Weekly round-up: April 4

A North Atlantic right whale and her calf (AP)

The 2020/21 North Atlantic right whale birthing season delivered more calves than the previous three years combined.

Survey teams monitoring the critically endangered species recorded 17 newborns during daily flights over coastal waters between North Carolina and Florida from December to the end of March. 

“What we are seeing is what we hope will be the beginning of an upward climb in calving that’s going to continue for the next few years,” said Clay George, a wildlife biologist who oversees right whale surveys for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “They need to be producing about two dozen calves per year for the population to stabilize and continue to grow again.”

In 2018 no newborns were recorded, with the calving slump of recent years possibly caused by a shortage of zooplankton in their summer feeding grounds off the coast of New England and Nova Scotia.

Current estimates place the total population at around 360, with entanglement in fishing gear and boat strikes and leading cause of deaths – one of this season’s calves has already been killed in a collision, causing concern that deaths are still exceeding birth rate.

Philip Hamilton, a right whale researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston, said: “If we reduced or eliminated the human-caused death rate, their birth rate would be fine. 

“The onus should not be on them to reproduce at a rate that can sustain the rate at which we kill them. The onus should be in us to stop killing.”
Source Associated Press

A blue shark investigates the baited camera (gov.uk)

The UK is deploying a network of underwater camera rigs across ten British Overseas Territories to create what the government describes as the world’s largest ocean wildlife monitoring system.

The Global Ocean Wildlife Analysis Network, set up under the UK Government Blue Belt programme, will collect vital information about species and habitats across the Caribbean, South Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern oceans, helping territories better protect the rich but at risk habitats.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson said: “The marine wildlife living along the coastlines of our Overseas Territories is some of the most spectacular in the world and we must do more to protect it. Cutting-edge technology, such as these cameras, will be vital in our crusade against climate change. Our marine experts are world-leaders in protecting our ocean and the myriad of species that live within it.”

Running over four years, the programme will use 66 stereo-Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems (BRUVS) to collect and analyse data on many species, including those at risk of extinction such as loggerhead turtles and Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Source gov.uk

Maratus nemo (Museums Victoria)

A new species of dancing peacock spider has been named after a Disney character on account of its orange and white striped face – similar to that of the popular clownfish Nemo.

The size of a grain of rice, Maratus nemo is the 92nd known species of peacock spider – up from just 15 in 2011. Discovered in Mount Gambier, a city in South Australia, the new species was first spotted by ecological field officer Sheryl Holliday, who posted pictures of the tiny individual on Facebook – Museums Victoria arachnologist Joseph Schubert saw the photos and began the process of formal identification.

“I think Peacock spiders have captured the public’s attention just because they’re really, really cute for spiders,” said Schubert. “They’ve got these massive forward-facing eyes and you can relate to them a lot more than you can to a Huntsman for example.”
Publication Evolutionary Systematics

African elephants can thrive in a variety of environments across the continent (Nel Botha)

Newly-classified African forest and African savanna elephants are only found in 17 per cent of their possible range due to poaching and growing human populations, according to a new study.

Researchers found about 18 million square kilometres of the continent – an area bigger than Russia – still has suitable habitat for elephants, but fragmentation, illegal killing and human-wildlife conflict prevent dispersal of populations. Both species are able to thrive in a variety of habitats, from semi-deserts to swamps.

The team combined satellite imagery with tracking data from 229 elephants across Africa over 15 years to determine which habitats could support elephants versus where they were present.

Co-author Samantha Strindberg, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, said: “Combining three powerful tools – GPS telemetry, continent-wide remote sensing at a fine resolution, and a suite of analytical techniques – has allowed us to see what factors now control the movements and lives of these two hugely ecologically important species – and where, if circumstances change, they could range more widely across their historical African home.”

A significant factor proved to be conservation status, with 85 per cent of potential habitat currently outside of protected areas – prompting the team to call for urgent expansion of designated, protected habitats.
Publication Current Biology 

The financial toll of non-native invasive species hit $162.7 billion in 2017, contributing to a total of $1.29 trillion in the five decades before, reports an international research team.

Invasive species, those introduced accidentally or deliberately to a new environment, are one of the leading drivers of biodiversity loss and extinctions. However, despite the significant economic cost associated with the arrival of a non-native species, the team notes expenditure required to prevent, monitor or combat the spread is significantly less in comparison.

The arrival of the Asian tiger mosquito, red imported fire ant, floating primrose willow, zebra mussel and black rat in non-native environments each account for losses of tens of billions of dollars. Last month, the UK reported its first recorded presence of the brown marmorated stink bug, which could cost fruit farmers millions of pounds in damage if becoming established.

The authors highlight the need for implementation of consistent management actions and international policy agreements that aim to reduce the burden of invasive alien species – benefiting both local ecosystems and economies.
Publication Nature

Read How the EU can reduce tropical deforestation

Watch ‘Mesmerise or die’ – watch another species of peacock spider, Maratus volans,in action

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