The Best and Brightest Compete to Stop Illegal Wildlife Traffic
Wildlife trafficking is pushing many animals closer to extinction, threatening the livelihoods of people who rely on ecotourism, and is responsible for the deaths of more than 1,000 rangers in the last decade. It’s not just elephants, rhinos, and tigers: worldwide consumer demand has pushed market prices for all kinds of animals and animal parts to record levels for exotic pets, trophies, luxury items and souvenirs, religious and cultural items, food, and traditional medicines.
This year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in conjunction with the U.S. Global Development Lab, National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC created an incentive for science and tech communities to develop new and innovative ways to combat wildlife trafficking. The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge is hoping to find new and innovative solutions for four main issues:
- Understanding and shutting down trafficking routes
- Improving forensic tools and data gathering to build strong criminal cases
- Reducing consumer demand for illegal wildlife products
- Combatting corruption along the illegal wildlife supply chain
By the end of the year, the Challenge will award prize packages of $10,000 plus technical assistance, networking support, and recognition to further the proposed solutions. Prize winners will also have the chance to win a Grand Prize of $500,000. Read more…
Birders channel Audubon, with keystrokes instead of brushstrokes
Forget the stereotype of introverted birders with binoculars perpetually around their necks and floppy hats crowning their heads. Instead, think of serious naturalists and ornithologists in the spirit of John James Audubon in the 21st century. Today amateur and professional birders around the world are using eBird.com to record their findings and observations in a database that is being used by researchers and conservation organizations to better understand biodiversity and support the global biodiversity information community.
Birds are far more than a beautiful addition to our natural world. They are critical links to the ecosystem as agents of dispersal, biological controls, and perhaps most importantly, bio-indicators.
eBird was launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, “on behalf of the birding community to provide a rich and rapidly growing database of bird sightings worldwide.” In the eBird mobile app, they note: “Many birders use eBird to keep track of their life lists, share their sightings with other birders, and keep their records safely backed-up. Scientists use these observations to explore patterns of bird distribution and abundance, and to better conserve birds and biodiversity.” Read more…
From 2008 until his death last week, Cecil wore a satellite-tracked radio collar. David Macdonald and Andy Loveridge of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of Oxford University monitored Cecil’s movements and got an intimate look at what it’s like to be a male lion in the wild.
They’ve just published a history of Cecil’s life from the time he was first collared in 2008. According to Andy Loveridge, “…lion society makes ‘Game of Thrones’ look tame…” (And the story of how Cecil and his pal Jericho became allies rivals just about any plot written by Shakespeare.) Read more…
For decades, researchers have been trying to figure out how birds identify and reject the eggs that other birds, known as “brood parasites,” sometimes sneak into their nests. These rogue birds don’t build their own nests, they “dump and drive”—they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which then may incubate and raise the imposter chicks, often at the expense of their own.
The brood parasite species include cuckoos, cowbirds, black-headed ducks, indigobirds, whydahs, and honeyguides.
This evolutionary battle between host species and brood parasites goes beyond just dropping eggs off in a random nest to hatch and mature. The imposter eggs that most closely mimic the host eggs are more likely to endure, so brood parasites learn which species’ nests to impose on. And, over time, as it turns out, host species learn to identify imposter eggs, which they then reject. So the brood parasites start producing eggs that look even more like the host species’ eggs. And so on. Read more…
The Sierra Nevada red fox is one of the rarest mammals in North America: until recently they hadn’t been spotted in Yosemite National Park for nearly 100 years. They used to be plentiful in the region, but hunting and habitat destruction from logging, livestock grazing, and off-road vehicles have cut their population to fewer than 50 individuals. Climate change is also affecting the foxes’ habitat, forcing them farther up into the mountains. Fewer Sierra Nevada foxes mean that their genetic diversity is limited, which may have grave implications for the species’ survival.
The Yosemite Conservancy is funding a study to determine the occurrence and distribution of rare carnivores in the park. Good news: Biologists have announced that in the past two months there have been two sightings of one (or two) Sierra Nevada foxes in the northern part of Yosemite, caught on remote cameras in the back country. (It’s unclear if the cameras have caught two images of the same Sierra Nevada fox or one image each of different foxes.)
Near the remote cameras, the park’s biologists have set up hair snare stations in an effort to collect hair samples for genetic analysis. A few Sierra Nevada foxes have been seen north of the park, in the Sonora Pass area, over the past few years, and the biologists want to determine if the fox(es) spotted in Yosemite are related genetically to the Sonora Pass foxes. The more the merrier: more foxes = a more diverse gene pool, which may help the Sierra Nevada red fox stage a real comeback.
Apparently birds—in this case, golden-winged warblers—know big storms are headed their way several days before the storms actually arrive. According to a story in the UC Berkeley News Center, a research team led by a UC Berkeley ecologist discovered that warblers in the mountains of eastern Tennessee fled their breeding grounds one to two days ahead of the arrival of devastating supercell storms in April 2014. The storms spawned dozens of tornados, killing more than 30 people.
The discovery was accidental: the golden-winged warblers were part of a migration study, and were being tracked by miniature GPS devices attached to their backs. The scientists knew that birds can change their route to avoid weather disruptions during regular migration, but had no idea they’d leave their established breeding territory to avoid severe weather.
The birds fled the scene when the storm was about 300 miles away—even before the air pressure dropped and the winds picked up. And they went some distance: according to the study, the warblers flew over 900 miles as they avoided the weather system. They returned to their breeding grounds just after the storm passed. Read more…