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This Week in Biodiversity News – 31st October 2022

Hana Ketley
Hana Ketley
Climate Change

100 universities in the UK have pledged to divest from fossil fuels, equating to 65% of the country’s higher education sector. The Fossil Free campaign, led by students, has been active since 2013, with the first institution, the University of Glasgow, announcing its divestment in 2014. Coventry University has become the 100th. Together, the endowments now unavailable for fossil fuel companies are worth more than £17.6bn.

Key UN reports published recently are warning that the world is close to an irreversible climate breakdown. The reports state that global greenhouse gas emissions must fall by about half by 2030 to meet the internationally agreed target of limiting heating to 1.5C or below, but they are still rising. This news comes ahead of the announcement that profits from the world’s seven biggest oil firms increased to nearly £150bn so far this year.

Conservation

The threatened Barberry carpet moth has seen a boom in numbers in a forest in Dorset, with the population trebling in four years. Experts found 50 larvae in Blandford Forest during their most recent survey, compared to just 14 in 2018. The moth was almost extinct in the 1980s, limited to just a single location in the UK. This drop was thought to be due to Barberry bushes being removed by farmers. Both Forestry England and Butterfly Conservation began planting Barberry plants in woodlands and along the edges of farmland in 2007 to try to repopulate the species.

The Center for Biological Diversity is suing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries in the US, as it says the organisation is not protecting endangered Pacific humpback whales from entanglements in drift gillnets. The lawsuit claims that, in the past two fishing seasons, about 12 humpbacks were caught in the California-based drift gillnet fishery, violating the Endangered Species Act. Several other lawsuits have been launched in recent weeks to protect wildlife, including one for the lesser prairie chicken and another for the streaked horned lark.

30% of forests in Sierra Nevada, USA, disappeared between 2011 and 2020. The historic droughts and wildfires that plagued California for more than a decade have severely impacted woodlands. More than half of mature forest habitats and 85% of high-density mature forests have either been destroyed or transformed into low-density forests. These areas usually contain high levels of biodiversity, with a range of different types of trees, but the increasing loss of these mature forests is threatening this biodiversity.

New discoveries

Six new rain frog species have been discovered in Ecuador. Scientists discovered all six species on the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes, in two national parks, within a 20km-radius of deforested areas. There are more than 550 different Pristimantis frog species across Central and South America. All six have been recommended to be added to the IUCN’s red list of threatened species.

A new species of mammal has been found in mainland Britain for the first time. The greater white-toothed shrew, usually found across western parts of Europe as well as the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Alderney, was spotted in Sunderland in 2021. The dead specimen was examined using a DNA test to confirm its species. There is other evidence that this species has been here for a while, with remains found in owl pellets in Ireland in 2007 and photos dating from at least 2015. Research is currently underway to discover how these shrews may have arrived.

Research

A new study has found that bees ‘count’ from left to right. There is a much-debated theory that this direction is inherent to all animals, including humans. However, as the opposite direction has been found in people from cultures that use an Arabic script, it has been suggested that there is a cultural element involved. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, found that after being trained to associate numbers with a sucrose reward, honey bees ordered numbers in increasing size from left to right.

A bar-tailed godwit has set a world record with a 13,560km continuous flight from Alaska to southern Australia, taking 11 days and one hour. The satellite tag recorded the flight of the five-month-old juvenile bar-tailed godwit, which was over 500km longer than the previous record. Juveniles migrate separately from adults, who make the journey up to six weeks earlier, as the juveniles use the extra time to fatten up for the long migration. Bar-jailed godwits can shrink their internal organs to make more space for these extra fat stores.

Hybrid songbirds are found more often in human-altered environments than in natural areas. A new study, published in Global Change Biology, found that hybrids of the black-capped and mountain chickadee, two common North American songbirds, were more likely to be found where humans had altered the landscape in some way. The study looked at observational data from the citizen science site eBird, as well as DNA samples from 196 black-capped and 213 mountain chickadees at 81 sites in North America. While they found a positive, significant correlation between hybrids and areas where humans have disturbed their habitat in some form, the study did not determine why these hybrids were more common in these areas.

Policy

The UK government has delayed its publication of clean water and biodiversity targets, breaching its Environment Act. The targets, which will underpin the country’s nature recovery were meant to be released on 31 October, ahead of the COP27 UN climate talks in November. The delay in publication means the delegation will not have targets to present to other countries. This is stated to be due to the “significant public response” to Defra’s consultation on nature recovery, with no date set as to when the targets will be published. This adds further concern to a number of environmentalists, as the government is currently reviewing over 500 pieces of environmental legislation by the end of next year under the retained EU law bill. If, by the end of this period, any bill has not been amended or retained by parliament, it will fall. Many critics are suggesting that it is unlikely the government will be able to review the thousands of EU laws required within this time.

Pollution

An analysis has found that scrapping nature-friendly farming payment schemes could worsen river pollution in England by up to 20%. Recent sources suggested that the previous government was looking to remove nature restoration from the upcoming scheme intended to replace the EU’s area-based payment scheme for farmers. 86% of rivers in England were deemed to not be in a ‘good ecological condition’, with agriculture being the reason why 40% of water bodies in England failed to meet this status, according to the Environment Agency.