Scientists who discover or rediscover species should sometimes leave specimens where they find them.

Link to article – Scientists who discover or rediscover species should sometimes leave specimens where they find them..

A Kerfuffle Over Species Collection

Scientists should be careful about taking specimens of newly discovered and rediscovered species.

Great Auk.
Collectors helped drive the great auk to extinction.

Painting by John James Audubon/University of Pittsburgh

Arecent New York Times article reported that up to 18,000 species around the globe are discovered by scientists every year. That flashy number comes from the International Institute for Species Exploration, a taxonomic effort run out of the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. It’s a rough estimate and probably a generous one, but it’s nevertheless true that scientists document thousands of new species annually—as well as many species thought to be extinct but recently rediscovered.

Newly discovered and rediscovered species are a bright spot in the murky gloom of the extinction crisis. They’re also a reminder of the scrappy resilience of animal and plant life on Earth, even as tropical forests yield to oil palm plantations, the sea and land are stripped of profitable species, and the climate changes.

These scores of discovered and rediscovered species, though, obviously need to be identified and distinguished from animals and plants already catalogued. How is this done? The traditional method is to collect a “voucher” specimen from the field—i.e., taking a bird, fish, frog, insect, plant, etc., back to the lab to describe its taxonomic characters. Typically the specimen is then deposited in a natural history collection, where it’s pinned, pickled, and preserved for later scientific reference and study.

But what if it turns out that the new or rediscovered species exists only in a small and isolated population—that is, one very vulnerable to human impact? Even more likely, what if we just don’t know how many individuals of the species there are in the wild when a specimen is taken?

A recent case from New Guinea provides a good illustration of this challenge. In 2012, Australian researchers working in New Guinea collected dozens of small bats from a handful of known species. Among the specimens taken was a female bat that they could not identify in the field. It was deposited in the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, where it sat (presumably very quietly) for a couple of years.

This spring an Australian museum researcher requested the specimen and was able to determine that it was, in fact, a New Guinea big-eared bat, a species last observed in the late 19th century and long presumed lost. Despite its happy return from the (apparent) dead, scientists have no idea how many individuals of the species currently exist in the wild.

Cases like the New Guinea big-eared bat reveal a conundrum at the heart of scientific methodology regarding the description of new species or rediscovered species that may exist in small numbers and thus are highly vulnerable to human pressure—including scientific study. The population of the big-eared bat may indeed turn out to be large enough so that collecting one female (or several) doesn’t make the species more vulnerable to extinction. But the point is that we can’t know for sure, and so collecting a specimen in these cases could unintentionally increase the extinction risk to the species. When the population is small and vulnerable enough, every individual matters.

Should, then, scientists take specimens in these cases—when there is uncertainty about population size yet good reason to believe that it may be very small? Should they take this risk?

I don’t think they should. In a recent paper published in Science, I and my co-authors James P. Collins, Karen E. Love, and Robert Puschendorf argue that methodological traditions in field biology and taxonomy encouraging the collection of voucher specimens to confirm a species’ existence can indeed magnify and combine with other forms of extinction risk for small populations of rare and vulnerable species.

Although specimen collection norms are deeply ingrained in many scientific communities, there are now alternative methods of documentation, including high-resolution photography (even with a smartphone), audio recording (if the organism has a call), and noninvasive DNA sampling (for instance, via skin swabbing). The voucher specimen should, we argue, no longer be viewed as the “gold standard” in species description, especially given the power and availability of these alternative technologies and means of description. When used together, these techniques can provide a very effective, nonlethal method for identifying new or rediscovered species.

Our paper has kicked a hornet’s nest. More than 120 academic and museum scientists on six continents apparently took great offense to our proposal, as evidenced by the strongly worded letter they sent to Science (published, with our reply, in the May 23 issue). The authors doubled down on the necessity of the voucher specimen in taxonomic description and vigorously defended natural history museums from what they took to be an anti-scientific assault on their value.

But—and this should be clear from our original paper—the focus of our concern is the special case of collecting specimens from vulnerable populations (especially when we don’t have a reliable estimate of their size). In other words, and despite what our critics suggest, we aren’t advocating the banning of all forms of specimen collection. To say that would have been hypocritical—two of my co-authors (Collins and Puschendorf) have and continue to collect research specimens. And we certainly have no animus toward natural history museums. In fact, we admire them and appreciate the work they do for science and education—and for conservation.

But cases like the rediscovered New Guinea big-eared bat should remind us of the sensitivity of small wildlife populations, and of our own uncertainty about population estimates in the field. Historical examples, too, such as the great auk, the Mexican elf owl (endemic to Socorro Island, Mexico), and the Ozark cavefish (all of which were pressured to some degree by scientific and amateur collectors in addition to other threats), further underscore the high stakes of taking individuals from small populations in the wild.

No scientist or conservationist today would deny the importance and value of describing a new species or confirming the return of one thought lost to extinction. But scientists also have a powerful ethical responsibility to minimize any and all adverse ecological impacts of their work. That holds true even for (and perhaps especially for) vital research to authenticate a species’ existence—or to verify its welcome reappearance in the wild.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

World ‘on the verge of next mass extinction’: Humans have caused extinction rates to increase by up to 10,000 times – Nature – Environment – The Independent

Link to article – World ‘on the verge of next mass extinction’: Humans have caused extinction rates to increase by up to 10,000 times – Nature – Environment – The Independent.

World ‘on the verge of next mass extinction’: Humans have caused extinction rates to increase by up to 10,000 times


Humanity is responsible for speeding up the natural rate of extinction for animal and plant species by up to 10,000 times, as the planet is on the brink of a dinosaur-scale sixth mass extinction, a new study has warned.

Species are disappearing around 10 times faster than is widely believed in the scientific community, while in pre-human times extinction rates were slower than previously thought, researchers from Duke University in the US said.

“We are on the verge of the sixth extinction,” lead author, biologist Stuart Pimm, said. “Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions.”

Praised by independent experts as a landmark report, it focuses around calculating a “death rate” of how many species become extinct each year out of 1 million species.

Analysing the latest research, the team concluded that the pre-human extinction rate was 0.1 per year per 1 million, rather than 1 per 1 million, as a previous study led by Dr Pimm in 1995 suggested.

Today, the rate is at least 1,000 times greater than the 0.1 figure at 100 extinctions per year per million species, but could be up to 1000 per 1 million, Dr Pimm said.

Although a combination of numerous factors is responsible for the acceleration in disappearance of species, the biggest is habitat loss caused by humans, Dr Pimm and co-author Clinton Jenkins from the Institute of Ecological Research in Brazil said.

Other major issues are invasive species introduced by humans crowding out native species, climate change affecting where species can survive and overfishing.

A good example is the buffy-tufted-ear marmoset Dr Jenkins said development in Brazil has decimated its habitat while a competing marmoset has taken over where it lives.

The oceanic white-tip shark used to be one of the most abundant predators on Earth, but they have been hunted so much they are now rarely seen, added Dalhousie University marine biologist Boris Worm, who praised the study. “If we don’t do anything, this will go the way of the dinosaurs.”

Other species at great risk include the Sumatran rhinoceros, Amur leopard and mountain gorilla.

Dr Pimm and Mr Jenkins did however say there is some hope. Both said the use of smartphones and applications such as iNaturalist will help ordinary people and biologists find species in trouble, they said. Once biologists know where endangered species are, they can try to save habitats and use captive breeding and other techniques to save the species, they said.

One success story is the golden lion tamarin. Decades ago the tiny primates were thought to be extinct because of habitat loss, but they were then found in remote parts of Brazil and bred in captivity, and biologists helped set aside new forests for them to live in, Dr Jenkins said.

“Now there are more tamarins than there are places to put them,” he said.

Additional reporting by AP

Plankton: the tiny sentinels of the deep – Peter Brannen – Aeon

Link to article – Plankton: the tiny sentinels of the deep – Peter Brannen – Aeon.

Acid trap

Earth’s oceans are beginning to warm and turn acidic, endangering plankton and the entire marine food chain

Charismatic microfauna; Limacina-helicina, a small, swimming, predatory sea snail. Photo by Alexander Semenov

Charismatic microfauna; Limacina-helicina, a small, swimming, predatory sea snail. Photo by Alexander Semenov

Peter Brannen is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York TimesWired, andThe Guardian, among others. In 2011, he was a journalism fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.


At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, snowdrifts piled up outside shuttered T-shirt shops, and wind and whitecaps lashed vessels tethered to empty piers in the harbour. The flood of sun-tanned tourists and research students that descends on this place in summer was still months away. The only visitor was a winter storm that hung over the coast, making travel in and out of the cedar-shingled town impossible. In a research building downtown, at the end of a dimly lit hallway, Peter Wiebe sat with a stack of yellowed composition notebooks, reliving a lifetime spent on the ocean. Wiebe, a grizzled scientist emeritus, is transcribing his research cruise logs, which go back to 1962. His handwritten notes archive a half-century of twilit cruises in the Antarctic and languorous equatorial days surrounded by marine life.

‘It’s quite clear to me things are changing,’ he told me, after I asked him to think back on his decades on the ocean. ‘As a graduate student on one cruise, my logs talk about a hammerhead and two whitetips following the ship the whole time. On other cruises, we would fish for mahimahi and tuna, and occasionally catch a shark. Now we hardly ever see any big fish or sharks at all.’

Indeed, in oceanography, the big story over the past half century – the span of Wiebe’s career – has been the wholesale removal of the seas’ top predators through overfishing. But the story of the oceans for the coming century may be a revolution that starts from the bottom of the food chain, not the top.

‘I won’t be around to see it,’ Wiebe told me. ‘I wish I were.’

Plankton (taken from the Greek word for wanderer) are the plants, animals and microbes that are unable to overcome the influence of ocean currents, either because they’re too small, like bacteria, or because, as in the case of the indifferent jellyfish, they can’t be bothered. Wiebe’s speciality is zooplankton, the kaleidoscopic, translucent animal world in miniature, much of which feeds on even smaller photosynthetic life called phytoplankton. To make the jump from photosynthesis to fish, birds and whales, you have to go through zooplankton first.

Wiebe is part of a body of researchers worldwide working feverishly to find out how these grazers will be affected by an increasingly unfamiliar ocean, an ocean that absorbs 300,000 Hiroshimas of excess heat every day, and whose surface waters have already become 30 per cent more acidic since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

‘When I first started, the idea that you could actually change the pH of the ocean just wasn’t there – no one expected us to be able to do it,’ Wiebe told me. ‘Certainly, no one expected us to be able to do it at the pace we’re doing it, at a pace that far surpasses anything natural that has ever happened.’

Nowhere on Earth are these changes more apparent than at the poles. Every year, in the Southern Ocean, swirling blue-green eddies of phytoplankton pulse with the seasons. These hurricanes of life are vast enough to be visible from space, but invisible in a handful of water. Pteropods – tiny translucent snails that long ago left the ocean bottom for a life of fluttering through the sea on winged feet – can mow huge patches of these carbon-rich blooms in a day. Along with other zooplankton such as krill, they drive the so-called biological carbon pump.

When zooplankton such as pteropods feast on the bloom, some of it sinks to the deep in a marine snowdrift of poop, half-eaten meals and other webs of protein that gather organic bits and pieces as they fall to the ocean floor. With 300 million tons of carbon shuttled to the deep every year in this manner, it’s a blizzard that can accumulate over time. The White Cliffs of Dover are one such edifice of plankton. And pteropods themselves, which sink like stones when they’re not beating their gossamer wings, can pile up on the sea floor by the billions, forming carbon-rich oozes.

However, just as important as their role in shuttling carbon to the deep is their place in the marine foodweb. Pteropods feed whales, fish and seabirds alike. They are the crucial second step in the transformative process that coverts sunlight into whales.

If they are esoteric to Westerners, pteropods are a bona fide cultural phenomenon elsewhere. In Japan, shell-less pteropods known as sea angels that prey exclusively on sea butterflies (their shelled relatives) frequently wash ashore, borne on currents from the arctic. The Japanese are obsessed with these visitors. Pteropods have inspired two Pokemon characters, a pteropod Hello Kitty, and tiny pteropod figurines that Sapporo occasionally packages along with its beer.

The roiling drama of the planktonic world is a theatre of ambush predators, hermaphrodites and mucus-hurling cannibals

Researchers are also doing their best to glamorise pteropods, in an attempt to garner public attention and funding. They are trying to rebrand pteropods and their ilk as ‘charismatic microfauna’ and with good reason. The roiling drama of the planktonic world is wilder than any savannah or jungle. It is a theatre of ambush predators, hermaphrodites and mucus-hurling cannibals.

If the film March of the Penguins (2005) was marketed on the premise that traditional family values prevail in the animal kingdom, the life cycle of pteropods would seem to represent a rebuttal. Male pteropods mate with each other, and then switch genders while holding onto the sperm, which they use to fertilise themselves. To feed, they cast out giant webs of slime that occasionally ensnare their fellow pteropods, whose innards they promptly suck out. The tiny snails have a softer side as well, with some species tenderly rearing their babies inside their shells. When they’re frightened, they nervously retract their wings, and plummet to the depths. It’s a sound strategy in a world where predators attack from all directions in space, with all manner of sci-fi appendages, including bioluminescent snares.

When they aren’t being hunted, much of the pteropods’ lives are spent dancing in the water column in a lilting flutter. The animals are hypnotising to watch, but it isn’t their ghostly beauty that attracts researchers. It is their alarming vulnerability. In the icy waters of the Antarctic, they are already beginning to dissolve.

In 2008, during an Antarctic research cruise north of the old whaling redoubt of South Georgia Island, the marine biologist Nina Bednaršek began to pull up net tows of the tiny marine snails. As expected, the nets were lined with pteropods, but something was off: their delicate calcium carbonate shells were pitted with holes.

Carbon dioxide reacts with seawater to make carbonic acid. Deep seawater naturally has more carbon dioxide, and less oxygen, simply because it is old. It has been breathed for centuries by everything alive in the ocean without remixing with oxygen from the surface. These frigid depths are a natural source of acidic water that wells up from time to time. When the water is acidic enough it dissolves calcium carbonate of the sort that makes up pteropod shells.

‘In the Southern Ocean, that usually happens at 750 meters down,’ Bednaršek told me. The depth is important, as Antarctic pteropods typically dive no deeper than 400 meters. ‘But we found the dissolution was starting to happen at 125 to 375 meters.’

The process works the same whether the carbon dioxide is from volcanoes or Volvos

She attributes this rising corrosive horizon to the additional input of anthropogenic carbon dioxide. When more carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere than is removed, the balance not only traps infrared radiation that warms the air, but also makes the ocean more acidic (as the paleontologist Peter Ward likes to say, the process works the same whether the carbon dioxide is from volcanoes or Volvos).

According to some models, by 2050 this rising brew of more acidic water will reach the surface waters of the Antarctic, and calcium carbonate will begin to dissolve throughout much of the Southern Ocean.

‘It’s not a question of if pteropods will be dissolving, or if they will be compromised – it is certain they will be,’ Bednaršek said.

Her colleague Richard Feely at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle says that the dissolution of pteropods and other calcifying plankton could jam the biological carbon pump, a crucial part of the Earth’s living thermoregulatory system.

‘We would expect that it will get more and more difficult for the ocean to take up carbon dioxide the more carbon dioxide we add,’ Feely told me. ‘At this point, it’s still something of an open question, but it’s the foremost question marine scientists are working on now.’

Feely’s own interest is more than academic. From his office in America’s Pacific Northwest, he has watched with mounting alarm as more acidic waters have welled up from the deep ocean. It is the same corrosive water mass that recently wiped out oyster farms in Puget Sound.

The flip side of a more acidic ocean is a warmer one, and this too has consequences that could shake up the food web, beginning at the bottom – and again, the first omens of this phenomenon can be seen in the Antarctic. Though Antarctic sea ice has in fact grown in recent years (perhaps in response to changing weather patterns), the loss of ice cover in previous years has had a devastating effect on krill, the bedrock of the Antarctic ecosystem. Krill feed on the green algae that coats the ceiling of sea ice that floats atop the Southern Ocean. As ice declined in recent decades, krill saw their populations drop by as much as 80 per cent. They’re being replaced by weedier, barrel-shaped jelly animals called salps that thrive in less productive waters. But unlike krill, salps don’t sate the hunger of seals, whales, and penguins.

The effects of warmer water have begun to show up away from the poles. At NOAA’s Narragansett Laboratory in Rhode Island, Feely’s colleague Kevin Friedland has watched wild swings in ocean temperatures wreak havoc on the bottom of the food chain. One of the most ecologically and economically important species of zooplankton in New England is a cold-water shrimp-like crustacean called calanus finmarchicus. It is one of the copepods – a group that rivals krill for comprising the most biomass on planet Earth – and it is the lifeblood of the centuries-old New England fishing industry. It is also a tremendous conveyor of carbon to the deep ocean.

New England saw the warmest sea surface temperatures in its recorded history in 2012 and, as a result, 2013 was a catastrophic year for plankton. At his office in Rhode Island, Friedland showed me a graphic on his computer of the chlorophyll levels in the Northwest Atlantic as captured from space, where different intensities of green marked the success or failure of phytoplankton over the years. Last year’s bloom was a dull brown.

‘There was basically no bloom at all,’ he said.

After the phytoplankton failed to arrive in the spring, so did the grazing copepods, which appeared in their smallest numbers ever. While the extremely warm water of 2012 was likely an aberration that only briefly upset the physical conditions that typically prevail off the coast of New England, a long-term trend is nevertheless unmistakable: the bloom is coming earlier and earlier every year.

‘Fish stocks time their reproduction to the bloom,’ Friedland told me. ‘If the bloom starts moving around – if things are out of synch – that could be problematic.’ It likely already is. Despite drastic cuts to cod quotas in recent years, the fish have failed to rebound in the Gulf of Maine after decades of overfishing.

And the copepods are on the move. Just as warmer water fish have taken up residence in more northern climes – for example, hake in Maine or mackerel in Iceland – in the North Seacalanus finmarchicus is giving ground to a less desirable cousin from warmer water, calanus helgolandicus, whose life cycle is not co‑ordinated with that of local fish, causing chaos for fisheries managers. Zooplankton in the area has shifted its range by 10 degrees latitude northward in recent decades, a migration that moved it some 700 miles closer to the pole.

Warm-water zooplankton is typically smaller than the colder-water zooplankton it replaces. This is because warm water holds less oxygen and is more stratified, meaning nutrients are less likely to cycle to the surface and animals have to do more with less. Being smaller, these animals produce smaller packages of carbon to deliver to the sea floor. It’s possible that this process could limit the efficiency of Earth’s biological carbon pump, setting up a nasty feedback loop in the process.

The loss in productivity in the surface waters will reduce the animals on the ocean’s bottom by a mass equivalent to the entire human population

For the ghoulish creatures that inhabit the frigid depths of the ocean floor, far removed from the tumult taking place at the surface, this reduction of carbon flux could prove devastating. Despite a life spent in perpetual midnight – the sun a half-remembered myth from evolutionary history – these animals still run on the solar power generated miles above, which eventually snows down as consumable organic matter. One study estimates that by century’s end, the loss in productivity in the surface waters will have reduced the animals on the ocean’s bottom by a mass equivalent to the entire human population.

This shift in the carbon cycle is unprecedented in recent history, but something like it might have happened before in the planet’s deep history. James Zachos, an palaeoceanographer at the University of California Santa Cruz, found one such echo in the fossil record by travelling to the Walvis Ridge off the coast of Namibia, where he drilled deep into the Earth and pulled up a series of sediment cores – long chalky tubes made up of thousands of years’ accumulation of marine snow. They all bore the striking signature of an ancient acidifying ocean: an abrupt dark layer of dusky red clay where calcium carbonate had been dissolved away by more acidic water.

Though it happened during a spell that lasted more than 1,000 years – compared with the decades-long time-scale of the modern eruption of carbon dioxide – a curiously gigantic discharge of CO₂ appears in the fossil record coincident with these unusual clay layers 55 million years ago. It is suspected that the carbon came from underwater volcanoes in the North Atlantic that melted frozen methane deposits (methane, itself a greenhouse gas, degrades to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere). This event, the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), sent temperatures soaring and alligators scurrying, up to the balmy northern shores of Canada. In the oceans, up to a half of all single-celled calcium carbonate-secreting animals (called foraminifera) at the ocean’s bottom went extinct. Yet for all this ecological reorganisation, the PETM did not result in any other mass extinctions, which would be comforting, except that some attribute it to the longer timescale involved.

‘The difference between then and now is the rate,’ Zachos told me. And the rate, it turns out, is everything. How quickly carbon dioxide levels spike is much more important than the total volume of carbon released in determining the severity of an acidification episode. ‘In some ways the PETM is sort of the best analogy to today in terms of the rate of carbon emissions, the extent of climate change and the changes in ocean carbonate chemistry’ he said. ‘Having said that, the rates of change back then were about an order of magnitude slower than anthropogenic changes.’

The planet was also rescued, strangely enough, by the beneficent, haunting effect of long-dead plankton. It turns out that even in death, plankton can support life, by providing an emergency brake for a planet careening dangerously out of control. Like today, the surface waters of the PETM absorbed gigatons of carbon dioxide. When the oceans turned over, these more acidic waters eventually reached the bottom, and the corrosive water dissolved the thick seams of dead plankton lying in repose on the sea floor. The result was something like an antacid settling a dyspeptic stomach. The dissolution of the carbonate shells acted as a buffer, balancing the ocean’s pH so that within 100,000 years, the oceans were once again saturated with calcium carbonate.

‘The turnover time of the ocean is about 1,000 years,’ Zachos told me. ‘But most of the anthropogenic CO₂ is accumulating in the upper ocean within 100 years. The ocean can’t mix it fast enough into the deep sea.’ By 2050, Zachos expects the ocean’s pH to drop by the same amount as during the entire PETM. Despite these whiplash changes, Zachos expects that the ocean’s chemistry will be restored eventually, even if it takes more than 100,000 years. But no one knows what will happen in the short term. Perhaps evolution or animal physiology will surprise us, keeping up with the dramatic changes afoot. Or maybe there will be a mass extinction. All anyone knows is that everything is in flux.

At the end of our chat, Peter Wiebe gave me a handful of studies on zooplankton to read and wished me well, eager to get back to his time-worn journals documenting his life on the sea. I brace myself for the cold and stepped back out into the storm. The streets were blanketed in white and the downtown was silent. For the time being, the snow was still falling – above and below the waves.

18 February 2014

The Fish We Never Knew « Bay Nature

Link to article – The Fish We Never Knew « Bay Nature.

The Fish We Never Knew

Looking Extinction in the Eye

by  on April 16, 2014

Illustration by Rachel Diaz-Bastin


nce, not so long ago, there lived a fish in the Galapagos Islands. Its name wasAzurina eupalama, the Galapagos damsel; it was not particularly different from any other small rocky reef fish. “Indistinct,” says California Academy of Sciences ichthyologist Luiz Rocha. “Small, silver. Looks like a sardine.”

In 1982, the strongest El Niño ever recorded created a huge pool of hot water around the Galapagos Islands. And then … no one ever saw the Galapagos damselfish again. No one’s ever missed it enough to mount an expedition to look for it, but it was one of those fish that scientific divers and snorkelers would record as they made their rounds, and it’s been 32 years since anyone has seen one alive. It is presumed extinct, which Rocha says would make it the first marine fish to go extinct while we’ve been watching. It would also, he says, be the first marine fish known to have disappeared because of a change in climate.

Today you can follow Rocha deep into the library-stack bowels of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and on a ceiling-high metal shelf that’s stacked with collecting jars, you can find a five-inch bottle with a nondescript typewritten label that says, “Azurina eupalama.” A blue ribbon tied around the lid tells Rocha that the little guy floating there in ethanol is the “holotype” for this fish, the single individual out of all the individuals in the world that will be forever linked to its Latin name.

This “type specimen” was collected on a Galapagos expedition in 1893 by Stanford biologist Edmund Heller, labeled and stored at Stanford and then assumed into the Academy’s collection in the 1960s. Some species are so common that Rocha is content to just drop their holotypes in the mail for other researchers to examine. With Azurina, he chuckles at the idea. Trusting the mailbox is not the kind of thing you can do when the 100-year-old thing in the bottle becomes irreplaceable.

Rocha twists the lid off and pulls the fish out. Its silver color has faded to yellow. Size and shape-wise, it looks like he’s holding a dinner sardine; you could picture it on toast. Rocha flicks at its pectoral fin to demonstrate the lifelike preservation granted by formalin injection. As we talk, he rests the fish gently on top of the open jar. I stare at the fish. Rocha stares at the fish. Out of an empty, black eye, the fish stares hollowly at the ceiling.

Alas, poor fish, I knew ... well, I never knew you. (Illustration by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)


zurina eupalama, rather manifestly, is not a fish that anyone misses. It does not exude charisma, like the dodo. It does not represent some great tragedy of American hubris, like the passenger pigeon. It is not the target of resurrection schemes, like the mammoth. Somewhat against the odds given everything else we’re doing to the planet, it was not even directly our fault that the Galapagos damselfish disappeared.

And yet: we’re now missing something out there in the world, and this little guy resting on the jar is a formalin-stuffed relic, a symbol of absence, of scarcity, of zero. Ever since Rocha first told me about it, several years ago, it has lodged in my brain, and I find that to examine it and hold it is in some small way to plug into the incomprehensible enormity of the universe. Its unique existence hints at answers, if only I could ask it the right question.

So I start with this one: As the Pacific Ocean heats again into what looks like an intense El Niño by December, as human-caused climate change stresses the natural world even as it puts us under more pressure to solve problems for humans first, Azurina must have a story to tell about what we lose when something we didn’t notice blinks out of existence.

“It’s a question I get often,” Rocha says, and he has his own ways of thinking about the answer, a blend of moral and utilitarian thinking about how to face a world in peril. “One answer,” he says, “is if my grandson goes to the Galapagos, he won’t see it.” Another answer is: “Every species has a role in the ecosystem,” even small and indistinct fish. “It’s not a panda bear,” Rocha says. “But everything has a role.”

John McCosker, the chair of the Academy’s Department of Aquatic Biology, who took the last photo of Azurina and wrote the paper suggesting it had gone extinct, has spent his life fighting to save life in the oceans — but says that without scientific knowledge, it’s hard to make any judgment at all about the value of an extinction.

“Are we going to stop all life on Earth, all competition with living plants and animals?” he says. “It’s a question you have to ask. The way you can prepare to answer that is by knowing as much as you can about every species and their role in the ecosystem, and what would life on Earth be like after its extinction.”

That seems acutely relevant in the midst of the so-called Anthropocene extinction, as species both known and unknown hurtle into oblivion at, according to various estimates, some hundreds of times the background extinction rate.

Humming somewhere in Rocha’s brain is the urgency of documenting species as fast as he can, just so we have some idea the reach of our own blind thrashing. Earlier this year he went on a dive trip to the Philippines to collect fish from drowned coral reefs in deeper waters rarely examined before by humans. In a week he found 12 new species, almost one per dive, to add to the 32,000 fish species in the world. The ocean, at times, can seem like such a vast and limitless place, which is why marine biology professors, in the days when McCosker was a graduate student, would confidently declare we’d never run out of fish.

Now we are running out of fish.

“A lot of scientists have done all but immolate themselves over the potential loss of a species that they knew would go extinct, and has gone extinct, as a result of things that would happen in our lifetime,” McCosker says. “All we can do is the best we can, and grab and shake people and say, ‘Don’t you realize human behavior is going to cause the extinction of this species?’ And their reaction is either sadness or ‘So what.’”

Rocha told me he flew back from the Philippines, paused for six hours in San Francisco, and boarded a plane for Houston to join a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Over the next two days he evaluated around 500 fish species for the IUCN, a global environmental organization that tries to assess the threat level for every species on Earth. (The little conservation status bar when you look up an animal on Wikipedia is their work.) The news is mainly grim, and one fish that crossed his desk in that evaluation happens to rest two jars down on the shelf from Azurina.

I had asked Rocha where he worries the next extinction might happen, and he slid over to a jar holding Halichoeres socialis, the social wrasse. The inch-long fish lives in only one small area in the Pelican Keys in Belize. Habitat destruction and mangrove clearing has left it without much resilience. If nothing is done — and it’s not clear what there is to do, except that we are people and when we find out about things like this we feel like we should do something — it will probably be eaten to extinction by human-introduced lionfish. In January, Rocha’s IUCN group declared it critically endangered.

It’s the something that’s always the problem.

We put the fish away in the jar, and reversed down the collection aisle, past biological riches that would take decades to understand. Rocha spun the wheel on the giant library-stack cabinets to pull them back together again, locking the extinct and endangered fish back in the anonymous darkness.

Illustration by Rachel Diaz-Bastin


cCosker, a frequent Galapagos explorer and one of the last people to see Azurina eupalama alive, happens to have the office next door to Rocha, so on the way back from the collections we walked in, past a nameplate on the door that said “HEAD SHARK” and a Far Side cartoon about ichthyology signed by Gary Larson. What, I asked him, does he do to reconcile 70 years of scientific work studying marine life with the incredible peril much of that life finds itself in? How do you deal with the knowledge you’ll very likely never see another one of these fish again?

McCosker pointed to a photo of the Dalai Lama on his desk. “I do what he does,” he said. “It’s just a species in time, passing through, like you or me.”

“If there are other universes with ecosystems that because of natural events animals go extinct, and humans aren’t even there, am I sad?” he said. “No. But as a human being with the ability to understand what’s going on, and make predictions, I have a responsibility. A moral, ethical responsibility to do the right thing, and to convince other people to do the right thing. That’s the role of science.”

McCosker and Rocha both said that some form of life in the oceans will endure no matter what we do to them — because before we destroy everything around us, we’ll have destroyed ourselves. “I feel bad because we’re the ones causing it,” Rocha said. “But I don’t feel bad for the ecosystem.”

Compartmentalization is not an entirely comfortable way to go about your life, but it might be a necessary one. Modern biologists spend their lives looking at animals that may or may not make it into the 22nd century. It’s our own contradictory nature that our emotional brain screams at us to wrap our arms around an endangered fish and devote 80 hours a week to keeping it alive, even as our prefrontal cortex notes that 32,000 species times 80 hours a week leads to unsustainable work-life balance. It’s why, as Jon Mooallem writes in Wild Ones, “The best of us are cursed by caring.”

The biologist’s way of addressing the urgency of extinction is to document, evaluate, predict, and warn. You grab the new species that’s in front of you, and you do what you can to help each individual you come across, and you celebrate that in areas where protections are put in place the fish do come back, even if those places aren’t nearly sufficient and fish aren’t that great at observing human-drawn boundaries.

“I continue to work,” McCosker says. “I’m long past retirement age, and I still go to work every day so I can do this. I still talk about this at every dinner party I go to. Every kids’ school group I attend. Whatever. It’s all I talk about.”

And he said one lesson of Azurina isn’t so much in the void left by its absence as it is that it disappeared without us fully understanding it.

“Will the health and ecology of the Galapagos change as a result of the loss of Azurina?” he says. “I don’t know, but I’d be surprised. It was never so abundant or so significant in ecosystem food webs that its absence will make much if any difference. But we’ll never know. We’ll never know because we just didn’t have a chance to understand them.”

That, I think, is what sticks with me most about Azurina. We’ll never know about the fish, and we’re uniquely able to understand what never means. We are, uniquely among the animals, able to be driven crazy by the mere knowledge of experiences we can’t have. We are uniquely able to look at the unrealized Platonic ideal that is Azurina and see it as more than just a dead fish.

“Hundreds of millions of years of evolution have produced hundreds of thousands of species with brains, and tens of thousands with complex behavioral, perceptual, and learning abilities,” UC Berkeley evolutionary anthropologist Terry Deacon writes at the beginning of his book The Symbolic Species. “Only one of these has ever wondered about its place in the world, because only one evolved the ability to do so.”

As minimal, as uncharismatic, as anonymous a fish as Azurina may be, it’s a symbol and a warning that we alone can see, and as such it seems to convey both the enormity of extinction and an utterly immense obligation.

Rocha and I stood and stared at that fish. We poked it, propped it, wondered about it. Rocha mentioned that Azurina is a lesson taught in grad school marine biology across the country.

But all the while the fish just stared out of that hollow black eye at the ceiling, and at some point you start to feel silly because, well, you’re interrogating a small, indistinct, sardine-looking thing that’s been sitting in preservatives for a century.

Azurina eupalama, from the original species description.


zurina had nine million years on Earth, and those nine million years went pleasantly untroubled by philosophy or vexing questions of life and meaning. Dead fish tell no tales, zero is our concept, and existential guilt is ours and ours alone.

Indonesia’s forest fires feed ‘brown cloud’ of pollution choking Asia’s cities | Environment | The Observer

Link to article – Indonesia’s forest fires feed ‘brown cloud’ of pollution choking Asia’s cities | Environment | The Observer.

Indonesia’s forest fires feed ‘brown cloud’ of pollution choking Asia’s cities

An acrid blanket of haze is hanging over the cities of south-east Asia, where 700,000 people a year die prematurely from the effects of air pollution. Industry and climate change are being blamed, but governments are slow to act

People wear masks to protect themselves from the haze in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia. Photograph: Rony Muharrman/AP

High above the vast Indonesian island of Sumatra, satellites identify hundreds of plumes of smoke drifting over the oil palm plantations and rainforests. They look harmless as the monsoon winds sweep them north and east towards Singapore, Malaysia and deep into Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. But at ground level, south-east Asian cities have been choking for weeks, wreathed in an acrid, stinking blanket of half-burned vegetation mixed with industrial pollution, car exhaust fumes and ash.

From Palangkarya in Borneo to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, the air has been thick, the sun a dull glow and face masks obligatory. Schools, airports and roads have been closed and visibility at times has been down to just a few yards. Communities have had to be evacuated and people advised to remain indoors, transport has been disrupted and more than 50,000 people have had to be treated for asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses in Sumatra alone. Last week more than 200 Malaysian schools were forced to close, and pollution twice reached officially hazardous levels.

The Asian “haze”, which comes and goes with the wind and droughts, is back with a vengeance just eight months after an embarrassed Indonesian government promised it would never happen again and was forced to apologise to neighbouring countries for the pollution that blanketed the region in June 2013.

Mixed with the dense photo-chemical smogs that regularly hang over most large traffic-choked Asian cities, south-east Asia’s air pollution has become not just a major public health hazard but is said to be now threatening food production, tourism and economic expansion. In addition, say scientists, it may now be exacerbating climate change.

According to Nasa satellite maps, more than 3,000 separate fires have been recorded across Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia since mid-January, more than in June 2013 when the pollution spiked to dangerous levels and became a regional diplomatic crisis. This time, the monsoon winds mostly spared Singapore but sent the thick smog from burning peat soils and vegetation over much of the region. Around 10 million people and an area the size of Britain and France have been affected.

Just as in 2013, most of this year’s fires appear to have been started in Riau province, northern Sumatra, the centre of the rampant Indonesian palm oil and pulp-paper industries. According to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, 70% of these fires were lit by landowners wanting to clear ground for more plantations. But while Indonesia is widely blamed for the air pollution, the latest satellite images show fires burningand haze spreading across Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and as far away as the Philippines and Papua.

What has surprised observers is the timing: the burning season, when farmers clear land, does not usually start for many months. Monitoring groups such as Walhi, the World Resources Institute and Greenpeace say the fires are linked both to the worst drought seen in years and corruption and inaction at government level. So far, says the Riau government, only a handful of suspects have been held for setting the fires.

Nearly half are burning on land managed by large pulpwood, palm oil and logging companies which have turned the rainforest into a giant fire-prone region by clearing millions of acres for plantations, says Nigel Sizer of the Washington-based World Resources Institute, which uses satellite data to pinpoint hot spots. The corporations have denied involvement, saying the latest fires are illegally set. “The fires are starting outside our forest concessions but with the heavy, circular winds they’re jumping everywhere,” said Kusnan Rahmin, president director of the pulp and paper manufacturer April Indonesia.

Sizer says: “Even if they did not start the fires, they are responsible for massive and dramatic clearing of forests in the regions that have been burning, and to some extent for the conflicts with local communities that may be starting fires to stake their claim to land awarded in concessions to the companies.”

“Once ignited, peat fires are extremely difficult to extinguish and generate massive air pollution that contributes to the choking haze now blanketing much of Sumatra,” says Rhett Butler, editor of the international forest conservation website Mongabay.

Scientists now fear that the Asian haze will intensify and become an annual event as the population of the region rises to an estimated five billion people and climate change bites over the next 30 years. This week’s IPCC report on the expected impacts of climate change will warn of the cities becoming unliveable in for millions as temperatures rise. Droughts are expected to become longer and more intense and the number of extremely hot days to grow.

Still unclear is how far the haze from burning forests feeds into Asia’s rapidly worsening urban air pollution to form a semi-permanent toxic cloud thick enough to disrupt monsoons and weather patterns across the world and reduce sunlight and crop yields.

From being more or less accepted as the inevitable price of industrial development and poverty reduction just a few years ago, air pollution has risen dramatically up the region’s political agenda as the costs are counted. Asia is now the centre of global air pollution, which along with obesity is the world’s fastest growing cause of death.

Every year, says a recent Lancet report, more than 2.1 million people in Asia die prematurely from air pollution, mostly from the minute particles of diesel soot and gases emitted by cars and lorries, as well as half-burned vegetation from forest burning. Of these deaths, 1.2 million were in east Asia and China, and 712,000 in south Asia, including India.

According to the Lancet report, by a consortium of universities working in conjunction with the UN, Asia loses more than 50m years of healthy life from fine particle air pollution per year. Air pollution also contributes to higher rates of cognitive decline, strokes and heart attacks, it says. In a separate report last month, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences claimed that Asian air pollution was now affecting climate around the world and making cities like Beijing uninhabitable and suggestive of what a “nuclear winter” might be like.

“Pollution originating from Asia clearly has an impact on the upper atmosphere and it appears to make such storms or cyclones even stronger,” says Renyi Zhang, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University and a co-author of the study with Nasa scientists. “This pollution affects cloud formations, precipitation, storm intensity, and other factors and eventually impacts climate. Most likely, pollution from Asia can have important consequences on the weather pattern here over North America”, said Zhang. The study backs UN researchthat suggests a layer of air pollution, the “brown cloud”, regularly covers the upper atmosphere over Asia between January and March and could precipitate an environmental disaster that could affect billions of people.

It is, says scientists, the result of forest fires, the burning of agricultural wastes, dramatic increases in the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, industries and power stations, and emissions from millions of inefficient cookers burning wood and cow dung.

“The effects of the ‘Asian brown cloud’ have been linked to the retreat, over the last half a century, of glaciers in the Himalayas that supply water to major rivers, including the Yangtse, the Ganges and the Indus,” says co-author Harshal T. Pandve.

Asian leaders have been slow to understand and act on air pollution, but are now aware of people’s anger. China, embarrassed by air pollution before the 2008 Olympics, says it is now costing its economy $400bn a year, or 6% of its GDP. Beijing last month pledged $1.6bn to reward cities for tackling it and said it planned to close 300 factories. Meanwhile, Singapore has proposed a law which would allow it to fine foreign companies for causing cross-border air pollution. But observers say that passing new laws will not enough. In the Philippines, where car numbers are predicted to quadruple within 20 years, a brown cloud hangs over the mega-city of Metro Manila most days, despite higher standards for vehicles and draconian laws.

“Most Asian governments are still concerned with economic development to the detriment of everything else,” says Vicky Segovia, of Manila’s Clean Air partnership. “We are not impressed by any of them.”



Air pollution in 180 Indian cities is more than six times higher than World Health Organisation standards and is the country’s fifth biggest killer. Improvements in car and fuel technology since 2000 have been nullified by the rise in car numbers and the poor fuel burned.


Air pollution causes about 200,000 early deaths a year across the US, with emissions from cars and trucks causing 53,000 and power generation 52,000, says MIT’s environment laboratory. California suffers most from air pollution (21,000 early deaths).


Janez Potočnik, the EU environment commissioner, says poor air quality is the top environmental cause of premature deaths in the EU, causing more than 100,000 premature deaths a year and costing from £300bn-£800bn a year in extra health costs. Air pollution causes 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK and similar numbers in France and Germany. This month, Paris curbed car use on one day to cut pollution.


African cities are increasingly choked in smog from the burning of poor-quality diesel engines and firewood. In Lagos, Nigeria, tens of thousands of inefficient generators and more than 2m old cars are in use. The main teaching hospital says one in five admissions are now linked to respiratory diseases.

Can trophy hunting actually help conservation? – Conservation

Link to article – Can trophy hunting actually help conservation? – Conservation.


Can trophy hunting ever be a useful tool in the conservationist’s toolbox? On the surface, the answer would appear obvious. It seems as if the killing of an animal – especially an endangered one – for sport is directly contradictory to the goal of ensuring the survival of a species. The question has been asked again following the auction last Saturday night of the right to hunt an endangered black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) in Namibia. And the answer, as usual, is more complicated.

The permit was sold for $350,000, well above the previous high bid for a permit in that country, $223,000. While the Dallas Safari Club had the dubious distinction of being the first organization to hold such an auction outside of Namibia itself, it’s fairly unremarkable and actually quite common for an African nation to sell permits for trophy hunting, even for endangered species. Indeed, both Namibia and South Africa are legally permitted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to sell five permits for the hunting of adult male black rhinos each year.

And it’s not just rhinos. For example, a 2000 report from TRAFFIC, an organization that works with the WWF, IUCN, and CITES to track the international trade of wildlife, describes how Namibia alone was the site of almost 16,000 trophy hunts that year. Those 16,000 animals represent a wide variety of species – birds, reptiles, mammals, and even primates – both endangered and not. They include four of the so-called “big five” popular African game: lion, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. (Only the elephant was missing.) The hunters brought eleven million US dollars with them to spend in the Namibian economy. And that doesn’t include revenue from non-trophy recreational hunting activities, which are limited to four species classified as of “least concern” by the IUCN: Greater Kudu, Gemsbok, Springbok and Warthog.

The issues here are complex and highly politicized. There are several questions that science can’t help address, primary of which is whether or not the money raised from the sale of hunting permits is used for conservation, something often promised by hunting tour operators. But empirical research can help to elucidate several other questions, such as whether hunting can ever help drive conservation efforts.

In 2006, researcher Peter A. Lindsey of Kenya’s Mpala Research Centre and colleagues interviewed 150 people who either had already hunted in Africa, or who planned to do so within the following three years. Their findings were published in the journal Animal Conservation. A majority of hunters – eighty-six percent! – told the researchers they preferred hunting in an area where they knew that a portion of the proceeds went back into local communities. Nearly half of the hunters they interviewed also indicated that they’d be willing to pay an equivalent price for a poorer trophy if it was a problem animal that would have had to be killed anyway.

Lindsey’s team also discovered that hunters were more sensitive to conservation concerns than was perhaps expected. For example, they were less willing to hunt in areas where wild dogs or cheetahs are illegally shot, in countries that intentionally surpass their quotas, or with operators who practice “put-and-take hunting,” which is where trophy animals are released onto a fenced-in property just before a hunt. Together this suggests that hunters were willing to place economic pressure on countries and tour companies to operate in as ethical a manner as possible. Approximately nine out of every ten hunters said they’d be willing to hunt in places that were poor for wildlife viewing or which lacked attractive scenery. That is, they said that they were willing to hunt in areas that would not have otherwise been able to reap an economic benefit from ecotourism.

It’s encouraging that trophy hunters seem willing to take conservation-related issues into consideration when choosing a tour operator, but it is possible that they were simply providing the researchers with the answers that would cast them in the best light. That’s a typical concern for assessments that rely on self-report. Better evidence would come from proof that hunting can be consistent with actual, measurable conservation-related benefits for a species.

Is there such evidence? According to a 2005 paper by Nigel Leader-Williams and colleagues in theJournal of International Wildlife Law and Policy the answer is yes. Leader-Williams describes how the legalization of white rhinoceros hunting in South Africa motivated private landowners to reintroduce the species onto their lands. As a result, the country saw an increase in white rhinos from fewer than one hundred individuals to more than 11,000, even while a limited number were killed as trophies.

In a 2011 letter to Science magazine, Leader-Williams also pointed out that the implementation of controlled, legalized hunting was also beneficial for Zimbabwe’s elephants. “Implementing trophy hunting has doubled the area of the country under wildlife management relative to the 13% in state protected areas,” thanks to the inclusion of private lands, he says. “As a result, the area of suitable land available to elephants and other wildlife has increased, reversing the problem of habitat loss and helping to maintain a sustained population increase in Zimbabwe’s already large elephant population.” It is important to note, however, that the removal of mature elephant males can have other, detrimental consequences on the psychological development of younger males. And rhinos and elephants are very different animals, with different needs and behaviors.

Still, the elephants of Zimbabwe and the white rhinos of South Africa seem to suggest that it is possible for conservation and trophy hunting to coexist, at least in principle. It is indeed a tricky, but not impossible, balance to strike.

It is noteworthy that the Leader-Williams’ 2005 paper recommended that legal trophy hunting for black rhinos be focused mainly on older, non-breeding males, or on younger males who have already contributed sufficient genetic material to their breeding groups. They further suggested that revenues from the sale of permits be reinvested into conservation efforts, and that revenues could be maximized by selling permits through international auctions. Namibia’s own hunting policy, it turns out, is remarkably consistent with scientific recommendations.

Even so, some have expressed concern regarding what the larger message of sanctioned trophy hunts might be. Could the possible negative consequences from a PR perspective outweigh the possible benefits from hunting? Can the message that an auction for the hunting of an endangered species like the black rhino brings possibly be reconciled with the competing message that the species requires saving? This question is probably not one that science can adequately address.

However, it might just be worth having a quick look at some numbers. 745 rhinos were killed due to illegal poaching in 2012 in Africa, which amounts to approximately two rhinos each day, mostly for their horns. In South Africa alone, 461 rhinos were killed in just the first half of 2013. Rhino horns are valued for their medicinal uses and for their supposed cancer-curing powers. Of course, rhino horns have no pharmacological value at all, making their harvest even more tragic. The five non-breeding rhinos that Namibia allows to be hunted each year seem paltry in comparison, especially since they are older males who can no longer contribute to population growth.

I don’t understand the desire to kill a magnificent animal for sport, even if the individual is an older non-breeding male. The sale of the right to kill an animal for a trophy surely reflects the value that animal lives hold in at least some corners of our society: that killing an animal for fun isn’t wrong, as long as you can afford it. It is right to worry about the sort of message that sends.

But if an endangered species as charismatic as the black rhinoceros is under such extreme threat frompoaching, then perhaps the message that the species needs saving has a larger problem to address than the relatively limited loss of animals to wealthy hunters. The real tragedy here is that the one rhino that will be killed as a result of Saturday’s auction has received a disproportionate amount of media attention compared to the hundreds of rhinos lost to poaching each year, which remain largely invisible. And while there remains at least a possibility that sanctioned trophy hunts can benefit the black rhino as they have for the white rhino, there is only one possible consequence of continued poaching. It’s one that conservationists and hunters alike will lament. – Jason G. Goldman | 15 January 2014

Sources: Leader-Williams N., Milledge S., Adcock K., Brooks M., Conway A., Knight M., Mainka S., Martin E.B. & Teferi T. (2005). Trophy Hunting of Black Rhino: Proposals to Ensure Its Future Sustainability, Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, 8 (1) 1-11. DOI:

Lindsey P.A., Alexander R., Frank L.G., Mathieson A. & Romanach S.S. (2006). Potential of trophy hunting to create incentives for wildlife conservation in Africa where alternative wildlife-based land uses may not be viable, Animal Conservation, 9 (3) 283-291. DOI: 

Leader-Williams N. Elephant Hunting and Conservation, Science, 293 (5538) 2203b-2204. DOI:

Photo: Male black rhino and calf, Karl Stromayer/USFWS. Public domain.

Sustainability versus consumerism – Jonathon Porritt – Aeon

Link to article – Sustainability versus consumerism – Jonathon Porritt – Aeon.

Green shoots

Can sustainability really hope to beat consumerism? Yes, and all without a vow of poverty or a change in human nature

Luca works at the Prinzessinnengarten urban gardening project in Berlin, September 2012. Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

Luca works at the Prinzessinnengarten urban gardening project in Berlin, September 2012. Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

Jonathon Porritt is a founder and director of Forum for the Future and the former director of Friends of the Earth. His latest book is The World We Made (2013). He lives in Cheltenham.


Sustainability is often described as a big idea in waiting. In the pantheon of today’s big ideas, though, it’s still relatively small fry, while the seductive appeal of consumerism has grown only more formidable over the past few decades.

The governments of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD) depend more and more on increased consumption to keep the engine of growth turning. Governments in countries such as China, Brazil and Indonesia use its promise as a way to maintain social stability. The harsh truth for the sustainability community is that most citizens the world over seem more or less content with the conflation of ‘better lives’ and ‘increased consumption’. For politicians, this is powerful incantatory magic, reinforced at every turn by the hundreds of billions of dollars that are spent each year on advertising and marketing. The devils of consumerism still have all the best tunes.

In the world of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), on the other hand, things have got very stuck. The field is dominated by what I can only describe as ‘minority mindsets’; the kind of people who assume that, if the science says that we’re heading into a dark place for the whole of humankind (and believe me, it does), reason alone will suffice to win broad acceptance for change. This belief, naive as it has proven to be, has a very disturbing counterpart. Many campaigners imagine that it will get easier to change the behaviour of large swathes of society when things become demonstrably more threatening and unstable – as if it wouldn’t be entirely too late to do anything about it by then.

It’s depressing how many good discussions about these things end in resigned and often fatalistic references to ‘human nature’. As I was told the other day: ‘It doesn’t matter how much science or worthy exhortation you chuck at the problem, it won’t make a jot of difference. You’re up against much more powerful forces in human greed and self-interest.’

Psychologically, then, this is an extraordinary moment for all those who care about creating a more sustainable world. Doom-and-gloom advocacy appears to have run its course, and there’s convincing evidence that the rhetoric of threats and fear actually disempowers as many people as it energises.

If the NGOs have hit a dead end, politicians and business leaders are stuck in a different respect. They’ve never played the doom and gloom card anyway. ‘Can-do’ mindsets dominate the world of corporate sustainability (though it is notable how many business people have concluded that it is too late to prevent runaway climate change, even if they never say that in public). As for the politicians, very few have successfully developed an upbeat, positive way of ‘selling’ sustainability to their prospective voters.

If the discourse of doom is collapsing under the weight of its own despair, what will take its place? It surely has to be something that NGOs, governments and business can all get behind, albeit ‘messaged’ for very different audiences. This is where a little hope creeps back into today’s dismal picture. In this ‘spare me the apocalypse’ world, no fewer than three narratives are vying for supremacy.

The first is not new. In fact, it’s as old as the hills in which our original religious precepts were first developed. The gist is this: live simply; find purpose beyond material consumption; be fulfilled in family, friends and service to others. When the world’s religious leaders eventually get the plot (laying claim, as they do, to the loyalties of most of human beings on Earth), it is to this fundamental teaching that the optimist in me believes they will return. And one can’t help but be impressed by some of the early speeches from Pope Francis, ushering in a very modern take on what was once described at ‘liberation theology’.

There are, however, rationales for the simple life that have nothing to do with religion. In these constrained times, when young people increasingly expect to be worse off than their parents, simplicity lends itself to an ever more compelling secular justification: it is cheap. This is not an argument that will sit comfortably with every interest group.

I doubt that politicians will go there unless they absolutely have to, because it undermines the pursuit of conventional economic growth as the measure of good things. Businesses will struggle to weld it onto their ‘more is better’ philosophies, even though splendidly disruptive campaigns from companies such Patagonia, Ecover, and the Brazilian group Natura suggest that ‘smart brands’ could still thrive in such a world. But cash-strapped, asset-poor young people might make it happen come what may.

Some politicians feel quite uncomfortable drawing on religious or spiritual insights of this kind. There is, however, a second alternative discourse that is likely to seem far more attractive to politicians and the business community. This is the idea of a growth so lean, efficient, low-carbon and waste-free that its economic benefits are entirely ‘decoupled’ from the negative impact of business-as-usual.

The appeal of this way of thinking appears to be a no-brainer – we keep the cake and (temporarily, at least) carry on eating it

Over the past decade, there has been a huge investment by bodies such as the World Bank, the OECD, various UN agencies and even the International Energy Agency to give this idea of ‘green growth’ traction. NGO literature is awash with catchy related concepts such as ‘closed-loop manufacturing’, ‘cradle-to-cradle’, ‘the circular economy’, ‘net positive’ and so on, going right back to the original ‘Factor Four’ idea in 1997 (‘doubling wealth, halving resource use’). For those politicians who have come to terms with the physical impossibility of business-as-usual, the appeal of this way of thinking would appear to be a no-brainer – we keep the cake and (temporarily, at least) carry on eating it. The idea has caught on in Germany and Scandinavia, and even China is now trying to find its own stability-enhancing version of the green economy.

Unlike the ideal of simplicity, which poses a direct challenge to everything that consumerism stands for, politicians can frame green growth as a pro-consumer concept. All of which makes it remarkable that centre-right governments in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have failed to seize hold of this opportunity to square the circle.

Will the third option fare any better? In this final scenario, young people redefine aspiration to suit their hyper-connected lifestyles. This means maximising the benefits of digital technology, saving money without going down-market, still ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ but without the kind of materialistic arms race that powered growth in the late 20th century.

At the heart of this new discourse lies the idea of ‘collaborative consumption’. Why buy your very own power drill at considerable expense when you can rent one for a few hours? Why take on the hassle and expense of owning a car when you can enjoy all the advantages simply by joining a car club?

There’s now quite a buzz of excitement about this idea. It’s positive and upbeat, and wins out every time over pious appeals to put on the sackcloth and ashes. Personally, I’m not entirely persuaded that it will make that much of a contribution to the radical decoupling that we now need, but it will certainly help prepare the way for it. Most importantly, this discourse acknowledges that most people remain mindful of their status and relative position in their peer group. At the same time, it avoids the grotesque appeals to excess and competitive consumption that lie so malevolently at the heart of today’s marketing and advertising industries.

At its most exuberant, the idea of collaborative consumption can be talked up into the kind of high-tech cornucopia that Peter Diamandis captures so brilliantly in his book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (2012). But it can also be articulated much more modestly, with the emphasis on personal responsibility and compassion for others – in effect, a digital, more aspirational variation on the discourse of voluntary simplicity.

Three alternative discourses, and politicians ought to be able to make use of all of them, rather than sell their souls, election after election, to the devilish call of Earth-trashing consumerism.

But 20 years since that ‘moment of truth’ at the 1992 Earth Summit, when world leaders formally recognised that prosperity for 9 billion people could not be secured using the same economic drivers that brought prosperity to the first 1 billion, I am pretty disappointed at how little progress has been made.

Still, the abiding truth of our times is that sustainability and conventional consumption-driven economic growth are incompatible – and the sooner we get good at coping with that reality, the rosier our prospects will be. Sooner or later, our politicians will have to get good at re‑framing the politics of the 21st century through a combination of these three lenses.

World’s rarest shark falls victim to fish oil market — RT News

Link to article – World’s rarest shark falls victim to fish oil market — RT News.

World’s rarest shark falls victim to fish oil market

Published time: January 29, 2014 15:40

Photo by WildLifeRisk

Photo by WildLifeRisk

A Hong Kong-based wildlife conservation group has rung the alarm that a rare species, the whale shark, is falling prey to a growing US demand for fish oil products. The animal is illegal to catch in most places and illegal to process in China.

But the scene at one of the fish processing plants in China’s eastern Zhejiang province shows pools of blood, as workers attempt to process their annual estimated 600 whale sharks a year – and it is a lucrative business for the fishermen, bringing in a hefty 200,000 yuan ($31,000) for each shark, NGO WildLifeRisk wrote in an investigative report.

Alex Hofford and Paul Hilton of WLR, two activists who were contacted by a local conservation group, went to investigate several times, posing as buyers and armed with a camera and audio recording equipment.

They reported shocking findings. “It’s a lot of carnage in one place, a lot of damage. It was pretty overwhelming,” they said in a report released last week.

The animal, which can grow to a full 12 meters in adult form, is endangered. It is therefore forbidden to hunt them in most countries. But the fish continues to be hunted in the South China Sea, off the Chinese coast. However, it is a migratory animal and travels as far as Australia, the Philippines and Mexico.




The problem that keeps feeding the business is North America’s growing demand for fish oil products, which includes medicine, cosmetics and other products. The industry continues to boom, with prices almost quadrupling from 2009’s $620 per ton of fish oil to $2,100 in August 2013. In the last year alone, Americans are estimated to have bought $1.2 billion in fish oil products.

Compounding the problem is China’s domestic market, where the animal is valued for its fins and parts of its stomach, which are considered delicacies in Chinese cuisine. The meat is then sold to neighboring countries and restaurants around Europe, according to Li Guang, the manager at the plant, speaking to the NGO’s researchers. Probably unaware of the fact that he was being filmed, he also said that shark oil product containers are being mislabeled as tilapia – a common local fish.

China Whale Sharks from WildLifeRisk on Vimeo.

The whale shark is not the only species going under the knife. Blue and basking sharks form part of the 300-ton annual exports in shark liver oil.

All the species are protected in China; by law, they cannot be hunted without a special permit. The Basking and Whale sharks are listed by the intergovernmental convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as being Appendix II animals: those that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but nevertheless must be closely watched so that their slaughter and hunting does not impede the survival of the entire species.

The Great White shark is another species now being considered for the status.

AFP Photo/Don Emmert

AFP Photo/Don Emmert


WildLifeRisk believes something needs to be done to curtail the trade in order to protect the shark’s natural habitat. Activists believe the animal is worth far more alive than dead. They cite the Pew Environment Group: “In regions where whale sharks are known to aggregate, ecotourism has proven to be an extremely lucrative alternative to fishing. It has been estimated that whale shark tourism, mainly through recreational diving, is worth about $47.5 million worldwide.”

Something that can be done now, WLR believes, is to get consumers to change their attitudes toward whale shark liver products. Trading in the animal is not only unethical, but unsustainable, the organization believes. Therefore, individuals must take responsibility for breaking the law, they say.

In Palau, scientists hope they’ve found a coral reef to save all coral reefs | Public Radio International

Link to article – In Palau, scientists hope they’ve found a coral reef to save all coral reefs | Public Radio International.

In Palau, scientists hope they’ve found a coral reef to save all coral reefs

There’s no shortage of lovely places in Palau, but perhaps none as remarkable as Nikko Bay. It’s a patch of turquoise water tucked inside a ring of tropical jungle in this tiny Western Pacific island nation. And it’s where Anne Cohen, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US, gets to do her fieldwork — with a snorkel on.

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“This is the easiest snorkeling you’ve ever done,” Cohen says as she slips on her mask and fins.

And some of the most rewarding. There’s coral everywhere.The bottom is carpeted with fan corals, big boulder-shaped corals, long green tendril-y corals, even squishy corals, all jockeying for position.

There are bright, colorful fish too. It’s a parade of life.

But here’s the thing — Cohen says this raucous coral ecosystem shouldn’t even exist. The water is way too acidic.

“We started taking water samples,” she says, casting back to an earlier visit here. “We analyzed them, and we couldn’t believe it. Of the 17 coral reef systems (around the world) that we’ve been monitoring, this is the most acidic site that we’ve found.”

The higher acidity of the water here is natural, but it defies all expectations. Conventional wisdom is that corals don’t like acidic water, and the water in Nikko Bay is acidic enough that it should dissolve the animals’ calcium carbonate skeletons.

Even weirder, Cohen says, is that the acidity goes up as you move from the barrier reefs offshore into Palau’s island bays, and that as that happens, the coral cover and the coral diversity increase as well.

From everything we know about corals, Cohen says, this just shouldn’t happen.“There’s something different about Palau.”

That’s what Cohen’s team is trying to figure out — what is it that allows these corals to thrive in such acidic waters?

It’s an interesting scientific challenge, not to mention a nice excuse to spend time basking in this tropical playground. But it’s hardly just an academic question, because humans are altering the acidity of the oceans around the world, a consequence of the same process that’s causing climate change.

It’s a distressingly simple process, says oceanographer Katie Shamberger, a member of Cohen’s team: “As we put more and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we end up with more carbon dioxide mixing into the ocean.”

More carbon dioxide in the sea makes the water slightly more acidic. It’s a small increase, Shamberger says, “but it still changes the chemistry of the ocean, and marine organisms are very sensitive to the water surrounding them.”

Organisms like corals. Some scientists have predicted that the growing global acidity could wipe out all the corals on the planet by the end of the century. Here in Nikko Bay, the water is already as acidic as the entire western Pacific could be by the year 2100. So the team here wants to know whether these reefs might just be the corals of the future — corals that can survive ocean acidification.

This expedition is the researchers’ sixth in Palau. On their dives they collect water in small bottles along with coral samples that they take with a hollow underwater drill that pushes into the corals’ skeletons like a straw pushing into a snow ball. The team corks each hole with a concrete plug, which Cohen says eventually gets covered in new coral tissue.

Cohen’s team examines the cores for growth rates and any signs of strain from the higher acidity. They also search for other clues about what allows these corals to thrive — things like genetic adaptations or unique characteristics of the local environment.

Whatever the reason or reasons might turn out to be, Cohen says these reefs should move to the top of the global coral conservation list.

They are the ones that are going to survive climate change, she says, so they need every bit of help they can get.

They’re also very important locally. Not only are Palau’s coral reefs a big tourist draw, but like healthy corals around the world, Palau’s provide vital habitat for fish and other sea life, and help protect the shoreline from storms and erosion.

The day before Cohen leaves Palau, she and her team visit a spot on a barrier reef several miles from shore.

It’s high tide, and the water’s rushing across the reef crest. As she looks back toward land, across water that gets more and more acidic, Cohen says it’s like looking into the future, to a more and more acidic global sea. It’s a sobering reminder of what’s at stake here, she says.

“Climate change is really happening. You come to Palau, we go into these areas where we’re seeing conditions of the future, right there. And yet, we have these communities that appear to have figured it out. That’s like the biggest diamond in the desert.”

Cohen says there’s no certainty that what’s learned from these corals will help others survive the changes ahead. Still, she says, they offer hope that at least some corals will be around to keep us company in the future.

This report was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

In Saving A Species, You Might Accidentally Doom It – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science

Link to article – In Saving A Species, You Might Accidentally Doom It – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science.

In Saving A Species, You Might Accidentally Doom It

The black robin is an endearing ball of beaked fluff, found only in the Chatham Islands off the eastern coast of New Zealand. By 1980, there were just five of them left.

They lived in a rocky outcrop about the size of a few city blocks. The precipitous cliffs kept them safe from the cats, stoats and rats that sailors had brought to the islands. But the high winds were too much for these small birds, and most of the survivors had died. With a single breeding pair left—Old Blue and Old Yellow—their future looked bleak.

Don Merton and a team of conservationists mounted a heroic effort to save them. They relocated the tiny population to larger islands and managed their reproduction over many years, transferring their eggs to foster parents for incubation. By 1989, there were 80 robins. By 1998, there were over 200. Once the world’s most endangered bird, the black robin became a flagship example of conservation success.

But it’s also an example of good intentions leading to unintended consequences.

In those early years, when the team was still carefully managing the birds, they noticed that many females laid their eggs on the rims of their nests, rather than the centre. Precarious positions aside, these “rim eggs” were never incubated and never hatched. With the species’ fate hanging in the balance, every egg was precious. The team repositioned the ones on the rims.

Without this move, it’s unclear if the species would have made its dramatic recovery. But it also saddled the robins with a difficult legacy.

Melanie Massaro from Charles Sturt University in Australia has now shown that rim-laying had a strong genetic basis. Under normal circumstances, natural selection would have quickly weeded out the alleles (versions of a gene) behind the behaviour, because any female who carried them would lay doomed eggs. By saving those eggs, the conservationists inadvertently gave the rim-layers a pass, turning their maladaptive behaviour into a neutral one. They allowed for “survival for the not-so-fit”.

Sure enough, the alleles for rim-laying spread through the growing robin population. The speed of this spread became clear when Massaro checked old records of the robins’ behaviour. Old Blue, the last fertile female as of 1980, laid eggs in the normal way. By 1984, there were five females and one laid a single rim egg. By 1989, there were 35 females, of whom 18 (more than half) were rim-layers.

You can see the spread for yourself in the family tree below, which shows the relationships between every breeding robin during the 1980s. Blue circles represent females that lay eggs in the right place; the rim-layers are in red. This is the sort of diagram you can make when a species only has a few dozen survivors, and you know all of them.

Black robin pedigree, 1980-1989. Credit: Massaro et al, 2013. PLOS.

Black robin pedigree, 1980-1989. Credit: Massaro et al, 2013. PLOS.

It’s possible that the robins increasingly laid eggs on rims as a response to their environment, but the pattern in the family tree suggested otherwise. It looked like rim-laying had a strong genetic basis. In fact, it was most probably caused by a dominant allele—a version of a gene that produces rim-laying even when a bird inherits just one copy from either of its parents.

If the team had continued to replace the rim eggs, you could imagine a future when the robins were entirely dependent on humans for their survival. They’d effectively be living in a wild zoo. Consider the domesticated silkworm—the moth that provides us with silk. Five thousand years of coddled breeding at the hands of humans have left these insects unable to fly or feed themselves as adults.

Thankfully, “the black robin just narrowly escaped such a fate,” Massaro wrote.

The team stopped repositioning the eggs in 1990, once robin numbers had bounced back to more promising levels. Natural selection started doing its thing and the proportion of rim-laying females has fallen from 50 percent to around 10 percent. The allele is still around though, hiding from natural selection in the bodies of males, and waiting to pass to another generation.

The goal of conservation isn’t just to save a species temporarily, but to create a wild population that can sustain itself without our help. The black robin shows just how difficult this goal can be. The team saved the bird, but their practices threatened to leave it incapable of breeding on its own. That would have been no use: conservation programmes are laborious and expensive, and can’t go on forever.

As the team write, “Conservation planning has to overcome this fundamental dilemma of rapidly increasing the size of severely endangered populations to avoid immediate extinction but without simultaneously increasing the frequency of detrimental alleles that are already present in the population.”

PS: As per usual, the acknowledgements of the paper detailed what each of the authors did, by their initials. It says who performed the experiments, analysed the data, contributed materials and tools, and wrote the paper. And rather delightfully, it ends with: “Led the team that saved the black robin from extinction: DM.” Well done, Don Merton. Well done.

Reference: Massaro, Sainudiin, Merton, Briskie, Poole & Hale. 2013. Human-Assisted Spread of a Maladaptive Behavior in a Critically Endangered Bird. PLoS ONE