Sea Otter, © Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures

© Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures

There Oughta Be More Otters

These days when you see the words “sluggish” and “recovery” paired in the same sentence, the story is almost always about the economy. But in California, the words hold true for sea otters, too.

During the spring census completed in June, U.S. Geological Survey scientists say 2,654 otters were counted. This brings the three-year average to 2,813, the lowest it has been since the late 1990s. And it means the population, categorized as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, is still struggling to survive.

Hunted for their luxuriant fur—the thickest of any mammal’s—the southern sea otter was believed to be extinct until a small remnant population was discovered living off California’s Big Sur coast in 1938.

“The population’s recovery has hit a lot of roadblocks over the years—with the always-looming threat of oil spills, to fishing gear, to food-supply declines and life-threatening diseases possibly caused by agricultural run-off, heavy metal pollution and even parasites connected to cats and opossums,” says Jim Curland, who leads Defenders’ sea otter recovery efforts. “But we’re still hopeful we can recover these magnificent animals.”

In July a bill that would provide much-needed funding for sea otter research and conservation passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a wide margin—thanks in part to Defenders’ activists, who sent more than 63,000 messages in support of the bill to their representatives.

Find out more about Defenders’ sea otter recovery efforts.


As the World Warms

When it comes to global warming news, what grabs the headlines are the dramatic and eye-catching: melting sea ice, more intense storms and droughts, starving polar bears. But behind the scenes, the changing climate is quietly wreaking havoc on all kinds of species, with consequences difficult to predict.

Take small mammals in Midwestern forests, for example. A team of researchers from the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio’s Miami University recently found that woodland deer mice, southern red-backed voles, northern flying squirrels, woodland jumping mice and least chipmunks are all scurrying to new grounds in the face of global warming. As they move out, historically southern species such as opossums and white-footed mice are moving in.

“We’re talking about the commonest mammals there, mammals that have considerable ecological impact,” says Philip Myers, from the University of Michigan, lead author of the study. “They disperse seeds, they eat seeds, they eat the insects that kill trees, they disperse the fungus that grows in tree roots that is necessary for trees to grow, and they’re the prey base for a huge number of carnivorous birds, mammals and snakes. But we don’t know enough about their natural history to know whether replacing a northern species with a southern equivalent is going to pass unnoticed or is going to be catastrophic.”

Farther north, biologists from the University of Alberta have found that caribou populations have plunged 60 percent in the past 30 years from a combination of climate change and habitat destruction from resource development. For example, Peary caribou in Canada’s high-Arctic islands face starvation when winter temperatures rise above freezing and rain soaks the snow cover. When cold temperatures return, ice encases the vegetation the caribou need to survive.  

There’s yet another worry on the horizon for the Arctic: Melting sea ice is not only altering animal habitat, it’s potentially opening up new pathways for pathogens. Recently researchers from two California universities and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented a seal-killing distemper virus in a population of northern sea otters in Alaska. This particular virus killed 30,000 harbor seals in one 2002 outbreak in northern Europe and had previously affected harbor seals on the Atlantic coast, but it had never before been documented in the Pacific. The findings, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also suggest that other predators and scavengers in the Pacific could become exposed to the disease.

Meanwhile, a study of fish populations in French rivers and streams and in the Baltic and North seas is showing that global warming is reducing body size, according to French and German researchers. The study found that aquatic animals have lost half their average body mass in the last 20 to 30 years, with smaller species now making up a larger proportion of fish populations. This phenomenon could affect the functioning of the entire ecosystem, because body size determines what animals can eat and what eats them, says Ulrich Sommer of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Germany. If smaller zooplankton-eating fish species dominate, it could pave the way for massive and unpleasant algae blooms, he says. Smaller fish would also reduce the economic value of fisheries.

Want even more real-life evidence of carbon emissions? Ocean acidification is no longer a theory. In the Southern Ocean, Australian scientists have found the first field evidence that ocean acidification caused by too much carbon dioxide in the water has reduced the shell weight of a particular plankton by a third since pre-industrial times.  

When carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in the ocean it lowers the pH, altering the water’s chemistry by making carbonate less available to organisms that need it for shell-building—in particular, a type of plankton that makes up an important part of the food chain. If the plankton population is severely affected, it could have devastating effects for marine life—and for us.

Check out Defenders’ new video shorts about animals getting burned by global warming, hosted by Defenders’ board member and Animal Planet star Jeff Corwin.


Original Twittering Still Popular

Here’s a look at the faces on the other side of those birding binoculars, as revealed in a report released this summer by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

One out of every five Americans watches birds, and in doing so, contributed $36 billion to the United States economy in 2006.  

Backyard birders number 42 million. Some 20 million people take bird-watching trips away from home.

The average birder is:

• 50 years old

• Female

• college-educated

• well-paid

• more likely to live in the urban South (33 percent) or the Midwest (27 percent).

Get a state-by-state breakdown and other fun statistics from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Expecting to Fly

Here’s something to crow—or caw—about: Down to just 70 birds in 1987, the Lear’s macaw, one of the world’s most spectacular parrots, now numbers more than 750 birds. The rebound comes after the protection of the parrot’s primary breeding habitat in Brazil, the only place in the world it is found.

Still threatened by hunting and the illegal pet trade, this bright blue bird isn’t out of the woods yet. But thanks to concerted efforts by several groups, including the American Bird Conservancy, to acquire properties and increase vital habitat, the Lear’s macaw population might just be on the mend.

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