A fossilised tooth left behind by the largest ape that ever lived is shedding new light on the evolution of apes.
Gigantopithecus blacki was thought to stand nearly three metres tall and tip the scales at 600kg.
In an astonishing advance, scientists have obtained molecular evidence from a two-million-year-old fossil molar tooth found in a Chinese cave.
The mystery ape is a distant relative of orangutans, sharing a common ancestor around 12 million years ago.
“It would have been a distant cousin (of orangutans), in the sense that its closest living relatives are orangutans, compared to other living great apes such as gorillas or chimpanzees or us,” said Dr Frido Welker, from the University of Copenhagen.
Human evolution hopes
The research, reported in Nature, is based on comparing the ancient protein sequence of the tooth of the extinct ape, believed to be a female, with apes alive today.
Obtaining skeletal protein from a two-million-year-old fossil is rare if not unprecedented, raising hopes of being able to look even further back in time at other ancient ancestors, including humans, who lived in warmer regions.
There is a much poorer chance of being able to find ancient DNA or proteins in tropical climates, where samples tend to degrade quicker.
“This study suggests that ancient proteins might be a suitable molecule surviving across most of recent human evolution even for areas like Africa or Asia and we could thereby in the future study our own evolution as a species over a very long time span,” Dr Welker told BBC News.
Gigantopithecus blacki was first identified in 1935 based on a single tooth sample. The ape is thought to have lived in Southeast Asia from two million years ago to 300,000 years ago.
Many teeth and four partial jawbones have been identified but the animal’s relationship to other great ape species has been hard to decipher.
The ape reached massive proportions, exceeding that of living gorillas, based on analysis of the few bones that have been found.
It is thought to have gone extinct when the environment changed from forest to savannah.
On Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, biologist Mike Phillips presented “Wildness Restored: The Wolf’s Return to Colorado” at the University of Colorado Denver, the latest lecture in the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series. He comes to Colorado at a pivotal moment — as state residents consider a proposed 2020 ballot measure to initiate a wolf restoration plan.
Phillips is currently a Montana State Senator and Director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. A biologist who previously worked on both the Red Wolf Recovery Program and the Wolf Restoration project at Yellowstone National Park, Phillips has conducted extensive wildlife research, though he specializes in large carnivores. Besides many articles in both peer-reviewed journals and popular magazines, Phillips is the author of “The Wolves of Yellowstone.” In other words, he is a well-recognized wolf expert.
As such, Phillips has to contend with our country’s troubled history with wolves. Europeans settlers virtually eradicated wolves, first through independent hunting and trapping, and later through government-sanctioned wolf extirpation programs (involving mass poisoning, among other inhumane killing methods) that left the species almost extinct. Why? “Manifest destiny,” Phillips explains, “which demanded a zealous embrace of the determination to tame the land and its wild inhabitants.”
But the large-scale destruction of wild animals, including bison, grizzlies, wolves, and elk, eventually prompted a call to action. “The entire science of wildlife management grew out of a need for things to shoot because the great game herds had been destroyed,” Phillips said. Once the U.S. realized it needed to reverse the trend toward species extinction, it passed the Endangered Species Act, which protected threatened and endangered plants and animals and their habitats. This ushered in a new era of conservation — and the wolf once again became a central metaphor for how we view wildness.
The real wolf vs. the mythic wolf
In addition to history, Phillips has to contend with popular culture, which has largely depicted the wolf as a vicious predator. In this regard, the United States is not alone. For centuries, and across continents, the wolf has been at the center of stories and fables, serving as a convenient symbol. And many wolf myths are aimed at children, which prompted the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (RMWP) to produce a video titled “Meet the Real Wolf” (see above).
Phillips is forced to discuss the wolf in this context, acknowledging the mythic wolf while providing information about the real wolf: “The real wolf has been studied exhaustively over many decades. The real wolf is one of the most studied large mammals in the world. The real wolf is not even a shadow of the mythical wolf — it’s the mythical wolf that gets in the way of restoration,” Phillips said.
It’s important to change the narrative about the real wolf, especially in regards to social structure and survival. For wolves, family is of paramount importance, as explained in the RMWP video. Another misconception is that wolves are supreme killers, which is incorrect: “The real wolf — oh, my heavens. Life is a daily struggle. Starvation is a common cause of death. Puppies suffer the most of all. Most efforts to hunt end up with gray wolves coming up empty-pawed,” Phillips said.
Initiative 107: restoration of gray wolves
Currently, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund (RMWAF) is collecting signatures for a proposed 2020 ballot measure that would restore the gray wolf to Colorado. Rob Edward, president of RMWAF, summarized the petition: “Initiative 107 directs the Colorado Department of Wildlife & Parks to initiate a science-based wolf restoration plan, to include public input into the process, and to ultimately begin reintroducing wolves to designated lands west of the Continental Divide in Colorado no later than 2023.”
The final written version of Initiative 107 is available at the Colorado Secretary of State website. The measure does not establish its own plan for wolf reintroduction but rather asks the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to “Develop a plan to restore and manage gray wolves in Colorado, using the best scientific data available.”
That is one of the strengths of the initiative, according to Phillips. “Initiative 107 does not aim to be a strong statement of wildlife management. 107 acknowledges the expertise of Colorado state and of wildlife biologists; it acknowledges the expertise of the state assembly. It is specifically written to take advantage of that expertise and those authorities,” he said.
Edward and the RMWAF team are in the process of collecting the required number of signatures for Initiative 107 to appear on the 2020 ballot (approximately 124,500 by Dec. 13, 2019). He hopes to gather at least 200,000 signatures. That may be the hardest part in the campaign to reintroduce wolves to Colorado, particularly since the state requires signatures to be collected in person. If Initiative 107 gets on the ballot, Edward said he is confident Colorado voters will approve the measure: “We have over two decades of polling data showing support for wolf restoration standing at over 70% statewide and 65% on the Western Slope.”
Colorado is critical link in wolf range
According to Phillips, “Western Colorado represents the last great wolf restoration campaign.” This is because of Colorado’s geographic location —in between two wild wolf habitats. To Colorado’s north, wolf populations inhabit the northern Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest. To Colorado’s south, wolves inhabit the Southwest.
Renowned wolf expert L. David Mech, PhD, biologist and senior research scientist for the U.S. Department of the Interior, has been studying wolves since 1958. He writes: “Re-establishing wolves in western Colorado could connect the entire North American wolf population from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan through Canada and Alaska, down the Rocky Mountains into Mexico. It would be difficult to overestimate the biological and conservation value of this achievement.”
The state of Wyoming, however, poses a threat to a continuous Rocky Mountain wolf habitat since it delisted wolves from the Endangered Species list on April 25, 2017. Wolf management is now in the hands of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, which defined wolves as predatory animals in a large majority of the state. Wyoming’s policy will negatively influence wolf movement. “But with a population in Colorado, at least there will be animals that can move both from the south to the north and from the north to the south. With more animals involved, the prospect of connectivity improves,” Phillips said.
And connectivity is important because wolves, like other large predators, help maintain healthy ecosystems. This is one of the important arguments for wolf reintroduction to the state. In a 2001 article titled “The Importance of Large Carnivores to Healthy Ecosystems,” Phillips and his co-authors write, “The impacts of carnivores thus extends past the objects of their predation. Because herbivores eat seeds and plants, predation on that group influences the structure of the plant community. The plant community, in turn, influences distribution, abundance, and competitive interaction within groups of birds, mammals, and insects.”
When asked to put this concept into everyday language, Phillips said: “Let’s assume that life is a most powerful force in the universe. If that’s true, then death has to be equally important … Life matters and death matters. Prey matters and predators matter … Gray wolves just happen to be good at moving life in the direction of adaptation—good at shaping life because they’re good at picking out those that are predisposed to die.” He explained what decades of wolf research has established: wolves prey on the weak.
Wolves could potentially mitigate chronic wasting disease
According to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) report from Dec. 2018, chronic wasting disease (CWD), a neurological illness similar to mad cow disease, is a growing concern: “As of July 2018, at least 31 of Colorado’s 54 deer herds (57%), 16 of 43 elk herds (37%), and two of nine moose herds (22%) are known to be infected with CWD.” And the incidence of CWD is growing quickly: the same report cites “greater than a tenfold increase in CWD prevalence” in some mule deer herds since the early 2000s.
People cannot easily detect animals with CWD. For example, CPR News recounted the experience of Eric Washburn, an experienced hunter who shot and killed a mule buck in Northern Colorado. The animal had a “thick coat and massive rack of antlers,” but mandatory testing found it had CWD. Washburn, who was forced to throw away “all of that beautiful meat” instead of using it to feed his family, learned an important lesson: “It just showed me you can’t tell by looks which deer are diseased and which are not.”
This incident turned Washburn into an unlikely ally for the pro-wolf-reintroduction movement, as a hunter working for the RMWAF in the hopes that wolves would help curb CWD. Biologist Gary Wolfe, a former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioner, points out that wolves target diseased animals. While there is no direct evidence that wolves mitigate CWD — only past studies related to wolves hunting animals with other diseases and a study on mountain lions preying on CWD-infected mule deer— Wolfe cites the inverse relationship between wolf population distribution and CWD-infected herds in the Mountain West. “That’s circumstantial evidence, but to me that’s a piece of circumstantial evidence that says that wolf predation can help slow the spread of the disease,” he states.
Opposition to wolves in Colorado
Other hunters, as well as ranchers and concerned citizens, strongly oppose Initiative 107. Some of them believe that wolves might increase the CWD problem by spreading it throughout prey herds. But there is no evidence that wolves increase the occurrence of CWD.
Stop the Wolf, an organization firmly against wolf reintroduction, has published a fact sheet titled “Wolves & Chronic Wasting Disease” that counters: “Wolves … act as an agent of dispersion and displace big game herds from their traditional habitat.” While their fact sheet does include accurate data concerning CWD from the Centers for Disease Control, the organization also disseminates misinformation and promotes fear. For example, another fact sheet titled “Wolves & Human Safety” claims “Now environmentalists teach children that it is safe to pet a wild wolf.”
There are more reasonable arguments that could be made against wolf reintroduction to Colorado, including the following: wolves will kill cattle and other livestock, wolves will kill prey animals like deer and elk, hunters could kill wolves, and wolves could harm humans. In response to many of these arguments, it’s fair to state that wolves are predators: Their presence or absence needs to be considered within the context of ecosystems and within the context of competing species, including humans.
Phillips addressed three of the counter-arguments in his lecture at CU Denver, anticipating the concerns of ranchers, hunters, and fearful citizens. Under Initiative 107, ranchers would be paid for any livestock killed by wolves. He also reviewed the current estimated elk and deer herd populations in Colorado and used figures from Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho to illustrate that wolves would make only a minor impact on Colorado’s hunting seasons. “Coexisting requires only a modicum of accommodation,” he concluded.
History of human–wolf interactions
The last point—that wolves might kill humans—might be the most important argument to address, given the complex history between humans and wolves in the United States (and elsewhere). European settlers and their descendants took a very common species and virtually exterminated it. Phillips said, “The gray wolf was destroyed relentlessly … killed for no great reason.”
Fear, of course, was at least part of the reason humans killed wolves. A report titled “The Fear of Wolves: A Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans,” published by Norway’s Ministry of the Environment in 2002, examined literature and first-hand accounts of wolf attacks on people from Scandinavia, continental Europe, Asia, and North America, including written documents from as far back as the fifteenth century. The report lists 18 authors and more than 90 contributors from more than 30 countries. Have there been wolf attacks on humans? Yes. But they dramatically decreased in the 20th century and the majority of attacks involved rabid wolves. The report concludes: “Unprovoked attacks by non-rabid wolves on people are very rare, and the vast majority of wolves do not regard people as being prey.”
Norman A. Bishop, who worked for the National Park Service for 36 years, addressed the issue of human safety closer to home. In an email, he wrote: “I served as a park ranger in Yellowstone from 1980 to 1997, and I led hundreds of people afield to view and study wolves between 1999 and 2005. I never saw anything that gave me a hint of concern about my safety or that of my companions.”
Bishop also provided data from Yellowstone. “From 1995 to 2018, Yellowstone hosted 101,070,722 visitors, none of whom was injured by a wolf.” For people who argue that it’s the backcountry campers who might be in greatest danger, Bishop cited 2.7 million tent campers in Yellowstone from 1995 to 2018—and “no camper was injured by a wolf.”
Direct democracy and wolf restoration
During a Q&A after his lecture, Phillips addressed concerns raised by two opponents to wolf restoration. Ultimately, he returned to the exact language that begins Initiative 107: “Be it enacted by the people of the state of Colorado.”
This echoes what he said in an earlier interview with CU Denver. “It’s left to Coloradans to decide, based on the nature of their heart.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior last week took a major step toward the first-ever oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In a decision that outraged but did not surprise environmentalists, the agency announced its final plan to develop one of the world’s last great wildernesses, acknowledging that its chosen course might wipe out some bird species and harm other animals that make their home on the pristine reserve.
The Trump administration had multiple options when planning to open the 19.3 million-acre sanctuary to drillers. After Republicans in Congress and President Trump directed Interior in 2017 to create a leasing plan for the refuge’s 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, the department laid out three possible scenarios for energy development there. But on Thursday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced that the department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had chosen the most extreme plan, one that makes the entire coastal plain eligible for leasing and comes with the fewest restrictions on industry’s footprint.
Such an aggressive approach, the BLM acknowledged in its final environmental impact statement, combined with the effects of climate change, could drive birds to extinction, as E&E News first reported. Species that nest in the refuge “already are experiencing decreasing populations, and many could suffer catastrophic consequences from the effects of global climate change in one or more of their seasonal continental or even global habitats,” the document says. “These effects combined with development-related impacts across the ranges of many bird species may result in extinction during the 85-year scope of this analysis.”
Some 200 bird species rely on the refuge, including hardy year-round residents like American Dipper, Gyrfalcon, and Rock and Willow Ptarmigan. The area fills with birdlife each summer, including migrants from every U.S. state and six continents, such as Red-throated Loon, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and Whimbrel.
According to the BLM report, development could require energy companies to pump out large volumes from the coastal plain’s limited water bodies, resulting in food and habitat loss for loons and other waterbirds. Additional species could lose nesting habitat to roads and other infrastructure, and a variety of birds will likely be injured or killed in collisions with drilling rigs, communications towers, and vehicles.
Birds are far from the only wildlife with habitat at stake on the coastal plain, a strip of tundra, rivers, and wetlands wedged between the Brooks Range foothills and the Beaufort Sea. Federally threatened polar bears, which nurture their cubs in dens along its rivers and shoreline, will likely be killed as interactions with humans become more common, the impact statement says. Caribou migrate roughly 1,500 miles each spring to give birth on the plain, where there’s plenty to eat, sea winds to keep mosquitoes at bay, and few predators to threaten their calves. With new development, the biggest threat to caribou is displacement through oil and gas activities.
While the impact statement mentions some potential threats to wildlife, many experts believe it is not explicit enough when addressing the potential risks and even likelihood of extinction for a variety of species. “Oil and gas infrastructure in the Arctic Refuge, when considered in conjunction with climate change, poses an existential risk to several Arctic bird species,” said Audubon Alaska in a press release. Moreover, choosing such an aggressive development plan despite the toll it will take on wildlife “just goes to show how far this administration is willing to go to extract oil and gas, even in what should be a protected area,” says Susan Culliney, the group’s policy director.
The Arctic Refuge provides potential breeding habitat for Spectacled Eiders and hundreds of other species of birds. Photo: Danita Delimont/Alamy
In several high-stakes fights over the past 50 years, advocates for preserving this rare expanse of untouched wild have prevailed over the oil companies, Alaskan politicians, and native corporations that have pursued drilling. Political headwinds—produced in part by the public outrage after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska—have blocked past attempts to open the refuge. A bill to do so made it through Congress in 1995, but President Bill Clinton vetoed it. Democrats and some Republicans have voted to stop other such efforts. A 2017 Yale University poll found that 70 percent of Americans oppose drilling in the refuge.
But that dynamic shifted in December of 2017, when Republicans in Congress, backed by the administration’s call for “energy dominance,” tucked into a tax bill a provision to establish a fossil-fuel leasing program on the refuge’s coastal plain. Sometimes referred to as the 1002 Area, the coastal plain is considered the ecological heart of the refuge, but federal scientists estimate that it also sits atop 7.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil. The bill gave Interior until 2021 to conduct the first of at least two lease sales, each offering 400,000 or more acres. Department officials have pledged to hold that initial sale this year.
One reason for the aggressive timeline is to give industry a foot in the refuge’s door during President Trump’s first term, since having leases in place would complicate a future administration’s efforts to block drilling there, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said last year.
As a result, the regulatory process—typically measured and deliberate—has been rushed, confusing, and even misleading, according to reports from federal agency employees. A comprehensive review for any leasing program over such a large area would typically take two or three years. But the administration compressed that timeline: The draft environmental impact statement was published last December, only eight months after the review began. Investigations have found that, in its hurry, Interior omitted relevant information, and even altered reports from career scientists to downplay potential environmental impacts. And the rush for leasing this year didn’t leave time for seismic testing to give energy companies an idea of where oil deposits most likely exist, which can only happen when the tundra is frozen.
On Thursday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt called the final environmental impact statement “a big step to carry out the clear mandate we received from Congress to develop and implement a leasing program for the Coastal Plain, a program the people of Alaska have been seeking for over 40 years.”
Energy development in the Arctic Refuge will likely harm polar bears and other wildlife. Photo: Steven J. Kazlowski/Alamy
Many Alaskans support drilling in the refuge—perhaps not surprising in a place where, over the past four decades, oil revenue has averaged about 85 percent of the state budget—but questions linger around the purported economic benefits of doing so. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that lease sales would generate only half of the $1.8 trillion in revenues claimed by the Trump administration. More recently, a New York Times analysis found that sales may generate just $45 million across the entire coastal plain.
Although some Alaska Natives advocate tapping into the oil reserves, the Gwich’in people have been outspoken opponents. They live outside the refuge but hold sacred the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates there each spring, and subsist by hunting the animals. The plan announced last week “demonstrates that this administration and the Alaska delegation will disregard our way of life, our food, and our relationship with the land, the caribou, and future generations to pander to industry greed,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, in a statement.
Even before the administration’s plan was announced, there was pushback on Capitol Hill. Hours earlier, the House of Representatives passed a bill to prohibit energy development in the refuge. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday, but it stands little chance of passing the Republican-majority chamber where pro-drilling Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski holds the powerful chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I’m hopeful we can now move to a lease sale in the very near future, just as Congress intended,” Murkowski said in a statement, “so that we can continue to strengthen our economy, our energy security, and our long-term prosperity.”
Environmental groups, meanwhile, are gearing up to fight the plan in the courts. While the plan is final, Interior still needs to issue a formal record of decision, expected in about a month. Once it does so, lawsuits will certainly follow, as they did when the Trump administration lifted protections from national monuments and gutted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other environmental laws and regulations.
The plan is “categorically illegal,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, in a press release. “We will not tolerate the administration’s brazen attempt to paper over the impacts of this disastrous proposal, and we will see them in court for this reckless effort to turn this iconic American landscape into an industrial oilfield.”
In a remarkable evolutionary discovery, a team of scientists co-led by a Virginia Tech geoscientist has discovered what could be among the first trails made by animals on the surface of the Earth roughly a half-billion years ago.
Shuhai Xiao, a professor of geosciences with the Virginia Tech College of Science, calls the unearthed fossils, including the bodies and trails left by an ancient animal species, the most convincing sign of ancient animal mobility, dating back about 550 million years. Named Yilingia spiciformis — that translates to spiky Yiling bug, Yiling being the Chinese city near the discovery site — the animal was found in multiple layers of rock by Xiao and Zhe Chen, Chuanming Zhou, and Xunlai Yuan from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology.
The findings are published in the latest issue of Nature. The trails are from the same rock unit and are roughly the same age as bug-like footprints found by Xiao and his team in a series of digs from 2013 to 2018 in the Yangtze Gorges area of southern China, and date back to the Ediacaran Period, well before the age of dinosaurs or even the Pangea supercontinent. What sets this find apart: The preserved fossil of the animal that made the trail versus the unknowable guesswork where the body has not been preserved.
“This discovery shows that segmented and mobile animals evolved by 550 million years ago,” Xiao said. “Mobility made it possible for animals to make an unmistakable footprint on Earth, both literally and metaphorically. Those are the kind of features you find in a group of animals called bilaterans. This group includes us humans and most animals. Animals and particularly humans are movers and shakers on Earth. Their ability to shape the face of the planet is ultimately tied to the origin of animal motility.”
The animal was a millipede-like creature a quarter-inch to an inch wide and up to 4 inches long that alternately dragged its body across the muddy ocean floor and rested along the way, leaving trails as loing as 23 inches. The animal was an elongated narrow creature, with 50 or so body segments, a left and right side, a back and belly, and a head and a tail.
The origin of bilaterally symmetric animals — known as bilaterians — with segmented bodies and directional mobility is a monumental event in early animal evolution, and is estimated to have occurred the Ediacaran Period, between 635 and 539 million years ago. But until this finding by Xiao and his team, there was no convincing fossil evidence to substantiate those estimates. One of the recovered specimens is particularly vital because the animal and the trail it produced just before its death are preserved together.
Remarkably, the find also marks what may be the first sign of decision making among animals — the trails suggest an effort to move toward or away from something, perhaps under the direction of a sophisticated central nerve system, Xiao said. The mobility of animals led to environmental and ecological impacts on the Earth surface system and ultimately led to the Cambrian substrate and agronomic revolutions, he said.
“We are the most impactful animal on Earth,” added Xiao, also an affiliated member of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. “We make a huge footprint, not only from locomotion, but in many other and more impactful activities related to our ability to move. When and how animal locomotion evolved defines an important geological and evolutionary context of anthropogenic impact on the surface of the Earth.”
Rachel Wood, a professor in the School of GeoSciences at University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who was not involved with the study, said, “This is a remarkable finding of highly significant fossils. We now have evidence that segmented animals were present and had gained an ability to move across the sea floor before the Cambrian, and more notably we can tie the actual trace-maker to the trace. Such preservation is unusual and provides considerable insight into a major step in the evolution of animals.”
The study was supported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the National Geographic Society.
If you’ve never commented about the possibility of reintroducing grizzly bears into the North Cascades, or have already commented but have something more to say, now’s the time.
The National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said last week that they are reopening the public comment period on the Draft North Cascades Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (Draft EIS) for 90 days, through Oct. 24.
The action revives an on-and-off process that began in 2014 under the Obama administration, to consider if and how grizzlies should be reintroduced to an area that was once their native habitat and which now supports only a few of the animals.
A draft EIS on the restoration plan was released in early 2017, followed by public comment periods and public meetings, including one in Winthrop in February 2017. More than 126,000 comments and correspondence have been received on the draft EIS. The overwhelming majority supported the reintroduction proposal. In late 2017, the process was put on hold.
In August 2018, the Department of the Interior, NPS and USFWS said they intended to further evaluate input about the proposal, which meant that completion of a final EIS was further delayed. At that time, the federal agencies did not provide a timeframe for further evaluation.
Fourth District Congressman Dan Newhouse said last week, in a press release, that “I remain opposed to the transfer of grizzly bears to the North Cascades on behalf of my constituents, who would be directly affected. Introducing an additional apex predator to an area that is populated by families and livestock is extremely concerning, but I am glad the Department of the Interior is seeking real, local public comments on this issue. I encourage the people of Central Washington to make their voices heard loud and clear so the Administration will end this misguided proposal once and for all.”
A study by the NPS, released in 2018, turned up a significant body of evidence showing that grizzly bears roamed the North Cascades for thousands of years.
The EIS proposes three alternatives for re-establishing a population of 200 grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE), which includes 9,800 square miles in Washington state and another 3,800 square miles in British Columbia. The area includes the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (including the Methow Valley Ranger District), North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
In addition to the three proposals to restore grizzlies to the North Cascades, the draft EIS includes a required “no action” alternative that would maintain the status quo.
Although the actual number of grizzlies in the NCE is not known, it is “highly unlikely that the area contains a viable grizzly bear population,” the original draft EIS stated. There have been only four confirmed detections of grizzly bears in the greater NCE in the past decade, all of which occurred in British Columbia and may comprise only two bears. There is no confirmed evidence of grizzly bears in the U.S. portion of the NCE since 1996, according to the draft EIS.
The alternatives, as summarized in a newsletter from FWS and NPS, are:
• Alternative A – Continuation of Existing Grizzly Bear Management (no action).
• Alternative B – Ecosystem Evaluation Restoration. NPS and FWS would implement an ecosystem evaluation approach to grizzly bear restoration, providing for release of up to 10 grizzly bears at a single remote site on NPS or U.S. Forest Service lands in the NCE over two consecutive summers. The bears would be monitored for two years to evaluate habitat use and instances of conflicts with humans. In the fourth year a decision would be made regarding how restoration would proceed during subsequent years. That could involve repeating the release of an additional 10 bears, or a decision to transition to Alternative C.
• Alternative C – Incremental Restoration. Five to seven bears would be released into the NCE each year over a period of five to 10 years, with a goal of establishing an initial population of 25 grizzly bears. Bears would be released at multiple remote sites on national park and forest lands, After an initial population of 25 grizzly bears has been reached, additional bears would likely be released every few years. This alternative would be expected to achieve the goal of 200 grizzly bears within 60 to 100 years.
• Alternative D – Expedited Restoration. The lead federal agencies would expedite grizzly bear restoration by releasing additional grizzly bears into the NCE over time, until the restoration goal of 200 bears is reached. This alternative would be expected to achieve that goal within about 25 years.
How to comment
Comments previously submitted on the Draft EIS during the public comment period that was open from Jan. 12, 2017, through April 28, 2017, will be considered. You can view the Draft EIS online, and offer comments on it, at parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis. You can also mail or hand-deliver comments to: Superintendent’s Office, North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284.
Comments will not be accepted by fax, email, or any other way. Bulk comments in any format (hard copy or electronic) submitted on behalf of others will not be accepted.
Isle Royale is 200 square miles of land in the watery expanse of Lake Superior. One cold winter 70 years ago, wolves came over an ice bridge and settled into a largely isolated island existence. Unfortunately, island life has not been good for them.
By 2016, the number of wolves on Isle Royale declined from a peak of 50 to just two, a male and a female. As a result of inbreeding, they were half-siblings as well as father and daughter. They had a pup together that lived less than a year. Even before that, scientists were finding wolves on Isle Royale with crooked spines and extra ribs.
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The wolves of Isle Royale inspired Chris Kyriazis and his colleagues at UCLA to simulate animal populations over hundreds of generations. Their findings were counterintuitive: What doomed the wolves is not just the small number that have lived on the island in modern times, but perhaps also the large number of wolves that lived thousands of years ago. Kyriazis presented his study at the Evolution 2019 conference, and the team posted a preprint of the article, which has not been peer reviewed yet, on bioRxiv.
A large ancestral population can lead more quickly to extinction, the authors argue, because harmful but recessive mutations are not purged over thousands of years. The chances of any one individual getting two copies of the mutation is low, so natural selection doesn’t get a chance to act on it. But if the breeding population then dramatically shrinks—as when the wolves of Isle Royale isolated themselves from wolves on the mainland—those harmful mutations start to come into play.
Now, if the ancestral population were smaller, the purging of harmful mutations could have taken place beforehand. Of course, a population too small to get rid of harmful mutations might simply go extinct. What the simulations find, Kyriazis says, is a “sweet spot” for population size.
“People usually just think about how small is the population now—and how small it’s been over the last 100 years,” Kyriazis says. These simulations suggest the deep history of a species even thousands of years ago can be relevant for conservation today.
The team next simulated what this finding might mean for the practice of genetic rescue, when individuals are brought in to diversify an inbred population. The Isle Royale wolves actually went through a natural genetic rescue when a lone male wolf arrived on this island and had 34 pups. But this “rescue” ultimately failed, ending with the two wolves left in 2016. In 2018, the National Park Service actually moved the first of 15 wolves to Isle Royale as part of a planned genetic rescue. The simulations suggest that rather than aiming to introduce the most genetically diverse wolves from the biggest populations, one might go for wolves from more moderately sized populations.
In practice, though, actually applying these findings will be easier said than done. “It can be a useful guide to help us to think about those deleterious, recessive mutations, but at the end of the day you have to do what you have to do because there’s only wolves in so many places that can be moved,” says Kristin Brzeski, a conservation geneticist at Michigan Technological University who studies the Isle Royale wolves. Eight of the recently relocated wolves came from Michipicoten Island in Canada, where caribou, their usual prey, had disappeared. The wolves were starving and had to be moved if they were going to survive.
Philip Hedrick, a population geneticist at Arizona State University who has studied the wolves at Isle Royale, says the simulations oversimplify a few things. Greater genetic variation also helps a population adapt, for example, especially as climate changes in the future. And often, having just one copy of a deleterious, recessive mutation can slightly decrease an individual’s fitness, he says, so the mutation’s frequency could be low even in large populations.
In the meantime, the genetic rescue at Isle Royale has hit a few unrelated snags. Two relocated wolves died and another left the island when an ice bridge formed during the polar vortex this winter. But scientists have been studying the wolves there for 50 years and will likely continue to for much longer. Isle Royale has one of the most well-studied wolf populations in the world, and it may well reveal how genetic rescue actually works.
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Tooth fossils revealed between three and six members of the ancient crocodile and alligator family evolved specialised teeth for chewing on plants.
Study author Keegan Melstrom, a doctoral student at the University of Utah, analysed 146 teeth from 16 crocodyliforms.
He said: “The most interesting thing we discovered was how frequently it seems extinct crocodyliforms ate plants. Carnivores possess simple teeth whereas herbivores have much more complex teeth.”
According to the study, published in Current Biology, this evolved separately in each of the species, suggesting it was a very successful adaptation.
The plant-eating creatures appeared early in the evolutionary history of the group shortly after the end-Triassic mass extinction 200 million years ago. They would have then been killed off 66 million years ago in the end-Cretaceous mass extinction that killed off all dinosaurs except birds.
All crocodiles alive today have a similar body shape with relatively simple, conical teeth ideal for ripping apart meat. However, the tooth fossils were clearly non-carnivorous and appeared to have specialised forms not seen in modern-day animals.
To work out what they ate, researchers compared the size and shape of teeth in extinct crocodiles with those around today.
“Our work demonstrates that extinct crocodyliforms had an incredibly varied diet,” said Mr Melstrom.
“Some were similar to living crocodylians and were primarily carnivorous, others were omnivores and still others likely specialised in plants. The herbivores lived on different continents at different times, some alongside mammals and mammal relatives, and others did not.
“This suggests that an herbivorous crocodyliform was successful in a variety of environments.”
Scientists are now looking to reconstruct the diets of these extinct crocodiles, including in fossilised species that are missing teeth.
Mr Melstrom wants to find out why crocodiles diversified so radically after the end-Triassic mass extinction but not after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, when the vegetarian crocodiles were wiped out.
With scientists and conservationists saying that the Earth is currently undergoing the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals and species going extinct at up to 1000, to 10,000 the natural, rate, the world is going downhill, fast. However, very rarely, everyone is reminded that it’s perhaps not too late.
One of these rare occasions has just occurred in Taiwan where a rare species of large cat, the Formosan clouded leopard, has just been spotted in the wilderness by a number of people across the archipelago’s southeast region. The leopard has been spotted walking around in the countryside near Taitung County’s Daren Township, where the area’s Paiwan tribal authorities had formed indigenous ranger groups to patrol the region and guard the sensitive areas.
Species hasn’t been sighted since 1983
This is actually great news because this particular species of Leopard hasn’t been officially sighted since 1983, more than 35 years ago, and 6 years ago, in 2013, it was officially decades as extinct. This gives hope to many other animals that were once thought to be extinct. Maybe they are still out there somewhere. It was first spotted by a group of rangers when it suddenly climbed up a tree and then scrambled up a cliff side to go and hunt for goats. Another group also spotted it when it darted in front of their scooter before quickly claiming another tree and disappearing from sight for good. Even though the group didn’t manage to see it again, at least they know it exists and was able to report back about it.
Tribal members want to stop hunting in the area
As soon as the news was heard, a tribal meeting was held by the locals to discuss how is best to move forward. The tribal members of the village are aiming to stop hunting in the area by outsiders, while village elders are lobbying Taiwanese authorities to end logging and other activities that harm the land, and potentially this rare animal as well. The Formosan is known to be quite agile and vigilant, eluding human attempts to trap or otherwise capture it, so it’s somewhat of a mystery that should probably just be left in its natural habitat.
Historical records of the rare cat date back to around the 13th century, when indigenous people brought the leopard’s pelts to trade at the busy markets of port cities like Tainan. Many believe that Japanese anthropologist Torii Ryūzō, in 1900, was the only non-indigenous person to have actually seen a live Formosan clouded leopard.
This article originally appeared on The Conversation, and is republished under a Creative Commons licence.
Wang Wang and Funi came to Australia from China a decade ago. Their relationship is best described as complicated. Despite considerable medical assistance, they have never managed to produce offspring. It has put a big question mark over whether they will be permitted to remain in Australia.
The fate of the two giant pandas may now depend on the outcome of the federal election on May 18. Keeping the couple at Adelaide Zoo includes paying about A$1 million a year to the Chinese government.
China currently has pandas on loan (or hire) to 26 zoos in 18 countries. The most recent zoo to join the select list was Ähtäri, Finland, which welcomed two pandas on a 15-year loan in 2018. Denmark’s Copenhagen Zoo is eagerly awaiting two pandas due to arrive in April.
Officially it’s all part of a captive breeding programme to help save the species from extinction. Though their conservation status is no longer “endangered” (improving to “vulnerable” in 2016), there are still just 500 to 1,000 adult pandas left in the wild, in six isolated mountain ranges in south-central China.
The overseas placements augment China’s own 67 reserves dedicated to panda conservation. Any cubs born overseas are the property of China and typically return to China to continue the captive breeding program.
There are still just 500 to 1,000 adult pandas left in the wild, in six isolated mountain ranges in south-central China
But the number of zoo births has been quite low. As the Smithsonian Institution’s “panda guy” Bill McShea has pointed out, pandas in the wild have fewer problems mating or breeding: “In the wild, aggregations of male pandas form along ridge tops in the spring, and a stream of visiting females in heat keeps the mating activity intense.”
Zoos can’t mimic these conditions. Since giant pandas are solitary animals, they are housed separately except for the few days of the year when the female is ready to mate. Because there is no mate choice in captivity, natural mating is rare. Most captive births are the result of IVF treatments.
Although no longer “endangered” there are still just 500 to 1,000 adult pandas left in the wild, in six isolated mountain ranges in China (Credit: Getty Images)
This is not to say overseas zoo placements have no conservation value. But other strategic aims, such as improving China’s public image and consolidating trade relationships, loom large.
For example, the new panda enclosure at Berlin’s Tierpark zoo was opened just ahead of the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg. The opening was attended by German chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese president Xi Jingping. The event was intrepreted as a signal of China’s endorsement of Germany as a competitor to the United States for leadership of the western world.
The event was intrepreted as a signal of China’s endorsement of Germany as a competitor to the United States for leadership of the western world
As for the panda loan to Adelaide Zoo, it was announced by Chinese president Hu Jintao at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney in 2007. On the same day Australian prime minister John Howard and President Hu also announced plans for a yearly “security dialogue”.
Fu Ni the giant panda is treated to specially prepared panda treats for her birthday at the Adelaide Zoo in 2015 (Credit: Getty Images)
Panda diplomacy is believed to date back to the 7th century, when the Empress Wu Zeitan sent a pair as a gift to Japan. In the 20th century Mao Zedong embraced the strategy, gifting pandas to fellow-travelling communist nations. When Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, Deng Xiaoping presented him with two pandas.
Since then the recipients have been well and truly weighted towards wealthy capitalist nations. There are two reasons for this.
This has been aptly described as an exercise in ‘soft cuddly power’
First, China uses the pandas to improve its image and deepen relationships with nations able to supply it with valuable resources and technology. This has been aptly described as an exercise in “soft cuddly power”.
Second, since the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, China has used panda loans to pay for local conservation efforts, mend damaged panda conservation facilities and conduct giant panda research.
Edinburgh Zoo’s receipt of two pandas in 2011 was linked to trade deals worth billions of dollars (Credit: Getty Images)
Financial strings attached
For recipient zoos keeping pandas is an expensive business.
Consider Adelaide Zoo’s costs even with the federal government covering the pandas’ A$1 million annual rental fee. From the outset, the zoo went heavily into debt to build a specialist panda enclosure (at a cost of about A$8 million).
Looking after each panda also costs many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Pandas are the most expensive animal to keep in a zoo, costing about five times as much as an elephant.
Food alone is a logistical headache. Giant pandas are not biologically herbivores but for some reason they developed a taste for bamboo about 6,000 years ago and stopped eating a varied diet, including meat. Bamboo, however, is low in nutrients and difficult to digest, which means pandas have to eat a lot and then rest. Each day an adult panda can munch through about 12 kilograms of fresh bamboo – and because they’re fussy eaters, they need to be given more than double that amount.
All of this means a panda must be treated like a business proposition. Will there be a return on investment? Will their cost be justified by the extra visitors they draw to the zoo?
Adelaide Zoo had high expectations that were quickly dashed. Like other zoos, there was a large initial spike in zoo visits, but by 2010 visitor numbers had returned to pre-panda levels. It was clear Funi and Wang Wang would not add A$600 million to the South Australian economy over a decade as predicted. In their honeymoon year, research suggests, they brought in just A$28 million. Adding a baby panda would improve their attraction value considerably.
But let’s not overlook the important contribution the panda diaspora has made to pandas moving off the “endangered” list. Part of this is due to the loan fees paid to China. The money has funded panda conservation research and projects at Bifengxia and Wolong, in China’s Sichuan province.
Let’s not overlook the important contribution the panda diaspora has made to pandas moving off the “endangered” list. Part of this is due to the loan fees paid to China
There is also value in Australian zoo keepers, veterinarians and scientists being part of a global knowledge network.
We still know so little about panda behaviour and the environmental effects that endanger them. We have made a small contribution with our own research into strategies to reduce stress in captive giant pandas. If Funi and Wang Wang remain in Adelaide, the zoo has the potential to provide for further valuable insights.
As scientists who care about animals and animal welfare, we believe it is important to also remember Funi and Wang Wang have helped connect hundreds of thousands of children and adults alike to nature.
These two giant pandas have their own personalities and close bonds with people who care for them everyday. Nature is not just an economic commodity but vital for our survival. If you have not yet visited Funi and Wang Wang, take the opportunity while you can.
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America’s fertility rate is in steady decline: In 2018, it dipped to an all-time low, down 2 percent from the year before, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published Wednesday. American women are now predicted to have an average of 1.73 children over their lifetime. The absolute number of births has also fallen to a historic low: Roughly 3.8 million babies were born in the United States last year, the smallest tally since 1986, when the country was just starting to emerge from a recession.
Some observersare worried that theongoing decline will have grim economic consequences in the not-so-distant future. Without enough new babies, the theory goes, America’s demographic makeup will tip further toward older generations, whose members will grow needier and less productive with age. A shrinking workforce could, over time, make this imbalance all the more unsustainable.
If the trend holds fast over the next few years, those fears may prove valid, Karen Benjamin Guzzo, a demographer and sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, told me. But, she says, the trends revealed by the new report are more complex than just the declining fertility rate, and it contains some hopeful news as well: The teen birth rate dropped by 7 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to the CDC’s analysis. Meanwhile, the rate for women ages 30 through 34 was virtually unchanged, and their counterparts in their late 30s and early 40s experienced a slight uptick in birth rates, up 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively. Generally speaking, the older a woman is when she has her first child, the better that child’s socioeconomic outcome.
Against this backdrop, Benjamin Guzzo argues, using that 1.73-children-per-woman stat to predict catastrophe doesn’t make sense. The common measure of a country’s fertility rate is known as its total fertility rate, or TFR. The TFR predicts the expected number of children an average American woman will have in her lifetime. Importantly, it isn’t some ongoing tally—rather, it gathers the actual fertility rate of, say, U.S. women in their 40s and extrapolates from that number to assert what the rate for women currently in their 20s will be two decades from now. TFR is a useful metric because it’s simple and enables apples-to-apples comparisons globally, Benjamin Guzzo says. But in a country and an era in which more and more women are delaying motherhood, she argues, TFR is an estimate that is bound to be skewed.
That’s especially true because, by and large, the rate at which American women of childbearing age express an interest in starting a family hasn’t changed much in the past decade, suggests research presented at a recent meeting of demographers. Nor have notions of the ideal number of children in a family. Meanwhile, a growing body of research challenges traditional assumptions about the risk factors of so-called geriatric pregnancies. Women, Benjamin Guzzo notes, have long had children in their 40s—it’s just that, in the past, they were often having their third or fourth kid.
While some of this apparently declining fertility rate may be attributable to delay, notably, a woman’s decision to delay a baby does increase the likelihood that she won’t end up ever having one. “We need to be changing how we talk about this from mostly a story about delayed births to, increasingly, a story about births that these women are simply never going to have,” Lyman Stone, a researcher at the Institute for Family Studies, told me in an email.
Whatever’s going on, people decide not to have children, or to delay having them, for all sorts of reasons, not always because they’re not interested. For instance, a 2018 study surveying healthy, egg-freezing women in the United States and Israel on their motivations found that “lack of a partner” was the primary driving force. Specifically, the study participants pointed to a “massive undersupply” of men who are university-educated and committed to fidelity, marriage, and/or parenthood.
All of which is to say: The record-low fertility rate likely isn’t a sign that the United States’ younger generations are rejecting having children. Rather, the way Benjamin Guzzo and many other observers see it, it’s a sign that the country isn’t providing the support Americans feel they need in order to have children.
I understand the author is seeking to assuage fears being reported about our country’s declining fertility rate but I strongly object to both this professed fear and the need to mitigate it. Grim economic consequences because people aren’t populating fast enough to become working drones? It’s hard not to laugh at the absurdity of such a thought when everything indicates the opposite is actually the cause for grim writing on the wall. If humans don’t change our global industrial economic model, and soon, human civilization will be collapsing in our lifetimes. And we’re taking just about everything else out the door with us! This Great Extinction Event we’re experiencing is begging human civilization to live differently—breed less, consume less, harm less. This should be the mantra guiding us all right now.
I’m one of many U.S. child-free women who opted out of child-bearing and -rearing intentionally—not only because I wanted to spend my professional years serving others not of my own making, but also because our world’s burgeoning and exponentially increasing human population is well past sustainability. I actually considered the personal act of bringing a child into the world immoral, given the state of affairs of our current world and the ecological crisis that is mounting. In short, I concur with one of the author’s theories: dropping fertility rates do in part reflect women like myself who are looking at climate doom & gloom and choosing not to procreate. For Earth’s sake, I’m just grateful I’m not alone.