Extinction Blog


Rare coral cross-breeds to survive


Is it evolution, adaptation, or desperation? Rare species of staghorn corals have apparently started cross-breeding with other, related species of coral in a last-ditch effort to save themselves from extinction.

According to Zoe Richards of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, this "breaks all the traditional rules about what a species is."

The study -- published in the journal PLoS One -- found that the three kinds of Caribbean corals may not actually be the individual species they are currently believed to be. Instead, the study says that Acropora pichoni, Acropora kimbeensis and Acropora papillare are probably hybrids created by cross fertilization.

"Hybridising with another species actually makes a lot of genetic sense if you are rare and the next colony of your species may be hundreds of kilometers away," said Professor David Miller, co-author of the study.

The authors conclude that "Rare Acropora species may therefore be less vulnerable to extinction than has often been assumed because of their propensity for hybridization and introgression, which may increase their adaptive potential."

But this conclusion makes me wonder, when does a species stop being a species? If a species' genes exist, but no pure specimens are alive, has it really saved itself from extinction? Hasn't it really disappeared, and been absorbed into something else? And is this a natural step, or are human activities -- which threaten coral worldwide -- forcing this to happen?

All in all, this study leaves me both encouraged and deeply, deeply troubled.

Countdown to a rare plant's extinction


Say good-bye to the Corypha taliera. The world's rarest palm has just one wild plant left in the world, and it is about to die.

Botanists at Bangladesh's Dhaka University are watching the last Corypha taliera as it blooms, a stage in its life-cycle which will quickly be followed by its death. Once it goes, the species will be extinct in the wild.

Only one other Corypha taliera specimen is known to exist, but it was grown in a garden from seeds. The Dhaka University scientists will try to collect seeds from their wild plant before it dies, in hopes of cultivation. But they seem pessimistic: most other attempts to grown the plant in controlled conditions have failed.

For now, the scientists will have the opportunity to watch the 10-meter-tall tree bloom, with the sad knowledge that they could be the last human beings on Earth to see it happen.

Salvation (and media attention) for endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales


The unique population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska, has finally gained protection as an endangered species. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the announcement on Friday, after several years of requests by the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission and conservation groups like the NRDC.

This genetically distinct group of beluga are isolated from any other population of the species, and has dramatically dropped in numbers over the last few years. Just 375 or so remain in Cook Inlet, down from 1,300 two decades ago. Some previous protections existed before Friday's announcement, but they had not helped the population to recover.

Alaska Governor -- and Republican VP candidate -- Sarah Palin had opposed protecting the beluga, "in part because of its potential to restrict coastal and offshore oil and gas development" according to The New York Times. On Friday, she called the NOAA's move "premature" and challenged the data behind the decision.

Palin's role in this story has actually given it much wider exposure than usual for news about endangered species. So far, according to Google News, more than 500 news sources have picked up on beluga's protection. Quite a few of them list Palin's name in the headline.

Too bad we can't get the media (and the public) to take notice more often, but all the same, let's take a moment to celebrate this rare victory for the beluga whale.

Six degrees of kangaroo extinction


Global warming could drive at least one species of kangaroo to extinction if temperatures in Australia rise by just six degrees Celsius, according to a new study.

Using computer modeling, Euan G. Ritchie and Elizabeth E. Bolitho of James Cook University predict that climate change will have an immediate effect on kangaroo habitats. Over the next few decades, water will disappear, and with it will go the plants that kangaroos rely upon for food. According to Ritchie and Bolitho, a two-degrees temperature increase could may shrink kangaroos' ranges by 48 percent. A six-degree increase -- which current climate models predict could happen by the year 2070 -- would reduce habitat size by an amazing 96 percent.

Not all species of kangaroos would be affected equally. There are actually more than 60 species of kangaroos, a broad term used to refer to actual kangaroos as well as wallabies, wallaroos, pademelons and other Australian marsupials. Ritchie and Bolitho predict that the antilopine wallaroo would be the worst hit, as a two-degree temperature increase would reduce its habitat size by 89 percent. Six degrees would drive the wallaroo into extinction.

The study will be published in the December issue of Physiological and Biochemical Zoology.

Today is the last day to save the Endangered Species Act


More than 100,000 negative comments about the Bush Admin's plan to gut the Endangered Species Act were delivered to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday, thanks to the hard work of 120 groups who helped pull together the letters.

They were joined by more than 80 Congressmen who also wrote letters condemning the changes.

In August, the Bush Administration proposed new regulations that would slash the protections offered under the Endangered Species Act, as well as the independent scientific reviews so critical to its success. The proposals also came with two particularly heinous rules: public comments would only be accepted for 30 days (not the usual 120), and they would not be accepted by email, as they are for all other government proposals.

This attempt to railroad the new regulations met with immediate resistance, and the comment period was extended by another 30 days. That public comment period ends today.

You can still send your comments through an online form, but don't delay. They're due by the end of business today.

The worst thing about these proposed changes is that they are not subject to vote or approval by Congress. The Interior Department can make the changes no matter what, if they really want to. We need to ensure that enough people tell them that such a move will in no way be acceptable.

So make your voice be heard, before it's too late.

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