The Butterfly Effect: Early Spring Could Lead To Wildlife Population Declines

Photo credit: Carol Boggs

A chain of events caused by climate change has led to a decline in butterfly populations in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, researchers at Stanford University recently found.

The study, published in the scientific journal Ecology Letters, could be prescient in determining the long-lasting effects of climate change on many of the world’s species.

As climate change leads to an early spring, the snowmelt caused by the warmer temperatures on the Rocky Mountains decreases the number of summer wildflowers. Fewer flowers, of course, mean less nectar available to butterflies.

In the researchers’ tests, the more nectar female butterflies ate, the more eggs they laid. Therefore, less available nectar led to fewer butterflies being born and, consequently, population declines, they concluded.

If climate change could have such a dramatic impact on butterfly populations, could similar cascading effects be seen in other wildlife species?

It’s quite likely, scientists say, because of the close interconnection among species within an ecosystem.

For instance, earlier snowmelt’s effect on flowers also impacts bees , which pollinate many of the plants that other species rely on for nutrition.

All of these studies serve to remind us of the wide-reaching impacts of climate change.

“Long-term studies such as ours are important to understanding the ‘ecology of place,’ and the effects of weather and possible climate change on population numbers,” says David Inouye, co-author of the paper. “This research is critical to assessing the broader effects of weather on an ever-changing Earth.”

 

New Theory Behind Earth’s Great Extinction

Over 250 million years ago, a mass extinction annihilated nearly all of Earth’s living species. Scientists have proposed many theories for why this occurred, and until now, the most widely accepted explanation for the event had been that volcanic eruptions burned through coal beds, releasing carbon dioxide and other fatal toxins into the environment.

But researchers at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, have uncovered a potential new reason for the mass extinction: mercury.

The study, published in the academic journal Geology, notes that the mass extinction occurred during the time of greatest volcanic activity in the planet’s history. Mercury deposition rates in this period were up to 30 times higher than in today’s volcanic activity, the researchers found. Levels this high could have been catastrophic enough to wipe out life on the planet.

Normally, algae acts as a purifier of toxins.

“Typically, algae acts like a scavenger and buries the mercury in the sediment, mitigating the effect in the oceans,” says Dr. Hamed Sanei, lead author of the study. “But in this case, the load was just so huge that it could not stop the damage.”

The new research has the potential to change the way scientists view not only the Earth’s past, but also its future.

“We are adding to the levels through industrial emissions,” adds Dr. Benoit Beauchamp, another author of the study. “This is a warning for us here on Earth today.”

However, it also shows how the planet’s resiliency, as well as surviving life forms’ ability to adapt to harsh conditions.

“After the system was overloaded and most of life was destroyed, the oceans were still able to self-clean, and we were able to move on to the next phase of life,” Sanei says.

Top Wildlife Comebacks of the 20th Century

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

With so many animal populations on the decline – thanks to habitat loss, climate change and human intervention, among other causes – sometimes it’s easy to forget all of the progress that conservation efforts have made over the years. For a positive spin, let’s take a look at some of the greatest wildlife comebacks of 20th century, according to a report issued by The Nature Conservancy (NC).

Grizzly Bear

In 1970, the grizzly bear was designated as a threatened species in the continental U.S. Like many other species that once thrived in the country, the grizzly has continued to be threatened by habitat loss and hunting. Thanks to conservation efforts, however, grizzly-bear numbers are improving, and the species may be removed from the threatened list in the near future.

Gray Whale

Back in the 1800s, widespread hunting nearly obliterated the gray-whale population. Since the International Whaling Commission adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, however, gray whales have begun to rebound and now number about 22,000, according to the NC.

Bald Eagle

This iconic American species was driven to the brink of extinction in the middle of the 20th century due to habitat loss, pesticide contamination and hunting. However, thanks to the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972, the bald eagle began to make a comeback, and the NC estimates that there are approximately 10,000 nesting pairs currently living in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Santa Cruz Island Fox

Until a massive captive-breeding initiative was launched by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups, fewer than 100 of these four-pound foxes remained. The animals, native to a small island off the coast of California, had fallen victim to feral pigs and golden eagles. Now, the Santa Cruz Island Fox’s population has risen to 1,300.

Southern White Rhino

Decimated by widespread hunting back in the 1800s, the Southern White Rhino was on the verge of extinction by the end of the 19th century. However, as a result of conservation efforts, they have made one of the biggest wildlife comebacks of all time, with over 20,000 individuals now in the wild.

Gray Wolf

A top predator, the gray wolf was considered a threat to livestock decades ago, and was routinely killed. After having been added to the Endangered Species List in 1974, though, they began to bounce back and now total around 4,000.

Mauritius Kestrel

The NC says this small African bird of prey was once considered the rarest bird in the world. At one time, there were only four individuals remaining. Thanks to work by conservationists, who established a captive-breeding program, there is now a self-sustaining population of over 800 of these birds.

 

Not Just For Junior: Four Reasons Why You Should Adopt A Pet

It’s no secret: We love our pets. More than 63% of Americans have at least one, and it’s no wonder why: There are many proven benefits of pet ownership. Here are just a few of the reasons why you should consider adopting a new friend:

1. You’ll be in better shape. Numerous studies have shown that dog owners exercise more – an average of 30 minutes more per week – than people who do not have dogs. In fact, one study even showed that people walked 28% faster when accompanied by their dog than another human. We can easily make excuses not to go to the gym, but it’s a bit harder to  avoid dogs’ natural urge to release their energy.

2. You’ll be happier. Studies have also proven that pet owners are considerably happier than non-pet owners. Pets offer unconditional love and companionship, which are key sources of human happiness. Research has also proven that owning a pet reduces stress levels and anxiety, which also has health benefits.

3. You’ll be a better person. Caring for a pet – just like being a parent – requires patience, nurturing and love. As a pet owner, you’ll develop these qualities naturally and learn to not sweat the small stuff so much.

4. You’ll be helping a friend in need. According to the ASPCA, there are about 70 million homeless cats and dogs living in the United States at any given time, and many of these animals will be euthanized due to no fault of their own. If you are capable of giving one of these animals a good home, you have not only saved a life, but given a dog or cat (or both!) a friend they may have never had. Check out petfinder.com for a list of animals at local shelters.

These are just a few of the many reasons to consider adopting a pet. Before doing so, however, make sure you have both the time and financial means to care for the animal. Millions of the stray cats and dogs found roaming the streets were owned by irresponsible people who should have never adopted these animals in the first place. If you decide to adopt, good luck! If you are patient and caring, pet ownership will be one of the most rewarding decisions you’ll make.

Study Reveals Massive Ecological Effects Of Animal Population Declines

Photo by Erik Christensen

The loss of large predators and herbivores has led to a staggering ecological shift and, in some cases, even contributed to climate change, according to a new research released by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

According to the study, reductions in the populations of large animals have had detrimental effects on marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems around the world.

For example, whales sequester carbon in the ocean through the deposition of feces. Industrial whaling has caused whale populations to plummet over the last 100 years, causing an additional 105 million tons of carbon to be released into the atmosphere, the research concludes.

In this instance, a population decline has contributed to climate change. But the inevitable chicken-and-egg quandary emerges: Are the changes to the ecosystem leading to climate change, or is climate change resulting in ecological shifts?

Perhaps a combination of both, depending on the individual animal population and ecosystem. Even this study admits that, in addition to the loss of large predators and herbivores, a variety of factors – including land-use practices, habitat loss, pollution and climate change – have altered ecosystems worldwide.

Catch 22 aside, this research sends a clear message: Earth’s delicate balance is easily disrupted, and conservation is key to its survival.