Over 9,000 feet below the surface, off the coast of Puerto Rico, scientists saw some creatures for the first time ever. In April 2015, a team of scientists embarked on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition that captured incredible images of these deep-sea creatures. The ship, called the Okeanos Explorer, journeyed into largely uncharted ecosystems, including the seafloor, and investigated what lives in these unknown and little-known areas.
Nearly half of all life under the sea has disappeared in the past 50 years.
A new study by the World Wildlife Fund and researchers at the Zoological Society of London found that global populations of marine species have declined by 49% since 1970 due to pollution, habitat loss, overfishing and climate change.
Researchers were able to approximate this drastic decline using data that was collected from 2,337 individual sources, including population estimates from scientific studies and databases.
The study also found that some fish species people rely on for food – like tuna, bonito and mackerel – has declined by as much as 74%. Shark finning and industrial fishing have wiped out shark and ray populations to the point where one in four species are now threatened by extinction. And the number of sea cucumbers, a luxury food in Asia, have dropped by 98% in the Galápagos and by 94% in the Egyptian Red Sea.
Furthermore, industrial pollution and plastic contamination have destroyed marine habitats and caused the death of endangered sea turtles and other wildlife. Fossil fuels that accelerate the acidifcation of the oceans has led to the degradation of coral reefs, which support 25% of marine species on top of 400 million people. The world’s coral reefs will disappear if ocean temperatures continue rising at the current rate.
The report’s findings include a lot of bad news, but there is a silver lining. The world’s leaders and nations can use this information to turn things around by halting illegal fishing, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and protecting critical marine habitats like the remaining coral reefs. Director general of WWF International Marco Lambertini said in a statement:
“The ocean is a renewable resource that can provide for all future generations if the pressures are dealt with effectively. If we live within sustainable limits, the ocean will contribute to food security, livelihoods, economies and our natural systems.”
As the planet warms, cold-blooded animals will have trouble adjusting. According to a study by two biologists, cold-blooded animals, which cannot regulate their internal temperatures, will struggle with climate change.
The biologists, Alex R. Gunderson and Jonathon H. Stillman from the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University, analyzed 230 cold-blooded species from 112 published studies on plasticity – or the ability of animals to modify their thermal tolerance when they experience new environmental temperatures. They found that cold-blooded animals have an particularly tough time adjusting and that on average most aren’t flexible to warming climate changes.
“Overall, we found that even though all of the animals have some plasticity, they all have relatively low levels of plasticity. As environmental temperatures rise due to global warming, the animals will get closer and closer to their thermal limits, and plasticity won’t do much to help them.”
Gunderson and Stillman discovered that the plasticity of animals differs based on their habitat. So cold-blooded species like lizards and insects have less plasticity than fish and crustaceans, and thus will have a more difficult time surviving in the changing climate. Gunderson explains:
“The difference between terrestrial and aquatic animals is that the aquatic ones have a higher capacity to adjust, but it is still relatively low. Ideally, if temperatures went up three degrees, the animals’ tolerance would go up three degrees as well. But that’s not what we see.”
The study’s analysis suggests that certain animals – such as lizards, insects and snakes – can’t depend on plasticity. Rather, they will have to rely on behavior modifications, like moving to greater altitudes or more shaded habitats. But unfortunately, not all animals live in regions where such behavioral adaptations are feasible and in those cases, the species will have to evolve higher tolerance for the heat in order to survive.
What is the most common type of trash in our oceans? And which ones are the most deadly?
More than 560,000 volunteers in 91 countries spanned over 13,000 miles in the 2014 International Coastal Cleanup. And over 16 million pounds of trash were collected in last year’s Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup program.
The data from the program, dating back 30 years, in addition to a survey of 274 experts, was put into a study that ranked their findings.
The most common types of trash found were cigarette butts, food wrappers, bottles and bottle caps. And some of the deadliest types for marine mammals, turtles and seabirds included fishing gear, plastic bags and utensils, balloons, cigarette butts and bottle caps.
See the report by the numbers with Ocean Conservancy’s infographics:
As we venture farther into 2016, it’s always good to reflect back on the previous year. Today, we are reflecting on animals that were either declared endangered or were upgraded from endangered to critically endangered in 2015.
1. Mexican Wolf
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared the Mexican Wolf as endangered earlier in 2015. Over-hunting almost wiped out the entire population 40 years ago. Now, the Mexican Wolf has new protections to conserve this rare mammal.
The USFWS placed multiple species of sawfish on the endangered species list in 2015. Several populations have fallen victim to overfishing and negative human factors.
3. Steppe Eagle
The Steppe Eagle was upgraded to “endangered” this year by the IUCN because of changes to the raptor’s environment. Habitat disturbances, such as agricultural development and a veterinary drug spreading toxic effects through its ecosystem, have caused the eagle’s population to drastically drop.
4. New Zealand Sea Lion
The IUCN classified the New Zealand Sea Lion as endangered due to “fishing-related mortality” and other threats from disease and food limitations. It is one of the rarest sea lions in the world with a population of around 10,000 and decreasing.
5. White Headed Vulture
In 2015, the IUCN upgraded the status of the White Headed Vulture from threatened to critically endangered. The vulture’s population has declined because of human threats, including poisonings and persecution.
6. Great Green Macaw & Military Macaw
The USFWS listed both the Great Green Macaw and the Military Macaw as endangered in October, 2015. The two species’ already small populations are declining due to poaching and habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation.
7. Ishikawa’s Frog
The IUCN declared the Ishikawa’s Frog, a Japanese amphibian, as an endangered species in 2015. The frog population is in serious decline because of habitat loss from dam and road construction.
8. Honduran Emerald Hummingbird
The USFWS classified the Honduran hummingbird as endangered in 2015, which gives federal officials in the U.S. the authority to prosecute anyone smuggling the bird across the border. The population has dropped to 5,000-10,000 breeding pairs after facing habitat loss and other human-related changes.
9. Narrow-striped Mongoose (also known as Boky Boky)
In 2015, the IUCN placed the Narrow-striped Mongoose, also know as the boky boky, on the endangered list. The small Madagascan mammal’s population has been negatively affected by hunting, logging and several environmental factors.
10. Splendid Toadfish
The IUCN upgraded the Splendid Toadfish from threatened to endangered in 2015 because of tourism and over-fishing. It is a mud-dwelling fish that lives in the waters of Cozumel and Belize, but has experienced habitat loss with decreasing coral reefs.
A step forward for the Great Barrier Reef is a step forward for conservation.
Earlier this year, the Australian government banned dumping in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In November, the government extended the ban outside the park, to include the entire World Heritage Area, where 80% of the dumping had occurred closer to the shore.
This closed a legal loophole that would have allowed 46 million cubic meters of seabed to be dug up and dumped in the fragile and biodiverse ecosystem. The Great Barrier Reef is home to more than 1,500 species of fish, 134 species of sharks and rays, over 30 species of marine mammals, six of the world’s seven species of threatened marine turtles, as well as 411 kinds of hard coral and one-third of the world’s soft corals.
“For everyone around the world who cares about the Reef, this is a moment to savor.”