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UN Experts Report 1 Million Species Now Threatened With Extinction

Life on our planet is under serious threat, with biodiversity declining at rates never before seen in human history, according to a United Nations-backed report compiled by 145 experts from across the globe.

The dire outlook comes via the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), established by the UN in 2012, and a panel of over 300 authors who scientifically assessed the state of life on Earth over the last three years. A summary of their findings was presented in Paris on May 6, drawing on over 15,000 sources to deliver a systematic global assessment of our impacts on the natural world — and how this affects the future of humanity.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” said IPBES Chair Robert Watson, in a media release.

The collapse of Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystems is not altogether new information, after decades of reporting has shown we’re living through the planet’s sixth major extinction event. That has prompted conservationists and scientists to use terms like “biological annihilation” and “extinction tsunami” to describe the carnage. The new report backs up those claims, showing:

  • Humans have significantly altered 75% of the land and 66% of marine environments.
  • Up to 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction within decades.
  • 680 species, at least, were driven to extinction by humans since the 16th century.
  • 40% of amphibian species, 33% of reef-forming corals and more than 33% of all marine mammals are threatened.
  • A tentative estimate for insects suggests 10% are threatened.

Writing in open-access journal Science Advances on Monday, famed conservation biologist Thomas E. Lovejoy summed the report up with elegant melancholy.

“Eden is gone. While the planetary garden still exists, it is in deep disrepair, frayed and fragmented almost beyond recognition.”

The report finds that the key drivers underlying the destruction are rapid changes in human use of land and sea and the exploitation of natural resources. Similarly, climate change, pollution and introduction of invasive species have directly impacted nature.

Without change, we will continue to drive biodiversity down. The IPBES report shows current goals for protecting the planet and preventing or reversing the effects may only be achieved through a “system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.” The prognosis is grim.

It’s the equivalent of Doctor Strange in Infinity War, contemplating all of the possible futures and finding very few where biodiversity recovers and nature flourishes once again. The challenge is immense and it begins with changing attitudes.

We know that even the deepest point in Earth’s oceans is filled with plastic, that human-induced climate change has already caused species to go extinct and that bee populations are in significant danger, but never have those threads been pulled together before. By highlighting the myriad ways we’re harming the planet, the report is a plea for things to change and yet another stark reminder of the course we currently find ourselves on.

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Source: UN experts report 1 million species now threatened with extinction

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This Is What Your Brain and Body Do When You Hang Out With Animals – Nick Keppler

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Most people adopting a dog expect furry affection and bright-eyed companionship. Ingrid Pipes is looking for that and something a step above.

Pipes, a 27-year-old copywriter in Pittsburgh, and her husband recently adopted Hudson, a miniature Bernese mountain dog/poodle mix, with the intent of enrolling the puppy in an obedience school that will train and certify him as a therapy dog to help treat Pipes’ depression.

“Mostly, his job would be to see signs of sadness and depression and get my attention to distract me,” she says, “like bringing me one of his toys to play, or sitting in my lap and asking to be pet.” He will be more responsive and interactive in the presence of human distress. Pipes found a few services in the Pittsburgh area that provide such training. (Some trainers even prepare pups to relieve anxiety by using their paws to put gentle pressure on a human’s chest.)

“I have high-functioning depression,” Pipes says, “so I usually make it to work, can do my chores and whatnot, but it’s always there.”

She hopes Hudson can fulfill the role of DJ, their recently deceased chow-chow. While not a trained therapy dog, DJ was a natural. “[H]e was good at distracting me,” she says. “He would lay at my feet and follow me around the house, calmly and quietly. He was the perfect shadow and never gave me a minute alone, but also would be cool with whatever we wanted to do.”

Pipes worried about relaying her stress onto a new puppy, so she sought training that would allow Hudson to thrive in occasional atmospheres of gloom and dispirit. “Some dogs definitely just get it,” she says. “If you’re feeling sad, they know to come to you. The reliability of companionship is a big part of it because your dog is molded to your schedule. They’re never going to be too busy to take your call. If you train your dog right and treat them nicely, your dog is going to love you and need you, even if you’re failing in every other part of your life.”

Research has consistently shown that animals, particularly dogs, provide psychological benefits for humans—although the exact reasons are not known. “It’s a popular topic right now,” says Lori Kogan, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University and editor of The Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, the journal of the American Psychological Association’s group dedicated to that topic.

“People are trying to validate what people already know: that animals make us feel better.” As researchers attempt to parse out why and how animal-assisted therapy works on the human brain, debate continues about if pets should be considered a valid healthcare treatment or disability issue.

The connection between pets and oxytocin

One lab result has been consistent: When interacting, humans and their pet dogs both experience increased levels of oxytocin, a “love hormone” that is also triggered by hugging, orgasm, and lactation. Oxytocin helps the brain modulate social concepts, such as empathy, trust, and in-group preference and memory of social cues. The chemical lets you know when you should take comfort in others. It surges when people see their parent or child—sometimes doubling in a parent when reunited with a young child.

It also works cross-species: Dog owners experienced an average oxytocin boost of 6.6 percent after scratching and petting their canine companions, in a 2014 Swedish study that measured the effect in real-time. Canine contact also causes a decrease in levels of cortisol, a hormonal alarm system for stress, in humans.

If spikes in oxytocin reveal how much humans love dogs, they really show how much dogs love humans. Dogs experience a 57-percent increase over baseline levels of oxytocin when playing with their humans.

Oxytocin levels also increase the chances a dog will turn to their human for help. Another Swedish study gave a set of golden retrievers the impossible task of getting a treat in a tightly sealed jar. Some of the dogs got a hit of oxytocin via a nasal spray beforehand. Those dogs tended to approach their owner for help more often, compared to a control group that inhaled a neutral salt water solution. Other dogs given an infusion of oxytocin were more likely to make eye contact with friendly faces in photos and ignore threatening ones, a Finnish study documented. These studies show the brain chemical plays a role in the interplay of affection and receptivity between the two species.

In 2016, a BBC2 documentary ventured into the little-explored area of brain chemicals in pet cats, hiring a lab to compare oxytocin changes in both species when cats interact with people. While the chemical did increase in the felines, the change was much less than it was in canines (a result that should surprise no one who has interacted with both species). Oxytocin increased by an average of 57 percent in dogs when playing with their humans, but only by 12 percent in cats. There haven’t been any studies testing the oxytocin effect of humans interacting with cats, and feline-related research is scant compared to studies of the impact of dogs.

The benefits of animal-assisted therapy

If you are looking for evidence that animals make people feel better, particularly when they are distressed, there are seemingly endless examples: Therapy dogs were shown to have reduced anxiety in people hospitalized with depression in Germany and did the same for long-term residents of a senior home in South Africa.

They were also a pacifying presence in a pediatric center, according to a Brazilian study. In patients, the presence of therapy dogs decreased pain, irritation, and stress and other depressive symptoms. Caregivers also felt less anxiety, mental confusion, and tension.

John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore has allowed therapy dogs into several departments, including the intensive care unit, as a “nonpharmacological intervention.” The hospital has kept up with a shift in critical care—from keeping patients sedated to allowing them to be awake and engaged as soon as possible, says Megan Hosey, a psychologist specializing in rehabilitation at the hospital.

 

 

 

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As Right Whale Population Plummets, Focus Turns To Their Falling Birth Rates – Miriam Wasser

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For many decades, the North Atlantic right whale was a conservation success story. After being hunted to near extinction, a series of protective actions that began in the 1930s, and accelerated in the 1960s, helped the population begin to rebound.

But in 2010, something changed. Since then, the number of North Atlantic right whales has started to decrease again. Last year was particularly bad; 17 bloated carcasses washed up on beaches along the East Coast, many of which were marred by scars from boat strikes and fishing gear.

With approximately 450 of these whales left, every death is a big deal. In fact, experts predict if the current trend holds, the species, which plays an important role in the marine ecosystem, will be extinct by 2040.

Yet, while much attention has been paid to mortalities, far less attention has been paid to what some biologists say is the whale’s real long-term problem: plummeting birth rates.

At its most basic level, population comes down to arithmetic. It’s a matter of births minus deaths, says Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the right whale ecology program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.

“If a species doesn’t reproduce, eventually it’s gone,” Mayo says. “So the business of low calving is, I think, as horrific an issue as the mortality.”

This year, of the 71 females who were theoretically able to calve, none did. That’s according to Heather Pettis, executive administrator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and associate scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. She says the last few years haven’t been much better.

Right whales are in a quite precarious situation right now,” Pettis says. “We’ve seen variable reproduction over the years, but nothing like what we’ve seen this year.”

There are likely many interconnected reasons for declining birth rates. But in the last year or two, as biologists have noticed that the whales aren’t going to their normal feeding grounds, a new theory has emerged, and at its center are two key factors: nutrition and stress.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Right whales eat oily, rice-sized zooplankton called copepods, which up close look a little like bulbous shrimp. To sustain their 70-ton bodies, the whales need to eat billions of copepods every day, and they rely on the ocean currents to concentrate their food in dense patches to make this possible. When a right whale comes across one of these patches, it will open its mouth and “skim” the surface of the water. Every so often, the whale will close its mouth and backflush the water through its baleen, trapping the little copepods inside.

“These animals are optimizers,” Mayo says. “They don’t lay around in the sun and yawn. They are spending a great deal of their life naturally searching for food.”

And as climate change warms the ocean waters along the Eastern Seaboard, particularly in the Gulf of Maine, Mayo and others have noticed something happening to the copepods.

“We think that changes in temperature and circulation have essentially shifted the areas where copepods are,” says Dan Pendleton, a research scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center who focuses on copepods and right whales.

And where the copepods go, so go the right whales — even if it means swimming greater distances and using more energy to find food.

“There’s also some question about the prey quality, and what the nutritive status of these copepods is,” Pettis says. “And that, in turn, means that whales are having to feed on even larger patches of these copepods to just sustain their baseline metabolic needs.”

From there, it’s simple biology. Like any animal, an undernourished right whale can’t reproduce successfully.

“The females need to have a certain level of energetic reserve to get pregnant and carry a pregnancy to term. And if they don’t, they’ll delay their reproduction,” Pettis says. “So if these females are energetically stressed because they’re having to travel farther to find food, and their food resource is not high quality, they’re not going to build that necessary energetic reserve to get pregnant and carry an offspring to term.”

The problem doesn’t end there. As the whales move into different areas to find food, experts say they’re getting hit by boats and entangled in fishing gear more often because these new areas usually don’t have regulations designed to safeguard right whales.

“We’re seeing whales with pretty significant gouges on their heads, on their lips, on their tail stocks. Skin ripped away,” Pettis says. According to one estimate, 83 percent of all North Atlantic right whales have entanglement scars.

Some entangled whales are able to free themselves, but many aren’t so lucky and can end up dragging fishing gear around for years. Pettis likens it to swimming laps with a parachute attached to your back.

“You can imagine the amount of energy it would take just to swim,” she says.

Entangled whales often have ropes wrapped around their heads, making it difficult to feed efficiently, exacerbating their depleted energy reserves.

Entanglements also make whales prone to injury, illness and infection. If you’ve ever seen a right whale, you’ve probably noticed rough, white patches of skin. These patches are called callosities, and on a healthy right whale, they’re white. Sick right whales, on other hand, tend to have orange callosities.

According to Pettis, a lot of the entangled right whales she and her team see these days have orange callosities, open wounds from chaffing ropes, and look thin or emaciated. None of these things bode well for reproduction.

Stress Levels

Entanglements also likely contribute to whales’ stress. Like any mammal, a stressed female right whale will struggle to reproduce because elevated levels of stress hormones in her body can depress reproductive hormones, Pettis says.

Humans have made the oceans a very noisy place. We drive ships, test weapons and radar systems, install offshore wind farms, and do all sorts of things that create what scientist call “acoustic smog.” While instinctually it makes sense that loud, disruptive noises are stressful, a 2012 study conducted in the Bay of Fundy found a direct link between noise and the levels of stress hormones in right whales.

“That was a really important study,” Pettis says. “That was one of the first to show definitely that at least vessel ship noise underwater is really impacting negatively this population of whales.”

It’s unclear whether the the noise itself causes stress, or whether the sounds disrupt the whales’ ability to communicate and find food, which in turn causes stress. Either way, this is something marine biologists in the area are actively studying.

There are other hypotheses out there to explain why these whales aren’t calving. It could be chemical or hormonal pollutants in the ocean, agricultural runoff, microplastics or even inbreeding, though Mayo and Pettis think those things are likely compounding the other problems.

One clue to saving the North Atlantic right whale may lie in the right whales of the Southern Hemisphere. That population is much larger, healthier and reproducing at a much more sustainable rate. It’s also more isolated from human activity.

“Do we have the ship strike problem [in the Southern Hemisphere]? No,” Mayo says. “Do we have the same insonification issues [down there]? We don’t. Do we have the DNA bottleneck problems? We don’t. Do we have contaminant problems? Yes, but not as bad.”

The North Atlantic right whale is incredibly resilient, Pettis says. “This population’s been contending with humans for a really, really long time, and they’ve been able to bounce back before.”

But the question, she continues, is “whether they can do it now.”

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