Monday, February 4, 2008

Not Quite An Even Trade

As we discover new species we’re also discovering ones we may be losing

From the BBC

A new species of mammal has been discovered in the mountains of Tanzania, scientists report.

The bizarre-looking creature, dubbed Rhynochocyon udzungwensis, is a type of giant elephant shrew, or sengi.

The cat-sized animal, which is reported in the Journal of Zoology, looks like a cross between a miniature antelope and a small anteater.

It has a grey face, a long, flexible snout, a bulky, amber body, a jet-black rump and it stands on spindly legs.

"This is one of the most exciting discoveries of my career," said Galen Rathbun, from the California Academy of Sciences, who helped to confirm the animal was new to science along with an international team of colleagues.
Despite its name, the creature, along with the 15 other known species of elephant shrew, is not actually related to shrews.

Dr Rathbun told the BBC News website: "Elephant shrews are only found in Africa. They were originally described as shrews because they superficially resembled shrews in Europe and in America."

In fact, the creature is more closely related to a group of African mammals, which includes elephants, sea cows, aardvarks and hyraxes, having shared a common ancestor with them about 100 million years ago.

"This is why they are also known as sengis," explained Dr Rathbun.

The new species was first caught on film in 2005 in Ndundulu Forest in Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains by a camera trap set by Francesco Rovero, from the Trento Museum of Natural Sciences in Italy.

Dr Rathbun said: "I got these images, and said to myself: 'Boy, these look strange'. But you can't describe something new based just on photographs, so in March 2006, we went back in and collected some specimens."

Flashy creatures

He told the BBC that it quickly became apparent that the creatures were new to science.

He said: "Elephant shrews are almost all distinguished by distinctive colour patterns, and this is especially true of the forest-dwelling giant sengis.
"They are all quite flashy - one species has a bright golden rump, another checkers along the rump - so when you have a colour pattern that just isn't similar to what is out there, you know it is fairly obvious that you have got something new.

"And this one, with its grey face and black rump, was pretty different."

As well as its distinctive colouring, the new species is also larger than other species of giant elephant shrew, weighing 700g (25oz) and measuring about 30cm (12in) in length.

It uses its long, flexible nose and tongue to flick up insects, such as termites, and it is most active in daylight.

Dr Rathbun added: "They are behaviourally fairly simple - they are not like a dog or cat you can interact with - but they are so bizarre-looking and a lot of their behavioural ecology is so unique and interesting, you kind of get wrapped up with them."

The scientists say there is still much to learn about the Rhynochocyon udzungwensis, but they hope further research will help to answer questions about how many of the animals exist, their range and how closely the animals live together.

Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains are biodiverse-rich. In addition to this new species, a number of other new animals have been found there, including the Udzungwa partridge, the Phillips' Congo shrew, and a new genus of monkey known as Kipunji as well as several reptiles and amphibians.

Dr Rathbun said it was vital the area and its inhabitants in this biodiversity "hotspot" were protected.

Good thing too that we’re discovering new species and animals because all our old ones may soon be extinct (y’know that whole “global warming” thing)

From the LA Times
The Bush administration is nearing a decision that would officially acknowledge the environmental damage of global warming, and name its first potential victim: the polar bear.

The Interior Department may act as soon as this week on its year-old proposal to make the polar bear the first species to be listed as threatened with extinction because of melting ice due to a warming planet.

Both sides agree that conservationists finally have the poster species they have sought to use the Endangered Species Act as a lever to force federal limits on the greenhouse gases linked to global warming, and possibly to battle smokestack industry projects far from the Arctic.

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," said Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. "And then there is the polar bear."

Even Frank Luntz, the political consultant who advised President Bush six years ago to focus on discrediting the science of global warming and refer to it as "climate change," has recognized the bear's potency.

Federal government scientists have presented increasingly compelling evidence that the top predator at the top of the world is doomed if the polar regions get warmer and sea ice continues to melt as forecast.

Two-thirds of the population could be gone by mid-century if current trends continue, experts say. Bears are beholden to sea ice, where they perch so they can pounce on unsuspecting seals, their primary food.

Images pop up regularly of scrawny, exhausted bears dragging themselves onto ice floes looking like bones covered in sodden white rugs. So do reports of struggling bears swimming wearily in open water. It's a shocking contrast to the pop-culture image: smiling animated bears guzzling Coca-Cola in commercials, fat lounging bears drawing crowds at zoos or fluffy Polyester stand-ins adorning children's bedrooms.

Sea ice has been receding for three decades, leaving ever-expanding gaps that have forced bears into long, sometimes fatal swims. An aerial survey in 2004 found dead bears floating in the open sea off Alaska's north coast.

Scientists believe the global population of 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears is relatively robust, although they don't know much about bears in Russia and other remote Arctic places.

A well-studied population, located in Canada's western Hudson Bay, has dropped by 22% since 1987. The ice there breaks up an average of three weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago, giving polar bears there less time to hunt and build up fat reserves that sustain them until hunting resumes in the fall. As bears have become thinner, female bears' reproductive rates and the survival rates of cubs have fallen.

Then last summer, an unusually big melt surprised most climate modelers, who had not forecast such a dramatic decline so soon. In September, the U.S. Geological Survey released a set of comprehensive studies that analyzed existing climate models and came up with a dire forecast: The habitat of two-thirds of the bears would disappear by 2050, as much of its range melted away for ever longer periods each summer.

Bears are expert hunters on sea ice, but so unsuccessful on land that they spend their summers fasting, losing more than 2 pounds a day, until the ice re-forms in the fall.

"If the fast gets to be much longer, they won't make it," said Steven C. Amstrup, a leading polar bear expert in Alaska and principal author of the Geological Survey reports. He and other scientists believe that the Arctic, which is warming much faster than anywhere else in the world, is changing too rapidly for the bears to adapt and find another source of food.

And if that were horrible and sad and heartbreaking enough

[Siegel] petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service, arguing that half of the world's penguin populations are marching toward extinction. Among the reasons: declining krill populations and the change of snow to rain.

The downy fuzz on penguin chicks, designed to insulate them from snow, becomes sodden in puddles of rain. Chicks are freezing to death.

The Fish and Wildlife Service made an initial finding last summer that the petition "presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing 10 species of penguins may be warranted.

This is so not okay and it’s no longer an “abstract issue”
Take action: write your Congressional Representative here.

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