In the universe of endangered species, there is a blind spot. These are the organisms called “data deficient,” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whose Red List is the gold standard for tracking the fate of species. In more colloquial terms, the phrase means “We don’t know what the heck is going on.”
This is not a small oversight. All told, there are more than 20,000 such species, nearly 14% of all Red List organisms. There’s Savage’s earth snake, a slender brown creature found in Costa Rica. There’s Retrophyllum piresii, aBrazilian conifer with fern-like leaves. There’s the humpnose unicornfish, the southern Honduran spiny-tailed iguana, the Central American red brocket (a kind of small deer), and on, and on.
Behind this “data deficient” label is a bigger story about a lack of basic information about lots of species: how many there are, where they are found, and whether their numbers are declining. Being stuck in this data-free limbo means it’s easier for species to be overlooked by environmentalists, policymakers and the general public, even if they are on the verge of disappearing.
It also highlights the challenge scientists face to collect enough information about these species to figure out what’s happening to them. Too many species, too few scientists.
Now, geneticists hope to help tackle the problem by harnessing the burgeoning library of genetic data about species, the increasing ease with which we can decipher entire animal genomes and the growing computer power available to make sense of it all.
Michigan officials recently took six birds off of the states’ endangered and threatened species list. But it added seven other species.
The last time the list was updated was in 2009. Among the species that newly receive threatened status are the Eastern whip-poor-will, evening grosbeak, golden-winged warbler, Northern goshawk, spruce grouse and upland sandpiper.
Plans to repopulate Hawaii’s forests with its “very intelligent” crows have been upended in part by its natural predator, the Hawaiian hawk. Now scientists are tracking the hawk in order to save the corvids.
Pandas. Polar bears. Mountain lions. All areexamples of what ecologists call “charismatic megafauna,” a term for critters that spark squeals of delight at the zoo and grace the glossy brochures of conservation groups.
But less charming critters are in crisis, too. Climate change and habitat loss are pushing hundreds of slimy reptiles, scrawny birds and scaly fish to the brink of extinction, imperiling entire ecosystems that depend on them.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act aims to address that threat. One goal of the bipartisan bill, recently reintroduced by Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), is to aid “uncharismatic” species so they can avoid being listed under the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law credited with saving the bald eagle, America’s national emblem.
The findings clearly illustrate that biology shouldn’t be the primary factor in shaping conservation policy, says cultural anthropologist Victoria Reyes-García. When a culture dwindles, the species that are important to that culture are also under threat. To be effective, more conservation efforts need to consider the vulnerability of both the species and the people that have historically cared for them, she says.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine launched in February 2022 has sent economic, social and political shock waves around the world. In a newly published policy brief, we and other researchers and conservation scientists describe how these effects extend to biodiversity conservation efforts far beyond Ukraine.
Animals, plants and ecosystems don’t recognize political boundaries, so protecting them often requires international cooperation. Over many decades, countries have developed a network of international agreements and arrangements for protecting biodiversity. Now, however, the war at Russia’s hands is delaying a number of those efforts, stopping others, and even sending some into reverse.
Russia’s treeless tundra, in the high Arctic, is the summer home of countless birds that arrive from as far as Africa, southern Asia, Australasia and even South America. Among them is the tiny spoon-billed sandpiper, which weighs in at about 1 ounce (28 grams).
These petite birds nest in the Russian Far East and migrate during the Northern Hemisphere winter to Southeast Asia. Owing to hunting and habitat loss, fewer than 600 of the birds remain.
Since 2012, a multinational team of researchers and conservationists has been conducting a “headstart” breeding program that collects spoon-billed sandpiper eggs from the wild, incubates them and raises chicks in a custom-built aviary on the Russian tundra. This strategy protects chicks from predators, giving them a better chance to reach maturity and reproduce.
Restrictions on international travel to and from Russia have halted this program, which is vital to the sandpiper’s survival, by preventing collaborators from traveling to the site from abroad. Russia has also been suspended from the SWIFT interbank system – the main system that powers secure international fund transfers between financial institutions around the world. This has blocked transfers of much-needed international funds for on-the-ground conservation work.
The Russian invasion is also delaying the potential for conserving critical habitats. For example, important wetlands along China’s coastline that are part of the spoon-billed sandpiper’s migration route have been designated as World Heritage Sites. There is a proposal to expand habitat protection under the World Heritage Convention to other areas along the migratory route, which is also vital for other bird species.
At the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia chaired the United Nations committee that oversees the designation of new sites. Other countries that are signatories to the World Heritage Convention boycotted the process, refusing to operate either in Russia or under Russia’s leadership. Russia has since resigned as the committee chair, but the site designation process has been delayed for over a year.
Russia’s vast lands and waters
Russia has the largest surface area of any country in the world, covering more than 6.6 million square miles (17 million square kilometers). This sheer expanse makes Russia a vital place for biodiversity.
In terms of ecosystems, Russia has the world’s largest and most well-preserved forests. They provide vital habitats for many species and contain enormous stores of carbon, so protecting them has global implications for addressing climate change. Farther north, about half of the Arctic Ocean’s coastline, including locations that have experienced relatively little human impact, lies within Russia.
Now Russia’s diplomatic isolation is hampering work under multilateral arrangements like the Arctic Council, which includes the eight countries with Arctic territory and a half-dozen regional Indigenous organizations. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the council has halted its operations, although it aims to resume some on a limited scale that excludes Russia. The Arctic Council has a working group on biodiversity conservation, including specific initiatives to conserve migratory birds.
Russia also has been an important participant in transnational collaborative research on wildlife and biodiversity issues. For example, to conserve migratory animals, researchers need to understand their movements. This makes it possible to identify and protect the animals’ key habitats.
Icarus, a collaborative research initiative for understanding animal migration, has relied on data sharing by Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. This partnership has now been suspended, leaving Icarus in search of an alternative solution.
The war in Ukraine has also created an imperative for countries to prioritize some issues over biodiversity conservation. For example, Russian attacks on Ukrainian farms and related infrastructure, and Russian naval blockades of grain exports, have contributed to global food shortages. In response, the European Union has sought to increase agricultural output by rolling back some of its biodiversity-friendly farming policies.
For as long as the war in Ukraine lasts, we believe it is imperative for other countries to increase their efforts to strengthen and expand the international system for biodiversity conservation in the rest of the world. In our view, this should happen even as governments rightly assist Ukraine’s valiant efforts to regain full control over all of its territory, including its wetlands, forests and other important habitats currently occupied by Russian forces.
A federal agency has officially given the Chicago Rockford International Airport the greenlight to restart construction on a $50 million expansion that is expected to bring new business and jobs to the city. Construction could resume as soon as Thursday.
But a conservation group is moving quickly to block the bulldozers. Activists want to put off a project they say threatens prized prairie habitat and is a home of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee.
The fight over an 8,000-year-old remnant prairie in the middle of one of the country’s largest cargo airports has unfolded over the past two years and put the spotlight on Illinois’ dwindling prairie ecosystems.
Insects play crucial roles in almost every ecosystem — they pollinate more than 80% of plants and are a major source of food for thousands of vertebrate species — but insect populations are collapsing around the globe, and they continue to be overlooked by conservation efforts. Protected areas can safeguard threatened species but only if these threatened species actually live within the areas we protect. A new study found that 76% of insect species are not adequately covered by protected areas.
New research provides rare evidence that natural hybridization can reduce the risk of extinction of species threatened by climate change. Researchers have identified genes that enable Rainbowfish to adapt to climate variations across the Australia using environmental models to work out how much evolution will likely be required for populations to keep pace with future climate change.
Frances C. Moore, Arianna Stokes, Marc N. Conte, and Xiaoli Dong (2022). “Noah’s Ark in a Warming World: Climate Change, Biodiversity Loss, and Public Adaptation Costs in the United States.” Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists 9(5), 981-1015. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/716662 [open access]
Abstract: Climate change poses a growing threat to biodiversity, but the welfare consequences of these changes are not well understood. Here we analyze data on the US Endangered Species Act and project increases in species listing and spending due to climate change. We show that higher endangerment is strongly associated with the probability of listing but also find a large bias toward vertebrate species for both listing and spending. Unmitigated warming would cause the listing of an additional 690 species and committed spending of $21 billion by 2100. Several thousand more species would be critically imperiled by climate change but remain unlisted. Finally, we compare ESA spending with estimates of willingness to pay for conservation of 36 listed species. Aggregate WTP is larger than ESA spending for the vast majority of species even using conservative assumptions and typically one to two orders of magnitude larger than direct ESA spending using less restrictive assumptions. Dataverse data:https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/2FDEFO
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