Camera-trap study provides photographic evidence of pumas’ ecological impact

Read the full story from the University of Illinois.

A camera-trap study of two ecosystems – one with pumas and one without – adds to scientists’ understanding of the many ways apex predators influence the abundance, diversity and habits of other animals, including smaller carnivores.

Reported in the journal Ecosphere, the study followed multiple members of the order Carnivora, looking at how the largest carnivore in each locale influenced the behavior and presence of other animals in the same vicinity.

Climate change presents a mismatch for songbirds’ breeding season

Read the full story from the University of California Davis.

Climate change presents a mismatch for some breeding songbirds, finds a new study using a decade of nestbox data.

Whales could be a valuable carbon sink, say scientists

Read the full story at Cell Press.

Nature-based solutions to fight climate change take a holistic approach that promotes biodiversity and ecosystem preservation. While many efforts have focused on planting trees or restoring wetlands, researchers now also advocate for the importance of understanding the carbon sequestration potential of the planet’s largest animals — whales. Researchers explore how these marine giants can influence the amount of carbon in our air and waters and potentially contribute to the overall reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

How universities deal with crocodiles or coyotes on campus

Read the full story in Discover.

College campuses can be wild places. But occasionally, the term can be applied pretty literally at institutions of higher learning — like when it refers to animals that find themselves in people-trafficked places. 

Whether it’s a wandering moose or roving packs of wild boar, some universities in the U.S. must work to ensure that humans are aware and respectful of wild animals. That way, they can hopefully avoid incidents where coeds and critters collide.  

Fish kills may result from low water in backwaters of the Mississippi

Read the full story from WVIK.

Low water levels on the Upper Mississippi River in the Quad Cities area may affect fish this winter and next year.

What birds can tell us about conservation

Read the full story from the Nature Conservancy.

Volunteers are critical contributors to The Nature Conservancy’s conservation work. They help build and maintain trails. They work to identify and remove invasive plants. They are community scientists who count migrating fish. They range from students to retirees to Chapter trustees.

And then there’s Dave Courtemanch. Since retiring from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (MDEP) in 2012, Courtemanch has been an extraordinary volunteer with TNC Maine. His work is so important and consistent that he is recognized as a full-time staff member and holds a title: Freshwater Science and Policy Specialist. It’s no surprise, then, that Courtemanch has been instrumental in applying an exciting new approach to monitoring the effects of conservation strategies—a “biological condition gradient.”

Extinctions, shrinking habitat spur ‘rewilding’ in cities

Read the full story from the Associated Press.

Animal and plant species are dying off at an alarming rate, with up to 1 million threatened with extinction, according to a 2019 United Nations report. Their plight is stirring calls for “rewilding” places where they thrived until driven out by development, pollution and climate change.

Rewilding generally means reviving natural systems in degraded locations — sometimes with a helping hand. That might mean removing dams, building tunnels to reconnect migration pathways severed by roads, or reintroducing predators such as wolves to help balance ecosystems. But after initial assists, there’s little human involvement.

Weasels, not pandas, should be the poster animal for biodiversity loss

A short-tailed weasel in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Jacob W. Frank, NPS/Flickr

by David Jachowski, Clemson University

At the United Nations biodiversity conference that opens in Montreal on Dec. 7, 2022, nations aim to create a new global framework for transforming humanity’s relationship with nature. The conference logo features a human reaching to embrace a panda – but from an ecological perspective, a weasel or badger would be a more appropriate choice.

Graphic of a girl reaching to embrace a panda
Logo for the COP 15 conference in Montreal, which was delayed from its original 2020 date due to COVID-19. Convention on Biological Diversity, CC BY-ND

Large mammals with widespread appeal, also known as charismatic megafauna, often represent the highest achievement in biodiversity protection. As the logic goes, saving the tiger, polar bear, wolf or lion means saving an entire ecosystem, since these species often have large ranges and may sit at the top of food chains.

But research shows that, relatively speaking, many large charismatic species aren’t doing that badly in North America. Wolves are repopulating California, where their last wild ancestor was killed in 1924. Cougars could become reestablished across the Midwest over the next several decades. Black bears have regained much of their range in the eastern U.S, to the point where many states have a bear hunting season. Similar stories are playing out across Europe, where even large carnivores like the lynx and wolverine are recovering.

For small carnivores like weasels, skunks and foxes, it’s a different story. These species and their relatives have equal or greater impacts on the ecosystems they inhabit than larger species like wolves. They even provide benefits for humans by preying on rodents that eat crops and infest our houses. Yet small carnivores are of increasing conservation concern because their populations are declining dramatically in many places.

Many threats but no single cause

While small carnivores don’t typically get as much public attention as larger species, conservation biologists have been trying to arrest their decline for decades.

For example, the black-footed ferret, a member of the same family as weasels and minks, has been on the U.S. endangered species list since the list was created in 1973. As recently as the early 1900s there were thousands of black-footed ferrets across western prairies. Today scientists estimate there are fewer than 400 left in the wild.

Two ferrets with black feet and eye masks, one peeking out of a pipe
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is breeding black-footed ferrets in captivity in northern Colorado. Restoring the endangered ferret is considered a key step in reviving prairie ecosystems. Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Recent evidence suggests that even the most common and widespread small carnivores are in decline. A 2005 study estimated that eastern spotted skunks, which are rarely seen today but historically occurred across much of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, had declined in number by 90% over the preceding 50 years.

I led an effort in 2021 to determine the status of the most widespread of small carnivores in North America – weasels. We found range-wide decreases dating back to the 1960s that paralleled the decline of spotted skunks.

Scientists have a very poor understanding of what has caused losses of weasels and most other small carnivores. We suspect that many stresses may be involved, including changing farming practices, diseases and new carnivores like house cats, domestic dogs, raccoons and striped skunks that follow human development and outcompete or eat native small carnivores.

What we do know is that North America is not unique. Small carnivores are declining globally at an alarming rate. A 2021 review suggests that over the past couple of decades over half of all small carnivores have declined in number, and a quarter are at risk of extinction. Proportionally, these are the same levels of decline and endangerment as the better-publicized threats to large carnivores.

Short-legged ecosystem indicators

We also know that compared with larger species, small carnivores have shorter lives and use smaller areas. This allows them to respond quickly to even minor fluctuations in temperature, habitat change and food availability. In my research over the past 23 years, I have learned that these attributes make small carnivores sensitive indicators of even minor shifts in how well their ecosystems work.

A prime example comes from the Channel Islands off the coast of California, home to the diminutive island fox, a species found nowhere else on earth. In the late 1990s land and wildlife managers noticed a decline in island foxes, which coincided with the decline of bald eagles and arrival of golden eagles on the islands. Golden eagles preyed on the foxes, as well as on non-native wild pigs. At one point the fox population was reduced to fewer than 100 individuals.

Saving California’s island foxes required reconstructing an ecosystem that human actions had drastically altered.

Restoring island foxes was a complex initiative that involved reintroducing bald eagles – which prey on fish, not mammals – to the islands to chase off golden eagles; eradicating introduced pigs, which served as food for the golden eagles and altered the vegetation where the foxes sheltered; restoring shrubs and grasses; and breeding foxes in captivity, then releasing them. This effort is one of the most prominent examples of biologists intervening to reverse a species’ slide toward extinction.

More broadly, the island fox story shows that small carnivores can provide unique insight into the structure of ecosystems, because they are at the centers of food webs. Look at the diet of a fox or weasel and you have a great snapshot of how many species are present in that ecosystem.

Losing small carnivores can change ecosystems. Many small carnivores typically prey on small seed-eating rodents like mice and gophers. This reduces rodent impacts on plants and farm crops. It also helps to reduce the spread of tick-borne diseases, since small rodents can serve as hosts for infected ticks.

For these reasons, I and other ecologists argue that it makes sense to use small carnivores as barometers of ecosystem health. This would mean replacing polar bears with weasels as global warming poster animals, and keying in on ocelots rather than jaguars to understand how rainforest destruction is affecting wildlife.

While lions and polar bears are important, I believe ferrets, weasels and foxes deserve the same kind of protection and are a more precise tool for measuring how ecosystems are responding to a rapidly changing world.

David Jachowski, Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Clemson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To save nature, focus on populations, not species

Read the full story from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Human-released greenhouse gasses are causing the world to warm, and with that warming comes increasing stress for many of the planet’s plants and animals. That stress is so great that many scientists believe we are currently in the midst of the ‘sixth extinction,’ when entire species are disappearing up to 10,000 times faster than before the industrial era. However, scientists have been uncertain which ecosystems, and which species, are most at risk.

New research shows that the focus on species-level risk obscures a wide variability in temperature tolerance, even within the same species, and that this variability is greater for marine species than terrestrial ones. The findings have immediate implications for management and conservation practices and offer a window of hope in the effort to adapt to a rapidly warming world.

Can solar power provide more than clean energy?

Read the full story from Argonne National Laboratory.

Climate change contributed to many deadly and costly disasters in recent years. As the U.S. looks to combat climate change, solar energy is increasingly seen as a large part of the answer. However, ground-mounted solar facilities occupy large areas of land. What will that land and soil be like after 30 or more years of use for generating clean power?

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory are partnering with collaborators from other national laboratories and state, academic and private institutions to examine that question. DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office recently selected Argonne to lead a new project to better understand the changes that will occur in soils. The team will study what happens when past harmful practices such as pesticide use and annual tilling are stopped, the land under and around solar panels is allowed to rest and, in some cases, is planted with native grasses and wildflowers. The project is a part of the Deploying Solar with Wildlife and Ecosystem Services Benefits (SolWEB) funding program.