Tag Archives: Biodiversity

Nature needs a seat at the UN

By Anthony Burke and Stefanie Fishel 
October, 2016

Street art in Sydney, Australia. Photo by Stefanie Fishel

Street art in Sydney, Australia. Photo by Stefanie Fishel

Whether we consider wild weather, unprecedented Arctic melting and global temperatures, or the Great Barrier Reef, the global environment is generating alarming news. Predictions of multi-metre sea level rises, the collapse of marine biodiversity and food chains, and global warming far beyond 2℃ are equally concerning. Is our system of global environmental law and governance adequate to this crisis?

Our short answer is “no”, but what should be done? We believe new international institutions and laws are needed, with one fundamental purpose: to give a voice to ecosystems and non-human forms of life.

We say this knowing that the current global system is inadequate to respond to many human crises, but with the conviction that environmental justice often overlaps with social justice.

It is tempting to believe that we can muddle through with the existing system, centred on the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change and Convention on Biological Diversity. But these are not integrated with each other, and are also kept separate from global economic and trade institutions like the World Trade Organisation, the G20 and the World Bank, and from global security institutions like the UN Security Council. The latter has never passed a resolution about the environment, despite growing warnings from military strategists of the potential for climate-catalysed conflict.

Global trade and security are each governed by global agencies. But there is no comparable global authority to protect the environment.

The climate agreement negotiated at last year’s Paris summit was a great diplomatic achievement, but the euphoria was premature. Current national pledges to cut emissions will fail to keep global warming below 2℃, let alone the 1.5℃ that climate scientists and many nations in Paris have argued is the safer limit.

The Paris deal’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, actually saw global emissions rise by 60% to 2014.

Three months before Paris, the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals and its mission to “heal and secure our planet”. The gap between ambition and ability could scarcely be greater.

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A new manifesto

We and our colleagues have published a “Planet Politics” manifesto, which argues that the current architecture of international society is failing to see and address the global ecological crisis. Our global governance is too focused on interstate bargaining and human interests, and sees the environment as an inert backdrop and resource for human societies. Yet the reality is that the fates of society and nature are inextricably bound together – and the planet is letting us know that.

In response, we propose three key international reforms: a coal convention, an Earth system council, and a new category of “crimes against biodiversity”.

A coal convention

Every year toxic air pollution from coal burning causes death and disease. Coal is responsible for 43% of global greenhouse emissions and 80% of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration since 1870.

We already have UN treaties banning the use of chemical and biological weapons, on the basis of their threats to human health and security. Based on the same principles, we suggest a similar international convention to outlaw the mining and burning of coal.

This would create a common legal framework in which states can transform their energy economies without fear of “free riders”. It would also add to the pressure already being felt by the coal and energy industries to curb their damaging pollution.

An Earth system council

An Earth system council would function much like the UN Security Council – it would, in effect, be an “ecological security council”.

Its mandate would be to preserve, protect and repair global ecosystems. It would respond to immediate crises while also stimulating action on systemic environmental degradation and ecosystem repair. Its resolutions would be binding on all UN member states, although we do not envisage that it would have the same coercive powers (such as sanctions). The council would be able to refer issues to the International Court of Justice, or create ad hoc international criminal tribunals relating to major environmental crimes.

This is significant reform that would require the revision of the UN Charter, but our proposals for membership go even further. Every meeting would be briefed by the head of the UN Environment Program and by Earth system scientists or ecologists.

We suggest it could have 25 voting seats, 13 of which would go to state representatives elected for fixed terms, allocated among the major world regions. The other 12 would be permanent seats held by “eco-regions”: major ecosystems that bind together large human and non-human communities and are crucial to the planetary biosphere, such as the Arctic and Antarctic, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Amazon Basin, tropical Africa, or major river systems like the Mekong and Congo. Alternatively, following WWF’s Global 200, eco-regions could be based on major habitat types.

Each eco-region would be represented by a democratic assembly and have a constitution focused solely on the preservation and repair of its ecology. It would appoint a representative to the Earth system council and have the power to make recommendations for ecosystem protection to regional governments. Each state with territory that overlaps that eco-region would have one seat. Other seats would be elected democratically from communities (especially indigenous peoples) within those regions.

Crimes against biodiversity

A “crimes against biodiversity” law would act like a Rome Statute for the environment. It could add much-needed teeth to efforts to preserve global biodiversity and prevent large-scale environmental harms. Ecological damage should be criminalised, not just penalised with fines or lawsuits.

We envisage that this law would outlaw and punish three kinds of activity:

  • actions that contribute to the extinction of endangered species, such as poaching, illegal whaling or destruction of habitat;
  • actions that involve the unnecessary large-scale killing or death of species groups, as happened in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster;
  • activities that destroy ecosystems, such as the dumping of mine tailings or toxic waste into rivers.

It would not criminalise the farming of animals or the catching of fish, but could apply if these practices involve the mistreatment of animals or large-scale collateral damage to biodiversity – for instance, by overly extractive fishing methods. Such global-level regulation will augment enforcement at local levels.

Unlike international laws that punish genocide, our suggested law would not require proof of intent to commit the crime, but merely a strong link between the activity and the destruction of biodiversity or industrial and systemic harm to animals. There are potential legal precedents in the US legal doctrine of “depraved heart murder” in which individuals are liable for deaths caused by wilful indifference, rather than an express desire to harm.

It is easy to see how this kind of legal reasoning could be used to help deter dangerous industrial, mining or agricultural activities.

Readers might ask how the destruction of biodiversity is as morally appalling as genocide or other crimes against humanity. The philosopher Hannah Arendt has argued that the distinct evil of crimes against humanity lies not simply in mass murder but in the destruction of human diversity; an attack on humanity’s peaceful coexistence on our planet.

Now, as we become ever more aware of the complex enmeshment of human and non-human life in the planetary biosphere, the human-caused extinction of species is likewise an attack on our common ecological existence. It is time for this truth to be recognised in international law.

We are aware that these are radical ideas that raise significant political and legal complexities, but the time to start debating them is now. Planet Earth needs unprecedented politics for these unprecedented times.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Anthony Burke is an Associate Professor of International & Political Studies, UNSW Australia.  Stefanie Fishel is an Assistant Professor, University of Alabama This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Hunting, fishing, farming biggest threats to wildlife

Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons

Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons

By Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland 
August 13, 2016

History might judge the Paris climate agreement to be a watershed for all humanity. If nations succeed in halting runaway climate change, this will have enormous positive implications for life on Earth.

Yet as the world applauds a momentous shift toward carbon neutrality and hope for species threatened by climate change, we can’t ignore the even bigger threats to the world’s wildlife and ecosystems.

Climate change threatens 19% of globally threatened and near-threatened species – including Australia’s critically endangered mountain pygmy possum and the southern corroboree frog. It’s a serious conservation issue.

Yet our new study, published in Nature, shows that by far the largest current hazards to biodiversity are overexploitation and agriculture.

The biggest threats to the world’s wildlife
Sean Maxwell et al.

The cost of overexploitation and agriculture

We assessed nearly 9,000 species listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. We found that 72% are threatened by overexploitation and 62% by agriculture.

Overexploitation (the unsustainable harvest of species from the wild) is putting more species on an extinction pathway than any other threat.

And the expansion and intensification of agriculture (the production of food, fodder, fibre and fuel crops; livestock; aquaculture; and the cultivation of trees) is the second-largest driver of biodiversity loss.

Hunting and gathering is a threat to more than 1,600 species, including many large carnivores such as tigers and snow leopards.

Unsustainable logging is driving the decline of more than 4,000 species, such as Australia’s Leadbeater’s possum, while more than 1,000 species, including southern bluefin tuna, are losing out to excessive fishing pressure.

Land change for crop farming and timber plantations imperils more than 5,300 species, such as the far eastern curlew, while the northern hairy-nosed wombat is one of more than 2,400 species affected by livestock farming and aquaculture.

The threat information used to inform our study is the most comprehensive available. But it doesn’t tell the complete story.

Threats are likely to change in the future. Climate change, for example, will become increasingly problematic for many species in coming decades.

Moreover, threats to biodiversity rarely operate in isolation. More than 80% of the species we assessed are facing more than one major threat.

Through threat interactions, smaller threats can indirectly drive extinction risk. Roads and energy production, for example, are known to facilitate the emergence of overexploitation, land modification and habitat loss.

But until we have a better understanding of how threats interact, a pragmatic course of action is to limit those impacts that are currently harming the most species.

By ensuring that major threats that occur today (overexploitation, agriculture and so on) do not compromise ecosystems tomorrow, we can help to ameliorate the challenges presented by impending climate change.

Getting it right

Overexploitation and agriculture demand a variety of conservation approaches. Traditional approaches, such as well-placed protected areas and the enforcement of hunting, logging and fishing regulations, remain the strongest defence against the ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers.

Achieving a truly effective protected area network is impossible, however, when governments insist on relegating protected areas to “residual” places – those with least promise for commercial uses.

Reducing impacts from overexploitation of forests and fish is also futile unless industries that employ clearfell logging and illegal fishing vessels transition to more environmentally sustainable practices.

Just as critical as traditional approaches are incentives for hunters, fishers and farmers to conserve threatened species outside designated conservation areas.

Australia’s Leadbeater’s possum remains threatened by logging.
Greens MPs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

For nations like Australia, our study shows there is a growing mismatch in environmental policy and the outcomes for biodiversity. Environmental programs such as the once well-funded National Reserve System Strategy and Biodiversity Fund were important in that they helped conserve wildlife on private and public land, and were fundamental to defeating the biggest, prevailing threats to Australia’s biodiversity. But these programs either do not exist anymore or have little funding to support them at state and federal levels.

On top of this, land-clearing – without doubt one of the largest threats to biodiversity across the country – is on the increase because laws have been repealed across the country. Any benefits accrued by previous good environmental programs are being eroded.

If we are to seriously tackle the largest threats to biodiversity in Australia, we need to recognise the biggest threats. This means efforts to reduce threats from agriculture and overexploitation of forests and fish must include durable environmental regulation.

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This article was co-authored by Thomas Brooks, head of science and knowledge at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Sean Maxwell is a PhD candidate, The University of Queensland; James Watson is Associate professor, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller is Associate professor, The University of Queensland. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Can we use genetic engineering to save species? Should we?

Dense deciduous forest, Delaware State Forest. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli/FLICKR

Dense deciduous forest, Delaware State Forest. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli/FLICKR


By Greg Breining, Ensia 
September, 2015

The regal American chestnut once reached across the deciduous forests of the Appalachians and Eastern Seaboard. Its abundance was astonishing: Up to one in four of every large tree in eastern forests was a chestnut.

Birds nested in its branches. Squirrels and other small mammals clambered over its limbs. Bears, deer, turkeys, blue jays and squirrels ate its massive and consistent nut crop. Rural people gathered the nuts and logged the trees for their straight-grained, rot-resistant timber. The American chestnut was king of the eastern forest, a keystone species for humans and nature alike.

Then, probably in 1876, the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica escaped from a shipment of chestnut seeds from Japan. The fungus spread to American chestnuts, which — unlike their Asian counterparts that had co-evolved with the fungus — had no resistance. Within 50 years, the blight killed more than 3 billion American chestnuts. Except for saplings that periodically sprouted from diseased stumps and then died back, the chestnut had effectively disappeared from North American forests.

Beginning in the 1920s, government researchers tried crossing survivors with Asian chestnuts to produce disease-resistant trees that in all other ways resembled American chestnuts. Their efforts failed to yield a tree that both resisted disease and thrived in American forests. Later, the American Chestnut Foundation labored for decades to produce such a hybrid.

But in the 1990s, biologist William Powell tried a different approach. Powell used a bacterium to insert the genes for disease resistance into the American chestnut genome. In other words, Powell created a genetically modified organism that resembled an American chestnut in every way except that it resisted the chestnut blight as well as any Asian tree.

Scientists — still a minority — are beginning to wonder if genetic engineering can be used to help organisms adapt to change and actually increase the biodiversity of the planet.“I think if we can’t get this tree deregulated and out in a restoration program, you’re not going to get any genetically engineered tree out,” says Powell, co-director with forest geneticist Charles Maynard of the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Program at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “You can’t argue a better tree.”

Antithesis of Green?

To some, GMOs are the antithesis of green. Greenpeace calls them “genetic pollution,” warning on its website that “GMOs should not be released into the environment since there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health.”

But scientists — still a minority — are beginning to wonder if genetic engineering can be used to help organisms adapt to change and actually increase the biodiversity of the planet.

“I think it really isn’t on the radar screen of the conservation community at all,” says Kent Redford, former lead scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and now head of Archipelago Consulting. Redford organized one of the first conferences, in Cambridge, England, in 2013, to consider the gnarly intersection of genetic engineering, nature and conservation.

“The conservation community has the potential to be tremendously affected by the activities of synthetic biology.” – Kent Redford “I saw a need for this meeting because this field is offering enormous potential in a whole different set of human endeavors,” says Redford. “And the conservation community has the potential to be tremendously affected by the activities of synthetic biology. And yet we as a field are very often the last ones to learn about new innovations in society. I got tired of always being in the group that never knew about the latest thing.”

Later that year in the scientific journal Nature, a half dozen scientists from several universities suggested that “facilitated adaptation” might be used in “rescuing a target population or species by endowing it with adaptive alleles, or gene variants, using genetic engineering.”

C. Josh Donlan, one of the authors of the Nature paper and executive director of the nonprofit foundation Advanced Conservation Strategies, compares the strategy with proposals to help species survive climate change by moving them to a new location. “Obviously that’s controversial. … If you’re going to put a novel species in a new environment, what are the unexpected ecological consequences that could have?” Perhaps, he says, it’s safer to use genetic engineering to help the organism adapt in place. “Instead of move the animal, move the genes to the species.”

“Our techniques and our abilities to modify genomes is just becoming more precise,” he says. “Instead of back-breeding or other, clunkier techniques, now we have the ability to modify genomes in a very precise way.”

Think about it: Producing a white pine immune to blister rust or North American ash trees impervious to emerald ash borer. Engineering corals to thrive in more acidic waters. Inoculating frogs with a gene to protect against chytrid fungus. Creating a genetic based pesticide that kills only a single invasive species.

This ability to look to unrelated species for solutions is one of the advantages of genetic engineering over traditional crossbreeding.Or restoring the American chestnut, which once cast tall shadows across the eastern United States.

Speedy Breeding

In trying to engineer blight resistance in chestnuts, Powell realized the fungus created fatal cankers by the production of oxalic acid. So he looked for a gene that detoxified the acid. It turns out the gene is widespread in nature. But he didn’t find it in an Asian breed of chestnut; he found it in wheat.

This ability to look to unrelated species for solutions is one of the advantages of genetic engineering over traditional crossbreeding. “We can actually go a little further afield looking for resistance genes,” says Powell. “In breeding you’re basically limited to species that you can either cross naturally or force to cross.”

Another advantage: speed. Other researchers spent decades crossing American and Asian chestnuts to acquire resistance, then had to backcross the hybrids with American chestnuts to re-acquire traits of the American chestnut that had been lost.

Powell and colleagues, on the other hand, were able to insert the gene for resistance and leave the rest of the American chestnut genome alone. “We don’t have to carry a lot of baggage,” says Powell. “We’re being very precise with what we’re adding in.”

Powell has produced several candidate varieties with all of the genetics of American chestnut and even better resistance to chestnut blight than Asian species. Now all he needs is time — perhaps lots of it — to navigate the federal regulatory process. Powell and colleagues will have to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and the Food and Drug Administration. APHIS, for example, treats genetically modified plants as potential pests and “regulates the import, handling, interstate movement, and release into the environment of regulated organisms that are products of biotechnology.”

“All three of those agencies will have some part of the regulatory puzzle before we can pass these trees out to the general public,” says Powell.

The regulatory gauntlet affecting GMOs began shortly after the first laboratory genetic modifications more than 40 years ago. Genetic engineering had hardly been imagined, much less studied. “So they started setting up a lot of regulations so we didn’t make any mistakes,” says Powell. “But that was 40 years ago, and there’s been a lot of research since then.” Public apprehension has made it difficult to loosen regulation of GMOs, he says.

“I don’t think the people who made those rules were actually thinking of chestnut. I’ve got a feeling that this is going to force them to rethink this whole process,” says Powell. “I’m hoping we can get through it in about five years. I’ve got 10 years till my retirement.”

A section of tree showing the serpentine galleries of the emerald ash borer larvae. Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

A section of tree showing the serpentine galleries of the emerald ash borer larvae. Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

No Panacea

Meanwhile, other trees are waiting in the wings.

The emerald ash borer, an Asian beetle first detected in Michigan in 2002, has spread to 21 other states and Canada, threatening to vanquish native ash species in the wild. Paula Pijut, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and Purdue University, has been developing a process to engineer ash tree species to express a protein from a strain of Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural insecticide commonly known as Bt.

“I think we have made some great advances in a short amount of time,” Pijut says. “I would hope in the next four to five years we could say we have emerald ash borer–resistant material for planting purposes. We are getting really close.”

Even so, as Pijut writes in a recent paper, while genetic engineering holds huge promise against emerald ash borer, it’s “no panacea because of regulatory limitations.”

Regulations on genetic engineering combine with restrictions built into green forest certification programs to stymie rapid and innovative use of GMO trees to adapt to climate change and introduced pests, says Steven Strauss, professor of forest biotechnology at Oregon State University.

“No one can really use GMOs now because the regulations are very difficult and because we have these green certification systems,” Strauss says. “Pretty much everywhere in the world, if you’re green certified, they won’t let you plant them, even for research.”

The Forest Stewardship Council, one group that sets standards for forest certification, currently prohibits the use of GMOs in certified forests. “I think the precautionary principle underlies many of the concerns,” says Brad Kahn, communications director with FSC’s U.S. office. “In the absence of conclusive evidence that GMOs will not cause negative impacts on forests, the membership has decided they should not be used in the FSC system.”

A better regulatory approach, says Strauss, would be to give agencies the ability to fast-track approval in response to a forest pest or other evolving threat. He also suggests that forest certifiers rethink their GMO policies.

Strauss himself experiments with GMO poplars, primarily for use in plantations. By engineering such trees to be more productive, he says, researchers can help conserve natural forests by reducing demand for wood products they produce. About 5 percent of the world’s forests are planted in plantations, which supply about one-third of all industrial wood. “By being efficient and productive in a limited area, you really can reduce the area you need to harvest industrial wood,” says Strauss. “This is one more technology for that.”

Genetic engineering would also allow the creation of a productive but sterile commercial tree that produces wood products but won’t jump into nearby natural forests because it can’t reproduce. Says Strauss, “I consider that a very valuable conservation tool, because again you can get the productivity and the stress tolerance you want without worrying about the spread into wild areas.”

“We should be able to use these powerful tools without these extraordinary delays. But we can’t. And it’s a travesty.” – Steven StraussStrauss is science advisor to the Forest Health Initiative, a collaborative biotechnology group that includes Powell’s chestnut research. The group hopes to smooth the regulatory pathway for approval of other GMO trees to resist pests such as Dutch elm disease and hemlock woolly adelgid.

“From a conservation point of view, it’s forest health that really matters — both industrial and natural,” Strauss says. “We should be able to use these powerful tools without these extraordinary delays. But we can’t. And it’s a travesty. The world has been so set against it now for about 15 years that you almost have to restart the conversation. You know, re-open our minds. It’s quite a challenge.”

Ousting Invasives

One of the most visible proponents of biotech solutions to conservation has been the Long Now Foundation, founded by Stewart Brand, the technologist and environmental forward-thinker who famously wrote in the opening pages of the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

This past spring, in a two-day workshop in Sausalito, California, Long Now (under the rubric of its Revive & Restore program) invited 52 molecular biologists, conservation biologists, veterinarians and other specialists to brainstorm biotech solutions to environmental problems.

To reduce the need for pesticides that can harm nontarget species as well as their intended target, researchers are investigating options for genetically modifying mosquitoes. Among the methods are RNA inhibitors — molecules that bind to and disable key worker molecules within cells — to eradicate invasive species that disrupt ecosystems and crowd out native species. “If you bind to the right ones you will stop a cellular process from happening and kill the cell,” says Ben Novak, a researcher at Revive & Restore. “The cool thing about this is you can design these RNAis to match specific codes.” So, for example, RNAi might be engineered to bond to the RNA of invasive Argentine ants — but only Argentine ants. The RNAi could then be sprayed like an insecticide that kills only a single invasive species. “If it works, it could be revolutionary, a game changer,” says Novak. Workshop participants suggested that a similar approach might be used to weaken the fungus responsible for the currently fatal white-nose syndrome in bats.

To reduce the need for pesticides that can harm nontarget species as well as their intended target, researchers are investigating options for genetically modifying mosquitoes to suppress populations that carry diseases such as dengue and chikungunya. Release into the wild of male mosquitoes with this modification (a procedure known as “release of insects carrying a dominant lethal,” or RIDL) would allow them to breed with unmodified females, producing nonviable offspring. By flooding an area with RIDL males (a twist on the decades-old sterile-male approach to pest management) authorities could ensure that nearly all attempts at reproduction produce … nothing. The FDA is considering giving approval to release RIDL mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. The method is also being discussed as a way to kill exotic mosquitoes in Hawaii that carry avian malaria, which is killing native forest birds, particularly honeycreepers.

The ability to engineer an end to an invasive species raises a question, however: Should we?But that could be only the beginning. A RIDL-type approach might also be used to confer a gene in mice so that all offspring are male. Swamping invasive mice, on an island for example, with hordes of modified mice would eventually extinguish the population. “When their life spans are done, the invasive rodents are gone.” says Novak.

The ability to engineer an end to an invasive species raises a question, however: Should we? A zebra mussel engineered to rid the pest in the U.S. might find its way back aboard ship to southern Russia where it would wipe out the species in its native range. Moreover, just because a species is nonnative and invasive, is that a good reason to eradicate it? Some have proven useful over time, both economically and environmentally, or have established themselves so thoroughly in an ecosystem that to remove them could release a cascade of unintended consequences for native species. Without an adequate regulatory framework for the use of genetic modification to rout invasive species, Australian environmental scientist Bruce Webber and colleagues wrote in a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “this putative silver bullet technology could become a global conservation threat.”

Black footed ferret. Photo by Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Black-footed ferret. Photo by Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Biodiversity Boosters

Revive & Restore is also proposing genetic engineering to actually boost biodiversity.

Black-footed ferrets, once common in America’s Great Plains, were believed to be extinct due to attempts to eradicate prairie dogs and to sylvatic plague — until 1981, that is, when a Wyoming farm dog brought one home. A population of about 120 was discovered nearby. In 1987, two dozen were captured. Six died, but the remaining 18 entered a captive breeding program. Captive-bred ferrets eventually replenished the natural population.

There was one problem, however: The tiny number of participants in the captive breeding program meant low genetic diversity among the offspring — a condition that reduces resilience and could lead to future populations being threatened. So Revive & Restore is considering the use of genetic engineering to introduce traits using genetic material gleaned from museum specimens more than a century old. The organization is also exploring biotech creation of genetic resistance to the plague, which devastates both ferret populations and the colonies of prairie dogs on which they feed.

Other species that have been listed as possible candidates for genetic engineering as a way to boost foundering populations include the Hawaiian crow, Arabian oryx, Attwater’s prairie chicken, golden lion tamarin, crested ibis, cheetah, northern white rhino, Yangtze giant softshell turtle, wombat and Tasmanian devil.

One of Revive & Restore’s most extraordinary biodiversity-boosting projects is the use of genetic engineering to restore the long-extinct passenger pigeon — or something a lot like it. The foundation calls it “de-extinction.”

Samples of toe-pad tissues from museum specimens (the pigeon went extinct in 1914) have yielded about 85 to 90 percent of the bird’s genome. “That’s as good as we’re going to get,” says Novak, the lead researcher on the project. He and colleagues have matched the DNA fragments to the genome of the closely related band-tailed pigeon.

Trying to genetically engineer all the differences between the passenger pigeon and the band-tailed pigeon would require — at least for now — an impossible amount of work. So instead, Novak will look for the important genetically coded differences between the species. “It might come down to that there are only five or six major traits that matter,” says Novak. “There’s no point engineering things that do nothing.”

Objections to the enterprise include arguments that the engineered bird won’t be a real passenger pigeon, the world doesn’t need a pigeon that flocks by the hundred of millions, or Revive & Restore is messing with Mother Nature.Revive & Restore plans to inject engineered germ cells into band-tailed pigeon embryos. Offspring will contain both band-tailed and passenger pigeon genes. “You breed enough babies and eventually one of them is going to be the cross between the engineered sperm and the engineered egg and you have your engineered bird,” Novak says.

Objections to the enterprise include arguments that the engineered bird won’t be a real passenger pigeon, the world doesn’t need a pigeon that flocks by the hundred of millions, or Revive & Restore is messing with Mother Nature.

“Why bring about a genetically modified band-tailed pigeon that looks somewhat like a passenger pigeon? I really can’t think of a good reason,” David Blockstein, senior scientist for the National Council for Science and the Environment, wrote in an essay for the Center for Citizens and Nature. “Certainly from the perspective of biodiversity and ecological integrity it is difficult to imagine why a pseudo–passenger pigeon is better than none. The ecological niche of the passenger pigeon is as gone as the bird.”

“There are people who feel that no matter what we do, this is going to be a horrible distraction, a horrible mistake, and they’re completely against it,” Novak says.

But, says Novak, the point is not to create a “still frame from the past.” It’s really about using genetic engineering to promote something more functional. Those “somethings” might include extinct aurochs, Tasmanian tigers and even woolly mammoths.

Re-creating replicas of departed species “is about trying to facilitate the management of whole ecosystems by recognizing the many different ecological roles that an ecosystem needs to function and trying to get those functions back,” says Novak. “That’s the motivation for bringing back a passenger pigeon or a mammoth or any other type of extinct animal. We’re not really after the animal itself. We’re after the role that it plays in the environment.”

For now, GMO approaches to boosting conservation remain in the laboratory. But someday soon, conservationists still fighting a rear-guard strategy against species loss will find it necessary to decide what to do about applying this technology — which juxtaposes perhaps their greatest hopes with perhaps their greatest fears — to solve some of their most challenging problems. It will be an interesting call.View Ensia homepage

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Greg Breining writes about science, nature, and travel for the New York Times, Audubon and many other publications. He has written more than a dozen books on topics ranging from the Yellowstone super volcano to kayaking around Lake Superior. He is a principal of Breeze Communication Arts, an American writing and design firm. Visit his web site here.


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Human survival in danger zone, study confirms

© Deborah Jones 2014

© Deborah Jones 2014

By James Dyke, University of Southampton
January 16, 2015

The Earth’s climate has always changed. All species eventually become extinct. But a new study has brought into sharp relief the fact that humans have, in the context of geological timescales, produced near instantaneous planetary-scale disruption. We are sowing the seeds of havoc on the Earth, it suggests, and the time is fast approaching when we will reap this harvest.

This in the year that the UN climate change circus will pitch its tents in Paris. December’s Conference of the Parties will be the first time individual nations submit their proposals for their carbon emission reduction targets. Sparks are sure to fly.

The research, published in the journal Science, should focus the minds of delegates and their nations as it lays out in authoritative fashion how far we are driving the climate and other vital Earth systems beyond any safe operating space. The paper, headed by Will Steffen of the Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre, concludes that our industrialised civilisation is driving a number of key planetary processes into areas of high risk.

It argues climate change along with “biodiversity integrity” should be recognised as core elements of the Earth system. These are two of nine planetary boundaries that we must remain within if we are to avoid undermining the biophysical systems our species depends upon.

The original planetary boundaries were conceived in 2009 by a team lead by Johan Rockstrom, also of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Together with his co-authors, Rockstrom produced a list of nine human-driven changes to the Earth’s system: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, alteration of nitrogen and phosphorus cycling, freshwater consumption, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol and chemical pollution. Each of these nine, if driven hard enough, could alter the planet to the point where it becomes a much less hospitable place on which to live.

The past 11,000 years have seen a remarkably stable climate. The name given to this most recent geological epoch is the Holocene. It is perhaps no coincidence that human civilisation emerged during this period of stability. What is certain is that our civilisation is in very important ways dependent on the Earth system remaining within or at least approximately near Holocene conditions.

This is why Rockstrom and co looked at human impacts in these nine different areas. They wanted to consider the risk of humans bringing about the end of the Holocene. Some would argue that we have already entered a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – which recognises that Homo sapiens have become a planet-altering species. But the planetary boundaries concepts doesn’t just attempt to quantify human impacts. It seeks to understand how they may affect human welfare now, and in the future.

It’s been a stable 11,000 years. Steffen et al

The 2009 paper proved to be very influential, but it also attracted a fair amount of criticism. For example, it has been argued that some of the boundaries are not in fact global in scale. There are very large regional variations in consumption of freshwater and phosphorus fertiliser pollution, for instance.

Phosphorous pollution in croplands. Steffen et al

That means that while globally we may be in the green, there could be an increasing number of regions that are deep in the red.

The latest research develops the methodology so that it now includes regional evaluations. For example it assesses basin-level freshwater use and biome-level species extinction rates. It also includes a new boundary of “novel entities” – new forms of life and novel compounds the likes of which the Earth system has not experienced and so impact of which is extremely challenging to assess. Ozone-depleting CFCs are perhaps the best example of how a seemingly inert substance can produce planetary damage.

Tree cover remaining in the world’s major forest biomes. Steffen et al

The paper also gives an update on where we stand on some of the planetary boundaries. At first sight, it looks as though there may be some good news in that climate change is no longer in the red. But then closer inspection reveals that a new yellow “zone of uncertainty with increasing risk” has been added to the previous green and red classification.

2/9ths into the red. Steffen et al

Climate change impacts are firmly within this new yellow zone. Our atmosphere currently has about 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. To recover back to the green zone we still need to get back to 350ppm – the same precautionary boundary as before.

Perhaps most importantly the research produces a two-tier hierarchy in which climate change and biosphere integrity are recognised as the core planetary boundaries through which the others operate. This makes sense: life and climate are the main columns buttressing our continual existence within the Holocene. Weakening them risks amplifying other stresses on other boundaries.

And so to the very bad news. Given the importance of biodiversity to the functioning of the Earth’s climate and the other planetary boundaries, it is with real dismay that this study adds yet more evidence to the already burgeoning pile that concludes we appear to be doing our best to destroy it as fast as we possibly can.

Extinction rates are very hard to measure but the background rate – the rate at which species would be lost in the absence of human impacts – is something like ten a year per million species. Current extinction rates are anywhere between 100 to 1000 times higher than that. We are possibly in the middle of one of the great mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth.

The ConversationCreative Commons

RackMultipart20131130-12778-xrbfmkJames Dyke is a specialist in Complex Systems Simulation at the University of Southampton.

His web site is here.


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








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The Animal “Kingdom of the Dead”

The last photo of J32, right, taken on Nov. 29 just before her death.  © Melisa Pinnow, Orca Network

Far right is the young female whale nicknamed “Rhapsody” or  “J32.” It is likely the last photo of her, taken in the Salish Sea on Nov. 29, just before her death. © Melisa Pinnow, Orca Network

By Deborah Jones
December, 2014

In early December a young, pregnant and dead whale was found near Vancouver Island off Western Canada. Her carcass was towed from the water and left on shore to await the researchers who would perform her necropsy. Soon afterward, under the cover of night, somebody visited her body, hacked at her jaw, and took away several of her teeth.

Orcas are a kind of dolphin, but due to their impressive size and smarts, close family bonds, ferocity, and black-and-white haute couture pelts, people view them as superstars, animal celebrities in league with pandas and polar bears and elephants. We know them as Killer Whales, Blackfish, Grampus, Wolves of the Sea, and also by the fantastical label Orcinus Orca, the taxonomical name given them in 1758 by Carolus Linnaeus, which refers, bizarrely, to “kingdom of the dead.” Orcas feature worldwide in our sea lore, from ancient myths to modern movies and news. And so, when the researchers arrived and reported the mutilation of the whale corpse in Canada, massive media coverage ensued.

The desecration added insult to the injury of the death of the 18-year-old whale, dubbed “J32” by scientists and nicknamed “Rhapsody” by the general public. “It’s just a senseless, illegal act,” Paul Cottrell of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans told the Canadian Press. It is illegal in Canada to possess parts of endangered animals, though charges are rare and the maximum penalty of $250,000 and/or five years in jail is almost unheard of. “It’s a crime against science; it’s a crime against her and the respect to Rapsody,” Marcie Callewaert of the Victoria Marine Science Association told reporters

The violation of the corpse seized public attention, for a while.

But if the swift passage of all previous stories about orcas is any guide, all that attention will soon fade, and the story of Rhapsody will be just another old news story. This is partly because it’s easy to summon interest and outrage over a thief in the night who plunders a corpse. It’s more difficult to parse the complicated factors that caused Rhapsody’s death in the first place. And it’s downright tough to summon sustained outrage when all of the evidence in her death, and the grim fate of her kind, points to actions by almost each and every human as a perpetrator.

Rhapsody/J32 was one of the last few fertile females in a group known as Southern Residents, a distinct and unusual population of orcas that is officially endangered, even as other orca populations thrive. Southern Orcas are called “urban whales,” because they roam the populous coastline between northern California to the Haida Gwaii islands off British Columbia.  Rhapsody was the fourth Southern Resident whale known to have died in 2014. Just 77 of her kind are left in the world. 

Orcinus orca skeleton displayed at the Senckenberg Museum, Frankfurt, Germany. Creative Commons

Orcinus orca skeleton displayed at the Senckenberg Museum, Frankfurt, Germany. Creative Commons

Early reports from the necropsy said the prime cause of Rhapsody’s death was infection that set in when she  failed to expell her dead calf. She was also starving. “J32’s blubber layer was relatively thin and dry of oil is consistent with inadequate diet for an extended period, and there was very little fecal material in the intestines,” reported Kenneth Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in Washington State. “The cause of death was a result of in utero fetal loss with secondary bacterial involvement,” Canada’s fisheries department reported on December 16. Samples of the corpse were sent for further analysis to eight labs throughout North America.

Scientists suspect those lab tests will be consistent with other findings over at least two decades: whales like Rhapsody are not only malnourished, their poisoned bodies contain record-high levels of toxins including polychlorinated biphenyls and flame retardants, which make them more susceptible to disease and reproductive and neurological problems. Domestic and industrial waste, from cosmetics and cleaners flushed down toilets to paint poured into drains and landfills that leach into the ground, end up in the oceans, and in the whales who are the top predators within the  food web. The toxins are stored in their fat — and in times when food is scarce and they use those fat stores, the poison threatens not only their ability to reproduce, but their survival. As Balcomb wrote in his necropsy report, “These pollutants are released to circulate in the bloodstream when the whales’ blubber fats are metabolized for energy when fresh food is scarce. It is like having a freezer full of tainted and freezer-burned food that you never have to eat unless there is nothing in the grocery store. When nothing else is available the bad stuff is taken out of storage and circulated for body needs.”

Southern Resident whales thrived for untold thousands of years eating only salmon, noted Howard Garrett of the Center for Whale Research in an interview. Today they face competition from human fishing, and decreases in fish populations, for reasons linked to human destruction of inland spawning streams, pollution of the oceans, and changes in ocean temperature and acidity linked with climate change. Research also shows  noise pollution, from shipping traffic to whale watching boats, causes them to move more and eat less.

Southern Resident whales have been unable to change their ways fast enough to deal with the challenges posed by people — not least because if they were teenage humans, they’d likely be diagnosed with eating disorders. “They’re picky about what they eat,” notes Garrett. Orca populations elsewhere in the world have learned to survive by being omnivores, devouring sea lions, seals, birds, and all manner of fish. Southern Residents, research shows, eat only a very few kinds of fish, and they insist on a diet that’s mostly Chinook salmon — a species that is also in crisis.

Southern Residents also suffer the lasting effects of early hunting by European newcomers to the Pacific Northwest, and the 20th Century capture of their young for commercial aquariums for in live trained-animal shows.

Certainly controversial killer whale shows in places like Florida’s Sea World (investigated in the 2013 documentary Blackfishhelped elevate orcas to their superstar status. They also receive massive attention in periodic news stories, such as the tales of two orphans, Springer in 2002 and Luna in 2006. But all this attention has done no more to save  orcas like Rhapsody than it has helped to slow pandas and polar bears and elephants on their own slides toward extinction.

And that brings us to the fact that Rhapsody’s story is one small part of a far bigger saga: the Sixth Great Extinction in the history of the world. 

Caption: African elephant (Loxodonta africana), nyala (Tragelaphus angasii), and warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) gathering at a waterhole at Tembe Elephant Park, which is a protected area part of the Maputaland Pondoland Albany global biodiversity hotspot. Photo by Enrico Di Minin for Nature, © 2014

African elephant (Loxodonta africana), nyala (Tragelaphus angasii), and warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) gathering at a waterhole at Tembe Elephant Park, which is a protected area part of the Maputaland Pondoland Albany global biodiversity hotspot. Photo by Enrico Di Minin for Nature, © 2014

“The sixth great extinction spasm of geological time is upon us, grace of mankind,” wrote Wrote biologist E.O. Wilson in his landmark 1992 book The Diversity of Life. “Earth has at last acquired a force that can break the crucible of biodiversity. The creation of that diversity came slow and hard: 3 billion years of evolution to start the profusion of animals that occupy the seas, another 350 million years to assemble the rain forests in which half or more of the species on earth now live ….   Species are disappearing at an accelerating rate through human action, primarily habitat destruction but also pollution and the introduction of exotic species into residual natural environments. I have said that a fifth or more of the species of plants and animals could vanish or be doomed to early extinction by the year 2020 unless better efforts are made to save them.”

Was Wilson correct, 22 years ago?

“Population sizes of vertebrate species—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—have declined by 52 percent over the last 40 years,” said the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2014. “In other words, those populations around the globe have dropped by more than half in fewer than two human generations. At the same time, our own demands on nature are unsustainable and increasing. We need 1.5 Earths to regenerate the natural resources we currently use; we cut trees faster than they mature, harvest more fish than oceans replenish, and emit more carbon into the atmosphere than forests and oceans can absorb.”

In November the science journal Nature attempted to summarize the overall damage. “Among the groups that can be assessed, amphibians stand out as the most imperilled: 41% face the threat of extinction, in part because of devastating epidemics caused by chytrid fungi,” wrote Richard Monastersky.” Large fractions of mammals and birds face significant threats because of habitat loss and degradation, as well as activities such as hunting.”  There are many unanswered questions, he added. “The effects of climate change, which are hard to forecast in terms of pace and pattern, will probably accelerate extinctions in as-yet unknown ways … At the upper rate, thousands of species are disappearing each year. If that trend continues, it could lead to a mass extinction — defined as a loss of 75% of species — over the next few centuries.”

Not all of the news is as devastating. On December 19, the journal Science published a landmark finding that re-wilding appears to be working in Europe, where large carnivores are coming back from the brink. Populations of brown bears, Eurasian lynx, gray wolves, and/or wolverines are stable or increasing in one-third of European countries. “The reasons for this overall conservation success include protective legislation, supportive public opinion, and a variety of practices making coexistence between large carnivores and people possible,” said the report. “The European situation reveals that large carnivores and people can share the same landscape.”

And even the authors of the most dire predictions hold out hope. Their catch: the fate of other creatures depends on humans being willing to change. “All is not lost,” insisted the WWF 2014 report.  “We can still change course.”

“Why should we care? What difference does it make if some species are extinguished, if even half of all the species on earth disappear?” asked E.O. Wilson in his book. This is how he answered those questions:

New sources of scientific information will be lost. Vast potential biological wealth will be destroyed. Still undeveloped medicines, crops, pharmaceuticals, timber fibers, pulp, soil-restoring vegetation, petroleum substitutes, and other products and amenities will never come to light. It is fashionable in some quarters to wave aside the small and obscure, the bugs and weeds, forgetting that an obscure moth from Latin America saved Australia’s pastureland from overgrowth by cactus, that the rosy periwinkle provided the cure for Hodgkin’s disease and childhood lymphocytic leukemia, that the bark of the Pacific yew offers hope for victims of ovarian and breast cancer, that a chemical from the saliva of leeches dissolves blood clots during surgery, and so on down a roster already grown long and illustrious despite the limited research addressed to it…

It is easy to overlook the services that conserved ecosystems provide humanity. They enrich the soil and create the very air we breathe. Without these amenities, the remaining tenure on Earth of the human race would be nasty and brief. The life-sustaining matrix is built of green plants with legions of microorganisms and mostly small, obscure animals—in other words, weeds and bugs. Such organisms support the world with efficiency because they are so diverse, allowing them to divide labor and swarm over every square meter of the earth’s surface. They run the world precisely as we would wish it to be run, because humanity evolved within living communities and our bodily functions are finely adjusted to the idiosyncratic environment already created. Mother Earth, lately called Gaia, is no more than the commonality of organisms and the physical environment they maintain with each passing moment, an environment that will destabilize and turn lethal if the organisms are disturbed too much. A near infinity of other mother planets can be envisioned, each with its own fauna and flora, all producing physical environments uncongenial to human life. To disregard the diversity of life is to risk catapulting ourselves into an alien environment. We will have become like the pilot whales that inexplicably beach themselves on New England shores.

If there is hope for life on earth in general, it may already be too late for some species that have been hard-hit, or unable to adapt fast enough to the changes wrought by humans. There are 4,529 species of mammal, bird, and amphibian now at risk of extinction, according to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature

Will Orcas like Rhapsody be amongst the creatures we drive to extinction? In 2002, when I last reported on the Southern Resident orca population, their population was 78, one more than today. At that time a research biolgist at the Vancouver Aquarium told me, “they may be a dead-end deal.”

 Copyright Deborah Jones 2014




c35-Orcas perform at SeaWorld in Florida. © Greg Locke.jpgc38-Photo of L120 September 21, © Cindy Sapp, Orca Networkl.jpgc97-Jeff K. Jacobsen:Humboldt State university.jpegchapron8HR.jpgLynx.jpgWolves.jpgWEB_257770 (1).jpgWEB_333692.jpg


Further reading:

The Diversity of Life, by E.O. Wilson http://eowilsonfoundation.org/the-diversity-of-life/

The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, Henry Holt and Company, 2014

Living Planet Report 2014, World Wildlife Fund: http://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2014?utm_campaign=living-planet&utm_content=lpr&utm_medium=camp&utm_source=shortcut

J32 Necropsy results, Center for Whale Research in Washington State

Science journal:  Success for Large Carnivores? (subscription required)

Biodiversity: Life — a Status Report, Nature

Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  

Site of the movie Blackfish



Please help sustain our independent, non-partisan and professional journalism by buying a $1 day pass or subscription to Facts and Opinions. An online journal of first-rate reporting and analysis, without borders, F&O is employee-owned, does not carry advertising, and is funded entirely by readers. Click here to purchase a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95 per month to $19.95 annually. Subscribe by email using the form on the right to our free FRONTLINES blog.

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Week in Review

Gavin's Mexican windmills

Windmills near Juchitan de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Gavin Kennedy © Copyright 2013

 New work on Facts and Opinions, and random observations from the week past:

In Think, Commentary, Natural Security columnist Chris Wood writes of ecosystems as life-support systems in We’re All In This Together, a perspective that challenges the outdated biological understanding that underpins Western individualism. “That splendid, solitary, neurotically cultivated and over-examined individual of pop cultural celebrity, of too many moody novels, of philosophy, and more recently of Darwinian economic ideology, turns out to be just another of those enterprises’ many fantasies,” writes Wood. “In reality, we are not individuals, we are collectives.”

 Also in Commentary,  International affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe focuses this week on disturbing developments in two ancient realms that have repercussions for the rest of the world. Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has, with his very political survival at risk, reversed his previous positions on both the contentious role of the military in Turkey, and his dealings with Islamists directed by a leader living in the United States, and who now appear bent on vengeance. Of China, Manthorpe writes ominously, “The hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War is hardly upon us and the air is already thick with speculation it might happen again.”

A new report in Dispatches, Money, shines a light on the intersection of big business and the reality of institutionalized care for our elders in most Western countries. The story of one American assisted-living facility in Oregon touched by violence and neglect is sad, but not particularly unique, writes ProPublica’s A.C. Thompson. “Page through the regulatory records and court files of any state and one will come across such horror stories. The history of the facility itself reflects a larger reality of the assisted living business. Hundreds of such facilities — some exemplary, some deeply troubled — change hands each year, many of them scooped up by the large chains that have come to dominate this swiftly expanding industry.”

Elsewhere, findings of one opinion poll, by Gallup, suggest that a bright New Year dawned in most of the world with people feeling more optimistic – and holding some rather strong opinions on other things as well. The poll suggests:

  • Despite a year of economic difficulty, almost 50% of people surveyed are more positive about 2014 than they were for 2013;
  • The United States, Canada and Australia are the countries where most people would like to live if they could;
  • The United States is considered to be the greatest threat to peace in the world, followed by Pakistan and China;
  • More than a third of those surveyed believe the world would be a better place if there were more female politicians.

F&O reserves our opinion about the issues targeted by Gallup — but we do have one prediction: Energy in all of its myriad and complicated forms, with all of its many repercussions, will be the issue that dominates world affairs in the New Year. We pledge to give it the attention it deserves, starting with the theme of a new slide show by F&O photographers, now up on our home page.

Thanks for being with us as F&O sees in our very first New Year  – at least according to the Gregorian calendar – and to one and all, we wish a Happy 2014.

– Deborah Jones   

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