The O’Reilly Animals
A lot of smart people are working against time, using new technologies to save endangered animals and their habitats. This is where we share their stories, highlight opportunities for developers and makers to lend a hand, and, as we’re able, connect people to the resources and expertise they need.
Click on an animal to learn more
We’re talking plankton. Yep, plankton.
Bet most of you don’t know much about plankton, but you probably should, since they contribute substantially to the oxygen you breathe, among other essential planet-supporting activities. Now there’s a fun, mind-expanding way to learn about these exceptionally hard-working organisms—and help scientists collect data about the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans.
In mid-September, Zooniverse launched a project to crowd-source identification of plankton from photographic images captured at various locations around the globe. By identifying the numbers, sizes, and types of plankton found in these areas, scientists can analyze where and when plankton occur at different depths in the ocean; this information is a key to understanding the health of the oceans’ ecosystems.
Photographers with new tools and technologies document reefs worldwide
In the 1960s and 70s, the TV documentary series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau brought the magnificence of the oceans to millions of viewers. Cousteau, a French researcher, explorer, and filmmaker involved in oceanography since the 1940s, quickly became a cultural icon and a leading voice in the environmental movement.
Today, you don’t have to watch a TV documentary to see the undersea landscapes Jacques Cousteau spent his life documenting: thanks to the Catlin Seaview Survey, everyone can now conduct their own virtual tours of coral reefs, right on their laptops.According to the Survey’s website, 40-50% of corals have been lost over the last 50 years due to pollution, overfishing, and climate change. And this decline is likely to continue, which is a critical issue for millions of people who rely on the reefs for food, coastal protection, and tourism dollars.
The Catlin Seaview Survey, launched in September 2012 on the Great Barrier Reef, aims “to scientifically record the world’s coral reefs and reveal them all in high-resolution, 360-degree panoramic vision.” The image data collected by the survey will enable change to be monitored over time, enabling scientists, policymakers, and the general public to see and understand what’s happening to the reefs, which may spur more action to restore and protect reefs worldwide. The images clearly show the difference between active, healthy reefs and reefs that have suffered severe decline. Read more…
On Kickstarter: Beautiful Photographs of Habitat Restoration
In the early 1900s, thousands of acres of Kenyan forest were cleared for the production of monoculture crops of tea and the eucalyptus used to dry it. Now some of that habitat is being restored by the Ecological Restoration Alliance, a group of botanic gardens from the US, UK, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea, China, Australia, and Jordan. Their goal is to restore 100 damaged and degraded habitats across 6 continents in 20 years. The places they’re targeting include tropical forests, prairies, wild places within cities, wetlands, and coastal sites — ecosystems that are threatened and no longer able to sustain people’s livelihoods or to support biodiversity.
The Alliance’s approach includes restoring wild areas, protecting restored habitats, and creating socioeconomic benefits for local communities. And it’s an approach that works. In just 12 years, restoration of the upland forest in Kenya has transformed a eucalyptus plantation into a thriving forest with over 150 bird species, a wide range of mammals, and hundreds of rare and endangered tree species. Read more…
“The [Xerces] butterfly had been presumed extinct for years when, in 1941, two young entomologists happened upon a small number of Xerces near a creek in San Francisco’s Presidio. Ecstatic to see the butterfly still alive, they netted and killed large numbers of specimens to trade with their friends. It was the last time the butterfly was ever seen.”
Typically, butterfly species have been decimated by habitat loss or fragmentation, and invasive species; the Xerces butterfly was the first American butterfly known to be wiped out by humans. There have been many such missteps in our history, it turns out.
Jon Mooallem, a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, has written a book that should be required reading for everyone who gives one whit about endangered species. Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America takes the reader into the field with endangered polar bears, butterflies, and birds—and the well-intentioned people trying to save them. It’s an illuminating, sometimes alarming trip through history and culture, with stories of our apparently inherent desire to conquer and acquire wildlife (collecting specimens either living or dead), as well as our erratic and sometimes misguided attempts to preserve it. Read more…
Douglas Adams’ expeditions to find endangered species
Yes, that Douglas Adams, writer, humorist, dramatist, and author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Last Chance to See, by Adams and Mark Carwardine, is the story of a series of expeditions the two men took in 1989:
- Mark Carwardine: “We put a big map of the world on a wall, Douglas stuck a pin in everywhere he fancied going, I stuck a pin in where all the endangered animals were, and we made a journey out of every place that had two pins.”
The result was a radio series for BBC Radio 4 (you can listen to the radio series on the BBC’s “Last Chance to See” website) and the book, about which the Atlantic Monthly wrote, “Who would have thought that a book in the field of “ecology/nature”…could be as lively, sharply satirical, brilliantly written and even funny as this one is?…ranks with the best set pieces in Mark Twain.”
Douglas Adams passed away in 2001. In 2009, Mark Carwardine and Adams’ close friend Stephen Fry went back to the places Adams and Carwardine had visited 20 years earlier. Carwardine and Fry blogged throughout the project, Carwardine with written posts and Fry with video. Their expeditions were documented by the BBC and released as a TV series (now available on DVD) and a book, both entitled Last Chance to See. Highly recommended.
A Smart Solution to an Age-Old Problem
One of the challenges for endangered species that live in the Arabian desert is access to fresh water. A case in point: the Arabian oryx, a member of the Bovidae family native to the Arabian Desert.
At one time, Arabian oryx were plentiful in the desert region extending across the Arabian peninsula. They were hunted to extinction in the wild by 1973, although a number of oryx remained in private collections and zoos. Since 1963, captive breeding programs in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates have worked to restore the species. Oryx bred in captivity and maintained in preserves and private collections are slowly being reintroduced into the desert. The IUCN estimates there are now more than 1000 Arabian oryx in the wild, with 6000-7000 held in captivity worldwide in zoos, preserves, and private collections.
Maintaining these rare animals in the desert requires providing them with access to fresh water. Unfortunately, the ground water beneath the Arabian desert has a high salt content; there is little fresh water naturally available. Read more…
Three Practical Challenges: Help the Elephant Listening Project Save What They Can’t See
Most people are aware of Asian elephants and the African elephants of the savannahs. A third variant on the largest land mammal on earth walks the rainforests of Central Africa, mostly out of sight and out of mind. The forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is so poorly known that efforts at designing effective conservation strategies are greatly hampered, yet these are the only elephants left on earth that enjoy a mostly free and unconstrained existence. They make their home in closed-canopy forests where most of the standard tools for studying animals are ineffective. We desperately need to find ways to leverage the incredible advances in engineering and software that define human activities today to help this amazing animal survive.
In recent decades, human threats to forest elephants have escalated at rates that, if unchecked, will push them to extinction before our generation has passed. From an estimated 1 million animals when the Phoenicians first ventured down the west coast of the African continent, they are now reduced to 100,000; last year alone about 12,000 were slaughtered for their ivory.
But how does one study an animal that we only directly observe when it comes to a forest clearing a few times each year? Additional challenges are posed because we can’t catch these three-ton beasts, and it’s dangerous to be on the ground with them.
The Elephant Listening Project (ELP), at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been tackling these problems through sound, eavesdropping on the communication system of forest elephants to track some basic aspects of their biology. To save the elephants, we need a quantum advance in our understanding of their biology, which requires both tracking individuals and moving data efficiently out of the forest to analysis hubs or the cloud. In addition, we also need to find ways to excite and engage young people living in elephant countries, perhaps by getting them directly involved with the biodiversity of their forests. Read more…