IUCN warns at Hawaii conservation meeting that four of six great ape species are at high risk of extinction

September 6, 2016 Leave a comment

The International Union for Conservation of Nature added the Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla berengei) to its list of critically endangered species Sunday, raising the number of great ape species that are on very cusp of extinction to four.

The three other critically endangered species of great apes are the Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), and Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii).

There are six species of great apes. The other two species – the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the bonobo (Pan paniscus) – are endangered.

G. berengei includes two subspecies. One of them, Grauer’s gorilla (G.b. graueri), has experienced a decline in population of nearly 80 percent since 1994. There are about 3,800 individuals left. The other, the Mountain gorilla (G.b. beringei), has a population of about 880 individuals.

“To see the Eastern gorilla – one of our closest cousins – slide towards extinction is truly distressing,” Inger Anderson, IUCN’s director general, said in a statement. “We live in a time of tremendous change and each IUCN Red List update makes us realize just how quickly the global extinction crisis is escalating.”

The great apes are man’s closest relatives in the natural world.

Chimpanzees and bonobos share about 98.8 percent of the human genome. Gorilla genes are about 98.4 percent identical to humans, while the orangutan genome is about 97 percent identical to man.

The IUCN announcement came at its annual conservation congress, a gathering of political leaders, conservationists, and others, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

U.S. agencies: July is hottest month in recorded history

August 26, 2016 Leave a comment
Land and Sea Surface Anomalies, July 2016

This graphic shows blended air and sea surface temperature anomalies around the world for July 2016. Temperature data is shown in degrees Celsius. Graphic courtesy NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

The records kept falling as July 2016 set new benchmarks for heat.

NASA said Aug. 16 that last month was not only the hottest July in recorded history, but also the hottest month known since temperature record-keeping began in 1880.

“It wasn’t by the widest of margins, but July 2016 was the warmest month since modern record keeping began in 1880,” Dr. Gavin Schmidt, director of the agency’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said. “It appears almost a certainty that 2016 also will be the warmest year on record.”

This July’s mean temperature was 0.1 degrees warmer than the previous July record holders that occurred in 2015, 2011, and 2009, according to NASA’s study.

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration confirmed July’s status as the heat pacesetter for all months on Aug. 17.

NOAA said that July 2016 was 1.57 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average 20th century July and 0.11 degrees Fahrenheit above the previous record-holding month of July 2015.

That continued a decades-long trend for the month of the year that is the peak of summer in the northern hemisphere.

“July 2016 marks the 40th consecutive July with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average,” NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information said in a summary of the July temperature data. “July 1976 was the last time July global land and ocean temperatures were below average.”

The trend is not limited to every year’s July.

A new record for the warmest month of its kind has been set in each of the past ten months, according to NASA, dating back to October 2015.

NOAA pegged the hot streak at 15 record-setting months in a row.

The disparity is the result of differing methodologies used by the two agencies.

For the year of 2016 through the end of July, NOAA found that mean worldwide temperatures were 1.85 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.

The next-hottest January-July period came in 2014, when the average was 0.34 degrees F below this year’s measurement.

Both agencies use meteorological stations around the world to obtain air temperature data and ship- and buoy-based instruments to measure sea surface temperature. Antarctic research stations are also used to gather the data that underlies their monthly global temperature analysis reports.

Spacecraft in solar orbit regains contact with Earth

August 24, 2016 Leave a comment
STEREO image of whole sun, Feb. 2, 2011 - courtesy NASA

This image shows our sun’s far side. It was obtained by the STEREO probes on Feb. 2, 2011 at 23:56 UT. Image courtesy NASA.

A probe launched by NASA in 2006 has resumed communication with the agency after nearly 23 months of silence.

The STEREO-B spacecraft, which orbits the sun, lost contact with Earth on Oct. 1, 2014.

The Deep Space Network reestablished the link with STEREO-B at 6:21 pm EDT on Sunday.

The long interruption in communication with the spacecraft was most likely the result of a series of events that began with a test of its command loss timer. The device is a kind of automated switch that allows the spacecraft to recover after a hardware failure. It functions by re-setting the hardware if no commands are received for a certain period of time. In STEREO-B’s case, that re-set time was three days.

NASA explained a likely scenario for the communications failure at a website posted shortly after the loss of contact event and still available here. An animated film that provides one possible model for the probe’s communication failure is also available.

STEREO-B’s navigation system probably failed because it was unable to detect guide stars. This caused the probe’s high gain antenna to be pointed away from Earth, which meant that it could not receive a signal.  The breakdown in the star tracking system was likely the result of a failed laser.

“Basically, we made a mistake in not accounting for one of those individual lasers failing,” Dr. Joseph Gurman, the STEREO project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said. “The data still looked good coming out of the unit as a whole even though one laser was bad. That got us into a situation where the spacecraft was getting bad navigational information.”

STEREO-B remains in an uncontrolled spin, a problem for which there is not currently enough power available to correct. The spacecraft obtains energy by means of solar arrays that extend out from its main section.

Gurman explained that NASA scientists are not sure how much power the probe’s batteries can produce or whether they can be fully re-charged.

“We don’t know if the batteries are damaged,” he said. “We know they can take some charge.”

Whether the spacecraft’s instrumentation is still functional is also unknown.

“I would say that we know nothing about the state of the instruments at this point,” Gurman said.

NASA will proceed cautiously to investigate the STEREO-B probe’s status. What Gurman and his colleagues want to avoid is any command that would return STEREO-B to an uncontrolled spin.

“We have an inertial problem that is giving bad information to the control system on the spacecraft,” he said. “We have to proceed in a step-by-step method.”

The first step will be to figure out the extent to which the probe has, to put it metaphorically, any gas in its tank.

“We have to heat up the probably frozen fuel in the fuel tank,” Gurman explained. “We can proceed from there to use the thrusters to right our attitude by using the autonomy software.”

Gurman is optimistic, though, about the prospects for obtaining more data about the sun from STEREO-B. NASA’s prior experience with another spacecraft that experienced a communication failure – the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory – indicates that instruments can survive with little or no damage, even in the cold of space, for quite some time.

“On SOHO, there were 12 principal investigator experiments,” Gurman said. “Only one mechanism in one telescope was damaged in such a way that we really couldn’t use the instrument. There was one instrument that suffered some degradation. That’s about it. We’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to regain most of the scientific capability, if not all, that we had before.”

In any case, the STEREO mission formally ended eight years ago, so any data obtained from STEREO-B is beyond what was expected at the time of launch.

“Anything we get is gravy, to say the least,” Gurman said.

The probe’s twin, STEREO-A, also revolves around our closest star.

STEREO is an acronym that shortens the twin probes’ formal name – Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatories.

 

United Nations says 2016 on track to be hottest year on record

July 22, 2016 Leave a comment

A United Nations agency has predicted that the planet’s recent streak of record-setting hot years will reach a new threshold this year.

The World Meteorological Organization also noted in the July 21 statement that the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached “new highs.”

The current level of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeds 400 parts per million, a concentration not known on Earth since the Pliocene epoch, which ended about 1.8 million years ago.

In June the average concentration reached 407 parts per million, which was 4 ppm greater than in June 2015.

A WMO official pointed to the trend as a reason to emphasize public policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“This underlines more starkly than ever the need to approve and implement the Paris Agreement on climate change, and to speed up the shift to low carbon economies and renewable energy,” Petteri Taalas, the agency’s secretary-general, said.

The WMO statement highlighted a streak of record-setting hot months in its prediction.

Two U.S. agencies, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, have said that June 2016 was the hottest June on record.

NOAA also said that June was the 14th consecutive month to set a heat record.

“Another month, another record,” Taalas said. “And another. And another. Decades-long trends of climate change are reaching new climaxes, fueled by the strong 2015/2016 El Niño.”

Global Mean Surface Temperature, Jan. - Jun. 2016 - courtesy NASA

This color-coded Robinson projection map shows global surface temperature anomalies for the period that includes the first six months of 2016. Higher than normal temperatures are shown in red and lower then normal termperatures are shown in blue. Graphic courtesy NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Year-to-Date Global Average Temperature - courtesy NOAA

This graphic shows the deviation of year-to-date average global temperature through the end of June from the 20th century mean for the past several years, as well as for several other years since the late 1990s. Graphic courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

WMO also pointed to reduced Arctic sea ice during summer months, increased precipitation in some regions, and widespread bleaching of coral reefs as indicators of the climate trend that is likely to put 2016 in the record books.

New report says world’s largest primate is on fast track to extinction

June 22, 2016 Leave a comment
Grauer's gorilla infant

An infant Grauer’s gorilla is carried on the back of an adult. Photo courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society, photo by A.J. Plumptre.

The eastern lowland gorilla, Earth’s largest primate, is in rapid decline and has seen its population decline by nearly 80 percent since the late 1990s. There are now fewer than 4,000 individuals of the subspecies remaining in the wild.

Such is the bleak conclusion of a report released in April.

Persistent war in the animal’s home range, which is limited to a forested region in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is the leading culprit for the rapid extermination of the great ape species.

“Since 1996, the entire range of Grauer’s gorilla has been consumed in conflict,” the report said. “This has resulted in an almost complete breakdown in government control, including wildlife protection activities.”

Grauer's gorilla - courtesy FFI, photo by Stuart Nixon

Image of adult Grauer’s gorilla courtesy Fauna & Flora International, photo by Stuart Nixon.

The civil war in DRC began in in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide event in Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed into DRC. Upon arrival, they engaged in deforestation in the eastern region of the country. The inflow of Rwandans refugees also helped set off a conflict that killed millions of people between 1996-2003.

Although the war is over, the militias who participated in it have not disappeared. They control areas in the eastern DRC that are the only habitat for Grauer’s gorillas and, in that territory, they tolerate mining and engage in bushmeat hunting.

The mining, which is done on a small scale and often illegally, is aimed at extracting minerals used in the production of elecronic devices such as cellular phones, laptop computers, and gaming consoles.

Grauer’s gorillas, as well as chimpanzees, are hunted by the militia soldiers to feed the miners, which fund them, and themselves. Although protected by law, the large size of a Grauer’s gorilla means it can provide enough meat to feed multiple humans. Because the animal moves in a troop through its forested habitat, hunters can take multiple gorillas and feed even more humans.

Disarming the militias and imposing legal controls on the small-scale mining within Grauer’s gorilla habitat is a crucial step toward assuring the subspecies’ survival, said the report’s authors.

“Significantly greater efforts must be made for the government to regain control of this region of DRC,” Andrew Plumptre, a wildlife biologist with Wildlife Conservation Society and the lead author of the report, said. “In particular, the government needs to quickly establish Reserve des Gorilles de Punia and the Itombwe Preserve, and reinforce Kahuzi-Biega National Park efforts, which have community support, and to establish strong communication between [Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature] and the DRC military to tackle armed militias that control mining camps in Grauer’s gorilla heartland.”

The report also concluded that agriculture, poaching for body parts, and “socio-economic depression from over a decade of civil war” are contributing to the rapid decline of Grauer’s gorilla and other plant and animal species.

Stuart Nixon, a wildlife biologist at the United Kingdom’s Chester Zoo and a co-author of the report, emphasized that a speedy government response to these stressors is vital.

“Unless greater investment and effort is made, we face the very real threat that this incredible primate will disappear from many parts of its range in the next five years,” he said.

The most recent prior population survey of Gorilla beringei graueri occurred during the mid-1990s. Researchers concluded that a population of about 17,000 individuals remained at that time.

The current conflict is not the first occasion in which Grauer’s gorillas have suffered extensive losses at the hands of humans.

During the 1960s and 1970s many individuals were killed as grassland areas of their range were converted to agriculture and farmers used shotguns provided by the government of Zaire to kill the gorillas.

Gorilla beringei graueri is one of four gorilla subspecies. Like individuals of the other three subspecies, Grauer’s gorillas live in groups. They are thought to organize themselves into harem-like assemblages that include two males. A female matures at about eight years of age, while a male reaches full development after about 12 years.

A full-grown male Grauer’s gorilla can weigh up to 400 pounds.

Both females and males leave the group at maturity, with male Grauer’s gorillas staying together until each can attract females and form new groups. Females join a group or ally themselves with a single adult male.

Also known as the eastern lowland gorilla, Grauer’s gorilla is closely related to the smaller western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) that is endemic to central African forests.

The report’s authors recommend that the status of Gorilla beringei graueri be downgraded from endangered to critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

A species listed as “critically endangered” is just one step, on the IUCN hierarchy of classification, from extinction in the wild.

The report was published by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Flora and Fauna International and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature.

 

Look up tonight to see first summer solstice strawberry moon since 1967

June 20, 2016 Leave a comment
June full moon

A June full moon is also called a “honey moon” because it appears amber-colored through Earth’s atmosphere.

Today’s summer solstice in the northern hemisphere does not bring only the longest day of the year. Night sky watchers also have the opportunity to see, for the first time in 49 years, a full moon on the first day of summer.

The full moon occurs about once each month. The lunar year – the amount of time it takes for the moon to cycle through 12 lunar cycles – is 354 days; the lunar cycle averages 29.53 days.

A full moon occurs when the sun, Earth, and the moon are nearly aligned. During most  full moons we see nearly all of one of the Moon’s hemispheres from our planet. We do not see all of that hemisphere during a typical full moon because, if we did, the sun, Earth, and moon would be so aligned as to result in a lunar eclipse.

The other hemisphere of the moon is never visible from Earth because the moon’s rate of  rotation is equal to the amount of time it takes to orbit our planet.

Because tonight’s full moon occurs in June, it is colloquially known as a “strawberry moon.” According to the 1918 book The American Boy’s Book of Signs, Signals and Symbols, the nickname originated with native Americans of the northeastern United States because June is the month in which strawberries were harvested.

According to a 2012 National Geographic article, “Europeans have dubbed [a June full moon] the rose moon, while other cultures named it the hot moon for the beginning of the summer heat.”

The summer solstice in the northern hemisphere is the one day of the year on which the sun will be directly overhead at noon at the Tropic of Cancer. The sun is never directly overhead at a latitude north of the Tropic of Cancer or south of the Tropic of Capricorn.

In Colorado and the rest of the Mountain Time Zone of North America, the sun will get to its annual highest point in the sky at 4:34 pm.

Earth at summer solstice

This graphic shows Earth’s northern hemisphere at the summer solstice. Graphic courtesy Space.com.

The sun is directly overhead at high noon above the Tropic of Capricorn on the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.

The southern hemisphere experiences its summer solstice on that day and its winter solstice when the sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer.

CORRECTION, June 20, 2016, 5:24 pm MDT: This article originally stated that the last summer solstice full moon occurred in 1949, 67 years ago. That is not an accurate statement and the article has been edited to correct the error.

Asian fossil discovery may help explain how tyrannosaurs became dominant predators

June 17, 2016 Leave a comment
Timurlengia euotica - March 2016 - courtesy

This artist’s conception shows the tyrannosaur Timurlengia euotica in its environment 90 million years ago, accompanied by two flying reptiles (Azhdarcho longicollis). The fossilized remains of a the horse-sized dinosaur help explain how Tyrannosaurus rex and its close relatives became top predators. The paper describing the discovery was published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Illustration by Todd Marshall.

Researchers have discovered 90 million-year old fossils of an early tyrannosaur that may help improve scientists’ understanding of how that group of dinosaurs evolved into the predatory giants that later roamed North America.

The horse-sized animal, which would have likely weighed about 250 kilograms, apparently had impressive hearing ability. Its capacity to hear low frequency sounds can be deduced from an elongated cochlear duct.

Named Timurlengia euotica, the newly-identified tyrannosaur helps fill a gap in knowledge about how the relatively small theropods, which had to compete with larger allosaurs, evolved into some of the largest land predators ever known.

The discovery indicates that the tyrannosaur clade probably gained the sensory tools needed to become apex predators before late Cretaceous enormity took hold.

“Tyrannosaurs had to get smart before they got big,” Dr. Stephen L. Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and lead author of the paper describing the discovery, said.

Enormity on the scale so obviously presented by later tyrannosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex, which stood about five meters tall and about 12 meters long and weighed about 3,600 kilograms, evolved during the last 20 million years of the dinosaurs’ dominance of Earth.

Researchers found a brain case, which they then subjected to a computed microtomography (CT) scan. That scan revealed not only the animal’s inner ear structure, but also likely similarities between T. euotica‘s brain and the brain of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Brusatte wrote in The Conversation that these features likely helped T. euotica become a very skilled tracker of prey.

“Their intelligence and sharp senses made tyrannosaurs perfectly equipped to swoop into the top-predator role,” he wrote.

As the tyrannosaur head became larger, it became more useful for hunting.

“Their heads became giant killing machines and their arms, now unnecessary, shrunk down to nubbins,” Brusatte wrote in The Conversation feature.

The fossilized braincase, along with a variety of other bones, had been stored in a museum for about ten years. Brusatte and his colleagues examined them in 2014.

Reconstructed T. euotica skeleton

This is a reconstructed skeleton of Timurlengia euotica with discovered fossilized bones, highlighted in red, and other bones remaining to be discovered inferred from other related species of tyrannosaurs in white. Individual scale bars for the pictured fossilized bones each equal 2 centimeters. The fossilized remains of T. euotica may reveal how Tyrannosaurus rex and its close relatives became top predators. Graphic (c) National Academy of Sciences.

“Working on Timurlengia has been one of the highlights of my career,” Brusatte said. “It gives us a glimpse of what the ancestor of T. rex was – a tyrannosaur right on the cusp of becoming huge.”

The fossils were found in the remote Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan. Their significance was described in a paper published in March in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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