Cute Animal in Danger: Dugong

Despite what a recent PETA ad would have you believe, some vegetarians are fat. Take, for example, the herbiverous and tubby Dugong. Dugongs have long been hunted for their fat, meat, and oil and they're easy targets: they swim slowly through shallow waters munching on seagrass like a cow on pasture. In fact, they're often called seacows. Though dugongs are protected in the US under the Endangered Species Act, some are still killed by motorboat collisions and poachers.

There are about 100,000 dugongs left, the majority in Australian waters. Like their relative the elephant, dugongs can grow huge: up to 11 feet in length and 2,000 pounds in weight. The shy animals can only stay underwater for about 6 minutes, and sometimes "stand" on their tail flukes to push their heads to the surface, holding their front flippers in front of them like arms. This activity, combined with the dugong's distinctive head and body shape, not to mention its "conspicuous" nipples, is thought to have inspired lovelorn sailors' tales of mermaids and sirens. Accordingly, dugongs (along with manatees) belong to the order Sirenia

The dugong's long lifespan (70 years) and a slow reproduction rate (one calf every 3 to 7 years) makes it less able to adapt to environmental changes than smaller, more fertile animals like squid or jellyfish. However, unlike some other animals, the dugong has no set breeding period and can mate year round. Although unusual now, there used to be "herds" of hundreds of dugongs, who would segregate cream-colored young in a "nursery" while blue-grey adults foraged for food. Now, most dugong groups sighted have only 6 or so members. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) dugongs are rarely found in captivity, but you can "adopt" your own dugong via the World Wildlife Fund here.

 

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EPA Pesticide Tests Seriously Shortsighted

Hard to believe but the Environmental Protection Agency commonly uses 4-day tests to set safe levels of pesticide exposure for humans and animals. New research suggests this timescale is way too short and doesn't begin to account for long-term effects.

The new data, published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, describe how the highly toxic pesticide endosulfan—a neurotoxin banned in several nations but still used extensively in US agriculture (check out the CDC's outdated description)—exhibits a "lag effect" after direct contact has ended.

The researchers exposed nine species of frog and toad tadpoles to endosulfan levels already occurring in the wild for the EPA's required 4-day period. After 4 days the amphibians were transferred to clean water for an additional 4 days.

Although endosulfan was ultimately toxic to all species, three species of tadpole showed no significant sensitivity to the chemical until after they were transferred to fresh water. Within 4 days of being moved, up to 97 percent of leopard frog tadpoles perished along with up to 50 percent of spring peeper and American toad tadpoles.

Tadpoles and other amphibians are famously sensitive to pollutants and considered environmental indicator species. The authors suggest that if endosulfan does not kill the world's most susceptible species in 4 days, then the 4-day test period is inadequate to gauge the long-term effects for larger, less-sensitive species—like us.

Co-author Rick Relyea said: "For most pesticides, we assume that animals will die during the period of exposure, but we do not expect substantial death after the exposure has ended. Even if EPA regulations required testing on amphibians, our research demonstrates that the standard 4-day toxicity test would have dramatically underestimated the lethal impact of endosulfan on even this notably sensitive species."

A second paper by some of the same authors in the same journal expands on Relyea's earlier findings that the popular weed-killer Roundup® is "extremely lethal" to amphibians in concentrations found in the environment. The latest report on Roundup® is available on Pitt's website (pdf).

Last year Relyea reported that the world's 10 most popular pesticides combine to create "cocktails of contaminants" that can destroy amphibian populations—even if the concentration of each individual chemical is within levels considered safe to humans and animals. I reported on this at TBM at the time. The cocktail killed 99 percent of leopard frog tadpoles. Endosulfan alone killed 84 percent.

A month earlier, Relyea published a paper in Ecological Applications reporting that gradual amounts of malathion (the most popular insecticide in the US)—too small to directly kill developing leopard frog tadpoles—nevertheless sparked a biological chain reaction that deprived the amphibians of their primary food source. As a result, nearly half the tadpoles in the experiment would have died in nature.

In other words, pesticides really really suck. How much research more does the EPA need to embrace 21st-century science?
 

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, August 17

Twip of the day: To keep up with environment, health, and science news from Mother Jones and beyond on Twitter, follow @MoJoBlueMarble. In the meantime, here's a sampling of Blue Marbleish goings on this Monday morning:

Get your Kevin Drum fix: If you didn't get a chance to watch Kevin Drum's NetRoots Nation keynote live, this week's MoJo podcast is a short Pittsburgh dispatch from him. In it, we talk about the NetRoots Nation male-to-female ratio, Arlen Specter on the healthcare "death panels," and how fellow attendees are feeling about Obama. Listen to the podcast here.

"Hatred, vitriol, and racism:" James Ridgeway on how town hall meetings on health care reform have become the latest target of violent far-right rhetoric.

Bag ban battle: As more and more cities ditch plastic bags, the plastic industry fights back.

The fine print: Over at Climate Progress, two different takes on whether or not Wal-Mart's pricy eco-labeling plan will work.

Is renewable energy worth more quakes? The San Francisco Chronicle on the promise and the peril of geothermal.

Have you ever heard of an "urban whale?" Treehugger explains why the term is, unfortunately, not as oxymoronic as you might think.

 

 

 

China's Air Pollution Causing Drought

Increasing air pollution over China in the past 50 years has reduced days of rainfall by nearly a quarter in the eastern half of the country—home to most Chinese people and pollution. Bad air is now likely affecting the country's ability to grow food crops, as well as causing a flood of health and environmental problems.

The study in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres links for the first time high levels of air pollutants with conditions preventing the light rainfall critical for agriculture. The research suggests that reducing air pollution might ease the drought in north China.

In the last 50 years, southeastern China has seen increased amounts of total rainfall per year, while the northern half has seen less rain and more droughts. But the light rainfall that sustains crops has decreased everywhere. At the same time China's population has more than doubled and sulfur emissions from fossil fuel burning have exploded to nine times their levels 50 years ago.
 

Climate Cop-out at Copenhagen?

Foreign Affairs journal has a piece in its upcoming September/October issue on the crucial Copenhagen climate-treaty negotiations in early December. The story's thrust: Keep your expectations very, very low.

Here's part of the journal's summary of the to-be-released story, penned by Michael A. Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of CFR's Program on Energy Security and Climate Change:

"Government officials and activists should fundamentally rethink their strategy and expectations" for the December climate conference in Copenhagen, argues Michael A. Levi, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. According to Levi, the odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are "vanishingly small." With this in mind, rather than aim for a broad global treaty, negotiators should reinforce existing national policies and seek "international cooperation focused on specific opportunities to cut emissions" in rich nations and the developing world. Levi urges officials to view the conference as a chance to build efforts to cut emissions from the ground up, and try to "reinforce developed countries’ emissions cuts and link developing countries’ actions ... to objectives in other areas—such as economic growth, security, and air quality—that leaders of those countries already care about."

Oy. If this summary is representative of Levi's entire story, it's about as bleak a prediction of what purpose Copenhagen will serve as you'll find from a respected organization like CFR and from someone with Levi's presumed stature. Fair to say, plenty others, myself included, disagree with Levi's argument—which, from this summary, doesn't advocate much that would change the status quo. Even if a "comprehensive treaty" isn't completed in December, that doesn't rule out some kind of treaty framework—a far better option than Levi's call to "build efforts to cut emissions from the ground up, and try to 'reinforce developed countries’ emissions cuts and link developing countries' actions ... to objectives in other areas—such as economic growth, security, and air quality—that leaders of those countries already care about.'"

Friday Frog Blog

This week, there have been many interesting developments in the world of frog:

And most urgently:

 

Green College Slideshow

Last week, I blogged about the College Sustainability Report Card (CSRC), which evaluates colleges' and universities' greenness based on criteria like energy use, building practices, recycling, and investment priorities. It's an interesting tool, but the program only looks at the 300 best-endowed schools in the US. Bummer, since little schools are often home to the most creative green initiatives.
Treehugger has a slideshow up today profiling ten green colleges, a few of which were passed over by CSRC on account of their small endowments. Warren Wilson, for example, gets props for its solar-powered streetlights and campus carts and its trash-to-treasure store. And the tiny-but-mightily-green College of the Atlantic stands out, too:

In 2006, the college announced it was the first carbon neutral college in the U.S. Not to mention, students all study one thing: human ecology, or the way humans interact with the environment. Since 1972, the school has dished up local and organic food in the cafeteria. Food is all composted or given away, meals are tray-less and meat is confinement and antibiotic-free. Dorms come with composting toilets, ultra-high insulation and heat comes from a wood burning pellet boiler: Getting back to nature and interacting with the environment, indeed.
 

Composting toilets! In a dorm! Totally doable at, say, a Harvard or a Princeton, but would the aesthetics be too icky for the Ivies?

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, August 14

Today's environment, health, and science news from our site and others. And if you haven't read Anna Lenzer's great Fiji Water exposé "Spin the Bottle," well, let's just say there are a few things you might want to know before you reach for that pretty square bottle.

MoJo responds to fiji: That Fiji Water donates money to local kindergartens is all well and good, but it doesn't make up for pollution, tax havens, and silence on the Fijian government's human rights abuses. 

The reformers are coming! Health care reformers pretend they want to make you healthy. Really, they want to sell your organs to China. And slay your grandma. And murder cute puppies. Ruuuuuun!

Newt again: Gingrich flip-flops on advance care directives and hospice care. Somehow, we're not surprised.

Better buildings: "Commissioning" reduces building's greenhouse emissions significantly—and it's not just free, it saves money. Just one of the techniques that'll become more widespread if Waxman-Markey passes.

Philpott vs. Klein on organics: Grist's Tom Philpott believes organic foods are more nutritious; Ezra Klein doubts it. But what about the soil?

Second hottest July on record: Climate Progress on the NASA temperature data, and why it looks like we'll be seeing record global temperatures this year or next.

India's green plans: India overhauls its version of the EPA. Could this mean tougher pollution and emissions standards?

In Defense of Milk

For those of us who still drink milk and like it and have no trouble digesting it in any of its glorious guises, from butter to yoghurt... here's an intersting blog by Dave Munger at SEED on  current scientific thinking/speculation about why some of us can tolerate milk and others can't. Northern Europeans and Africans generally fare well. Southern Euros and East Asians, not so.

One analysis from a paper in PLoS ONE suggests the lactase gene evolved in Europe because there isn't enough sunlight to produce the vitamin D needed to take in calcium—so milk drinking helped meet that deficiency. In Africa the lactase gene evolved in conjunction with early milk-producing domesticated animals—helping boost protein intake.

Milk. It does some bodies good. Especially with chocolate or cookies.

Extinct Seabird Returns to Life

Well, it was never really dead. The Tasman Booby, Sula dactylatra tasmani, described from fossils on islands off the east coast of Australia, went extinct in the late 18th century—victim of hungry European sailors, reports New Scientist.

But now a team of geneticists, paleontologists, and naturalists has found the bird alive and well and living among its own fossils and on a few islands off New Zealand. DNA analysis of six Tasman Booby fossils perfectly match the living birds known as Sula dactylatra fullagari. Paper in Biology Letters.

Henceforth, the resurrected and misidentified will be known as as Sula dactylatra tasmani.

Whatever we call it, this gannetlike seabird is another, and very welcome, Lazarus taxon (read John Platt at 60-Second Science) risen from the dead—along with the Nelson's small-eared shrew rediscovered in Mexico last month and the greater dwarf cloud rat found in a Philippine forest in 2008. Plus a few I wrote about in Gone: the Wollemi pine and mahogany glider in Australia, Jerdon’s Courser in India, takahe in New Zealand, and (maybe) the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the US.