Pesquisa correlaciona a extinção de espécies com a origem dos produtos do comércio global
Os orangotangos de Bornéu estão ameaçados pela produção de óleo de palma. JEFTA IMAGES / BARCROFT
5 JAN 2017 – 00:53 CET
Os humanos começam a admitir que somos como um meteorito que vai provocar a nova megaextinção de espécies no planetaTerra. Mas ainda nos falta muita informação sobre o tamanho desse meteorito coletivo e o alcance da devastação que juntos causaremos. Sabemos, por exemplo, que a exploração maciça dos recursos naturais é um dos grandes fatores associados à devastação da biodiversidade, mas são necessários mais dados para conectar esse fenômeno com nosso consumo desmesurado.
Um estudo pioneiro, divulgado nesta quarta-feira, mostra a grande responsabilidade do comércio global na extinção maciça de espécies no mundo, traçando uma clara correlação entre a cesta de compras dos países mais consumidores e as selvagens pressões que massacram os tesouros naturais. O cafezinho que alguém toma nos EUA, por exemplo, está ligado ao desmatamentoda América Central – onde esse café é cultivado –, e esse é o habitat do acuado macaco-aranha, o mais ameaçado do planeta.
“Pelo menos um terço das ameaças à biodiversidade em todo o mundo estão vinculadas à produção para o comércio internacional”, dizem os autores do estudo publicado na Nature Ecology & Evolution. Em seu trabalho, eles mapearam locais do planeta onde há quase 7.000 espécies ameaçadas, estabelecendo sua conexão com a cadeia de consumo nos EUA, China e Japão. Desse modo, pode-se ver facilmente como os animais sob risco em determinados pontos do planeta sofrem com a demanda de bens por parte dos grandes consumidores.
Por exemplo, o lince e dúzias de outras espécies sofrem na península Ibérica pela pressão da produção agrícola que abastece os mercados europeus e norte-americanos. “É digno de menção o importante rastro dos EUA na biodiversidade do sul da Espanha e Portugal, ligado aos impactos sobre uma série de espécies ameaçadas de peixes e aves, já que esses países raramente são percebidos como pontos de ameaça”, afirmam os autores no estudo.
No Brasil, a principal ameaça está no sul, no planalto brasileiro, devido à agropecuária extensiva, e não na Amazônia
“O que este trabalho nos mostra é que os humanos estão assaltando o planeta”, resume David Nogués-Bravo, especialista em macroecologia da Universidade de Copenhague. Nogués-Bravo, que não participou do estudo, diz que os impactos humanos sobre a natureza podem ser representados como um redemoinho que engole a diversidade de seres vivos sobre a Terra. “Esse turbilhão é constituído por três nós: poder, comida e dinheiro. A capacidade da nossa espécie de sugar energia e recursos do planeta é quase ilimitada, e é o que está provocando a sexta extinção maciça na história da Terra”, denúncia o ecologista.
Para ele, tanto o enfoque como os resultados são muito pertinentes, porque põem em perspectiva as perdas de biodiversidade, principalmente em países tropicais em vias de desenvolvimento, e os fluxos de demanda que se originam nos países mais ricos e industrializados.
“O planeta inteiro se tornou uma fazenda, tudo está a serviço de fornecer cada vez mais bens”, critica Juan Carlos del Olmo, secretário-geral da organização conservacionista WWF na Espanha. “O maior vetor de destruição da biodiversidade é a produção de alimentos numa escala brutal”, aponta. Os autores do estudo relatam, por exemplo, sua surpresa ao comprovar que o principal foco de ameaça aos tesouros naturais do Brasil não está na Amazônia. “Apesar da grande atenção dedicada à selva amazônica, o rastro norte-americano no Brasil é maior no sul, no planalto brasileiro, onde há práticas agropecuárias extensivas”, ressalta o trabalho.
“Os humanos estão assaltando o planeta. A capacidade da nossa espécie de sugar energia e recursos no planeta é quase ilimitada”, resume Nogués-Bravo
“E o rastro ecológico não para de crescer”, acrescenta Del Olmo, “mas reduzir esse rastro não é fácil; não podemos fomentar um consumo responsável se depois vamos jogar fora 25% do que se produz”. Como alterar a influência negativa destes fluxos? “Com este enfoque, do rastro de cima para baixo, examinamos todas as espécies ameaçadas e a atividade econômica em conjunto, razão pela qual pode ser difícil estabelecer vínculos claros entre consumo, comércio e impacto”, admitiu ao EL PAÍS um dos autores do estudo, Keiichiro Kanemoto, da Universidade de Shinshu.
“Precisamos ver de onde importamos e onde estão as espécies ameaçadas. Nosso mapa pode ajudar as empresas a fazerem uma cuidadosa seleção dos seus insumos e assim aliviar os impactos sobre a biodiversidade”, diz Kanemoto. Segundo o pesquisador, se as empresas oferecerem informações em seus produtos sobre as ameaças a espécies nas cadeias de suprimento, os consumidores poderão escolher em seu cotidiano produtos favoráveis à biodiversidade.
Os morangos que afogam o lince
“Esperamos que as empresas comparem nossos mapas e seus lugares de aquisição e então reconsiderem suas cadeias de suprimento, e queremos trabalhar com elas para começar a tomar medidas reais”, afirma Kanemoto. Neste sentido, Del Olmo diz que o trabalho do WWF há bastante tempo vem se voltando para esse foco: fazer com que todos os participantes da cadeia conheçam o impacto sobre a biodiversidade, para que a indústria, os fornecedores e os consumidores evitem os bens que mais causam danos na sua origem. Em outras palavras, que todos estejam conscientes de que o café coloca em risco o macaco-arranha, assim como o óleo de palma (dendê) ameaça o orangotango na Indonésia.
O estudo de Kanemoto e seus colegas ressalta como é inesperada a aparição da Espanha como uma região com grandes problemas de biodiversidade por culpa do consumo fora das suas fronteiras. Apontam especificamente o lince, que reina no Parque Nacional e Natural de Doñana, no sul do país, e que chegou a ser o felino mais ameaçado da Terra, entre outros motivos pela perda de hábitat. “Do ponto de vista da biodiversidade, a Espanha é o Bornéu da Europa. Nas grandes espécies a briga está acontecendo, mas a biodiversidade pequena – anfíbios, aves e peixes – está desaparecendo a uma velocidade brutal”, lamenta Del Olmo.
O diretor do WWF na Espanha cita como exemplo os morangos: a água que dava de beber à marisma de Doñana é atualmente usada nos milhares de hectares de cultivo de morangos. Essa área responde por 60% do cultivo da fruta na Espanha, e metade da água usada vem de poços ilegais, que secam o entorno. “O uso brutal da água e do território, o impacto da agricultura para exportar produtos a todo o mundo, deixa os aquíferos secos. Não notamos, mas o impacto é impressionante”, explica Del Olmo. E acrescenta: “Por isso dizemos às grandes redes varejistas: não comprem de quem usa poços ilegais e está destruindo a biodiversidade. Premiem quem faz direito”.
Alterações na composição de espécies vegetais poderão trazer implicações para toda a cadeia alimentar, incluindo o homem
Cheias e secas extremas e subsequentes, como essas que os rios da Amazônia vêm sofrendo nas duas últimas décadas, podem levar à exclusão de espécies de árvores e à colonização por outras espécies menos tolerantes à inundação.
É o que apontam estudos desenvolvidos por pesquisadores associados ao Grupo Ecologia, Monitoramento e Uso Sustentável de Áreas Úmidas (Maua) do Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia (Inpa/MCTI), em Manaus, que participa, desde 2013, do Programa de Pesquisas Ecológicas de Longa Duração (Peld), por meio do Peld-Maua.
Durante a década de 1970, por exemplo, os níveis máximos anuais do rio Negro ficaram alguns metros acima do valor médio da enchente, e a descida das águas não foi intensa, resultando na inundação de várias populações de plantas durante anos consecutivos. Isso causou a exclusão de muitas espécies arbustivas e arbóreas nas baixas topografias de igapós na região da Amazônia Central, como é o caso de macacarecuia (Eschweilera tenuifolia).
“Acredita-se que esses fenômenos podem ser consequência das mudanças climáticas em curso, mas podem também derivar de variações naturais do ciclo hidrológico. Os estudos realizados no âmbito do Peld-Maua visam confirmar a origem desses fenômenos utilizando informações sobre o crescimento da vegetação”, adianta a coordenadora do Peld-Maua, a pesquisadora do Inpa Maria Teresa Fernandez Piedade.
Anos de secas ou cheias consecutivas podem ultrapassar a capacidade adaptativa das espécies de árvores, especialmente de populações estabelecidas nos extremos do ótimo de distribuição no gradiente inundável (composição de diferentes níveis de inundação a que estão sujeitas as áreas alagáveis).
Segundo Piedade, como a vegetação sustenta a fauna desses ambientes, mudanças na composição de espécies vegetais poderão trazer implicações para toda a cadeia alimentar, incluindo o homem. “A vegetação arbórea das áreas alagáveis amazônicas é bem adaptada à dinâmica anual de cheias e vazantes”, destaca a pesquisadora.
Para ela, determinar o grau de tolerância a períodos extremos das espécies de árvores desses ambientes e de sua fauna associada, como os peixes e roedores, e conhecer sua reação com a dinâmica de alternância entre fases inundadas e não inundadas normais e extremas é um grande desafio e se constitui na base para seu uso sustentável e preservação.
Segundo Piedade, as áreas úmidas (várzeas, igapós, buritizais e outros tipos) cobrem cerca de 30% da região amazônica e são de fundamental importância ecológica e econômica. Ela explica que na várzea, múltiplas atividades econômicas são tradicionalmente desenvolvidas, como a pesca e a agricultura familiar, enquanto que nos igapós, por serem mais pobres em nutrientes e em espécies de plantas e animais, menos atividades econômicas são praticadas. Já nas campinas/campinaranas alagáveis essas atividades são ainda mais reduzidas.
“A ecologia, o funcionamento e as limitações para determinadas práticas econômicas nas várzeas são bastante conhecidas, mas nos igapós de água pretas e nas campinas/campinaranas alagáveis tais aspectos ainda são pouco estudados”, diz Piedade. “Embora se saiba que esses ambientes são frágeis, aumentar e disponibilizar informações sobre eles é fundamental”, acrescenta.
Com o título “Monitoramento e modelagem de dois grandes ecossistemas de áreas úmidas amazônicas em cenários de mudanças climáticas”, o Peld-Maua é um projeto financiado pelo Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq), e também conta com recursos da Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Amazonas (Fapeam). Insere-se no plano de ação “Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação para Natureza e Clima”, do MCTI.
O Programa Peld foca no estabelecimento de sítios de pesquisa permanentes em diversos ecossistemas do País, integrados em redes para o desenvolvimento e o acompanhamento de pesquisas ecológicas de longa duração. Atualmente, existem 31 sítios de pesquisa vigentes.
O Peld-Maua é gerenciado pelo Inpa, em Manaus. Tem como vice-coordenador o pesquisador do Inpa, Jochen Schöngart; e como coordenador do Banco de Dados o pesquisador Florian Wittmann, do Departamento de Biogeoquímica do Instituto Max-Planck de Química, com sede em Mainz, na Alemanha.
A coordenadora do Peld-Maua explica que as atividades tiveram início há três anos. “Na primeira fase, que será completada agora em 2016, o Peld-Maua priorizou estudos em um ambiente de igapó e outro de campinarana alagável, mas espera-se que os estudos tenham continuidade e sejam expandidos para outras tipologias alagáveis amazônicas”, diz Piedade.
O Peld-Maua desenvolve estudos nas áreas de inundação das florestas de igapó no Parque Nacional do Jaú (Parna Jaú) – Unidade de Conservação localizada entre os municípios de Novo Airão e Barcelos, no Amazonas –, e ao longo dos gradientes de profundidade do lençol freático das florestas de campinas/campinaranas na Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentável (RDS) do Uatumã, situada entre os municípios de São Sebastião do Uatumã e Itapiranga, também no Amazonas.
Conforme Piedade, diante da conectividade entre os ambientes alagáveis e as formações contíguas de terra-firme ou outras, os sítios de estudos foram escolhidos em ambientes onde os gradientes podem ser também avaliados. “Isso aumenta as possibilidades de trabalhos comparativos”, ressalta.
O Peld-Maua tem por objetivo relacionar a estrutura, composição florística e dinâmica de plantas que produzem sementes (fanerógamas) de dois ecossistemas de áreas úmidas na Amazônia Central com fatores do solo e da disponibilidade de água (hidro-edáficos), por meio do monitoramento em longo prazo para entender possíveis impactos e respostas da vegetação frente a mudanças dos regimes pluviométricos e hidrológicos.
O programa, até o momento, já permitiu a realização de cinco dissertações de mestrado e uma tese de doutorado. Além dos estudos já finalizados, estão em andamento dois pós-doutorados, seis doutorados e quatro mestrados. Quanto à formação de pessoal, dois bolsistas do Programa de Capacitação Institucional (PCI) concluíram suas atividades e dois estão realizando seus projetos, e dois bolsistas do programa de Bolsa de Fomento ao Desenvolvimento Tecnológico (DTI) e dois Pibic’s realizaram seus projetos junto ao Peld-Maua.
Grupo de elite da climatologia quer que governos considerem risco de planeta esquentar de 4 a 7 graus Celsius, o que causaria o colapso da civilização; análise começa a ser feita no Brasil
Por Claudio Angelo, do OC –
Um vídeo exibido a uma plateia pequena na última segunda-feira, em Brasília, mostrava sem eufemismos o que poderia acontecer com o planeta caso o aquecimento global saísse de controle e atingisse o patamar de 4oC a 7oC. Imagens de florestas queimando, lavouras mortas e inundações se sucediam enquanto uma narradora vaticinava “mortes em massa para pessoas que não tiverem ar-condicionado 24 horas por dia” e “migrações forçadas”. “Nos tornaremos parte de um ambiente extinto”, sentenciou. O fato de que a cidade passava por uma onda de calor, tendo registrado dias antes a maior temperatura desde sua fundação, ajudava a compor a atmosfera.
Num pequeno palco, em poltronas brancas, um grupo formado em sua maioria por homens de meia idade assistia à exibição. Entre eles estavam alguns membros da elite da ciência do clima, como Carlos Afonso Nobre e José Marengo, membros do Painel Intergovernamental sobre Mudanças Climáticas, e Sir David King, representante para Mudanças Climáticas do Reino Unido.
Até não muito tempo atrás, esses mesmos homens descontariam como alarmismo ou ficção científica as afirmações do vídeo. Hoje, são as pesquisas deles que embasam os cenários de apocalipse pintados ali.
Os cientistas reunidos em Brasília fazem parte de um grupo internacional reunido por David King em 2013 para tentar produzir uma avaliação de riscos de mudanças climáticas extremas. O trabalho foi iniciado nos EUA, na Índia, na China e no Reino Unido e agora começa a ser feito no Brasil. Ele parte do princípio de que a probabilidade de que o aquecimento da Terra ultrapasse 4oC é baixa, mas as consequências potenciais são tão dramáticas que os governos deveriam considerá-las na hora de tomar decisões sobre corte de emissões e adaptação.
“Trata-se de uma visão muito diferente da mudança climática”, afirmou King, um físico sul-africano que serviu durante anos como conselheiro-chefe para ciência do primeiro-ministro Tony Blair. “O IPCC fez um ótimo trabalho, mas é preciso uma avaliação do risco de que aconteça algo catastrófico ligado à mudança climática.”
Ele citou como exemplo os piores cenários de mudança climática projetados para a China: elevações do nível do mar que afetassem a costa leste do país, lar de 200 milhões de pessoas, quebras da safra de arroz – que têm de 5% a 10% de chance de ocorrer mesmo com elevações modestas na temperatura – e ondas de calor que estejam acima da capacidade fisiológica de adaptação do ser humano.
“Com mais de três dias com temperaturas superiores a 40oC e muita umidade você não consegue compensar o calor pela transpiração e morre”, afirmou King.
Com um aquecimento de 4oC a 7oC, estresses múltiplos podem acontecer de uma vez em várias partes do mundo. “Estamos olhando para perdas maciças de vidas”, afirmou King. “Seria o colapso da civilização.”
Rumo ao 4°C
Os modelos climáticos usados pelo IPCC projetam diferentes variações de temperatura de acordo com a concentração de gás carbônico na atmosfera. Esses cenários se chamam RCP, sigla em inglês para “trajetórias representativas de concentração”, e medem quanto muda o balanço de radiação do planeta, em watts por metro quadrado. Eles vão de 2.6 W/m2 – o cenário compatível com a manutenção do aquecimento na meta de 2oC, considerada pela ONU o limite “seguro” – a 8.5 w/m2, que é para onde o ritmo atual de emissões está levando a humanidade.
“O RCP 8.5 nos dá quase 100% de probabilidade de o aquecimento ultrapassar os 4oC no fim deste século”, afirmou Sir David King. E quais seriam as chances de mais de 7oC? Até o fim do século, baixas. “Eu sou velho, então estou bem. Mas tenho dois netos que vão viver até o fim do século, e eles vão querer ter netos também. Não ligamos para o futuro?”
Segundo Carlos Nobre, avaliar e prevenir riscos de um aquecimento extremo é como comprar um seguro residencial: mesmo com probabilidade baixa de um desastre, é algo que não dá para não fazer, porque os custos do impacto são basicamente impossíveis de manejar.
Para o Brasil, esses riscos são múltiplos: vão desde a redução em 30% da vazão dos principais rios até o comprometimento do agronegócio e extinção de espécies. Cenários regionais traçados a partir dos modelos do IPCC já apontam para aquecimentos de até 8oC em algumas regiões do país neste século, o que tornaria essas áreas essencialmente inabitáveis por longos períodos.
“Mesmo se limitarmos as emissões a 1 trilhão de toneladas de CO2, [limite compatível com os 2oC] ainda podemos ultrapassar os 3oC”, afirmou o cientista, atualmente presidente da Capes (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior).
Segundo ele, não há outro caminho a tomar que não seja limitar as concentrações de CO2 na atmosfera a 350 partes por milhão. Ocorre que já ultrapassamos as 400 partes por milhão em 2014, e os compromissos registrados pelos países para o acordo de Paris não são capazes nem mesmo de garantir o limite te 1 trilhão de toneladas.
Única mulher do painel, Beatriz Oliveira, da Fiocruz, apontou o risco de muita gente no Brasil literalmente morrer de calor, em especial nas regiões Norte e Nordeste. “Você poderia ficar exposto e realizar atividades externas no máximo por 30 minutos. O resto do dia teria de passar no ar-condicionado”, disse.
Questionada pela plateia ao final do evento, a pesquisadora mencionou um único lado positivo do aquecimento extremo: a redução na incidência de doenças transmitidas por insetos, como a dengue. “Nem o mosquito sobrevive”, disse. (Observatório do Clima/ #Envolverde)
Earlier this year I received a phone call from an unknown number. “This is the National Geographic Channel. Is it true that you are a shark anthropologist?” I paused— “Yes, I guess you can say that.” “Great, we are doing a program about sharks and are asking experts why sharks attack at certain times and in certain places more than others. Can you tell me a bit about your work?”
My interest in sharks began in 2005 during an internship at a resort in Papua New Guinea. Ten miles from shore and ninety feet below the surface, a twelve-foot hammerhead shark swam straight at me, stopping only three feet away before turning to rejoin its group. As it moved gracefully into the deep, I caught my breath and returned to the surface.
Four years later, I was working on a dive boat in South Florida when a sport-fishing boat motored past with a large grey hammerhead hung from its rigging. For a brief moment, I thought it was the shark I encountered years before. And why couldn’t it be? Like whales, most species of sharks are highly migratory. They have little respect for exclusive economic zones, marine protected areas, or any other enclosures. What might appear as absolute freedom in these animals has led to the production of an abstract image of sharks as transgressive predators, menaces to society, and worthy targets of sport. Regardless of what the category of the shark has become, the individual animal hanging from that fishing boat was certainly dead—no longer a terrible monster.
This incident took place in 2009, just after Rob Stewart’s film Sharkwaterrevealed the decimation of global shark populations by the finning industry. Considering the importance of sharks to healthy marine ecosystems, surely it was wrong to continue killing them for sport. Thinking I might do some good, I spoke with the captain of the boat about their catch.
“Couldn’t you release them from now on?” I asked.
“They normally die during the fight.”
“Well, what about fishing for something else?”
“Sailfish and marlin are not in season,” he said. “And besides, the clients are paying for the experience, and they want their photo taken with the big sharks.”
“Yes but hammerhead populations are in serious decline.” I said.
“We catch plenty of them, and easily too. More this year than last.”
I was stuck. How could I prove something was threatened when local knowledge suggests otherwise? Even worse, how could anyone prove sharks were in decline when, as free-roaming marine animals, they cannot be easily counted?
That same year, National Geographic aired a documentary entitled Drain the Ocean. The promotional abstract read: “In this special, we look at what most call ‘The Final Frontier.’ Using the newest data from scientists all over the world and the latest advancements in computer generated imaging, we are able to explore some of the most dramatic landscapes the Earth has to offer.” This was exactly what my argument lacked—quantitative support through technological innovation. If computers could reveal the geological truths of this invisible realm, perhaps they could also reveal the ecological truths of a planet in decline—dolphins tangled in drift nets, massive whales with harpoons rusting in their backs, and dwindling populations of sharks swishing their tales through the muddy terrain. If this could be done, then maybe I could convince the fisherman that killing sharks for money was wrong.
But draining the ocean is not yet possible, nor should it be. Even if through some technological means we could illuminate the other seventy percent of our planet, the lives and the forms of relationality between humans and marine animals (however contentious they may be) would change at the moment of discovery. In trying to protect sharks, neither scientific nor emotional appeals alone are sufficient to effect social change. There remains a mystery of what oceanic animals do, how they do it, and exactly how many are required to keep doing what they do. If this mystery were completely resolved, the result would be equally harmful to marine life and to those who make their living upon the sea; for this unknown marks the distinction between our terrestrial selves and aquatic others, and is therefore what makes knowledge of the ocean (and thus ourselves) possible.
An Anthropology of the Ocean
My phone call with National Geographic didn’t last long. The producer ended it by saying, “Your work sounds interesting, but we are looking for more evidence about why these attacks are occurring. Could you recommend a good marine biologist?” I did, and promptly hung up. I thought about our conversation—I don’t even know what a shark anthropologist is, and I’m supposed to be one!
As human interests are directed into the sea in the form of extractive industry, state securitization, renewable energy, and conservation enclosure, we find ourselves as a species grappling with the politics and hermeneutics of the life aquatic. Responding to this with continued interest in the protection of marine life and forms of relationality, I have begun to sketch an Anthropology of the Ocean. Working alongside indigenous fishing communities, ecologists, oceanographers, and drawing on the work of fellow anthropologists like Stefan Helmreich, such an approach examines how oceanic spaces and bodies are imagined, explored, and controlled, and how rights to marine resources are established and translated across social, spatial, and categorical boundaries
Within this framework, an Anthropology of Sharks could do the following: 1) draw upon the history of anthropological theory and method to ask how valuable spaces become ‘final frontiers,’ 2) describe how these produced frontiers are explored, claimed, enclosed—in short, how they are settled, and 3) reveal the forms of dispossession and disenchantment that occur when such settlement attempts to cultivate spaces have already been occupied by other ways of being and knowing. Putting a multispecies twist on subaltern studies and postcolonial anthropology, this approach would not only ask if the shark could “speak,” but if and how it might be heard amid the cacophony of other voices.
Boulder, Colo., USA – The Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption in Italy 40,000 years ago was one of the largest volcanic cataclysms in Europe and injected a significant amount of sulfur-dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere. Scientists have long debated whether this eruption contributed to the final extinction of the Neanderthals. This new study by Benjamin A. Black and colleagues tests this hypothesis with a sophisticated climate model.
Black and colleagues write that the CI eruption approximately coincided with the final decline of Neanderthals as well as with dramatic territorial and cultural advances among anatomically modern humans. Because of this, the roles of climate, hominin competition, and volcanic sulfur cooling and acid deposition have been vigorously debated as causes of Neanderthal extinction.
They point out, however, that the decline of Neanderthals in Europe began well before the CI eruption: “Radiocarbon dating has shown that at the time of the CI eruption, anatomically modern humans had already arrived in Europe, and the range of Neanderthals had steadily diminished. Work at five sites in the Mediterranean indicates that anatomically modern humans were established in these locations by then as well.”
“While the precise implications of the CI eruption for cultures and livelihoods are best understood in the context of archaeological data sets,” write Black and colleagues, the results of their study quantitatively describe the magnitude and distribution of the volcanic cooling and acid deposition that ancient hominin communities experienced coincident with the final decline of the Neanderthals.
In their climate simulations, Black and colleagues found that the largest temperature decreases after the eruption occurred in Eastern Europe and Asia and sidestepped the areas where the final Neanderthal populations were living (Western Europe). Therefore, the authors conclude that the eruption was probably insufficient to trigger Neanderthal extinction.
However, the abrupt cold spell that followed the eruption would still have significantly impacted day-to-day life for Neanderthals and early humans in Europe. Black and colleagues point out that temperatures in Western Europe would have decreased by an average of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius during the year following the eruption. These unusual conditions, they write, may have directly influenced survival and day-to-day life for Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans alike, and emphasize the resilience of anatomically modern humans in the face of abrupt and adverse changes in the environment.
FEATURED ARTICLE Campanian Ignimbrite volcanism, climate, and the final decline of the Neanderthals
Benjamin A. Black et al., University of California, Berkeley, California, USA. Published online ahead of print on 19 March 2015; http://dx.doi.org/10.1130/G36514.1.
Let me tell it the old way, then the new way. See which worries you most.
First version: Easter Island is a small 63-square-mile patch of land — more than a thousand miles from the next inhabited spot in the Pacific Ocean. In A.D. 1200 (or thereabouts), a small group of Polynesians — it might have been a single family — made their way there, settled in and began to farm. When they arrived, the place was covered with trees — as many as 16 million of them, some towering 100 feet high.
These settlers were farmers, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, so they burned down woods, opened spaces, and began to multiply. Pretty soon the island had too many people, too few trees, and then, in only a few generations, no trees at all.
As Jared Diamond tells it in his best-selling book, Collapse, Easter Island is the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.” Once tree clearing started, it didn’t stop until the whole forest was gone. Diamond called this self-destructive behavior “ecocide” and warned that Easter Island’s fate could one day be our own.
When Captain James Cook visited there in 1774, his crew counted roughly 700 islanders (from an earlier population of thousands), living marginal lives, their canoes reduced to patched fragments of driftwood.
And that has become the lesson of Easter Island — that we don’t dare abuse the plants and animals around us, because if we do, we will, all of us, go down together.
And yet, puzzlingly, these same people had managed to carve enormous statues — almost a thousand of them, with giant, hollow-eyed, gaunt faces, some weighing 75 tons. The statues faced not outward, not to the sea, but inward, toward the now empty, denuded landscape. When Captain Cook saw them, many of these “moai” had been toppled and lay face down, in abject defeat.
OK, that’s the story we all know, the Collapse story. The new one is very different.
A Story Of Success?
It comes from two anthropologists, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, from the University of Hawaii. They say, “Rather than a case of abject failure,” what happened to the people on Easter Island “is an unlikely story of success.”
Success? How could anyone call what happened on Easter Island a “success?”
Well, I’ve taken a look at their book, The Statues That Walked, and oddly enough they’ve got a case, although I’ll say in advance what they call “success” strikes me as just as scary — maybe scarier.
Here’s their argument: Professors Hunt and Lipo say fossil hunters and paleobotanists have found no hard evidence that the first Polynesian settlers set fire to the forest to clear land — what’s called “large scale prehistoric farming.” The trees did die, no question. But instead of fire, Hunt and Lipo blame rats.
Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) stowed away on those canoes, Hunt and Lipo say, and once they landed, with no enemies and lots of palm roots to eat, they went on a binge, eating and destroying tree after tree, and multiplying at a furious rate. As a reviewer in The Wall Street Journalreported,
In laboratory settings, Polynesian rat populations can double in 47 days. Throw a breeding pair into an island with no predators and abundant food and arithmetic suggests the result … If the animals multiplied as they did in Hawaii, the authors calculate, [Easter Island] would quickly have housed between two and three million. Among the favorite food sources of R. exulans are tree seeds and tree sprouts. Humans surely cleared some of the forest, but the real damage would have come from the rats that prevented new growth.
As the trees went, so did 20 other forest plants, six land birds and several sea birds. So there was definitely less choice in food, a much narrower diet, and yet people continued to live on Easter Island, and food, it seems, was not their big problem.
Rat Meat, Anybody?
For one thing, they could eat rats. As J.B. MacKinnon reports in his new book, The Once and Future World, archeologists examined ancient garbage heaps on Easter Island looking for discarded bones and found “that 60 percent of the bones came from introduced rats.”
So they’d found a meat substitute.
What’s more, though the island hadn’t much water and its soil wasn’t rich, the islanders took stones, broke them into bits, and scattered them onto open fields creating an uneven surface. When wind blew in off the sea, the bumpy rocks produced more turbulent airflow, “releasing mineral nutrients in the rock,” J.B. MacKinnon says, which gave the soil just enough of a nutrient boost to support basic vegetables. One tenth of the island had these scattered rock “gardens,” and they produced enough food, “to sustain a population density similar to places like Oklahoma, Colorado, Sweden and New Zealand today.”
According to MacKinnon, scientists say that Easter Island skeletons from that time show “less malnutrition than people in Europe.” When a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggevin, happened by in 1722, he wrote that islanders didn’t ask for food. They wanted European hats instead. And, of course, starving folks typically don’t have the time or energy to carve and shove 70-ton statues around their island.
A ‘Success’ Story?
Why is this a success story?
Because, say the Hawaiian anthropologists, clans and families on Easter Island didn’t fall apart. It’s true, the island became desolate, emptier. The ecosystem was severely compromised. And yet, say the anthropologists, Easter Islanders didn’t disappear. They adjusted. They had no lumber to build canoes to go deep-sea fishing. They had fewer birds to hunt. They didn’t have coconuts. But they kept going on rat meat and small helpings of vegetables. They made do.
One niggling question: If everybody was eating enough, why did the population decline? Probably, the professors say, from sexually transmitted diseases after Europeans came visiting.
OK, maybe there was no “ecocide.” But is this good news? Should we celebrate?
I wonder. What we have here are two scenarios ostensibly about Easter Island’s past, but really about what might be our planet’s future. The first scenario — an ecological collapse — nobody wants that. But let’s think about this new alternative — where humans degrade their environment but somehow “muddle through.” Is that better? In some ways, I think this “success” story is just as scary.
The Danger Of ‘Success’
What if the planet’s ecosystem, as J.B. MacKinnon puts it, “is reduced to a ruin, yet its people endure, worshipping their gods and coveting status objects while surviving on some futuristic equivalent of the Easter Islanders’ rat meat and rock gardens?”
Humans are a very adaptable species. We’ve seen people grow used to slums, adjust to concentration camps, learn to live with what fate hands them. If our future is to continuously degrade our planet, lose plant after plant, animal after animal, forgetting what we once enjoyed, adjusting to lesser circumstances, never shouting, “That’s It!” — always making do, I wouldn’t call that “success.”
The Lesson? Remember Tang, The Breakfast Drink
People can’t remember what their great-grandparents saw, ate and loved about the world. They only know what they know. To prevent an ecological crisis, we must become alarmed. That’s when we’ll act. The new Easter Island story suggests that humans may never hit the alarm.
It’s like the story people used to tell about Tang, a sad, flat synthetic orange juice popularized by NASA. If you know what real orange juice tastes like, Tang is no achievement. But if you are on a 50-year voyage, if you lose the memory of real orange juice, then gradually, you begin to think Tang is delicious.
On Easter Island, people learned to live with less and forgot what it was like to have more. Maybe that will happen to us. There’s a lesson here. It’s not a happy one.
As MacKinnon puts it: “If you’re waiting for an ecological crisis to persuade human beings to change their troubled relationship with nature — you could be waiting a long, long time.”
Primeira avaliação da Plataforma Intergovernamental de Biodiversidade e Serviços Ecossistêmicos será sobre polinizadores, polinização e produção de alimentos. Trabalho é coordenado por pesquisador inglês e por brasileira (foto: Wikimedia)
Agência FAPESP – Um grupo de 75 pesquisadores de diversos países-membros da Plataforma Intergovernamental de Biodiversidade e Serviços Ecossistêmicos (IPBES, na sigla em inglês), que reúne 119 nações de todas as regiões do mundo, fará uma avaliação global sobre polinizadores, polinização e produção de alimentos.
O escopo do projeto foi apresentado na última quarta-feira (17/09) em São Paulo, no auditório da FAPESP, em um encontro de integrantes do organismo intergovernamental independente, voltado a organizar o conhecimento sobre a biodiversidade no mundo e os serviços ecossistêmicos.
“A ideia do trabalho é avaliar todo o conhecimento existente sobre polinização no mundo e identificar estudos necessários na área para auxiliar os tomadores de decisão dos países a formular políticas públicas para a preservação desse e de outros serviços ecossistêmicos prestados pelos animais polinizadores”, disse Vera Imperatriz Fonseca, do Instituto de Biociências da Universidade de São Paulo (USP) e do Instituto Tecnológico Vale Desenvolvimento Sustentável (ITVDS), à Agência FAPESP.
“Já estamos conhecendo melhor o problema [da crise da polinização no mundo]. Agora, precisamos identificar soluções”, disse a pesquisadora, que coordena a avaliação ao lado de Simon Potts, professor da University of Reading, do Reino Unido.
De acordo com Fonseca, há mais de 100 mil espécies de animais invertebrados polinizadores no mundo, dos quais 20 mil são abelhas. Além de insetos polinizadores – que serão o foco do relatório –, há também cerca de 1,2 mil espécies de animais vertebrados, tais como pássaros, morcegos e outros mamíferos, além de répteis, que atuam como polinizadores.
Estima-se que 75% dos cultivos mundiais e entre 78% e 94% das flores silvestres do planeta dependam da polinização por animais, apontou a pesquisadora.
“Há cerca de 300 mil espécies de flores silvestres que dependem da polinização por insetos”, disse Fonseca. “O valor anual estimado desse serviço ecossistêmico prestado por insetos na agricultura é de US$ 361 bilhões. Mas, para a manutenção da biodiversidade, é incalculável”, afirmou.
Nos últimos anos registrou-se uma perda de espécies nativas de insetos polinizadores no mundo, causada por, entre outros fatores, desmatamento de áreas naturais próximas às lavouras, uso de pesticidas e surgimento de patógenos.
Se o declínio de espécies de insetos polinizadores se tornar tendência, pode colocar em risco a produtividade agrícola e, consequentemente, a segurança alimentar nas próximas décadas, disse a pesquisadora.
“A população mundial aumentará muito até 2050 e será preciso produzir uma grande quantidade de alimentos com maior rendimento agrícola, em um cenário agravado pelas mudanças climáticas. A polinização por insetos pode contribuir para solucionar esse problema”, afirmou Fonseca.
Segundo um estudo internacional, publicado na revista Current Biology, estima-se que o manejo de colmeias de abelhas utilizadas pelos agricultores para polinização – como as abelhas domésticas Apis mellifera L, amplamente criadas no mundo todo – tenha aumentado em cerca de 45% entre 1950 e 2000.
As áreas agrícolas dependentes de polinização, no entanto, também cresceram em mais de 300% no mesmo período, apontam os autores da pesquisa.
“Apesar de ter aumentado o manejo de espécies de abelhas polinizadoras, precisamos muito mais do que o que temos no momento para atender às necessidades da agricultura”, avaliou Fonseca.
O declínio das espécies de polinizadores no mundo estimula a polinização manual em muitos países. Na China, por exemplo, é comum o comércio de pólen para essa finalidade, afirmou a pesquisadora.
“Na ausência de animais para fazer a polinização, tem sido feita a polinização manual de lavouras de culturas importantes, como o dendê e a maçã. No Brasil se faz a polinização manual de maracujá , tomate e de outras culturas”, disse.
Falta de dados
Segundo Fonseca, já há dados sobre o declínio de espécies de abelhas, moscas-das-flores (sirfídeos) e de borboletas na Europa, nos Estados Unidos, no Oriente Médio e no Japão.
Um estudo internacional, publicado no Journal of Apicultural Research, apontou perdas de aproximadamente 30% de colônias de Apis mellifera L em decorrência da infestação pelo ácaro Varroa destructor, que diminui a vida das abelhas e, consequentemente, sua atividade de polinização nas flores, em especial nos países do hemisfério Norte.
Na Europa, as perdas de colônias de abelhas em decorrência do ácaro podem chegar a 53% e, no Oriente Médio, a 85%, indicam os autores do estudo. No entanto, ainda não há estimativas sobre a perda de colônias e de espécies em continentes como a América do Sul, África e Oceania.
“Não temos dados sobre esses continentes. Precisamos de informações objetivas para preenchermos uma base de dados sobre polinização em nível mundial a fim de definir estratégias de conservação em cada país”, avaliou Fonseca. “Também é preciso avaliar os efeitos de pesticidas no desaparecimento das abelhas em áreas agrícolas, que têm sido objeto de estudos e atuação dos órgãos regulatórios no Brasil.”
Outra grande lacuna a ser preenchida é a de estudos sobre interações entre espécies de abelhas polinizadoras nativas com as espécies criadas para polinização, como as Apis mellifera L.
Um estudo internacional publicado em 2013 indicou que, quando as Apis mellifera L e as abelhas solitárias atuam em uma mesma cultura, a taxa de polinização aumenta significativamente, pois elas se evitam nas flores e mudam mais frequentemente de local de coleta de alimento, explicou Fonseca.
De acordo com a pesquisadora, uma solução para a polinização em áreas agrícolas extensas tem sido o uso de colônias de polinizadores provenientes da produção de colônias em massa, como de abelhas Bombus terrestris, criadas em larga escala e inclusive exportadas.
Em 2004, foi produzido 1 milhão de colônias dessa abelha para uso na agricultura.
Na América do Sul, o Chile foi o primeiro país a introduzir essas abelhas para polinização de frutas e verduras. Em algumas áreas onde foi introduzida, entretanto, essa espécie exótica de abelha mostrou ser invasora e ter grande capacidade de ocupar novos territórios.
“É preciso estudar mais a interação entre as espécies para identificar onde elas convivem, qual a contribuição de cada uma delas na polinização e se essa interação é positiva ou negativa”, indicou Fonseca.
“Além disso, a propagação de doenças para as espécies nativas de abelhas causa preocupação e deve ser um foco da pesquisa nos próximos anos”, indicou.
De acordo com Fonseca, a avaliação intitulada Polinizadores, polinização e produção de alimentos, do IPBES, está em fase de redação e deverá ser concluída no fim de 2015.
Além de um relatório técnico, com seis capítulos de 30 páginas cada, a avaliação também deverá apresentar um texto destinado aos formuladores de políticas públicas sobre o tema, contou.
“A avaliação sobre polinização deverá contribuir para aumentar os esforços de combate ao problema do desaparecimento de espécies de polinizadores no mundo, que é urgente e tem uma relevância política e econômica muito grande, porque afeta a produção de alimentos”, afirmou.
A avaliação será o primeiro diagnóstico temático realizado pelo IPBES e deverá ser disponibilizada para o público em geral em dezembro de 2015. O painel planeja produzir nos próximos anos outros levantamentos semelhantes sobre outros temas como espécies invasoras, restauração de habitats e cenários de biodiversidade no futuro.
Uma estratégia adotada para tornar os diagnósticos temáticos mais integrados foi a criação de forças-tarefa – voltadas à promoção da capacitação profissional e institucional, ao aprimoramento do processo de gerenciamento de dados e informações científicas e à integração do conhecimento tradicional indígena e das pesquisas locais aos processos científicos –, que deverão auxiliar na produção do texto final.
“O IPBES trabalha em parceria com a FAO [Organização das Nações Unidas para a Alimentação e a Agricultura], Unep [Programa das Nações Unidas para o Meio Ambiente], CBD [Convention on Biological Diversity], Unesco [Organização das Nações Unidas para a Educação, a Ciência e a Cultura] e todos os esforços anteriores que trataram do tema de polinização”, afirmou Fonseca.
A polinização foi o primeiro tópico a ser escolhido pelos países-membros da plataforma intergovernamental, entre outras razões, por ser um problema global e já existir um grande número de estudos sobre o assunto, contou Carlos Joly, coordenador do Programa FAPESP de Pesquisas em Caracterização, Conservação, Restauração e Uso Sustentável da Biodiversidade (BIOTA-FAPESP) e membro do Painel Multidisciplinar de Especialistas do IPBES.
“Como já há um arcabouço muito grande de dados sobre esse tema, achamos que seria possível elaborar rapidamente uma síntese. Além disso, o tema tem um impacto global muito grande, principalmente por estar associado à produção de alimentos”, avaliou Joly.
Os 75 pesquisadores participantes do projeto foram indicados pelo Painel Multidisciplinar de Especialistas do IPBES, que se baseou nas indicações recebidas dos países-membros e observadores da plataforma intergovernamental.
Dois do grupo são escolhidos para coordenar o trabalho, sendo um de um país desenvolvido e outro de uma nação em desenvolvimento.
“O convite e a seleção da professora Vera Imperatriz Fonseca como coordenadora da avaliação é reflexo da qualidade da ciência desenvolvida nessa área no Brasil e da experiência dela em trabalhar com diagnósticos nacionais”, avaliou Joly. “Gostaríamos de ter mais pesquisadores brasileiros envolvidos na elaboração dos diagnósticos do IPBES.”
Summary: Scientists believe some tropical species may be able to evolve and adapt to the effects of climate change. The new findings suggests some sensitive rainforest-restricted species may survive climate change and avoid extinction. But only if the change is not too abrupt and dramatically beyond the conditions that a species currently experiences.
Scientists believe some tropical species may be able to evolve and adapt to the effects of climate change.
The new findings published in the journal,Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests some sensitive rainforest-restricted species may survive climate change and avoid extinction. But only if the change is not too abrupt and dramatically beyond the conditions that a species currently experiences.
Previous research offered a bleak prospect for tropical species’ adaptation to climate change, now researchers from Monash University believe the situation may not be quite so hopeless.
One of the lead researchers, Dr Belinda Van Heerwaarden said the impact of climate change on the world’s biodiversity is largely unknown.
“Whilst many believe some species have the evolutionary potential to adapt no one really knows for sure, and there are fears that some could become extinct.”
Dr Van Heerwaarden and Dr Carla M. Sgrò, from the Faculty of Science extended on an experiment from the 2000s in which tropical flies native to Australian rain forests called Drosophila birchii, were taken out of the damp rainforest and exposed to very dry conditions, mimicking the effects of potential climate change.
In the original experiment the flies died within hours and despite rescuing those that survived longest and allowing them to breed for over 50 generations, the flies were no more resistant, suggesting they didn’t have the evolutionary capacity to survive.
In Dr Van Heerwaarden and Dr Sgrò’s version they changed the conditions from 10 per cent to 35 per cent humidity.
“The first experiment tested whether the flies could survive in 10 per cent relative humidity. That’s an extreme level that’s well beyond the changes projected for the wet tropics under climate change scenarios over the next 30 years.”
“In our test we decreased the humidity to 35 per cent, which is much more relevant to predictions of how dry the environment will become in the next 30 to 50 years. We discovered that when you change the environment, you get a totally different answer,” Dr Van Heerwaarden said.
Whilst on average most of the flies died after just 12 hours, some survived a little longer than others. By comparing different families of flies, the researchers discovered the difference in the flies’ resistance is influenced by their genes.
To test this theory the longest-living flies were rescued and allowed to breed. After just five generations, one species evolved to survive 23 per cent longer in 35 per cent humidity.
As well as looking at the potential impact of climate change, the research also highlights the importance of genetic diversity within species.
Dr Sgrò said this finding suggests there is genetic variation present in these flies, which means they can evolve in response to climate change.
“Tropical species make up the vast majority of the world’s biodiversity and climactic models predict these will be most vulnerable to climate change. However these models do not consider the extent to which evolutionary response may buffer the negative impacts of climate change.”
“Our research indicates that the genes that help flies temporarily survive extreme dryness are not the same as those that help them resist more moderate conditions. The second set of genes are the ones that enable these flies to adapt,” she said.
“We have much work to do but this experiment gives us hope that some tropical species have the capacity to survive climate change,” said Dr Sgrò.
The results mean that other species thought to be at serious risk might have some hope of persisting a little longer under climate change than previously thought.
The next phase of the research study will see Dr Van Heerwaarden and Dr Carla M. Sgrò investigate whether the climactic stress tolerated by the tropical flies extends to other species.
B. van Heerwaarden, C. M. Sgro. Is adaptation to climate change really constrained in niche specialists?Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2014; 281 (1790): 20140396 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0396
Summary: Global decline of wildlife populations is driving increases in violent conflicts, organized crime and child labor around the world, according to a experts. Researchers call for biologists to join forces with experts such as economists, political scientists, criminologists, public health officials and international development specialists to collectively tackle a complex challenge.
Global decline of wildlife populations is driving increases in violent conflicts, organized crime and child labor around the world, according to a policy paper led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. The authors call for biologists to join forces with experts such as economists, political scientists, criminologists, public health officials and international development specialists to collectively tackle a complex challenge.
The paper, to be published Thursday, July 24, in the journal Science, highlights how losses of food and employment from wildlife decline cause increases in human trafficking and other crime, as well as foster political instability.
“This paper is about recognizing wildlife decline as a source of social conflict rather than a symptom,” said lead author Justin Brashares, associate professor of ecology and conservation at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “Billions of people rely directly and indirectly on wild sources of meat for income and sustenance, and this resource is declining. It’s not surprising that the loss of this critical piece of human livelihoods has huge social consequences. Yet, both conservation and political science have generally overlooked these fundamental connections.”
Fishing and the rise of piracy
Fewer animals to hunt and less fish to catch demand increasingly greater effort to harvest. Laborers — many of whom are children — are often sold to fishing boats and forced to work 18-20 hour days at sea for years without pay.
“Impoverished families are relying upon these resources for their livelihoods, so we can’t apply economic models that prescribe increases in prices or reduced demand as supplies become scarce,” said Brashares. “Instead, as more labor is needed to capture scarce wild animals and fish, hunters and fishers use children as a source of cheap labor. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished families are selling their kids to work in harsh conditions.”
The authors connected the rise of piracy and maritime violence in Somalia to battles over fishing rights. What began as an effort to repel foreign vessels illegally trawling through Somali waters escalated into hijacking fishing — and then non-fishing — vessels for ransom.
“Surprisingly few people recognize that competition for fish stocks led to the birth of Somali piracy,” said Brashares. “For Somali fishermen, and for hundreds of millions of others, fish and wildlife were their only source of livelihood, so when that was threatened by international fishing fleets, drastic measures were taken.”
The authors also compared wildlife poaching to the drug trade, noting that huge profits from trafficking luxury wildlife goods, such as elephant tusks and rhino horns, have attracted guerilla groups and crime syndicates worldwide. They pointed to the Lord’s Resistance Army, al-Shabab and Boko Haram as groups known to use wildlife poaching to fund terrorist attacks.
Holistic solutions required
“This paper begins to touch the tip of the iceberg about issues on wildlife decline, and in doing so the authors offer a provocative and completely necessary perspective about the holistic nature of the causes and consequences of wildlife declines,” said Meredith Gore, a Michigan State University associate professor in the nascent field of conservation criminology who was not part of the study.
As potential models for this integrated approach, the authors point to organizations and initiatives in the field of climate change, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the United for Wildlife Collaboration. But the paper notes that those global efforts must also be accompanied by multi-pronged approaches that address wildlife declines at a local and regional scale.
“The most important bit from this article, I think, is that we need to better understand the factors that underlie fish and wildlife declines from a local perspective, and that interdisciplinary approaches are likely the best option for facilitating this understanding,” said Gore.
The authors give examples of local governments heading off social tension, such as the granting of exclusive rights to hunting and fishing grounds to locals in Fiji, and the control of management zones in Namibia to reduce poaching and improve the livelihoods of local populations.
“This prescribed re-visioning of why we should conserve wildlife helps make clearer what the stakes are in this game,” said UC Santa Barbara assistant professor Douglas McCauley, a co-author who began this work as a postdoctoral researcher in Brashares’ lab. “Losses of wildlife essentially pull the rug out from underneath societies that depend on these resources. We are not just losing species. We are losing children, breaking apart communities, and fostering crime. This makes wildlife conservation a more important job than it ever has been.”
J. S. Brashares, B. Abrahms, K. J. Fiorella, C. D. Golden, C. E. Hojnowski, R. A. Marsh, D. J. McCauley, T. A. Nunez, K. Seto, L. Withey. Wildlife decline and social conflict. Science, 2014; 345 (6195): 376 DOI: 10.1126/science.1256734
Em uma coletânea de estudos sobre a crise e os desafios do imenso número de extinções causadas pelos humanos, revista ressalta as implicações da ‘defaunação’ dos ecossistemas.
A triste conclusão de que as nossas florestas, além de estarem em um processo contínuo de desmatamento, estão vazias, cada vez mais depauperadas da vida que as constitui, é o foco de uma série especial da revista Science.
A publicação chama a atenção para um termo que deve se tornar cada vez mais conhecido, a ‘defaunação’: a atual biodiversidade animal, produto de 3,5 bilhões de anos de evolução, apesar da extrema riqueza, está decaindo em níveis que podem estar alcançando um ponto sem volta.
Segundo cientistas, tal perda parece estar contribuindo com o que classificam como o início do sexto evento de extinção biológica em massa – ao contrário dos outros, que tiveram causas naturais, nós seríamos os culpados, devido às chamadas atividades antrópicas.
“Muito permanece desconhecido sobre a ‘defaunação do antropoceno’; essas brechas no conhecimento prejudicam a nossa capacidade de prever e limitar os seus impactos. Porém, claramente, a defaunação é tanto um componente perverso da sexta extinção em massa do planeta quanto uma grande causadora da mudança ecológica global”, concluíram pesquisadores no artigo ‘Defaunação no Antropoceno‘.
Na abertura da revista, um dos editores, Sacha Vignieri, lembra que, há alguns milhares de anos, o planeta servia de lar para espetaculares animais de grande porte, como mamutes, tartarugas gigantes, tigres-dente-de-sabre, entre outros.
Porém, evidências apontam o ser humano como o grande culpado pelo desaparecimento desses animais, afirma o editor.
E infelizmente, a tendência parece longe de mudar, e com ela, toda uma série de funções dos ecossistemas, das quais depende a nossa vida, são alteradas de formas dramáticas.
Como mostram os artigos na Science, os impactos da perda da fauna vão desde o empobrecimento da cobertura vegetal até a redução na produção agrícola devido à falta de polinizadores, passando pelo aumento de doenças, a erosão do solo, os impactos na qualidade da água, entre outros. Ou seja, os efeitos da perda de uma única espécie são sistêmicos.
De acordo com o estudo ‘Defaunação no Antropoceno‘, as populações de vertebrados declinaram em uma média de mais de um quarto nos últimos quarenta anos. Isso fica extremamente evidente quando qualquer um de nós caminha nos remanescentes de Mata Atlântica: é realmente muito difícil encontrar animais de médio e grande portes.
Pelo menos 322 espécies de vertebrados foram extintas desde 1500, e esse número só não é maior porque não conhecemos todas as espécies que já habitaram ou ainda residem em nossas florestas.
Se a situação é complicada para os vertebrados, que são muito mais conhecidos, é angustiante imaginar o tamanho da crise para os invertebrados, como os insetos, muito menos estudados.
“Apesar de menos de 1% das 1,4 milhão de espécies de invertebrados descritas terem sido avaliadas quanto à ameaça pela IUCN, das analisadas, cerca de 40% são consideradas ameaçadas”, afirma o estudo.
Certamente, a resolução dessa crise do Antropoceno não é simples.
As causas dessas perdas são bem conhecidas – caça, fragmentação dos habitats, uso de agrotóxicos, poluição, etc. –, e as tentativas para reverter essas tendências estão aumentando, como a reintrodução da fauna.
Os autores escrevem que a meta mais tradicional, de ter populações selvagens autosustentadas em paisagens pristinas intocadas pela influência humana, é “cada vez mais inalcançável”. Assim, eles sugerem que criar a “selva”, em vez de restaurá-la, é o caminho mais prático para avançar.
Entretanto, os desafios para reverter as extinções estão se mostrando muito desafiadores, e as pesquisas atuais mostram que, “se não conseguirmos acabar ou reverter as taxas dessas perdas, significará mais para o nosso futuro do apenas que corações desiludidos ou uma floresta vazia”, disse Vignieri, o editor do especial na Science.
Rodolfo Dirzo, professor da Universidade de Stanford – um dos autores de Defaunação no Antropoceno –, argumenta que reduzir imediatamente as taxas de alteração dos habitats e a sobre-exploração ajudaria, mas que isso precisaria ser feito de acordo com as características de cada região e situação.
Ele espera que a sensibilização sobre a atual extinção em massa e suas consequências ajude a desencadear mudanças.
“Os animais importam para as pessoas, mas no equilíbrio, eles importam menos do que a alimentação, emprego, energia, dinheiro e desenvolvimento. Enquanto continuarmos a enxergar os animais nos ecossistemas como tão irrelevantes para essas necessidades básicas, os animais perderão”, disseram Joshua Tewksbury e Haldre Rogers no artigo “Um futuro rico em animais”.
Pesquisadores alertam para riscos da defaunação promovida pelo homem (Fapesp)
Agência FAPESP – A revista científica norte-americana Scienceacaba de publicar uma edição especial sobre as consequências do desaparecimento de espécies animais para a biodiversidade do planeta e para o próprio futuro da humanidade.
“Durante o Pleistoceno, apenas dezenas de milhares de anos atrás, nosso planeta sustentava animais grandes e espetaculares. Mamutes, ‘aves do terror’, tartarugas gigantes e tigres-dentes-de-sabre, bem como espécies muito menos conhecidas, como preguiças gigantes (algumas das quais chegavam a 7 metros de altura) e gliptodontes (que pareciam tatus do tamanho de automóveis), vagavam livremente”, diz a introdução do especial.
“Desde então, no entanto, o número e a diversidade de espécies animais na Terra têm declinado consistente e firmemente. Hoje, ficamos com uma fauna relativamente depauperada e continuamos a ver a rápida extinção de espécies animais. Embora algum debate persista, a maioria das evidências sugere que os seres humanos foram responsáveis pela extinção dessa fauna do Pleistoceno, e continuamos a induzir extinções de animais por meio da destruição de terras selvagens, da caça para consumo ou como luxo e da perseguição de espécies que vemos como ameaças ou concorrentes”, destaca o texto.
O especial traz artigos em que pesquisadores de diversos países citam espécies animais que estão desaparecendo, os complexos fatores por trás do processo de defaunação e as dificuldades para colocar em prática alternativas eficazes de conservação.
Um dos artigos do especial, Defaunation in the Anthropocene, tem entre seus autores o professor Mauro Galetti, do Departamento de Ecologia da Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp), campus de Rio Claro, responsável por projetos de pesquisa que integram o programa BIOTA-FAPESP.
O artigo de Galetti, produzido em colaboração com pesquisadores dos Estados Unidos, do México e do Reino Unido, ressalta que o mundo está passando por uma das maiores extinções de animais em sua história.
De acordo com os autores, a onda global de perda de biodiversidade tem a ação humana como principal causadora. Mas os impactos humanos sobre a biodiversidade animal representam uma forma ainda não reconhecida de mudanças ambientais globais.
“Dos vertebrados terrestres, 322 espécies se tornaram extintas desde 1500, e populações das espécies restantes mostram declínio médio de 25% em abundância”, dizem os autores.
“Tais declínios animais impactarão o funcionamento de ecossistemas e o bem-estar humano. Muito permanece desconhecido sobre a ‘defaunação antropocênica’. Essas lacunas de conhecimento dificultam a nossa capacidade de prever e limitar os impactos da defaunação. Claramente, no entanto, a defaunação é tanto um componente pervasivo da sexta extinção em massa do planeta como também um grande condutor de mudança ecológica global”, destacam.
Segundo Galetti e colegas, de todas as espécies animais atuais – estimadas entre 5 milhões e 9 milhões –, o mundo perde anualmente entre 11 mil e 58 mil espécies. E isso não inclui os declínios de abundância animal entre populações, ou seja, de espécies que agonizam lentamente.
“A ciência tem se preocupado com o impacto das extinções das espécies, mas o problema também envolve a extinção local de populações. Algumas espécies podem não estar globalmente ameaçadas mas podem estar extintas localmente. Essa extinção local de animais afeta o funcionamento dos ecossistemas naturais vitais ao homem. Nesse trabalho agora publicado, compilamos dados populacionais de grandes mamíferos, como rinocerontes, gorilas e leões, e também de invertebrados, como borboletas. Uma em cada quatro espécies de vertebrados tem suas populações reduzidas”, disse Galetti, em entrevista ao site da Unesp.
“A maioria dos pesquisadores analisa os efeitos humanos sobre a extinção das espécies e, nesse trabalho, nós enfocamos a extinção local de populações. A extinção de uma espécie tem um grande impacto, e a redução das populações animais causa um impacto maior ainda nos ecossistemas”, disse.
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” – Native American proverb
March through June 2014 were the hottest on record globally, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. In May – officially the hottest May on record globally – the average temperature of the planet was .74 degrees Celsius above the 20th century baseline, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The trend is clear: 2013 was the 37th consecutive year of above-average global temperatures, and since the Industrial Revolution began, the earth has been warmed by .85 degrees Celsius. Several scientific reports and climate modeling show that at current trajectories (business as usual), we will see at least a 6-degree Celsius increase by 2100.
In the last decade alone, record high temperatures across the United States have outnumbered record low temperatures two to one, and the trend is both continuing and escalating.
While a single extreme weather event is not proof of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), the increasing intensity and frequency of these events are. And recent months have seen many of these.
A record-breaking heat wave gripped India in June, as temperatures hovered at 46 degrees Celsius, sometimes reaching 48 degrees Celsius. Delhi’s 22 million residents experienced widespread blackouts and rioting, as the heat claimed hundreds of lives.
Also in June, Central Europe cooked in unseasonably extreme heat, with Berlin experiencing temperatures over 32 degrees Celsius, which is more than 12 degrees hotter than normal.
At the same time, at least four people died in Japan, and another 1,637 were hospitalized as temperatures reached nearly 38 degrees Celsius.
The spacecraft will have plenty to study, since earth’s current carbon dioxide concentration is now the longest ever in recorded history.
A recent report by the National Resource Defense Council warned that summers in the future are likely to bring increased suffering, with more poison ivy and biting insects, and decreasing quality of air and water.
As farmers struggle to cope with increasing demands for food as the global population continues to swell, they are moving towards growing crops designed to meet these needs as well as withstand more extreme climate conditions. However, a warning by an agricultural research group shows they may inadvertently be increasing global malnutrition by these efforts. “When I was young, we used to feed on amaranth vegetables, guava fruits, wild berries, jackfruits and many other crops that used to grow wild in our area. But today, all these crops are not easily available because people have cleared the fields to plant high yielding crops such as kales and cabbages which I am told have inferior nutritional values,” Denzel Niyirora, a primary school teacher in Kigali, said in the report.
The stunning desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park is now in jeopardy, as Joshua trees are now beginning to die out due to ACD.
Another study, this one published in the journal Polar Biology, revealed that birds up on Alaska’s North Slope are nesting earlier in order to keep apace with earlier snowmelt.
Antarctic emperor penguin colonies could decline by more than half in under 100 years, according to a recent study – and another showed that at least two Antarctic penguin species are losing ground in their fight for survival amidst the increasing impacts of ACD, as the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming regions on earth. The scientists who authored the report warned that these penguins’ fate is only one example of this type of impact from ACD on the planet’s species, and warned that they “expect many more will be identified as global warming proceeds and biodiversity declines.”
Given that the planetary oceans absorb approximately 90 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions, it should come as no surprise that they are in great peril.
This is confirmed by a recent report that shows the world’s oceans are on the brink of collapse, and in need of rescue within five years, if it’s not already too late.
As the macro-outlook is bleak, the micro perspective sheds light on the reasons why.
In Cambodia, Tonle Sap Lake is one of the most productive freshwater ecosystems on earth. However, it is also in grave danger from overfishing, the destruction of its mangrove forests, an upstream dam and dry seasons that are growing both longer and hotter due to ACD.
Anomalies in the planet’s marine life continue. A 120-foot-long jellyfish is undergoing massive blooms and taking over wider swaths of ocean as the seas warm from ACD.
The Pacific island group of Kiribati – home to 100,000 people – is literally disappearing underwater, as rising sea levels swallow the land. In fact, Kiribati’s president recently purchased eight square miles of land 1,200 miles away on Fiji’s second largest island, in order to have a plan B for the residents of his disappearing country.
Closer to home here in the United States, most of the families living on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, have been forced to flee their multi-generational home due to rising sea levels, increasingly powerful storms, and coastal erosion hurried along by oil drilling and levee projects.
Looking at the bigger picture, a recently released US climate report revealed that at least half a trillion dollars of property in the country will be underwater by 2100 due to rising seas.
Meanwhile, the tropical region of the planet, which covers 130 countries and territories around the equator, is expanding and heating up as ACD progresses.
Residential neighborhoods in Oakland, California – near the coast – are likely to be flooded by both rising seas and increasingly intense storms, according to ecologists and local area planners.
On the East Coast, ocean acidification from ACD, along with lowered oxygen in estuaries, are threatening South Carolina’s coastal marine life and the seafood industry that depends upon it.
Record-setting “100-year” flooding events in the US Midwest are now becoming more the rule than the exception, thanks to ACD.
Even Fairbanks, Alaska received one-quarter of its total average annual rainfall in a 24-hour period earlier this summer – not long after the area had already received roughly half its average annual rainfall in just a two-week period.
Rising sea levels are gobbling up the coast of Virginia so quickly now that partisan political debate over ACD is also falling by the wayside, as both Republicans and Democrats are working together to figure out what to do about the crisis.
Reuters released a report showing how “Coastal flooding along the densely populated Eastern Seaboard of the United States has surged in recent years . . . with the number of days a year that tidal waters reached or exceeded NOAA flood thresholds more than tripling in many places during the past four decades.”
Flooding from rising seas is already having a massive impact in many other disparate areas of the world: After torrential rain and flooding killed at least a dozen people in Bulgaria this summer, the country continues to struggle with damage from the flooding as it begins to tally the economic costs of the disasters.
In China, rain and flooding plunged large areas of the Jiangxi and Hunan Provinces into emergency response mode. Hundreds of thousands were impacted.
The region of the globe bordering the Indian Ocean stretching from Indonesia to Kenya is now seen as being another bulls-eye target for ACD, as the impacts there are expected to triple the frequency of both drought and flooding in the coming decades, according to a recent study.
Another study revealed how dust in the wind, of which there is much more than usual, due to spreading drought, is quickening the melting of Greenland’s embattled ice sheet, which is already losing somewhere between 200 to 450 billion tons of ice annually. The study showed that increased dust on the ice will contribute towards another 27 billion tons of ice lost.
Down in Antarctica, rising temperatures are causing a species of moss to thrive, at the detriment of other marine creatures in that fragile ecosystem.
Up in the Arctic, the shrinking ice cap is causing drastic changes to be made in the upcoming 10th edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World. Geographers with the organization say it is the most striking change ever seen in the history of the publication.
A UK science team predicted that this year’s minimum sea ice extent will likely be similar to last year’s, which is bad news for the ever-shrinking ice cap. Many scientists now predict the ice cap will begin to vanish entirely for short periods of the summer beginning next year.
Canada’s recently released national climate assessment revealed how the country is struggling with melting permafrost as ACD progresses. One example of this occurred in 2006 when the reduced ice layer of ice roads forced a diamond mine to fly in fuel rather than transport it over the melted ice roads, at an additional cost of $11.25 million.
Arctic birds’ breeding calendars are also being impacted. As ACD causes earlier Arctic melting each season, researchers are now warning of long-ranging adverse impacts on the breeding success of migratory birds there.
In addition to the aforementioned dust causing the Greenland ice sheet to melt faster, industrial dust, pollutants and soil, blown over thousands of miles around the globe, are settling on ice sheets from the Himalaya to the Arctic, causing them to melt faster.
At the same time, multi-year drought continues to take a massive toll across millions of acres across the central and western United States. It has caused millions of acres of federal rangeland to turn into dust, and has left a massive swath of land reaching from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains desolated. ACD, invasive plants and now continuously record-breaking wildfire seasons have brought ranchers to the breaking point across the West.
Drought continues to drive up food prices across the United States, and particularly prices of produce grown in California’s Central Valley. As usual, it is the poor who suffer the most, as increasing food prices, growing unemployment and more challenging access to clean water continue to escalate their struggle to survive.
California’s drought continues to have a massive and myriad impact across the state, as a staggering one-third of the state entered into the worst stage of drought. Even colonies of honeybees are collapsing due, in part, to there being far less natural forage needed to make their honey.
The snowpack in California is dramatically diminished as well. While snowpack has historically provided one-third of the state’s water supply, after three years of very low snowfall, battles have begun within the state over how to share the decreasing water from what used to be a massive, frozen reservoir of water.
The drought in Oklahoma is raising the specter of a return to the nightmarish dust bowl conditions there in the 1930s.
Recently, and for the first time, the state of Arizona has warned that water shortages could hit Tucson and Phoenix as soon as five years from now due to ongoing drought, increasing demand for water and declining water levels in Lake Mead.
This is a particularly bad outlook, given that the Lake Mead reservoir, the largest in the country, dropped to its lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s. Its decline is reflective of 14 years of ongoing drought, coupled with an increasing disparity between the natural flow rate of the Colorado River that feeds it and the ever-increasing demands for its water from the cities and farms of the increasingly arid Southwest.
Given the now chronic water crises in both Arizona and California, the next water war between the two states looms large. The one-two punch of ACD and overconsumption has combined to find the Colorado River, upon which both states heavily rely, in long-term decline.
Yet it is not just Arizona and California that are experiencing an ongoing water crisis due to ACD impacts – it is the entire southwestern United States. The naturally dry region is now experiencing dramatically extreme impacts that scientists are linkingto ACD.
The water crisis spawned by ACD continues to reverberate globally.
North Korea even recently mobilized its army in order to protect crops as the country’s reservoirs, streams and rivers ran dry amidst a long-term drought. The army was tasked with making sure residents did not take more than their standard allotment of water.
The converging crises of the ongoing global population explosion, the accompanying burgeoning middle class, and increasingly dramatic impacts caused by ACD is straining global water supplies more than ever before, causing governments to examine how to manage populations in a world with less and less water.
A recent report provides a rather apocalyptic forecast for people living in Arizona: It predicts diminishing crop production, escalating electricity bills and thousands of people dying of extreme heat in that state alone.
In fact, another report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found experts predicting that excessive heat generated from ACD will likely kill more than 150,000 Americans by the end of the century, and that is only in the 40 largest cities in the country.
Poor air quality – and the diseases it triggers – are some of the main reasons why public health experts in Canada now believe that ACD is the most critical health issue facing Canadians.
Another recent study shows, unequivocally, that city-dwellers around the world should expect more polluted air that lingers in their metropolis for days on end, as a result of ACD continuing to change wind and rainfall patterns across the planet.
As heat and humidity increase with the growing impacts of ACD, we can now expect to see life-altering results across southern US cities, as has long been predicted. However, we can expect this in our larger northern cities as well, including Seattle, Chicago and New York; the intensifications are on course to make these areas unsuitable for outdoor activity during the summer.
Recently generated predictive mapping shows how many extremely hot days you might have to suffer through when you are older. These show clearly that if we continue along with business as usual – refusing to address ACD with the war-time-level response warranted to mitigate the damage – those being born now who will be here in 2100, will be experiencing heat extremes unlike anything we’ve had to date when they venture outside in the summer.
A new study published in Nature Geoscience revealed how increasing frequency and severity of forest fires across the planet are accelerating the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, as soot landing on the ice reduces its reflectivity. Melting at ever increasing speed, if the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, sea levels will rise 24 feet globally.
Down in Australia, the southern region of the country can now expect drier winters as a new study linked drying trends there, which have been occurring over the last few decades, to ACD.
On the other side of the globe, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the region is battling its worst fires since the 1990s, bringing attention to the likelihood that ACD is amplifying the severity of northern wildfires.
A recently published global atlas of deaths and economic losses caused by wildfires, drought, flooding and other ACD-augmented weather extremes, revealed how such disasters are increasing worldwide, setting back development projects by years, if not decades, according to its publishers.
Denial and Reality
Never underestimate the power of denial.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Florida) was asked by an MSNBC journalist if he was concerned about the fact that most voters believe scientists on the issue of ACD. His response, a page out of the Republican deniers handbook, is particularly impressive:
Miller: It changes. It gets hot; it gets cold. It’s done it for as long as we have measured the climate.
MSNBC: But man-made, isn’t that the question?
Miller: Then why did the dinosaurs go extinct? Were there men that were causing – were there cars running around at that point, that were causing global warming? No. The climate has changed since earth was created.
Another impressive act of denial came from prominent Kentucky State Senate Majority Whip Republican Brandon Smith. At a recent hearing, Smith argued that carbon emissions from coal burning power plants couldn’t possibly be causing ACD because Mars is also experiencing a global temperature rise, and there are no coal plants generating carbon emissions on Mars. He even stated that Mars was the same temperature of Earth.
“I think that in academia, we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that,” Smith said.
“Yet there are no coal mines on Mars; there’s no factories on Mars that I’m aware of,” he added. “So I think what we’re looking at is something much greater than what we’re going to do.”
During a recent interview on CNBC, Princeton University professor and chairman of the Marshall Institute William Happer was called out on the fact that ExxonMobil had provided nearly $1 million for the Institute.
Happer compared the “hype” about ACD to the Holocaust, and when asked about his 2009 comparison of climate science to Nazi propaganda, he said, “The comment I made was, the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews.”
Happer, who was introduced as an “industry expert” on the program, has not published one peer-reviewed paper on ACD.
The ACD-denier group that supports politicians and “scientists” of this type, Heartland (a free-market think tank with a $6 million annual budget) hosted a July conference in Las Vegas for deniers. One of Heartland’s former funders is ExxonMobil, and one of the panels at the conference was titled, “Global Warming As a Social Movement.” The leaders of the conference vowed to “keep doubt alive.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott used a current trip abroad to attempt to build support for a coalition aimed at derailing international efforts towards dealing with ACD.
He is simply following the lead of former Prime Minister John Howard, who teamed up with former US President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to form a climate-denial triumvirate whose goal was to stop efforts aimed at dealing with ACD, in addition to working actively to undermine the Kyoto Protocol.
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch has said that ACD should be approached with great skepticism. He said that if global temperatures increased 3 degrees Celsius over the next 100 years, “At the very most one of those [degrees] would be manmade.” He did not provide the science he used to generate this calculation.
In Canada, Vancouver-based Pacific Future Energy Corporation claimed that a $10 billion oil sands refinery it wants to build on the coast of British Columbia would be the “world’s greenest.”
Miami, a low-lying city literally on the front lines of ACD impacts, is being inundated by rising sea levels as its predominantly Republican leadership – made up of ACD deniers – are choosing to ignore the facts and continue forward with major coastal construction projects.
Back to reality, the BBC recently ordered its journalists to cease giving any more TV airtime to ACD deniers.
Brenton County, Oregon has created a Climate Change Adaptation Plan that provides strategies for the communities there to deal with future impacts of ACD.
Despite the millions of dollars annually being pumped into ACD denial campaigns, a recent poll shows that by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans would be willing to pay more to combat ACD impacts, and most would also vote to support a candidate who aims to address the issue.
Another recent report on the economic costs that ACD is expected to generate in the United States over the next 25 years pegged an estimate well into the hundreds of billions of dollars by 2100. Property losses from hurricanes and coastal storms are expected to total around $35 billion, crop yields are expected to decline by 14 percent, and increased electricity costs to keep people cooler are expected to increase by $12 billion annually, to name a few examples.
The bipartisan report also noted that more than a million coastal homes and businesses could flood repeatedly before ultimately being destroyed.
The World Council on Churches, a group that represents more than half a billion Christians, announced that it would pull all its investments out of fossil fuels because the investments were no longer “ethical.”
US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told reporters recently that she is witnessing ACD’s impacts in practically every national park she visits.
A June report by the UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security warned that ACD-driven mass migrations are already happening, and urged countries to immediately create adaption plans to resettle populations and avoid conflict.
For anyone who wonders how much impact humans have on the planet on a daily basis, take a few moments to ponder what just the impact of commercial airline emissions are in a 24-hour period by watching this astounding video.
Lastly, a landmark study released in June by an international group of scientists concluded that Earth is on the brink of a mass extinction event comparable in scale to that which caused the dinosaurs to go extinct 65 million years ago.
The study says extinction rates are now 1,000 times higher than normal, and pegged ACD as the driving cause.
Para driblar a extinção, tatu-bola ganha um plano nacional de conservação
O tatu-bola, escolhido como mascote da Copa no Brasil, é um animal em extinção devido à destruição de seus habitats na Caatinga e no Cerrado, além de sofrer com a caça. O pequeno mamífero também está correndo o risco de perder um importante reforço na luta por sua preservação. O trabalho desenvolvido pela Fundação Museu do Homem Americano (FUMDHAM) no Parque Nacional Serra da Capivara, no Piauí, está ameaçado por falta de recursos.
De acordo com a professora Rute Maria Gonçalves de Andrade, do conselho fiscal da FUMDHAM, todo o trabalho que vem sendo realizado em mais de 40 anos está ameaçado, além das espécies animais que ficarão desamparadas, mais de100 pessoas podem ficar desempregadas. “Infelizmente a fundação não tem recebido os recursos do ICMBio, nem do IPHAN já que o Parque é declarado pela UNESCO como Patrimônio Natural e Histórico da Humanidade, em quantidade suficiente e nos prazos devidos para fazer esta gestão”, desabafou.
Por meio de sua Divisão de Comunicação, o Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (ICMBio) informou que “não houve nenhuma interrupção de repasses para a Fundação Museu do Homem Americano. Em 2014, foram repassados R$ 400 mil de recursos de compensação ambiental e há a previsão de mais R$ 300 mil, oriundos de emenda parlamentar”. Já o Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (IPHAN), órgão do Ministério da Cultura (MinC), não se pronunciou até o fechamento desta edição por conta de uma greve de seus funcionários.
Desde os anos 90, a equipe da FUMDHAM, liderada por sua presidente a arqueóloga Niède Guidon desenvolve ações de preservação da fauna local, o que tem sido decisivo para manter o equilíbrio da densidade populacional no parque de muitos vertebrados. Este trabalho consiste em manter limpos e cheios os reservatórios naturais de água existentes no Parque conhecidos como caldeirões, além de outros que foram construídos, para que os animais tivessem água na época da seca.
Para Rute esse é o momento ideal para chamar a atenção para os esforços de preservação da fauna e flora brasileira. “Talvez fosse importante que a partir da Copa fosse lançada uma grande campanha nacional em favor das Unidades de Conservação que preservam a duras penas o tatu-bola”, sugeriu.
Até o momento o trabalho de conservação do tatu-bola – cujo nome científico é Tolypeutestricinctus – está dando bons resultados. Segundo a professora Rute ele é um dos animais que compõem a fauna do Parque. “Após a fiscalização relativa à caça e o trabalho de fornecimento de água na época da seca possibilitaram manter a população desta espécie de mamífero, endêmico do Bioma caatinga”, afirmou.
Plano Nacional de Conservação – O biólogo Leandro Jerusalinsky, coordenador do Centro Nacional de Pesquisa e Conservação de Primatas Brasileiros (CPB/ICMBio), em João Pessoa (PB), faz parte do Plano de Ação Nacional para a Conservação do Tatu-bola (PAN Tatu-bola). A ideia é consolidar uma estratégia para diminuir o risco de extinção de duas espécies. “O plano tem como objetivo geral a redução do risco de extinção do Tolypeutestricinctus, que habita a Caatinga e o Cerrado, para a categoria Vulnerável e avaliação adequada do estado de conservação do Tolypeutesmatacus, encontrado no Pantanal e Cerrado, em cinco anos”, explicou.
Ainda segundo Jerusalinsky, o PAN Tatu-bola vai ajudar na conservação destas espécies por estabelecer de forma clara quais são as ações prioritárias para reverter ou atenuar os principais impactos sobre elas, que consistem na perda e fragmentação de habitats, caça e falta de conhecimento. “Desta forma, as diversas instituições envolvidas em pesquisa, fiscalização e licenciamento ambiental, por exemplo, poderão adotar essas ações em sua atuação, ajudando a conhecer e a proteger os tatus-bola”, detalhou.
O PAN foi elaborado por um conjunto de especialistas nestas espécies, sediados em instituições de ensino e pesquisa como a Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), Universidade Federal de Sergipe (UFS), Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Universidade do Vale do Rio São Francisco (UNIVASF), Universidade Federal da Paraíba (UFPB), Universidade Estadual do Mato Grosso (UNEMAT), EMBRAPA Pantanal, além do próprio ICMBio.
Summary: Was it humankind or climate change that caused the extinction of a considerable number of large mammals about the time of the last Ice Age? Researchers have carried out the first global analysis of the extinction of the large animals, and the conclusion is clear — humans are to blame. The study unequivocally points to humans as the cause of the mass extinction of large animals all over the world during the course of the last 100,000 years.
Skeleton of a giant ground sloth at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, circa 1920. Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Was it humankind or climate change that caused the extinction of a considerable number of large mammals about the time of the last Ice Age? Researchers at Aarhus University have carried out the first global analysis of the extinction of the large animals, and the conclusion is clear — humans are to blame. A new study unequivocally points to humans as the cause of the mass extinction of large animals all over the world during the course of the last 100,000 years.
“Our results strongly underline the fact that human expansion throughout the world has meant an enormous loss of large animals,” says Postdoctoral Fellow Søren Faurby, Aarhus University.
Was it due to climate change?
For almost 50 years, scientists have been discussing what led to the mass extinction of large animals (also known as megafauna) during and immediately after the last Ice Age.
One of two leading theories states that the large animals became extinct as a result of climate change. There were significant climate changes, especially towards the end of the last Ice Age — just as there had been during previous Ice Ages — and this meant that many species no longer had the potential to find suitable habitats and they died out as a result. However, because the last Ice Age was just one in a long series of Ice Ages, it is puzzling that a corresponding extinction of large animals did not take place during the earlier ones.
Theory of overkill
The other theory concerning the extinction of the animals is ‘overkill’. Modern man spread from Africa to all parts of the world during the course of a little more than the last 100,000 years. In simple terms, the overkill hypothesis states that modern man exterminated many of the large animal species on arrival in the new continents. This was either because their populations could not withstand human hunting, or for indirect reasons such as the loss of their prey, which were also hunted by humans.
First global mapping
In their study, the researchers produced the first global analysis and relatively fine-grained mapping of all the large mammals (with a body weight of at least 10 kg) that existed during the period 132,000-1,000 years ago — the period during which the extinction in question took place. They were thus able to study the geographical variation in the percentage of large species that became extinct on a much finer scale than previously achieved.
The researchers found that a total of 177 species of large mammals disappeared during this period — a massive loss. Africa ‘only’ lost 18 species and Europe 19, while Asia lost 38 species, Australia and the surrounding area 26, North America 43 and South America a total of 62 species of large mammals.
The extinction of the large animals took place in virtually all climate zones and affected cold-adapted species such as woolly mammoths, temperate species such as forest elephants and giant deer, and tropical species such as giant cape buffalo and some giant sloths. It was observed on virtually every continent, although a particularly large number of animals became extinct in North and South America, where species including sabre-toothed cats, mastodons, giant sloths and giant armadillos disappeared, and in Australia, which lost animals such as giant kangaroos, giant wombats and marsupial lions. There were also fairly large losses in Europe and Asia, including a number of elephants, rhinoceroses and giant deer.
Weak climate effect
The results show that the correlation between climate change — i.e. the variation in temperature and precipitation between glacials and interglacials — and the loss of megafauna is weak, and can only be seen in one sub-region, namely Eurasia (Europe and Asia). “The significant loss of megafauna all over the world can therefore not be explained by climate change, even though it has definitely played a role as a driving force in changing the distribution of some species of animals. Reindeer and polar foxes were found in Central Europe during the Ice Age, for example, but they withdrew northwards as the climate became warmer,” says Postdoctoral Fellow Christopher Sandom, Aarhus University.
Extinction linked to humans
On the other hand, the results show a very strong correlation between the extinction and the history of human expansion. “We consistently find very large rates of extinction in areas where there had been no contact between wildlife and primitive human races, and which were suddenly confronted by fully developed modern humans (Homo sapiens). In general, at least 30% of the large species of animals disappeared from all such areas,” says Professor Jens-Christian Svenning, Aarhus University.
The researchers’ geographical analysis thereby points very strongly at humans as the cause of the loss of most of the large animals.
The results also draw a straight line from the prehistoric extinction of large animals via the historical regional or global extermination due to hunting (American bison, European bison, quagga, Eurasian wild horse or tarpan, and many others) to the current critical situation for a considerable number of large animals as a result of poaching and hunting (e.g. the rhino poaching epidemic).
C. Sandom, S. Faurby, B. Sandel, J.-C. Svenning. Global late Quaternary megafauna extinctions linked to humans, not climate change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2014; 281 (1787): 20133254 DOI:10.1098/rspb.2013.3254
Ação humana sobre a natureza é tão destruidora quanto o fenômeno que causou o fim dos dinossauros
A ação humana acelerou em mil vezes a extinção de espécies, de acordo com um estudo publicado esta semana na revista “Science”. Novas tecnologias para mapear o desmatamento e a destruição de habitats permitiram uma revisão dos números que serviam como base para encontros internacionais, como a Convenção sobre Diversidade Biológica (CBD).
Se não houver ações urgentes, o impacto provocado pelo homem no meio ambiente causaria a sexta maior extinção em massa da História do planeta – uma das anteriores foi o desaparecimento dos dinossauros.
Não é simples estimar quantas espécies foram extintas desde o início do século XX, já que, segundo estimativas, apenas 3,6% delas são conhecidas pelos cientistas. Para calcular a velocidade das extinções, os cientistas criaram um modelo matemático levando em conta o percentual de desaparição das espécies conhecidas em relação a sua população total e extrapolaram os resultados.
O estudo defende que a Lista Vermelha de Espécies Ameaçadas seja radicalmente ampliada – a publicação abrigaria 160 mil espécies que correm o risco de extinção, em vez de 70 mil, como ocorre hoje. Esta atualização da listagem pode levar à criação de novas políticas de conservação ambiental.
– Hoje temos novas tecnologias para detectar o desmatamento e analisar o deslocamento de cada espécie – avalia Clinton Jones, coautor do estudo e pesquisador do Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas do Brasil (Ipê). – A maioria vive fora das áreas protegidas, por isso a compreensão da mudança de seus ecossistemas é vital. É uma oportunidade para atualizar mapas sobre os impactos e as ameaças a cada área.
Coautor do levantamento, Stuart Limm, professor de Ecologia de Conservação da Universidade de Duke (EUA), ressalta que ainda existe uma “cratera” entre o que os pesquisadores sabem e o que ignoram sobre a biodiversidade do planeta. A tecnologia, no entanto, está preenchendo este espaço, além de estender o acesso a dados científicos para amadores. Bancos de dados on-line e até aplicativos de smartphones facilitam a identificação de espécies.
– Quando combinamos informações sobre o uso da terra com as observações de milhões de cientistas amadores, conseguimos acompanhar melhor a biodiversidade e suas ameaças – assinala. – No entanto, precisamos desenvolver tecnologias ainda mais sofisticadas para sabermos qual é a taxa de extinção das espécies.
O homem eliminou os principais predadores e outras grandes espécies. As savanas africanas, por exemplo, já cobriram 13,5 milhões de km². Agora, os leões dispõem de somente 1 milhão de km². Trata-se de um exemplo de como a restrição do espaço colabora para as extinções.
– Sabemos que muitas espécies terrestres ocupam pequenas áreas, algumas menores do que o Estado do Rio. – alerta Jones. – Espécies distribuídas em pequenas regiões estão mais vulneráveis à extinção. Precisamos concentrar nossos projetos de conservação nestes locais.
Um dos pontos mais críticos é a Mata Atlântica, uma das 34 regiões do planeta onde há maior número de espécies exclusivas – ou seja, aquelas que só ocorrem naquele local – enfrentando risco de extinção.
– A floresta remanescente está degradada e há muitas espécies exclusivas em todos os seus ambientes, do solo às montanhas – destaca Jones. – Sua preservação deve ser uma prioridade mundial.
Os oceanos são ainda menos preservados. Somente 2% de suas espécies seriam conhecidas.
Coordenador do estudo disse que situação não piorou, pois ‘o universo analisado quintuplicou’; ministra do Meio Ambiente anunciou pacote de medidas para a fauna brasileira
O estudo Avaliação do Risco de Extinção da Fauna Brasileira, desenvolvido por 929 especialistas entre 2010 e 2014, mostra que atualmente 1.051 espécies de animais estão ameaçadas de extinção. Na primeira edição, de 2003, eram 627.
“A situação não piorou. O universo analisado quintuplicou, daí o aumento da lista”, afirmou o diretor de pesquisa, avaliação e monitoramento de biodiversidade do Instituto Chico Mendes, Marcelo Marcelino, responsável pela coordenação do trabalho.
Ao todo, foram avaliadas 7.647 espécies. Do total, 11 foram consideradas extintas, 121 tiveram sua situação agravada. A situação piorou, por exemplo, para o tatu-bola. “Seu habitat, a caatinga, vem sofrendo uma redução. Além disso, a espécie é muito vulnerável à caça”, completou. Para outras 126, a ameaça foi reduzida, mas ainda persiste.
O trabalho mostra que 77 espécies saíram da situação de risco – entre elas, a baleia Jubarte. Em 2012, foram contabilizados 15 mil indivíduos, quantidade significativamente maior do que os 9 mil encontrados em 2008. Duas espécies dos macacos uacaris e o peixe-grama também saíram da situação de perigo.
Os números foram apresentados nesta quinta-feira, 22, pela ministra do Meio Ambiente, Izabella Teixeira. Além do balanço, ela anunciou um pacote de medidas para tentar preservar a fauna brasileira. Entre as ações, está a moratória da pesca e comercialização da piracatinga, por cinco anos.
A regra, que começa a valer a partir de janeiro de 2015, tem como objetivo proteger o boto vermelho e jacarés, que são usados como isca. “Vamos criar um grupo para tentar encontrar alternativas a essa prática”, afirmou Izabella. A pesca acidental e comercialização de tubarão-martelo e lombo-preto também estão proibidas, a partir da agora. As duas medidas foram adotadas em parceria com o Ministério da Pesca e Aquicultura.
Izabella anunciou também a criação de uma força-tarefa de fiscalização, formada pelo Ibama, ICMBio e Polícia Federal para combater a caça de fauna ameaçada, como peixe-boi da Amazônia, boto cor-de-rosa, arara azul de lear, onça pintada, tatu-bola, tubarões, arraias de água doce e a extensão da bolsa verde para comunidades em situação de vulnerabilidade econômica em regiões consideradas relevantes para conservação de espécies ameaçadas de extinção. A bolsa será no valor de R$ 100 mensais.
Bringing extinct animals back to life is really happening — and it’s going to be very, very cool. Unless it ends up being very, very bad.
By NATHANIEL RICHFEB. 27, 2014
CreditStephen Wilkes for The New York Times; Woolly Mammoth, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia
The first time Ben Novak saw a passenger pigeon, he fell to his knees and remained in that position, speechless, for 20 minutes. He was 16. At 13, Novak vowed to devote his life to resurrecting extinct animals. At 14, he saw a photograph of a passenger pigeon in an Audubon Society book and “fell in love.” But he didn’t know that the Science Museum of Minnesota, which he was then visiting with a summer program for North Dakotan high-school students, had them in their collection, so he was shocked when he came across a cabinet containing two stuffed pigeons, a male and a female, mounted in lifelike poses. He was overcome by awe, sadness and the birds’ physical beauty: their bright auburn breasts, slate-gray backs and the dusting of iridescence around their napes that, depending on the light and angle, appeared purple, fuchsia or green. Before his chaperones dragged him out of the room, Novak snapped a photograph with his disposable camera. The flash was too strong, however, and when the film was processed several weeks later, he was haunted to discover that the photograph hadn’t developed. It was blank, just a flash of white light.
In the decade since, Novak has visited 339 passenger pigeons — at the Burke Museum in Seattle, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Harvard’s Ornithology Department, which has 145 specimens, including eight pigeon corpses preserved in jars of ethanol, 31 eggs and a partly albino pigeon. There are 1,532 passenger-pigeon specimens left on Earth. On Sept. 1, 1914, Martha, the last captive passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. She outlasted George, the penultimate survivor of her species and her only companion, by four years. As news spread of her species’ imminent extinction, Martha became a minor tourist attraction. In her final years, whether depressed or just old, she barely moved. Underwhelmed zoo visitors threw fistfuls of sand at her to elicit a reaction. When she finally died, her body was taken to the Cincinnati Ice Company, frozen in a 300-pound ice cube and shipped by train to the Smithsonian Institution, where she was stuffed and mounted and visited, 99 years later, by Ben Novak.
The fact that we can pinpoint the death of the last known passenger pigeon is one of many peculiarities that distinguish the species. Many thousands of species go extinct every year, but we tend to be unaware of their passing, because we’re unaware of the existence of most species. The passenger pigeon’s decline was impossible to ignore, because as recently as the 1880s, it was the most populous vertebrate in North America. It made up as much as 40 percent of the continent’s bird population. In “A Feathered River Across the Sky,” Joel Greenberg suggests that the species’ population “may have exceeded that of every other bird on earth.” In 1860, a naturalist observed a single flock that he estimated to contain 3,717,120,000 pigeons. By comparison, there are currently 260 million rock pigeons in existence. A single passenger-pigeon nesting ground once occupied an area as large as 850 square miles, or 37 Manhattans.
The species’ incredible abundance was an enticement to mass slaughter. The birds were hunted for their meat, which was sold by the ton (at the higher end of the market, Delmonico’s served pigeon cutlets); for their oil and feathers; and for sport. Even so, their rapid decline — from approximately five billion to extinction within a few decades — baffled most Americans. Science magazine published an article claiming that the birds had all fled to the Arizona desert. Others hypothesized that the pigeons had taken refuge in the Chilean pine forests or somewhere east of Puget Sound or in Australia. Another theory held that every passenger pigeon had joined a single megaflock and disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle.
Stewart Brand, who was born in Rockford, Ill., in 1938, has never forgotten the mournful way his mother spoke about passenger pigeons when he was a child. During summers, the Brands vacationed near the top of Michigan’s mitten, not far from Pigeon River, one of the hundreds of American places named after the species. (Michigan alone has four Pigeon Rivers, four Pigeon Lakes, two Pigeon Creeks, Pigeon Cove, Pigeon Hill and Pigeon Point). Old-timers told stories about the pigeon that to Brand assumed a mythic quality. They said that the flocks were so large they blotted out the sun.
Brand’s compassion for the natural world has taken many diverse forms, but none more broadly influential than the Whole Earth Catalog, which he founded in 1968 and edited until 1984. Brand has said that the catalog, a dense compendium of environmentalist tools and practices, among other things, “encouraged individual power.” As it turned out, Whole Earth’s success gave Brand more power than most individuals, allowing him intimate access to the world’s most imaginative thinkers and patrons wealthy enough to finance those thinkers’ most ambitious ideas. In the last two decades, several of these ideas have materialized under the aegis of the Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit organization that Brand helped to establish in 1996 to support projects designed to inspire “long-term responsibility.” Among these projects are a 300-foot-tall clock designed to tick uninterruptedly for the next 10,000 years, financed by a $42 million investment from the Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and situated inside an excavated mountain that Bezos owns near Van Horn, Tex.; and a disk of pure nickel inscribed with 1,500 languages that has been mounted on the Rosetta space probe, which this year is scheduled to land on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 500 million miles from earth.
Three years ago Brand invited the zoologist Tim Flannery, a friend, to speak at Long Now’s Seminar About Long-Term Thinking, a monthly series held in San Francisco. The theme of the talk was “Is Mass Extinction of Life on Earth Inevitable?” In the question-and-answer period that followed, Brand, grasping for a silver lining, mentioned a novel approach to ecological conservation that was gaining wider public attention: the resurrection of extinct species, like the woolly mammoth, aided by new genomic technologies developed by the Harvard molecular biologist George Church. “It gives people hope when rewilding occurs — when the wolves come back, when the buffalo come back,” Brand said at the seminar. He paused. “I suppose we could get passenger pigeons back. I hadn’t thought of that before.”
Brand became obsessed with the idea. Reviving an extinct species was exactly the kind of ambitious, interdisciplinary and slightly loopy project that appealed to him. Three weeks after his conversation with Flannery, Brand sent an email to Church and the biologist Edward O. Wilson:
Dear Ed and George . . .
The death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914 was an event that broke the public’s heart and persuaded everyone that extinction is the core of humanity’s relation with nature.
George, could we bring the bird back through genetic techniques? I recall chatting with Ed in front of a stuffed passenger pigeon at the Comparative Zoology Museum [at Harvard, where Wilson is a faculty emeritus], and I know of other stuffed birds at the Smithsonian and in Toronto, presumably replete with the requisite genes. Surely it would be easier than reviving the woolly mammoth, which you have espoused.
The environmental and conservation movements have mired themselves in a tragic view of life. The return of the passenger pigeon could shake them out of it — and invite them to embrace prudent biotechnology as a Green tool instead of menace in this century. . . . I would gladly set up a nonprofit to fund the passenger pigeon revival. . . .
Wild scheme. Could be fun. Could improve things. It could, as they say, advance the story.
Passenger Pigeon Extinct 1914. Billions of the pigeons were alive just a few decades earlier. Like the other animals shown here, it has been proposed for de-extinction projects. Credit Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times. Passenger pigeon, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.
What do you think?
In less than three hours, Church responded with a detailed plan to return “a flock of millions to billions” of passenger pigeons to the planet.
In February 2012, Church hosted a symposium at Harvard Medical School called “Bringing Back the Passenger Pigeon.” Church gave a demonstration of his new genome-editing technology, and other biologists and avian specialists expressed enthusiasm for the idea. “De-extinction went from concept to potential reality right before our eyes,” said Ryan Phelan, Brand’s wife, an entrepreneur who founded an early consumer medical-genetics company. “We realized that we could do it not only for the passenger pigeon, but for other species. There was so much interest and so many ideas that we needed to create an infrastructure around it. It was like, ‘Oh, my God, look at what we’ve unleashed.’ ” Phelan, 61, became executive director of the new project, which they named Revive & Restore.
Several months later, the National Geographic Society hosted a larger conference to debate the scientific and ethical questions raised by the prospect of “de-extinction.” Brand and Phelan invited 36 of the world’s leading genetic engineers and biologists, among them Stanley Temple, a founder of conservation biology; Oliver Ryder, director of the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo, which stockpiles frozen cells of endangered species; and Sergey Zimov, who has created an experimental preserve in Siberia called Pleistocene Park, which he hopes to populate with woolly mammoths.
To Brand’s idea that the pigeon project would provide “a beacon of hope for conservation,” conference attendees added a number of ecological arguments in support of de-extinction. Just as the loss of a species decreases the richness of an ecosystem, the addition of new animals could achieve the opposite effect. The grazing habits of mammoths, for instance, might encourage the growth of a variety of grasses, which could help to protect the Arctic permafrost from melting — a benefit with global significance, as the Arctic permafrost contains two to three times as much carbon as the world’s rain forests. “We’ve framed it in terms of conservation,” Brand told me. “We’re bringing back the mammoth to restore the steppe in the Arctic. One or two mammoths is not a success. 100,000 mammoths is a success.”
A less scientific, if more persuasive, argument was advanced by the ethicist Hank Greely and the law professor Jacob Sherkow, both of Stanford. De-extinction should be pursued, they argued in a paper published in Science, because it would be really cool. “This may be the biggest attraction and possibly the biggest benefit of de-extinction. It would surely be very cool to see a living woolly mammoth.”
Ben Novak needed no convincing. When he heard that Revive & Restore had decided to resurrect the passenger pigeon, he sent an email to Church, who forwarded it to Brand and Phelan. “Passenger pigeons have been my passion in life for a very long time,” Novak wrote. “Any way I can be part of this work would be my honor.”
Behind the biohazard signs and double-encoded security doors that mark the entrance of the paleogenomics lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I found no mastodon tusks, dinosaur eggs or mosquitoes trapped in amber — only a sterile, largely empty room in which Novak and several graduate students were busy checking their Gmail accounts. The only visible work in progress was Metroplex, a giant Transformers figurine that Novak constructed, which was hunched over his keyboard like a dead robot.
Novak, who is 27, hastened to assure me that the construction of the passenger-pigeon genome was also underway. In fact, it had been for years. Beth Shapiro, one of the scientists who runs the lab, began to sequence the species’ DNA in 2001, a decade before Brand had his big idea. The sequencing process is now in its data-analysis phase, which leaves Novak, who studied ecology in college, but has no advanced scientific degrees, time to consult on academic papers about de-extinction, write his own paper about the ecological relationship between passenger pigeons and chestnut trees and correspond with the scientists behind the world’s other species-resurrection efforts. These include the Uruz project, which is selectively breeding cattle to create a new subspecies that resembles aurochs, a form of wild ox, extinct since 1627; a group hoping to use genetic methods to revive the heath hen, extinct since 1932; and the Lazarus Project, which is trying to revive an Australian frog, extinct for 30 years, that gave birth through its mouth.
As Brand and Phelan’s only full-time employee at Revive & Restore, Novak fields emails sent by scientists eager to begin work on new candidates for de-extinction, like the California grizzly bear, the Carolina parakeet, the Tasmanian tiger, Steller’s sea cow and the great auk, which hasn’t been seen since 1844, when the last two known members of its species were strangled by Icelandic fishermen. Because de-extinction requires collaboration from a number of different disciplines, Phelan sees Revive & Restore as a “facilitator,” helping to connect geneticists, molecular biologists, synthetic biologists and conservation biologists. She also hopes that Revive & Restore’s support will enable experimental projects to proceed. She and Novak realize that the new discipline of de-extinction will advance regardless of their involvement, but, she says, “We just want it to happen responsibly.”
When Novak joined Shapiro’s lab, he knew nothing about Santa Cruz and nobody there. A year later, apart from an occasional dinner on the Brands’ tugboat in Sausalito, little has changed. Novak is largely left alone with his thoughts and his dead animals. But it has always been this way for Novak, who grew up in a house three miles from his closest neighbor, halfway between Williston, the eighth-largest city in North Dakota, and Alexander, which has a population of 269. As a boy, Novak often took solitary hikes through the badlands near his home, exploring a vast petrified forest that runs through the Sentinel Butte formation. Fifty million years ago, that part of western North Dakota resembled the Florida Everglades. Novak frequently came across vertebrae, phalanges and rib fragments of extinct crocodiles and champsosaurs.
This was two hours north of Elkhorn Ranch, where Theodore Roosevelt developed the theories about wildlife protection that led to the preservation of 230 million acres of land. The local schools emphasized conservation in their science classes. In sixth grade, Novak was astonished to learn that he was living in the middle of a mass extinction. (Scientists predict that changes made by human beings to the composition of the atmosphere could kill off a quarter of the planet’s mammal species, a fifth of its reptiles and a sixth of its birds by 2050.) “I felt a certain amount of solidarity with these species,” he told me. “Maybe because I spent so much time alone.”
Great Auk Not seen since 1844, when Icelandic fishermen strangled the last known survivors. Credit Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times. Great Auk, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.
After graduating from Montana State University in Bozeman, Novak applied to study under Beth Shapiro, who had already begun to sequence passenger-pigeon DNA. He was rejected. “I appreciated his devotion to the bird,” she told me, “but I worried that his zeal might interfere with his ability to do serious science.” Novak instead entered a graduate program at the McMaster Ancient DNA Center in Hamilton, Ontario, where he worked on the sequencing of mastodon DNA. But he remained obsessed by passenger pigeons. He decided that, if he couldn’t join Shapiro’s lab, he would sequence the pigeon’s genome himself. He needed tissue samples, so he sent letters to every museum he could find that possessed the stuffed specimens. He was denied more than 30 times before Chicago’s Field Museum sent him a tiny slice of a pigeon’s toe. A lab in Toronto conducted the sequencing for a little more than $2,500, which Novak raised from his family and friends. He had just begun to analyze the data when he learned about Revive & Restore.
After Novak was hired, Shapiro offered him office space at the U.C.S.C. paleogenomics lab, where he could witness the sequencing work as it happened. Now, when asked what he does for a living, Novak says that his job is to resurrect the passenger pigeon.
Novak is tall, solemn, polite and stiff in conversation, until the conversation turns to passenger pigeons, which it always does. One of the few times I saw him laugh was when I asked whether de-extinction might turn out to be impossible. He reminded me that it has already happened. More than 10 years ago, a team that included Alberto Fernández-Arias (now a Revive & Restore adviser) resurrected a bucardo, a subspecies of mountain goat also known as the Pyrenean ibex, that went extinct in 2000. The last surviving bucardo was a 13-year-old female named Celia. Before she died — her skull was crushed by a falling tree — Fernández-Arias extracted skin scrapings from one of her ears and froze them in liquid nitrogen. Using the same cloning technology that created Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, the team used Celia’s DNA to create embryos that were implanted in the wombs of 57 goats. One of the does successfully brought her egg to term on July 30, 2003. “To our knowledge,” wrote the scientists, “this is the first animal born from an extinct subspecies.” But it didn’t live long. After struggling to breathe for several minutes, the kid choked to death.
This cloning method, called somatic cell nuclear transfer, can be used only on species for which we have cellular material. For species like the passenger pigeon that had the misfortune of going extinct before the advent of cryopreservation, a more complicated process is required. The first step is to reconstruct the species’ genome. This is difficult, because DNA begins to decay as soon as an organism dies. The DNA also mixes with the DNA of other organisms with which it comes into contact, like fungus, bacteria and other animals. If you imagine a strand of DNA as a book, then the DNA of a long-dead animal is a shuffled pile of torn pages, some of the scraps as long as a paragraph, others a single sentence or just a few words. The scraps are not in the right order, and many of them belong to other books. And the book is an epic: The passenger pigeon’s genome is about 1.2 billion base pairs long. If you imagine each base pair as a word, then the book of the passenger pigeon would be four million pages long.
There is a shortcut. The genome of a closely related species will have a high proportion of identical DNA, so it can serve as a blueprint, or “scaffold.” The passenger pigeon’s closest genetic relative is the band-tailed pigeon, which Shapiro is now sequencing. By comparing the fragments of passenger-pigeon DNA with the genomes of similar species, researchers can assemble an approximation of an actual passenger-pigeon genome. How close an approximation, it will be impossible to know. As with any translation, there may be errors of grammar, clumsy phrases and perhaps a few missing passages, but the book will be legible. It should, at least, tell a good story.
Shapiro hopes to complete this part of the process in the coming months. At that point, the researchers will have, on their hard drives, a working passenger-pigeon genome. If you opened the file on a computer screen, you would see a chain of 1.2 billion letters, all of them A, G, C or T. Shapiro hopes to publish an analysis of the genome by Sept. 1, in time for the centenary of Martha’s death.
Woolly Mammoth Became extinct about 4,000 years ago. Credit Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times; Woolly Mammoth, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia
That, unfortunately, is the easy part. Next the genome will have to be inscribed into a living cell. This is even more complicated than it sounds. Molecular biologists will begin by trying to culture germ cells from a band-tailed pigeon. Cell culturing is the process by which living tissue is made to grow in a petri dish. Bird cells can be especially difficult to culture. They strongly prefer not to exist outside of a body. “For birds,” Novak said, “this is the hump to get over.” But it is largely a question of trial and error — a question, in other words, of time, which Revive & Restore has in abundance.
Should scientists succeed in culturing a band-tailed-pigeon germ cell, they will begin to tinker with its genetic code. Biologists describe this as a “cut-and-paste job.” They will replace chunks of band-tailed-pigeon DNA with synthesized chunks of passenger-pigeon DNA, until the cell’s genome matches their working passenger-pigeon genome. They will be aided in this process by a fantastical new technology, invented by George Church, with the appropriately runic name of MAGE (Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering). MAGE is nicknamed the “evolution machine” because it can introduce the equivalent of millions of years of genetic mutations within minutes. After MAGE works its magic, scientists will have in their petri dishes living passenger-pigeon cells, or at least what they will call passenger-pigeon cells.
The biologists would next introduce these living cells into a band-tailed-pigeon embryo. No hocus-pocus is involved here: You chop off the top of a pigeon egg, inject the passenger-pigeon cells inside and cover the hole with a material that looks like Saran wrap. The genetically engineered germ cells integrate into the embryo; into its gonads, to be specific. When the chick hatches, it should look and act like a band-tailed pigeon. But it will have a secret. If it is a male, it carries passenger-pigeon sperm; if it is a female, its eggs are passenger-pigeon eggs. These creatures — band-tailed pigeons on the outside and passenger pigeons on the inside — are called “chimeras” (from the Middle English for “wild fantasy”). Chimeras would be bred with one another in an effort to produce passenger pigeons. Novak hopes to observe the birth of his first passenger-pigeon chick by 2020, though he suspects 2025 is more likely.
At that point, the de-extinction process would move from the lab to the coop. Developmental and behavioral biologists would take over, just in time to answer some difficult questions. Chicks imitate their parents’ behavior. How do you raise a passenger pigeon without parents of its own species? And how do you train band-tailed pigeons to nurture the strange spawn that emerge from their eggs; chicks that, to them, might seem monstrous: an avian Rosemary’s Baby?
Despite the genetic similarity between the two pigeon species, significant differences remain. Band-tailed pigeons are a western bird and migrate vast distances north and south; passenger pigeons lived in the eastern half of the continent and had no fixed migration patterns. In order to ease the transition between band-tailed parents and passenger chicks, a Revive & Restore partner will soon begin to breed a flock of band-tailed pigeons to resemble passenger pigeons. They will try to alter the birds’ diets, migration habits and environment. The behavior of each subsequent generation will more closely resemble that of their genetic cousins. “Eventually,” Novak said, “we’ll have band-tailed pigeons that are faux-passenger-pigeon parents.” As unlikely as this sounds, there is a strong precedent; surrogate species have been used extensively in pigeon breeding.
During the breeding process, small modifications would be made to the genome in order to ensure genetic diversity within the new population. After three to five years, some of the birds would be moved to a large outdoor aviary, where they would be exposed to nature for the first time: trees, weather, bacteria. Small-population biologists will be consulted, as will biologists who study species reintroduction. Other animals would gradually be introduced into the aviary, one at a time. The pigeons would be transferred between aviaries to simulate their hopscotching migratory patterns. Ecologists will study how the birds affect their environment and are affected by it. After about 10 years, some of the birds in the aviary would be set free into the wild, monitored by G.P.S. chips implanted under their skin. The project will be considered a full success when the population in the wild is capable of perpetuating itself without the addition of new pigeons from the aviary. Novak expects this to occur as early as 25 years after the first birds are let into the wild, or 2060. And he hopes that he will be there to witness it.
While Novak’s pigeons are reproducing, Revive & Restore will have embarked on a parallel course with a number of other species, both extinct and endangered. Besides the woolly mammoth, candidates include the black-footed ferret, the Caribbean monk seal, the golden lion tamarin, the ivory-billed woodpecker and the northern white rhinoceros, a species that is down to its final handful of members. For endangered species with tiny populations, scientists would introduce genetic diversity to offset inbreeding. For species threatened by contagion, an effort would be made to fortify their DNA with genes that make them disease-resistant. Millions of North American bats have died in the past decade from white-nose syndrome, a disease named after a deadly fungus that was likely imported from Europe. Many European bat species appear to be immune to the fungus; if the gene responsible for this immunity is identified, one theory holds that it could be synthesized and injected into North American bats. The scientific term for this type of genetic intervention is “facilitated adaptation.” A better name for Revive & Restore would be Revive & Restore & Improve.
This optimistic, soft-focus fantasy of de-extinction, while thrilling to Ben Novak, is disturbing to many conservation biologists, who consider it a threat to their entire discipline and even to the environmental movement. At a recent Revive & Restore conference and in articles appearing in both the popular and academic press since then, they have articulated their litany of criticisms at an increasingly high pitch. In response, particularly in recent months, supporters of de-extinction have more aggressively begun to advance their counterarguments. “We have answers for every question,” Novak told me. “We’ve been thinking about this a long time.”
The first question posed by conservationists addresses the logic of bringing back an animal whose native habitat has disappeared. Why go through all the trouble just to have the animal go extinct all over again? While this criticism is valid for some species, the passenger pigeon should be especially well suited to survive in new habitats, because it had no specific native habitat to begin with. It was an opportunistic eater, devouring a wide range of nuts and acorns and flying wherever there was food.
There is also anxiety about disease. “Pathogens in the environment are constantly evolving, and animals are developing new immune systems,” said Doug Armstrong, a conservation biologist in New Zealand who studies the reintroduction of species. “If you recreate a species genetically and release it, and that genotype is based on a bird from a 100-year-old environment, you probably will increase risk.” A revived passenger pigeon might be a vector for modern diseases. But this concern, said David Haussler, the co-founder of the Genome 10K Project, is overblown. “There’s always this fear that somehow, if we do it, we’re going to accidentally make something horrible, because only nature can really do it right. But nature is totally random. Nature makes monsters. Nature makes threats. Many of the things that are most threatening to us are a product of nature. Revive & Restore is not going to tip the balance in any way.” (Some scientists have speculated that, by competing for acorns with rodents and deer, the passenger pigeon could bring about a decrease in Lyme disease.)
More pressing to conservationists is a practical anxiety: Money. De-extinction is a flashy new competitor for patronage. As the conservationist David Ehrenfeld said at a Revive & Restore conference: “If it works, de-extinction will only target a very few species and is extremely expensive. Will it divert conservation dollars from tried-and-true conservation measures that already work, which are already short of funds?” This argument can be made for any conservation strategy, says the ecologist Josh Donlan, an adviser to Revive & Restore. “In my view,” Donlan wrote in a paper that is scheduled to be published in the forthcoming issue of Frontiers of Biogeography, “[the] conservation strategies are not mutually exclusive — a point conservation scientists tend to overlook.” So far this prediction has held up. Much of the money spent so far for sequencing the passenger-pigeon genome has been provided by Beth Shapiro’s U.C.S.C. research budget. Revive & Restore’s budget, which was $350,000 last year, has been raised largely from tech millionaires who are not known for supporting ecological causes.
De-extinction also poses a rhetorical threat to conservation biologists. The specter of extinction has been the conservation movement’s most powerful argument. What if extinction begins to be seen as a temporary inconvenience? The ecologist Daniel Simberloff raised a related concern. “It’s at best a technofix dealing with a few species,” he told me. “Technofixes for environmental problems are band-aids for massive hemorrhages. To the extent that the public, who will never be terribly well informed on the larger issue, thinks that we can just go and resurrect a species, it is extremely dangerous. . . . De-extinction suggests that we can technofix our way out of environmental issues generally, and that’s very, very bad.”
The extinct heath hen, a candidate for resurrection. CreditStephen Wilkes for The New York Times. Heath hen: Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.
Ben Novak — who trails Simberloff in professional stature by a doctorate, hundreds of scientific publications and a pair of lifetime-achievement awards — rejects this view. “This is about an expansion of the field, not a reduction,” he says. “We get asked these big questions, but no one is asking people who work on elephants why they’re not working with giraffes, when giraffes need a lot more conservation work than elephants do. Nobody asks the people who work on rhinos why they aren’t working on the Arctic pollinators that are being devastated by climate change. The panda program rarely gets criticized, even though that project is completely pointless in the grand scheme of biodiversity on this planet, because the panda is a cute animal.” If the success of de-extinction, or even its failure, increases public awareness of the threats of mass extinction, Novak says, then it will have been a triumph.
How will we decide which species to resurrect? Some have questioned the logic of beginning with a pigeon. “Do you think that wealthy people on the East Coast are going to want billions of passenger pigeons flying over their freshly manicured lawns and just-waxed S.U.V.s?” asked Shapiro, whose involvement in the passenger-pigeon project will end once she finishes analyzing its genome. (She is writing a book about the challenges of de-extinction.) In an attempt to develop scientific criteria, the New Zealand zoologist Philip Seddon recently published a 10-point checklist to determine the suitability of any species for revival, taking into account causes of its extinction, possible threats it might face upon resurrection and man’s ability to destroy the species “in the event of unacceptable ecological or socioeconomic impacts.” If passenger pigeons, in other words, turn out to be an environmental scourge — if, following nature’s example, we create a monster — will we be able to kill them off? (The answer: Yes, we’ve done it before.)
But the most visceral argument against de-extinction is animal cruelty. Consider the 56 female mountain goats who were unable to bring to term the deformed bucardo embryos that were implanted in their wombs. Or the bucardo that was born and lived only a few minutes, gasping for breath, before dying of a lung deformity? “Is it fair to do this to these animals?” Shapiro asked. “Is ‘because we feel guilty’ a good-enough reason?” Stewart Brand made a utilitarian counterargument: “We’re going to go through some suffering, because you try a lot of times, and you get ones that don’t take. On the other hand, if you can bring bucardos back, then how many would get to live that would not have gotten to live?”
And, finally, what will the courts make of packs of woolly mammoths and millions of passenger pigeons let loose on the continent? In “How to Permit Your Mammoth,” published in The Stanford Environmental Law Journal, Norman F. Carlin asks whether revived species should be protected by the Endangered Species Act or regulated as a genetically modified organism. He concludes that revived species, “as products of human ingenuity,” should be eligible for patenting.
This question of “human ingenuity” approaches one of the least commented upon but most significant points about de-extinction. The term “de-extinction” is misleading. Passenger pigeons will not rise from the grave. Instead, band-tailed-pigeon DNA will be altered to resemble passenger-pigeon DNA. But we won’t know how closely the new pigeon will resemble the extinct pigeon until it is born; even then, we’ll only be able to compare physical characteristics with precision. Our understanding of the passenger pigeon’s behavior derives entirely from historical accounts. While many of these, including John James Audubon’s chapter on the pigeon in “Ornithological Biography,” are vividly written, few are scientific in nature. “There are a million things that you cannot predict about an organism just from having its genome sequence,” said Ed Green, a biomolecular engineer who works on genome-sequencing technology in the U.C.S.C. paleogenomics lab. Shapiro said: “It’s just one guess. And it’s not even a very good guess.”
Shapiro is no more sanguine about the woolly-mammoth project. “You’re never going to get a genetic clone of a mammoth,” she said. “What’s going to happen, I imagine, is that someone, maybe George Church, is going to insert some genes into the Asian-elephant genome that make it slightly hairier. That would be just a tiny portion of the genome manipulated, but a few years later, you have a thing born that is an elephant, only hairier, and the press will write, ‘George Church has cloned a mammoth!’ ” Church, though he plans to do more than just alter the gene for hairiness, concedes the point. “I would like to have an elephant that likes the cold weather,” he told me. “Whether you call it a ‘mammoth’ or not, I don’t care.”
Tasmanian Tiger Also known as the thylacine, it was last spotted in Tasmania in 1930.CreditStephen Wilkes for The New York Times. Tasmanian Tiger, Mammalogy Department, American Museum of Natural History.
There is no authoritative definition of “species.” The most widely accepted definition describes a group of organisms that can procreate with one another and produce fertile offspring, but there are many exceptions. De-extinction operates under a different definition altogether. Revive & Restore hopes to create a bird that interacts with its ecosystem as the passenger pigeon did. If the new bird fills the same ecological niche, it will be successful; if not, back to the petri dish. “It’s ecological resurrection, not species resurrection,” Shapiro says. A similar logic informs the restoration of Renaissance paintings. If you visit “The Last Supper” in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, you won’t see a single speck of paint from the brush of Leonardo da Vinci. You will see a mural with the same proportions and design as the original, and you may feel the same sense of awe as the refectory’s parishioners felt in 1498, but the original artwork disappeared centuries ago. Philosophers call this Theseus’ Paradox, a reference to the ship that Theseus sailed back to Athens from Crete after he had slain the Minotaur. The ship, Plutarch writes, was preserved by the Athenians, who “took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place.” Theseus’ ship, therefore, “became a standing example among the philosophers . . . one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
What does it matter whether Passenger Pigeon 2.0 is a real passenger pigeon or a persuasive impostor? If the new, synthetically created bird enriches the ecology of the forests it populates, few people, including conservationists, will object. The genetically adjusted birds would hardly be the first aspect of the deciduous forest ecosystem to bear man’s influence; invasive species, disease, deforestation and a toxic atmosphere have engineered forests that would be unrecognizable to the continent’s earliest European settlers. When human beings first arrived, the continent was populated by camels, eight-foot beavers and 550-pound ground sloths. “People grow up with this idea that the nature they see is ‘natural,’ ” Novak says, “but there’s been no real ‘natural’ element to the earth the entire time humans have been around.”
The earth is about to become a lot less “natural.” Biologists have already created new forms of bacteria in the lab, modified the genetic code of countless living species and cloned dogs, cats, wolves and water buffalo, but the engineering of novel vertebrates — of breathing, flying, defecating pigeons — will represent a milestone for synthetic biology. This is the fact that will overwhelm all arguments against de-extinction. Thanks, perhaps, to “Jurassic Park,” popular sentiment already is behind it. (“That movie has done a lot for de-extinction,” Stewart Brand told me in all earnestness.) In a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center, half of the respondents agreed that “an extinct animal will be brought back.” Among Americans, belief in de-extinction trails belief in evolution by only 10 percentage points. “Our assumption from the beginning has been that this is coming anyway,” Brand said, “so what’s the most benign form it can take?”
What is coming will go well beyond the resurrection of extinct species. For millenniums, we have customized our environment, our vegetables and our animals, through breeding, fertilization and pollination. Synthetic biology offers far more sophisticated tools. The creation of novel organisms, like new animals, plants and bacteria, will transform human medicine, agriculture, energy production and much else. De-extinction “is the most conservative, earliest application of this technology,” says Danny Hillis, a Long Now board member and a prolific inventor who pioneered the technology that is the basis for most supercomputers. Hillis mentioned Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the content of a new medium is the old medium: that each new technology, when first introduced, recreates the familiar technology it will supersede. Early television shows were filmed radio shows. Early movies were filmed stage plays. Synthetic biology, in the same way, may gain widespread public acceptance through the resurrection of lost animals for which we have nostalgia. “Using the tool to recreate old things,” Hillis said, “is a much more comfortable way to get engaged with the power of the tool.”
“By the end of this decade we’ll seem incredibly conservative,” Brand said. “A lot of this stuff is going to become part of the standard tool kit. I would guess that within a decade or two, most of the major conservation organizations will have de-extinction as part of the portfolio of their activities.” He said he hoped to see the birth of a baby woolly mammoth in his lifetime. The opening line of the first Whole Earth Catalog was “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Brand has revised this motto to: “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” De-extinction is a good way to practice.
A passion for bringing a lost pigeon back to life is hardly inconsistent with scientific inquiry. Ben Novak insists that he is motivated purely by ecological concerns. “To some people, it might be about making some crazy new pet or zoo animal, but that’s not our organization,” he told me. The scientists who work beside him in the paleogenomics lab — who hear his daily passenger-pigeon rhapsodies — suspect a second motivation. “I’m a biologist, I’ve seen people passionate about animals before,” Andre Soares, a young Brazilian member of Shapiro’s staff, said, “but I’ve never seen anyone this passionate.” He laughed. “It’s not like he ever saw the pigeon flying around. And it’s not like a dinosaur, a massive beast that walked around millions of years ago. No, it’s just a pigeon. I don’t know why he loves them so much.”
I repeated what Novak told me, that the passenger-pigeon project was “all under the framework of conservation.” Soares shook his head. “I think the birds are his thing,” he said.
Ed Green, the biomolecular engineer down the hall, was more succinct. “The passenger pigeon,” he said, “makes Ben want to write poetry.”
Around the world, bees are dying in unprecedented numbers. While scientists hypothesize pesticides and habitat loss are to blame, the exact causes are still unclear. Gardeners and farmers are concerned about the fate of their bee-pollinated food and looking to the scientific community for information about how and why the bee populations are declining.
Unfortunately, money is tight as scientists struggle to gain the funding and resources for extensive bee studies.
Marie Clifford and Susan Waters, graduate researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, have found a way to get around scarce research funding: citizen scientists. The Urban Pollination Project (UPP), co-founded in 2011, takes Seattle community gardeners and trains them to collect data on local bees. Tapping into citizen scientist efforts, Clifford and Waters can gather data from 35 Seattle community gardens – a scale of research otherwise outside of their resources and funding capabilities.
“Citizen science,” Clifford says, “allows scientists to address much broader scale questions than they might be able to address themselves.”
The citizen scientist gardeners at the Urban Pollination Project measure, count, and weigh tomatoes to understand how varying degrees of pollination affect tomato growth. They also pollinate the tomato flowers using a tuning fork, and are trained in bee identification. Their observations provide insight into what species of bees visit various Seattle community gardens.
Observations like these led to a sighting of the Western Bumblebee — a native bumblebee thought to be extinct– by bee enthusiast, Will Peterman. With citizen scientists performing observations around the city, Clifford and Waters hope to better understand which bees are pollinating our cities.
In about five years, Clifford and Waters hope to have enough data to make conclusions about what bumblebees need to survive in urban environments, like how much and what kind of habitat availability is required. As the project continues, Clifford and Waters want to get more gardeners involved.
Both bumblebees and a 128 Hertz tuning fork vibrate at the perfect frequency to pollinate tomato plants. The vibration can literally “shake” the pollen out of tomato plant flowers. Photo credit: Sarah Vaira.
While UPP works with Seattle gardeners to track where bumblebees nest and forage, other citizen projects such asiNaturalist andeBird, allow anyone with a smartphone or digital camera to help identify plants and animals. These kinds of identification projects can help scientists predict animal and plant behavior.
“[With citizen science] you can achieve things that you would never be able to achieve with a more standard set of funds and time and energy,” says Waters, “[This is] a kind of knowledge that is ultimately really useful … and it connects people to their local environment.”
Research published today in the journal Nature Climate Change looked at 50,000 globally widespread and common species and found that more than one half of the plants and one third of the animals will lose more than half of their climatic range by 2080 if nothing is done to reduce the amount of global warming and slow it down.
This means that geographic ranges of common plants and animals will shrink globally and biodiversity will decline almost everywhere.
Plants, reptiles and particularly amphibians are expected to be at highest risk. Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, Amazonia and Australia would lose the most species of plants and animals. And a major loss of plant species is projected for North Africa, Central Asia and South-eastern Europe.
But acting quickly to mitigate climate change could reduce losses by 60 per cent and buy an additional 40 years for species to adapt. This is because this mitigation would slow and then stop global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial times (1765). Without this mitigation, global temperatures could rise by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100.
The study was led by Dr Rachel Warren from UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Collaborators include Dr.Jeremy VanDerWal at James Cook University in Australia and Dr Jeff Price, also at UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences and the Tyndall Centre. The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
Dr Warren said: “While there has been much research on the effect of climate change on rare and endangered species, little has been known about how an increase in global temperature will affect more common species.
“This broader issue of potential range loss in widespread species is a serious concern as even small declines in these species can significantly disrupt ecosystems.
“Our research predicts that climate change will greatly reduce the diversity of even very common species found in most parts of the world. This loss of global-scale biodiversity would significantly impoverish the biosphere and the ecosystem services it provides.
“We looked at the effect of rising global temperatures, but other symptoms of climate change such as extreme weather events, pests, and diseases mean that our estimates are probably conservative. Animals in particular may decline more as our predictions will be compounded by a loss of food from plants.
“There will also be a knock-on effect for humans because these species are important for things like water and air purification, flood control, nutrient cycling, and eco-tourism.
“The good news is that our research provides crucial new evidence of how swift action to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gases can prevent the biodiversity loss by reducing the amount of global warming to 2 degrees Celsius rather than 4 degrees. This would also buy time — up to four decades — for plants and animals to adapt to the remaining 2 degrees of climate change.”
The research team quantified the benefits of acting now to mitigate climate change and found that up to 60 per cent of the projected climatic range loss for biodiversity can be avoided.
Dr Warren said: “Prompt and stringent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally would reduce these biodiversity losses by 60 per cent if global emissions peak in 2016, or by 40 per cent if emissions peak in 2030, showing that early action is very beneficial. This will both reduce the amount of climate change and also slow climate change down, making it easier for species and humans to adapt.”
Information on the current distributions of the species used in this research came from the datasets shared online by hundreds of volunteers, scientists and natural history collections through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).
Co-author Dr Jeff Price, also from UEA’s school of Environmental Studies, said: “Without free and open access to massive amounts of data such as those made available online through GBIF, no individual researcher is able to contact every country, every museum, every scientist holding the data and pull it all together. So this research would not be possible without GBIF and its global community of researchers and volunteers who make their data freely available.”
R. Warren, J. VanDerWal, J. Price, J. A. Welbergen, I. Atkinson, et al. Quantifying the benefit of early climate change mitigation in avoiding biodiversity loss. Nature Climate Change, 2013 DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1887
Apr. 8, 2013 — At some point, scientists may be able to bring back extinct animals, and perhaps early humans, raising questions of ethics and environmental disruption.
Within a few decades, scientists may be able to bring back the dodo bird from extinction, a possibility that raises a host of ethical questions, says Stanford law Professor Hank Greely. (Credit: Frederick William Frohawk/Public domain image)
Within a few decades, scientists may be able to bring back the dodo bird from extinction, a possibility that raises a host of ethical questions, says Stanford law Professor Hank Greely.
Twenty years after the release ofJurassic Park, the dream of bringing back the dinosaurs remains science fiction. But scientists predict that within 15 years they will be able to revive some more recently extinct species, such as the dodo or the passenger pigeon, raising the question of whether or not they should — just because they can.
In the April 5 issue of Science, Stanford law Professor Hank Greely identifies the ethical landmines of this new concept of de-extinction.
“I view this piece as the first framing of the issues,” said Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences. “I don’t think it’s the end of the story, rather I think it’s the start of a discussion about how we should deal with de-extinction.”
In “What If Extinction Is Not Forever?” Greely lays out potential benefits of de-extinction, from creating new scientific knowledge to restoring lost ecosystems. But the biggest benefit, Greely believes, is the “wonder” factor.
“It would certainly be cool to see a living saber-toothed cat,” Greely said. “‘Wonder’ may not seem like a substantive benefit, but a lot of science — such as the Mars rover — is done because of it.”
Greely became interested in the ethics of de-extinction in 1999 when one of his students wrote a paper on the implications of bringing back wooly mammoths.
“He didn’t have his science right — which wasn’t his fault because approaches on how to do this have changed in the last 13 years — but it made me realize this was a really interesting topic,” Greely said.
Scientists are currently working on three different approaches to restore lost plants and animals. In cloning, scientists use genetic material from the extinct species to create an exact modern copy. Selective breeding tries to give a closely-related modern species the characteristics of its extinct relative. With genetic engineering, the DNA of a modern species is edited until it closely matches the extinct species.
All of these techniques would bring back only the physical animal or plant.
“If we bring the passenger pigeon back, there’s no reason to believe it will act the same way as it did in 1850,” said co-author Jacob Sherkow, a fellow at the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences. “Many traits are culturally learned. Migration patterns change when not taught from generation to generation.”
Many newly revived species could cause unexpected problems if brought into the modern world. A reintroduced species could become a carrier for a deadly disease or an unintentional threat to a nearby ecosystem, Greely says.
“It’s a little odd to consider these things ‘alien’ species because they were here before we were,” he said. “But the ‘here’ they were in is very different than it is now. They could turn out to be pests in this new environment.”
When asked whether government policies are keeping up with the new threat, Greely answers “no.”
“But that’s neither surprising nor particularly concerning,” he said. “It will be a while before any revised species is going to be present and able to be released into the environment.”
Greely and Sherkow recommend that the government leave de-extinction research to private companies and focus on drafting new regulations. Sherkow says the biggest legal and ethical challenge of de-extinction concerns our own long-lost ancestors.
“Bringing back a hominid raises the question, ‘Is it a person?’ If we bring back a mammoth or pigeon, there’s a very good existing ethical and legal framework for how to treat research animals. We don’t have very good ethical considerations of creating and keeping a person in a lab,” said Sherkow. “That’s a far cry from the type of de-extinction programs going on now, but it highlights the slippery slope problem that ethicists are famous for considering.”
J. S. Sherkow, H. T. Greely. What If Extinction Is Not Forever?Science, 2013; 340 (6128): 32 DOI:10.1126/science.1236965
Pesquisadores criam plano de ação para preservar o macaco muriqui. Confira a entrevista concedida por um dos responsáveis pelo projeto à CH On-line.
Por: Mariana Rocha, Ciência Hoje On-line
Publicado em 19/03/2013 | Atualizado em 20/03/2013
Maior primata não humano das Américas, o muriqui sofre em função do desmatamento desenfreado e da caça para consumo humano. (foto: Sinara Conessa/ Flickr – CC BY 2.0)
Menos de três mil exemplares. É tudo o que resta do macaco muriqui na Mata Atlântica. Forte candidato a mascote das Olimpíadas de 2016, o primata corre o risco de sumir das florestas por conta do desmatamento desenfreado e da caça para consumo humano. No intuito de reverter esse quadro, pesquisadores traçam estratégias para garantir a sobrevivência do muriqui.
Até 2020, o PAN Muriquis pretende retroceder em pelo menos um nível o risco de extinção do primata. A meta é fazer com que o muriqui-do-norte seja classificado como espécie em perigo e o do sul como vulnerável.
Candidato a mascote
De origem indígena, a palavra muriqui significa povo manso da floresta e descreve um animal de comportamento pacífico e solidário. O hábito de abraçar seus companheiros fez do macaco um forte candidato a representar os anfitriões brasileiros nas Olimpíadas de 2016.
Veja vídeo da campanha em favor do muriqui como mascote das Olimpíadas de 2016
A campanha para eleger o primata-mascote do evento conta com o apoio de instituições envolvidas no PAN Muriquis e discute a necessidade de preservá-lo.
Para saber mais sobre ações que buscam garantir a sobrevivência do macaco muriqui, a CH On-line conversou com Maurício Talebi, bioantropólogo da Universidade Federal de São Paulo-Diadema e coautor do PAN Muriquis.
Como e quando começou a elaboração do PAN Muriquis?
O projeto surgiu a partir do Plano de Sobrevivência das Espécies, uma ferramenta conceitual da Comissão de Sobrevivência das Espécies (CSE), uma divisão da União Internacional para Conservação da Natureza. A CSE desenvolve atividades para a conservação de diversas espécies ameaçadas no planeta. O documento que descreve as ações do PAN Muriqui começou a ser desenvolvido em 2003 pelo ICMBio e foi finalizado em 2010. Esse planejamento contou com a participação de diversos setores da sociedade, como governo, universidades e organizações não governamentais.
Quais são as principais atividades do homem que prejudicam os muriquis?
Diversas ameaças acometem populações selvagens de muriquis. As principais são a redução de hábitat, caça ilegal, baixos investimentos em vigilância e fiscalização, índices reduzidos de reprodução em cativeiro e a fragmentação do hábitat em ilhas de florestas.
O senhor coordena o monitoramento das populações de muriquis em vários locais – alguns deles já são estudados há 20 anos. Como essa medida auxilia no planejamento de ações para preservar os muriquis?
Pesquisas de longa duração são fundamentais por vários motivos. É importante obter informações sobre os animais em várias épocas do ano, conhecer seu comportamento frente a variações ambientais, entender como eles organizam sua vida cotidiana e como executam tarefas vitais para a sobrevivência. Obtemos, também, informações sobre quais variáveis ambientais devem ser levadas em conta durante ações de reflorestamento do hábitat desses primatas. Complementarmente, esses estudos propiciam o treinamento das futuras gerações de pesquisadores. Nosso grupo de pesquisa na Associação Pró-muriqui treinou mais de 200 estudantes de graduação e pós-graduação nos últimos dez anos.
Quais são as principais dificuldades na execução do PAN Muriquis?
O principal fator restritivo é a baixa disponibilidade de recursos financeiros. Atualmente, contamos com recursos humanos qualificados para a execução desses trabalhos, mas faltam recursos para financiar a mão de obra. Uma das metas é criar um fundo financeiro que viabilize a execução de todas as ações do plano. Lamentamos que, no Brasil, os fundos financeiros para a conservação de hábitat e de espécies ainda sejam praticamente inexistentes.
O senhor acredita que a candidatura do muriqui a mascote das Olimpíadas de 2016 pode auxiliar na preservação do primata?
Caso seja confirmado como mascote olímpico, o muriqui será conhecido globalmente e diversos setores da economia se interessarão por investir em um emblema tão poderoso quanto ele
Certamente sim. A maioria dos brasileiros desconhece que o maior primata (não humano) das Américas ocorre exclusivamente em nosso país. Caso seja confirmado como mascote olímpico, o muriqui será conhecido globalmente e diversos setores da economia se interessarão por investir em um emblema tão poderoso quanto ele. Assim, será possível conseguir recursos para os esforços que poucos brasileiros e estudantes estão fazendo para a pesquisa e conservação da espécie. A conscientização nos níveis nacional e internacional poderá gerar recursos para continuarmos trabalhando e assim contribuirmos para que o muriqui possa ser visto ao vivo e a cores em seu hábitat natural pelas futuras gerações.
Este texto foi atualizado para incluir a seguinte alteração:
Além de Rio de Janeiro e São Paulo, o muriqui-do-sul é encontrado no norte do Paraná. (20/03/2013)
Pesquisadores vão mapear os locais no Rio onde o maior primata das Américas e candidato a mascote das Olimpíadas de 2016 resiste.
Restam apenas 300 muriquis no estado do Rio de Janeiro. Eles são ameaçados pela diminuição das áreas de floresta, pela caça e por doenças transmitidas por outros bichos. Correndo risco de extinção, o maior primata das Américas e candidato a mascote dos Jogos Olímpicos de 2016 ainda padece com a falta generalizada de informações. Pesquisadores vão a campo a partir de janeiro e, num prazo de dois anos, pretendem concluir o primeiro censo populacional e o georreferenciamento do mono-carvoeiro, como também é conhecido esse macaco exclusivamente brasileiro.
Uma força-tarefa com 20 pesquisadores vai percorrer 350 mil hectares de florestas no estado. Além do censo e do georreferenciamento, eles pretendem coletar material genético, observar hábitos, costumes, analisar a dieta, identificar os vegetais que servem de alimento. Tudo isso para entender como se dá a interação dos muriquis com o meio ambiente. O trabalho, que custará em torno de R$ 5,5 milhões, vai servir de base científica para a criação de um plano estadual de proteção do macaco. Este documento deverá orientar desde a localização de novas áreas de preservação até a escolha das espécies de plantas usadas em programas de reflorestamento, sempre levando em consideração as preferências do animal.
A iniciativa faz parte de um conjunto de outras medidas, que incluem a campanha para a escolha da mascote dos Jogos Olímpicos, programas de educação ambiental e propagandas, que pretendem fazer do muriqui um animal conhecido e protegido. A meta é criar as condições que permitam aumento da população e, principalmente, a retirada da espécie da lista de extinção.
“O muriqui servirá de modelo para outros estudos científicos, com certeza. O boto-cinza, por exemplo, também receberá investimentos do estado para pesquisas científicas”, antecipa o secretário estadual do Ambiente, Carlos Minc.
O projeto, chamado oficialmente de “Conservação do Muriqui no Rio de Janeiro: levantamento da situação da espécie para a elaboração de um plano de ação estadual”, mobilizará especialistas da ONG Ecoatlântica, do Instituto Estadual do Ambiente (Inea), do Jardim Botânico, dos centros de primatologias do Brasil e do Rio de Janeiro, da Fiocruz, UFF e UFRJ, entre outras instituições.
Não vai ser fácil mapear os hábitos do muriqui. Ao menor barulho, ele foge, com uma agilidade tão grande que é praticamente impossível persegui-lo. A desenvoltura do animal na mata, que faz lembrar a agilidade de um atleta olímpico, é um dos argumentos para fazer do muriqui a mascote dos Jogos Olímpicos do Rio. Para observar de perto esse bicho arredio, os pesquisadores terão que escalar montanhas e se embrenharem em locais de difícil acesso.
A estratégia será dividir os especialistas em dez grupos. Nas primeiras incursões, eles se espalharão pelo estado em busca de relatos e de vestígios dos muriquis. Nos locais nos quais haja alguma probabilidade de encontrar o macaco, todos eles se reunirão para fazer a varredura para a contagem e coleta de material. Quando for possível, será realizada a captura, com o auxílio de armas que lançam tranquilizantes. Nestes casos, será feita a coleta de sangue e marcação do animal.
“O muriqui é um banco genético. A gente não tem ideia hoje de como está realmente a área verde. Por exemplo, quando fizermos o estudo das fezes e analisarmos as sementes encontradas, tenho quase certeza de que identificaremos espécies novas da flora da Mata Atlântica”, explica Paula Breves, veterinária e presidente da ONG Ecoatlântica. “O Jardim Botânico ficará responsável pela análise da flora. A UFF fará o georreferenciamento das informações, mapa de ameaças, do estudo botânico. Serão muitos mapas. O pessoal da Fiocruz vai desenvolver ações de educação ambiental. Por exemplo, como trabalhar com agricultores a prevenção das queimadas.”
Os especialistas pretendem comprovar, ainda, que o Rio é o único estado da federação no qual é possível encontrar não apenas o muriqui-do-sul (Brachyteles arachnoides), que também ocorre nas matas de São Paulo e extremo Norte do Paraná, como também o muriqui-do-norte (Brachyteles hypoxanthus).
“Nenhum outro estado tem a ocorrência das duas outras espécies do animal. Vamos tentar identificar o muriqui-do-norte em Itatiaia”, antecipa Daniela Pires e Albuquerque, técnica do Inea.
Há diferenças físicas entre os muriquis-do-norte, mais despigmentado, e do sul, aparentemente mais escuro. O estudo vai permitir uma comparação entre ambas as espécies, já que hoje é grande a desinformação em relação ao muriqui-do-sul. Tanto que uma das hipóteses a ser verificada é a de que não se tratam de duas espécies distintas, mas de uma subespécie.
“Temos grandes dúvidas se realmente são duas espécies distintas. Ou se um deles é uma subespécie. Vamos tentar entender isso, porque até então não há um estudo genético do muriqui-do-sul”, salienta Paula. “A pesquisa não vai gerar informações apenas sobre o muriqui. Qualquer animal que aparecer será identificado. Vamos usar câmeras para tirar fotos de qualquer bicho que se mover em uma determinada área. Até pássaros, o que for observado, anotaremos. Será um resultado secundário, que vai gerar informação importante para os parques.”
Os pesquisadores terão atenção especial em áreas nas quais haja indícios da presença do muriqui, sobretudo os parques estaduais do Desengano (que se espalha por Santa Maria Madalena, São Fidélis e Campos), dos Três Picos (Cachoeiras de Macacu, Friburgo, Teresópolis, Guapimirim e Silva Jardim), Cunhambebe (Mangaratiba, Rio Claro, Angra e Itaguaí); parques nacionais da Serra dos Órgãos (Teresópolis, Guapimirim, Magé e Petrópolis), de Itatiaia; Área de Proteção Ambiental do Cairuçu; e Reserva Ecológica da Juatinga (ambas em Paraty).
“Este estudo de campo é fundamental para a preservação do muriqui”, resume Paula. “Ainda temos relatos de caça, em Cunhambebe, há um mês. O legal é que já estamos recebendo telefones de proprietários de áreas com mata perguntando o que eles podem fazer para ajudar o muriqui, o que eles podem plantar. Isso é fantástico.”
Outro importante local para especialistas é o Centro de Primatologia do Rio de Janeiro (CPRJ), em Guapimirim. Mantido pelo Inea, há 22 espécies de primatas e 230 animais. Porém, faltam pesquisadores. Apenas o chefe da unidade, Alcides Pissinatti, desenvolve trabalhos científicos, dividindo seu tempo com a administração local. O CPRJ recebe estudiosos visitantes, mas sem vínculo com o local. Está prevista a contratação de um veterinário no próximo concurso público, diz o Inea.
“Com os muriquis em cativeiro, é possível conhecer a biologia e o comportamento da espécie. Temos seis animais, sendo que o último nasceu no dia 5 de fevereiro de 2012”, relata Pissinatti. “O ideal seria contar com cerca de 30 animais, que não podem ser da mesma família.”
Falta de espaço – Diferentemente do muriqui do Estado do Rio, que sofre com a falta de informações científicas, há cerca de 30 anos o muriqui-do-norte (Brachyteles hypoxanthus), sobretudo os que vivem na reserva Feliciano Miguel Abdala, em Caratinga, Leste de Minas Gerais, vêm sendo estudado pelo grupo de pesquisadores liderados pela primatóloga americana Karen Strier, pesquisadora e professora da Universidade de Wisconsin-Madison. Neste período, a população do macaco pulou de 60 para cerca de 200. Se, por um lado, o crescimento revela o sucesso das medidas de preservação; por outro, mostra os problemas de manter o muriqui confinado em pequenas unidades de conservação. Já falta espaço.
Esta situação está provocando mudanças de comportamento do muriqui. Os macacos ficam mais no chão, para terem outros locais além da copa das árvores. E procuram matas vizinhas, nem sempre seguras. Por este motivo, os ambientalistas querem criar um corredor ligando as unidades de conservação, com o objetivo de dar mais espaço para o maior primata das Américas se expandir.
“A mata tem seus limites. Crescendo a população, para onde vão os muriquis? É a mesma situação de uma família, quando ela cresce, precisa ir para uma casa maior ou encontrar outro espaço”, explica Karen.
Pesquisadores também constataram o aumento do número de machos. Para a especialista, esta pode ser uma forma de controle do número de macacos. Se a população crescesse muito, haveria disputa entre os animais. Neste momento, a tendência é que o índice de crescimento da população diminua.
“Ninguém entende como esse mecanismo funciona, mas, quando há excesso de população, nascem mais machos. A população cresce mais quando há mais fêmeas”, revela Karen. “Os muriquis são as espécies mais pacíficas do mundo. Eles têm um comportamento sem agressividade, não brigam. Os dentes caninos são muito pequenos. Entre eles, em vários aspectos, não tem hierarquia. Vivem numa sociedade igualitária.”
Em vez de brigar, os muriquis têm o hábito de abraçar uns aos outros. De acordo com a pesquisadora, esta é uma forma de cumprimentar o companheiro. E, se algo os assusta, eles se abraçam para se sentirem mais confiantes. Os machos não têm dominância sobre as fêmeas. Quando copulam, os machos da maioria das outras espécies ficam muito agressivos, há forte competição. No caso do muriqui, não há disputa entre machos, que compartilham as fêmeas. Pesquisadores relatam casos em que os machos esperam em fila a sua vez de ficar com a fêmea.
“Já vi cinco machos copulando no prazo de 11 minutos, sem briga alguma. Por isso os muriquis já foram comparados com os hippies: paz e amor”, conta Karen. “Eles nos mostram que é possível viver numa sociedade, até mesmo em densidade demográfica alta, sem brigas, sem disputas. E com muita tolerância, paciência e pacifismo. Hoje em dia me inspiro no comportamento do muriqui. Quando eu percebo após 30 anos de trabalho, que a espécie está crescendo e que o problema agora é procura novas áreas protegidas para esta população, fico mais esperançosa. Existe solução, é fácil. Os próprios macacos estão nos mostrando de que eles precisam: mais florestas preservadas e protegidas.”
One of the fundamental questions here is, is extinction a good thing? Is it “nature’s way?” And if it’s nature’s way, who in the world says anyone should go about changing nature’s way? If something was meant to go extinct, then who are we to screw around with it and bring it back? I don’t think it’s really nature’s way. I think that the extinction that we’ve seen since man is 99.9 percent caused by man.
RYAN PHELAN is the Executive Director of Revive and Restore, a project within The Long Now Foundation, with a mission to provide deep ecological enrichment through extinct species revival.
[ ED. NOTE: The following conversation took place at the seventh annual Science Foo Camp (SciFoo), hosted by Nature, Digital Science, O’Reilly Media, and Google, August 3 – 5, 2012, at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. Special thanks to Philip Campbell of Nature, Timo Hannay of Digital Science, Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media (“Foo” stands for “friends of O’Reilly”), and Chris DiBona and Cat Allman of Google. —JB ]
TO BRING BACK THE EXTINCT
[RYAN PHELAN:] The big question that I’m asking right now is: If we could bring back an extinct species, should we? Could we? Should we? How does it benefit society? How does it advance the science? And the truth is, we’re just at the beginning of trying to figure all this out. I got inspired really thinking about this through my involvement with George Church, and I’ve been on the periphery of an organization that he started called The Personal Genome Project. Over the last seven years I’ve been working primarily in personalized medicine, keeping my eye on the application of genomic medicine in different areas, and the growth of genomics and the shockingly drop in the sequencing price, and the cost of sequencing, and what that means to all different areas of science.
One thing led to another and we started talking with George about what it would mean if we could actually apply this towards the de-extinction of species. It turns out, of course, that in George’s lab he’s pioneering in all these methods. Right now, George’s approach of basically editing the genome starts to make the concept of bringing something back really plausible.
There are right now probably three different methods that are being used to contemplate bringing back species. The most traditional is what they refer to as back breeding, and we see that going on right now with the ancient cattle called aurochs. Basically, what they do is they start by taking the strains of cattle that are closest to the ancient aurochs and try to breed back in much the way they do with plant biology and hybridization.
The other area that is being done is in cloning, and the best example of that is with the Spanish Pyrenean ibex (a wild mountain goat). They actually were able to get some cellular matter from the last remaining ibex to clone. The Spanish scientists that did all that work feel that that cloning is completely viable. The truth is that when they did that ibex, it only lasted seven minutes, because of a particular lung frailty. That’s quite common in cloning anything. That is just something that cloning technology has to deal with, so he feels really confident if he had funding he could clone an extinct species now without a problem, and solve the lung issue.
The third concept is the one that we’re focused on right now: genome editing that George Church is pioneering. The way it would work (and again, I’m not the scientist here, George is better to explain it) the idea would be to take the most closely related extant living species and actually compare it genomically with the extinct species, and basically gene by gene match it, and edit it accordingly.
The species of choice right now that we’re looking at helping, aiding, and abetting, is the passenger pigeon, and the passenger pigeon, as you may know, is an iconic bird that had flocks in the billions just over a hundred years ago. A hundred and fifty years ago the passenger pigeon darkened the sky when it would pass. They say that these flocks were so thick in the sky that when they passed it could take a mile for a flock of birds to go by. They would darken the sky. It’s an amazing concept. We don’t have anything like that today. When that happened, it went from being the most prolific bird, and in just 30 years to being extinct. Why does that matter? Well, it matters for a lot of reasons. What was going on ecologically there? What did that bird bring to that whole eastern deciduous forest? God knows, it had a tremendous impact. I think we’re just now trying to figure out what would that impact might be like today if you were to reintroduce it.
The idea with the passenger pigeon is to take a closely related relative, which is the and-tailed pigeon, and sequence that genome. We’re sequencing that right now at Harvard, with an intern that we’re helping to fund, named Ben Novak. Right now we’re in the process of doing that work, and then they will basically edit the band-tail genome until the band-tail walks, and talks, and flies like a passenger pigeon. That’s how resurgence will occur.
We’re using the term “resurgence” because as you can imagine, there’s a lot of controversy over if you could bring back an extinct species, is it invasive? Would it become an invasive species? And is this a bad thing?
We’re in the process of starting a new organization. It’s called Revive and Restore. If we were to say it has a mission, it’s to help rethink extinction, to basically bring back extinct species if it’s the right thing to do. We’re contemplating the ethics involved in all this. This fall we’ll have a conference that we’re sponsoring in Washington DC, and I think it’s going to be thrilling. We’re bringing in 25 to 35 the scientists from all over the world that are actually doing extinction work— from the Korean team that’s working on the wooly mammoth, to the New Zealand and Australian teams that are de-extincting some species yet to be identified. They’re calling it the Lazarus Project. We don’t really know what it is. It could be the Moa. There are different theories about what it is. But, hopefully, in the fall we’ll learn more about that.
We’ll be talking with these scientists about the different technologies that they’re deploying, of which this genome hybridization technique that George is doing is going to be one and I’m sure there are others. We’ll be talking about the ethics of re-wilding. It’s one thing to actually bring back a species in the lab. It’s another to actually release it into the wild. And so we’ll be talking to scientists that are working in captive breeding, like the San Diego Zoo, with the California ondor. We’ll be talking with the frozen zoos that are doing this kind of banking of genetic material, and trying to figure out what kind of ethical framework we could create, so that when these scientists actually start to succeed in these fields we can somehow socialize this in the public discourse.
What I fear, quite honestly, is backlash that we’ve seen around genetically modified foods, that these organisms will be deemed genetically modified, which, of course, they are. This is genome engineering, and there may be way too much of a concern over what happens when they go into the wild.
One of the fundamental questions here is, is extinction a good thing? Is it “nature’s way”? And if it’s nature’s way, who in the world says anyone should go about changing nature’s way? If something was meant to go extinct, then who are we to screw around with it and bring it back? I don’t think it’s really nature’s way. I think that the extinction that we’ve seen since man is 99.9 percent caused by man.
I’m going to just take the passenger pigeon as an example, not because it’s my favorite bird, but because it’s so iconic. If we are the ones that are responsible for blasting it out of the sky, do we have a little bit of responsibility to think about bringing it back now that we have science that can easily allow for it? I say “easily,” but in the scheme of things, it’s still going to be a lot of heavy lifting to help make this happen.
What does all this mean to the average citizen? A good example of a reintroduction of a species is the peregrine falcon. The peregrine falcon had actually gone extinct as a species in the East. For many of us bird lovers, we love the peregrine falcon. We love seeing that bird fly and soar like it does. But, it was really only through captive breeding and a reintroduction of a sub-species from the Rocky Mountain area that we even have a peregrine now flourishing on the East Coast. Where the peregrine falcon really wants to nest is on bridges or on the sides of skyscrapers, and that bird is now evolving into a bird that is better adapted for working in an urban environment.
What’s going to happen is, even if we were to have a passenger pigeon, they’re not going to be in the flocks of the billions any more. Their impact with agriculture will be lessened, because of an obvious reduction in size. The truth is, if anything happened with that bird, we know it’s a tremendous game bird that people loved, and probably people would be shooting it for good meat, good game.
One question is: If you could actually bring back anything, would you bring back the California grizzly bear? A species that could eat people? Well, we recently were at the California Academy of Sciences, up front and personal with “Monarch”, the last California grizzly, a beautiful specimen there, and we were joking, and not really joking, saying, “Well, what if you could genome edit the California grizzly so that it didn’t like the taste of people?” That would be kind of interesting! Big megafauna, good for the land, but take the fear of it out for people. The truth is all of this could someday be possible.
Some people have said to us, “Well, are you one click away from “Jurassic Park” here?” The truth is, we’re not. “Jurassic Park” was a good movie, if that, but the science is not there at all today, and the reason for that is that we don’t have a close relative of the dinosaurs. We just don’t have it. The only reason that this concept of bringing back an extinct species works right now is if you can take those genomes and actually edit them based on either a close living relative, or you’ve got viable cell tissue, and we don’t have that. So right now that one is not a worry. But could it be someday? Sure.
The concept of Revive and Restore is an idea that might well blossom on the West Coast, here in Silicon Valley, but the truth is that the pressures that I think all these scientists who are working in de-extinction worldwide will feel will be around this whole question of: Who are you to play God and bring back an extinct species? Who are you to introduce something that could be “invasive”? Whether it’s in academia or it’s being done in industry, I think the science is going to be challenged around this really intriguing issue. That’s why I think an organization like Revive and Restore can actually help with the public discourse.
Somebody has to responsibly help the industry and academia think through these heady issues, and I think we’re going to start that dialogue this fall. But in the absence of it, what we’re going to see is the, “Oh, my God, we’re cloning this dangerous species again,” or we’re doing something horrific with our chicken to avoid the Avian flu. These things are going to happen.
Everyone wants to bring up the Neanderthals, and interestingly enough, anyone who’s working around the Neanderthal genome is reluctant to participate in our fall workshop, because they last thing they want is to be criticized or implicated in bringing back a Neanderthal. It’s just verboten.
I’ve been dealing with this whole genetic exceptionalism now for almost a decade with personalized medicine. There has always been a hypersensitivity to anything genetic and I’m looking forward to when we get over that.
The most interesting part of all this is going to be where the science goes, what we learn from doing this. It’s not going to be necessarily about bringing back something. It’s going to be about what we learn.
Just like everything that we know that’s really innovative in science, you never know the unintended benefits or what the outcomes are going to be. Specifically, around the study of extinct species we’re going to probably learn what made them vulnerable to extinction. The implications for endangered species are tremendous. We don’t really know why things go extinct. We can surmise, but right now we could actually start to look at the genetic level, at what some of these contributory factors were, and I think that’s really exciting.
THE REALITY CLUB:
Jennifer Jacquet: To the question of who is Ryan Phelan, or anybody else, to bring an extinct species back I would counter: who was anyone to make these animals extinct to begin with? An estimated 869 species have gone officially and, so far, irreversibly extinct just since the 16th century, and 290 more species are considered critically endangered and possibly extinct — and in almost all cases the finger points to humans. Many of these disappearances, like the Tasmanian tiger, the Great auk, and the Steller’s sea cow, were precipitated by a relatively small group that never asked their fellow earthlings, let alone future generations, if they wanted these animals gone forever. Should the entire group have been queried, my guess is that its majority, certainly in the case of the large, delicate, and vegetarian Steller’s sea cow, would have answered in a resounding “No.” (Admittedly the response might be different in the case of the saber-toothed cat, for instance, which went extinct not long after the invention of farming.) To be in favor of human-induced extinction seems one of the pillars of myopia.
But what is a genome edited songbird brought back from extinction to do against the poachers in the Mediterranean? What happens when the reconstituted baby Yangtze River dolphin (last seen in 2005) is released into still sullied Chinese waters? We already have captive-bred tigers, but that hasn’t stopped the habitat fragmentation and human takeover that has led to fewer than 3500 wild tigers (there were 100,000 in 1900) today in India. In other words, does this technical solution, which is elegant and scientifically interesting, as Phelan points out, distract from old boring problems? Or does it necessitate more work on pollution, habitat loss, and human behavior because the species that would be the usual victims now have a shot at immortality?