Author of ‘The Sixth Extinction’ says Earth is on verge of new mass extinction as big as dinosaur wipe-out

Will humans go extinct?ByAnagha Srikanth | April 19, 2021 20%Loading ad 

Story at a glance

  • Climate change has threatened the existence of several living species, including humankind itself.
  • One author predicts that on the current course, climate change will lead to a mass extinction on Earth.
  • Still, there are people fighting to change course.

In the more than 4 billion year history of the Earth, there have been just five mass extinctions, most scientists agree. One science journalist is predicting the next one is already here — and all there is to do is slow it down. 

“We are on the verge of another major mass extinction, unless we change course dramatically,” Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning “The Sixth Extinction,” told CBS. “The question of how much we’re responsible for it is pretty much 100%. We have no reason to believe we would be seeing these elevated extinction rates were it not for all the ways we are changing the planet faster than other species can evolve to adapt to.”

America is changing faster than ever! Add Changing America to your Facebook or Twitter feed to stay on top of the news.

While her last book predicted that climate change would lead to mass extinction, Kolbert’s newest book, “Under a White Sky,” offers hope that humankind can change course. The book examines climate change efforts worldwide while also examining both the pros and cons of relying on technology to be the solution. Still, the New Yorker writer argues that something is better than nothing in this case. 

“We have to realize that there’s a lot of damage that’s been done that’s kind of baked into this system,” Kolbert said. “We can leave a serious problem for our kids or we can leave a disastrous problem for our kids.”







Stop SB314 “The Wolf Extermination” bill

It’s here.
SB314 “The Wolf Extermination” bill will he heard and voted on Tuesday afternoon, 4/13, in the Montana House of Representatives. It will then have a final hearing and vote most likely the following day before dying or going to Governor Gianforte.

SB314 by Rep. Bob Brown mandates the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission reduce wolves in our state down to the bare minimum, but no less than 15 breeding pairs in order to avoid re-listing. It enables them to do so by the “most liberal” and unethical methods such as hunting over bait, killing latter stage pregnant wolves, night hunting, night vision scopes, multiple wolves on one tag, and of course indiscriminate cruel traps and snares. One can easily anticipate killing contests inclusive of wolves.

Passage of SB314 will mean ~85-90% of wolves in Montana will have a legal and unjust target on their backs. Yet, they are having no difficulty killing wolves in Montana. Every year they break a new record. This 2020 wolf season was no exception. Hitting a new high, over 325 wolves were reported killed by trapping and hunting. This does not account for poaching, SB200 landowner wolf kills, highway mortality, etc. in which an estimated 500 wolves are killed every year in Montana.  Depending on who is talking, Montana’s estimated wolf population is between 800-1200 wolves, or was.

SB314 takes the other trap and kill wolves bills, HB224 Wolf Snaring, HB225 Extended Wolf Season, SB267 Wolf Bounties, passing into law now in our state with Governor Gianforte’s signature and ties them all up in a bow requiring the Wildlife Commission implement these means, methods, and more, to exterminate wolves in Montana….but avoid the Feds.

CONTACT Montana Representatives and respectfully Urge a NO on SB314. Be sure to use your own words.
Look them up and their contact info.

Let us know if you want to email them all.

In response to an email with the data, science, and our objections to SB314 we sent to all Montana Representatives, today, we already heard back from one.
Rep. Gunderson, HD1, Libby, Montana.
Gunderson Steven <>
Tue 4/13/2021 
To: Trap Free Montana Public Lands TFMPL
Thanks for reminding me of the many reasons to vote for Senator Brown’s bill!!


We have not received a reply in requesting his reasons.

Call the front desk and leave a message for up to 5 Representatives urging a NO on SB314.

Send a message via the legislative web to Montana Representative/s to vote AGAINST SB314.

Note as of 4/1/21, there were 33 message For SB314 and 344 Against SB314.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to Do ALL of the above!

SB314 already passed in Montana Senate 29:20.

This is our last chance to try to stop SB314.Please take effective action!

To listen to the House floor hearing and 4/13 vote on SB314:
They meet at 1:00.

Also today, Tuesday, the 13thHB367, by Rep Paul Fielder, Senate Fish & Game hearing is this afternoon and we will be testifying against it. They meet at 3pm. HB367 is to amend our Montana constitution making hunting, fishing and trapping a right and the preferred methods to manage wildlife in our state. In 2004, Montana voters overwhelming supported amending the constitution to preserve the opportunity to hunt and fish, not to trap. If this reaches the Senate floor and passes with 34 out of 50 Montana Senators it will go before Montana voters in November 2022.

Do not let up on contacting and urging our Montana Senators to Vote NO on HB367 a significant far reaching Constitutional amendment disastrous to wildlife and that will cost us a small fortune to defeat if it winds up going to the voters.

To see and learn more about 2021 Montana trapping & related bills visit our TFMPl website. 

To Contact Governor Gianforte.  1-406-444-3111

Non-Residents continue to Contact Montana Department of Tourism

To see how legislators voted re trapping and related bills in 2019

Please keep those letters to the editor going! They are educational, powerful, and amplify what is befalling our wildlife in Montana. 

Donate to help with our fight. Thank you to all who have! A monthly donation, no matter how small, helps us!

Take action, now, and help us kill this disturbing unethical extreme kill wolves bill and more!

KC York 
on behalf of the board of directors

Thank you friends of Trap Free Montana Public Lands and to all who have been doing what they can to help!

Earth’s most beloved creatures headed toward extinction under current emissions, study shows


APRIL 9, 2021 / 12:08 PM / CBS NEWS

Snow leopards in the Himalayas, lemurs in Madagascar and elephants in central Africa: Some of Earth’s most beloved creatures are on a path to extinction, a new study shows, thanks to current greenhouse gas emissions. Unless humans stop pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, researchers say the planet’s biodiversity will suffer devastating consequences. 

In a study published Friday in the journal Biological Conservation, scientists warn that some of the richest concentrations of plants and animals on Earth will be “irreversibly ravaged” by global warming unless countries make a real effort toward their goals made under the 2015 Paris climate treatyThey report a high danger for extinction in almost 300 biodiversity “hot spots” if temperatures rise three degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. 

Under the Paris agreement, nations promised to keep warming “well below” two degrees Celsius. Even if these commitments are honored, temperatures are still expected to exceed three degrees Celsius before the end of the century.

So, which species will be hit hardest? Scientists point to endemic species: Plants and animals found exclusively in specific locations, like one country or one island — animals like snow leopards and forest elephants. 

So-called endemic species — plants and animals found only in certain zones — will be hit hardest in a warming world. BIOLOGICAL CONSERVATION

They found that endemic land species, specifically in biodiverse hot spots, are nearly three times as likely to suffer losses due to climate change than species that are more widespread, and 10 times more likely than invasive species

“Climate change threatens areas overflowing with species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world,” lead author Stella Manes said in a statement. “The risk for such species to be lost forever increases more than 10-fold if we miss the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

Climate Change 

Not all species face the same threat. In mountain regions, 84% of endemic species face extinction if Earth warms another two degrees, while that number rises to 100% on islands. 

Overall, more than 90% of land-based endemic species and 95% of marine ones will be adversely affected. Mediterranean marine species are particularly vulnerable because they are trapped in an enclosed sea. 

In mountain regions, 84% of endemic animals and plants face extinction in a 3C world, while on islands — already devastated by invasive species — the figure rises to 100%. BIOLOGICAL CONSERVATION

“By nature, these species cannot easily move to more favorable environments,” explains co-author Mark Costello.

Two out of three species in the tropics could perish due to climate change alone. And safe havens in biodiversity hot spots, which conservationists have worked to establish for years to protect these species, may prove useless in the face of climate change. 

“Unfortunately, our study shows that those biodiversity rich-spots will not be able to act as species refugia from climate change,” said co-author Mariana Vale. 

Scientists say every tenth of a degree matters to avoid the devastating consequences of a mass extinction event. But carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere continued to rise in 2020, with CO2 level reaching their highest point in 3.6 million years. 

“The 2020 increase is likely to remain one of the largest in the entire record.” the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

First published on April 9, 2021 / 12:08 PM

© 2021 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.Sophie Lewis

I Know Why the Caged Songbird Goes Extinct

An initiative of the Center for Biological Diversity

Yogyakarta Bird Market, Central Java, Indonesia. Photo: Jorge Franganillo (CC BY 2.0)

A rampant trade in Asian birds for their beautiful songs is emptying forests of sound and life.

Extinction Countdown

March 3, 2021 – by John R. Platt

Wild, Incisive, Fearless.

The straw-headed bulbul doesn’t look like much.

It’s less than a foot in length, with subdued brown-and-gold plumage, a black beak and beady red eyes. If you saw one sitting on a branch in front of you, you might not give it a second glance.

But this Southeast Asian native stands out in one notable way: It sings like an angel.

“It’s arguably the most beautiful song of any bird,” says Chris Shepherd, executive director of Monitor Conservation Research Society and an expert on Asian songbirds. “It’s amazing,” he adds.

The bird’s beautiful voice serves a vital ecological purpose: Males use it to attract mates. The better the song, the greater the chance of finding a female and propagating the species.

But the song has also come with a terrible modern cost. Humans have come to value the bulbul’s calls so much that they’ve collected the birds from almost every inch of their habitat. Captured birds, quickly caged, have been shipped to markets throughout Southeast Asia. Due to this overwhelming commercial demand, the species has disappeared from most of its range and is now critically endangered. Only a few pocket populations continue to hang on.

And the straw-headed bulbul is far from alone in this decline. Practically every songbird species in Southeast Asia faces a similar predicament. Many birds face the very real risk of imminent extinction, leaving some forests in the region eerily silent.

Recent research finds that several songbirds have become perilously close to vanishing — if they haven’t been lost already.

One Indonesian bird, the Simeulue hill myna, has only just been described as genetically and morphologically unique from other lookalike species. It probably went extinct in the wild in the past two or three years, according to a paper published last spring in the journal Ibis. As the researchers wrote, “On multiple recent excursions to Simeulue, most recently in July 2018, we were unable to find the bird and learned from locals that there had been a great drive to catch the last survivors on the island in response to a wealthy person’s bounty on these birds.”

The paper calls this an “extinction-in-process” and warns that any remaining birds left in captivity may die without producing offspring. Even if they do manage to breed, the researchers fear they could be hybridized with other similar-in-appearance mynas, obscuring their genetic lineage.

That same phrase, extinction-in-process, has also been used to describe the Barusan shama, which according to a 2019 study published in the journal Forktail has become one of the most threatened of Asian songbirds due to rampant collection. It’s now gone from all but one island.

Like the Simeulue hill myna, the Barushan shama’s plight went virtually unnoticed for years because many taxonomists have classified it as a subspecies rather than a full species. Newer research finds that it’s a species with four subspecies, few of which may now survive.

Not that the species/subspecies disputes matter too much at this point.

“Taxonomic debates about the rank of these forms should not stand in the way of trying to ensure the survival of what is clearly an evolutionarily distinct lineage,” says Frank Rheindt, a biologist with National University of Singapore and senior or lead author on both of the papers.

So what happens to these birds once they’re taken from the wild?

That’s where the story gets even bleaker.

Disposable Love

Songbirds are an important element of culture and tradition for many peoples in Southeast Asia. In Java, for example, it’s almost assumed that every household will have at least one pet songbird. The more birds, the more prestigious the home.

But wild songbirds in captivity…well, they don’t tend to last long.

“We’ve often called the caged songbird trade like cut flowers,” says Shepherd. “The birds look nice. They’re often inexpensive. You bring one home. It sits in a cage for a couple of days and it dies just like a cut flower. They’re not expected to live.”

And because many Asian cities feature massive markets full of birds that have been easily snatched from the wild — usually illegally — any bird that dies is relatively easy and inexpensive to replace.

Cages line the Malang bird and animal market on Java in 2016, Photo: Andrea Kirkby (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Even bird traders don’t put much value on their stock, since a new supply of wild-caught birds always seems to be waiting in the wings.

“I’ve seen some cages where the surviving birds are all sitting on top of dead birds in the cages,” Shepherd says. “You can’t see the floor of the cage. It’s covered with a few layers of dead birds, and then there’s some sick and half-dead birds perched on top of them. And they cost the dealers next to nothing. So, you know, even if they sell a few, they think they must be covering their costs or you wouldn’t have a business model like that.”

Although all of this seems to favor low-cost disposability, some species are captive bred by the thousands, and prices can soar for the right birds.

As with so many other groups of heavily traded species, the rarest birds fetch higher prices from collectors — a “better get them before they’re gone” collector’s mentality that pushes prices higher, drives further poaching and drives birds even closer to extinction.

The Simeulue hill myna, for instance, might have sold for about $100-$150, “certainly if a foreigner or non-Simeulue person asks,” says Rheindt. “This is easily 2-4 monthly incomes for rural people on the island.”

The Caged Bird Sings

Along with its rarity, a bird’s appearance is clearly a valuable trait to collectors. Some of the birds are strikingly beautiful, like birds of paradise and the Javan white-eye.

A kingfisher, looking a little worse for wear, in the Malang bird and animal market in 2016. Photo: Andrea Kirkby (CC BY-SA 2.0)

But the quality that typically drives up a bird’s market price?

That, of course, would be the song.

A good song can earn a bird owner a big payday. Entire competitions have sprung up that offer cash prizes for the birds with the best songs — up to $50,000, according to some reports. On Java these events are known as Kicau-mania (“kicau” is Indonesian for “chirping”).

The bird doesn’t get much for his work. Perhaps some food and a chance to sing again.

But it can take a lot of human effort to inspire them to sing for their suppers.

“People will keep the male birds in captivity for a long time,” says Shepherd. “Some birds don’t want to sing in captivity and take a long time before they adjust to the point where they’ll start to sing. Then they’ll train the bird. They’ll keep it near other males so it sings more frequently, because they naturally compete with their songs.”

This forced companionship changes the very nature of the song.

“Some birds pick up notes and sounds from other species,” Shepherd says. “Some of the species that are disappearing, they’re just training birds. They’re not even the ones used in competition. They just keep them beside other the species that compete so they have a more complex and unique song in the competition.”

After that, it’s a bit like a dog show.

“Everybody takes their bird in a cage and there are songbird judges. They walk around and listen to the song and there’s big cash prizes for the bird with the best.” (Most recently, these competitions have moved online due to COVID-19.)

Through all of this, the gift nature gave these animals to help propagate their species — song — ends up driving them toward extinction.

This makes the trade similar to trophy hunting, which values the biggest animals or those with the most beautiful features. “The strongest bird in the wild, the one with the greatest song, would be the one that would pass on his genes,” Shepherd says. “Those are the ones being removed from the wild. So, you know, only inferior birds are left behind.”

Unlike trophy hunting, however, where an elephant’s tusks can theoretically trade hands in perpetuity, a bird’s song is ephemeral — sung once, then lost to time.


Shepherd says the Asian songbird crisis went virtually ignored for many years. Relatively few scientists studied it, and funding for conservation remained scarce. That’s been a costly delay.

“One of the interesting and sad things is that lot of the species that I worked on in the early Nineties, the ones I tried to raise the alarm on, are now gone or almost gone,” he says. “And then the ones I was working on that were extremely common at the time are now the next wave that’s disappearing.”

Fortunately, that’s started to change. For one thing, scientific research about the trade and affected species continues to pick up. One of the most worrying studies came out last August and found that Java now has more songbirds in cages than in its forests. The study found that one species, the Javan pied starling (Gracupica jalla), now has fewer than 50 birds remaining in the wild, while 1.1 million live on the island in captivity.

Meanwhile governments, NGOs and other researchers have also stepping up their game. Conservation experts came together in 2015 to hold an event called the Asian Songbird Trade Crisis Summit. Two years later they formed the IUCN Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group, which had its first official meeting in 2019. And over the past five years governments have started to take action, including seizing several large shipments of poached birds, although the trade remains mostly illegal and unsustainable.

Local groups have helped, too, which brings us back to the Simeulue hill myna and Barusan shama. A Simeulue-based organization called Ecosystemimpact set out to help the two birds at the beginning of 2020. Although their efforts were hampered by the COVID pandemic, they’re still trying to acquire any captive birds they can find to keep them out of the trade. If they do rescue any Simeulue hill mynas — such as four juvenile birds that reportedly recently turned up for sale on Facebook — they’ll need a permit from the government to breed them.

Even then, saving them from extinction won’t be easy.

“Hill myna are notoriously hard to breed, requiring large, tall aviaries with good vantage points over forested areas,” says program manager Tom Amey. “It’s not out of the question that hill myna will breed within our aviaries, but given their specific requirements, we feel it is unlikely.” They’re working on raising funding for new aviaries designed specifically for hill mynas.

They also hope to educate the community, to turn its love of captive birds into one that also supports wild populations.

“There is a distinct lack of bird song on Simeulue, especially within close to medium proximity of [human] habitation,” says Amey. “Our ambition is to bring the beautiful sounds of songbirds back to Simeulue’s forests and culture. Songbirds have played an important role in Simeulue culture and many members of the community wish to see them return.”

As with everything in the past year, progress to protect Asian songbirds has slowed down of late. “Unfortunately, the COVID crisis has been a huge, but legitimate, distraction from the global fight against extinction, and very little attention has been paid to such issues in the last few months,” says Rheindt.

Once the pandemic recedes, Shepherd suggests that tourism may play an important role in keeping birds alive, uncaged and in their natural habitats.

“There’s a very big birdwatching community,” he says, “and I think working with the community and with the birdwatching tour guides to raise awareness of the benefits of having songbirds around is important. The birdwatching industry’s worth millions. I think we need to raise awareness of the fact that you can lose your birds, but also awareness of the facts that having birds around is good for the environment, it’s good for your mental health, it’s good for all kinds of things — but it’s good for the economy.”

Until those messages resonate more than the ka-ching of a cash register, however, Asian songbirds will remain in crisis.

Australia confirms extinction of 13 more species, including first reptile since colonisation

Christmas Island forest skink and 12 mammals on list, which also includes the desert bettong, broad-cheeked hopping mouse and Nullarbor barred bandicoot

The Christmas Island forest skink is the first reptile known to have gone extinct in Australia since European colonisation.
The Christmas Island forest skink is the first reptile known to have gone extinct in Australia since European colonisation. More than 10% of the 320 land mammals known to have lived in Australia in 1788 are extinct. Photograph: Hal Cogger

Adam Morton Environment editor@adamlmortonWed 3 Mar 2021 00.15 EST


The Australian government has officially acknowledged the extinction of 13 endemic species, including 12 mammals and the first reptile known to have been lost since European colonisation.

The addition of the dozen mammal species confirms Australia’s unenviable position as the world’s capital for mammal extinction, lifting the total number of mammals known to have died out to 34.

None of the 13 is a surprise. All but one of the mammal extinctions is historic, with most having disappeared between the 1850s and 1950s.

But the list also includes two species lost in the past decade, both from Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.Australian scientists warn urgent action needed to save 19 ‘collapsing’ ecosystemsRead more

As Guardian Australia has reported, the last Christmas Island pipistrelle, a species of bat, died in 2009. It was followed by the sole remaining Christmas Island forest skink – the first Australian reptile known to have become extinct – in 2014. Both extinctions have previously been recorded by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The now extinct Christmas Island pipistrelle.
The now extinct Christmas Island pipistrelle. Photograph: Lindy Lumsden

The updated list means more than 10% of the 320 land mammals known to have lived in Australia in 1788 are extinct.Advertisement

The Wilderness Society’s Suzanne Milthorpe said there was “not another country, rich or poor, that has anything like this record” in mammal extinction. She said Haiti was next on the IUCN list for mammal extinctions with a total of nine.

Prof John Woinarski, a conservation biologist at Charles Darwin University who helped record the plight of many of the newly listed extinct species in two books, said the listings were “humbling and sobering”.

He said it was a reminder that extinction was a “likely event” after a species was listed as threatened if not enough was done to save it. “It is important to acknowledge that the losses have occurred and it’s a reminder that if we don’t manage our threatened species then extinction is the end result,” he said.

The confirmed historic mammal extinctions are the desert bettong, the Nullarbor dwarf bettong, the Capricorn rabbit-rat, the broad-cheeked hopping mouse, the Liverpool Plains striped bandicoot, the marl, the south-eastern striped bandicoot, the Nullarbor barred bandicoot, the long-eared mouse, the blue-grey mouse and the Percy Island flying fox.Morrison government’s new environment commissioner ‘toothless’, conservation groups sayRead more

Woinarski said in almost all cases the most plausible explanation for their extinction was predation by feral cats, though introduced foxes, habitat destruction and fire may have played a role. “No other country has suffered anywhere near that number of mammal species extinctions over the past 200 years,” he said.

He said as museums had few-to-no records of the species, recording the extinctions often relied on knowledge shared by Indigenous elders living in remote parts of the country who had experienced them first-hand.

About 100 endemic Australian species have been listed as extinct by the government or the IUCN, but Woinarski said the real number was likely to be more than 10 times that once extinct invertebrates were counted. At least 50 invertebrate species on Christmas Island alone had not been seen for more than a century and were likely to be extinct, he said.

He said the first recorded modern extinction of an Australian reptile was “obviously a really lamentable landmark”. The Christmas Island forest skink was almost certainly killed by the accidental introduction of a predator from Asia, the wolf snake, in the 1970s.

He said the Christmas Island pipistrelle’s extinction was a result of a lack of government action, as it had been clear it was in rapid decline for two decades before it went extinct and the response was insufficient. There had never been an inquest or inquiry to find out what went wrong, he said.

“That was one we really should have been able to save,” he said.

Milthorpe, the Wilderness Society’s national environment laws campaign manager, said the updated list was a “devastating reality check on Australia’s environmental performance”. “It cements our reputation as the global leader in mammal extinctions,” she said.

She said it should drive the environment minister, Sussan Ley, to make a stronger response than what it has offered since a review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act by the competition watchdog Graeme Samuel.‘Development should stop’: serious flaws in offsets plan for new western Sydney airportRead more

Samuel found the environment was in an unsustainable state of decline and the EPBC was ineffective and needed an overhaul, including some urgent changes.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a full response to the review from the Morrison government yet, only a disjointed attempt to devolve their environmental responsibilities to the states,” Milthorpe said. “Without the full package [of recommendations], Samuel made clear that extinction and a decline of our iconic natural areas will continue.”

Ley’s spokesperson said the minister had overseen a comprehensive review of the historical extinction list to accurately reflect the state of Australia’s mammals and provide an important record that could help improve the management of native plants and animals.

They said the government had “mobilised” more than $535m for projects to support threatened species and ecological communities since 2014, was preparing a 10-year threatened species strategy and introducing new predator-free safe havens.

“We are working to manage threats to native animals and plants on Christmas Island and across the rest of Australia, including supporting the recovery from the catastrophic black summer bushfires,” the spokesperson said.

Labor’s environment spokeswoman, Terri Butler, said the Coalition was presiding over an “accelerating and disastrous extinction crisis”, and had slashed environment department funding since coming to power. “They have no solutions to this crisis and they just don’t care,” she said.

A groundbreaking study by 38 scientists working across Australia and Antarctica last week found 19 ecosystems were collapsing due to the impact of humans and warned urgent action was required to prevent their complete loss.

Huge Fish, Once Believed Extinct, Isn’t the ‘Living Fossil’ Scientists Thought

George DvorskyYesterday 4:00PM293

A rare sighting of a live coelacanth, captured off the coast of South Africa in 2019.
A rare sighting of a live coelacanth, captured off the coast of South Africa in 2019.

An analysis of coelacanth DNA suggests its genome has experienced some significant changes in recent evolutionary history, potentially dispelling the popular image of these iconic fish as being “living fossils.”

The discovery of a live coelacanth (pronounced “see-lah-kanth”) off the coast of South Africa in 1938 was quite the shock, as these animals were believed to be extinct. The large fish were thereafter referred to as “living fossils” owing to their uncanny resemblance to near-identical species spotted in the fossil record.

New research published in Molecular Biology and Evolution presents evidence showing that at least one species of coelacanth, formally known as Latimeria chalumnae, is not the living fossil it’s presumed to be, having acquired dozens of new genes in the past 23 million years—a surprising finding, and a far cry from the idea that the species has barely changed since its ancestors emerged over 300 million years ago. What’s more, the finding is further evidence that the living fossil concept is outdated and somewhat of a misnomer.

Not much is known about coelacanths, but they’re not particularly aggressive, and they’re actually somewhat social, Isaac Yellan, the first author of the new study, explained in an email. L. chalumnae lives in the Indian Ocean and the waters off the coast of southeast Africa, and, though not extinct, the fish is elusive and critically endangered, said Yellan, a graduate student with the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto.

Scientists and sailors pose with a 120-pound coelacanth caught off the coast of Madagascar in 1953.
Scientists and sailors pose with a 120-pound coelacanth caught off the coast of Madagascar in 1953.

Yellan and his colleagues made the discovery while doing research into proteins that bind DNA, with a focus on a protein called CGG Binding Protein 1 (CGGBP1). Other researchers have studied the function of this protein in humans, but its role in evolutionary history is poorly understood, as is its apparent similarity to a specific family of transposons—DNA sequences capable of shifting positions within a genome. This led the team to study binding proteins in other species, in a journey that eventually led them to the idiosyncratic fish.

“The African coelacanth came into the picture when we started looking for CGGBPs [DNA binding proteins) in published genomes, and found out that it has 62 CGGBP genes—way more than any other vertebrate,” explained Yellan. “We then started to look into where this large gene family might have come from.”

As noted, the 62 genes are transposons, which are often referred to as “jumping genes,” because they “jump” around the genome, but they can also make copies of themselves. Transposons are considered parasitic genes, with the sole focus of self-replication, but some transposons can influence function. So, with 62 of these genes found in coelacanths, these jumping genes are probably playing an important role.

Indeed, the new paper is highlighting the dramatic influence transposons can have on a species’ overall genome and its ongoing evolution.

A preserved specimen on display at a museum in Austria.
A preserved specimen on display at a museum in Austria.

Transposons are “often parasitic and can be very harmful if they disrupt genes, but they sometimes do form cooperative relationships with their hosts,” said Yellan. “There are many different ways this can occur,” he said, and a limited amount of replication can increase the host’s genetic diversity. Sometimes, however, transposons lose their ability to replicate, “which their host can then take advantage of, as is the case with CGGBP1.”

This all sounds very freaky, but basically, the host species is sometimes able to leverage the situation, in which immobile transposons are retained due to their beneficial qualities. Think of it as another mechanism for evolution, an alternate form of mutation and selection. Such appears to be the case here, with the coelacanth’s unprecedented batch of 62 transposons, which are bona fide genes derived from immobile transposons, explained Yellan.

“I’d also want to point out the transposons we studied are no longer able to jump around in the coelacanth genome,” he added. “What remain are dead ‘fossils’ of their own, and the CGGBP genes.”

The researchers aren’t entirely sure what these 62 transposons are doing, but they’re probably playing a role in gene regulation, according to the paper.

Yellan and his colleagues, including molecular geneticist Tim Hughes, also from the University of Toronto, found related genes in the genomes of other animals, but the distribution of these genes pointed to an origin outside of common ancestors.

Indeed, some but not all transposons are acquired through interactions with other species, including distantly related species, in a process known as horizontal gene transfer. The authors can’t pinpoint the exact origin of the transposons documented in L. chalumnae, but they have some ideas.

“One way that transposons can be picked up and carried between species is through a parasitic intermediary host, such as a lamprey, which feeds on the blood of fish,” said Yellan. “This is supported by the fact that we found one of these transposons in a lamprey species, although we don’t know if coelacanths received it from the lamprey, or vice-versa.”

As the new paper also points out, these genes appeared at various points during the past 22.3 million years, a figure reached through a comparative analysis of the African fish with Latimeria menadoensis, its Indonesian counterpart (the only other extant species of coelacanth), as these two species of coelacanth diverged at that time.

Which leads us to the concept of living fossils—species whose genomes have barely changed over long periods of time. Other examples include the lungfish and tuatara (an animal that resembles the ancestor of both snakes and lizards), but, as Yellan explained, the genomes of these animals, like the coelacanth, aren’t static.

“Previous research has found that while coelacanth genes have evolved slowly compared to other fish, reptiles, and mammals, its genome as a whole has not evolved abnormally slowly and is hardly inert,” said Yellan.

To which he added: “I think that as more and more genomes are being published, the ‘living fossil’ concept is becoming increasingly something of a misconception, and I think many scientists would probably hesitate to assign it to any species.”

I always liked the concept of living fossils, but I’m sufficiently persuaded that it’s a bogus concept. Sure, animals can superficially resemble their distant ancestors, but it’s the parts beneath the hood that tell the whole story.

Study warns of ‘biotic annihilation’ driven by hunting, habitat destruction

Study warns of ‘biotic annihilation’ driven by hunting, habitat destruction


Humans are driving species to extinction 1,000 times faster than what is considered natural. Now, new research underscores the extent of the planet’s impoverishment.

Extinctions don’t just rob the planet of species but also of functional and phylogenetic diversity, the authors of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argue. “They are much newer ideas than species richness, so not as much exploration has been done about patterns of decline in these two metrics, particularly globally,” said Jedediah Brodie, first author of the study and conservation biologist at the University of Montana.

A baby African elephant at Kruger National Park. Image by Rhett A. Butler.
A baby African elephant at Kruger National Park. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

For example, rhinos loom large in public imagination but are, in fact, marching into oblivion. The Bornean rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), a subspecies of the Sumatran rhinoceros, has gone extinct in Malaysia. “It is such a tragedy because it’s an iconic and culturally important species,” Brodie said, “but also because they are super important both functionally and phylogenetically.”

Harvesting animals for subsistence or sale is the greatest threat to land-dwelling mammals, the new study found. About 15% of people in the world depend on wild animals, particularly vertebrates, for food. But hunting, illegal and legal, also feeds the global supply chain for wildlife and wildlife parts.×250&!1&btvi=4&fsb=1&xpc=SvaQ9q0xAL&p=https%3A//

Rhino populations plummeted in the second half of the 20th century; they are heavily poached for their horns, and their ranges have shrunk dramatically over the decades. Of the five existing rhino species, three are critically endangered.

The study focused on terrestrial mammals, one of the most extensively studied groups. They used the IUCN Red List, the most widely cited and comprehensive compilation of endangered species and the threats they face.

By removing animals from their habitats, humans also remove them from ecosystems in which they evolved and play critical roles. To gauge the consequences is not a simple calculus.

“Say there are twenty species of grazing animals and only two species of seed-eating animals. If two species of the grazers go extinct, that doesn’t have that much impact on the functional diversity because there are still eighteen grazers left,” Brodie said. “But if the two species of seed-eating animals go extinct, it has a huge impact on functional diversity because all of a sudden you’ve lost this entire ecological function.”

In both cases, Brodie said, the species richness would decrease by two, but the effects would be very different.

A Bornean rhino. Image courtesy of Jeremy Hance and Tiffany Roufs/Mongabay.
Bornean rhino. Image courtesy of Jeremy Hance and Tiffany Roufs/Mongabay.

Despite their fearsome reputation and bulk, rhinos, some of which can weigh as much as two cars, are herbivores. Bornean rhinos are one of the few large-bodied frugivores and herbivores on Borneo, an island shared between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It is also home to another herbivore, the island’s famous pygmy elephants. However, rhinos eat different plants than the elephants, so losing them would alter plant seed dispersal and plant evolution.

The research shows that extinctions driven by human activities lead to a more significant decline in functional diversity than if species were randomly going extinct.

“Some species groups are very vulnerable. Be an antelope, and people want to eat you. Be a parrot, and people want you as a pet. Live only on Cuba — as a subfamily of mammals does — and you’re in trouble,” said Stuart Leonard Pimm, an ecologist and leading authority on the extinction crisis, who was not involved in the recent study. “This leads to a disproportionate loss of ecological function as human actions drive species to extinction.”

The disappearance of species doesn’t just wipe away entire ecological functions. It also leads to the irredeemable loss of evolutionary history. Millions of years of evolution are encoded into species that coexist with humans today; to lose them is to lose that biological heritage.

The disappearance of the remaining five rhino species would sever an entire evolutionary lineage, the Rhinocerotidae family that arose about 40 million years ago, from the tree of life.

“They are the last remnants of what was a hugely diverse and amazing family found all across the world in the not too distant past,” Brodie said of Rhinocerotidae, which counts more than 40 extinct species.

But conservationists warn that it is not just wholesale extinctions that we should be worried about, but also disappearing populations — what Brodie and his co-authors call “biotic annihilation.” Only one in every 10 dramatic declines in populations results in extinctions, but those losses have repercussions for ecosystems which experience them.

“Species extinction is an endpoint, and it’s a really, really, bad endpoint. Before that happens, species will start to go extinct in individual countries first,” Brodie said. “The focus on population decline is really important because it’s in some ways a better illustrator of the magnitude of the extinction crisis.”

Their research maps out the relationship between species richness and functional and phylogenetic loss for individual countries to aid national-level policymaking.

The work shows that habitat destruction results in more functional diversity loss in Indonesia, Argentina and Venezuela. “This suggests that instead of focusing on harvest management and human diets, conservation actions in these areas might be better directed toward protected areas and land use policy to best conserve this component of biodiversity,” the researchers write.

The study also found that climate change is emerging as a major driver of biodiversity loss. What remains to be seen is how these relationships pan out for other animal groups, like reptiles, amphibians and birds.


Brodie, J. F., Williams, S., & Garner, B. (2021). The decline of mammal functional and evolutionary diversity worldwide. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(3). doi:10.1073/pnas.1921849118

This article by Malavika Vyawahare was first published on on 5 January 2021. Lead Image of a baby Sumatran rhino by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Large ecosystems collapse “over ‘human’ timescales”, a new paper reports

We may take it for granted, but if pushed too far, the inner workings of mother nature will grind to a halt very fast, a new paper reports.

Alexandru Micu by Alexandru MicuDecember 23, 2020 in Environmental IssuesListen Now logo

Large ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest will break down very quickly if we cross their tipping point, explain researchers from Bangor University, Southampton University, and The School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.

Tipping points, in the context of environmental sciences, are thresholds beyond which natural systems need to change significantly in order to adapt to the status quo. In the case of the Amazon rainforest, for instance, this tipping point represents the amount of damage it can absorb before transitioning to a different type of ecosystem. That change may be right around the corner.

Image credits: Ryk Porras.

No more Amazon

“Unfortunately, what our paper reveals is that humanity needs to prepare for changes far sooner than expected,” says joint lead author Dr Simon Willcock of Bangor University’s School of Natural Sciences.

“These rapid changes to the world’s largest and most iconic ecosystems would impact the benefits which they provide us with, including everything from food and materials, to the oxygen and water we need for life.”

According to modeling based on real-world data, the team found that the Amazon forest would change into a savannah-like ecosystem (a mix of trees and grasses) within 50 years of passing the tipping point, which is blisteringly fast for an ecosystem so huge.about:blank

The study didn’t focus exclusively on the Amazon rainforest and is applicable to other large ecosystems around the world. With the recent fires in the Amazon and throughout Australia, the findings may be much more relevant to the present than we’d like.

Generally speaking, ecosystems that are dominated by a single species are much more fragile than diverse ones, which tend to be more robust. There are many ways to ‘do things right’ and prevent collapse in a diverse ecosystem, while there’s few or just one right way in simple ecosystems. For example, elephants are considered a ‘keystone’ species in their ecosystem because they hold a disproportionate amount of power to influence it; elephants can destroy plant life with relative impunity from predators, but they also act as a key seed dispersal mechanism. Things are all fine and dandy while there’s no crisis going on, but if a keystone species does disappear, the ecosystem at large would suffer profound — and quick — alterations.

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Biodiversity thus holds the key to preventing or mitigating such ecosystem collapses, the authors explain.

“This is yet another strong argument to avoid degrading our planet’s ecosystems; we need to do more to conserve biodiversity,” says Dr Gregory Cooper, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, the study’s other joint lead author.

The authors explain that if you think of ecosystems in terms of size, each unit of size provides “an increasingly smaller unit of time taken for that system to collapse”. In other words, extra size provides diminishing returns for the ecosystem’s stability. A given ecosystem would still take more time to collapse than one half its size, but it won’t take twice as long to do it.

“We intuitively knew that big systems would collapse more slowly than small ones — due to the time it takes for impacts to diffuse across large distances,” explains Prof John Dearing, the paper’s corresponding author.

“But what was unexpected was the finding that big systems collapse much faster than you might expect — even the largest on Earth only taking possibly a few decades.”

Large ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest, the Caribbean coral reefs, or the Australian outback aren’t flawed in any way. But they have been left vulnerable by decades of human activity, which is most noticeable as a drop in biodiversity, the team expains.

“Worryingly, recent plot inventories from the Amazon show a declining rate of carbon sequestration, and there is growing evidence that further deforestation and degradation of the feedback between moisture formation and vegetation coverage may lead to a system-wide tipping point as soon as 2021,” the paper concludes.

The paper “Regime shifts occur disproportionately faster in larger ecosystems” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.about:blankPopular in the CommunityAdChoicesSponsoredIn a single spin, this wind turbine can power a home for a whole dayTreePlease use proper units. A 13MW turbine could produce 312 MWh in a day.Top CommentTop Comment2We probably aren’t the first civilization in the Milky Way. It’s just that the others are deadPopcorn”Intelligent life” that self-annihilates is not intelligent, and not worthy of the intelectual ranking we like to endow ourselves with. Tool mastery cannot be the definition of intelligence if it leads to self-annihilation. Unfortunately, our emotionally challenged species is on that path and seem determined to force the same fate on our earthly cohabitants. To call ourselves intelligent is both ironic, and scandalously chauvinistic. Self-annihilation in our case seems set to be an extinction resulting from chronic apathy and emotional inertia – more so than the nuclear holocaust we once feared would take us. Not only are we not intelligent, we are cowardly, greed-driven and unprincipled in our lack of resolve to, in the very least, prevent further loss of biodiversity, let alone coexist, cooperate, collaborate in a manner worthy of true intelligence…Top CommentTop Comment5We probably aren’t the first civilization in the Milky Way. It’s just that the others are deadSushi”self-replicating spacecraft traveling at one-tenth of the speed of light — admittedly a quick speed ” Admittedly? There’s virtually no chance that such technology is possible. “Humans are biased to think that other civilizations might behave just like us. As such, these inherent biases may cloud our judgment, believing that other civilizations might also nuke themselves out of existence.” They didn’t make that assumption. ” Over a long-enough timeframe, the probability of self-annihilation borders on certainty” is a fact regardless of how they behave. Anyway, this is all wildly speculative. My own speculation is that the arisal of technological civilizations is far far less likely than people assume … humans exist because of a whole set of freak historical accidents.Top CommentTop CommentEuropean rivers are fragmented by over one million barriersPalmtreeThank you for this very interesting article. Small correction however, the Vezins dam and the Sélune are in France, not in Belgium ;-)Top CommentTop CommentFace masks reduce new COVID cases by 45%FlaskThere are many studies that state the opposite: masks are completely inefficient. As Sweden shows, masks are not needed. But the most authoritative study on masks is the one that no scientific outlet allowed to publish until recently. Read this in the Annals of Internal Medicine: Effectiveness of Adding a Mask Recommendation to Other Public Health Measures to Prevent SARS-CoV-2 Infection in Danish Mask Wearers.Top CommentTop Comment1

Fears koalas could be extinct in NSW by 2050 prompts calls to halt salvage logging

JUNE 30 2020 – 1:30PM

Federal Politics

Even before the fires, koalas had seen a 26 per cent decline in numbers in NSW. Picture: Karleen Minney.

 Even before the fires, koalas had seen a 26 per cent decline in numbers in NSW. Picture: Karleen Minney.

The NSW government has been urged to rethink salvage logging operations in the state, after a parliamentary inquiry found koalas could become extinct in the next 30 years without urgent action.

A Greens and Labor-dominated NSW parliamentary committee has found koala populations have been shrinking throughout the state, due to the effects of land clearing for agriculture, mining and development.

It concluded the official government estimate of 36,000 koalas within the state was “outdated and unreliable”, given dramatic declines in key local populations since 2012.

At least 5000 koalas are also estimated to have perished during the 2019-20 bushfires.

Some parts of the state, such as Port Macquarie, lost up to 90 per cent of their koala populations in the fires.

“Given the scale of loss to koala populations across New South Wales as a result of the 2019- 20 bushfires and without urgent government intervention to protect habitat and address all other threats, the koala will become extinct in NSW before 2050,” their report said.

The committee called for a halt to salvage logging operations in light of the fires.

“In light of the above evidence and the ongoing recovery efforts in burnt forests, the committee acknowledges that the forests are essential habitats for not just koalas, but other threatened species, and need to be monitored for recovery before any further decisions about salvage logging are made,” their report said.

“The committee thus recommends that the government consider the impacts of logging in all public native (non-plantation) forests in the context of enabling koala habitat to be first identified and then protected by a combination of transferring land to national parks … where appropriate.”

It also urged the government to rule out opening up old growth forests in the state forest reserve for logging.

The inquiry was set up more than a year ago after series concerns about the future of the koala.

Even before the fires, the species had seen a 26 per cent decline in numbers.

The committee heard from James Fitzgerald, a wildlife carer based near Canberra, who lost both his home and all of his animal enclosures in the January fires. The koalas he had rescued from earlier fires were also lost.

Mr Fitzgerald said many koalas he was now finding were extremely thin and had to euthanised.

“Their luck is running out because there is just no food across vast areas,” Mr Fitzgerald told the inquiry.

The species was also vulnerable to the increasing impacts of climate change.

The recent drought also meant koalas were no longer able to get adequate hydration from eucalyptus leaves, and were descending from trees to drink from garden hoses and water bowls.

Chair of the committee, Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, warned future generations may not see a koala in the wild again if the report was ignored.

“Following the disastrous 2019-20 bushfire season, it is undoubtable that the game has changed dramatically for koalas. The evidence could not be more stark. The only way our children’s grandchildren will see a koala in the wild in NSW will be if the government acts upon the committee’s recommendations,” Ms Faehrmann said.

This fish is ‘king of the reef.’ But high-end diners may change that.

The luxury live reef fish market threatens the humphead wrasse. Could its unique “eyelashes” help save it?
7 Minute Read
By Danielle Beurteaux

PUBLISHED March 20, 2020

It’s the king of the coral reefs. The humphead wrasse, fittingly named for the bump on its head, can grow to six feet long, weigh up to 400 pounds, and live for 30 years.

Also known as Napoleon wrasses, these giants are things of beauty, with diamond patterning, varying green, blue, and yellow scales, and distinctive “eyelashes”—black diagonal lines behind each eye. The fish live in tropical waters of nearly 50 countries, from the coast of East Africa to the Pacific Ocean.

But they’re disappearing because of their reputation for being delicious. They’re considered a luxury food in Hong Kong, where per capita fish consumption is among the highest in the world, according to the marine environmental nonprofit Bloom Hong Kong.

Fishing for humphead wrasses has intensified in recent years. In 2004, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which sets the conservation status of species, upgraded the fish from vulnerable to endangered. Also that year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates cross-border commerce in wildlife, set more stringent regulations to protect the species from overexploitation. Many countries where humpheads are found have banned their trade, but Indonesia—whose waters encompass about a fifth of the humphead’s range—allows 2,000 to be exported each year, a number some experts worry is too high.
© NGP, Content may not reflect National Geographic’s current map policy.

Humphead wrasse can be found in the Coral Triangle, as well as on coral reefs throughout much of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Yvonne Sadovy, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Sciences and co-chair of the IUCN’s grouper and wrasse specialist group, says it’s unknown how many humpheads remain in the seas or what their rate of decline has been. What is well known is that the ecologically important Coral Triangle, encompassing a significant part of the humphead’s range, is threatened by overfishing.

Unlike elephants, humphead wrasses don’t get a lot of publicity, but they’re “in probably a worse state of trouble,” says Colman O’Criodain, the World Wildlife Fund’s policy manager for wildlife. Sadovy, who led recent humphead wrasse population surveys, says the fish were so scarce that “we were really quite shocked.” She also hears from divers and biologists that they no longer see mature humpheads in the wild.
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The fact that humpheads are scarce in the wild, despite protections, is evidence of illegal fishing and trading, but ascertaining the scale of the illegal trade is very difficult. Online trading platforms such as the Chinese ecommerce sites TMall and Taobao can facilitate illicit trade, Sadovy says. Social media, chat rooms, and WhatsApp groups, make it “much harder to detect,” O’Criodain says.

The lack of tracking for humpheads motivated Sadovy to create a tool that could be used by both authorities and the public. In what would be a first for fish, facial recognition technology uses the fish’s unique eye marks to determine if a humphead was imported legally. Working with a developer, she created Saving Face, a smartphone app that would enable diners, restaurateurs, and endangered species enforcement officers to compare a photo of a humphead wrasse for sale at a restaurant or market to photos in a database of legally imported humpheads.

The app is still in the testing phase, Sadovy says. She hopes Hong Kong will help promote the app and that it will empower people to be consumer watchdogs and help stop the selling of illegal fish. She says a growing number of restaurants in Hong Kong are intent on offering only legally sourced species that aren’t compromised in the wild, while consumers themselves are becoming more aware of beleaguered species they should avoid eating.

For the app to have a real impact on the illegal trade, Hong Kong would need to have enough inspectors at its ports to photograph each imported live wrasse to register in the app’s database. Further, there would need to be widespread adoption of the app by restaurateurs who buy the fish from wholesalers and restaurant diners. Then if the app does raise questions about the legality of a fish, app users would need to take it upon themselves to report the lack of facial matches to endangered species enforcement officers, who would need to prioritize following up on those reports.

The Hong Kong government needs to make more effort to educate and raise awareness among the public, the hospitality industry, and seafood traders, Sadovy says. “I think there’s a real need for education.”
From Indonesia to Hong Kong

Indonesia not only exports wild-caught humpheads but also ones raised in captivity, in the remote Anambas Islands and Natuna Islands. In 2018, for the first time, the country established an annual export quota of
40,000 for ranched humpheads. These are fish taken from the wild as juveniles and raised in pens. As with the wild fish, they’re shipped live, mostly to Hong Kong, to be kept in tanks in markets and restaurants until they’re sold for a meal (or die of other causes). This flood of humpheads into the market has made enforcement even more difficult, both because of the sheer number of fish and because there’s no way to distinguish between wild and ranched humpheads.

O’Criodain is worried that ranching may worsen the plight of these endangered fish. He says removing pre-reproductive-age wrasses from diminished wild populations may compromise their ability to rebound and that Indonesia doesn’t fulfill the CITES rule that trade in ranched humpheads is permissible only if it won’t undermine wild populations.
“There’s nothing about the overall size of the population and whether the take of these juveniles is sustainable in relation to that overall size,” he says. CITES also requires that a certain number of ranched fish be returned to the wild to bolster diminishing populations, but according to O’Criodain, Indonesia hasn’t declared its intent to do that.
Picture of a humphead wrasse swimming over coral reef

A facial recognition app is being developed that uses the humpheads’ eye markings to help distinguish between legally and illegally traded fish.
Photograph by David Doubilet, Nat Geo Image Collection

The Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, which oversees the trade in humphead wrasses, did not respond to requests for comment.

Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department issues fish import permits, manages trade in CITES-listed species, and carries out shipment inspections. Every Hong Kong humphead wrasse retailer must have a possession license, and it’s prohibited for vendors to buy and sell the fish from each other. But if humpheads are smuggled in with shipments of other fish they resemble—groupers, for example—they’re not officially documented.

As detailed in a 2016 report Sadovy cowrote for Traffic, a nonprofit that tracks the wildlife trade, the number of humpheads offered in Hong Kong’s markets and restaurants exceeds the official, legal number.
Additionally, CITES records show that thousands of ranched Indonesian humphead wrasses are simply disappearing. In one instance, 8,000 ranched fish (with the proper CITES export permits) left Indonesia but never showed up anywhere else. “That disappearance means, because Hong Kong is quite good at reporting imports, that they’re going straight into mainland China and not being reported,” Sadovy says.

At present, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department is more intent on checking vessels suspected of carrying drugs or goods such as cigarettes, smuggled in to avoid customs duties, than illegal wildlife, says Sophie le Clue, environment director with the Hong Kong-based nonprofit ADM Capital Foundation. She says inspectors generally search for illegal wildlife only if they’ve been tipped off ahead of time; then they call in the Endangered Species division of the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department for law enforcement action.

Officials from the department declined requests for an interview but sent an extended statement. Among other things, they said that “Hong Kong is committed to the protection of endangered species [and] takes vigorous enforcement actions together with the Customs and Excise Department in combating smuggling of Humphead wrasse to ensure that the trade in Humphead wrasse is in accordance with CITES and local legislation [and] conducts inspection on local market from time to time and appropriate enforcement action would be taken if any irregularity is spotted.”

The Endangered Species division itself doesn’t have an investigative body. Neither it nor Customs and Excise likely has enough staff or resources to inspect and track all shipments of live fish, says Stanley Shea, Bloom Hong Kong’s marine director.
’Saving Face’ for saving fish

Sadovy says the Saving Face app will be available at no cost. Here’s how authorities and the public will be able to use it: When legally imported fish with proper documentation arrive in Hong Kong, Endangered Species division personnel will photograph them and upload the photos to a database connected to the app. When enforcement officers or diners want to check the legality of a humphead, they can take a photo of the fish and, using the app, ascertain whether it matches one recorded in the database. If it doesn’t, they can use the Endangered Species division’s public reporting phone line to alert authorities.

According to Sadovy, a pilot project tested in the spring of 2019 showed that the app had a 70 percent match accuracy rate. She and the developer are now working on improving the accuracy rate, as well as enabling a desktop and cloud version that would make the system useful for high-volume import inspections. They plan to launch this in June.

Despite the limited number of Endangered Species division inspectors, Sadovy says the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department has committed to using the app to process all labeled imports of live wild humphead wrasses. Ranched wrasses, however, make up the majority of imports, and it’s far from clear whether Hong Kong would have the staff to process those as well in the future.

Anil Jain, professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, whose biometrics lab developed a facial recognition system for primates, says the tool is promising but imperfect. Environmental factors such as cloudy water or bad lighting can affect image quality and compromise accuracy.

Eventually, with sufficient data, Sadovy envisions that the app could be used as a tool to combat trafficking of other wildlife besides humphead wrasses. “If there’s enough sample data,” she says, “enforcers could use this for all sorts of imports.”