Reversing local extinction: scientists bring the northern bald ibis back to Europe after 300 years
by Federica Di Leonardo
The northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita), also called the hermit ibis or waldrapp, is a migratory bird. Once, the bald ibis lived in the Middle East, northern Africa and southern and central Europe, but due to hunting, loss of habitat and pesticide-use, the birds disappeared from most of these areas and is currently considered Critically Endangered.
It became extinct in Europe 300 years ago; the bird is almost gone in Syria, with only a single individual recorded at the country’s lone breeding site in 2013; and the only stronghold left is a small population of around 500 birds in Morocco. But now, a team of scientists from Austria is working to reestablish a self-sustaining, migratory population of bald ibis in Europe.
In 2002 Johannes Fritz, who had been a doctoral student in biology at the Konrad Lorenz Research Station in Austria, came up with the idea of taking northern bald ibises from zoos and imprinting them, in effect becoming their foster parent to teach them a new migratory route to Italy…
Research groups around the world are attempting to resurrect extinct species.
by Abby Olena
The only ever successful de-extinction was the birth of a baby bucardo (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica)—a type of ibex specifically adapted to the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe—in 2003, though the young animal died soon after birth because its lungs did not function properly, according to BBC News. The clone was generated using frozen cells harvested in 1999 from the last bucardo, an old female that died in 2000. Now, the BBC reports that the Centre for Research and Food Technology of Aragon (CITA) in Zaragoza, Spain, will begin a new project to examine the burcado frozen cells to determine whether de-extinction efforts ought to be resurrected.
“At this moment, we are not initiating a bucardo recovery plan,” Alberto Fernandez-Arias, the head of the Service of Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands in the Aragon government, told the BBC. “We only want to know if Celia’s cells are still alive after having been maintained frozen during 14 years in liquid nitrogen.” Fernandez-Arias told the story of the 2003 bucardo de-extinction experiment in one of 25 talks at the TEDxDeExtinction meeting held this spring (March 15) in Washington, D.C…
Strange mouth-brooding frog driven to extinction by disease
by MongaBay staff
An unusual species of mouth-brooding frog was likely driven to extinction by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), making an unusual example of ‘extinction by infection’, argue scientists writing in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
A team of researchers led by Claudio Soto-Azat of the Universidad Andres Bello in Santiago and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) took samples from hundreds of preserved specimens of Darwin’s frogs (the northern Darwin’s frogRhinoderma rufum and the southern Darwin’s frogRhinoderma darwinii) that were collected from the wild between 1835 and 1989 and looked for the presence of Bd, a fungus that causes the disease chytridiomycosis. They also collected samples from surviving wild populations of Rhinoderma darwinii from Chile and Argentina.
The researchers found high prevalence of Bd at sites that had experienced Rhinoderma extinction or severe population declines, indicating a likely link between the disease and population collapse…
What Doomed the Stromatolites? - Scientists find key clue to an ancient enigma
by Cherie Winner
About a billion years before the dinosaurs became extinct, stromatolites roamed the Earth until they mysteriously disappeared. Well, not roamed exactly.
Stromatolites (“layered rocks”) are rocky structures made by photosynthetic cyanobacteria. The microbes secrete sticky compounds that bind together sediment grains, creating a mineral “microfabric” that accumulates in fine layers. Massive formations of stromatolites showed up along shorelines all over the world about 3.5 billion years ago. They were the earliest visible manifestation of life on Earth and dominated the scene for more than two billion years.
“They were one of the earliest examples of the intimate connection between biology—living things—and geology—the structure of the Earth itself,” said Joan Bernhard, a geobiologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). “Then, around one billion years ago, their diversity and abundance begin to take a nosedive.” …
Old Stone Tools Add Twist to the Extinction of Madagascar’s Megafauna
by Brian Switek
Madagascar is an natural wonder, brimming with creatures that have evolved in the island’s “splendid isolation.” But Madagascar’s endemic fauna was even more spectacular in the not-too-distant past. The island is now devoid of the enormous elephant birds, giant lemurs, dwarfed hippos, and other unusual animals that lived there. They disappeared so recently, only about one thousand years ago, that their remains are referred to as “subfossils.”
How and why they were wiped out is a matter of contention, often seen as a catastrophic decline in the wake of human arrival, but a new archaeological find suggests that the downfall of Madagascar’s megafauna was a more protracted disaster.
Compared to our distant primate relatives, people haven’t occupied Madagascar for very long. The ancestors of today’s lemurs are thought to have arrived by rafting from mainland Africa around 50 to 60 million years ago, whereas the oldest known human villages only go back to around A.D. 500. Within a thousand years of these villages becoming established, every endemic species on the island over 10 kilograms was driven into extinction. Hunting, the use of fire, the spread of agriculture across the island, and other causes have been proposed without consensus, but the connection between humans and extinction is unmistakable…
Spiky-Headed Sharks Survived Mass Extinction, Surprising Scientists
An exotic, ancient shark thrived into the age of dinosaurs, study says.
by Dan Vergano
A family of small sharks—some of which had spiky heads—cruised the ancient seas for far longer than scientists had suspected, surviving to about 120 million years ago. Their surprising survival suggests that deep oceans sheltered predators during past mass extinctions.
Death by asexuality: IU biologists uncover new path for mutations to arise
"Contagious Asexuality" is Dominant in Sexual Genotypes
Univ. of Indiana media release
Ground-breaking new research from a team of evolutionary biologists at Indiana University shows for the first time how asexual lineages of a species are doomed not necessarily from a long, slow accumulation of new mutations, but rather from fast-paced gene conversion processes that simply unmask pre-existing deleterious recessive mutations.
Geneticists have long bet on the success of sexual reproduction over asexual reproduction based in a large part on the process known as Muller’s ratchet, the mechanism by which a genome accrues deleterious and irreversible mutations after the host organism has lost its ability to carry out the important gene-shuffling job of recombination.
The new work from the laboratory of IU Distinguished Professor of Biology Michael Lynch instead indicates that most deleterious DNA sequences contributing to the extinction process are actually present in the sexual ancestors, albeit in recessive form, and simply become exposed via fast-paced gene conversion and deletion processes that eliminate the fit genes from one of the parental chromosomes.
After sequencing the entire genomes of 11 sexual and 11 asexual genotypes of Daphnia pulex, a model organism for the study of reproduction that is more commonly known as the water flea, the team discovered that every asexual genotype shared common combinations of alleles for two different chromosomes transmitted by asexual males without recombination…
The passenger pigeon, the dodo and the woolly mammoth are just a few of the species wiped off the Earth by changing environments and human activities. Now, advances in biotechnology could enable scientists to bring extinct animals back from the grave.
But critics argue the practice would only hinder conservation efforts, by resurrecting creatures that could not survive in the wild. First popularized by Michael Crichton’s novel “Jurassic Park,” the process of de-extinction has become more than a sci-fi concept…
"Until 10,000 years ago, many species of large mammals still flourished on earth: giant ground sloths and camels, sabre-toothed tigers, and bison and elk, as well as mammoths. Most of these mammals had no natural predators, so why did they disappear?…"
"Here is the first complete portrait of the legendary flying dragons of deep time–the pterosaurs–designed for non-specialists, yet founded on the real science of these bizarre creatures. Presented lucidly and accessibly by one of the world’s leading experts, David Unwin’s book is built on a mountain of new fossil discoveries and the latest research…"
"This book is a must for anybody interested in Australian snakes. It covers in detail the feeding habits, sex lives, habitats and natures of all sorts of snakes. It is also full of all kinds of useful information and facts, and covers evolutionary adaptaions from a very logical and scientific view point. It contains many spectacular photographs and fascinating anecdotes which make it a very enjoyable book to read. Useful for anyone with a budding interest through to those with a full blown passion. This book is much more than just a field guide and I strongly recommend it…"
Why Did Some Species Thrive When the Dinosaurs Died?
by Sid Perkins
When an asteroid or comet slammed into Earth about 66 million years ago, most of our planet’s species were wiped out in a mass extinction—including entire groups such as the nonavian dinosaurs, marine reptiles such as mosasaurs, and their flying kin the pterosaurs. But not all ecosystems suffered equally, and the dramatic difference in survival rates between marine species and freshwater ones has been particularly puzzling. A new study weighs in on the long-standing riddle.
According to some estimates, about three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth disappeared during the end-of-the-Cretaceous dino-killing impact. But marine ecosystems lost only about half of their species, and freshwater environments lost a mere 10% to 22%, says William Lewis, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
For instance, only about 10% of the major groups of bony fish died out, but species from all six groups of turtles alive at the time—and from most if not all groups of amphibians—survived the impact…
PASSENGER pigeons once formed flocks so vast that they would darken the sky for days as they flew past. In the 19th century there were some 5 billion individual birds in North America, more than any other wild bird species in the world.
US environmentalist Stewart Brand has an ambitious plan to “de-extinctify” passenger pigeons – bring them back to life by identifying and then splicing the relevant genes into a relative, the band-tailed pigeon. The technical challenges are formidable, and even if it works, the species might still not be viable in the wild. Nor is it agreed that reintroducing extinct animals into the modern world is a good idea. Brand waves this objection away, saying that the pigeon’s old habitat is intact, adding: “In the rare case of unwelcome ecological disruption, we know the vulnerabilities of the formerly extinct animals, so we know exactly how to reduce their numbers or eliminate them again.”
Lystrosaurus: The Most Humble Badass of the Triassic
by Annalee Newitz
One of the greatest survivors in all of Earth’s history was a humble creature named Lystrosaurus. It was a dog-sized animal whose peculiar lineage evolved about 270 million years ago, and looked like a cross between a pig and a lizard. Snub-faced and splay-legged, it was a burrower with powerful front legs who probably dug its own den every night. And somehow, it managed to survive the worst mass extinction the world has ever known.
About 250 million years ago, at the close of the Permian period, an enormous volcano called an igneous province started erupting in the region of the world that would one day be Siberia. At the time, this volcano was at the northern tip of a supercontinent called Pangaea that stretched from the north pole all the way down to the south. The eruption formed massive vents, rifts in the earth that released wave after wave of lava, along with billowing clouds of ash, carbon, and other toxins.
The Siberian igneous province laid waste to the environment for over a thousand years, ultimately releasing as much as to 43,000 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. It’s likely that the planet cooled down for a time, then heated up into a devastatingly profound greenhouse. At the same time, all that carbon caused ocean acidification. The resulting climate changes ultimately killed off 95 percent of all species on Earth.
While many people may view zoos first and foremost as attractions, these institutions have a long history of supporting and instigating conservation work, including saving species from extinction that have vanished from their wild habitat. But such efforts require not just dedication and patience, but herculean organizational efforts. Enter, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), which works with zoos and aquariums to set up conservation programs and track endangered species in captivity.
“Most of the major international conservation organizations have moved away from species conservation in recent years, now focusing on issues such as poverty alleviation, global change, ecosystem services, etc. It is the role of zoos and aquariums to keep alive the flame of species conservation!” Markus Gusset, Conservation Officer with WAZA, told mongabay.com in a recent interview.
Gusset says that zoos and aquariums should be conservation centers first and businesses second. He points to a long history of zoos in saving species that have gone extinct in the wild, including five mammals and one bird that would not be around today without the protective efforts of modern zoos…
(images: T - Red Wolf, Seth Bynum /Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium; 2L - Przwalski’s Horse, Petra Kaczensky/International Takhi Group; 2R - California Condor, Mike Wallace/San Diego Zoo Global; 3 - Black-footed Ferret, USFWS; BL - Arabian Oryx, Tim Wacher; BR - European Bison, Mieczysław Hlawiczka)
Sophisticated gangs of criminals are poaching elephants to extinction. Up to 30,000 elephants are killed in Africa each year for their ivory tusks, and the situation is getting worse with each passing year.
Unless we take decisive action now, we’re facing a future without elephants.
Congress controls funding for USAID Biodiversity programs that help combat poaching and save elephants. But the funding faces potential elimination from this year’s budget, right when elephants need it the most.
Tell your members of Congress to support conservation programs that elephants depend on… before it’s too late…