Save the Houston Toad

Hey guys,

img_0367Do you want to learn more about our very own native Texan the Houston Toad? Do you wish you knew how you could help save this endangered species? Well, worry no more! For our final project in conservation biology, my group and I decided to create an eco-friendly art piece of the Houston Toad along with an educational brochure with lots of interesting facts and ways to help. In the brochure we explain the inspiration behind the art piece, a little background knowledge on the Houston Toad and its native habitat, a deeper look into the captive rearing program at the Houston Zoo and ways in which everyone can help preserve this endangered species. I have also attached an interview we conducted with one of the full-time “Toad Keepers” at the Houston Zoo. If you have any questions about the information in the brochure or interview or about the Houston Toad in general feel free to write them in the comment section at the bottom of the page.

Educational Art Brochure:


Interview with “Toad Keeper”:



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Turtle Herpes Pandemic

How do turtles get herpes? Nobody knows for sure, but this particular strain of herpesvirus creates cauliflower-like tumors that may end up costing the turtle’s life.

Fibropapillomatosis (FP) is a disease that has been observed across all species of sea turtles, but it has become especially widespread among green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) at an alarming rate. The benign tumors that are characteristic of FP develop on soft tissues, shells, and even eyes of infected turtles, and when left untreated, they can grow to immense sizes, impairing the animal’s movements and vitals such as breathing and swallowing. So while these tumors are by no means directly lethal, they invite hordes of secondary infections and pathogens that may ultimately result in fatality. A study published in the journal, Disease of Aquatic Organisms, by Elliott R. Jacobson et al., of the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida, found that the likely agent of this disease is a herpesvirus, and subsequent research has narrowed it down to the Chelonid herpesvirus 5 (ChHV5), which shares the same family as human genital herpes.

Green sea turtles are already endangered due to factors such as nesting habitat loss, pollution, egg harvesting, climate change, and boat strikes; the alarming prevalence of FP serves to only exacerbate the marginalization of the species. The number of cases of FP have experienced up to a 6,000% increase from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, with FP spreading all around the world for specifically green sea turtles. FP is so globally pervasive that the outbreak has been classified as “panzootic,” the animal equivalent of “pandemic.” Yet, whether warmer waters or pollution, it is still unclear what exactly has caused this virus to spiral out of control in just one or two decades.

Although there has been no conclusive evidence pointing to the exact factors that had catalyzed the unfortunate ubiquity of this disease, a study published in Aquatic Toxicology by Cinthia Carneiro da Silva of the Federal University of Rio Grande discovers a “significant and positive correlation” between concentration of heavy metals in blood and the severity of FP, as well as a significant and negative correlation between cholesterol concentrations and FP (2016). Additionally, Angélica María Sánchez-Sarmiento of the University of São Paulo discovered that many green sea turtles have been exposed to organochlorine compounds, which are known to have carcinogenic effects.


Sea turtle with FP tumors on its eyes and soft tissue, which may affect its locomotion and survival chances

150607_10281_Honu w Fibropapilloma Tumors_” by Richard Morgan is licensed under CC 2.0

Surprisingly, almost all of the infected turtles are juveniles, raising questions about why this is the case. Karina Jones of James Cook University, who published a comprehensive, up-to-date review of FP in The Veterinary Journal, offers possible explanations. Her most optimistic one is that current adults and hatchlings have never been exposed to the disease, so only one generation (the juveniles) has been infected. Another optimistic possibility is that once infected turtles recover from the disease, they will simply acquire immunity as adults. However, there is another devastating possibility: all of the affected juveniles will perish before they reach adulthood, leaving only the unaffected alive and dooming the species. Jones reported that FP “grows on their [the turtles’] eyes, they can’t see predators, they can’t catch food, so sometimes they slowly starve to death — it’s not a nice thing for the turtles to experience… Severely affected turtles are quite skinny and have other pathogens affecting them – that’s why they die” (2016).

On a more positive note, conservation groups such as The Turtle Hospital, located in the Florida Keys, make an active effort to save infected sea turtles. They perform surgeries that remove FP tumors, subsequently rehabilitate the turtles, and then release them back into the wild. In addition, they collaborate with state universities such as the University of Georgia College of Vet Medicine to study this virus and educate the public on sea turtle conservation. Through hard work and dedication, the Turtle Hospital has successfully treated and released over 1,500 sea turtles since they opened!

Eradicating such a devastating virus will take many more years of specialized research, but that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from trying to help. Just because there is no definitive cure yet doesn’t mean that the entirety of the green sea turtle population is doomed. If people learn about FP and actively participate in efforts to combat other factors affecting the sea turtle population such as pollution, egg harvesting, and boat strikes, green sea turtles as a species will surely find their way onto a road to recovery!


Works Cited

Jones, Karina, et al. “A review of fibropapillomatosis in Green turtles (Chelonia mydas).” The Veterinary Journal, vol. 212, 2016, pp. 48-57.

Carneiro da Silva, Cinthia, et al. “Metal contamination as a possible etiology of fibropapillomatosis in juvenile female green sea turtles Chelonia mydas from the southern Atlantic Ocean.” Aquatic Toxicology, vol. 170, 2016, pp. 42-51.

Borrowman, Kelly, “Prevalence And Severity Of Fibropapillomatosis In Juvenile Green Turtles (chelonia Mydas) In Three Habitats On Florida’s Eas” (2008). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 3449.

Monezi, Telma A. et al. “Chelonid herpesvirus 5 in secretions and tumor tissues from green turtles (Chelonia mydas) from Southeastern Brazil: A ten-year study.” Veterinary Microbiology, vol. 186, 2016, pp. 150-156.

Sánchez-Sarmiento, Angélica María et al. “Organochlorine pesticides in green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) with and without fibropapillomatosis caught at three feeding areas off Brazil.” Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 2016, pp. 1–9.

Herbst, Lawrence H. et al. “Experimental transmission of green turtle fibropapillomatosis using cell-free tumor extracts.” Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, vol. 22, 1995.

Jacobson, Elliott R. et al. “Herpesvirus in cutaneous fibropapillomas of the green turtle Chelonia mydas.” Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, vol. 12, 1991.

“The Turtle Hospital. Rescue, Rehab, Release.” The Turtle Hospital Rescue Rehab Release. 2014,

Posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2016 | Leave a comment

The Walking Extinct


“Mammoth of BC” by Tyler Ingram is licensed under CC 2.0

Harry Potter and Stars Wars aren’t real, but Jurassic Park may soon be. Well, kind of. Dinosaurs aren’t coming back because they’ve been extinct for too long (66 million years) for their DNA to survive (it only lasts about a million years or less). But, the woolly mammoth might be a candidate, along with the passenger pigeon and other species we wiped out. Given that we killed them off, do we have a responsibility to bring them back if we can? It’s certainly an admirable aspiration, but before we pave the road to hell with our good intentions, we should probably not bring back the woolly mammoth. Not that there isn’t a role for de-extinction efforts, but it might be useful to develop narrower criteria for which species to bring back.

Douglas McCauley at UC Santa Barbara does just that in a recent paper in the journal Functional Ecology. He isn’t against de-extinction, just not for woolly mammoths, as they don’t meet his three criteria for which species would make the best candidates. First, when woolly mammoths first inhabited North America, they largely roamed on grassland. But, due to changes in soil pH, it’s unlikely that those grasslands would return, meaning that they wouldn’t serve a clear, irredundant ecological function. Also, since woolly mammoths have been gone for thousands of years, it’s not clear that they would actually enhance the ecosystem, and might actually hurt it like invasive species. Third, since mammoths first became extinct due to conflicts with humans, this might happen again, making it unlikely that there will be enough to form an abundant population, with him citing how “The high frequency of elephant-human conflict in Africa provides some indication of how poorly humans and proboscideans co-exist even in rural settings.”

On the other hand, Dr. Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist at UC Santa Cruz, might disagree, as she has said that the woolly mammoth is a “great choice” for de-extinction because of her belief that it would inspire people to be interested in science and also because it would be good for the environment, as woolly mammoths might help recreate grasslands that can insulate the tundra’s permafrost and keep it from releasing greenhouse gases as it melts. However, despite Dr. Shapiro’s expertise in this, I would still err on the side of caution and not try to recreate the woolly mammoth, both for the reasons Dr. McCauley brought up and also because I don’t think the inspirational effects would be enough to counteract the potential ecological damage done by an invasive species of that size.

To be sure, this concern of mine isn’t imaginary, as some Colombian drug lord smuggled in hippos to his country, and the hippos then proceeded to wreck the ecosystem. So, how do we know that bringing back the mammoth, another large mammal, won’t do the same? Also, it’s worth pointing out, as Dr. Shapiro does, that the mammoth we bring back wouldn’t exactly be a mammoth. We would likely use elephant cells as a starting point and edit the genomes to give them mammoth like traits, but the resulting creature would be a mammoth-like elephant, not a mammoth. So, if hippos from Africa couldn’t fit into Central America, how would a mammoth-like elephant from Asia fit into North America? It wouldn’t. Also, I understand that once the technology exists, it will be hard to turn back. De-extinction will be used, but I just want it to be used in a more restricted manner. For example, while the woolly mammoth shouldn’t come back, Dr. McCauley offers examples of species that would be better candidates, such as the Christmas Island pipestrelle bat, which only went extinct four year ago, and which would meet all three of his criteria.

Our impulse to restore lost biodiversity and undo some of the carnage our species has subjected the planet to is indeed noble, but we must approach this challenge soberly. This isn’t an either/or situation, where we either have de-extinction or we don’t. We can still use that same genome editing process to reintroduce lost diversity in species like the white rhino, whose genetic homogeny threatens to destroy its existence. Also, if we think a species is about to go extinct, we can try to sequence its DNA before it does, so that if we do try to “de-extinct” it, we can end up with the actual thing, instead of weird mammoth looking elephants. De-extinction will be reality one day, and instead of fighting it, we should manage its risks so it can yield the environmental benefits promised by advocates without seeing adverse consequences like those with the Colombian hippos, or worse, Jurassic Park.

Works Cited

McCauley, et al.,September 12, 2016. A mammoth undertaking: harnessing insight from functional ecology to shape de-extinction priority setting, Functional Ecology (no volume pages because version of record is available online, but hasn’t been physically published yet)


Interview with Dr. Shapiro (opposing view):

Environmental Benefits of Wooly Mammoth de-extinction:

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The Fall of The Honey Bee, or the Fall of Humanity?

2007’s Bee movie holds a special place in my heart. It features slapstick comedy, endless bee puns and a romance between a woman and a bee. All things considered, it has no right to be taken seriously by anyone. Yet the way I see it, Bee Movie conveys an important conservation message. It warns us about the dangers of taking bees for granted. The film focuses on Barry, a little honey bee trying to make a difference in the Big Apple. Barry and his Pollen Jocks thanklessly pollinate our flora, beautify our world, and stabilize our ecosystems. Honey bees help produce seeds, nuts and fruits through pollination, making them integral to maintaining stable ecological relationships. And so, as the Bee Movie alludes to, a world without honey bees is a bleak prospect for many. As Barry looks over a desolate central park (a result of the loss of honey bee pollination) the absence of beauty is not the only thing to be forlorn about. The countless species of birds, mammals, and insects who rely on the seeds and fruits of the withering fauna will no longer be able to sustain their population.  In the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, the loss of honey bees seems to be the tipping point of an apocalyptic future.

Aside from making us wonder if a grown woman could actually leave her boyfriend for a bee, Bee Movie raises valid questions about the future of biodiversity. What is causing this rapid population decline? Does the loss of honey bees suggest a barren wasteland in our future? If we fail to halt the decline of honey bees, we very well may be in trouble. The function of the honey bee is enormous, and while other pollinators exist, removing the honey bee guarantees wide-ranging negative effects. However, public uncertainty still slows down action. Many do not understand the ambiguity of “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD), so we must highlight the main drivers colony decline. From there, we can assert what the loss of Bees means not only for humans, but also for fauna, flora and ecosystems as a whole. Finally, more hypothesis driven studies must be conducted in order to directly correlate CCD with another factor.

2007, the year of Bee Movie’s release, saw a dramatic colony collapse event, with keepers reporting losses of 30-90% of their hives (“Colony Collapse Disorder”). CCD, characterized by the “disappearance” of worker bees,was thought to be some kind of biological disorder (“Colony Collapse Disorder”). However studies have shown it is more of an accumulation of various environmental factors. According to a 2009 descriptive study, the presence of Varroa mites and other parasites plays a critical role in colony collapse. Yet this study, which tested 61 factors, could not directly correlate a single variable with the presence of CCD (vanEngelsdorp, et al 2009). All we know is that Varroa mites, climate change, pesticides and stress put colonies at risk for collapse. A study published in 2016 showed that colony collapse could possibly be explained through an allee effect. The study displayed a critical minimum of adult bees was required in order for the hive to survive. If environmental factors increased mortality of adult bees, young bees would take up roles they were not ready for. Eventually, the entire social dynamic spirals into uncontrollable population loss (Dennis et al, 2016). As we lose up to 40% of honey bee colonies per year (“Bee Survey”), a question creeps into mind. What would we do without the honey bee?

According to Anand Varma of national geographic, “wild pollinators can no longer meet the pollination demands of our agriculture, so managed bees have become an integral part of our food system”. Each year, bees contribute an estimated $14 billion is to the US crop industry. But detractors say agriculture will sustain itself because the majority of food crops are wind pollinated, and will continue to grow without the honey bee. So while a loss of certain plants is likely, humans will sustain themselves on food crops like corn and wheat. Perhaps the desolation in Barry’s world won’t come to fruition after all. However, discounting the economic or gastronomic disadvantages of losing the honey bee, we simply cannot overlook its impact on biodiversity. As a pollinator with such a large function, its extinction will surely cascade down the ecosystem. The loss of fruits and nuts will make resources scarce for birds and mammals, while the loss of cross-pollination will greatly reduce the evolutionary potential of flora. Without cross-pollination, less variation and speciation will occur, and biodiversity will plummet even faster. Even if extinction is limited to a certain group of crops, the loss of random-chance mating is a great threat to evolutionary conservation.

So what is next for the Honey bee? What is next for us? It’s simple. We need another Bee Movie. It doesn’t have to be a sequel, Hollywood is very good at making reboots these days. We need something to make the bee more charismatic so people will really care about them before they are gone forever. Public support will fund more hypothesis-driven research, focusing on the breakdown of the eusocial structure within the hive. It’s a win-win situation. A world with bees is a world worth saving, so let’s do all we can while they are still around.4614903890_b8ee98bcc7_o

Honeybees by Brainpop CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Works Cited

“Bee Survey: Lower Winter Losses, Higher Summer Losses, Increased Total Annual Losses : USDA ARS” N. p., 2016. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

“Colony Collapse Disorder | Protecting Bees And Other Pollinators From Pesticides | US EPA”. N. p., 2016. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

Dennis, Brian and William Kemp. “How Hives Collapse: Allee Effects, Ecological Resilience, And The Honey Bee”. PLOS ONE 11.2 (2016): e0150055. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

vanEngelsdorp, Dennis et al. “Colony Collapse Disorder: A Descriptive Study”. PLOS ONE 4.8 (2009): e6481. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

Varma, Anan. “The first 21 days of a bee’s life”. TED2015. Web. Mar 2015.

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Preventing the Apocalpyse

Based on modern environmental practices, the apocalyptic desert world of Mad Max: Fury Road may be the future we are heading towards, but recent research has revealed that certain practices may prevent such a disaster and even encourage environmental growth.

6037085671_c0dfd147cb_bHuman-made shell middens may be improving life for western redcedar.Hiker and western redcedar (Thuja plicata) on Elliott Creek Trail to Goat Lake” by Miguel Vieira is licensed under CC 2.0


In a recent study published in the journal, Nature Communications, Dr. Brian M. Starzomski and his fellow researchers of the University of Victoria discovered that resource use in the intertidal zone or the seashore by the Coastal First Nations, a Native American group, actually helped improve forest productivity over millennia.  The team looked at how the soil composition at places where humans lived affected the growth of Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) in British Columbia, Canada.

The Coastal First Nations have lived in British Columbia for over 13,000 years. They mostly occupied areas near the shore to be close to many land resources such as edible plants and animals as well as marine resources such as fish and clams. Over time, human waste such as rocks, bones, plant material, charcoal, artefacts, and most significantly, shells, collected in shell middens at these sites. Because of a series of smallpox outbreaks in the 1800s, most of these sites have not been occupied as much in the last 150–250 years. However the presence of shells as well as the use of fire has changed the species composition of the forest and understory around these areas. In addition, the majority of the area studied has not been put into commercial use, so the environment has been well preserved.

It appears that the shells, charcoal, and other debris in the shell middens have significantly increased nutrient input, especially calcium. Decaying shells slowly release calcium in the form of calcium carbonate which remains in the soil and is important for the growth of western redcedar. In fact, calcium deficiencies have been proposed as an important reason for the death of the top leaves and branches of western redcedar. Calcium carbonate and charcoal left over from human fires also increase soil pH which can increase the accessibility of other important nutrients such as phosphorous32. In addition, the structure of shell middens can increase soil drainage. All of these factors help increase the growth of western redcedar and general forest productivity which was measured in terms of the height, width, and the area of the upper layer of the forest, and the greenness of the vegetation.

Dr. Starzomski and his team used airborne lidar, a detection system which uses lasers to measure distance, surveys of trees to detect past use of fire, modelling of trees and the terrain, and other ecological methods to study how long-term human occupation affected forest productivity at an area on the Central Coast of British Columbia. They compared measurements of forest productivity at habitation sites to those of forests along the entire coast in the study area. The team found that forest productivity was highest near habitation sites and decreased around 200 meters from the borders of the shell middens. For example, trees that were growing on habitation sites were much taller than those growing far away, and deeper shell middens had a greater impact on forest productivity. Clearly, humans living at these sites positively impacted the forest in this case.

To be sure, it has been previously shown that local patterns in forest productivity on the coast is primarily driven by insolation or solar energy received per square centimeter per minute, soil water retention, and nutrient accessability. However, the scientists’ data show that while these factors are influential, distance from human habitation sites is one of the most important factors for predicting forest productivity.

Dr. Andrew J. Trant, the lead researcher with the University of Waterloo, stated that “this work reinforces the local indigenous world views of connectednes…has important implications for helping us to think about what is ‘wild’ or ‘pristine’…and demonstrates just how persistent some eco-cultural legacies are.” With this knowledge, hopefully people will take into account their own practices of environmental sustainability and understand that although we have the power to make the earth into an apocalyptic wasteland, we also have the ability to nurture it and leave it even better than it was before.

Works Cited

Andrew J. Trant, Wiebe Nijland,  Kira M. Hoffman, Darcy L. Mathews, Duncan McLaren, Trisalyn A. Nelson & Brian M. Starzomski, August 30, 2016. Intertidal resource use over millennia enhances forest productivity, Nature Communications, Volume 7 Article 12491.

Posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2016 | Leave a comment

Why the White Rhinoceros is Anything but a White Elephant


White Rhino Eye
by Sara Yeomans CC 2.0

If you travel to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya you will have the opportunity to view the last three Northern White Rhinoceroses on the planet. Unable to reproduce, these three aging rhinos are the last relic of the once populous species that used to thrive in Northern African climate (Ryder at al., Zoo Biology). That is, until scientists are able to perfect cellular technologies that will give them the ability to repopulate the Northern White Rhinoceros as well as other endangered species.

More species are becoming endangered or extinct in our lifetime than ever as we enter the sixth great extinction period, otherwise known as the Anthropocene. Conservation biologists are tirelessly working to preserve the habitats of these creatures, but what if there was a way to undo part of the damage that was already done? If scientists are successfully able to repopulate the White Rhinoceros, we are setting ourselves up to also bring back some of the many other species that we have lost.

Even with a limited conservation budget, working to revive the White Rhino is still worth it. While it may seem more fun to bring back the woolly mammoth, or create a real world Jurassic Park (without the escaped, out of control dinosaurs part), these rhinos are still a living breathing species that need our help to make it. They are also a species that didn’t go extinct by natural causes, or even secondhand human causes (like introducing an invasive species or global warming), but because they were poached into extinction. In this case, isn’t it our responsibility to try to undo our mistakes before the ecosystem moves on without the rhino and it’s too late? Focusing research on saving the white rhino would also serve as a way to further advance our genetic technologies. With the large impact humanity has had on the planet, conservation biology has turned into a race against time. The fact that we are struggling to distribute funding shouldn’t be the end for projects such as this one, but as a start for movements to get more money into conservation.

According to the journal “Rewinding the Process of Mammalian Extinction”, the end goal of using reproductive technologies to recreate the Northern White Rhino population by using surrogate mothers is still several years away. There are many complications due to the old age of the remaining three Northern White Rhinos. Researchers are currently looking for a surrogate species to carry the rhino species back to a healthy population size. The first mammal embryo was developed through transferring the cells from adult nuclei into recipient cells as long as twenty years ago (Wilmut et al., 1997). Since then, we have been able to successfully reproduce the process for over twenty different species, indicating that discovering a process that works for the White Rhino would definitely be within the realm of possibilities.

To be sure, genetically recreating organisms from stem cells could have negative consequences as well. If an organism is reintroduced to its native environment from the brink of extinction, the ecosystem could have adapted without it, especially with all of the changes due to global warming. There is also the fact that we have to pick and choose where our conservation budget goes, and spending money on this could lead to less funding for other projects.

But if we are going to bring back a species from the brink of extinction, why not this one? The Northern White Rhinoceros was only completely moved into captivity a few years ago, so it still has a place in its old ecosystem. This would make it easier to reintroduce than a species that has been extinct for decades, because “introductions outside the indigenous range, or the release of long-extinct species, carry a greater level of uncertainty, because these constitute creation of novel ecosystems” (Seddon et al.,University of Otago, Trends in Ecology and Evolution). They have a close relative in the Southern White Rhino that we can potentially use as a surrogate, even though these two species are found in separate parts of Africa. This isn’t a species where we can try to rebuild the population in captivity, or hope if we stop poaching they will return back to what they once were. Their only hope is in-vitro fertilization. We have the chance to stop another species from falling through our grasp into extinction. The question shouldn’t be why bother investing in the technology to give this species a second chance, but why do we require so much convincing to believe that an entire species is worth the effort it takes to save it?

Saragusty, Joseph, Sebastian Diecke, Micha Drukker, Barbara Durrant, Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun, Cesare Galli, Frank Göritz, Katsuhiko Hayashi, Robert Hermes, Susanne Holtze, Stacey Johnson, Giovanna Lazzari, Pasqualino Loi, Jeanne F. Loring, Keisuke Okita, Marilyn B. Renfree, Steven Seet, Thomas Voracek, Jan Stejskal, Oliver A. Ryder, and Thomas B. Hildebrandt. “Rewinding the Process of Mammalian Extinction.” Zoo Biology 35.4 (2016): 280-92. Wiley Online Library. Web. 3 Sept. 2016. <>.

Seddon, P. J., Moehrenschlager, A., & Ewen, J. (2014). Reintroducing resurrected species: Selecting DeExtinction candidates. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 29(3), 140-147. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2014.01.007

Wilmut I, Schnieke AE, McWhir J, Kind AJ, Campbell KH. 1997. Viable offspring derived from fetal and adult mammalian cells. Nature 385(6619):810–813.

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Coastal Development Spells Frightful Demise for Bat Populations


Myotis macropus” by Michael Pennay is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although the coast is an extremely popular place to live, commercial development is causing a ghoulish decline in bat inhabitants.  While coastal areas account for only 4% of the land on earth, 60% of the global population lives along the coast (UNEP/UN, 2006; Bellio and Kinsford, 2013). The coastal ecosystems are frighteningly disrupted as commercial development continues in these areas, and fewer bats are haunting the coast as a result. Is there a reason to be concerned with these changes?

The degradation of coastal lagoons causes a decrease in activity and species richness of bats in Australia. Many insectivorous bats live in the coastal lagoons in Australia. As development of these areas increases, so do threats to the bat species living there. To many people, bats are creepy blood sucking monsters, closely associated with Halloween. In reality, bats are an important part of ecosystems and benefit us in ways you may not realize. The presence of unhealthy bat populations is an ecological indicator of problems in the entire ecosystem. Bats serve important roles in ecosystems by pollinating plants, consuming significant numbers of insects including many agricultural pests, dispersing seeds for ecologically important plants, and guano (bat poop!) provides rich, natural fertilizer (“Why Bats Matter”).

In a recent study published in Biological Conservation, Dr. Bradley Clarke-Wood and colleagues of the University of New South Wales investigated the difference in insectivorous bat species richness and bat activity in nine coastal lagoons around Sydney, Australia (Clarke-Wood et. al., 2016). Using Anabat detectors, the researchers recorded bat calls to determine the amount of activity and species richness of bats in low, moderate, and high quality lagoons. The lagoons sampled were classified as high, moderate, or low quality based on the water quality, amount of habitat destruction, and human population living in the area (Clarke-Wood et. al., 2016).

When exploring the lagoons of coastal Australia, you might run into one of the sixteen total species that the research team identified over the course of the study. Of the sixteen species, 7-8 species were found on any given night of sampling in high and moderate quality lagoons while only two species were found in low quality lagoons. Eight were not found in any low-quality lagoons and only three were found in every one of the lagoons sampled. The researchers recorded bat calls and used the number of bat calls recorded to measure bat activity. They also used the number of species found to determine the “species richness.” Not surprisingly, they found both activity and richness to be directly related to the quality of the lagoon sampled. In fact, the “total activity was on average 19 times higher in high quality than low quality and seven times higher in high quality than moderate quality lagoons” (Clarke-Wood et. al., 2016). This result shows clearly that the quality of the lagoons affects the species present (Clarke-Wood et. al., 2016). The most likely explanation for the decrease in bat richness is a decrease in roosting places (i.e. trees are being cut down) and poor water quality (Clarke-Wood et. al., 2016).

The study also tested the lagoon sediments for metals that result from urbanization and pollution. Scientists are worried that these metals could make the bats sick and be another source of terror for the populations. The low-quality lagoons had the highest concentrations of eight of the nine metals found. Some of these metals were also detected in aquatic invertebrates and bat hair.

Bradley Clarke-Wood stated that “when coastal systems are urbanized, habitat quality for biota declines because of loss and alteration of native vegetation, eutrophication and poor water quality” and that “this decline changes community dynamics of both vertebrates and invertebrates as well as the community health and biodiversity.” This means that without necessarily intending to, we are hurting important species and ecosystems in many ways.

On the other hand, the study did note that there was no significant difference between the invertebrate richness and biomass, or total mass of all invertebrates living there, between different lagoon qualities. This means that invertebrates seem to be uninterrupted by coastal development. In addition, the level of pollutants detected in bat fur was the same across all of the lagoons. Because the invertebrates (which the bats eat) are not affected and pollutants are not directly affecting the bats, some people might argue that coastal urbanization is not affecting bat populations. However, the authors note that the focus of their study was on bats, not invertebrates and they did not have a large sample size of invertebrates. If they had, lagoon quality may have been shown to affect invertebrates as it had in other studies. Bats also go through seasonal moulting, or shedding, which could explain the lack of pollutants in their fur. Despite these findings, the results of the study are clear, bats are very much affected by the quality of lagoons.

Jones and colleagues point out that insectivorous bats can be “considered indicators of wider ecosystem health” based on their sensitivity to urbanization “at the species and community level” (Jones et. al. 2009). The decrease in bat richness could therefore indicate poor ecosystem health due to urbanization of coastal lagoons.  Not only are bats at risk, but other animals and plants can also be in danger due to loss and disruption of habitat. Loosing insectivorous bats means that we are losing an important means of pest control, seed dispersal and plant pollination. Part of the appeal of coastal life is the wildlife that accompanies it. Would these places really be so spectacular if we lose a vital member of the ecosystem? These changes cannot be tolerated.

Consideration must be given to the ecologic implications of increased urbanization and development along coastal regions.  Greater urbanization does not correlate to improved diversity of the environment, nor can the ecologic status quo be maintained with increased commercial development.  Are these consequences important?  While fewer bats may be haunting coastal regions, we cannot afford to annihilate entire ecosystems just to enhance the enjoyment of coastal vacationers.

Works Cited:

Bellio, M., Kingsford, R.T., “Alteration of Wetland Hydrology in Coastal Lagoons: Implications for Shorebird Conservation and Wetland Restoration at a Ramsar Site in Sri Lanka.” Biological Conservation 167 (2013): 57-68.

Clarke-Wood, Bradley K., Jenkins, Kim M., Law, Brad S., Blakey, Rachel V. “The Ecological Response of Insectivorous Bats to Coastal Lagoon Degradation.” Biological Conservation 202 (2016): 10-19. Web.

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