Animals are disappearing from forests, with grave consequences for the fight against climate breakdown – new research



A toucan eating a fruit in the tropical wetlands of the Pantanal, Brazil.
Uwe Bergwitz/Shutterstock

Charlie Gardner, University of Kent; Jake Bicknell, University of Kent; Matthew Struebig, University of Kent, and Zoe Davies, University of Kent

It’s tempting to think that our forests would be fine if we could simply stop trees being felled or burnt. But forests – particularly tropical ones – are more than just trees. They’re also the animals that skulk and swoop among them.

Worryingly, these furry and feathered companions are rapidly disappearing – and our new research indicates that this will have grave repercussions for the role forests play in combating climate breakdown.

Healthy tropical forests swarm with life. Beyond myriad invertebrates there are seed-eating rodents, a range of leaf eaters, birds of all kinds, and often primates. However, many forests have already lost most of their largest animals, mainly as a result of hunting to supply a growing bushmeat trade.

Hunting isn’t the only reason. Thanks to deforestation for farmland and logging, many forests today are highly fragmented. The small, unconnected patches that remain aren’t big enough to support populations of the largest species, which tend to need more space.

The disappearance of animals from otherwise intact habitats is known as defaunation, and it is leading to a growing number of empty forests not just in tropical countries, but around the world. The UK has already lost most of its largest species (think lynx, wolf, and wisent), while woodland bird numbers have declined by a quarter since 1970.




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The impacts of this defaunation have attracted the attention of the world’s conservation scientists, but studies to date have usually been carried out at single locations. Consequently, we lack a worldwide picture that takes into account different types of forest and the diversity of animals that are disappearing.

To fill this gap, we worked with William Baldwin-Cantello, chief adviser on forests at the World Wide Fund for Nature UK, to gather together all the existing research and perform a meta-analysis – an analysis of analyses – on the available data.

Forest flora need flourishing fauna

Our findings reveal a worrying trend. The loss of animals compromises the ability of forests to reproduce. This effect is particularly severe when primates and birds disappear, because of the key role they play in seed dispersal. Trees make fruit to entice animals to transport their seeds, because they are more likely to germinate and grow successfully if they fall further from their parent tree. So when fruit-eating animals disappear, fewer seeds are dispersed and the trees struggle to reproduce.

A black howler monkey eating a juicy cashew fruit.
akramer/Shutterstock

This animal absence will slowly change how forests look. Most tropical forests today are dominated by trees whose seeds are dispersed by animals. Over time, they are likely to be gradually replaced by trees that use the wind to reproduce. Naturally, these usually have small seeds, and therefore produce smaller trees that store less carbon for the same area of forest. As a result, forests will store less and less carbon, even if we completely halt deforestation.

This is particularly concerning because roughly 20% of the carbon dioxide we emit is absorbed by the world’s vegetation and soils, and half of this is due to tropical forests alone.

Rethinking forest health

Conserving forests is essential for the fight against climate breakdown – and, we do have a global tool at our disposal to help. Known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD+ for short, it allows wealthy countries with large carbon footprints to pay poorer, tropical countries to protect their forests.

Of course, REDD+ is only an effective tool if the forests countries pay to protect continue to store the same amount of carbon. We usually monitor this by taking satellite images of the quantity of forest canopy remaining. But what satellite imagery can’t do is measure aspects of forest quality beneath the canopy.

Our research strongly suggests that one aspect of forest quality – defaunation – is a vital early warning sign of future losses in the carbon storing capacity of forests. In light of this, policies for managing forest carbon around the world may need a rethink.

We need to pay more attention to what’s going on beneath global forest canopies through research on the ground, though this will be difficult in remote areas. More importantly, we must make sure we’re doing all we can to conserve the full complement of animal species that live in our forests. For example, we need to heavily invest in conservation actions that help communities accustomed to hunting bushmeat to meet their dietary protein needs without harming wildlife. We must also enforce existing rules better, such as those that outlaw hunting within parks and reserves.

Preventing defaunation in forests won’t be easy. But given what we know about the critical role forest animals play, doing so will be essential if we hope to retain diverse and carbon-rich forests in the tropics and around the world. If the beauty and wonder of the forest’s animals wasn’t enough reason to protect them, we now have another: by conserving wildlife, we will be helping to save ourselves from the catastrophic effects of climate breakdown.


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Charlie Gardner, Lecturer in Conservation Biology, University of Kent; Jake Bicknell, Lecturer in Conservation Biology, University of Kent; Matthew Struebig, Senior Lecturer in Biological Conservation, University of Kent, and Zoe Davies, Professor of Biodiversity Conservation, University of Kent

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

Earth’s wildernesses are disappearing, and not enough of them are World Heritage-listed


James Allan, The University of Queensland and James Watson, The University of Queensland

Earth’s last intact wilderness areas are being rapidly destroyed. More than 5 million square km of wilderness (around 10% of the total area) have been lost in the past two decades. If this continues, the consequences for both people and nature will be catastrophic.

Predominantly free of human activity, especially industrial-scale activities, large wilderness areas host a huge range of environmental values, including endangered species and ecosystems, and critical functions such as storing carbon and providing fresh water. Many indigenous people and local communities, who are often politically and economically marginalised, depend on wilderness areas and have deep cultural connections to them.

Yet despite being important and highly threatened, wilderness areas have been almost completely ignored in international environmental policy. Immediate proactive action is required to save them. The question is where such action could come from.

In a paper published in Conservation Biology, we argue that the United Nations’ World Heritage Convention should expand the amount of wilderness included in its list of Natural World Heritage Sites (NWHS).

Wilderness areas are underrepresented among the 203 sites currently on the list. The World Heritage Committee’s meeting in Poland this week offers a good opportunity to redress the balance.

Whither wilderness?

The World Heritage Convention was adopted in 1972 by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to conserve the world’s most valuable natural and cultural sites – places of exceptional importance to all of humanity and future generations. Each one is unique and irreplaceable. Currently, 193 countries (almost the entire world) are parties to the convention, which has inscribed 203 natural sites around the world.

World Heritage Status is granted to places with “Outstanding Universal Value”, which is defined based on three pillars. First, a site must meet one of the four criteria for listing as natural World Heritage (aesthetic value, geological value, biological processes, and biodiversity conservation). Second, a site must have “integrity” and “intactness” of its values (in other words, it must be in excellent condition). Finally, a site must be officially protected by the national or subnational government under whose jurisdiction it falls.

Wilderness areas can be associated with all four of the natural criteria, as well as the integrity and intactness requirements. What’s more, a wilderness by definition cannot be recreated once it is lost. The argument for protecting wilderness areas by adding them to the NWHS list is therefore compelling.

We created the most up-to-date maps of terrestrial wilderness using recent maps of human pressure and assessed the World Heritage Convention’s current coverage of wilderness areas. We found that some 777,000 square km (around 2% of the total) are already protected in 52 Natural World Heritage Sites.

Very little of the world’s wilderness (green) is within natural World Heritage Sites (pink).
Author provided

For example, more than 90% of the World Heritage-listed Purnululu National Park in the Kimberley region of Western Australia can be defined as a wilderness area. Similarly, the Okavango Delta in Botswana features more than 18,000 square km of wilderness, containing many of the world’s most endangered large mammals.

Wilderness boosts heritage value

In these cases, wilderness areas are likely contributing to the Oustanding Universal Value of of these World Heritage Areas – which as explained above is a key consideration in how they are managed and protected.

One way to strengthen this protection further would be to redraw the boundaries of natural World Heritage Areas to include more wilderness. This would help to preserve the conditions that allow ecosystems and other heritage values to thrive.

Our study identified broad gaps in wilderness coverage by the World Heritage Convention. Some places are already protected by national governments and could therefore be added to UNESCO’s list, such as the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve in Myanmar, which contains 4,000 square km of wilderness, and the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna Reserve in Bolivia, which has 9,000 square km.

The places we have identified, and others, could potentially be designated as new Natural World Heritage Sites if they meet the other strict criteria for Outstanding Universal Values and integrity.

The World Heritage Convention could better achieve its objectives and make a substantial contribution to the conservation of wilderness areas by doing these four things:

  1. formally acknowledge the Outstanding Universal Values of wilderness areas

  2. strengthen the current protection of wilderness within NWHS

  3. expand or reconfigure current NWHS to include more wilderness, and

  4. designate new NWHS in wilderness areas.

It’s up to national governments to submit sites for inscription as NWHS, and we urge them to consider wilderness when doing so. This will strengthen their applications, and provide wilderness areas with the extra protection they need.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s meeting in Poland this week will consider two sites with significant wilderness areas for World Heritage status: Qinghai Hoh Xil Nature Reserve in China and Los Alerces National Park in Argentina. We urge the committee to approve these sites, and use this to spur further opportunities to raise the profile of wilderness conservation worldwide. It is an obvious win-win.

The ConversationThe clock is ticking fast for our last wilderness areas and the biodiversity they protect. Immediate action is needed.

James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland and James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia’s waterbirds are disappearing – but nuclear physics can help save them


Kate Brandis, UNSW Australia

When wetlands flood they become full of life. They are spectacularly beautiful and noisy. There is nothing quite like the sound of a wetland when thousands of birds come together to take advantage of the newly created habitat.

Ibis, spoonbills, egrets, herons, cormorants and pelicans all congregate in large numbers, tens to hundreds of thousands, to breed when wetland conditions are good. These gatherings of birds are spectacular, but a mystery remains: where do they come from, and where do they go?

These questions aren’t trivial. Over the past 30 years waterbird populations have declined as opportunities for breeding have disappeared, mainly due to water resource development.

Worldwide, wetlands have been lost or are under threat from water resource development, agricultural development and climate change. In Australia we have lost an estimated 50% of wetlands since European settlement.

The loss of wetlands has serious implications for wildlife. Many species are wetland-dependent throughout their lives while others, such as some species of waterbirds, rely on wetlands as places to breed.

Knowing which wetlands waterbirds use when they aren’t breeding will help us figure out which places we need to protect. So the Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW and the Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organisation have developed a new technique to analyse Australian bird feathers using nuclear physics.

Now we want you to send us waterbird feathers so we can build an Australia-wide map of where our waterbirds go.

High-tech tracking

Traditional tracking methods such as leg banding and satellite trackers have had limited success and can be expensive. So we looked for a cheaper and more effective method. And what could be easier than collecting bird feathers?

Feathers are made of keratin (the same material as human hair and nails) and as they grow record the diet of the bird in chemical elements. Once fully grown, feathers are inert – they no longer change.

Chemical elements (carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen) exist in a number of different forms known as isotopes. Some isotopes of some elements are radioactive, but many elements have stable, non-radioactive isotopes. The relative proportion of different isotopes can be explicitly linked to a specific location, as has been done for monarch butterflies in North America.

To test whether this could be applied to Australian wetlands and waterbirds I did a pilot study in 2010-11. Widespread flooding in the Murray-Darling Basin resulted in colonial waterbirds breeding at a number of wetlands including the Gwydir wetlands, Macquarie Marshes and Lowbidgee wetlands. These three wetlands are geographically distinct, spread across the Basin from north to south.

We used feathers from chicks and juveniles, because they are eating food from only the wetland where they were hatched and so provide a unique signature for that wetland.

We tested the feathers using two techniques: one to look at the elemental composition of feathers, and the other to measure the amount of two particular isotopes, carbon-13 and nitrogen-15.

Results from these analyses showed that we were able to distinguish between the three wetland sites based on the elemental composition of the feather and the isotopic composition.

Either technique showed the ability to distinguish between wetland sites. Combined, they should be able to provide greater spatial accuracy in identifying the wetland at which the feather was grown. With the knowledge that wetlands have their own unique elemental and isotopic signature, we are expanding the study nationally.

Sunset at an ibis colony.
Kate Brandis, Author provided

Building a ‘feather map’

The Feather Map of Australia is a citizen science project that aims to map the signatures for as many wetlands across Australia as possible. To do this we have asked interested members of the public to collect feathers from their local wetlands and contribute them for analyses.

Once analysed, we will have an isotopic map of wetlands against which we can track waterbird movements. Feathers collected from chicks and birds that don’t move large distances will provide us with a signature for that particular wetland. We can then analyse the feathers of birds that do travel long distances and match the signature in their feathers against those of wetlands, telling us where these birds have been.

The signature will not tell us all the movements a bird has made, but it will tell us where it was when it grew the feather. And this will also give us information about the health of the wetland based on what food the bird has eaten and how long it took to grow the feather.

Knowing the movements of waterbirds helps identify wetlands that are important waterbird habitats. This knowledge can be used to provide information to policymakers and land and water managers for improved water delivery, wetland management and decision-making, and ultimately protect wetlands and waterbirds.

Read more on how to send feathers to scientists and help build the Feather Map of Australia.

The Conversation

Kate Brandis, Joint Research Fellow, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW and Australia Nuclear Science Technology Organisation, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wetlands are disappearing faster, just when we need them the most


Grist

Wetlands are going the way of the glaciers.

A new federal study has cataloged the alarming demise of the nation’s coastal ecosystems. Mangroves, marshes, and other wetlands help protect homes and communities from sea surges and storms. But more than 360,000 acres disappeared between 2004 and 2009, much of it cleared to make way for coastal developmentThe Washington Post reports:

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Antarctica: Cold Water is Disappearing


The article below reports on the growing concern over changes in the Antarctic Bottom Water. This is likely to be a result of climate change and global warming.

For more, visit:
http://www.ouramazingplanet.com/2651-coldest-deepest-ocean-water-disappearing.html