plan. Often considered to be the Paris Agreement of biodiversity, the new plan aims to galvanise planetary scale action to achieve a world “living in harmony with nature” by 2050.

But if the plan goes ahead in its current form, it will fall short in safeguarding the wonder of our natural world. This is primarily because it doesn’t legally bind nations to it, risking the same mistakes made by the last ten-year plan, which didn’t stop biodiversity decline.

A lack of binding obligations

The Convention on Biological Diversity is a significant global agreement and almost all countries are parties to it. This includes Australia, which holds the unwanted record for the greatest number of mammal extinctions since European colonisation.

However, the convention is plagued by the lack of binding obligations. Self-reporting to the convention secretariat is the only thing the convention makes countries do under international law.

All other, otherwise sensible, provisions of the convention are limited by a series of get-out-of-jail clauses. Countries are only required to implement provisions “subject to national legislation” or “as far as possible and as appropriate”.

The convention has used non-binding targets since 2000 in its attempt to address global biodiversity loss. But this has not worked.

Kangaroo in burnt bushland
More than 3 billion animals were killed or displaced as a result of the 2019-2020 bushfires.
Shutterstock

The ten-year term of the previous targets, the Aichi Targets, came to an end in 2020, and included halving habitat loss and preventing extinction. But these, alongside most other Aichi targets, were not met.

In the new draft targets, extinction is no longer specifically named — perhaps relegated to the too hard basket. Pollution appears again in the new targets, and now includes a specific mention of eliminating plastic pollution.

Is this really a Paris-style agreement?

I wish. Calling the plan a Paris-style agreement suggests it has legal weight, when it doesn’t.

The fundamental difference between the biodiversity plan and the Paris Agreement is that binding commitments are a key component of the Paris Agreement. This is because the Paris Agreement is the successor of the legally binding Kyoto Protocol.

The final Paris Agreement legally compels countries to state how much they will reduce their emissions by. Nations are then expected to commit to increasingly ambitious reductions every five years.




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If they don’t fulfil these commitments, countries could be in breach of international law. This risks damage to countries’ reputation and international standing.

The door remains open for some form of binding commitment to emerge from the biodiversity convention. But negotiations to date have included almost no mention of this being a potential outcome.

Bleached coral
Ecosystems humans rely on are in peril, such as the Great Barrier Reef which was recently recommended to be placed on the world heritage ‘in danger’ list.
Shutterstock

So what else needs to change?

Alongside binding agreements, there are many other aspects of the convention’s plan that must change. Here are three:

First, we need truly transformative measures to tackle the underlying economic and social causes of biodiversity loss.

The plan’s first eight targets are directed at minimising the threats to biodiversity, such as the harvesting and trade of wild species, area-based conservation, climate change and pollution.

While this is important, the plan also needs to call out and tackle dominant worldviews which equate continuous economic growth with human well-being. The first eight targets cannot realistically be met unless we address the economic causes driving these threats: materialism, unsustainable production and over-consumption.




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Second, the plan needs to put Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, science, governance, rights and voices front and centre.

An abundance of evidence shows lands managed by Indigenous and local communities have significantly better biodiversity outcomes. But biodiversity on Indigenous lands is decreasing and with it the knowledge for continued sustainable management of these ecosystems.

Indigenous peoples and local communities have “observer status” within the convention’s discussions, but references to Indigenous “knowledges” and “participation” in the draft plan don’t go much further than in the Aichi Targets.

A mother orangutan carrying its baby
Actions in one part of the globe can have significant impacts to biodiversity in other parts.
Shutterstock

Third, there must be cross-scale collaborations as global economic, social and environmental systems are connected like never before.

The unprecedented movement of people and goods and the exchange of money, information and resources means actions in one part of the globe can have significant biodiversity impacts in faraway lands. The draft framework does not sufficiently appreciate this.

For example, global demand for palm oil contributes to deforestation of orangutan habitat in Borneo. At the same time, consumer awareness and social media campaigns in countries far from palm plantations enable distant people to help make a positive difference.

The road to Kunming

The next round of preliminary negotiations of the draft framework will take place virtually from August 23 to September 3 2021. And it’s likely final in-person negotiations in Kunming, China will be postponed until 2022.

It’s not all bad news, there is still much to commend in the convention’s current draft plan.

For example, the plan facilitates connections with other global processes, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It recognises the contributions of biodiversity to, for instance, nutrition and food security, echoing Sustainable Development Goal 2 of “zero hunger”.

The plan also embraces more inclusive language, such as a shift from saying “ecosystem services” to “Nature’s Contribution to People” when discussing nature’s multiple values.




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But if non-binding targets didn’t work in the past, then why does the convention think this time will be any different?

A further set of unmet biodiversity goals and targets in 2030 is an unacceptable scenario. At the same time, there’s no point aiming at targets that merely maintain the status quo.

We can change the current path of mass extinction. This requires urgent, concerted and transformative action towards a thriving planet for people and nature.The Conversation

Michelle Lim, Senior Lecturer, Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University

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

Australia’s threatened species plan has failed on several counts. Without change, more extinctions are assured


Euan Ritchie, Deakin University and Ayesha Tulloch, University of SydneyAustralia is globally renowned for its abysmal conservation record – in roughly 230 years we’ve overseen the extinction of more mammal species than any other nation. The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy was meant to address this confronting situation.

The final report on the five-year strategy has just been published. In it, Threatened Species Commissioner Dr Sally Box acknowledges while the plan had some important wins, it fell short in several areas, writing:

…there is much more work to do to ensure our native plants and animals thrive into the future, and this will require an ongoing collective effort.

Clearly, Australia must urgently chart a course towards better environmental and biodiversity outcomes. That means reflecting honestly on our successes and failures so far.

How did the strategy perform?

The strategy, announced in 2015, set 13 targets linked to three focus areas:

  • feral cat management
  • improving the population trajectories of 20 mammal, 21 bird and 30 plant species
  • improving practices to recover threatened species populations.

Given the scale of the problem, five years was never enough time to turn things around. Indeed, as the chart below shows, the report card indicates five “red lights” (targets not met) and three “orange lights” (targets only partially met). It gave just five “green lights” for targets met.

Year Five - Final Report
Summary of the Threatened Species Strategy’s targets and outcomes.
Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

Falling short on feral cats

Feral cats were arguably the most prominent focus of the strategy, despite other threats requiring as much or more attention, such as habitat destruction via land clearing.

However, the strategy did help start a national conversation about the damage cats wreak on wildlife and ecosystems, and how this can be better managed.

In the five years to the end of 2020, an estimated 1.5 million feral cats were killed under the strategy – 500,000 short of the 2 million goal. But this estimate is uncertain due to a lack of systematic data collection. In particular, the number of cats culled by farmers, amateur hunters and shooters is under-reported. And more broadly, information is scattered across local councils, non-government conservation agencies and other sources.




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Australia’s feral cat population fluctuates according to rainfall, which determines the availability of prey – numbering between 2.1 million and 6.3 million. Limited investment in monitoring makes it impossible to know whether the average of 300,000 cats killed each year over the past five years will be enough for native wildlife to recover.

The government also failed in its goal to eradicate cats from five islands, only achieving this on Dirk Hartog Island off Western Australia. Importantly, that effort began in 2014, before the strategy was launched. And it was primarily funded by the WA government and an industry offset scheme, so the federal government can’t really claim this success.

On a positive note, ten mainland areas excluding feral cats have been established or are nearly complete. Such areas are a vital lifeline for some wildlife species and can enable native species reintroductions in the future.

feral cat holds dead bird
Feral cats were eradicated from just one island under the strategy.
Mark Marathon/Threatened Species Recovery Hub

Priority species: how did we do?

The strategy met its target of ensuring recovery actions were underway for at least 50 threatened plant species and 60 ecological communities. It also made good headway into storing all Australia’s 1,400 threatened plant species in seed banks. This is good news.

The bad news is that, even with recovery actions, the population trajectories of most priority species failed to improve. For the 24 out of about 70 priority species where population numbers were deemed to have “improved” over five years, about 30% simply got worse at a slower rate than in the decade prior. This can hardly be deemed a success.

Mala with baby in pouch
Populations of the mala, or Rufous Hare-wallaby, were improving before the strategy.
Wayne Lawler/Australian Wildlife Conservancy

What’s more, the populations of at least eight priority species, including the eastern barred bandicoot, eastern bettong, Gilbert’s potoroo, mala, woylie, numbat and helmeted honeyeater, were increasing before the strategy began – and five of these deteriorated under the strategy.

The finding that more priority species recovery efforts failed than succeeded means either:

  • the wrong actions were implemented
  • the right actions were implemented but insufficient effort and funding were dedicated to recovery
  • the trajectories of the species selected for action simply couldn’t be improved in a 5-year window.

All these problems are alarming but can be rectified. For example, the government’s new Threatened Species Strategy, released in May, contains a more evidence-based process for determining priority species.

For some species, it’s unclear whether success can be attributed to the strategy. Some species with improved trajectories, such as the helmeted honeyeater, would likely have improved regardless, thanks to many years of community and other organisation’s conservation efforts before the strategy began.

Conservation worker releases woylie
The improved outlook for some species is due to conservation efforts before the federal strategy.
WA Department of Environment and Conservation



Read more:
Australia-first research reveals staggering loss of threatened plants over 20 years


What must change

According to the report, habitat loss is a key threat to more than half the 71 priority species in the strategy. But the strategy does not directly address habitat loss or climate change, saying other government policies are addressing those threats.

We believe habitat loss and climate change must be addressed immediately.

Of the priority bird species threatened by land clearing and fragmentation, the trajectory of most – including the swift parrot and malleefowl – did not improve under the five years of the strategy. For several, such as the Australasian bittern and regent honeyeater, the trajectory worsened.

Preventing and reversing habitat loss will take years of dedicated restoration, stronger legislation and enforcement. It also requires community engagement, because much threatened species habitat is on private properties.

Effective conservation also requires raising public awareness of the dire predicament of Australia’s 1,900-plus threatened species and ecological communities. But successive governments have sought to sugarcoat our failings over many decades.

Bushfires and other extreme events hampered the strategy’s recovery efforts. But climate change means such events are likely to worsen. The risks of failure should form part of conservation planning – and of course, Australia requires an effective plan for emissions reduction.

The strategy helped increase awareness of the plight our unique species face. Dedicated community groups had already spent years volunteering to monitor and recover populations, and the strategy helped fund some of these actions.

However, proper investment in conservation – such as actions to reduce threats, and establish and maintain protected areas – is urgently needed. The strategy is merely one step on the long and challenging road to conserving Australia’s precious species and ecosystems.




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The Conversation


Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney

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