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.”

 

Climate Change Occurring Too Quickly For Wildlife To Adapt

Species have been adapting to climate change – manmade or otherwise – since the beginning of their existence. However, a new study suggests that changes to Earth’s climate and the resulting effects on wildlife habitat are occurring too quickly for species to respond.

Although climate change is not a new phenomenon, its magnitude and rate are occurring much faster than over the past 300 millennia – a period that includes three ice ages. In fact, between now and 2100, climate change will be dramatic enough to require species to evolve at a rate 100 times faster than has been proven possible.

The study, conducted by Indiana University researchers and published in the scientific journal PLoS Onefocused on North American rattlesnakes.

The researchers determined that the rattlesnakes migrated an average of just 2.3 meters annually over the past 320,000 years and that their tolerance to climate has evolved about 100 to 1,000 times more slowly. These findings, the researchers said, show that migration has been the only way rattlesnakes have adapted to climate changes, at least in the recent past.

“We find that, over the next 90 years, at best these species’  ranges will change more than 100 times faster than they have during the past 320,000 years,” said Michelle Lawing, lead author of the paper. “This rate of change is unlike anything these species have experienced, probably since their formation.”

Using climate-prediction models for the next 90 years, the researchers found that the rattlesnakes’ ranges would be displaced by 430 meters to 2,400 meters per year, thus indicating that the snakes would be unable to move fast enough to keep up with the changes to its habitat.

Although this particular study focused on only one species, the researchers say that because rattlesnakes depend on the environment to regulate their body temperatures, the species is representative of how climate change affects many forms of life on the planet. A warming – or drastically altered – climate, therefore, has the potential to be disastrous to not only rattlesnakes, but other species as well.

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.

 

Natural Landmarks: True Conservation Or DOI Greenwashing?

Hanging Lake is one of the sites recently designated by the DOI as a natural landmark.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has designated six new natural landmarks as part of the agency’s “America’s Great Outdoors Initiative.” The following six sites have joined the more than 500 places already designated under the National Natural Landmarks Program:

Barfoot Park. Located in the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona, this site is known for its unique plant and animals species, as well as for its meadows and springs. The site comprises 680 acres of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Morrison-Golden Fossil Areas. This newly designated landmark, located west and north of Golden, Colo., is one of the most important paleontological sites in the western U.S., and is known around the world for its abundance of reptile, mammal and bird fossils.

Hanging Lake. Located east of Glenwood Springs, Colo., this 72-acre site represents a rare wetland ecosystem within the White River National Forest and includes natural wonders such as hanging gardens.

The Island. Situated on an isolated plateau at the intersection of the Deschutes and Crooked rivers in Oregon, this is one of the best preserved examples of native juniper savannah. The site is a Designated Research Natural Area and is managed by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service.

Round Top Butte. This Oregon landmark includes flat, volcanic plains, and is home to over 700 acres of native bunchgrasses, making it a unique habitat. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), it also includes a preserve run by the Nature Conservancy.

Kahlotus Ridgetop. This site represents the remains of the Palouse Prairie, which the DOI says is the most endangered and altered landscape in the inland Pacific Northwest. Only about 1% of the original prairie remains.

Kahlotus Ridgetop

A passive approach

Federal recognition of new landmarks is a start, but it is far from what these natural landmarks deserve. The National Park Service’s (NPS) National Natural Landmarks Program encourages conservation, but it does not impose any new land-use restrictions on the sites.

The NPS says the goals of the program are to “encourage the preservation of sites illustrating the geological and ecological character of the United States, enhance the scientific and educational value of sites thus preserved, strengthen public appreciation of natural history, and foster a greater concern for the conservation of the nation’s natural heritage.”

Pretty passive approach, if you ask me. Without any real federal protections for these landmarks, the designation can be rendered useless – essentially the product of a lame image-building campaign from the federal government.

The National Natural Landmarks Program is hardly a PR stint unique to the Obama administration; the program was founded in 1962. Yet the DOI’s “America’s Great Outdoors Initiative” – which actually encourages hunting and fishing under the mantra of conservation – raises my suspicions.

If the U.S. is truly serious about conservation, it needs to start taking a stronger stance on preservation and stop greenwashing the American public.