Showing posts with label mammals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mammals. Show all posts

Friday, April 3, 2015

Invasion of the Beavers

Guest post by John Cherkas

Fifty years ago, Dr. Walter Howard presented his thoughts on invasive mammals at a symposium on colonizing (invasive) species, which was later turned into the volume "The Genetics of Colonizing Species." He speculated on the nature of predator-prey interactions, population growth limits and habitat disruptions. His ideas still resonate, but how well do they match up with a certain invasive mammal today.

May I bring your attention to some invasive beavers? Our national creature has been making quite a mess is the Southern most reaches of the Western Hemisphere. In the 1940s, Argentina was seeking economic improvements and imported beavers, mink and muskrat to Tierra del Fuego in an attempt to establish a fur trade. That fur trade didn't turn out as expected. Within a few years, beavers had colonized the entire island and were soon crossing channels to reach other Chilean islands, including Cape Horn, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Angry beaver -roar!

The ecological effects have been pretty well researched recently by Dr. Christopher B. Anderson. In seeing if beavers behave differently in their new habitat than back home, he’s been finding a few differences in the environment and beavers here. One of the most obvious changes is that the beaver colonies are at least twice as dense in Cape Horn. Is this for lack of predators or an abundance of food? So far, I couldn’t say, but I’d lean toward the latter. The Cape Horn forests are entirely southern beeches, which provide ample resources for the beavers’ engineering projects.

But how disruptive have beavers been to the environment: and environment that has no animal that makes such a massive environmental impact as the beaver. Howard suggested that an animal moving into a habitat where its niche doesn’t exist would have wider impacts than one who’s niche does exist. It’s fairly clear that the beaver’s landscaping projects is not something that other animals (except humans) partake in.

In the beaver situation this ecological disruption holds true. The floral assemblage in Cape Horn has never had to deal with beaver-like behaviour. The beavers foraging and building habits prevent forest regrowth, and provide a pathway for other plants to invade. It seems this beaver introduction might be a good example of invasional meltdown. The Chilean archipelago is home to quite a few invasive species already, and this synergistic effect is definitely concerning.

All the beaver-induced worries come with a grave concern for the natural environment. Cape Horn is referred to as pristine quite a bit by Anderson. Is this the place to have a deep political, socio-economic discussion about “pristine” environments? No, not today; you’ll have to read elsewhere for that. Cape Horn is certainly already at risk from invasive species. Beavers have a tremendous impact on the ecological structure of streams and forests. I am certainly one to wonder whether the eradication effort can be truly successful and both removing the beavers and reversing the environmental changes.

I surely hope that the environmental disruption can be reversed. Unfortunately we cannot look back to Howard to speculate on what happens when we remove an alien species. Just fifty years ago, species invasions were seen as a great research opportunity, not something to be extensively managed or eradicated.

Further Reading:

C.B. Anderson et al. (2006), The effects of invasive North American beavers on riparian plant communities in Cape Horn, Chile. Do exotic beavers engineer differently in sub-Antarctic ecosystems? Biological Conservation, 128: 467-474.

C. Choi, (2008) Tierra del Fuego: the beavers must die. Nature 453: 968. doi:10.1038/453968a

Monday, November 17, 2014

Northern White Rhinoceros – On the Brink of Extinction

*Guest post by Monica Choy -one of several posts selected from the graduate EES3001 Scientific Literacy course at University of Toronto-Scarborough.

Photo credit: Elodie A. Sampere, Getty Images
Suni, a 34 year old male northern white rhinoceros, died on October 17, 2014 of natural causes. His death reduced the total number of known northern white rhinos to an alarming six individuals, which has brought his species one step closer to extinction.1

Suni was born in a zoo in the Czech Republic and was the first of his kind to be born in captivity. Unfortunately, northern rhinos are a finicky species when it comes to breeding and with increasing pressures from poaching, it became critical to provide the animals with a natural, comfortable space.

As a result in 2009, Suni and three others were transported to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in East Africa.  It was believed this change in scenery would most accurately imitate their natural environment.2 Rhino conservationists anticipated that the rhinos would then breed naturally and provide a healthy calf that would bring new hope for the waning species.

Even before these desperate attempts to keep the species going however, the history of the northern rhino has been a sad one. At the time of Suni’s birth, his species was on a very slow rebound. Northern white rhinos had been excessively poached for their horns, and their initial population of over 2,000 animals declined to a shocking 15 rhinos by the late ’80s. Conservation efforts were ramped up in the ’90s and it looked as though the animals were making a gradual comeback. Unbelievably, poachers also increased their efforts and knocked the numbers back down to below 10 individuals by the mid-2000s.3

Northern white rhinos were declared extinct in the wild by 2008.

The likelihood that Suni’s species will become extinct in our lifetime has increased significantly with his death. And although the Ol Pejeta Conservancy will continue trying until the bitter end with the use of techniques such as artificial insemination, the precarious position the northern white rhino is in, as stated in their press release, is “a sorry testament to the greed of the human race.” 1

The extinction of such a charismatic species is a tragedy and should bring awareness to how heavily humans really affect our environments. Although the northern white rhino may be on the brink of extinction, there are still a countless number of other species out there that need our help. It is up to us to work together in order to keep other species as far from the fate of the northern rhino as possible.

More information
1Ol Pejeta Conservancy press release  -
2Northern white rhino conservation project -

3WWF profile of the northern white rhinoceros -

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Biodiversity hotspots: are we missing other priorities?

ResearchBlogging.orgBiodiversity hotspots are regions that harbour disproportionate biodiversity, especially of species with small ranges, and regarded as major conservation priorities (Zachos and Habel 2011). Biodiversity hotspots occur in some of the most exotic and romanticized regions around the world, such as Madagascar, the Caribbean Islands, the Western Ghats of India, and the Succulent Karoo of South Africa. By preserving these regions, we disproportionately preserve the diversity of life on Earth, and thus these conservation efforts are seen as critically important.

However, some argue that the emphasis on global biodiversity hotspots leaves other unique or less diverse regions open to human impacts since they have a perceived low natural value, and certainly not valuable enough to stem other economically motivated activities. This mind set may put large habitats under increased risk. This conflict is front and center in a recent paper by Durant and colleagues in Diversity and Distributions (Durant et al. 2013). In this paper, Durant et al. argue that large, globally relevant systems like hot deserts are under-protected, leading to potentially major collapses in these systems.

Ahaggar Mountains Oasis, from Wikipedia

They use the Sahara desert as the case study and show that while conservation efforts have been focused on hotspots, the majority of large vertebrates in the Sahara desert are now extinct or critically endangered.  System like hot deserts are important for human economic well-being, but our activities there have greatly reduced the amount of intact, undisturbed habitat.

Durant et al. argue, that had there been greater conservation effort and scientific interest in the Sahara, the catastrophic declines in large vertebrates may have been averted. This paper highlights the reality that we often undervalue certain ecosystems, regardless of the important ecosystem services and functions that they deliver.

S. M. Durant, T. Wacher, S. Bashir, R. Woodroffe, P. De Ornellas, C. Ransom, J. Newby, T. Abáigar, M. Abdelgadir, H. El Alqamy, J. Baillie, M. Beddiaf, F. Belbachir, A. Belbachir-Bazi, A. A. Berbash, N. E. Bemadjim, R. Beudels-Jamar, L. Boitani, C. Breit (2013). Fiddling in biodiversity hotspots while deserts burn? Collapse of the Sahara's megafauna
 Diversity and Distributions DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12157