EC6C. Stay Current—Carbon in the Biosphere

cover for GSS book Ecosystem Change

Staying current for Chapter 6

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{ Ecosystem Change Contents }

Excellent video (15 minutes): Mountain Lions in Nebraska (2011) 

Latest articles (2022–2023)

2023-09-11. Red fire ants, a dreaded pest, have invaded Europe. [] By Erik Stokstadt, Science. Excerpt: Last week, international experts warned that invasive species are costing the world economy almost half-a-trillion dollars annually. Today, researchers confirmed that one of the most fearsome invaders—the red fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), a pest native to South America that packs a painful sting and infests houses and crops—has taken hold in Italy. It is the first European detection of colonies, which are known to drive out native ants and other wildlife and damage electrical equipment. …A genetic analysis of the Italian ants suggests they likely came from either China or the United States. In the U.S., the species causes an estimated $6 billion in damage each year. The insects spread internationally via shipping, especially of plants and soil. …The scientists behind the new study are planning an eradication campaign in Sicily. …Only New Zealand has completely eradicated fire ants after an invasion. Australia has stopped six incursions at ports since 2001, including one with at least 370 colonies over 8300 hectares….

2023-08-13. How Invasive Plants Caused the Maui Fires to Rage. [] By Simon Romero and Serge F. Kovaleski, The New York Times. Excerpt: When Hawaii’s last sugar cane plantation shut down in Maui in 2016,…the last harvest at the 36,000-acre plantation underscored another pivotal shift: the relentless spread of extremely flammable, nonnative grasses on idled lands where cash crops once flourished. Varieties like guinea grass, molasses grass and buffel grass — which originated in Africa and were introduced to Hawaii as livestock forage — now occupy nearly a quarter of Hawaii’s landmass. …After West Maui was hit in 2018 by an earlier round of fires …, Clay Trauernicht, one of Hawaii’s most prominent wildfire experts, warned in a letter then to the Maui News that the island was facing a hazard it had the potential to do something about. “The fuels — all that grass — is the one thing that we can directly change to reduce fire risk,” he wrote. …Fast forward to 2023, and Mr. Trauernicht, a specialist in wildland fire science and management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said the deadly Maui blaze has shown clearly how nonnative grasses — many of them on former plantation lands that have been left substantially unmanaged by large corporate landowners — can cause what might be an otherwise manageable fire to balloon in size. …Heavy rains that fall across the Hawaiian islands can cause nonnative grasses to grow in some cases as much as six inches in a day. Then the dry season arrives, and the grasses burn. Moreover, after fires ravage certain areas the nonnative grasses quickly sprout and spread, displacing native plants less adapted to wildfires, making the cycle more destructive….

2023-03-14. Pythons, Invasive and Hungry, Are Making Their Way North in Florida. [] By Patricia Mazzei, The New York Times. Excerpt: A study from the U.S. Geological Survey called the state’s python problem “one of the most intractable invasive-species management issues across the globe.” So much for all the efforts to slow the proliferation of Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades over the last two decades, including with paid contractors, trained volunteers and an annual hunt that has drawn participants from as far as Latvia: The giant snakes have been making their way north, reaching West Palm Beach and Fort Myers and threatening ever-larger stretches of the ecosystem. That was one of the few definitive conclusions in a comprehensive review of python science published last month by the U.S. Geological Survey, which underscored the difficulty of containing the giant snakes since they were first documented as an established population in the state in 2000. …“One python transited continuously for 58.5 hours and traveled 2.43 kilometers in a single day,” the review said of a snake followed with radio tracking….

2023-03-10. One of North America’s most dangerous invasive species is hitchhiking on fish. [] By Richard Pallardy, Science. Excerpt: Zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) are one of the most catastrophic aquatic invasive species in North America. Native to Russia and Ukraine, these fingernail-size mollusks have spread around the world, often carried in ballast water—used to stabilize boats—as larvae, where they’ve caused billions of dollars of damage to fisheries, water treatment facilities, and other aquatic industries by clogging intake pipes and robbing nutrients from ecosystems. Now, researchers have discovered a new way they invade—by hitchhiking on fish. …The discovery is particularly concerning because fish are highly mobile organisms that don’t have a means of removing these parasites. And lake chub and similar species are often used as bait by anglers, which means they’re frequently carried from one body of water to another….

2023-03-08. China battles alien marsh grass at unprecedented scale. [] By Erik Stokstad. Excerpt: Along its 18,000 kilometers of coastline, China has been taken over by a green invader. Smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) grows tall and thick across tidal mudflats, depriving endangered migratory birds of habitat, clogging shipping channels, and ruining clam farms. Now, China aims to beat back 90% of the weed by 2025. …The nationwide effort, launched last month, “is by far the largest action plan for wetland invasive species control in China and even in the world,” says Bo Li, an invasion ecologist at Fudan and Yunnan universities who was not involved in creating the plan. It won’t be simple or cheap, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, Li estimates. And schemes to dig up, drown, or poison the weed all have side effects. …Spartina, native to eastern North America, was brought to China starting in 1979 to stabilize tidal mudflats and turn them into land for agriculture or development. The plan worked, but the Spartina kept spreading and now covers about 68,000 hectares, about the area of New York City. The government has realized, says Yihui Zhang, a wetland ecologist at Xiamen University, that “the harm of Spartina alterniflora outweighs its benefits.” It dominates native salt marshes, outcompeting native plants that provide food for indigenous species such as the reed parrotbill, which has declined as a result….

2023-01-12. Cougars Are Heading East. We Should Welcome Them. [] By Mark Elbroch, New York Times Opinion/Guest Essay. Excerpt: Numerous cougar sightings were reported east of the Mississippi River last fall, encounters that have become more frequent in recent years. …Cougars once had the run of the continent, ranging far and wide. But they were virtually eliminated in the Eastern United States by the early 1900s (except for a small population that survives in Florida), victims of bounty hunting and habitat loss. …Newly published research by me and 12 colleagues has pinpointed over a dozen landscapes large enough to sustain cougars indefinitely in states that border or are east of the Mississippi….

2022-12-09. Animals Are Running Out of Places to Live. [] By Catrin Einhorn and Lauren Leatherby, The New York Times. Excerpt: WILDLIFE IS DISAPPEARING around the world, in the oceans and on land. The main cause on land is perhaps the most straightforward: Humans are taking over too much of the planet, erasing what was there before. Climate change and other pressures make survival harder. This week and next, nations are meeting in Montreal to negotiate a new agreement to address staggering declines in biodiversity. The future of many species hangs in the balance. Meet some of the animals most affected as humans convert more and more land: ….

2022-08-22. A 19th century farmer may be to blame for Australia’s rabbit scourge. [] By Jack Tamaisiea, Science Magazine. Excerpt: On Christmas Day 1859, a shipment of 24 rabbits arrived in Melbourne, Australia, from England. The bunnies were a gift for Thomas Austin, a wealthy English settler who aimed to establish a colony of the creatures on his Australian estate. …Just 3 years later, thousands of his European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were hopping about. By 1865, Austin would boast to the local paper of killing some 20,000 bunnies on his property, where he hosted rabbit hunting parties for English royalty such as Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred. …Austin’s bunnies were the ones that came to dominate the continent, a new study finds. About 200 million rabbits now wreak havoc on crops and native plants, causing $200 million a year in agricultural damage. And nearly all of them, researchers conclude, can be traced back to the fateful shipment Austin received in 1859. To unravel how the rabbit plague began, Francis Jiggins, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues analyzed the genetics of 187 rabbit specimens collected across Australia. They also tested potential source populations in England and France and a handful of rabbits from Tasmania and New Zealand, places that experienced their own devastating rabbit invasions.…

2022-08-15. Two New York Times articles about positive effects of invasive species: Death Valley’s Invasive Donkeys Have Become Cat Food [] by Asher Elbein – Feral burros wreck wetlands in the desert national park. But a study found that when mountain lions prey on them, the donkeys may help some terrain thrive…. and Pigs to the Rescue: An Invasive Species Helped Save Australia’s Crocodiles [] by Anthony Ham – Invasive species can damage the ecosystems they wind up in. But in parts of the world, endangered predators make hearty meals out of them.…

2022-08-10. From 300,000 rabbits to none: a Southern Ocean island is reborn. [] By Zoe Kean, The Guardian. Excerpt: On a world map, Macquarie Island is a speck in the Southern Ocean, but for ecologists it is a beacon, illuminating a future for grand-scale environmental recovery projects. Melissa Houghton first set foot on the 34km-long green streak as a dog handler in late 2011. Rabbits, cats, rats and mice had been introduced by sealers in the 1800s and were wreaking havoc on the world heritage site. At their peak, there were approximately 300,000 European rabbits and an untold number of black rats and house mice. During their trip, Houghton and a labrador named Wags found what would prove to be the last vertebrate pests left on the island: an adult rabbit and her young. In 2014, Macquarie was declared pest free, the largest island to successfully eliminate rabbits to date. Ten years after Wags sniffed out the last rabbit, the island has sprung back to life, and Houghton has stuck around to witness the change. She gave up dog handling, became a scientist and completed her PhD as part of the research team monitoring the island’s resurgence. …Houghton remembers being “blown away” by her first views of Macquarie Island after a three-day voyage south from Tasmania in 2011. Its beaches were crowded with hulking elephant seals and raucous colonies of endemic royal penguins. But Keith Springer, who was leading the Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Project, warned her that beyond the beaches the once biodiverse and unique island was so damaged that it was “nothing but a pretty paddock”. …Typically after an eradication scientists tend to assess how one charismatic species has responded to the pests’ removal. But Shaw is interested in how the island is responding as a whole ecosystem. “It’s not like someone turns the lights on and it’s back to normal. It’s actually quite a staggered response,” she says.…

2022-08-04. Fiery Invasions. [] By Warren Cornwall, Science Magazine. Excerpt: Around the world, flammable invasive grasses are increasing the risks of damaging wildfires. For decades, eastern Oregon’s scablands—rocky patches of open terrain—were a refuge for people fighting wildfires in the surrounding forests. The thin soil and sparse vegetation offered little fuel for the flames, creating an oasis from which firefighters could operate and a barrier that could help halt a fire’s spread. That all changed in 2015. After lightning sparked a fire near a steep-walled canyon, the blaze unexpectedly raced across scablands so quickly that firefighters struggled to catch up. …shin-high grass known as Ventenata dubia. The plant created shaggy golden carpets of dry foliage, transforming once fire-resistant scablands into flame-friendly corridors. …In northern Australia, invasive gamba grass from Africa fuels intense blazes that rip through eucalyptus groves. In Brazil, molasses grass from Africa turns vast swaths of the savanna known as the Cerrado into fire-prone grassland. In the western United States, two Old World grasses are creating ecological mayhem: Buffelgrass feeds fires in the Sonoran Desert that torch iconic saguaro cacti, while blaze-tolerant cheatgrass crowds out native sagebrush in the high desert known as the Great Basin.…

2022-07-01. The Giant African Land Snail Has Been Spotted Again in Florida. [] By Patricia Mazzei, The New York Times. Excerpt: …The dreaded snails — known to invasive-species connoisseurs as GALS — were spotted in June by a gardener in Pasco County, north of Tampa, the first time a population of them has been detected outside of South Florida. To try to contain them, state officials placed a portion of Pasco County in the New Port Richey area under quarantine this week. No plants, yard waste, debris, compost or building materials can lawfully be moved out without permission, for fear that the clingy mollusks will spread. …Giant African land snails typically “like humid, and they like dense vegetation.” “Of course, in areas that are irrigated, like in nurseries or in home landscapes, they will be perfectly happy,” he added. Giant African land snails are “one of the most invasive pests on the planet,” according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. They eat more than 500 types of plants — and also feed on stucco, “as a source of calcium.” They hide in cool, damp places during the day, feed at night and lay many thousands of eggs over their lifetimes. Some snails can grow to eight inches long and five inches wide. They can also carry a parasite, rat lungworm, that causes meningitis in humans and animals — if, say, people eat unwashed lettuce or other produce that the carrier snail has slid across, leaving behind a trail of slime.…

2022-06-23. Largest ever Burmese python in Florida found in Collier County. [] By Hayley Lemery, WGCU PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida. Excerpt: The largest Burmese python ever discovered in Florida was captured from the Everglades and brought to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida for research. The female python, weighing in at 215 pounds and 18 feet long, had 122 eggs inside of her, which is the largest egg count ever recorded for a python. The Conservancy’s python program has been conducting research since 2013 to understand the invasive species …. “We feel like it’s a win when we can target animals of this size. Remove them from the bioregion, repeat. Each season this crew removes tons of python. This was a two-ton season,” said Ian Bartoszek, wildlife biologist and python project manager for the Conservancy. …“The last meal this animal had was a white-tailed deer in Picayune Strand State Forest,” Bartoszek said. The team discovered this during their necropsy by finding hoof cores in the python’s digestive track. Researchers estimate the deer was around 75 pounds. “This team has been radio tracking invasive Burmese pythons for about the last 10 years, learning about their behaviors so we can find out methods to more effectively remove them from the ecosystem,” Bartoszek said.…

2022-06-12. Fish leather is here, it’s sustainable – and it’s made from invasive species to boot. [] By Richard Luscombe, The Guardian. Excerpt: Aarav Chavda has been diving off the coast of Florida for years. Each time he became increasingly depressed by the ever-growing void, as colourful species of fish and coral reefs continued to disappear. A significant reason for that disappearance is the lionfish, an invasive species that has boomed in Atlantic waters from Florida to the Caribbean in recent decades, and in numerous other places from Brazil and Mexico to the Mediterranean. Lionfish have no natural predators outside their native range – in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Red Sea – and are all-consuming, devouring an estimated 79% of young marine life within five weeks of entering a coral reef system. …Chavda and a team of ecologically aware fellow scuba enthusiasts decided to act by establishing Inversa, which turns lionfish into a new product: fish leather. On Wednesday, World Oceans Day, the team was recognised as one of nine finalists in the Global Ocean Resilience Innovation Challenge (Oric).…

2022-01-14. Ecuador expands protections around Galápagos, creating ‘a new highway’ for sea life. By Dino Grandoni, The Washington Post. Excerpt: The South American government will curb fishing in more than 20,000 square miles of ocean next to the archipelago, which is treasured for its abundance of wildlife.… []

See: articles from 2002–2008.