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This Week in Biodiversity News – 20th April 2022

Hana Ketley
Hana Ketley

Climate change

Trophic interactions may prevent species from adapting quickly to climate change. A new study has found that predator-prey interactions cause some species, particularly large predators, to shift their ranges more slowly than changes in climate conditions. These large-bodied top predators will stay longer than smaller prey in historical habitats, partly because of the arrival of new food sources that have already shifted their ranges. Thus, they continue to occupy areas where the conditions mean they are less likely to thrive, potentially reducing growth and reproduction rates.

New discoveries

The first evidence of meningitis is Greenland sharks has been found. A stranded shark, thought to be around 100 years old, was found in March of this year. A post-mortem was carried out and showed that her brain contained a type of Pasteurella bacterium, which likely caused the meningitis. This rare occurrence is an exceptional opportunity for scientists to learn about this cryptic and endangered species, which usually occupies waters up to 2,600m below the surface of the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. In other shark news, several major brands have been found to sell cat food that contains protected and vulnerable sharks, including silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis). Researchers found that 31% of the 144 samples from 45 cat food products contained shark meat.

A number of new or rediscovered species have been found recently, including a tropical plant species (Gasteranthus extinctus) found in Ecuador, believed to be extinct for almost 40 years, and six of the world’s smallest frogs, which have been discovered in Mexico. These frogs, part of the Craugastor genus, may be classed as endangered, with calls for them to be better protected as they face a number of threats, including habitat damage and chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that is severely impacting amphibian populations across the world.

Policies

Dogger Bank, the UK’s largest sandbank, has been given protection from bottom trawling. Despite being labelled as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), the occurrence of bottom trawling at this site has tripled over the last few years. This activity has serious environmental impacts, through the destruction of seabed habitats, the release of carbon usually stored in the sediment and the disturbance of marine species that rely on these areas. Now, four bylaws have been introduced, coming into effect in June, which will ban bottom trawling in Dogger Bank, as well as Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge. However, there is criticism that only four of 64 offshore benthic MPAs are receiving this protection and only parts of Inner Dowsing are covered by the bylaws.

Conservation and ecology

Extinctions and habitat fragmentation may have contributed to the reduction in nutrient transport by wildlife. Stocks of phosphorus, a key ingredient used in fertilisers in modern agriculture, are diminishing. A new study has shown that, historically, wildlife transported a large proportion of phosphorus back to the land after it was washed into rivers and out into the ocean. With reduced species abundance and the erection of man-made structures such as dams and fences blocking natural migration routes, this process is being hindered, potentially creating an impending shortage of fertilisers. By restoring habitat connectivity and promoting biodiversity, these natural pathways may be mended.

In other biodiversity news, the decline in Poland’s feral pig population, caused by a disease outbreak in 2015, has had a strong impact on oak regeneration, with recruitment increasing twofold compared to pre-epidemic levels. Additionally, the critically endangered spotted tree frog (Litoria spenceri) is attempting to bounce back after being brought to near extinction by Australia’s Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020. Eighty frogs were released in Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales, giving hope for the species’ future.