Fly infertility shows we’re underestimating how badly climate change harms animals


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Belinda van Heerwaarden, The University of Melbourne and Ary Hoffmann, The University of MelbourneEvidence of declining fertility in humans and wildlife is growing. While chemicals in our environment have been identified as a major cause, our new research shows there’s another looming threat to animal fertility: climate change.

We know animals can die when temperatures rise to extremes they cannot endure. However, our research suggests males of some species can become infertile even at less extreme temperatures.

This means the distribution of species may be limited by the temperatures at which they can reproduce, rather than the temperatures at which they can survive.

These findings are important, because they mean we may be underestimating the impacts of climate change on animals – and failing to identify the species most likely to become extinct.

two flies mating on a leaf
The distribution of some species may be limited by the temperatures at which they can reproduce.
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Feeling the heat

Researchers have known for some time that animal fertility is sensitive to heat stress.

For example, research shows a 2℃ temperature rise dramatically reduces the production of sperm bundles and egg size in corals. And in many beetle and bee species, fertilisation success drops sharply at high temperatures.

High temperatures have also been shown to affect fertilisation or sperm count in cows, pigs, fish and birds.

However, temperatures that cause infertility have not been incorporated into predictions about how climate change will affect biodiversity. Our research aims to address this.




Read more:
Male fertility: how everyday chemicals are destroying sperm counts in humans and animals


eggs on straw
High temperatures can affect bird reproduction.
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A focus on flies

The paper published today involved researchers from the United Kingdom, Sweden and Australia, including one author of this article. The study examined 43 species of fly to test whether male fertility temperatures were a better predictor of global fly distributions than the temperatures at which the adult fly dies – also known as their “survival limit”.

The researchers exposed flies to four hours of heat stress at temperatures ranging from benign to lethal. From this data they estimated both the temperature that is lethal to 80% of individuals and the temperature at which 80% of surviving males become infertile.

They found 11 of 43 species experienced an 80% loss in fertility at cooler-than-lethal temperatures immediately following heat stress. Rather than fertility recovering over time, the impact of high temperatures was more pronounced seven days after exposure to heat stress. Using this delayed measure, 44% of species (19 out of 43) showed fertility loss at cooler-than-lethal temperatures.




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The 50 beautiful Australian plants at greatest risk of extinction — and how to save them


The researchers then matched these findings to real-world data on the flies’ distribution, and estimated the average maximum air temperatures the species are likely to encounter in the wild. They found the distribution of fly species is linked more closely to the effects of high temperature on male fertility than on temperatures that kill flies.

These fertility responses are crucial to species survival. A separate study led by one author of this article, using simulated climate change in the laboratory, showed experimental populations of the same flies become extinct not because they can’t survive the heat, but because the males become infertile. Species from tropical rainforests were the first to succumb to extinction.

The prediction that tropical and sub-tropical species may be more vulnerable to climate change is not new. But the fertility findings suggest the negative impact of climate change may be even worse than anticipated.

Flies on a stick
The research found fly fertility is affected at lower-than-lethal temperatures.
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What does all this mean?

Some animals have adapted to minimise the effect of high temperature on fertility. For instance, it’s thought testes in male primates and humans are externally located to protect the developing sperm from excessive heat.

As the planet warms, animals may further evolve to withstand the effects of heat on fertility. But the speed at which a species can adapt may be too slow to ensure their survival. Our research has shown both tropical and widespread species of flies could not increase their fertility when exposed to simulated global warming, even after 25 generations.

A study involving beetles also indicates fertility damage from successive heatwaves can accumulate over time. And more work is needed to determine how other stressors such as salinity, chemicals and poor nutrition may compound the fertility-temperature problem.

Whether our findings extrapolate to other species, including mammals such as humans, is not yet clear. It’s certainly possible, given evidence across the animal kingdom that fertility is sensitive to heat stress.

Either way, unless global warming is radically curbed, animal fertility will likely decline. This means Earth may be heading for far more species extinctions than previously anticipated.




Read more:
The 1.5℃ global warming limit is not impossible – but without political action it soon will be


The Conversation


Belinda van Heerwaarden, Future Fellow, The University of Melbourne and Ary Hoffmann, Professor, School of BioSciences and Bio21 Institute, The University of Melbourne

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

There’s insufficient evidence your sunscreen harms coral reefs


Terry Hughes, James Cook University

In the face of persistent heatwaves, Australians are reaching for the sunscreen. But you might have heard some mixed messages about its harm to the environment – specifically to coral reefs.

In July 2018, Hawaii passed a law to prohibit the future sale of sunscreens containing benzophene-3 and octinoxate, claiming these two chemicals increase coral bleaching, and have significant harmful impacts on Hawaii’s marine environment.




Read more:
Marine heatwaves are getting hotter, lasting longer and doing more damage


In October 2018, the Republic of Palau followed suit, and banned “reef-toxic” sunscreens. Like most reefs throughout the tropics and subtropics, coral reefs in Hawaii and Palau have already severely bleached multiple times during recent, unusually hot summers, causing extensive loss of corals.

Key West, in Florida, may be the latest area to follow this trend, with a proposed ban to be voted on in early February.

However, medical and skin cancer specialists have warned of the public health risks of a ban on widely used sunscreens, describing the prohibition as risky and unjustified, in part because the few studies that have addressed the environmental impacts of sunscreens experimentally “are not representative of real world conditions”.

For example, the way in which coral tissues were exposed to sunscreen in experiments does not mimic the dispersal and dilution of pollutants from a tourist’s skin (and other sources) into reef waters and onto corals growing in the wild.

Experiments that expose corals to sunscreen chemicals typically use far higher concentrations than have ever been measured on an actual reef. A recent review of the amount of benzophne-3 in reef waters found that, typically, concentrations are barely detectable – usually, a few parts per trillion. One much higher report of 1.4 parts per million, in the US Virgin Islands, is based on a single water sample.

The environmental concerns over sunscreens on coral reefs are centred overwhelmingly on just two studies. The first, published in 2008, noted that there was no previous scientific evidence for an impact of sunscreens on coral reefs.

This study exposed small fragments of corals (branch tips) to high levels of benzophenone-3 and other chemicals by incubating them for a few days inside plastic bags. The fragments in the bags quickly became diseased with viruses and bleached. The authors concluded “up to 10% of the world reefs are potentially threatened by sunscreen-induced coral bleaching”.

Bleaching is a stress response by corals, where they turn pale due to a decline in the symbiotic micro-algae that lives inside their tissues. You can make a coral bleach experimentally by torturing it in any number of ways. However, coral bleaching at a global and regional scale is caused by anthropogenic heating, not sunscreen. We know the footprint of bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998, 2002, 2016 and 2017 is closely matched to where the water was hottest for longest in each event.

Even the most remote reefs are vulnerable to heat stress. The physiological mechanisms and timescale of thermal bleaching due to global heating is very different from the rapid responses of corals to experimental exposure to high concentrations of sunscreen chemicals.

The second and most-widely cited study of sunscreen toxicity on corals is also laboratory-based. Published in 2016, it focused mainly on the responses of the day-old larvae of one coral species, as well as isolated coral cells. This study did not examine intact coral colonies.

The larvae were placed in 2-3 centilitres of artificial seawater containing a range of concentrations of sunscreen chemicals and a solvent to disperse them. After a few hours, the coral larvae became increasingly pale (bleached) with higher concentrations of oxybenzone.




Read more:
Why there’s still hope for our endangered coral reefs


This study also measured the concentration of benzophenone in sea water at six locations in Hawaii. These samples were unreplicated (one per location), and all of them had unmeasureable amounts of sunscreen chemicals. In the US Virgin Islands, the authors found higher concentrations of benzophenone at four out of ten locations, although they did not report results for any blank samples (to control for contamination). The study concluded that oxybenzone threatens the resilience of coral reefs to climate change.

In conclusion, there is actually no direct evidence to demonstrate that bleaching due to global heating is exacerbated by sunscreen pollutants. Similarly, there is no evidence that recovery from thermal bleaching is impaired by sunscreens, or that sunscreens cause coral bleaching in the wild.The Conversation

Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University

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

Drought on the Murray River harms ocean life too



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The mouth of the Murray River delivers vital nutrients to marine life in the ocean beyond.
SA Water, Author provided

Hannah Auricht, University of Adelaide and Kenneth Clarke, University of Adelaide

Drought in the Murray River doesn’t just affect the river itself – it also affects the ecosystems that live in the ocean beyond.

In a study published in Marine and Freshwater Research today, we found that the very low flows in the river over the past decade reduced the abundance of microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton, which are ultimately the base of all marine food webs.

This shows that the health of the Murray River has a much bigger influence on the marine environment than we previously realised. With climate change poised to make droughts more frequent and severe in the river, it will be crucial to monitor the health not just of freshwater species, but of the local marine ones too.


Read more: Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


Phytoplankton depend on nutrients, which are often delivered to the ocean by rivers. In turn, these tiny plants are a source of food for almost all marine ecosystems. Worldwide, they are responsible for half the production of organic matter on the planet.

In South Australia, a dry period dubbed the Millennium Drought (2001 to 2010) and overallocation of water resources (primarily for agriculture) meant that very little water was delivered from the Murray Mouth to the coastal ocean. Between 2007 and 2010, no water was discharged at all. The water in the river’s lower reaches became much saltier and cloudier.

We used historical flow records and satellite imagery, taken between early 2002 and late 2016, to figure out how much phytoplankton and other organic matter were in the coastal ocean each month. We broke up the area into incremental zones, venturing up to 130km from the river mouth.

We found that during and after high-flow events, Murray River discharge resulted in a huge increase in phytoplankton concentrations – as far as 60km beyond the river’s mouth. Surprisingly, before our research it wasn’t known that the river played such an important role in stimulating phytoplankton growth over such a large area.

The mouth of the Murray River, where sometimes no water flows into the ocean at all.
CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Armed with an understanding of how river flows influenced phytoplankton growth, we used historic flow records to estimate phytoplankton concentrations back to 1962. Our results showed that large flows used to occur more often and in greater volumes, and consequently that phytoplankton populations would have gone through more frequent and larger booms.

This in turn would have benefited all of the species that ultimately depend on phytoplankton for food, either directly or indirectly. This food web encompasses almost the whole marine ecosystem.

The past affects the future

Water resource management has greatly altered the volume and timing of freshwater discharges from the Murray. The ocean beyond the Murray mouth now receives small and infrequent deliveries of freshwater.

Rainfall and streamflow are decreasing in this already variable region, while temperatures are rising. This means that South Australia is likely to experience more severe and more frequent droughts, which will cause flows from the Murray mouth to decline still further, ultimately reducing phytoplankton abundance.

Previous research had already established the links between river outflows, phytoplankton and health of marine environments and species. But as far as we can tell, no other research has looked at exactly how extended periods of no or low river outflows affect marine ecosystems. This makes it difficult to predict how these systems will respond to climate change.

We believe that reduced Murray River outflows and reduced phytoplankton concentrations would likely have also placed strain on local mulloway fish and Goolwa cockle populations. Juvenile mulloway use river outflows as habitat and environmental cues, and cockles feed on organic material in the water.


Read more: ‘Tax returns for water’: how satellite-audited statements can save the Murray-Darling


This is why it is so important that the management of the Murray River doesn’t just stop at the river’s mouth, but continues into the ocean beyond. Current plans are focused on restoring flows to support the riparian and wetland ecosystems of the Murray as well as the Lower Lakes and Coorong.

But there has been little recognition of the role of river outflows on the marine environment – let alone in management. Although we might not always think about it, the marine environment is really the end of the river system, and part of a larger global cycle. It would therefore be beneficial if plans extend to monitor the marine ecosystem’s response, both at broad and fine scales, to varying flow events.

The ConversationIt would seem the time is past ripe to call for greater research and consideration on this matter, so that we don’t do further damage to what is actually still a part of the Murray River system, and can improve measures to protect the marine environment.

Hannah Auricht, PhD candidate, University of Adelaide and Kenneth Clarke, Researcher, School of Biological Sciences, University of Adelaide

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