July 13, 2012
Snow leopards live in the remote mountains of countries such as Bhutan, China, India, Mongolia and Nepal. They are endangered—a mere 4,000 to 6,000 individuals are spread out over Central Asia—and live solitary lives, usually active just at dawn and dusk. Coupled with their exceptional camouflage, this makes them notoriously elusive—although they figure largely in the mythology of many Asian cultures, wild snow leopards weren’t even caught on camera until the 1970s.
Now, for the first time, a team of researchers from the Snow Leopard Trust and Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization, have captured video of a wild snow leopard mother and cubs in a den, seen above. “This is incredible. Snow leopards are so rare and elusive that people often talk about them as ‘ghosts’ of the mountains,” said Brad Rutherford, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust. “This is the first documented visit of a den site with cubs, and thanks to this video we can share it with the world.”
The search began back in 2008, when an team of scientists affixed GPS collars to several snow leopards encountered in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Then, this past May, a pair of females from the study began restricting their movements to a smaller area, indicating they were preparing to give birth. Researchers tracked the VHF signals emitted by the collars through steep mountain outcroppings, coming upon a pair of dens located less than four miles apart in the Tost Mountains on June 21st.
“As we stood outside the den we could hear the cub and smell the cats but not see anything inside the den,” said Panthera scientist Orjan Johansson. He and colleagues acted quickly, taping a camera to their antenna pole and extending it over the ledge blocking the den entrance. The footage captured shows a female leopard looking up at the camera, keeping a protective paw over her cub.
At the second den—a narrow crack in a cliff wall—the scientists discovered that the mother was away hunting, leaving her two male cubs unattended, seen below. “This was an unprecedented opportunity,” said Rutherford. “We wanted to be as careful as possible and only take the most pressing data.” The team quickly weighed, measured, photographed and collected hair samples from the cubs, which allowed genetic testing that confirmed sex and other information. More pictures of the cubs are available at Panthera’s photo gallery.
The team also implanted microchip ID tags—each of which are roughly the size of a grain of rice—under the cubs’ skin, which will allow the researchers to identify the animals as part of future conservation projects. After leaving, they tracked signals from the mother’s VHF collar to ensure that she returned to the den, and they note that she is still with the cubs now. The researchers do not plan to visit the dens again, so as to limit future disturbance to the cubs.
The team says that the information collected will be extremely valuable in future attempts to conserve the endangered species. Remarkably little is known about snow leopard behavior, and most of what we understand about the rearing of cubs is known from studying the animals in a zoo environment. Until know, scientists had to speculate about typical litter sizes, cub weights, sex ratios and survival rates.
“Knowledge about the first days and weeks of life is vital to our understanding of how big cat populations work, and how likely it is for a newborn to reach adulthood and contribute to a healthy population,” said Panthera’s Howard Quigley. “A valid conservation program requires such information, which this new development in snow leopard research provides.”
The organization plans to use the microchip ID tags affixed to the cubs to learn about the characteristics of a typical snow leopard upbringing, such as how long the cubs remain in dens, when they being to hunt with their mothers and when they start to venture out on their own. Along with future GPS collaring programs, these data will assist with large-scale conservation efforts across the species’ range.
“We have spent years trying to determine when and where snow leopards give birth, the size of their litters and the chances a cub has of surviving into adulthood,” said Tom McCarthy, director of Panthera’s snow leopard program. “This is one of those exceptional moments in conservation where after years of effort, we get a rare glimpse into the life of an animal that needs our help in surviving in today’s world.”
July 5, 2012
If you head outside to enjoy a pleasant evening this summer and look carefully, you might notice something subtle missing from the darkening sky: bats. Since 2006, bat populations across the Northeast U.S. have been declining due to the spread of the poorly-understood disease known as white-nose syndrome. The fungal disease, which attacks bats during hibernation and has caused up to 95 percent of particular colonies to die off, has experts concerned that several bat species are headed towards extinction. In 2008, bat expert Alan Hicks said “Most bat researchers would agree that this is the gravest threat to bats they have ever seen.”
Now, according to a study published earlier this week in the journal Ecology Letters, we finally have a better understanding of what makes some species more vulnerable to white nose syndrome than other—and how we can act most efficiently to save them. A team of biologists from the University of California, Santa Cruz examined bat population data collected over the past three decades to determine which of six species have suffered the most from the disease. Their findings indicate that bat species that hibernate in the largest, most social groups tend to die off more quickly and may be on the road to extinction.
“We found that in the highly social species that prefer to hibernate in large, tightly packed groups, the declines were equally severe in colonies that varied from 50 bats to 200,000 bats,” said co-author Marm Kilpatrick in a press release. “That suggests that colonies of those species will continue to decline even when they reach small population sizes.”
The scientists speculate that the close proximity of hibernating bats allows the disease to be transmitted more easily. The fungus, which grows on the bats’ skin during the winter hibernation period, causes a loss of fat reserves, damage to the wing membranes and unusual behavior, even leading some hibernating bats to try flying during the winter. The combination of these symptoms leads to increased bat mortality, which can trigger disruptions throughout local ecosystems—including some we (unfortunately) feel firsthand, like higher amounts of mosquitoes and other insects that bats prey on.
The study also revealed a few pieces of good news, though. Bats that typically hibernate alone (such as the Eastern pipistrelle) experienced much more gradual declines in population than the gregarious species. After several years of declines in the populations of these more solitary bats, their population numbers generally leveled off, reducing the odds of extinction.
Moreover, one particular bat species–Myotis lucifugus, or the little brown bat, the most common species in the Northeast—bucked expectations by actually changing its behavior to ensure a greater survival rate. Although in the past, the species generally preferred to hibernate in clusters and has suffered a major population collapse since the onset of the disease, the researchers now observe roughly 75 percent of individuals roosting solo, which has reduced transmission rates significantly. ”Our analysis suggests that the little brown bats are probably not going to go extinct because they are changing their social behavior in a way that will result in their persisting at smaller populations,” Kilpatrick said.
The study also looked at the variance in disease rates among microclimates within caves, and found that bats hibernating in cooler and drier sites were less likely to be stricken by the fungus. The researchers are unsure why these locations may serve as refuges from the disease and note that more research into transmission is necessary.
The new findings could go a long way in helping us actively conserve bat populations to avoid extinctions. ”Managing disease outbreaks appears to be a daunting task, given the complexity of most ecosystems,” said Sam Scheiner of the National Science Foundation, which funded the study. “This study, however, shows that in fact we can identify the key factors needed for adequate management.”
Some evidence suggests that the fungus can be carried on the clothing of humans entering caves, and in some locations, disinfecting clothes is now required, while other caves have been closed entirely. As a result of the study, immediate conservation efforts can be focused on the species that face the greatest danger.
June 18, 2012
In downtown Sydney, just behind the iconic Opera House, lies the Royal Botanic Garden, 75 acres of flowers, trees and grassy areas first established in 1816 on the site of Australia’s first farm, Farm Cove. The gardens are a place for tourists and the people of Sydney to explore and enjoy, and they’re also a site for conservation research. Because this is one of the biggest green spaces in the city, the gardens are home to plenty of wildlife, including flocks of cockatoos and bats with wingspans a yard wide.
While the cockatoos can be annoying (especially if you’re stupid enough to feed them), the bats—called grey-headed flying foxes—have become a real problem, at least in the eyes of garden management. These mammals are herbivores and leave the human visitors largely alone (though they can at times be incredibly creepy). However, they damage the garden because they defoliate trees. In the more than 20 years since the bats took up residence in the gardens, they’ve killed 28 mature trees, 30 palms and many other plants and damaged another 300. Most worrisome, they settled in the Palm Grove, site of many of the oldest trees in the garden, including historic, exotic species collected from places such as Malaysia and New Guinea. So several years ago the management of the garden decided that the flying foxes had to go.
But grey-headed flying foxes are a species on the decline (IUCN lists them as vulnerable) and protected in Australia. They’ve lost foraging and roosting habitat in many places, and commercial fruit tree growers consider them a pest and kill them (either illegally or with permission from the government).
The Botanic Garden couldn’t kill the bats, though, so they came up with a plan to force them out. They would play recorded noise in late autumn and early winter just before dawn—making it difficult for them to sleep peacefully after a night of foraging—and around sunset, giving them an early wake-up call. The idea is that the bats would be so annoyed that they would decide to roost somewhere else. Wouldn’t you leave a hotel if the people in the neighboring room played loud music when you were trying to fall asleep and you kept getting 3 a.m. wake-up calls?
After several reviews and many delays, the Botanic Garden finally implemented its plan this month. By last week, there were only about 10 bats left in the gardens. The rest appear to have fled a couple of miles south to Centennial Park. The Botanic Gardens will now turn its efforts to restoring the areas damaged by the flying foxes.
The story may not end there, however. The recorded noises will be played only until sometime in July. After that, it would be too disturbing for pregnant flying foxes, who could abort due to the stress, or for new mothers who might be separated from their babies. But flying foxes move seasonally, and come September or October, bats from outside the area could decide the gardens look like a great home.
Garden management is hopeful that the plan will work. After all, the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne successfully removed their own grey-headed flying fox population in 2003 using similar methods. Those bats can now be found in nearby Yarra Bend Park.
But was the removal of the flying foxes from the Sydney gardens really necessary? When I first heard of this plan, shortly before my latest trip to Sydney in March, I was sad to hear that the bats would soon be gone. They were one of my favorite memories from my first trip there—looking up on a beautiful fall day to see hundreds of these little Draculas hanging above me. While I was in Sydney this year, I met with Tim Cary, a bat researcher at Macquarie University. He made a good case for why stressing out these animals was akin to torture and contended that the plan was doomed to fail. (Cary suggested tenting the Palm Grove with netting to keep the bats out.)
I also met with Mark Salvio, director of the Royal Botanic Garden, and we spoke at length about the level of destruction, the plans to get rid of the flying foxes and the levels of review and restructuring that the plans had gone through over the years. This isn’t something that is being done without any consideration for the consequences to the grey-headed flying fox species. And as much as I enjoyed the bats during my visits, I could understand that the Garden had placed its foliage as a higher priority–that’s why it exists, to preserve the gardens and their history. (After all, I doubt that the Smithsonian Institution would let its collections be destroyed by, say, insects in the warehouse, even if those insects were an endangered species.)
Did Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden make the right choice? Is stressing the bats a truly horrible thing to do? Will it even work? We’ll have to wait and see on that last question. As for the other two, I know where Cary stands. Where do you?
February 22, 2012
When human urban habitat runs into the terrain of other species, the results can be traumatic for many of the parties involved.
Take coastal southern California, which has seen a big population boom in the past couple of decades. As people built skyscrapers and condos and highways to accommodate their growing numbers, they inadvertently split up the natural habitats of lizards and birds, bobcats and coyotes, and loads of other species. Isolated to much smaller patches of habitat (not to mention surrounded by metal, concrete and plastic), the animals wind up with a much smaller gene pool, making them more susceptible to disease, climate change and natural disaster.
Since the 1960s, a solution often trumpeted by conservationists is to build a “wildlife corridor”: a green pathway that connects one patch of habitat to another, allowing species to move across wider areas despite human developments. These corridors exist or are being built all over the world, from jaguar habitat in the Americas to hardwood forests in Bhutan to tropical rainforests in Australia.
But two active corridor builders are now questioning whether the approach is a good one.
In a commentary published last month in PLoS Biology, conservationists Paul Beier and Andrew Gregory from Northern Arizona University pointed out that there’s actually scant evidence that wildlife corridors work in large, human-dominated landscapes. Almost all research has been done on corridors less than 150 meters long, whereas most implemented corridors are many times larger. What’s more, these studies generally measure only whether animals move from patch A to patch B, rather than explicitly testing genetic diversity or long-term occupancy.
Hoping for better data, the duo has launched a crowd-sourcing project of sorts to identify corridor-like landscapes that would be useful for research. Ideally, they’d like to find spots that meet eight criteria, such as being at least 500 meters long, near urban or industrial activity and stable for at least 20 years after human development. So far, they’re learned of 15 promising sites, but hope to find at least 100. If you can think of one, let them know.
October 13, 2011
You’ve probably laughed at a commercial or television show featuring a chimpanzee dressed like a little kid. They’re cute animals, so how could you resist? But a new study in PLoS ONE provides startling evidence that turning chimps into entertainers makes us care less about them as a species.
Researchers at Duke University had human participants watch a series of television ads (for products like tooth paste and soda) in which they included either a commercial for chimp conservation featuring Jane Goodall, a bit of footage of chimpanzees in the wild or a commercial that had a chimp dressed like a human. The participants were then given a questionnaire that asked about the suitability of chimps as pets, their presence in the media and their status in the wild. They were also asked if they would like to purchase a soda or a tube of toothpaste or to donate to the Red Cross or a conservation organization.
People who saw the chimps dressed as humans were more likely to view the animals as being suitable as pets or in entertainment and were the least likely to donate to the conservation organization. The researchers write:
Advertisers only use easily manageable young chimpanzees in commercials but based on our survey viewers believe these chimpanzees were adults—leaving them unaware of how dangerous these animals can be when fully grown. Such a frivolous use of chimpanzees also leads those watching chimpanzee commercials to overestimate their population size in the wild. Clearly, chimpanzee commercials violated participants’ expectations about how perilously endangered animals are treated. This confusion likely explains why those watching commercials including entertainment chimpanzees donated the least of their experimental earnings to a conservation charity.
“Nobody has measured this sort of thing before, but [our study] clearly shows that the portrayal of endangered species on television can alter viewers’ behaviors and decrease one’s willingness to donate,” says graduate student Kara Schroepfer, the study’s lead author. “This is a clear indication that we need to reevaluate media practices and conservation priorities.”
And the impact of using chimps as entertainers goes beyond the money issue. If people think that chimps make good pets—which is seriously misguided—then more young chimpanzees may be captured in the wild, their mothers killed, so they can be sold into the pet trade. And there is a sad history of chimps being abandoned or killed when they get too old and too dangerous to be cute.