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Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)

Italy suffered its largest inland oil spill on February 23, 2010, when millions of gallons of oil was maliciously drained into a tributary of the Po River.  Considered an act of sabotage—perhaps in retaliation by dismissed workers—the perpetrators have never been caught.

The discharge occurred from storage tanks along the Lambro River, an upstream tributary of the Po River.  The Po is Italy’s longest river, flowing 400 miles west to east across the northern expanse of the nation, from the border with France and Switzerland to the Adriatic Sea just south of Venice.  The river drains about a quarter of the Italian land mass, making it the largest watershed in Italy and one of the largest in Europe.  The valley of the Po, called the Pianura Padana, is home to 17 million Italians (one-third of the total population), the cities of Milan and Turin, and the rich agricultural districts of Lombardy, Liguria, Emilia Romagna and others.

The spill occurred when saboteurs released 825,000 gallons of diesel fuel and fuel oil from tanks at an abandoned petroleum refinery about 20 miles north of Milan.  The oil entered the Lambro River and shortly reached the main stem of the Po River.  The Lambro has been considered the most polluted river in the entire Po basin, which includes more than 140 separate streams and small rivers.  The oil slick extended over one mile and continued moving rapidly down the Po River, eventually reaching the Adriatic seacoast.

Although the release probably occurred at the hands of disgruntled refinery workers, Italian authorities called it “a true act of environmental terrorism.”  Observers recorded hundreds of dead and moribund ducks and other birds, and fishermen along the river described the situation as “a stinking mess.”

This spill, however serious, ranks well down the list of major oil spills.  The biggest in Italian waters was the breakup and sinking of the oil tanker MT Haven, off the coast at Genoa on April 11, 1991.  A total of 44 million gallons were released.  The largest purposeful release of oil occurred during the first Gulf War, when retreating Iraqi troops sabotaged Kuwait oil wells and terminals, releasing 168 million gallons into the Persian Gulf and billions of gallons onto the Kuwait landscape.

References:

Giari, L. et al.  2012.  The impact of an oil spill on organs of bream Abramis brama in the Po River.  Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety 77(1 March 2012):18-27.  Available at:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0147651311003393.   Accessed February 22, 2017.

Mosello, Beatrice.  2015.  How to Deal with Climate Change?  Springer International Publishing, Switzerland.  (Chapter 4 – The Po River Basin).  Available at:  http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-15389-6_4#page-1.  Accessed February 22, 2017.

Oiled Wildlife Care Network.  210.  Italy Oil Spill.  Available at:  https://owcnblog.wordpress.com/2010/03/01/italy-oil-spill/.  Accessed February 22, 2017.

Squires, Rick.  2010.  Italy’s longest river facing catastrophe after oil spill.  The Telegraph, 25 Feb 2010.  Available at:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/7315220/Italys-longest-river-facing-catastrophe-after-oil-spill.html.  Accessed February 22, 2017.

Nile Day

February 22 has been declared Nile Day by the countries that share the Nile River basin.  Nile Day commemorates the signing of the 1999 agreement to cooperatively manage the river basin, called the Nile Basin Initiative.

The Nile River is one of the most important waterbodies in the world.  By most estimates, it is the longest river in the world, flowing from south to north for 4180 miles.  It carries water from the relatively water-rich regions in its upper watershed through the dry regions of The Sudan and then Egypt.  Once past Cairo, the river splits into multiple channels, entering the Mediterranean Sea through a broad delta.

Nile River and delta (image by Jacques Desclorites, NASA)

The main tributaries are the Blue Nile, which arises in the mountains of Ethiopia, and the White Nile, which flows out of Lake Victoria in Uganda.  The Blue and White Niles join to form the Nile River at Khartoum, the capital of The Sudan.  About two-thirds of the river’s annual flow comes from the Blue Nile.  Adding in the flows from other smaller tributaries, approximately 90% of all the water in the Nile originates in Ethiopia.

The Nile River’s water has been crucial to the development of the civilizations that flanked its banks, from ancient times to the present.  The monuments created by past civilizations—the Pyramids at Giza, the Sphinx, and the tombs of Egyptian kings and queens—are considered among the great wonders of the ancient world.

Today, the wonders of the Nile Basin are more closely tied to the engineering technology of the post-World War 2 era.  Complementing other smaller dams and irrigation structures, the Aswan High Dam was completed on the river in 1970.  The dam created Lake Nasser, which stretches 300 miles south from the dam, crossing the border from Egypt to The Sudan.  The dam provides hydro-electricity throughout Egypt.  Lake Nasser allows flood water to be stored both for use during the hot, dry parts of every year, but also from one year to the next, counteracting the impacts of both floods and droughts.  Currently another major dam is under construction farther up the watershed on the Blue Nile by the nation of Ethiopia.  When completed, the dam, named the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), will provide massive amounts of hydro-electricity and allow similar water-storage capabilities as the Aswan High Dam farther downstream.

Eleven African nations (Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, The Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) share part of the Nile River basin.  Because the river is so important to the livelihoods of all, ten of the countries banded together by creating the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999 (Eritrea participates as an observer).  The Initiative has the stated vision “to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.”   The Initiative is headed by a committee of the water ministers of the member countries; its headquarters is in Entebbe, Uganda.

Nile Day moves among the members countries from year to year.  Billed as an event to increase awareness of the Nile River’s importance, events bring together representatives from throughout the basin to develop strategies for enhancing the sustainability of the basin’s environment.  The first Nile Day was held in 2007.

References:

New World Encyclopedia.  Nile River.  Available at:  http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Nile_River.  Accessed February 21, 2017.

Nile Basin Initiative.  Nile Day Celebration, 22nd February 2017.  Available at:  http://www.nilebasin.org/index.php/media-center/documents-publications/48-regional-nile-day-2017-flyer/file.  Accessed February 21, 2017.

Nile Basin Initiative.  Available at:  http://www.nilebasin.org/.  Accessed February 21, 2017.

Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)

The last known Carolina Parakeet (Cornuropsis carolinensis) died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918.

Carolina Parakeets were common birds in the eastern United States at the time of European settlement.  Sir Walter Raleigh mentioned their presence in the Carolinas in a 1596 book, comparing them to the parrots he had encountered in Central America.  It was, in fact, a species of parrot, the only species in its genus.

They were much larger than our modern image of domesticated “parakeets,” more similar in size and shape to the Mourning Dove—about a foot long with a wingspan just under two feet.  And they were brightly colored—a green body grading into a yellow neck and head, ending in a reddish orange crown and bill.  The birds were noisy and highly social, gathering together in large flocks, sometimes so large that early observers said they blocked out the sun.  They did not migrate, apparently, but spent a great deal of time in the air—they preferred to fly rather than climb, walk or hop, even just to turn around on a branch.  No one seems to know where they nested, but amateur ornithologists of the time thought they used cavities such as hollow trees.  Consequently, they were most common in forests, along wooded edges and forested river bottoms.

Carolina Parakeet (display mount at Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago; by James St. John)

From great abundance, they fell rapidly to low levels and eventually extinction by about 1900.  The causes of extinction are many, and somewhat mysterious.  The birds were hunted for food and for their beautiful feathers, highly desired for decorations on Victorian ladies dresses and hats. The birds aggregated in large flocks, which responded to alarm calls of individuals not by fleeing, but by flying to the location of the distressed birds.  Consequently, when hunters shot one bird, many others came to the sound—making massive killing easy.  Ecologists also surmise that the spread of honeybees, introduced into the eastern U.S. in colonial times, caused competition for nesting sites, and the birds lost out to the bees.  In the end, however, the last wild individuals probably succumbed to diseases caught from domestic poultry.

The last wild individual Carolina Parakeet was reportedly killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904.  The last known specimen, a male named Incas, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo, on February 21, 1918.  Curiously, the last specimen died in the same aviary where the last known Passenger Pigeon, Martha, had died four years earlier (read more here).

References:

Colvin, Thagard.  No date.  The Extinct Carolina Parakeet.  Outdoor Alabama.  Available at:  http://www.outdooralabama.com/extinct-carolina-parakeet.  Accessed February 20, 2017.

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove.  The last Carolina Parakeet.  Available at:  http://johnjames.audubon.org/last-carolina-parakeet.  Accessed February 20, 2017.

Powell, William S.  2006.  Carolina Parakeet.  Encyclopedia of North Carolina.  Available at:  http://www.ncpedia.org/carolina-parakeet.  Accessed February 20, 2017.

Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)

Ansel Adams, the most famous nature photographer in history, was born on February 20, 1902 (died 1984), in San Francisco, California.  The work of Ansel Adams is ubiquitous in the United States—in museums, government offices, calendars and pinned to the walls in college dorm rooms.  No other photographer of nature has captured either the American landscape or the American consciousness as fully as Ansel Adams.

He was born into a rich family of western timber barons at a boom time in the American West.  A particular boom—the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—lefts its mark on Adams.  An aftershock of the earthquake threw him to the ground, breaking his nose.  Not set correctly, his crooked nose was a visual signature throughout his life.

Adams was a difficult child, unsuccessful in school, unpopular with other children and, perhaps, what we would today call hyperactive.  Consequently, after failing in several schools, he was home-schooled by his father and aunt.  The piano became his primary friend—he taught himself to play and to read music.  His skill grew to the level of a concert pianist, and he intended playing the piano as his career.

Ansel Adams in 1950 (photo by J. Malcolm Greany)

Nature was also his friend.  He spent most days hiking the hills and coast around his home.  In 1916, a trip to Yosemite totally captured his attention—and kept his attention for his entire life.  The Sierra Nevada Mountains became his playground and his inspiration.  Before long, he was photographing the mountains, learning a new trade that gradually attracted his full commitment and became his real career.  It took some time before his artistic photography took off, so for many years he was a commercial photographer, snapping everything from portraits to fruit to retail catalogues.

As a young man, he became a member of the Sierra Club, participating in their high mountain activities and working for them, first as a trip counselor and then as photographer.  The Sierra Club gave Adams’ photographs their first public exposure—and neither he nor the club ever looked back.  Along the way, Adams became not only a nature photographer, but a vigorous advocate for parks, wilderness and environmental protection.  His photographs became the core of a 1930s book created as evidence of the need for more national parks.  It worked, convincing President Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of Interior, Harold Ickes, to set aside Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.

Aside from his environmental impact, Ansel Adams was a journeyman photographer of enormous skill.  His technical talent was renown, as he perfected techniques for “straight photography”—letting the images speak for themselves, rather than being manipulated by the photographer or developer.  As a dedicated black-and-white photographer, he marked the pinnacle of art photography before color images became the norm.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, photographed by Ansel Adams in 1941.

Adams worked and played hard.  From excursions into the wilderness to marathons in the darkroom, he seldom took a day off.  But he was equally known as a gracious host, a gregarious companion and, in general, the life of every party.  He was a man of the American West, but spent long periods in New York as part of the art photography scene.

The true impact of Adams’ work, however, is unquestionably his vast landscapes of the American West.  His signature photograph was taken only weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on November 1, 1941—“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (see more here).   The moon is suspended in a dark sky over the spreading mountains and obliquely-lit town of Hernandez.  He and companions were driving along the highway after a disappointing day of shooting around Santa Fe.  He glanced to his left, saw the image, slammed on the brakes and rushed to take the shot just as the light was disappearing.  Later he said, “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”

Ansel Adams got to many places just when the shutter needed clicking, and our world is a more beautiful and inspirational place because of it.

References:

National Archives.  Ansel Adams Photographs.  Available at:  https://www.archives.gov/research/ansel-adams.  Accessed February 19, 2017.

Sierra Club.  History:  Ansel Adams.  Available at:                         http://vault.sierraclub.org/history/ansel-adams/.  Accessed February 19, 2017.

The Ansel Adams Gallery.  Ansel Adams, Photographer.  Available at:  http://anseladams.com/ansel-adams-bio/.  Accessed February 19, 2017.

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)

Which U.S. presidents have been the most environmentally important?  Opinions vary, but generally included in the top 5 is a name you might not expect—Abraham Lincoln.  And the place where Abraham Lincoln learned to love the land was established as the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial on February 19, when President John Kennedy signed it into law.

Abraham Lincoln is often associated with Illinois—the Land of Lincoln—because that was where he lived as an adult.  But it was in southern Indiana that he grew up.  In 1816, when Lincoln was seven, his family moved from Kentucy to a homestead along Little Pigeon Creek, near the town now known as Lincoln City, Indiana. He lived there for 14 years, leaving for Illinois at the age of 21.  Lincoln remembered his time there:  “We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up.”

Abraham Lincoln as a boy at his home in southern Indiana

Indeed, this is where he learned to carve a homestead from the wilderness and to farm.  He became skilled with an ax, so much so that he became known as “the rail-splitter.”  He learned to read and devoured every book he could find.  His two favorite tools, he said, were a book and an ax.  He spent time working on a flatboat on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, learning the ways of nature and the ways of people.

After the Lincoln’s moved on to Illinois, the legacy of his time in Indiana gradually began to disappear.  But in the 1930s, the state of Indiana created the Lincoln State park, designed partly by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to preserve the original homestead.  In 1962, one-hundred acres of that park were deeded to the U.S. government for the creation of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.  The park opened in 1964.

The Memorial contains the site of the Lincoln’s original cabin, plus a living history reconstruction of an 1820s-era farm.  A 1940s-era limestone building serves as a tableau of his early life and legacy.  Visitation is not high, hovering around 125,000 annually since it opened.

Living history at the Lincoln Boyhood National memorial

But for environmentalists, visiting should be a pilgrimage.  For Abraham Lincoln was one of our most environmentally important presidents, even though his importance overall—as the president who rid the country of slavery and held it together through a civil war—far overshadows his environmental reputation.

Lincoln established the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which then and now guides our nation’s production of food—and today is a significant force in environmental sustainability.  He created the National Academy of Sciences, which performs essential research and analysis on the most pressing environmental issues for today and the future.  He authorized the system of public Land-Grant Universities which produce most of today’s environmental professions and environmental research.  He transferred to California the land that would become Yosemite National Park—on the condition that the land be preserved for public recreation.

So, next time you are traveling across southern Indiana on Interstate 64, take exit 57, head a few miles south and spend some time walking in the footsteps of one of the true pioneers of our environmental consciousness.

References:

Fabricius, Karl.  2008.  The 5 Most Environmentally Friendly President in U.S. History.  Scribol, February 28, 2008.  Available at:  http://scribol.com/uncategorized/the-5-most-environmentally-friendly-presidents-in-u-s-history/.  Accessed February 13, 2018.

National Park Service.  Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/lincoln_boyhood.html.  Accessed February 13, 2018.

O’Bright, Jill York.  1987.  “There I Grew Up…,” A History of the Administration of Abrahma Lincoln’s boyhood Home.  National Park Service.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/libo/adhi/adhi.htm.  Accessed February 13, 2018.

Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)

I’m not sure that there is an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for time spent sitting in a tree, but if there is, Julia Butterfly Hill would hold it.  Hill occupied a redwood tree in California for 738 days before returning to solid ground!

Hill was born on February 18, 1974, in Mount Vernon, Missouri.  She was the daughter of an itinerant minister and spent her youth traveling the country.  Her family lived in a camping trailer, their camping sites providing Hill with the opportunity to enjoy nature as an everyday experience.  A family story says that on a hike when she was a girl, a butterfly landed on her finger and stayed there for the entire hike.  That was the inspiration for Hill incorporating “Butterfly” into her name.

When she was 22, a drunk driver rammed into her car, and her steering wheel penetrated her skull.  After a year of physical therapy, she was able to walk and talk again normally.  But that event changed her:  “The steering wheel in my head, both figuratively and literally, steering me in a new direction in my life….”  (the parallel with John Muir, who was temporarily blinded by an industrial accident and then gave up a traditional life, is uncanny.)

Hill headed west, with no particular destination.  But when she first saw the redwood forest, her fate was sealed (another page right out of John Muir’s life):

“When I entered the majestic cathedral of the redwood forest for the first time, my spirit knew it had found what it was searching for. I dropped to my knees and began to cry because I was so overwhelmed by the wisdom, energy and spirituality housed in this holiest of temples.”

            She learned about a group of tree-sitters that were protesting the harvest of redwood trees by the Pacific Lumber Company in Humboldt County of northern California.  She joined with them and climbed into a 1000-year-old redwood named Luna.  She stayed up for six days, but that was just a prelude for what was to come.

Julia Butterfly Hill (photo by Carl-John Veraja)

On December 10, 1997, she climbed 150 feet into the canopy of Luna—and she stayed.  She stayed through personal illness, harassment by company helicopters and security guards, and one of the coldest, wettest, windiest winters on record (John Muir also lashed himself to a tree in a violent storm, just to enjoy the experience).  Hill stayed for more than two years, never leaving her six-foot-square platform.  After 738 days in the tree, she descended, when the Pacific Lumber Company agreed to leave Luna standing, preserve a three-acre buffer around the tree and provide a fund for researchers to study old growth forests.

Hill wrote a best-selling book about her ordeal, The Legacy of Luna, which has been translated into eleven languages.  She created the Circle of Life Foundation to “inspire, support and network individuals, organizations, and communities so together we can create environmental and social solutions that are rooted deeply in love and respect for the interconnectedness of all life.”

Luna remains alive and upright today, guarded by the community conservation group Sanctuary Forest.  A chainsaw attack in 2000 cut a three-foot deep gash in Luna that went part way around the trunk.  With extensive interventions to support the mechanical and biological integrity of the tree, however, Luna continues to appear healthy and growing.

References:

Ecotopia.org.  A Brief Biography.  Ecology Hall of Fame.  Available at:  http://ecotopia.org/ecology-hall-of-fame/julia-butterfly-hill/biography/.  Accessed February 12, 2018.

Julia Butterfly Hill.  About Julia.  Available at:  http://www.juliabutterfly.com/-julia.html.  Accessed February 12, 2018.

Lallanilla, Marac.  2017.  The Life of Julia Hill.  The Spruce, April 4, 2017.  Available at:  https://www.thespruce.com/the-life-of-julia-hill-1708797.  Accessed February 12, 2018.

Sanctuary Forest.  Luna Ancient Redwood Tree.  Available at:  http://www.sanctuaryforest.org/programs/land-conservation/luna/.  Accessed February 12, 2018.

R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)

We either love it or hate it.  But either way, we have to admit that statistics is one of the most powerful tools for conservation and environmental science.  The foundation of statistics as we know it today comes largely from the incredible brain of Sir Ronald Aylmer Fischer, born on February 17, 1890 (died 1962).

Fischer was born in London and educated at Cambridge.  He studied physics and biology, but plagued by terrible eyesight, he decided that mathematics was the way he could serve the biological sciences best.  He was such a brilliant mathematician that he generally just read a problem and produced the right answer, much to the displeasure of his teachers. After graduating, he worked for several years as a school teacher, a job he disliked but paid for his daily needs.  While teaching, he published a paper that unified the ideas of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, showing how genetic variation in populations produced the basis for natural selection.

He began working at the Rothamsted Experiment Station in 1920, performing statistical analysis of agricultural experiments.  This is where and when his contributions as a statistician took off.  He developed the basics of experimental design, famously saying that “To consult the statistician after an experiment is finished is often merely to ask him to conduct a post mortem examination. He can perhaps say what the experiment died of.”  (and that is why we always have to consult a statistician before we conduct an experiment today!)

He developed  many of the concepts still used in today’s statistical analyses.  He invented analysis of variance, the tool that lets multiple factors be tested in a single experiment.  He also set the standard probability of error at 0.05, still considered the level of certainty needed to accept the results of an experiment.  He wrote several textbooks that became the foundation of modern statistical theory and practice.  Because of his understanding of the variations in populations, he is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of population genetics.

The importance of Fischer’s approach to statistical analysis is profound for conservation.  While statistics is not really needed in physical sciences (gravity always acts the same way), it is in biological sciences because living organisms and complex environments vary in many dimensions beyond those being tested.  Consequently, in order to judge whether the results we see—the impact of a pollutant, the importance of a habitat feature, whether a set of specimens are one species or two—are real, statistical tests are essential.

So, as much as we hate thinking about statistics, performing the tests and interpreting the results according to rigorous standards, that is what transforms conservation from advocacy to science.  Three cheers for R. A. Fischer and for the statistics he burdened us with!

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ronald-Aylmer-Fisher.  Accessed February 12, 2018.

Famous Scientists.org.  Ronald fisher.  Available at:  https://www.famousscientists.org/ronald-fisher/.  Accessed February 12, 2018.

Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)

The Kyoto Protocol was the first global greenhouse-gas limiting treaty enacted by the world’s nations—most of them, at least.  It was the first step in a journey of a many, many miles.  And although it is often criticized, the momentum it added to combating climate change was truly important.

Worldwide efforts to address climate change really began with the 1994 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the fundamental strategy to steer emission controlling efforts.  But it needed more, specifically a protocol for how the strategy would do its work.  That became the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997.

However, before the Kyoto Protocol entered into force it needed to be ratified by enough countries that 55% of global greenhouse-gas emissions would be covered.  Although 191 countries and one regional group had signed the agreement, the U.S. backed out in 2001, a big blow because the U.S. was then the largest emitter of greenhouse gases.  Eventually, when Russia ratified, the 55% threshold was passed, and the Kyoto Protocol began, on February 16, 2005.

Big Bend Power Station, Flordia

The Kyoto Protocol was a binding treaty that required developed countries to reduce their emissions by 5% over 1990 levels by 2012.  It left out developing countries, including China and India, asking only that those countries try to reduce their emissions.  The agreement allowed individual countries to devise their own means for achieving reductions, but it also added several incentives to get credit toward their goal by help developing countries reduce emissions.

The protocol has been praised by some and disdained by others.  Because it divided the world into two groups, only one of which—developed countries—was required to reduce emission, the protocol lacked a universal approach. Because the U.S. and later Canada and Russia, backed out, control of much of the developed world also fell outside the agreement.

Nonetheless, most of Western Europe performed exceptionally under the Kyoto protocol.  Overall emissions there declined by more than 20%, four times the required reduction.  Of course, the countries of Western Europe were and are the most conscientious about controlling climate change, making huge investments in energy conservation, green energy, forest regeneration and fuel switching.

Supporters of the Kyoto Protocol reiterate the idea that every journey starts with the first step and that the protocol was a crucial first step.  It provided motivation for all the actions that individual countries have performed, including the UK Climate Change Act ;of 2008, and it set a global expectation that responsible governments and industries would work towards emission control.  It also originated many specific ideas for how emissions would be monitored and accounted, including emission trading among nations and regions.

The “son of the Kyoto Protocol” is the Paris Agreement, created in 2015 and entered into force on November 4, 2016.  The Paris Agreement corrects several deficiencies in the Kyoto Protocol, primarily because each of the world’s countries, developed and developing, is now obligated to work toward controlling its greenhouse-gas emissions.

References:

Climate Home News.  2015.  Kyoto Protocol:  10 years of the world’s first climate change treaty.  Available at:  http://www.climatechangenews.com/2015/02/16/kyoto-protocol-10-years-of-the-worlds-first-climate-change-treaty/.  Accessed February 11, 2018.

CNN.  2017.  Kyoto Protocol Fast Facts.  CNN Library, March 24, 2017.  Available at:  https://www.cnn.com/2013/07/26/world/kyoto-protocol-fast-facts/index.html.  Accessed February 11, 2018.

United Nations Climate Change.  A Summary of the Kyoto Protocol.  Available at:  http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/background/items/2879.php.  Accessed February 11, 2018.

United Nations Climate Change.  The Paris Agreement.  Available at:  http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php.  Accessed February 11, 2018.

Complete Human Genome Published (2001)

On the February 15, 2001, in the science magazine Nature, a group of hundreds of scientists published the complete human genome.  All 14.8 billion base pairs!  This was an enormous undertaking and an enormous success.  And, although this particular feat was about human genetics, the ramifications for conservation are similarly enormous.

The human genome project began in 1990 and ended in 2003, two years ahead of schedule.  We now know the entire sequence of the human genetic code—but as some have said, that was “the end of the beginning.”  Like most major scientific endeavors, the human genome project had many positive outcomes for other parts of science and human endeavor.  The advancement of tools to perform DNA analysis has been a major boon to conservation and environmental sciences.

DNA analysis benefits conservation because finding, capturing, sampling and then releasing organisms unharmed is difficult at best, impossible in many situations.  We know perhaps one-eighth of the world’s species based on traditional means—finding specimens in the wild and bringing them back to the lab.  The pace of finding the rest of those specimens is excruciatingly slow.

But DNA provides a way to “see” what is living in an environment without actually collecting the specimens themselves.  Because all organisms shed DNA into the environment, through feces, urine, exhalation and decomposition of dead tissue, the soil and water of a place are a treasure store of information.  Called “environmental DNA,” samples of soil or water can be analyzed to profile all the DNA present—and assign it to known standards from specimens previously collected.  If novel DNA is found, that represents species that still need to be identified.

When the totality of environmental DNA in one location is analyzed, it also provides a measure of the amount of biodiversity present.  Therefore, we can determine the location of biodiversity hotspots that need preservation and add itional research, without disrupting the habitat or harassing animals that may have complex and sensitive life cycles.

DNA analysis is also making the jump from human crime investigation to wildlife crime.  Poachers often defend themselves by claiming their kills come from other places or other populations where hunting is legal.  But by DNA analysis, the genetics of a poached animal can be compared to a series of standards taken from across the range of a species and the exact source population identified.  This has been used most extensively in Africa, where combating illegal poaching of rhinoceros and elephants is serious business.  Biologists have now taken blood samples from more than 20,000 rhinos, creating a database that law enforcement officials can use to identify the individual rhino from which a confiscated horn or horn product was taken.  Also, the location from where poached African elephant tusks were taken has been mapped using DNA samples to determine where poaching is concentrated and, therefore, where they should focus their enforcement efforts.

The process for using a standard length of DNA as a marker for a particular species or individual is called “DNA barcoding.”  It has also been used in combating the illegal harvest of the endangered rosewood tree in Southeast Asia.  Competing claims about the identification of a logged tree or where it was grown can be solved definitively by comparing a small tissue sample with a set of standards.

The future of conservation and the future of DNA technology are closely linked.  While today we associated wildlife biologists with field workers placing tags on fish and radio transmitters on deer, in the future their partners will be geneticists and DNA technicians!

References:

Arif, Ibrahim A. and others.  2011.  DNA market technology for wildlife conservation.  Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences 18(3):219-225.  Available at:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3730548/.  Accessed February 8, 2018.

Hartvig, Ida and others.  2015.  The use of DNA Barcoding in Identification and Conservation of Rosewood (Dalbergia spp.).  PLOSone, September 16, 2015.  Available at:  http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0138231.  Accessed February 8, 2018.

International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium.  2001.  Initial sequencing and analysis of the human genome.  Nature 409:860-921.  Available at:  https://www.nature.com/articles/35057062.  Accessed February 8, 2018.

Kolata, Gina.  2018.  In Africa, Geneticists Are Hunting Poachers.  The New York Times, Jan. 8, 2018.  Available at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/08/science/dna-rhinos-ivory-poachers.html.  Accessed February 8, 2018.

Thomsen, Phillip Francis and Eske Willerslev.  2015.  Environmental DNA – An emerging toll in conservation for monitoring past and present biodiversity.  Biological Conservation 183 (March 2015):4-18.  Available at:  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320714004443. Accessed February 8, 2018.

Venter, J. Craig and others.  2001.  The Sequence of the Human Genome.  Science, vol 291, issue 5507.  Available at:  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/291/5507/1304.full.  Accessed February 8, 2018

Nature’s Faithful Lovers

It is Valentine’s Day, and I couldn’t resist writing about nature’s faithful lovers.  Besides, other than Captain John Fremont “discovering” Lake Tahoe on this date, nothing else really important in conservation happened on February 14.

Being a faithful lover is one way to say it; being monogamous is another.  Monogamy is highly variable in nature.  It is a life-history strategy that has some advantages, including a reliable and desirable mate, ability for parental care of young and maintenance of resources through time.  It also has some downsides, including reduced reproduction after loss of a mate.  So, species and entire groups of animals have chosen one way or another.

It is common among birds, with around 90% of species mating in pairs.  Sometimes just for one year (serial monogamy), but sometimes for life.  Bald Eagles roam around separately for most of the year, but come together for mating, usually with the same mate for decades.  Swans, though, live together continuously, with the male doing a lot of the household work, including incubating eggs.  The Albatross is picky about mating, sometimes delaying decisions for a few years while looking around for Mr. or Mrs. Right; after that, they are a pair forever.

Mammals, however, aren’t quite so faithful.  Only about 5% of mammalian species are monogamous.  Gibbons are famously faithful, pairing off and staying that way for their entire lifespan, 30 or more years.  But, like humans, they sometimes discover irreconcilable differences and find that its better “the second time around.”  Beavers are more faithful, and they have good reason to be—they spend a lot of time and effort building and maintaining a homestead together.  A dam and lodge need lots of “sweat equity” that the pair puts in together.

Among fish, monogamy is pretty rare.  Most fish are promiscuous to the extreme, often just letting the eggs and sperm loose into the water without so much as a first date.  Australia’s thorny seahorse is different, though, pairing off for life.  It seems that they get better as breeding as they get to know each other better, producing more offspring as the years pass.  The French angelfish is faithful, too, swimming together for years in their coral reef neighborhood.

Black Vulture (photo by Mdf)

But my favorite of all is the Black Vulture.  The species is faithfully monogamous, living in pairs throughout the year and for many years; they live up to 25 years in nature.  They have strong families as well, feeding their young for many months and living in communal groups.  If you are related, you are welcome to the roost, but don’t come around if you aren’t part of the clan.  And, of course, Black Vultures, like all their fellow species, are ugly as sin.

Which just proves the old adage:  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Happy Valentines Day!

References:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Black Vulture.  Available at:  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/black_vulture/lifehistory.  Accessed February 8, 2018.

Frost, Emily.  2013.  Is It Love?  Why Some Ocean Animals (Sort Of) Mate For Life.  Smithsonian, February 13, 2013.  Available at:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/is-it-love-why-some-ocean-animals-sort-of-mate-for-life-16907109/?no-ist.  Accessed February 8, 2018.

Green, Amanda.  2016.  10 Monogamous Animals That Just Want To Settle Down.  Mental Floss, February 4, 2016.  Available at:  http://mentalfloss.com/article/55019/10-monogamous-animals-just-want-settle-down.  Accessed February 8, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

July 1
Duck Stamp Born (1934)
July 2
Morrill Act Created Land-Grant Universities (1862)
July 3
Great Auk Went Extinct (1844)
July 4
Stephen Mather, Founding Director of the National Park Service, Born (1867)
July 5
Yoshimaro Yamashina and Ernst Mayr, Ornithologists, Born (1900, 1904)
July 6
Maria Martin, Naturalist and Artist, Born (1796)
July 7
Alaska Admitted as a State (1958)
July 8
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July 9
Starbucks Abandoned Plastic Straws (2018)
July 10
Rainbow Warrior Bombed and sunk (1985)
July 11
World Population Day
July 12
Herbert Zim, Creator of “Golden Guides,” Born (1909)
July 13
Source of the Mississippi River Discovered (1832)
July 14
George Washington Carver National Monument Established (1943)
July 15
Emmeline Pankhurst, British Suffragette Leader, Born (1858)
July 16
UNESCO Added Giant Panda and Shark Sanctuaries to World Heritage List (2006)
July 17
Handel’s “Water Music” Premiered (1717)
July 18
Gilbert White, the “First Ecologist,” Born (1720)
July 19
Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal, Created (1976)
July 20
Gregor Mendel, Pioneering Geneticist, Born (1822)
July 21
Aswan High Dam Opened (1970)
July 22
Ratcatcher’s Day
July 23
Commercial Whaling Banned (1982)
July 24
Machu Picchu Discovered (1911)
July 25
Jim Corbett, Tiger Conservationist, Born (1875)
July 26
James Lovelock, Originator of the Gaia Theory, Born (1919)
July 27
Przewalski’s horse gave birth by artificial insemination (2013)
July 28
Beatrix Potter, Author and Conservationist, Born (1866)
July 29
International Tiger Day
July 30
Golden Spike National Historical Park Created (1965)
July 31
Curt Gowdy, Sportscaster and Conservationist, Born (1919)
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