A single fossil site containing the remains of dozens of individuals from a range of age groups is the earliest evidence that long-necked, four-legged dinosaurs lived in herds.
“This is a stunning new fossil site,” Steven Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh who wasn’t involved in the new study, wrote to me in an email. “This is convincing evidence that these plant-eating dinosaurs were social, and formed groups, and probably took at least some care of their eggs and young.”
A team led by Diego Pol from the Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio discovered the fossils in the Laguna Colorada Formation in Patagonia, Argentina. They belong to Mussaurus patagonicus—a long-necked sauropod from the Early Jurassic who stood on four legs. Over the past 15 years, the team has been conducting research and excavations at the fossil site, resulting in the discovery of more than 100 eggs and nearly 80 skeletons of Mussaurus.
The fossils, dispersed across an apparent breeding ground, spanned the entire dinosaur life cycle—from embryos still tucked away inside eggs through to fully grown adults. Incredibly, the fossils were clustered into age-specific groupings—a sign that these gigantic herbivores lived in herds. At an estimated age of 192-million-years-old, these Early Jurassic fossils predate prior evidence of this complex social behavior among dinosaurs by around 40 million years. Details of this finding were published today in Scientific Reports.
“The specimens we have found showed that herd behavior was present in long-necked dinosaurs since their early history,” explained Pol in an email. “These were social animals and we think this may be an important factor to explain their success.”
The shared Mussaurus breeding ground was located on the margins of a dry lake. The climate was warm, but evidence of drought points to a possible cause of death and a reason for why some of the dinosaurs were buried by wind-blown dust.
Most of the eggs were grouped into clusters containing anywhere from eight to 30 eggs and placed along a series of trenches suggestive of a common breeding ground. X-ray imaging was used to identify the embryos as belonging to Mussaurus.
Analysis of the fossilized skeletons revealed the surprising presence of age-specific groups, including a cluster of 11 juveniles (all younger than one-year-old), a group of nine adolescents, and two adults. The discovery of age-specific groupings is potential evidence that Mussaurus individuals lived in herds, that they did so across their entire lives, and that they preferred to hang out with members of a similar age. I asked Pol to explain the presence of age-specific groupings.
“Mussaurus was tiny when it was born—the entire skeleton fits in the palm of your hand—but adults were 1.5 tons, which is roughly the weight of a hippo,” he responded. “The daily motion patterns, speed, and daily foraging was probably very different in newborns, youngsters, and adults.” He said it’s common for animals of the same size group to hang out together and coordinate their activities. This is especially the case, said Pol, “for youngsters that are small, inexperienced, and therefore more vulnerable to attacks from predators.”
This complex social behavior may have emerged as a consequence of increasing body sizes, which started among the sauropods between 227 and 208 million years ago. These dinosaurs, in order to meet their tremendous energy requirements, had to forage over long distances, requiring a new set of adaptive social skills, according to the study.
Ryan Felice, an anatomist from University College London who wasn’t involved in the research, described it as a “really exciting discovery.” As he explained, paleontologists already knew that non-avian dinosaurs were good parents, as evidenced by clusters of nests belonging to the Cretaceous dinosaur Maiasaura—a name that literally means “good mother lizard.”
“From those types of discoveries, we could infer that dinosaurs had a reproductive strategy similar to crocodiles today—the mother protects the babies when they are very small, but once they can fend for themselves the family breaks apart and everyone goes their separate ways,” Felice said. “What makes this discovery so exciting is that there are [hatchlings], juveniles, and fully grown adults of Mussaurus all in the same place. This means that multifamily groups got together not just for breeding and nesting but that they potentially formed life-long herds, more like today’s elephants or wildebeests.”
What makes the new discovery especially important is that Mussaurus is a fairly ancient dinosaur species, “so the authors have hypothesised that maybe social groups and parental care were things that evolved early in dinosaur history,” said Felice.
Brusatte offered a similar take.
“Because these are Early Jurassic dinosaurs, from the early stages of dinosaur history, it is the oldest record, from that first stage of dinosaur history, it is the oldest record of dinosaur social lives,” he explained. “It seems dinosaurs were highly social animals from the very beginning, which may have factored into their stupendous evolutionary success.”
Looking ahead, Pol and his colleagues will continue to inspect the site in hopes of acquiring a better understanding of the nests and how they were structured, along with searching for evidence of predators and the plants consumed by Mussaurus.
NAIROBI (Reuters) – One of the world’s last two northern white rhinos, a mother and her daughter, is being retired from a breeding programme aimed at saving the species from extinction, scientists said on Thursday.
Najin, 32, is the mother of Fatu who is now the only donor left in the programme, which aims to implant artificially developed embryos into another more abundant species of rhino in Kenya.
There are no known living males and neither of the two remaining northern white rhinos can carry a calf to term.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-6-0/html/r-sf-flx.html
Northern white rhinos, which are actually grey, used to roam freely in several countries in east and central Africa, but their numbers fell sharply due to widespread poaching for their horns.
A Biorescue team led by researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany has been racing against time to save the world’s most endangered mammal.
“The team has reached the decision to retire the older of the two remaining females, 32-year-old Najin, as a donor of egg cells,” Biorescue said in a statement, citing ethical considerations.
Najin’s advanced age, and signs of illness, were also taken into account, they said.
Scientists hope to implant embryos made from the rhinos’ egg cells and frozen sperm from deceased males into surrogate mothers.
“We have been very successful with Fatu… So far we have 12 pure northern white rhino embryos,” David Ndeereh, the acting deputy director for research at the Wildlife Research and Training Institute, a Kenyan state agency, told Reuters.
“We are very optimistic that the project will succeed.”
The team hopes to be able to deliver its first northern white rhino calf in three years and a wider population in the next two decades.
(Reporting by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Nick Macfie)
See Shatner’s emotional remarks after landing 02:26A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Wonder Theory newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here. Tell us what you’d like to see more of in the newsletter at email@example.com.
The “Star Trek” actor became the oldest person to ever travel to space. The trip was a blisteringly brief 10 minutes aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft, but Shatner was incredibly moved by the “profound experience” of seeing the “life and nurturing” of Earth.
Current-day scientists are living up to the words spoken by Shatner in the show’s introduction half a century ago: exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life.
This illustration shows a Jupiter-like planet orbiting a dead white dwarf star.Our corner of the universe may be in for a rude awakening, but we’ve got 5 billion years to prepare.Researchers observed a giant planet orbiting a white dwarf, or the remains of a dead star, at the heart of our galaxy. It showed what may happen in our solar system when the sun dies.While Saturn and Jupiter will likely survive the violent evolution, it’s a different story for the other planets.
With sea levels steadily on the rise, 50 major coastal cities need to adapt in unprecedented ways to stay afloat, according to new research.The results show striking visual contrasts between the world as we know it today and our underwater future, if the planet warms to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels.Use our visual sliders to compare how California’s Santa Monica pier and London’s Buckingham Palace would appear if global warming and sea level rise can’t be stopped. The sight of such iconic places submerged is startling.
Italian photographer Stefano Unterthiner captured this image of two reindeer battling for control.Stunning photos revealing our wonderfully wild world have won in 19 categories of the 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.Photographers from 95 countries submitted a record-breaking 50,000 entries, with shots including a gorilla enjoying a rain shower and a tent spider’s web as an auto-rickshaw passed by in India (which was captured by a 10-year-old).And enjoy a peek at the cuter side of wild animals with this litter of adorable newborn cheetahs.Five cubs were born to cheetah mom Rosie Tuesday morning at Virginia’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. You can watch the feline family via the Cheetah Cub Cam, which features live footage of the den. If you listen closely, you can hear the cubs chirping.
Across the universe
An outburst of cosmic explosions has been traced back to a mysterious repeating fast radio burst in space called FRB 121102. Researchers detected 1,652 bursts over the course of 47 days.Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are millisecond-long emissions of radio waves in space. This one has been traced to a small dwarf galaxy over 3 billion light-years away.Scientists have yet to determine the actual cause of the flashes, and, naturally, everyone has a theory (greetings, aliens!). But researchers suspect these celestial phenomena as the more likely cause.
We are family
This aerial photo shows the Tel Yavne excavation site, where a massive wine production facility was discovered.As humans, it appears we have a long history of indulgences.Archaeologists uncovered a 1,500-year-old wine factory in the Israeli town of Yavne after toiling away at the site for two years. A famous brand of wine from the ancient world was likely made at the world’s largest wine factory from the Byzantine period, they said.Meanwhile, researchers studying fossilized poop discovered that Iron Age Europeans enjoyed blue cheese and beer in their diet.And charred seeds found in a hearth once belonging to hunter-gatherers in Utah suggest humans used tobacco over 12,000 years ago — 9,000 years earlier than previously thought.
— These carved stone statues were used as garden ornaments — until it was revealed that they were Egyptian relics dating back thousands of years.Like what you’ve read? Oh, but there’s more. Sign up here to receive in your inbox the next edition of Wonder Theory, brought to you by CNN Space and Science writer Ashley Strickland, who finds wonder in planets beyond our solar system and discoveries from the ancient world.
The world’s wildlife populations have plummeted by more than two-thirds since 1970 – and there are no signs that this downward trend is slowing. The first phase of Cop15 talks in Kunming this week will lay the groundwork for governments to draw up a global agreement next year to halt the loss of nature. If they are to succeed, they will need to tackle what the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) has identified as the five key drivers of biodiversity loss: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of natural resources; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species.
Changes in land and sea use
Clearing the US prairies: ‘On a par with tropical deforestation’
“It’s hidden destruction. We’re still losing grasslands in the US at a rate of half a million acres a year or more.”
Tyler Lark, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, knows what he is talking about. Lark and a team of researchers used satellite data to map the expansion and abandonment of land across the US and discovered that 4m hectares (10m acres) had been destroyed between 2008 and 2016.
North America’s grasslands – often referred to as prairies – are a case in point. In the US, about half have been converted since European settlement, and the most fertile land is already being used for agriculture. Areas converted more recently are sub-prime agricultural land, with 70% of yields lower than the national average, which means a lot of biodiversity is being lost for diminishing returns.
“Our findings demonstrate a pervasive pattern of encroachment into areas that are increasingly marginal for production but highly significant for wildlife,” Lark and his team wrote in the paper, published in Nature Communications.
Boggier areas of land, or those with uneven terrain, were traditionally left as grassland, but in the past few decades, this marginal land has also been converted. In the US, 88% of cropland expansion takes place on grassland, and much of this is happening in the Great Plains – known as America’s breadbasket – which used to be the most extensive grassland in the world.Q&A
What are the five biggest threats to biodiversity?
Hotspots for this expansion have included wildlife-rich grasslands in the “prairie pothole” region which stretches between Iowa, Dakota, Montana and southern Canada and is home to more than 50% of North American migratory waterfowl, as well as 96 species of songbird. This cropland expansion has wiped out about 138,000 nesting habitats for waterfowl, researchers estimate.
These grasslands are also a rich habitat for the monarch butterfly – a flagship species for pollinator conservation and a key indicator of overall insect biodiversity. More than 200m milkweed plants, the caterpillar’s only food source, were probably destroyed by cropland expansion, making it one of the leading causes for the monarch’s national decline.
The extent of conversion of grassland in the US makes it a larger emission source than the destruction of the Brazilian Cerrado, according to research from 2019. About 90% of emissions from grassland conversion comes from carbon lost in the soil, which is released when the grassland is ploughed up.
The rate of clearing that we’re seeing on these grasslands is on par with things like tropical deforestation, but it often receives far less attention
Tyler Lark, scientist
“The rate of clearing that we’re seeing on these grasslands is on par with things like tropical deforestation, but it often receives far less attention,” says Lark.Advertisementhttps://3ebf17f3fa57f85f9342d99427268f34.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Food crop production globally has increased by about 300% since 1970, despite the negative environmental impacts.
Reducing food waste and eating less meat would help cut the amount of land needed for farming, while researchers say improved management of existing croplands and utilising what is already farmed as best as possible would reduce further expansion.
Lark concludes: “I think there’s a huge opportunity to re-envision our landscapes so that they’re not only providing incredible food production but also mitigating climate change and helping reduce the impacts of the biodiversity crisis by increasing habitats on agricultural land.” PW
From hunting, fishing and logging to the extraction of oil, gas, coal and water, humanity’s insatiable appetite for the planet’s resources has devastated large parts of the natural world.
While the impacts of many of these actions can often be seen, unsustainable groundwater extraction could be driving a hidden crisis below our feet, experts have warned, wiping out freshwater biodiversity, threatening global food security and causing rivers to run dry.
The consequences for freshwater ecosystems – among the most degraded on the planet – are under-researched as studies have focused on the depletion of groundwater for agriculture.
But a growing body of research indicates that pumping the world’s most extracted resource – water – is causing significant damage to the planet’s ecosystems. A 2017 study of the Ogallala aquifer – an enormous water source underneath eight states in the US Great Plains – found that more than half a century of pumping has caused streams to run dry and a collapse in large fish populations. In 2019, another study estimated that by 2050 between 42% and 79% of watersheds that pump groundwater globally could pass ecological tipping points, without better management.
“The difficulty with groundwater is that people don’t see itand they don’t understand the fragility of it,” says James Dalton, director of the global water programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “Groundwater can be the largest – and sometimes the sole – source in certain types of terrestrial habitats.
Some of the groundwater reserves are huge, so there is time to fix this
James Dalton, IUCN
“Uganda is luxuriantly green, even during the dry season, but that’s because a lot of it is irrigated with shallow groundwater for agriculture and the ecosystems are reliant on tapping into it.”Advertisementhttps://3ebf17f3fa57f85f9342d99427268f34.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
According to UPGro (Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor), a research programme looking into the management of groundwater in sub-Saharan Africa, 73 of the 98 operational water supply systems in Uganda are dependent on water from below ground. The country shares two transboundary aquifers: the Nile and Lake Victoria basins. At least 592 aquifers are shared across borders around the world.
“Some of the groundwater reserves are huge, so there is time to fix this,” says Dalton. “It’s just there’s no attention to it.”
Inge de Graaf, a hydrologist at Wageningen University, who led the 2019 study into watershed levels, found between 15% to 21% had already passed ecological tipping points, adding that once the effects had become clear for rivers, it was often too late.
“Groundwater is slow because it has to flow through rocks. If you extract water today, it will impact the stream flow maybe in the next five years, in the next 10 years, or in the next decades,” she says. “I think the results of this research and related studies are pretty scary.”
In April, the largest ever assessment of global groundwater wells by researchers from University of California, Santa Barbara, found that up to one in five were at risk of running dry. Scott Jasechko, a hydrologist and lead author on the paper, says that the study focuses on the consequences for humans and more research is needed on biodiversity.
“Millions of wells around the world could run dry with even modest declines in groundwater levels. And that, of course, has cascading implications for livelihoods and access to reliable and convenient water for individuals and ecosystems,” he says. PG
The climate crisis
Climate and biodiversity: ‘Solve both or solve neither’
In 2019, the European heatwave brought 43C heat to Montpellier in France. Great tit chicks in 30 nest boxes starved to death, probably because it was too hot for their parents to catch the food they needed, according to one researcher. Two years later, and 2021’s heatwave appears to have set a European record, pushing temperatures to 48.8C in Sicily in August. Meanwhile, wildfires and heatwaves are stripping the planet of life.
Until now, the destruction of habitats and extraction of resources has had a more significant impact on biodiversity than the climate crisis. This is likely to change over the coming decades as the climate crisis dismantles ecosystems in unpredictable and dramatic ways, according to a review paper published by the Royal Society.
The level of interconnectedness between the climate change and biodiversity crises should not be underestimated
Dr Nathalie Pettorelli
“There are many aspects of ecosystem science where we will not know enough in sufficient time,” the paper says. “Ecosystems are changing so rapidly in response to global change drivers that our research and modelling frameworks are overtaken by empirical, system-altering changes.”
The calls for biodiversity and the climate crisis to be tackled in tandem are growing. “It is clear that we cannot solve [the global biodiversity and climate crises] in isolation – we either solve both or we solve neither,” says Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s climate and environment minister, with the launch in June of a report produced by the world’s leading biodiversity and climate experts. Zoological Society of London senior research fellow Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, who led a study on the subject published in the Journal of Applied Ecology in September, says: “The level of interconnectedness between the climate change and biodiversity crises is high and should not be underestimated. This is not just about climate change impacting biodiversity; it is also about the loss of biodiversity deepening the climate crisis.”
Our biosphere – the thin film of life on the surface of our planet – is being destabilised by temperature change. On land, rains are altering, extreme weather events are more common, and ecosystems more flammable. Associated changes, including flooding, sea level rise, droughts and storms, are having hugely damaging impacts on biodiversity and its ability to support us.
In the ocean, heatwaves and acidification are stressing organisms and ecosystems already under pressure due to other human activities, such as overfishing and habitat fragmentation.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) landmark report showed that extreme heatwaves that would usually happen every 50 years are already happening every decade. If warming is kept to 1.5C these will happen approximately every five years.
The distributions of almost half (47%) of land-based flightless mammals and almost a quarter of threatened birds, may already have been negatively affected by the climate crisis, the IPBES warns. Five per cent of species are at risk of extinction from 2C warming, climbing to 16% with a 4.3C rise.
Connected, diverse and extensive ecosystems can help stabilise the climate and will have a better chance of thriving in a world permanently altered by rising emissions, say experts. And, as the Royal Society paper says: “Rather than being framed as a victim of climate change, biodiversity can be seen as a key ally in dealing with climate change.” PW
The hidden threat of nitrogen: ‘Slowly eating away at biodiversity’
On the west coast of Scotland, fragments of an ancient rainforest that once stretched along the Atlantic coast of Britain cling on. Its rare mosses, lichens and fungi are perfectly suited to the mild temperatures and steady supply of rainfall, covering the crags, gorges and bark of native woodland. But nitrogen pollution, an invisible menace, threatens the survival of the remaining 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of Scottish rainforest, along with invasive rhododendron, conifer plantations and deer.
While marine plastic pollution in particular has increased tenfold since 1980 – affecting 44% of seabirds – air, water and soil pollution are all on the rise in some areas. This has led to pollution being singled out as the fourth biggest driver of biodiversity loss.
“The temperate rainforest is far from the sources of pollution, yet because it’s so rainy, we’re getting a kind of acid rain effect,” says Jenny Hawley, policy manager at Plantlife, which has called nitrogen pollution in the air “the elephant in the room” of nature conservation. “The nitrogen-rich rain that’s coming down and depositing nitrogen into those habitats is making it impossible for the lichen, fungi, mosses and wildflowers to survive.”
Environmental destruction caused by nitrogen pollution is not limited to the Scottish rainforest. Algal blooms around the world are often caused by runoff from farming, resulting in vast dead zones in oceans and lakes that kill scores of fish and devastate ecosystems. Nitrogen-rich rainwater degrades the ability of peatlands to sequester carbon, the protection of which is a stated climate goal of several governments. Wildflowers adapted to low-nitrogen soils are squeezed out by aggressive nettles and cow parsley, making them less diverse.
About 80% of nitrogen used by humans – through food production, transport, energy and industrial and wastewater processes – is wasted and enters the environment as pollution.
In terms of a nitrogen footprint, the most intensive thing that you can eat is meat
Kevin Hicks, Stockholm Environment InstituteAdvertisement
“Nitrogen pollution might not result in huge floods and apocalyptic droughts but we are slowly eating away at biodiversity as we put more and more nitrogen in ecosystems,” says Carly Stevens, a plant ecologist at Lancaster University. “Across the UK, we have shown that habitats that have lots of nitrogen have fewer species in them. We have shown it across Europe. We have shown it across the US. Now we’re showing it in China. We’re creating more and more damage all the time.”
To decrease the amount of nitrogen pollution causing biodiversity loss, governments will commit to halving nutrient runoff by 2030 as part of an agreement for nature currently being negotiated in Kunming. Halting the waste of vast amounts of nitrogen fertiliser in agriculture is a key part of meeting the target, says Kevin Hicks, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute centre at York.
“One of the biggest problems is the flow of nitrogen from farming into watercourses,” Hicks says. “In terms of a nitrogen footprint, the most intensive thing that you can eat is meat. The more meat you eat, the more nitrogen you’re putting into the environment.”
Mark Sutton, a professor at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, says reducing nitrogen pollution also makes economic sense.
“Nitrogen in the atmosphere is 78% of every breath we take. It does nothing, it’s very stable and makes the sky blue. Then there are all these other nitrogen compounds: ammonia, nitrates, nitrous oxide. They create air and water pollution,” he says. He argues that if you price every kilo of nitrogen at $1 (an estimated fertiliser price), and multiply it by the amount of nitrogen pollution lost in the world – 200bn tonnes – it amounts to $200bn (£147bn) every year.
“The goal to cut nitrogen waste in half would save you $100bn,” he says. “I think $100bn a year is a worthwhile saving.” PG
The problem for islands: ‘We have to be very careful’
The situation on the remote island, 2,600km from South Africa, is a grisly warning of the consequences of the human-driven impacts of invasive species on biodiversity. An RSPB-led operation to eradicate mice from the British overseas territory has been completed, using poison to help save the critically endangered albatross and other bird species from injuries they sustain from the rodents. It will be two years before researchers can confirm whether or not the plan has worked. But some conservationists want to explore another controversial option whose application is most advanced in the eradication of malaria: gene drives.
Instead of large-scale trapping or poisoning operations, which have limited effectiveness and can harm other species, gene drives involve introducing genetic code into an invasive population that would make them infertile or all one gender over successive generations. The method has so far been used only in a laboratory setting but at September’s IUCN congress in Marseille, members backed a motion to develop a policy on researching its application and other uses of synthetic biology for conservation.
“If a gene drive were proven to be effective and there were safety mechanisms to limit its deployment, you would introduce multiple individuals on an island whose genes would be inherited by other individuals in the population,” says David Will, an innovation programme manager with Island Conservation, a non-profit dedicated to preventing extinctions by removing invasive species from islands. “Eventually, you would have either an entirely all male or entirely all female population and they would no longer be able to reproduce.”Advertisement
Nearly one-fifth of the Earth’s surface is at risk of plant and animal invasions and although the problem is worldwide, such as feral pigs wreaking havoc in the southern United States and lionfish in the Mediterranean, islands are often worst affected. The global scale of the issue will be revealed in a UN scientific assessment in 2023.
“We have to be very careful,” says Austin Burt, a professor of evolutionary genetics at Imperial College London, who researches how gene drives can be used to eradicate malaria in mosquito populations. “If you’re going after mice, for example, and you’re targeting mice on an island, you’d need to make sure that none of those modified mice got off the island to cause harm to the mainland population.”
In July, scientists announced they had successfully wiped out a population of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes using a gene drive in a laboratory setting, raising the prospect of self-destructing mosquitoes being released into the wild in the next decade.
Kent Redford, chair of the IUCN Task Force on Synthetic Biology who led an assessment of the use of synthetic biology in conservation, said there are clear risks and opportunities in the field but further research is necessary.
“None of these genetic tools are ever going to be a panacea. Ever. Nor do I think they will ever replace the existing tools,” Redford says, adding: “There is a hope – and I stress hope – that engineered gene drives have the potential to effectively decrease the population sizes of alien invasive species with very limited knock-on effects on other species.” PG
This article was amended on 15 October 2021. Text was changed to reflect that 70% of the recently converted land area has lower yields, rather than total yields being “70% lower than the national average”, as an earlier version said.
Giraffe-hide covered pillows for sale at The African Market Trophy Room Collection in Florida, March 2018. The HSUS206SHARES
Giraffes, with their iconic long necks and unmistakable, beautifully patterned coats, are facing extinction. There are currently fewer than 69,000 mature individuals remaining in the wild today. And the threats of habitat loss and illegal hunting for bushmeat are only exacerbated by demand for giraffe trophies and other products traded internationally.
The U.S. is partly to blame. Americans are importing giraffe body parts from trophy hunts, as well as giraffe bones, skins and other parts for commercial trade at alarming rates. There are currently no federal protections to stop them.
While this was a necessary first step, the agency still has to make a final determination on whether to propose endangered species protections for giraffes. By law, that decision was due in April 2018—12 months after we filed our petition—yet the agency continues to drag its feet. It still hasn’t afforded giraffes long overdue endangered species protections. Today’s lawsuit challenges the FWS’s failure to take timely action on giraffes.
While giraffes have thankfully received some international protections in recent years, those protections are proving insufficient on their own. After significant work by HSI, HSUS and others, giraffes were listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as CITES, in 2019. This listing put in place monitoring and regulations on the international trade in giraffes and products derived from them. However, several major African countries that are exporters of giraffes objected, saying they won’t implement the export permits and safeguards required by the CITES listing. Sadly, we know this CITES listing has done little to address the U.S.’s contribution to giraffes’ perilous position.
This underscores the urgent need for the FWS to take action to ensure that American imports of giraffe trophies and international and domestic trade in giraffes does not continue to threaten the survival of this iconic species. Listing giraffes as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act will showcase the U.S. as a leader in the conservation of giraffes, further draw attention to this long-neglected species and make additional conservation funding available. The listing will put in place crucial safeguards for the species that will help balance the lack of adequate protections in many of the countries where they roam. An “endangered” listing would require the FWS to scrutinize imports and ensure that they enhance the survival of the species. The listing will also regulate interstate trade in giraffe parts, which will help to crack down on the gruesome flow of products found in our investigation.
Giraffes urgently need our help. America’s role in pushing this species toward extinction must stop. We are suing the Service today in order to force action on this critical issue before it is too late to save this remarkable species.
This probably won’t happen for another billion years or so. But when the change comes, it’s going to happen fairly rapidly, the study from earlier this year suggests.
This shift will take the planet back to something like the state it was in before what’s known as the Great Oxidation Event (GOE) around 2.4 billion years ago.
What’s more, the researchers behind the new study say that atmospheric oxygen is unlikely to be a permanent feature of habitable worlds in general, which has implications for our efforts to detect signs of life further out in the Universe.
“The model projects that a deoxygenation of the atmosphere, with atmospheric O2 dropping sharply to levels reminiscent of the Archaean Earth, will most probably be triggered before the inception of moist greenhouse conditions in Earth’s climate system and before the extensive loss of surface water from the atmosphere,” wrote the researchers in their published paper.
At that point it’ll be the end of the road for human beings and most other life forms that rely on oxygen to get through the day, so let’s hope we figure out how to get off the planet at some point within the next billion years.
To reach their conclusions, the researchers ran detailed models of Earth’s biosphere, factoring in changes in the brightness of the Sun and the corresponding drop in carbon dioxide levels, as the gas gets broken down by increasing levels of heat. Less carbon dioxide means fewer photosynthesizing organisms such as plants, which would result in less oxygen.
Scientists have previously predicted that increased radiation from the Sun would wipe ocean waters off the face of our planet within about 2 billion years, but the new model – based on an average of just under 400,000 simulations – says the reduction in oxygen is going to kill off life first.
“The drop in oxygen is very, very extreme,” Earth scientist Chris Reinhard, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, told New Scientist earlier this year. “We’re talking around a million times less oxygen than there is today.”
What makes the study particularly relevant to the present day is our search for habitable planets outside of the Solar System.
Increasingly powerful telescopes are coming online, and scientists want to be able to know what they should be looking for in the reams of data these instruments are collecting.
It’s possible that we need to be hunting for other biosignatures besides oxygen to have the best chance of spotting life, the researchers say. Their study is part of the NASA NExSS (Nexus for Exoplanet System Science) project, which is investigating the habitability of planets other than our own.
According to the calculations run by Reinhard and environmental scientist Kazumi Ozaki, from Toho University in Japan, the oxygen-rich habitable history of Earth could end up lasting for just 20-30 percent of the planet’s lifespan as a whole – and microbial life will carry on existing long after we are gone.
“The atmosphere after the great deoxygenation is characterized by an elevated methane, low-levels of CO2, and no ozone layer,” said Ozaki. “The Earth system will probably be a world of anaerobic life forms.”
By: Chris ContePosted at 9:31 AM, Sep 21, 2021 and last updated 8:39 AM, Sep 21, 2021
The skyline of Boston is still in view when Colin Greeley catches his first glimpse of water rising off the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. A family of whales is about to breach the surface to take a breath before diving back into the sea.
Greeley is leading a whale-watching expedition for City Cruises into Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a feeding ground famous for its sightings of whales and dolphins from up and down the East Coast.
On this day, Greeley was hoping to spot the elusive and endangered North Atlantic right whale.
“We get to see thousands of people every summer, so we have a chance to educate people about why it’s important to protect as many species as possible,” Greeley said.
There are an estimated 366 North Atlantic right whales left on the entire planet. Climate change is making it harder for them to find food. But many experts believe this endangered species’ biggest enemy is fishing gear.
Hamilton often has a hard time looking through some of the pictures he’s taken over the years of right whales who are struggling to survive after becoming caught in fishing lines.
“Sometimes I look at my screen and I say, ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s hard to see,” Hamilton said.
With tens of millions of fishing lines sitting in waterways throughout the Atlantic Ocean, it’s easy for right whales to become caught. Once they do become entangled, this 100-ton mammal uses the entire force of its body to try and break free. That force often causes deep and sometimes fatal gashes in the whale’s body.
“Since 2017, there have been 49 right whales killed or seriously injured,” Hamilton noted.
But deep below the surface of the ocean, there are efforts underway to keep those right whales from becoming entangled.
When a fisherman is ready to retrieve that lobster trap, an iPhone application tells it to deploy a buoy to the surface.
“It’s becoming more popular, people are seeing it can work and it does work,” Morris said.
If these traps could reduce those numbers even by just a fraction, it could mean one less entanglement. For lobster fishermen though, overhauling their fishing gear is not a simple or cheap task.
Michael Lane has been fishing the waters off Cohasset, Massachusetts since he was a kid. Lane is part of a pilot program working to test out the so-called “ropeless” lobster traps. But the traps are likely still years away from receiving federal approval.
“We don’t want to see them go extinct, so it’s either stay home and cry about it or figure out a solution,” Lane said.
This lifelong fisherman though barely makes enough money to pay the bills. Mandating these traps be used all over the country will likely take federal grants. Each apparatus costs around $3,700, compared to the few hundred dollars a typical lobster trap costs.
Money most fishermen just don’t have.
“How do you invest in a business when you don’t know if you can fish from year to year? It’s hard and harder to make those capital investments,” Lane said.
But the investment is better than the alternative. Officials from Massachusetts to Maine often close fishing grounds when right whales are spotted. No fishing means no income for people like Michael Lane.
“What am I going to do if they shut this down? Where am I gonna go? I have a high school diploma for Christ’s sake,” Lane said.
Saving these whales is a complex, difficult task. But once they’re gone, that’s it for the North Atlantic right whale.
The Morrison government has proposed scrapping recovery plans for almost 200 endangered species and habitats including the Tasmanian devil, the whale shark and the endangered glossy-black cockatoo populations on Kangaroo Island, one of the worst-affected areas in the 2019-20 bushfires.
Environment groups have decried the move as a backward step less than 12 months after a statutory review of Australia’s national environmental laws found successive governments had failed to protect the country’s unique wildlife.
Recovery plans are documents that set out actions needed to stop the extinction of species. Ministers are legally bound not to make decisions that are inconsistent with them.
Since changes were made to legislation in 2007 they have been increasingly replaced with what’s known as a conservation advice, a similar document but which does not have the same legal force under national law.
Guardian Australia has previously reported that fewer than 40% of listed threatened species have a recovery plan. A further 10% of all those listed have been identified as requiring a recovery plan but those plans haven’t been developed or are unfinished. Even more plans are out of date.Advertisement
The federal environment department revealed last year it had not finalised a single recovery plan for threatened species in nearly 18 months and more than 170 were overdue. All listed species, including those requiring a recovery plan, have a conservation advice.
This year, the government asked the independent threatened species scientific committee (TSSC), which advises it on endangered wildlife, to review recovery plans for 914 threatened species and habitats to determine which should continue to have a recovery plan and which could just have a conservation advice.
The committee provided advice that 676 no longer required a recovery plan.
The government is responding to the committee’s recommendations in stages and on Friday published for public consultation the first tranche of 157 animals and plants and 28 ecological communities for which it proposes scrapping recovery plans.
They include the vulnerable green and golden bell frog and the spectacled flying-fox, which had its threat status upgraded to endangered after heatwaves in 2019.
Among the ecological communities is the critically endangered Cumberland plain woodland, one of the most under pressure woodlands in the country as a result of urban development in western Sydney.
It has been identified as requiring a recovery plan since 2009 but no plan has ever been finalised.
Labor’s environment spokeswoman, Terri Butler, said on Friday “Scott Morrison has given up on saving iconic Australian species.”Advertisementhttps://a4ff15b062a5d114404e89400e341bab.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
“The 2019-20 bushfires killed or displaced 3 billion animals and his response now is to cut 157 recovery plans.”
The Greens’ environment spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, said the government was seeking to rewrite its obligations and was “putting up the white flag on saving our wildlife and native plants”.
“Downgrading the level of obligation on the minister is downgrading the protection of our native animals and species,” she said.
“This is all about letting the minister off the hook – the Morrison government has dropped the ball on protecting our environment and wildlife and now they want to change the rules and responsibilities.”
Helene Marsh, the chair of the threatened species scientific committee, told Guardian Australia that the species and habitats the committee had assessed were those for which recovery plans had expired, were due to expire or were overdue.
She said the committee had carefully considered every plant, animal and habitat and determined that overall about 13% of the country’s wildlife required a recovery plan.
Marsh said recovery planning had been ineffective, with plans often unfunded and actions not implemented.
She said a conservation advice could be as detailed and useful a tool, could be developed more quickly, and rapidly updated after an emergency such as the bushfire disaster.
“We’ve looked at whether a recovery plan will make a difference or not and we’ve looked at every single one in great detail,” she said. “A conservation advice can be updated and in these times of fires and climate change is a much more nimble instrument.”
Marsh told Guardian Australia that the most important reforms the government could make for Australia’s wildlife would be to implement legally binding and detailed national environmental standards that were recommended by the former competition watchdog head, Graeme Samuel, in his review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
She said the committee’s recommendations on which species and habitats should not have recovery plans were based, in part, on whether they were regularly affected by development and therefore triggered the need for a development to be assessed under Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
She said the committee had recommended that species that regularly triggered the act retain a recovery plan.Advertisementhttps://a4ff15b062a5d114404e89400e341bab.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
However, the Cumberland Plain woodland, the golden sun moth and the striped legless lizard, which all regularly trigger the need for assessment under the act, all appear on the list of proposed habitats and animals that would no longer require a recovery plan.
Samantha Vine, of Birdlife Australia, said a conservation advice was a good foundational document but was not a robust plan to get species off the path to extinction.
The organisation is concerned about the 19 threatened birds that may no longer require a recovery plan, including the glossy black cockatoo populations of Kangaroo Island and South Australia, the northern masked owl and the Abbott’s Booby.
“We completely see where the threatened species scientific committee is coming from because they are overwhelmed,” Vine said. “But walking away from recovery plans because they’re not functioning as well as they should be is not the right approach in an extinction crisis.”
Brendan Sydes, a lawyer and policy adviser at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said recovery plans were not working as well as they should but the answer was not to abandon them all together.
“Conservation advices are not an adequate replacement for recovery plans, as they are much less rigorous in what they require and don’t have the same legal clout,” he said.
“To virtually give up on recovery planning would be a terrible admission that there is no political will to tackle Australia’s extinction crisis.”
A spokesperson for the environment department said the recommendations were based on “the best planning outcome for the individual threatened entity, and are subject to public consultation prior to any final decision being made”.
“This is the first tranche of public consultation which invites the public to provide feedback on proposed subsequent recovery plan decisions for 185 species and ecological communities,” the spokesperson said.
“Subsequent public consultation periods for lists of other species and ecological communities will be held.”
A spokesperson for the environment minister, Sussan Ley, said: “The proposed changes have been recommended by the independent Threatened Species Scientific Committee and are now available for public consultation.”
It’s not just animals that are at risk of dying out, the world’s crops are in rapid decline. Here’s why it matters what is on your plateDan SaladinoFri 17 Sep 2021 07.00 EDT
In eastern Turkey, in a golden field overshadowed by grey mountains, I reached out and touched an endangered species. Its ancestors had evolved over millions of years and migrated here long ago. It had been indispensable to life in the villages across this plateau, but its time was running out. “Just a few fields left,” the farmer said. “Extinction will come easily.” This endangered species wasn’t a rare bird or an elusive wild animal, it was food, a type of wheat: a less familiar character in the extinction story now playing out around the world, but one we all need to know.
To most of us, one field of wheat might look much like any other, but this crop was extraordinary. Kavilca (pronounced Kav-all-jah) had turned eastern Anatolian landscapes the colour of honey for 400 generations (about 10,000 years). It was one of the world’s earliest cultivated foods, and is now one of the rarest.
How can a food be close to extinction and yet at the same time appear to be everywhere? The answer is that one type of wheat is different from another, and many varieties are at risk, including ones with important characteristics we need to combat crop diseases or climate change. Kavilca’s rarity is emblematic of the mass extinction taking place in our food.Advertisement
Many aspects of our lives are becoming more homogeneous. We can shop from identical outlets, see the same brands and buy into the same fashions around the world. The same is true of our diet. In a short space of time it has become possible for us to eat the same food wherever we are, creating an edible form of uniformity. “But hang on,” you might say, “I eat a greater variety of foods than my parents or grandparents ever did.” And on one level, that is true. Whether you’re in London, Los Angeles or Lima, you can eat sushi, curry, or McDonald’s; bite into an avocado, banana or mango; sip a Coca-Cola, a Budweiser or a branded bottle of water. What we’re being offered appears at first to be diverse, until you realise it is the same kind of “diversity” that is spreading around the globe in identical fashion.
Consider these facts: the source of much of the world’s food – seeds – is mostly in the control of just four corporations; half of all the world’s cheeses are produced with bacteria or enzymes manufactured by a single company; one in four beers drunk around the world is the product of one brewer; from the US to China, most global pork production is based around the genetics of a single breed of pig; and, perhaps most famously, although there are more than 1,500 different varieties of banana, global trade is dominated by just one, the Cavendish.
The source of much of the world’s food – seeds – is mostly in the control of just four corporations
This level of uniformity has never been experienced before. The human diet has undergone more change in the last 150 years (roughly six generations) than in the entire previous one million years (around 40,000 generations). We are living and eating our way through one big unparalleled experiment.
For most of our evolution as a species, as hunter-gatherers and then as farmers, human diets were enormously varied. Our food was the product of a place and crops were adapted to a particular environment, shaped by the knowledge and the preferences of the people who lived there as well as the climate, soil, water and even altitude. This diversity was stored and passed on in the seeds farmers saved, in the flavours of the fruits and vegetables people grew, the breeds of animals they reared, the bread they baked, the cheeses they produced and the drinks they made.
Kavilca wheat is one of the survivors of disappearing diversity, but only just. It has a distinctive history and a connection to a specific part of the world and its people. It is only during our lifetimes that this singular grain, perfectly adapted to its environment and with a taste like no other, has become endangered and pushed to the brink of extinction. The same is true of many thousands of other crops and foods. We should all know their stories and the reasons for their decline, because our survival depends on it.
My entry into food journalism took place during a crisis. It was 2008, and while the world was mostly focusing on the financial turmoil ripping through the banking system, a momentous food story was also unfolding. Wheat, rice and maize prices were spiralling to record highs, tripling on global markets at their peak. This pushed tens of millions of the poorest people on Earth towards hunger and also fuelled the tensions that later exploded into the Arab spring. Riots and protests toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt and helped trigger the conflict in Syria. For the first time in decades, people were asking serious questions about the future of our food. With 7.5 billion people on Earth and a projected 10 billion by 2050, crop scientists began telling the world that global harvests needed to increase by 70%. Calling for greater diversity seemed liked an indulgence. But now we’re starting to realise that diversity is essential for our future.
Evidence of this shift in thinking came in September 2019 at the climate action summit held at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Emmanuel Faber, then CEO of the dairy giant Danone, told the business leaders and politicians present that the food system the world had created over the last century was at a dead end. “We thought with science we could change the cycle of life and its rules,” he said, that we could feed ourselves with monocultures and base most of the world’s food supply on a handful of plants. This approach was now bankrupt, Faber explained. “We’ve been killing life and now we need to restore it.”
Faber was making a pledge to save diversity backed by 20 global food businesses, including Unilever, Nestlé, Mars and Kellogg’s – companies with combined annual food sales in 100 countries of about $500bn. At the event, Faber expressed concern that in parts of the dairy industry 99% of the cows are a single breed, the Holstein. “It’s oversimplistic now,” he said of the global food system. “We have a complete loss of diversity.”
If the businesses that helped create and spread homogeneity in our food are now voicing concerns over lost diversity, then we should all take notice. The enormity of what we’re losing is only now dawning on us, but if we act now, we can save it.Advertisementhttps://0a90b976fd064af9248bf032dfb3f569.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The decline in the diversity of our food, and the fact that so many foods have become endangered, didn’t happen by accident: it is an entirely human-made problem. The biggest loss of crop diversity came in the decades that followed the second world war when, in an attempt to save millions from starvation, crop scientists found ways to produce grains such as rice and wheat on a phenomenal scale. To grow the extra food the world desperately needed, thousands of traditional varieties were replaced by a small number of new super-productive ones. The strategy that ensured this – more agrochemicals, more irrigation, plus new genetics – came to be known as the “green revolution”.
Because of it, grain production tripled, and between 1970 and 2020 the human population more than doubled. But the danger of creating more uniform crops is that they become vulnerable to catastrophes. A global food system that depends on just a narrow selection of plants is at greater risk of succumbing to diseases, pests and climate extremes.
Although the green revolution was based on ingenious science, it attempted to oversimplify nature, and this is starting to backfire on us. In creating fields of identical wheat, we abandoned thousands of highly adapted and resilient varieties. Far too often their valuable traits were lost. We’re starting to see our mistake – there was wisdom in what went before.
Of the 6,000 plant species humans have eaten over time, the world now mostly eats just nine, of which just three – rice, wheat and maize – provide 50% of all calories. Add potato, barley, palm oil, soy and sugar (beet and cane) and you have 75% of all the calories that fuel our species. As thousands of foods have become endangered and extinct, a small number have risen to dominance. Take soy, domesticated in China thousands of years ago, a bean relatively obscure outside Asia until the 1970s and now one of the world’s most traded agricultural commodities. Used in feed for pigs, chickens, cattle and farmed fish, which in turn feed us, soy plays a starring role in an increasingly homogeneous diet eaten by billions of people. These dietary shifts taking place at a global level, all pointing towards uniformity, are unprecedented.Advertisement
An individual human diet even a few thousand years ago was far richer in diversity than the one most of us eat today. In the Jutland peninsula of western Denmark in 1950, peat diggers discovered the intact body of a man who had been executed (or possibly sacrificed) 2,500 years ago. Inside the man’s stomach was a porridge made with barley, flax and the seeds of 40 different plants. In present-day east Africa, the Hadza, who are among the last of the world’s hunter-gatherers, eat from a potential wild menu that consists of more than 800 plant and animal species, including numerous types of tubers, berries, leaves, small mammals, large game, birds and types of honey. We can’t replicate their diets in the industrialised world but we can learn from them.
I am not calling for a return to some kind of halcyon past. But I do think we should consider what the past can teach us about how to inhabit the world now and in the future. Our current food system is contributing to the destruction of the planet: one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction; we clear swathes of forests to plant immense monocultures and then burn through millions of barrels of oil a day to make fertilisers to feed them. We are farming on borrowed time.
I can’t claim saving endangered foods will provide answers to all of these problems, but I believe it should be part of the solution. Kavilca wheat, for example, can thrive in conditions so cold and damp that modern crops are guaranteed to fail. Bere barley is a food so perfectly adapted to the harsh environment of Orkney that no fertilisers or other chemicals are needed for it to grow. And murnong, a juicy, nutritious and once abundant root from southern Australia, is proof that the world has much to learn from indigenous peoples about eating more in harmony with nature.Advertisementhttps://0a90b976fd064af9248bf032dfb3f569.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The concept of being endangered and at risk of extinction is usually reserved for wildlife. Since the 1960s, the red list, compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has catalogued vulnerable plant and animal species (about 105,000 at the time of writing), highlighting those at risk of extinction (nearly 30,000).The way we eat is killing us – and the planetFelicity LawrenceRead more
A version of the red list dedicated solely to food was created in the mid-1990s by Italy’s Slow Food movement and named the Ark of Taste. The group that created it saw that when a food, a local product or crop became endangered, so too did a way of life, knowledge and skill, a local economy and an ecosystem. Their call to respect diversity captured the imaginations of farmers, cooks and campaigners from around the world, who started to add their own endangered foods to the Ark.
As I write, the Ark of Taste contains 5,312 foods from 130 countries, with 762 products on a waiting list ready to be assessed. I have met many people saving endangered foods, including the farmer who showed me the rare field of Kavilca wheat. There are likely to be other champions in your own part of the world. You can help, too, by finding the foods that are endangered in your area, whether an apple variety or a local cheese. By eating these, you can help to save them. Such foods represent much more than sustenance. They are history, identity, pleasure, culture, geography, genetics, science, creativity and craft. And our future.
This is an edited extract from Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino, to be published by Jonathan Cape on 23
A flashy new biotech startup launched yesterday called Colossal is on a mission to make an elephant-woolly mammoth mashup — with the ultimate goal of promoting biodiversity and combating climate change, it says. The effort has gotten a lot of hype and big-name backers, but scientists who work in conservation are still pretty skeptical.THE SCIENCE BEHIND COLOSSAL IS IN VERY EARLY STAGES AND IS MIRED IN ETHICAL QUANDARIES
The science behind Colossal is in very early stages and is mired in ethical quandaries. The company won’t actually bring back a woolly mammoth, which hasn’t roamed the Earth in about 10,000 years. Instead, Colossal’s de-extinction effort aims to create a hybrid between a woolly mammoth and its distant relative (the two share a common ancestor): the Asian elephant, which itself is an endangered species.
Mammoths are a poor choice for de-extinction — a field of research that has picked up steam in recent years — and this project might steal the spotlight from more important conservation efforts, ecologists and biologists tell The Verge. The woolly mammoth’s pseudo-resurrection is also a risky proposal as a fix for climate change, experts say, given the short timeline humanity has to slash greenhouse gas emissions that have given Earth a fever.
“I guess I confess, the five-year-old in me would just love to see a mammoth,” says Joseph Bennett, an assistant professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Department of Biology at Carleton University. “It’s just fascinating from a scientific standpoint. But if it’s called conservation, and if it’s called fighting climate change, that’s when the problems arise.”
HOW DE-EXTINCTION MIGHT WORK
Imagine a furrier, fatter elephant with smaller ears and a high-domed head. That’s what Colossal might one day create using CRISPR technology to edit the DNA of an Asian elephant to introduce traits from woolly mammoths. Over the next four years or so, the aim is to produce embryos with those traits by building off the work of Harvard geneticist George Church, a co-founder of the company. To create the embryo, they might harvest eggs from an elephant or try to create stem cells using elephant tissue. Colossal also wants to create an artificial uterus to carry the embryo, which would take about two years to develop into a 200-pound fetus.IMAGINE A FURRIER, FATTER ELEPHANT WITH SMALLER EARS AND A HIGH-DOMED HEAD
Church and his team of researchers have been working toward that goal for about a decade, and said in 2017 that it was just a couple of years away from creating the embryo. But Church’s team, until now, has lacked the funding to make that happen, according to Colossal co-founder and CEO and tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm. Colossal’s investors, which include private equity firms and self-help guru Tony Robbins, will infuse the project with $15 million. That builds on a previous $100,000 contribution from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel that Church’s team received before Colossal was founded.
If all that funding ultimately results in a real-life Asian elephant-mammoth hybrid, there will still be a lot of ecological and ethical questions with which to grapple. Colossal bills itself as an effort to tackle biodiversity loss. Earth is probably losing a species or more a day, according to Bennett. There is evidence of a mass extinction taking place, the likes of which hasn’t been seen on Earth for millions of years. When it comes to protecting biodiversity on our planet, resurrecting a prehistoric creature is low on the priority list.
“Even within endangered species that we want to keep from going extinct, we have to prioritize what are the winners and the losers,” says Ginger Allington, a landscape ecologist and assistant professor at George Washington University.“EVEN WITHIN ENDANGERED SPECIES THAT WE WANT TO KEEP FROM GOING EXTINCT, WE HAVE TO PRIORITIZE WHAT ARE THE WINNERS AND THE LOSERS.”
Funding de-extinction could hurt other conservation efforts by siphoning off limited resources, Bennett’s previous research has found. Spending the same amount of money on traditional conservation efforts could save up to eight times more species than if the money was to be spent on de-extinction. The Asian elephant itself could use help; its numbers have dropped in half over the past three generations.
Lamm believes Colossal’s work might benefit the elephants and draw more attention to other conservation efforts. “We’re trying to make sure that we do this in the most transparent and ethical way as possible,” Lamm tells The Verge. “We feel very confident about what we can do to help the elephant lineage … For us it’s about giving the species additional tools to survive.” An elephant with mammoth traits would be better able to survive in the Arctic’s cold temperatures, away from urbanization that threatens its species, he says.
But Asian elephants’ home is tropical South and Southeast Asia. They’re also highly intelligent and social animals that form tight-knit groups. “They have a culture,” Bennett says. All that raises “major” ethical questions for Bennett over whether a mammoth-elephant hybrid would be able to behaviorally manage being transplanted in a new home that’s vastly different from where elephant species currently live.
A FEAT OF MAMMOTH PROPORTIONS
Even a full-fledged woolly mammoth might struggle to adapt to the Arctic as it is today. “If you were to take a piece from a whole system like a Model T, say a piston, and you were to wait even 100 years and then try to integrate that into a Tesla — that won’t fit because the rest of the system has completely moved on and changed dramatically,” says Douglas McCauley, an ecologist and associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Colossal thinks the animals could essentially re-engineer ecosystems, turning mossy tundra back to grasslands that once thrived with mammoths’ help 10,000 years ago. Without mammoths, grasslands where they roamed were slowly replaced by moss and trees. That poses problems for the planet because snow-covered grasslands in the Arctic are better at reflecting radiation from the sun than darker shrublands or woodlands. Bringing herds back could theoretically reverse that trend.
The hybrid animals might also help prevent permafrost (soil that’s frozen year-round) from melting, which releases old stores of planet-heating carbon dioxide. A father-son pair of ecologists in Russia have tried using bison, reindeer, and other animals to achieve something similar in Siberia in a place called “Pleistocene Park.” The hope is that the animals — perhaps one day with the help of elephant-mammoth hybrids — will trample down snow and make it easier for the soil so to freeze.THE ANIMAL COULD BECOME A SORT OF “ECO-ZOMBIE”
But for Colossal to be able to fulfill its goals, it would need to ensure that there are enough of the animals to do the job that mammoths once did. Otherwise, the animal could become a sort of “eco-zombie” that doesn’t meaningfully participate in its ecosystem as it once did, as McCauley and other authors describe in their 2017 paper about how to prioritize species for de-extinction efforts. Choosing animals that have recently gone extinct, or are on the verge of extinction, are better candidates, that paper said. They should also be species that perform a unique function or job in its ecosystem, and that can bounce back to big enough numbers to be able to effectively do that job.
One promising route for de-extinction research is research into breeding coral that are more resilient to a warming world — potentially saving them from extinction. It’s an effort that could support fisheries and shield coastal communities around the world from storm surge. Unless greenhouse gas emissions reach net zero by the middle of the century, the planet is on track to reach a level of global warming that would essentially wipe out the world’s coral reefs.
There are other problems that could keep grasslands from coming back. The pH of the soil has become more acidic. There’s also a risk that new animals might disturb soil too much, so that it actually exposes permafrost to melting faster. Whether the animals protect or perturb existing permafrost depends partly on their behavior — which at this point is still a big unknown, as they do not exist.
“Scaling the effect from the small herd scale to the entire permafrost zone which impacts climate also seems futuristic rather than something that can help anytime soon, even if it did help at all,” Ted Schuur, regents’ professor of ecosystem ecology at Northern State University wrote to The Verge in an email.“FUTURISTIC RATHER THAN SOMETHING THAT CAN HELP ANYTIME SOON”
Even if everything goes as planned for Colossal, Lamm thinks it would take about six years to birth a hybrid calf. Then it would take another fourteen years or so for their first animal to be old enough to reproduce. From there, the efforts would need to scale up massively to have any meaningful effect on the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. But even that best-case scenario comes too late for urgent climate goals. It’s nowhere near soon enough to help save coral reefs, which will need global emissions to drop by half by the end of the decade if they are to survive.
To tackle the climate crisis, the world needs deep and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. Climate action ought to focus on addressing that pollution that’s at the root of the climate crisis, Bennett says, and not on projects that have a massive profile and an uncertain impact.
“My big concern with these things is that investors will be looking to offset their climate footprint, and they’ll look for things to do and somebody will look at something like that and be like, ‘Oh this is cool,’” says Bennett. “It’s a highly, highly risky prospect.”