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Snapping Snakes for Science — with your iPhone

An innovative citizen science project gains momentum, sprouts new branches

Tad Arensmeier/Flickr

Tad Arensmeier photographed this Yellow-Blotched Palm-Pitviper for iNaturalist.

The organizers of a new effort to catalog the world’s reptiles want to enlist you and your iPhone for their cause. The Global Reptile Bioblitz launched last month and aims to collect amateur observations of every species of reptile on Earth — all 9,413 of them. The project is the sister effort of the Global Amphibian Bioblitz which launched earlier this summer and, thanks to submissions from citizen scientists around the world, has already collected photos of more than 700 of the nearly 7,000 known amphibian species on the planet.

The observations are all logged at iNaturalist.org, an online citizen science community with more than 2,000 members who’ve cumulatively logged more than 30,000 field observations of species ranging from redwoods to coyotes.Observations can be uploaded to the site directly, or through an iPhone app, also called iNaturalist, which was launched earlier this year. Since we first reported on it back in January, the app has been downloaded more than 3,000 times, according to its developer Ken-ichi Ueda. Continue reading

Pika One Step Closer to ESA Listing

 

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

UPDATE: Federal fish & wildlife authorities have decided to proceed with a full review of the American pika, for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. The US Fish & Wildlife Service will formally publish its decision this week, including this summary:

“We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announce a 90-day finding on a petition to list the American pika (Ochotona princeps) as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. We find that the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing of the American pika may be warranted. Therefore, with the publication of this notice, we are initiating a status review of the species, and we will issue a 12-month finding to determine if the petitioned action is warranted. To ensure that the status review is comprehensive, we are soliciting scientific and commercial data regarding this species. We will make a determination on critical habitat for this species if, and when, we initiate a listing action.”

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) first petitioned for listing in 2007, and then followed with a lawsuit a year later, when federal authorities shelved the request.

The significance of this week’s decision, according to a CBD news release, is that “the pika will become the first mammal considered for protection under the Act due to global warming in the continental United States outside of Alaska.”

Last month a San Francisco court ruled that state wildlife officials wrongly denied the CBD’s petition for listing under California’s ESA. So it looks like the little critter will get a fresh review at both the state and federal levels.

Pivotal Week for Pika Protection

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

Note that an update to this story was posted on May 6.

The hamster-sized, high-elevation haymaker known as the American Pika has had its “day” in court–and then some. Now it may be making inroads toward listing as a threatened species, while questions persist over whether that would be premature.

Friday was the deadline for officials at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to decide whether to further consider the pika for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has been pursuing listing for the pika under both the state and federal Endangered Species Acts. On April 16, a Superior Court judge in San Francisco ruled that the California Fish and Game Commission applied too stringent a standard, when it voted last year to reject the CBD’s petition to list the pika under the California law. The CBD says it expects the court to formally order the state to go back and take a second look at whether the critter deserves protection.

Meanwhile federal wildlife officials had until May 1 to decide whether to formally review the pika’s plight and consider listing it under federal law. A response is expected to be published in the Federal Register this week.

Complicating the case is an apparent difference between the fate of pika populations in the Great Basin, where field research clearly shows pika colonies in trouble, and colonies in the Sierra Nevada range, which may be faring better.

Pika thrive only at high elevations, in the rocky conditions known as talus. Their band of tolerance for temperature is very narrow, so some biologists see them as an indicator species for global warming. Temperatures that humans may consider merely balmy, can be fatal for pika.

 

Chris Ray, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, has studied pika in the mountain ranges of the Great Basin. She’s identified and ranked several stress factors that pose threats to the animals, including habitat shrinkage and exposure to both heat and cold.

Ray, who presented her latest research at the USGS-sponsored Pacific Climate Workshop last month, is cautious about endorsing an ESA listing just yet, saying: “I do not think there are data indicating that the species as a whole is in danger of extinction, however the loss of isolated populations from the Great Basin has me concerned.”

“I think it’s very reasonable to consider potentially listing some sub-populations of pika.” Ray says that in order to do that, a case would have to be made that there are genetically distinct sub-species of pika. In its petition, CBD claims that five sub-species have been identified in California. But scientists at UC Berkeley and the U.S. Forest Service who have done field research in the Sierra, have said it’s less clear that those colonies are in trouble.

CBD staff biologist Shaye Wolf says a 1995 study found “evidence for four genetic units across the pika range, roughly grouped as Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Southern Rockies, and Northern Rockies. However, better genetic analyses using more sensitive genetic markers (like microsatellites) are necessary to understand pika population structure.”

Wolf says that for its ESA petition, the CBD drew on a 1981 study that used population distribution to break out 36 “subspecies” of pika.

The Insidious Side of Climate Change

If you think climate change just means hotter summers in California, think again. The writer of this week’s guest post argues that we’ll all “feel the heat” in myriad ways, both obvious and subtle.

Climate and Nature
by Anthony Barnosky

Some impacts of climate change in California are pretty obvious, things like rising sea level submerging large parts of the San Francisco Bay region, or drought cutting into our water supplies.  Less obvious, but every bit as important, are impacts on something you probably don’t even know you have: your relationship with nature.

One part of that relationship is the concept of “ecosystem services;” the direct benefits you get from nature.  California’s Climate Action Team highlighted some of the state’s ecosystem services in their recent report.  Examples include the ski trip you may have taken this winter, the salmon fillet you may have bought at the grocery store, or surprisingly, even your hamburger.

barnosky_snowfunSnow will be less, soggier, at higher elevations, and on the ground for fewer days of the winter, melting some of the $500 million-per-year revenues of the ski industry–not to mention melting your favorite ski run.  Altered river dynamics and temperatures will almost certainly cut into the state’s $33-million-per-year salmon industry. Climate-caused loss of forage means that in 2070 California’s cattle ranchers will be losing up to $92 million in comparison to today’s markets, which means higher beef prices at the grocery store.  Combined, the losses in these ecosystem services likely will cost the state’s already suffering economy well over a hundred million dollars per year as we move into the next few decades. And those are just three of many ecosystem services that will be affected.

A second part of your relationship to nature is the species around you, that is to say, biodiversity. Simply put, biodiversity is which species live in a place, and the extent to which those species are rare or common.  In general, biodiversity means more productive and healthier ecosystems, which translates as more benefits to humans that inhabit those areas.  As it turns out, California is a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot, unique in the world.  But biodiversity losses from global warming promise to be severe: one study predicts that two-thirds of the 2387 plant species found only in the state will lose 80% of their range within the century.

barnosky_icylakeThe third part of your relationship to nature is how it makes you feel.  There’s no question: you can’t get the same feeling you get looking at a giant redwood anywhere but in a redwood forest.   Among species that may have little or no suitable climate left in California, however, are its coastal redwoods and sequoias.

Such impacts of climate change on nature are not confined to California.   Many other reports indicate that global warming is redefining our relationship to nature worldwide.  As with other impacts, this one can be partially mitigated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately, but also will require some new management strategies for preserving nature in the age of global warming.  California, in particular, has a lot to lose.

Anthony D. Barnosky is a Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the recently published Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. You can read more on this topic in his blog. Photos by the author.

Barnosky is scheduled to appear Saturday as part of Berkeley’s “Cal Day” activities. His talk is scheduled for noon at the Valley Life Sciences Bldg, Room 2060, followed by a book-signing at the T-Rex (which is hard to miss).

Climate Linked to "Silent Streams"?

Memo to anglers: If you’re wondering why they’re not biting, it may be because they’re not there. Little noticed this week was a report from the U.S. Geological Survey, detailing the staggering losses that freshwater fish species have suffered across the U.S. The report describes nearly 40% of North America’s freshwater fishes as “imperiled.” The figure represents a 92% increase over a similar survey done in 1989 by the American Fisheries Society, which participated in the new report. USGS director Mark Myers cited loss of habitat and invasive species as primary causes for the decline but noted that “climate change may further affect these fish.” The news is worse for California, as topping the Survey’s at-risk list are “salmon and trout of the Pacific Coast and western mountain regions.”

Release of the report followed by one day Terry Root’s keynote presentation at the California Climate Change Conference, in which the Stanford researcher warned of a catastrophic loss of trout habitat in California, due in part to climate change.