Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Beaked whales' remarkable diving abilities revealed

A new study has provided the first detailed record of the diving behaviour of Cuvier's Beaked Whales in US Atlantic waters.
Cuvier's Beaked Whales is the world's deepest-diving mammal, but studies of their behaviour are constrained by the animals' offshore location and limited time spent at the surface. 
The new data, published in Royal Society Open Science, recorded from almost 6,000 dives of tagged whales off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, showcases the remarkable diving abilities of the whales, and provides new clues as to how they make a living at the extremes of depth and cold.
It found that the deep dives average around 1,400 metres and last about an hour as they feed near the sea floor. Even more remarkably, the whales only spend two minutes at the surface between dives. Jeanne Shearer, a doctoral student in ecology at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, commented: "It's amazing that they can dive to such depths, withstand the pressure, and be down there that long, with such brief recovery times."

The study found that Cuvier's Beaked Whales routinely divered to 1,400 m below sea level, only spending two minutes at the surface between dives (Emmanuel Baltasar).
To conduct the study, scientists attached LIMPET satellite-linked tags to 11 individual whales that live and dive most of the year in waters a two-hour boat ride from Cape Hatteras. One tag failed, but the other 10 recorded 3,242 hours of behavioural data from 5,926 individual dives – both deep and shallow – between 2014 and 2016.
Aside from the extremely deep dives that the whales make, the data showed that they dive nearly continually, with deep dives followed by three to four shallow dives that extend to around 300 metres. How they continuously dive to these depths without long recovery periods is still a mystery to scientists.
Past studies have documented the diving behaviour of the species in Pacific waters, Italy, and the Bahamas, but this is the first one focused in the US Atlantic. Scientists estimate about 6,500 Cuvier's Beaked Whales live in the north-west Atlantic. Populations in different areas exhibit some differences in diving behaviour, highlighting the need for data from around the world.
Shearer explained: "Cuvier's Beaked Whales are only half the size of Sperm Whales. Their dives push the limits of mammalian physiology, but we still don't know how they're able to behave this way."
Aside from adding to our knowledge of the species' remarkable diving capability, the findings provide a baseline for controlled experiments, now underway at Duke, to study their reactions to low levels of sonar.
"It's important to understand their typical diving behaviour in order to interpret the results of behavioural response studies," added Shearer. "These animals are fascinating and there is so much we still don't know about their behaviour and physiology."

Top scientists call for conservation research recognition

Leading scientists from BirdLife International, RSPB and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) suggest that the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) – the Government body that funds biodiversity research in the UK – should channel more resources to NGOs and charities. The proposal is based on independent statistics that demonstrate these groups are constructing science with high societal impact, which in turn should be reflected in the funding format.
A way of measuring the significance of research made by the three organisations can be found on the Web of Science, which publishes statistics on how many times published scientific papers are cited by other researchers. According to these figures, BirdLife ranks first in the number of average citations per environment/ecology paper, with the RSPB and BTO fourth and sixth respectively.  

The BTO has long conducted valuable research. One recent paper examines the contrasting fortunes of Little Ringed (pictured) and Ringed Plover (Fionn Moore).
Andy Clements, Chief Executive at BTO, said: "The importance of research undertaken by NGOs is further emphasised by the value for money it represents. Much of our science is driven by the observations of citizen scientists working in partnership with professional research scientists – a powerful combination for decision-makers and society alike."
Despite these statics, during the last five years, only 0.025 per cent of the £1.86 billion in government funding for environmental research through NERC was granted to the BTO, RSPB and BirdLife. As a result, the scientists argue that NERC should reconsider its reviewing system so that more weight can be given to the societal significance of proposed papers rather than simply scientific originality.
Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International said: "Given that one of NERC's strategic aims is to support research with the greatest societal impact, and given the statistics show that papers from the NGOs undertaking this sort of research are cited more highly than those of nearly all UK universities, perhaps a rethink is needed. Establishing directed funding streams for biodiversity conservation research, or giving greater weight to potential relevance for society when deciding which research to fund, would help NERC to meet its aims more effectively. Even a fractional adjustment could substantially strengthen UK research on biodiversity conservation issues, and benefit nature worldwide."
David Gibbons, Head of RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science, added: "It is really encouraging to see that the investment of nature conservation NGOs in science is having such an impact. Yet we must not be complacent as wildlife is still being lost at an unprecedented rate. The UK government could help greatly by ensuring more funding is directed to nature conservation."

Grant set to boost Welsh woodland birds

A new charity has been awarded a grant to help install 100 nestboxes in the Amman Valley, Carmarthenshire.
The Initiative for Nature Conservation Cymru (INCC) Community Connections Project has been awarded match funding of £3,231 from the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority (BBNPA), with £2,785 of it available this year to help volunteers make the boxes. They will then be strategically placed in Cwmamman Woodlands and are expected to be used by species such as Common Redstart and Pied Flycatcher.

Despite a long-term decline, Wales remains a Pied Flycatcher stronghold due to its preferred habitat of upland oak woodland (Michael A Eccles).
The project will with local volunteers and community groups to build and then install the specially designed boxes, with Pied Flycatcher one of the highest priority species. Deborah Perkin, Chair of the SDF committee, said: "We are always delighted to see new groups forming across the National Park to support our wildlife and our communities. 
It's particularly pleasing to see the charity's partnership with Cwmamman Town Council and their excellent woodworking facilities. Making bird boxes and monitoring the birds that use them is vital conservation work, and I'm sure it will be hugely enjoyable for all the volunteers involved."
Once the boxes are up and occupied the charity will begin monitoring which species are using them, as well as keeping tabs on other wildlife activity in Cwmamman Woodlands. The data will feed back to BBNPA ecologists and – next year – a further £446 will be available to host guided walks and evaluate the impact of the project.
Chief Executive of INCC Rob Parry said: "The oak woodlands of the Amman Valley should be an ideal habitat for Pied Flycatchers and other migratory and resident bird species. Thanks to the partnership, INCC can now celebrate the wildlife of the valley with the local communities and help them take a leading role in the nature conservation of the area."
Robert Venus, Community Development Officer for Cwmamman Town Council, added: "We're very pleased to be working with INCC in the delivery of this project. I feel it will have a significant impact on the future sustainability of our ecology and support community well-being through interaction with our greatest asset."

Major funding scheme launched for Scottish nature

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has issued a call for ambitious ideas to improve habitats, safeguard species and encourage increased access to nature as a new fund of up to £2 million to protect and enhance Scotland's nature was launched. 
The money will be available through the two-year Biodiversity Challenge Fund, which was announced in the Scottish Government's programme for government last year. The first year of the fund is now open, with up to £1 million of investment available in 2019/20.
The funding will support large-scale projects that aim to deliver rapid change on the ground to increase the health and resilience of Scotland's natural environment. SNH is particularly seeking innovative ideas that will help our most at-risk habitats and species, including mammals and birds, connect existing nature reserves and protected areas and tackle invasive species.

The newly available funding will help preserve and enhance nature and the enviornment in Scotland, in turn boosting rare species such as Crested Tit (Damian Money).
Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham launched the fund at SNH's Loch Leven National Nature Reserve, where she joined volunteers planting native broadleaf trees to attract Red Squirrels. She said: "Scotland is leading the way with work to protect our natural environment and we are committed to doing more to safeguard our biodiversity, species and habitats.
"I'm delighted to launch this new fund of up to £2 million, which should enable the creation and improvement of habitats across the country, providing vital support to some of our most vulnerable wildlife, as well as encouraging people to access and enjoy Scotland's incredible natural resources."

Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham launches the fund at SNH's Loch Leven National Nature Reserve.
SNH Chief Executive Francesca Osowska added: "Our nature – from the green spaces in our towns and cities to our remote and wild mountains, islands, coasts and seas – is a precious national asset and a big part of what makes Scotland so special.
"Scotland has been recognised as a global front-runner for our efforts to tackle biodiversity loss and safeguard our natural heritage, with notable improvements to our marine environment, peatlands, rivers and woodlands in recent years.
"I'm proud of the progress that has been made, but we are not complacent in the face of ongoing challenges such as climate change, habitat loss and invasive non-native species.
"This significant new investment will step up action by supporting ambitious projects to deliver concrete results and help protect our country's incredible natural resources for future generations."

New Zealand gull suffers huge declines

In New Zealand, Red-billed Gull colonies have undergone "unbelievable declines", with others disappearing altogether over the past few decades, though there is little public sympathy for the species, which is often deemed a pest.
Red-billed Gull was formerly considered a species in its own right, but is now usually treated as a subspecies of Silver Gull. It is found only in New Zealand, where is particularly prominent in costal urban areas, with a bold and loud nature. However, it's estimated that just 27,800 breeding pairs remain and the main offshore breeding colonies have suffered population plummets of 80 to 100 per cent since the mid-1960s.
Graeme Taylor, Seabird Scientist at the New Zealand Department of Conservation, said: "Red-billed Gulls have bad press because they are too friendly and too aggressive, they do not endear themselves to people. People see these big groups of birds hanging around for food and think 'they're fine' – it is very hard to break that perception. But in reality, they have had quite a substantial decline and [this] is ongoing."

Only one Red-billed Gull colony is considered to be thriving in New Zealand (Richard Collier).
Three main factors are contributing to the decreasing numbers of Red-billed Gull. Fish stocks are plunging, with changing marine conditions and intensive fishing resulting in less food for chicks. Additionally, coastal grounds which have been converted to support livestock and agriculture have threatened their natural breeding grounds. Furthermore, introduced pests – such as stoats and rats – eating young has further decimated an already vulnerable population.
To adapt to this increasingly challenging landscape, the gulls have become excellent scavengers. However, even that poses issues with improved waste management storage and facilities mean the there's less rubbish to consume than ever before. On top of this, young birds that grow up being fed by people at the height of summer often die when winter nears, as they never learn the skills to forage in the ocean.
Despite these problems, the protection afforded at the Royal Albatross Centre, at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula, could simultaneously help Red-billed Gull. Extensive predator control work to protect Northern Royal Albatrosses has also benefited the local gull population and there are now some 2,000 nesting pairs at the colony, though it's poignant that this is the only thriving colony in New Zealand.
Hoani Langsbury, Manager of the Royal Albatross Centre, said: "These aren't a pest, they are a key part of the marine environment out here on the edge of the Pacific. Stealing chips from humans is a learned behaviour. We;re in discussions with schools at the moment to try and improve relations between young people and the seagull population. This is their natural environment – it is us that have to adapt to them. The seagull is inherent to the character of our beaches. It would seem a quiet, deserted sort of place if they were to disappear."

Seized raptor eggs successfully hatch

The International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) in Gloucestershire has successfully hatched and raised several of the birds of prey smuggled into Britain by Jeffrey Lendrum – the self-proclaimed "Pablo Escobar of the falcon egg trade" – who was arrested at Heathrow Airport in June 2018 with £120,000 worth of rare birds' eggs. 
ICBP now has three Cape Vultures, reclassified as Endangered four years ago, with only one other centre in England known to have the species. Eggs belonging to other species, including African Fish Eagle, Black Sparrowhawk and African Hawk-Eagle, were among those also successfully hatched.

Only two centres in England are home to Cape Vulture (Bill Pickard).
Lendrum had attempted to smuggle 19 eggs from South Africa by strapping to his chest in a sling hidden beneath a heavy coat, but was caught by customs officials and sentenced, despite claiming the eggs were collected for "research". Holly Cale, ICBP Curator, said: "We have never had Cape Vultures ... so this is another species we are able to learn about and study. It's something that is likely to attract a lot of interest once visitors get to know about them."
Jemima Parry-Jones, director of the ICBP, added: "This kind of crime is heart-breaking because it puts everybody like us into disrepute and at the same time Lendrum impacting the wild bird population in its native countries by depleting it. On 26 June 2018 we had a call from customs saying they had stopped someone at Heathrow with 19 fertile eggs strapped to his body. Two had already hatched by the time we got there and one Black Sparrowhawk was broken in Lendrum's body pouch."
"An African Fish Eagle died three days after hatching due to a yolk infection so we were left with 17 birds altogether. We collected them in a portable incubator and brought them back to an incubator at the centre until they started to hatch. They were then fed three times a day and weighed. Now they have grown, the birds are fed once a day.”
Although hand-reared – and therefore able to live only in captivity – it is hoped any offspring they produce will eventually be released back into their native environment in southern Africa.

Space running out as Kakapo numbers explode

With 2019 set to be a bumper breeding season for Kākāpō, space is running out on the predator-free islands which play host to its burgeoning population.
The birds have started breeding earlier than expected, with the first chicks of the season having already hatched. New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) Kākāpō Operations Manager Deidre Vercoe says 2019 is shaping up to be by far the biggest Kākāpō breeding season on record, with almost every breeding-age female expected to lay eggs. She explained: "So far, things have got off to a great start with the birds mating earlier than expected.
"Unfortunately, fertility has been particularly poor this year, potentially due to the number of young males breeding for the first time. Less than half of these eggs will hatch into a Kākāpō chick, and not every hatched chick will make it to adulthood.
"However, we're still hoping for anywhere between 30 and 50 chicks. With a population of 147 adults, this will be a huge boost for this taonga."

Kakapo is currently listed as Critically Endangered, but targeted conservation appears to be paying dividends (Jake Osborne via Flickr).
As of 8 February, 151 eggs had been laid. This is in contrast with 2016, when only 122 eggs were laid during the whole season. The current population of Kākāpō lives offshore on small, predator-free islands such as Whenua Hou, Pukenui and Hauturu.
With a population boost expected, the DOC is now facing the problem of where to place the new arrivals. Kākāpō Ranger Bronwyn Jeynes said they have their eyes on a few options and are weighing up the pros and cons of each island: "The islands are full. We have to find new homes that are predator free, as Kākāpō have real trouble surviving in locations with introduced predators."
She added that the mainland would be an option in the future if the population continued to rise.
Due to the birds beginning breeding so early, the team are moving eggs and chicks to be hand reared in an effort to encourage 'double clutching' – meaning they could nest twice in one season. DOC's Kākāpō Recovery Programme has been working on innovative new approaches to improve the breeding success of the Critically Endangered parrot. Two such projects are 'Smart Eggs' and an assisted breeding programme. Both projects are experimental in their nature, but have the potential to dramatically increase the success of Kākāpō breeding.

Kakapo is a flightless parrot; its name comes from the Māori word 'Kākāpō', meaning "night parrot" (Jake Osborne via Flickr).
Assisted breeding is essentially a helping hand for Kākāpō to ensure that the species is getting the most out of the breeding season. It involves semen collection, sperm analysis and artificial insemination. This is to ensure that all founders are genetically represented, and also to increase fertility, since multiple matings greatly increases the likelihood that a female will have fertile eggs. Assisted breeding allows conservationists to replicate this with females who don't choose to mate multiple times themselves. These efforts will focus mainly on any second clutches.
Smart Eggs are 3D-printed eggs that mimic the sounds that would come from a real Kākāpō egg just prior to hatching, which helps Kākāpō mums better prepare for the arrival of their chick, thus improving the care they get in those critical first days.
You can follow the latest on the breeding season (including regular mating and egg updates) through the Kākāpō Recovery Facebook Page or sign up to the Kākāpō Recovery enewsletter.