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Today (March 3rd) is World Wildlife Day! Initially I was going to write about a charismatic mammalian species like the magnificent Siberian tiger or the mountain tapir, but then it occurred to me that I should write about a predator which is larger than the tiger and ranges farther than the tapir, yet which humankind regards with contempt (if we think about it at all). Behold the magnificent Atlantic halibut, the largest of the flatfish.

The Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) is a mighty predator of the North Atlantic. They range from Iceland and Greenland down to the Bay of Biscay and Virginia. These fish are capable of reaching a length of 2.5 m (8.2 ft) and can weigh more than 320 kg (710 lb). Like other flatfish, Atlantic halibut are lurking benthic predators which snap up unwary prey animal, however, unlike many of the other flounder species (which sometimes swim awkwardly due to asymmetric bodies), Atlantic halibut are strong swimmers capable of lengthy migrations and real speed. Just look at how different their tail is from other flatfish. Although they are not absolute apex predator of their habitat (which is also inhabited by orcas, sperm whales, and great white sharks), halibut prey on some pretty substantial animals such as cod, haddock, herring, pogge, lobsters, large crabs, and various cephalopods.

Atlantic halibut larva (greatly magnified)

Although it rarely happens today, in our world of rampant overfishing, Atlantic halibut can live to be more than half a century in age. When they spawn, the female fish lay up to 4 million eggs (!) which hatch after 16 days. The tiny larvae (above) are almost transparent and they spend about a year among the zooplankton, gorging on microscopic algae, eggs, and tiny invertebrates until they are large enough to undergo the strange metamorphose into adulthood. Once they attain sufficient age and size, one of their eyes migrates across their skull to the other side of their head (they are right-facing flounder, by the way) and the back/bottom side of the fish becomes white and pale. Young halibuts are pale gray and brown with little pebble-like spots, but as they age they turn into a uniform sable color (on the upward facing part of their body, I mean). They are among the largest teleosts–although sunfish can grow much larger.

As you can see, Atlantic halibut are impressive fish. Yet, when I was growing up they were mostly known as the source of discount fish sticks or as something to fry when the cod was all out. Because they are commercially valuable (and delicious), they have been overfished to such a degree that they were added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 1996. Commercial fishermen also used to catch these halibut with bottom trawls–an ecologically devastating method of fishing which ravages the bottom of the ocean and creates far more bycatch (“accidental bystander fish” which are thrown back into the ocean dead) than actual catch. Ecologists have compared bottom trawling to dyamiting a forest to hunt squirrels.

Regular readers know that I religiously draw flatfish after flatfish (here, check out my Instagram profile and see for yourself). I get the feeling that it greatly perplexes most people (even though I have previously tried to explain) and, even now, I suspect that there are readers who wonder why I am featuring a “food fish” for World Wildlife Day rather than a tiger, falcon, or killer whale or something. For one thing, I think there are many things which are legitimately beautiful, special, and amazing about flounder. Their hunting, and camouflage abilities impress me as much as their non-bilateral symmetry (which is unique in the vertebrate world). The flounders are taxonomically much more diverse and widespread than say, primates. They are also a great symbol of the living oceans–a sort of avatar of the primordial depths which we never really know (no matter how many frogmen, minisubs, and trawlers we send down there). Of course they are also our victims–and we kill them literally by the boatload to make money and feed and amuse ourselves.

Flounder also have a tragicomic mien which I find deeply compelling: they are both the comedy and the tragedy mask at the same time. Their sad, hungry grimace and weirdly knowing google eyes perfectly encapsulate the ambiguities of being alive (there is a reason that use of the word “floundering” leaped off of the charts during our annus horribilis in 2020). But in the end, it strikes me that life itself is floundering as humans desperately use up more and more of the planet’s resources. As much as I would love to live in a giant money shower like Wylan or Ed Hardy, somehow killer whales and tigers do not scream “victim” the same way that flounders do…and it is impossible not to conclude that that is exactly what the natural world is screaming right now.

Apollo and the Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

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“Northern riffleshell, snuffbox, clubshell and rayed bean” Remember those names for soon they may indeed be nothing more than memories.  An invader has come to America from the mysterious seas of Central Asia.  This interloper stowed away and came to America 30 years ago.  Authorities are powerless to stop the rampage of terror.  It has already conquered the sinister-sounding Lake Erie, a freshwater sea which is found deep in the hinterlands of…wait…Lake Erie borders New York ? [checks notes]

What on Earth is going on here?

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You may think this absurd looking creature is a sentient hockey puck or the ghost of Jim Backus.  It is instead a goby…a tribe of fish which are sort of the prairie dogs of the sea.  This is the round goby (Neogobius melanostomus).  It is a hard-headed omnivorous fish which can live in both fresh and salt water.  Originally native to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the tiny fish is thought to have come to the Great Lakes by stowing away in ballast water of a freighter.  Since its arrival in the Saint Lawrence Seaway, it has made the entire Great Lakes its home and it is now spreading along the rivers and creeks radiating from the lakes.

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This is a pretty impressive feat and nobody is castigating the ugly little fish for being lazy or weak.  In fact it is even sort of endearing in a crude 1970s cartoon sort of way.

TIME-FOR-TIMER-5

My god, what happened during that decade?

Unfortunately the gobies’ unstoppable appetite is leading to the extinction of indigenous freshwater mussels like the Northern riffleshell and clubshell mussels.  Freshwater mussels were already in trouble because of pollution, habitat loss, and stream degradation.  Now they have to contend with this formidable 9 inch long 2 ounce predator.  I have written this article with a joking touch, but, sadly, this sequence of events is no joke. Ecologists are worried that the gobies will continue to spread (particularly with the help of careless anglers, who use them as live bait).  Understanding and curtailing the proliferation of alien species causing havoc in unprepared ecosystems is one of the defining environmental challenges of our times (which are filled with environmental challenges), but so far nobody has figured out how to do so.  Perhaps in the future the Great Lakes will be filled with the descendants of round gobies eating zebra mussels.  Sometimes it seems like nobody and nothing can keep up with the pace of change.

 

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Of all of the world’s abalone species, the white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni) has the sweetest, whitest, most delectable meat…or so I am told: I have never eaten one.  Indeed, it is increasingly unlikely that anyone will eat one again.  A horrible thing happened to the white abalone in the seventies (and to lots of other people and things too, but we need to stay focused).   A commercial fishery came into existence and, although it lasted for less than a decade 30 years ago, it seems to have dealt a nearly fatal blow to the white abalone.

White abalone are herbivorous gastropods which are not exactly white—they have an orange foot with tan sensory tentacles (!).  They are herbivores which live on rocks surrounded by sand channels at about 25-30 meters of depth (80-100 feet).  They can be found in Southern California and the northern parts of the Baja peninsula.  White abalone are broadcast spawners.  They release…uh, their gametes into open water in large numbers.  The abalone fishery of the seventies and early eighties thinned their numbers so drastically that they do not exist in proximity to each other.  White abalone live a maximum of about forty years, so the last natural specimens are dying off without reproducing.  They are broadcasting their genetic information into the open ocean with no complimentary abalones nearby to produce offspring.

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The NOAA is working with various partners to save the abalone.  The administration and various mollusk lovers and malacologists have created a captive breeding program at the University of California-Davis Bodega Marine Lab.  Although they have successfully spawned enormous numbers of white abalones, the larval shellfish do not do well in captivity and the species’ ultimate survival remains an open question.  Fortunately, in pursuing the goal of saving the white abalone, the scientists have learned a great deal about abalone disease treatment and prevention and how to maintain water suitable for the young sea snails.   The whole sad episode seems to indicate several troubling things about our (in) bility to manage marine resources—and yet, through extraordinary countermeasures we have forestalled complete disaster.  I wonder if the white abalone will manage to come back based on all we have learned.

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Gilbert's potoroo (Potorous gilbertii)

Gilbert’s potoroo (Potorous gilbertii)

Gilbert’s Potoroo (Potorous gilbertii) was a ratlike marsupial fungivore which lived in great numbers throughout south-west Australia—particularly around King George Sound.  The animals were discovered to science by the great naturalist George Gilbert in 1840.  Unfortunately the potoroo proved to be extremely vulnerable to introduced predators such as foxes and dingoes.  After an exhaustive search in the 1970s failed to find any living specimens of the creature (which had not been seen in decades) the unlucky mammals were deemed extinct, and thus Gilbert’s potoroo vanished forever from the—[needle comes off of sad record]—wait! actually this strange rodent-like/kangaroo-like creature was rediscovered in 1994.

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After nearly two decades during which time the potoroos were presumed dead, a small population was found living in a remote and inaccessible scrubland beside Two Peoples Bay in Western Australia.  The area was proclaimed a nature preserve and humankind leapt into action to save the beleaguered potoroo.

Gilbert's potoroo, Potorous gilbertii

Gilbert’s potoroo, Potorous gilbertii

Yet, it has not been easy to relaunch the peculiar animal.  The creatures live on truffle-like fungi, which they dig up with their three toed paws (each digit has a sharpened digging claw).  The male potoroos are susceptible to balanoposthitis, a bacterial disease which disfigures the genitals with inflammation and leaves the creatures unable to reproduce.  Also the animals seem to be extremely sensitive to cryptococcosis, a dangerous fungal disease which can lead to coughing and respiratory failure.

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Fortunately, patient zookeepers, rangers, and volunteers have been working to help Gilbert’s potoroo overcome these alarming hurdles.  The world population now numbers nearly 70—but the peculiar marsupial digger remains one of the planet’s most endangered mammals.

A newborn baby bilby (Macrotis lagotis) at the Taronga Zoo

A newborn baby bilby (Macrotis lagotis) at the Taronga Zoo

Everybody knows about the Easter Bilby—the magical marsupial who brings Easter eggs and candy treats to the good children of Australia (who are scarred by years of pestilential rabbit hordes)—but what does that have to do with Christmas week?  Well, this year bilbies are taking over Christmas as well as Easter.  Taronga Zoo (the city Zoo of Sydney Australia) is celebrating the birth of the zoo’s first-ever bilby joeys!  Although the bilbies were actually “born” 10 weeks ago, they are only just now emerging from their mother’s pouch.  The gestation period for the bilby is a mere two weeks, but when they are born they are still a bit underdone so they linger in the mother’s protected pouch for 75 days!  The mother of these adorable little scamps is named Yajala.  She moved to Sydney in order to pursue romance with George, the resident male bilby.  Since their mother is still extremely secretive and protective of her new little ones, it is unclear what gender the two babies are.  Their birth is exceedingly good news for bilbies which are terribly endangered by habitat loss and invasive predatory edentates.  The bilbies are all greater bilbies (Macrotis lagotis), which is the last living species of the family Thylacomyidae.  Aren’t they adorable?

Photos by Robert Dockerill

Photos by Robert Dockerill

Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

The English word “ebony” comes from the Ancient Egyptian word “hbny” (well, that is actually an approximation: I cannot find the vulture, asp, or little man characters on my keyboard). An obsession with the dense sable wood has clearly been a long-standing feature of human culture. The Greek word for the trees is “Diospyros” which apparently means something like “God’s wheat” or “fruit of Zeus” (since the Greeks first encountered ebonies in the form of Caucasian Persimmon trees). There are over 700 separate species in the Diospyros Genus—many of these are weird little shrubs or deciduous persimmon trees–but some are evergreen tropical giants.

 

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Arguably the most famous of all these ebony/persimmon trees is the Gabon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora) which produces a close-grained black wood so dense that it sinks in water. This precious wood is beautiful for carving and cabinet making, but the magnificence of the timber has been the sad downfall of the actual living tree. Diospyros crassiflora lives in West Africa from Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon down through the Central African Republic and through the two Congo Republics.

 

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set--East Africa (early 2oth century)

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set–East Africa (early 2oth century)

The tree grows very slowly and to great age. It tends to be solitary—but mature trees can grow to 20 meters (60 feet) in height. Sadly most of the large specimens have been cut down for the exotic timber trade and the tree is now listed as endangered.  Infuriatingly I can’t even find a picture of the living tree–it’s like I wanted to show you a bull, but could only find pictures of hamburger.

 

Ilha de Queimada Grande

Ilha de Queimada Grande

Off the coast of Sao Paolo State, the main industrial and financial province of Brazil, lies Ilha de Queimada Grande, a tiny tropical paradise of 106 acres (approximately half the size of the Bronx Zoo). The island is uninhabited by humans, but it is the sole home of the Golden Lancehead pit viper (Bothrops insularis), a toxic yellow and brown viper which lives on small birds and lizards. Adult snakes are usually around 70 cm (28 inches) in length, although large specimens can grow to 118 cm (46 inches). The vipers are mostly arboreal although they can also live on the cliffs and scrubland of their rugged little island. The Brazilian navy forbids all but authorized personnel and invitees from setting foot on the island, so the little spit of rock and forest mostly belongs to the snakes.

 

The Golden Lancehead Viper (Bothrops insularis)

The Golden Lancehead Viper (Bothrops insularis)

Living on a forbidden island and possessing venom capable of killing a human, the vipers would seem to be invulnerable, but, of course such is not the case. The habitat for the vipers is so small that they suffer from inbreeding and cannibalism! Also, the fell hand of man is toying with the poor snakes. ABC News reported on the situation today. According to the news/entertainment site, “Rogerio Zacariotti, a researcher with the Cruzeiro Do Sul University in Brazil, travels to “Snake Island” regularly to monitor the Gloden Lancehead population. He is convinced poachers are stealing the snakes from the island and selling them on the black market.”

 

Psssst, wanna buy a dangerous snake?

Psssst, wanna buy a dangerous snake?

What sort of crazy person would want a deadly inbred endangered snake? What is wrong with people? Hopefully the Brazilian navy and the vipers themselves will teach the thieving interlopers a little lesson about victimizing a miniature ecosystem!

An Amazon River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) eating an armored catfish

An Amazon River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) eating an armored catfish

Among the rarest and most endangered of mammals are the beautiful river dolphins, a group of magnificent freshwater cetaceans which live in certain huge river basins in Asia and South America.  Up until today, science knew about the Ganges River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica), the Amazon River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), the Bolivian river dolphin (Inia boliviensis), the Yangtze Dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), and the La Plata River Dolphin (Pontoporia blainvillei).  I have a weakness for river dolphins and each of these incredible species is worthy of a much longer post!  In fact my ill-fated toy company, River Dolphin Toys, was named for the botu, the playful pink river dolphin of the Amazon River (but, alas, making good toys is no substitute for being well-organized, ruthless, and severe). China’s Yangtze River Dolphin was one of the prettiest animals alive but it is now functionally extinct (the tale behind the mass death of these beautiful white dolphins is a profoundly sad story of modern China which I will tell some other day when we all feel stronger).  The Ganges dolphin is swiftly going extinct because of…actually, let’s cover the known river dolphins some other time.  Today’s news is about the new river dolphin species which was just discovered: the Araguaian river dolphin, Inia araguaiaensis!

The Araguaian river dolphin (Inia araguaiaensis) eating a fish.  Can you spot the differences? (photo by Nicole Dutra)

The Araguaian river dolphin (Inia araguaiaensis) eating a fish. Can you spot the differences? (photo by Nicole Dutra)

The Araguaian dolphin lives in the Araguaia River (a tributary of the Tocantins River) in a rainforest watershed habitat very much like the Amazon.   Araguaian dolphins look nearly identical to Amazon dolphins and were long regarded as a subspecies.  Both river dolphins are clever alpha predators of the river with sharp wits and long toothy rostrums for catching tasty freshwater fish.  As it turns out however, the two species diverged 2 million years ago when the rivers became separate.  Despite a similar appearance to the Amazon River dolphin, the Araguaian dolphin has a larger brain case and different genetic makeup.  Araguaian dolphins do not interbreed with either of the other two known Inia dolphin species (although I have no idea how scientists discovered this fact).  The “new” dolphins are threatened by deforestation, fishing, and hydroelectric dams.  Indeed, biologists speculate that only a thousand individuals are left in their population.  Hopefully the Brazilian people will find a way to protect the lovely and intelligent animals before they too vanish forever.

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Bornean Slow Loris (Nycticebus menagensis) Photo courtesy of the Danau Girang Field Centre

Slow lorises are primates from the genus Nycticebus. All five species of slow lorises live in Southern and Southeast Asia.  The various species are scattered across a swath of territory running from southern India down across Southern China across the Malay Peninsula and throughout Indonesia. All of the slow lorises are nocturnal and arboreal.  Their large eyes help them see at night and their sense of smell is unusually acute.  The primates are omnivorous and consume insects, fruit, and plant matter.  Their metabolism is very low and their movements are slow and methodical.

Slow lorises are strepsirrhine primates: they have traits which biologists consider to be “ancestral” for primates such as rhinariums (i.e. “wet” noses such as dogs, cats, and bunnies have), multiple sets of nipples, and the ability to enzymatically manufacture ascorbic acid.

Illustration of a Slow Loris’ Brachial Gland

Slow lorises also have glands on their elbows called brachial glands which produce a strong smelling secretion.  They anoint themselves with this substance and groom it through their fur using their tooth combs (which consist of needle-like teeth on the lower jaw used for grooming).  Some zoological literature contends that slow lorises are poisonous and that the combination of their saliva and the secretion from their brachial glands is toxic to humans, however this is not exactly correct.  Humans are allergic to slow loris secretions and sometimes go into anaphylactic shock when bitten, yet the secretions are not toxic per se.

Slow Loris (from Cute Overload)

In the wild slow lorises are preyed on by large snakes, hawk-eagles, and orangutans (who are evidently not quite as vegetarian as they are made out to be).  Predictably, the hugely expanding human population of Southeast Asia constitutes the most serious threat to the various species of slow loris.  Many of the little creatures are captured for the pet trade.  Since slow loris bites are painful, hunters cut out captured animals’ teeth—an operation which is frequently fatal and, if successful, leaves them  defenseless and lacking their principle means of cleaning themselves and interacting with other lorises (since grooming is a part of bonding).

Not only are slow lorises threatened by the pet trade.  Local superstition attributes magical protection powers to the slow loris, an so their bodies are burned or cut up for various spells, potions, and nostrums (evidently the protective magic does nothing for the slow lorises themselves). David Adam, detailed some of the consequences of magical myths about lorises in an article written for The Guardian:

As a result [of superstition], the luckless lorises frequently find themselves roasted alive over wood fires while eager people catch the supposedly life-giving liquor that drips out. Bits of their bodies are used in traditional medicine. And legend has it that villagers anxious about traffic safety need only bury a loris beneath a new road to keep it free from accidents.

As stupid and malicious as human reasons for hunting slow lorises are, the most serious threat to the animals comes from deforestation and habitat destruction.  Hopefully the rampant destruction of Southeast Asia’s rainforests will halt in time to save our big eyed cousins.

Musk Deer

Continuing our series of posts about saber toothed mammals we come to a second family of living creatures.  Half way between the primitive chevrotains (mouse deer) and the familiar true deer (cervids) are the Moschidae, a family of small artiodactyls consisting of one genus with several similar species.  The musk deer are small delicate grazers which live in the forested mountains or alpine scrubland of Asia.  Musk deer weigh between 7 and 17 kilograms (15 and 37 lb) depending on gender, age, and species. Unlike true deer, the little creatures lack antlers, but male musk deer make up for this absence with a pair of elongated canine teeth which they use to fight for breeding rights.

Alpine Musk Deer (Moschus chrysogaster)

Like true deer, musk deer eat the tender shoots of trees and grasses, as well as berries, lichens, and mosses.  Females live in small territories of approximately 100 to 200 acres.  The territory of a dominant male will overlap several of the females’ territories.  Female musk deer give birth to a single fawn.  Musk deer are nocturnal or crepuscular.  They use their acute hearing and excellent sense of smell to flee from predators at the slightest hint of danger.

The skull of a male Siberian Musk Deer (Moschus moschiferus)

Male adult musk deer have a musk pouch located between their genitals and their umbilicus which they use to attract mates.  Unfortunately for the little saber toothed deer this pouch also attracts human hunters.  For centuries (or longer) musk has been a prized luxury good, so much so that, at times, prices have soared to $45,000/kg on the black market. The musk is said to have an incredibly complex aroma but the main notes are earthy, woody, and “animalic” (i.e. fecal).  Dried musk grain must be substantially tinctured with alcohol before it produces a perfume which is pleasant to humans.  The resultant substance however served as a mainstay of the perfume industry and as a cure-all nostrum in ayurvedic medicine until the creation of synthetic musk.  Poor musk deer from several species were nearly wiped out because of whatever mysterious power their sexual marking fluid has on humankind.

The Dwarf Musk Deer (Moschus berezovskii)

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