Eco News

Six New Species of Snake-like Amphibians Discovered in India

 

A team of scientists from the University of Delhi, the U.K. National History Museum, and Belgium’s Vrije University has spent more than 2,000 hours over the last 5 years digging in northeastern India beneath tropical undergrowth.  Their tireless shoveling has led to the discovery of a suspected six new species, three of which have already been confirmed.

 

The elusive animals are part of a group of limbless amphibians who split off from their other relatives over 140 million years ago in Africa, of the “caecillian” species.  These tiny snakelike amphibians are “very difficult to see above the soil because of their burrowing nature and cryptic appearance”, said S.D. Biju of the University of Delhi.

 

 

Little is known of the species being called Chikila Fulleri, an extension of the African local tribal name for caecillians.  What is known is that females are extremely protective of their young.  Mothers guard their eggs for nearly 95 days without eating anything.  The team noted that this protective feature is rarely seen from other amphibians.  Young caecillians have been known to feast off the flesh of their mother’s skin after hatching, which doesn’t seem very fair after three months of such high-level maternal care.

 

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees scientists will be able to learn more about the species in the future.  Their native habitats in India have been in serious jeopardy due to slash and burn agriculture.  If the enormity of the agricultural malpractices in the region can affect an animal as rare and tiny as the Fulleri, desperate measures must be taken to protect habitats in the area. Biju’s hope is that this family of new species “may be a flagship animal for conservation in the region.”  –Raffi Simel  (photos by S.D. Biju)

 

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 Jurassic Plant! Russian Scientists Revive 30,000-Year-Old Flower

If you’ve ever wondered if Jurassic Park was really possible, scientists may have found your answer in a river bank in Siberia, from which they were able to bring a 30,000-year-old plant back to life!

 

Russian scientists from the Institute of Cell Biophysics recently uncovered fruit that has laid frozen in the banks of Siberia’s Kolmya River for over 30,000 years.  They have since successfully raised plants called Silene stenophylla (of the campion family) from the ancient fruit.

 

The scientists found around 70 squirrel hibernation burrows in the frozen river banks at depths ranging from 20 meters to nearly 40 meters below ground level.  The burrows included bones of mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, and plant and fruit remains.  The presence of vertical ice proved that these remains in the fossil burrows have been continuously frozen all these years.
Back in Moscow, the team of scientists tried to germinate mature seeds recovered from the plant remains, but failed.  However, they found success in using “placental tissue” from the fruit itself.  According to Robin Probert, head of conservation and technology at the UK’s Millennium Seed Bank, “This is by far the most extraordinary example of extreme longevity for material from higher plants.”  Prior to this, the oldest plant material to be brought back to life was date palm seeds stored for 2,000 years at Masada in Israel.
The research from the Kolmya River project has the potential to help in scientific studies of evolution, illuminating environmental conditions of the past as well as providing insight on bringing plants back to life that have been extinct for thousands of years… provided that more squirrels hid away such treasures for us to uncover.  And let’s be honest: Can reviving dinosaurs be all that far behind?  –Raffi Simel

 

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International Efforts To Save The Rhino

Rhinos around the world are so threatened that there are few safe havens for them anymore (see photo below for statistics), and their future survival as a species is in serious jeopardy.

The rhino’s increasingly endangered status is almost exclusively due to poaching, which reached record levels in 2011. Rhino horns are valued at up to $45,000 per pound on the black market, exceeding gold and even cocaine and heroin.  The horns have been in increasing demand from the Asian medicine market for their healing and aphrodisiac properties.

These demands are not backed by scientific study but rather, misguided reports of the horns’ ability to cure cancer and other ailments.  The rumors and frenzy have led to the slaughter of 443 rhinos this past year, up from 13 in 2007.  Some species are even becoming extinct.  In 2009, the world’s last Vietnamese rhinoceros,  a subspecies of the Javan rhino, was shot and killed.

Up until recently it was believed that rhino poaching was a regional concern, largely confined to Asia and Africa.  However, increasing break-ins at museums and zoos across the world are finally giving this rampant issue some overdue attention.  The problem is so severe that the National Wildlife Crime Unit is warning zoos and safari parks in the UK that poachers could and likely are targeting their Rhinos.

In order to raise awareness for the threatened rhinos, musicians and poets in Kenya, New Zealand and South Africa will be volunteering their time this weekend, February 11th, for the first annual International Rhino Music Day. The musicians are performing to highlight the abuses and injustice being done towards rhinos throughout the world.  All proceeds from the day will go to Save Our Rhino K9 Investigations Anti-Poaching Unit.

The event will hopefully generate a lot of publicity and funds to keeping rhinos around the world safe, but this may pale in comparison to what they are up against.  This Saturday, be thinking of the Rhinos across the world that need our help. They won’t make it without you.  -Raffi Simel 

 

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The Mass Southern Migration of the Rare Snowy Owl 

 

“What we’re seeing now, it’s unbelievable,” said Denver Holt, head of the Owl Research Institute in Montana.

 

He’s referring to the mass southern migration of snowy owls from their home in the Arctic tundra to many parts of the lower 48 states, including recent spottings in Texas and Hawaii.  This winter has been very unusual for the majestic birds: rarely, if ever, have they been seen so far south.  Bird-watching enthusiasts from all over the country are taking advantage of the irregular migration, which is a phenomenon called an “irruption”–  an invasion of birds in unusual places or in high numbers.

 

The irruption is thought to be caused by an abundance of the owls’ main food source of small animals last summer, called lemmings.  The summer’s plentiful food allowed the owls to raise more young, which has led to increased competition over lemmings this winter.  In order to seek out food, many of the rare owls are flying further south and heading to more unusual destinations.

Perhaps the most famous fictional snowy owl is Hedwig, from the Harry Potter series, which  Harry keeps as a messenger.  The owls have a large following amongst fans of the J.K. Rowling books. But the young wizard probably doesn’t realize that the birds are federally protected in the United States and possessing them without a special permit is illegal.  We’ll let Harry slide this time.

 

The snowy owl has a very calm temperament and will sit for long stretches without being easily startled.  Jerry Jourdan, a birding enthusiast from Michigan, said of seeing his first (and possibly only) snowy owl, “It’s an absolute thrill, and they’re much larger than you expect.  Most people go a lifetime without seeing one.”  If there was ever a time to see such a magnificent bird, this winter may be your best chance for a while.  Keep your eyes peeled… even in Texas.  –Raffi Simel

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Denali National Park, Alaska

Fighting the Burmese Python In Everglades National Park 

 

The United States recently announced a ban on importing Burmese Pythons and transporting the snakes across state lines.  U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the announcement at a flood control pumping station near the Florida Everglades with Florida Senator Ben Nelson and Florida Wildlife Commission officials as they held aloft a recently captured 13-foot python.  The ban also affects the yellow anaconda and northern and southern African pythons.

 

The Burmese python is the most prevalent “invasive species” in subtropical Florida.  Native to southeast Asia and  considered one of the six largest snakes in the world, Burmese pythons are one of many invasive species that start out as seemingly harmless pets.  At a young age, pythons can measure less than a foot in length.  But within a matter of years, they typically grow to be 12 feet long, and in some cases closer to 20 feet.  The enormity of the snakes, and the effort involved in caring for one, has led many pet-owners to let their pythons loose in the wild.

 

 

The increasing disposition of the pythons to the Everglades has led to an overabundance of pythons that the fragile ecosystem simply cannot handle. Producing an average of 12 to 36 eggs per female each year in March and April, needless to say the species is thriving.  According to the US Natural Park Service, over 1330 Burmese Pythons had been captured by the end of 2009, and the numbers seem to be getting worse each year.  Their diet often consists of endangered birds and mammals, but pythons are known to have attacked and eaten alligators, as well as swallowing entire deer.

 

A February 2008 report published by US Geological Survey scientists concluded that, by the end of the 21st century (based on global warming predictions and climate modeling for the snakes’ natural habitat), Burmese Pythons could migrate and flourish in one-third of the continental United States.  Although a more recent study using different ecological modeling has attempted to contradict this claim, the Pythons’ growing numbers in Florida is worrisome.  Hopefully the recent ban is enough to halt the species’ rapid territorial expansion and keep the already fragile Everglades ecosystem intact.  –Raffi Simel

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