Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Meet Sudan, the last surviving male northern white rhino

There is a small dusty patch of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya that is marked by 18 rocky headstones. On a plaque bolted to each is the name of a rhino that has been killed by poachers.

Nearby, past watch towers manned 24 hours a day by armed guards, stands - or, these days, more often sits - a mammoth two-ton herbivore munching the grass. He is Sudan, the last surviving male northern white rhino, and quite possibly the most famous animal on the planet.

Sudan is now 43 (or 100 in rhino years) and it is feared only has months left to live. As the last male of his species, he receives 40,000 visitors a year from all over the globe, Elizabeth Hurley and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly among them.

Sudan is also a star of Instagram and boasts his own hashtag #lastmalestanding as well as a Tinder account, where he is described as the "most eligible bachelor in the world" and, inevitably, "horny". Such is the interest in him that competing film crews are restricted to one visit a day.

Award-winning filmmaker Rowan Deacon is the latest to tell his story. In a new BBC documentary, Sudan: The Last of the Rhinos, Deacon has pieced together Sudan's fascinating life.

After being born in the wild in South Sudan, he was captured by animal trappers employed by England's Chipperfield Circus and sold to a zoo in the then-communist Czechoslovakia, before finally being shipped back to Africa in a desperate attempt to make him breed.

Even now, as Sudan sees out his last days in Kenya, scientists in Berlin are attempting novel forms of rhino IVF with his sperm. When the inevitable moment arrives, a pre-written obituary is waiting to be sent out to newsdesks around the world.

Rhinos have been on this earth for 50 million years and it is not some quirk of evolution that has caused the demise of this magnificent species, but us, humans.


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Seafloor scans reveal what lurks beneath the surface of the Marlborough Sounds

Scans of Queen Charlotte Sound and Tory Channel have wrapped up after eight months on the water.
Eight months, 30 terabytes and 40,000 hectares later, a state-of-the-art scanning project of the Marlborough Sounds seabed has wrapped up.

The scans of Queen Charlotte Sound and Tory Channel will create three-dimensional maps of the depths below, and mark the first significant update to boat charts since 1942.

The joint project between Marlborough District Council, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) began in October last year.

Niwa national projects manager Dr Helen Neil said the Sounds had thrown up some challenges for the hydrographic and scientific survey.
"Successful work was carried out in a challenging marine environment, the palette of the Sounds changed each day with sunshine, fog and occasionally those windy bumpy seas," she said.

About 30 terabytes of information from the scans will be transformed into free charts for skippers.

"It has been a privilege to work within one of New Zealand's natural treasures, unlocking nature's secrets and working with a community that is passionate about the environment."

Multi-beam technology was used to map the seabed and capture water column features.

Scientists described the process as similar to "mowing the lawn" - where they proceeded up and back to scan each strip of the ocean floor.
The results would offer a data-rich snapshot of the sea floor to determine habitats, identify seeps and plumes and detect fish shoals and kelp beds.

The team from Niwa spent about 2800 hours on the water to finish the job, Neil said.


Friday, 23 June 2017

Scientists rescue samples of melting Bolivian glacier before it disappears

A team of international scientists are transporting samples of ice from a melting glacier in Bolivia to Antarctica, for study and preservation before the glacier disappears.

The international "Ice Memory" expedition of 15 scientists took samples from the glacier on Mount Illimani in the Andes and will store them in Antarctica at the French-Italian base of Concordia.

The scientists were helped by local guides and porters, who live near the base of Illimani. Clearly visible from Bolivia's capital La Paz, Illimani's "eternal snows" are frequently referenced in the music, mythology and literature of the Aymara people.

But scientists say global warming is rapidly melting the glaciers of the Andes, removing an important source of fresh water for many communities and threatening others with deadly avalanches.

Illimani itself has warmed by 0.7 degree Centigrade in the last 18 years, said Ice Memory glaciologist Patrick Ginot.

The team dug over 130 meters (430 ft) into the glacier to remove 75 ice samples, which they say yield some 18,000 years of climatic history.


Wednesday, 21 June 2017

No, the Black Sea isn't black, but it's not normally this turquoise either

The Black Sea has turned a striking shade of turquoise.

A natural phenomenon called a "phytoplankton bloom'' has turned the normally dark waters of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn near Istanbul into an opaque tone of light blue.

It's caused by microscopic organisms that have inundated the Black Sea just north of Turkey's largest city.

The Black Sea's turned turquoise in a show that can be seen from space.
It's so bright, it can be seen from space.

The aquatic artwork appears every summer, but this year's bloom is one of the brightest since 2012, The New York Times reported citing Norman Kuring, a NASA scientist.
Microscopic organisms have inundated the Black Sea just north of Turkey's largest city.

Berat Haznedaroglu, an environmental engineer, says it's a normal annual event.

"This year we got a lot of rain events that carried nutrients from the Saharan desert to the Black Sea, which created an optimal environment for this phytoplankton to bloom,'' said Haznedaroglu, who works at the Institute of Environmental Sciences at Istanbul's public Bogazici University.

In a statement published with a satellite image of the Black Sea, NASA said the milky coloration is "likely due to the growth of a particular phytoplankton called a coccolithophore.''


Sunday, 18 June 2017

Trev and Shirl are just a couple of lovebirds on the run

Trev and Shirl are two lovers on the run from scientists who want study their DNA. 

The pair are making their bid for freedom in the thick bush of the Purangi Kiwi sanctuary in eastern Taranaki

The two kiwis have so far evaded three human attempts to capture them and for now they are safe from further efforts to bring them in.  

Searchers are trying to get to Shirl, right, through her transmitting lover Trev.
"At the moment its Shirl 3, and humans nil," said  Purangi Kiwi chair Karen Schumacher.
The fear is if they make an attempt to find the pair again in the next couple of weeks the radio-transmitter wearing Trev will get fed up and "divorce" Shirl, thereby making Shirl all but impossible to find. 

Only male kiwis wear transmitters because they are the ones that sit on the eggs and so they are usually the ones that need to be found.

The trouble for the pair began during an annual health check when a photo was taken of Trev and the lightly coloured Shirl and sent to the Department of Conservation for assessment. 

The loved-up kiwis were then let go into the bush again.

The problem was DOC then put out an urgent call to get Shirl back because the bird might have the rare DNA of the little spotted kiwi that has been extinct from the mainland for close to 40 years. 

About 1600 little spotted kiwi exist, mostly in island sanctuaries around the country. 

"Shirl's genetics are very important for all of New Zealand." Schumacher said.

There was even a possibility Shirl could also be a new species.

"Unfortunately, Trev's done a runner, and while the searchers managed to get within 20 metres of him he then vanished." Schumacher said. 

Kiwi are highly territorial and it is likely Trev and Shirl are hanging around their burrow, Schumacher said. 

However steep cliffs and bluffs in the area mean if the pair don't want to be found, it's nearly impossible to get close. 

Schumacher said the hunt for Shirl, through Trev, would continue at a later date.

Shirl was a rare discovery, she said, and the team would not give up on her.
"We are hoping that if we can track him in a burrow, she will be there. Hopefully.


Thursday, 15 June 2017

Remote, uninhabituth Pacific island becomes a plastic wasteland

When researchers travelled to a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they were astonished to find an estimated 38 million pieces of trash washed up on the beaches.

Almost all of the garbage they found on Henderson Island was made from plastic. There were toy soldiers, dominos, toothbrushes and hundreds of hardhats of every shape, size and colour.\

The researchers say the density of trash was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, despite Henderson Island's extreme remoteness. The island is located about halfway between New Zealand and Chile and is recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Jennifer Lavers, a research scientist at Australia's University of Tasmania, was lead author of the report, which was published on Tuesday in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."
Lavers said Henderson Island is at the edge of a vortex of ocean currents known as the South Pacific gyre, which tends to capture and hold floating trash.

"The quantity of plastic there is truly alarming," Lavers told The Associated Press. "It's both beautiful and terrifying."

She said she sometimes found herself getting mesmerised by the variety and colours of the plastic that litters the island before the tragedy of it would sink in again.

Lavers and six others stayed on the island for 3 1/2 months in 2015 while conducting the study. They found the trash weighed an estimated 17.6 tonnes and that more than two-thirds of it was buried in shallow sediment on the beaches.

Lavers said she noticed green toy soldiers that looked identical to those her brother played with as a child in the early 1980s, as well as red motels from the Monopoly board game.

She said the most common items they found were cigarette lighters and toothbrushes. One of the strangest was a baby pacifier.

She said they found a sea turtle that had died after getting caught in an abandoned fishing net and a crab that was living in a cosmetics container.

By clearing a part of a beach of trash and then watching new pieces accumulate, Lavers said they were able to estimate that more than 13,000 pieces of trash wash up every day on the island, which is about 10 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide.

Henderson Island is part of the Pitcairn Islands group, a British dependency. It is so remote that Lavers said she missed her own wedding after the boat coming to collect the group was delayed.
Luckily, she said, the guests were still in Tahiti, in French Polynesia, when she showed up three days late, and she still got married.

Lavers said she is so appalled by the amount of plastic in the oceans that she has taken to using a bamboo iPhone case and toothbrush.

"We need to drastically rethink our relationship with plastic," she said. "It's something that's designed to last forever, but is often only used for a few fleeting moments and then tossed away."

Melissa Bowen, an oceanographer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand who was not involved in the study, said that winds and currents in the gyre cause the buildup of plastic items on places like Henderson Island.

"As we get more and more of these types of studies, it is bringing home the reality of plastic in the oceans," Bowen said.


Thursday, 8 June 2017

Scientists to eavesdrop on Maui dolphins while seeking answers on their habits

Scientists are set to eavesdrop on the critically endangered Maui dolphin, as part of a year-long, Niwa-led project.

Latest estimates put the Maui dolphin population between 57 and 65 so scientists want to find out more about them in an effort to improve their chances of survival.

Maui dolphins are only found on the west coast of the North Island, with the greatest concentration between Manukau Harbour and Port Waikato.

While they are known to congregate close to shore in water less than 20 metres deep, it is uncertain how far offshore they travel and what risks they might face in doing so.
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As part of a collaborative project between the Department of Conservation, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the University of Auckland, Niwa marine ecologists Dr Kim Goetz and Dr Krista Hupman are this month deploying a line of up to nine offshore acoustic moorings stretching from the shoreline to 12m offshore just south of Manukau Harbour.

Each mooring will carry two acoustic devices.

A cetacean and porpoise detector (CPOD) will record detections of the high frequency "clicks" the dolphins produce to hunt prey and navigate.
The second device, a soundtrap, will record a subset of both clicks and whistles.

Goetz said the first step was to establish how far offshore they can be detected.

"Acoustic monitoring provides a reliable way to detect the presence of marine mammals over a long time period," she said.

"In terms of Maui dolphins, we really know very little about their seasonal movements, offshore distribution, and ultimately why they appear to be confined to this area.

"They are an endangered animal so anything we can contribute to increasing our knowledge will be very useful."

A photographic survey of Maui dolphins takes place annually, where distinguishing marks and scars are correlated with known animals.

In addition, mark-recapture biopsy surveys to estimate the number of dolphins is conducted across two years, every five years.

The last one was completed in 2016 so the next one will begin in 2020.

While this provided a valuable snapshot at a given time, Goetz said the acoustic survey would add to this data by providing information collected over an entire year.


Monday, 5 June 2017

Man-made chemicals are destroying marine life of Great Barrier Reef

Chemicals from human cosmetics and drugs have been found in the blood of turtles living in Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Green turtles were found to have hundreds of thousands of different chemicals in their blood stream, which had caused the animals to suffer from liver dysfunction.

Scientists said the discovery highlighted the devastating impact of man-made matter on marine life.
Medications for the heart (milrinone) and gout (allopurinol), as well as cosmetic and industrial chemicals, were among substances detected in the reptiles' bloodstream as part of an ongoing conservation project, reports Daily Mail.

Green turtles are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List.

Scientists said exposure to the substances had caused side effects in the turtles, with indications of inflammation and liver dysfunction.

"Humans are putting a lot of chemicals into the environment and we don't always know what they are and what effect they are having," said Amy Heffernan of the University of Queensland.

"What you put down your sink, spray on your farms, or release from industries ends up in the marine environment and in turtles in the Great Barrier Reef."

Researchers tested turtles at Cleveland Bay and Upstart Bay along the Queensland coast, as well as the more remote Howicks islands in the reef's north as part of the 'Rivers to Reef to Turtles' project led by WWF-Australia.


Saturday, 3 June 2017

A natural born killer

The weasel is the smallest member of the mustelids (ferrets, stoats, otters) and the world's smallest carnivore. It was introduced into New Zealand in 1885, to help reduce rabbit numbers, along with ferrets and stoats, but, although released in greater numbers, did not thrive.

The government changed its release policy in 1903 but it was too late. It was not until 1936 that legal protection was removed.

Weasels are found worldwide except for Antarctica and Australia. They inhabit a wide range of environments, from pastoral land and scrub to exotic forest and bush margins. They are great predators of mice but also prey on native birds, eggs, lizards, insects and frogs. They are efficient hunters, and will kill even when their belly is full.

Their slender shape and short legs allow them, uniquely, to enter the burrows of prey where they corner their victim, wrap themselves around the prey to immobilise it and then bite the back of the neck to kill. They then take over the burrow, lining it with fur and leaves to make it a den.

They hunt both day and night, mainly on the ground, but can climb. Hunts can cover 2.5km at speeds of up to 25km/h. Prey can include animals much larger than themselves, and surplus can be carried back to the den and cached for later use. Their body shape, size and metabolism mean they have a very high energy demand and need to eat one-third of their body weight in food each day.

They are known to 'hypnotise' their prey by dancing, but it is now thought this behaviour may be due to the discomfort of internal parasites.

Weasels have a deep brown-light brown body and a short brown tail. The belly is white with an irregular line where it meets the brown. Males are larger than females (150gm vs 80gm), and are 20-35cm long.

Territory size depends on food availability but can be 4-8ha. Females tend to stay within their own territory but males will roam further, especially during the breeding season. Being related to the skunk, they use scent marking, and will squirt anal sac secretions when scared.

Females have 4-6 kits per litter and can have two litters a year. Gestation is five weeks, with the kits weaned at 4-5 weeks. They are good hunters by eight weeks. Adults are solitary except at mating. Wild weasels can live up to three years but males rarely do, as their roaming makes them more susceptible to predation.

Control of weasels is generally by trapping. DoC 200 stoat traps baited with rabbit work well, and the newer Good Nature traps can be baited for mustelids too.

The collective nouns for weasels include boogle, gang, pack and confusion.