Fraudulent microchip use and compliance issues found on controversial lion farms in the Free State, South Africa

Operating without valid permits and inconsistent record keeping were some of the irregularities found on commercial facilities for captive lions.

A number of serious management and compliance issues were revealed on lion farms in the Free State province, South Africa, by a joint team of researchers from MONITOR, Blood Lions, and World Animal Protection. Potentially fraudulent activities relating to the use of microchips, operating without valid permits, and incomplete, inconsistent, and unclear record keeping were some of the irregularities found on commercial facilities that keep and trade captive lions and other predators.

Lions on a commercial lion farm in South Africa. Photo by Blood Lions

African lions are legally farmed in South Africa for commercial uses in interactive tourism activities, such as cub petting, voluntourism, or the “canned” hunting industry (where captive-bred lions are released into a confined space to be killed for sport). Other reasons include trade in live animals, or selling their body parts for the needs of traditional Asian Medicine.

All lions born and kept on commercial farms in South Africa should be registered with the provincial authority and fitted with a unique identification microchip, in order for each animal to be followed from birth to death through the system and to avoid the laundering of wild-caught and/or non-registered captive-bred lions.

Lions on a commercial lion farm in South Africa. Photo by Blood Lions

A multinational team of researchers used permit data legally obtained from provincial authorities to summarise such uses of lions on farms in the Free State and found multiple instances of violation of national and provincial regulations.

It is known that the Free State province is at the heart of the commercial lion industry, with about a third of all lion facilities across the country located on its territory. These farms in the Free State predominantly breed, keep and euthanise lions, as well as trade with other provinces to supply “canned” hunting farms and tourism facilities. They also prepare lion body parts for export, such as taxidermy for trophies, and skeletons for the bone trade with Southeast Asia.

Lion cubs on a commercial lion farm in South Africa. Photo by Blood Lions

Data legally obtained from the Free State Department of Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs show hundreds of reused microchip numbers across permits for keeping, euthanising and transporting captive lions, indicating potential non-compliance with national and provincial regulations.

During a four-year period (2017-2020), more than 500 unique microchips (11% of the total microchip numbers) could not be followed through the system. For euthanasia permits, the number of potentially fraudulently used microchip numbers of lions was as many as 15%, and in some cases a microchip number had been reused up to four times.

This raises serious concerns that lion farm owners may deliberately be reusing microchip numbers to launder wild-caught and/or unregistered captive-bred lions.

A lion. Photo by Matthias Appel under a CC0 1.0 license

“Although some of these inconsistencies may have legitimate explanations, the number of times microchip numbers were reused is worrisome and requires further investigation by the authorities”, states Dr Sarah Heinrich of MONITOR, one of the researchers behind the study, which was published in the journal Nature Conservation.

The laundering of lions and/or other predators through the fraudulent use of microchips has implications beyond South Africa’s borders, in particular, in the trade in lion bones for traditional medicine, where bones, claws, skeletons, and skulls are exported to Southeast Asia. “Looking at live lion exports through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it is unclear what happens to these animals once they arrive at their international destinations. It is possible that some of these live exports circumvent the zero CITES lion bone export quota and are eventually euthanised at their import destinations to feed the persisting demand for lion bones”, said Dr Jennah Green of World Animal Protection.

CITES is the main regulatory mechanism governing the commercial international trade in certain wildlife species, including lions, their body parts, and derivatives. Under CITES, (African) lions are listed in Appendix II. A screenshot from Speciesplus.net, taken 31 January 2023.

Lions that were euthanised in the Free State in 2019 and 2020, during a CITES zero export quota for lion bones, most likely became part of a growing and largely unregulated stockpile of lion bones that exists in South Africa, which warrants further investigation.

Ensuring regulatory compliance in all areas of the commercial captive lion industry is more important now than ever. In 2021, Minister Barbara Creecy of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DEFE), stated that the South African government intends to effectively end the commercial captive lion industry through a mandatory phase-out, which eventually was changed to a voluntary scheme.

In its current state, the lion farming industry is governed by a patchwork of contrasting legislation across multiple provincial and national authorities, with disparities and legal loopholes, which create opportunity for harmful and fraudulent activity.

“Our research highlights many areas of grave concern and these issues need the urgent attention of the Minister and the DFFE, as well as the nine provincial nature conservation authorities, to put stricter enforcement of the TOPS Regulations in place”, concludes Dr Louise de Waal, Director of Blood Lions.

Original source:

Heinrich S, Gomez L, Green J, de Waal L, Jakins C, D’Cruze N (2022) The extent and nature of the commercial captive lion industry in the Free State province, South Africa. Nature Conservation 50: 203-225. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.50.85292

How science helps the conservation of sloths in Ecuador

We follow the post-release monitoring of Bravo, a male two-toed sloth that arrived in March 2021 at Guayaquil´s Mansión Mascota veterinary clinic.

Guest blog post by Ricardo Villalba-Briones

Choloepus hoffmanni capitalis is a poorly known subspecies of two-toed sloth that inhabits coastal southern Colombia and Ecuador(Hayssen 2011). In Ecuador, according to local reports from rehabilitation centers and events recorded by the press, this species is apparently not widely trafficked for pet trade, but it is known to be illegally hunted and consumed, the impact of which is difficult to trace and evaluate. Nevertheless, the conservation status of the two-toed sloths C.h. capitalis Ecuadorian coast keeps leaning towards more threatened categorizations, and nowadays is established as vulnerable (Tirira, 2021).

The sloths Bravo and Linda during rehabilitation.

Its habitat is a hotspot for conservation in all its extent, as it is threatened. In addition, due to multiple origins of impact, it has been recorded as the second most abundant mammal (from the list of animals subjected to wildlife traffic and bushmeat consumption according to Environment Ministry reports) received in the busy rehabilitation center of Guayaquil, Ecuador (Villalba-Briones et al., 2021).

Xenarthrans have been relatively poorly studied, specially sloths (Superina and Loughry 2015), and due to the species’ inconspicuous strategy, it is also difficult to detect and perform population evaluations (Martínez et al. 2020). Taking in account the slow reproduction rate of Choloepus gen., having one offspring every 3 years (Hayssen 2011), it is critical to consider the importance of reintroductions (Paterson et al. 2021, Villalba-Briones et al. 2022), but, to all effects, nothing can substitute the implementation of efficient regulation to cease hunting and bushmeat consumption.

Choloepus hoffmanni. Photo by briangratwicke under a CC BY 4.0 license

In-situ studies, understanding its ecology, behavior, abundance etc., could provide the necessary tools to estimate its populations, and evaluate its conservation status. Alternatively, non-invasive opportunistic studies in ex-situ programs during rehabilitation procedures could provide improvements in the aspects as diets and health, increasing the survival rate and fitness to release of rehabilitated sloths.

I strongly consider it important that this species is duly studied, in order to appreciate it and support its conservation. In our work, “Release and follow-up of a rehabilitated two-toed sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) in a tropical dry forest in Ecuador”, published in the journal Neotropical Biology and Conservation, we follow the post-release monitoring of Bravo, a male two-toed sloth that arrived in March 2021 at Guayaquil´s Mansión Mascota veterinary clinic.

We suggest considering follow-up activities to check the animals’ safety during their adaptation to the natural environment. We also propose the inclusion of a follow-up term to redeem the post-release supportive monitoring, develop its scope, and to rely on the presence and readiness of the caregivers or researchers to help the animal during the first weeks after release.

In order to track Bravo after his release, a handmade biodegradable backpack with Bluetooth signal transmission capacity was fitted to his body. The lightweight Tile Bluetooth device did not pose any harm to the sloth, and after some heavy rains cardboard-made attachment just disintegrated, releasing the device.

In our work, the presence in the area of a territorial carnivore individual led to the end of the follow-up activity. Consequently, in the case of probable undesired situations, we propose the use of devices to track the animals and monitor their presence daily. Alternatively, accounting for the relationship between movement patterns of the individual and detection probability, we propose 7 pm as the best time for observations of this mainly nocturnal species.

Due to the difficulty monitoring nocturnal animals, economic constraints in conservation, accessibility, and safety of the animals, biodegradable Bluetooth-based backpacks are recommended to ease the location of the animal and support its survival in the wild. The range of detectability of the device used indicates its suitability for tracking low-mobility animals.

Map showing the movements and tree use of the rehabilitated two-toed sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) in a dry tropical forest in the coastal region of Ecuador.

This first record of the follow-up of a rehabilitated Choloepushoffmanni and the detectability analysis offer valuable information for the future release and follow-up of individuals belonging to the genus Choloepus, and sloths in general.

The knowledge about released animals’ survival could help in clearing rehabilitation uncertainties, and, always, can give the animals the second chance they deserve.  Monitoring animal survival after release is essential for recording whether the rehabilitation process has been accomplished, but it is rarely done in practice, given the amount of funds required. It can, however, be substantially cheaper and affordable if the right techniques are used. These activities are more feasible when strategic planning and support exist.

Nowadays, the scarcity of funds to fulfill the needs of conservation projects on sloths (Superina and Loughry 2015, Choperena-Palencia and Mancera-Rodríguez 2018) seems to be an important obstacle. However, with a sensitized population, management effort, and support, it could be possible to understand and preserve the Choloepus hoffmanni capitalis.

References:

Choperena-Palencia MC, Mancera-Rodríguez NJ (2018) EVALUACIÓN DE PROCESOS DE SEGUIMIENTO Y MONITOREO POST-LIBERACIÓN DE FAUNA SILVESTRE REHABILITADA EN COLOMBIA. Luna Azul: 181–209. https://doi.org/10.17151/luaz.2018.46.11

Hayssen V (2011) Choloepus hoffmanni (Pilosa: Megalonychidae). Mammalian Species 43: 37–55. https://doi.org/10.1644/873.1

Martínez M, Velásquez A, Pacheco-Amador S, Cabrera N, Acosta I, Tursios-Casco M (2020) El perezoso de dos dedos (Choloepus hoffmanni) en Honduras: distribución, historia natural y conservación. Notas sobre Mamíferos Sudamericanos 01: 001–009. https://doi.org/10.31687/saremNMS.20.0.25

Paterson JE, Carstairs S, Davy CM (2021) Population-level effects of wildlife rehabilitation and release vary with life-history strategy. Journal for Nature Conservation 61: 125983. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2021.125983

Superina M, Loughry WJ (2015) Why do Xenarthrans matter?: Table 1. Journal of Mammalogy 96: 617–621. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmammal/gyv099

Villalba-Briones R, Molineros E, Monros, J. S. (2021). Estudio retrospectivo de rescates y retenciones de especies de fauna silvestre sujetas a tráfico de fauna en guayaquil, Ecuador. Comité científico.

Villalba-Briones R, Jiménez ER, Monros JS (2022) Release and follow-up of a rehabilitated two-toed sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) in a tropical dry forest in Ecuador. Neotropical Biology and Conservation 17(4): 253-267. https://doi.org/10.3897/neotropical.17.e91332

Tirira, D. G. (ed.). 2021. Lista Roja de los mamíferos del Ecuador, en: Libro Rojo de los mamíferos del Ecuador (3a edición). Asociación Ecuatoriana de Mastozoología, Fundación Mamíferos y Conservación, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador y Ministerio del Ambiente, Agua y Transición Ecológica del Ecuador. Publicación Especial sobre los mamíferos del Ecuador 13, Quito.

Human activities degrade hippopotamus homes at Bui National Park, Ghana

Researchers found that the number of hippopotamus in the Bui National Park declined by about 70% after the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the reserve.

The Bui National Park is one of the few areas where the common hippopotamus resides in Ghana. The combined resources of the Black Volta River and the abundance of grasses make the area very suitable for hippopotamus. However, in an attempt to solve the electricity crisis the country faced in 2007, the government of Ghana constructed a hydroelectric dam in the heart of their home.

Farmers clearing trees along the rivers to begin cultivation at Bui National Park.

Knowing the consequence of dam creation on aquatic species, scientists Godfred Bempah, Martin Kobby Grant, Changhu Lu, and Amaël Borzée from Nanjing Forestry University, China, wanted to understand how the hippopotamus, a mega semi-aquatic species, was impacted by this project. The results have been published in the journal Nature Conservation. Assessing the impact of the dam construction can advise policy and decision making in future projects like this.

The researchers spent 24 days (2 days per month for 12 months) at the Bui National Park to estimate the number of hippopotamus individuals and understand local migratory activities, as well as to assess changes in land cover in the area after the dam was constructed. They then compared this information with historical data to understand the ecological changes within the area.

A hippopotamus in the Zoologico de Vallarta at Mismaloya south of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Photo by David Stanley under a CC BY 2.0 license

To complement the field surveys, the researchers spoke to local people familiar with the reserve before and after the dam construction. These included fishermen, canoe operators and park rangers. During the interactive discussion, all of them stated that the numbers of hippopotamus have declined compared to periods before the dam construction. They attributed the decline to poaching and habitat destruction.

The results indicated a decline in hippo numbers of about 70%: from 209 individuals in 2003 to 64 individuals in 2021.

A seized skull of Hippopotamus amphibius at the Bui national Park.

The study revealed noticeable changes in land cover after the dam construction, and, most importantly, a decline in forest cover, as well as destruction of riparian grasses, the habitat preferred by the hippopotamus. The increase in water levels flooded the areas where the animals used to reside, forcing them to disperse to other suitable areas. As they dispersed, the animals became vulnerable to poaching, which combined with habitat loss eventually led to a decline in hippopotamus numbers. It is possible that some of the animals might have successfully moved to other areas outside the reserve.

The hippopotamus is listed as Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

In conclusion, the authors note that the number of common hippopotamus individuals in the park has declined following the dam construction, in connection with habitat destruction and poaching. Once these threats are removed, the hippopotamus can survive in the medium to long term, when effective management plans are implemented.

Research article:
 

Bempah G, Kobby Grant M, Lu C, Borzée A (2022) The direct and indirect effects of damming on the Hippopotamus amphibius population abundance and distribution at Bui National Park, Ghana. Nature Conservation 50: 175-201. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.50.87411

The drums of war are beating louder: How do Romanian media depict brown bears?

A study exploring how media depict human-bear interactions found that the position of media towards bears has become increasingly negative

With more than 7000 individuals populating the Carpathian Mountains and neighboring areas, Romania has the highest density of brown bears in Europe. As they often inhabit human-dominated landscapes, conflicts with people are not uncommon.

Researchers from the University of Bucharest and Chelonia Romania explored how Romanian media depict human-bear interactions, publishing their study in the open-access journal Nature Conservation.

“The media play an influential role in how the public perceives brown bears, thus, it can promote human-wildlife coexistence or exacerbate future conflicts”, they say.

A brown bear standing on a roadside
Brown bear waiting on the roadside for food scraps (National Road 2D, Vrancea, Romania). Photo by Dr Silviu Chiriac (EPA Vrancea)

The study found that news stories related to brown bears became common in Romanian media only after 2016, following the instatement of a provisional one-year ban on culling, and increased abruptly in 2021 following the whistleblowing of an alleged trophy hunting event.

The majority of reports were about human-bear interaction, hunting, and poaching, offering little context and information on how to avoid conflicts. Articles on the ecology and biology of brown bears were rare, which indicates less consideration of the ecological significance and the impact of human activities on their conservation status.

Focusing on alarming messages without offering evidence or advice can increase fear and undermine efforts to protect the species and the welfare of society.

The attitude towards brown bears, perceived from the studied articles was predominantly negative (53%; 380 articles). In these articles, the authors used phrases such as: “At any moment the people can find themselves in front of a hungry bear;” “Beyond the horror they live with every day, they have lost their patience and trust in the authorities;” and “People are afraid of the worst.”

Even when reporting sightings of bears near populated areas and encounters with no casualties, Romanian media promoted a negative image of bears to their readership. “Focusing on alarming messages without offering evidence or advice can increase fear and undermine efforts to protect the species and the welfare of society,” the researchers said.

Importantly, the team found that media did not consult wildlife and conservation biologists when reporting on human-bear interactions or bear hunting and poaching events. “This can be because the experts are reluctant to be part of the debate, or because the media may not be interested in bringing more scientific context to their reports,” they reason.

Rescuing a bear trapped in wire-snare in an orchard (Vrancea, Romania). Photo by Dr Silviu Chiriac (EPA Vrancea)

“In conclusion, increasing the frequency of reporting interaction events with alarming messages can only lower the level of tolerance for wildlife and negatively influence political decisions regarding the management of the brown bear population.”

The researchers call for publishing detailed and evidence-informed news as a means to educate people to avoid conflict and facilitate the implementation of effective wildlife conservation and management strategies.

“Evidence-informed news can help authorities better understand conflicts and create bottom-up pathways toward an optimistic future for brown bears and Romanian society”, they conclude.

Research article:

Neagu AC, Manolache S, Rozylowicz L (2022) The drums of war are beating louder: Media coverage of brown bears in Romania. Nature Conservation 50: 65-84. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.50.86019

Dr Giovanni Vimercati gave the Best Talk at NEOBIOTA 2022

The invasion scientist and NEOBIOTA 2022 awardee shares more about his research on the impact assessment of biological invasions.

Giovanni Vimercati is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and most recently recipient of the Best Talk award (Early Career Researcher) at the 2022 NEOBIOTA conference held in mid-September in Tartu, Estonia. 

As a sponsor of the event and publisher of the NeoBiota journal, Pensoft granted a complimentary publication in it to the awardee. 

NeoBiota readers might already be familiar with Vimercati, whose name first appeared on its pages in a 2017 paper that used alien amphibians as a case study to identify the differences and potential difficulties with two impact assessment scoring tools: the Environmental Impact Classification of Alien Taxa (EICAT) and the Generic Impact Scoring System (GISS). 

Then, in 2020 and 2021, the researcher had two research articles published in NeoBiota as lead author. The 2020 paper provided a summary of the frameworks assessing beneficial impacts of alien species, while in the 2021 study his team used a spatially-explicit stage-structured model to assess efficacy of past, present and alternative control strategies for invasive guttural toads (Sclerophrys gutturalis) in Cape Town.

Giovanni Vimercati being awarded at NEOBIOTA 2022. Photo by Ana Novoa.

In anticipation of Vimercati claiming the Best Talk award with a forthcoming submission to the journal, we asked him to join us for an interview and share his thoughts on his research.  

Going back to the beginning, what sparked your interest in the study of invasive species in particular? What are the unique aspects of your research?

Like the episodic nature of many biological invasions, my first contact with the study of alien species was quite “unexpected”. Having a strong interest in herpetology, I had the luck to pursue my doctoral research at the Center of Excellence for Invasion Biology (CIB) in Stellenbosch, South Africa, where I studied the invasion of an alien amphibian species. My PhD study, and the highly stimulating community of researchers that characterized the CIB, made me realize not only that invasive species provide an invaluable opportunity to address ecological and evolutionary questions, but also how important it is to study their impact on biodiversity and human communities. 

One unique aspect of my research since then has been its multidisciplinary character, as I have studied biological invasions from multiple angles simultaneously, by using mathematical models, physiological experiments, field surveys, remote sensing, literature reviews, meta analysis, and questionnaires. It seems a paradox, but the uniqueness of my research on biological invasions is that it has never really been unique! 

Are there recent developments in the field that you find particularly interesting to explore?

As many other scientific disciplines, the field of invasion science is highly dynamic, and novel developments emerge every year. However, I find of particular interest the development of new approaches and tools to explore the links between biological invasions and the various socio-economic contexts. The use of online structured and semi-structured interviews, or the development of standardized socio-economic indicators are, for example, particularly promising for future studies. 

In addition, the emergence of novel technological tools, for instance, linked to remote sensing, eDNA, stable isotopes and camera trapping, or the rapid increase in the computational power of modern CPUs, are allowing invasion scientists to collect and analyze data that used to be unaffordable, or simply unavailable. It is certainly an exciting moment to be an invasion scientist. 

What do you find to be the biggest challenges as a researcher in your field?

I find that the proliferation of hypotheses and frameworks that characterize the field of invasion biology are particularly intriguing and challenging. Many of them work extremely well in certain conditions or across specific taxonomic groups, but they often lack generality or are marred by context dependence, which may limit their predictive power. 

Addressing such a context dependence and finding ways to integrate various hypotheses and frameworks in invasion biology will be highly beneficial for understanding and forecasting biological invasions in the next decades. 

Another challenge is to communicate the implications of our research to non-experts. I often wonder how stakeholders and policymakers from different cultural backgrounds or geographic regions perceive alien species and their impacts.  

The theme of this year’s NEOBIOTA conference was “Biological Invasions in a Changing World”. To what extent can changes be anticipated and forecasted in order to make the work of assessing their impacts and mitigating damage easier?

I think that a key point would be to focus on specific indicators or proxies to measure these changes, so that different impacts and species can be quantified, both transparently and consistently. 

In recent years, the field has produced a huge body of literature regarding impacts caused by alien species, but the results of these studies have not always been comparable. I feel that the development of the EICAT framework and its recent adoption by the IUCN as a global standard for measuring the magnitude of environmental impacts of alien species were two very important steps in this direction. 

Your talk at the NEOBIOTA conference focused on the positive socio-economic impacts of invasive species. Why is this important for different stakeholders, including policy makers, but also local communities and individuals?

In my opinion, invasive species, and more generally alien species, can have various positive socio-economic impacts that should be identified and assessed rigorously. These impacts are often anecdotally reported or vaguely stated in the literature, a tendency that hampers our capacity to identify (and forecast) conflicts of interest among different stakeholders or understand their perceptions toward alien species. 

In my talk, I presented the preliminary version of a framework that assesses positive socio-economic impacts. The framework is based on the capability approach, and aims to quantify the degree to which the well-being of certain human communities increases after the introduction of alien species. Of course, the scheme won’t be used in isolation, but rather in combination with other frameworks that assess the negative socio-economic and environmental impacts of alien species, so that their effects can be understood in their full complexity.

***

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High-schoolers join scholars to lift the lid on Hong Kong’s soil biodiversity

Most often, the students would find millipedes. They even helped identify two species that are new to Hong Kong’s fauna.

Soil and its macrofauna are an integral part of many ecosystems, playing an important role in decomposition and nutrient recycling. However, soil biodiversity remains understudied globally.

To help fill this gap and reveal the diversity of soil fauna in Hong Kong, a team of scientists from The Chinese University of Hong Kong initiated a citizen science project involving universities, non-governmental organisations and secondary school students and teachers.

“Involving citizens as part of the new knowledge generation process is important in promoting the understanding of biodiversity. Training younger-generation citizens to learn about biodiversity is of utmost importance and crucial to conservation engagement”

– say the researchers in their study, which was published in the open-access Biodiversity Data Journal.

The soil sampling methodology that the students employed in this study.
Video by Sheung Yee Lai, Ka Wai Ting, Tze Kiu Chong and Wai Lok So.

Working side by side with university academics, taxonomists and non-governmental organisation members, students from 21 schools/institutes were recruited to collect soil animals near their campusesfor a year and record their observations.

Between October 2019 and October 2020, they monitored and sampled species across 21 sites of urban and semi-natural habitats in Hong Kong, collecting a total of 3,588 individual samples. Their efforts yielded 150 soil macrofaunal species, identified as arthropods (including insects, spiders, centipedes and millipedes), worms, and snails.

Most often, the students found millipedes (23 out of 150 species). They even helped identify two millipede species that are new to Hong Kong’s fauna: Monographis queenslandica and Alloproctoides remyi. The former is usually found in Australia – the researchers suggest it might have been introduced to the area many decades ago from Queensland or vice versa – and the latter has been observed in Reunion and Mauritius.

Two polyxenid millipede species, collected in this study, turned out to had never before been recorded from Hong Kong.
Left: Monographis queenslandica and Alloproctoides remyi (right).
Image by Sheung Yee Lai, Ka Wai Ting and Wai Lok So.

Millipedes like these two species can accelerate litter decomposition and regulate the soil carbon and phosphorus cycling, while earthworms can modify the soil structure and regulate water and organic matter cycling.

“Before the beginning of this project, the understanding of soil biodiversity in Hong Kong, including the understanding of its contained millipede species, was inadequate”

the researchers write in their paper.

Now, they believe that the identified macrofauna species and their 646 DNA barcodes have established a solid foundation for further research in soil biodiversity in the area.

Their project also serves an additional purpose. Unlike most conventional scientific studies, which are usually carried out by the government, non-governmental organisations or academics in universities alone, this study utilised a citizen science approach through creating a big community engaged with biodiversity. In doing so, it helped educate the public and raise awareness on the use of basic science techniques in understanding local biodiversity.

So, it may have inspired a new generation of future scientists: some students started millipede cultures in their own schools, and one school used the millipede breeding model to participate in a science and technology competition.

This study is a proof that local institutes and high schools can unite together with research teams at universities and perform scientific work, the study’s authors believe.

It “has raised public awareness and potentially opens up opportunities for the general public to engage in scientific research in the future.” 

The team hopes that their approach could inspire future biodiversity sampling and monitoring studies to engage more citizen scientists.

***

Research article:

So WL, Ting KW, Lai SY, Huang EYY, Ma Y, Chong TK, Yip HY, Lee HT, Cheung BCT, Chan MK, Consortium HKSB, Nong W, Law MMS, Lai DYF, Hui JHL (2022) Revealing the millipede and other soil-macrofaunal biodiversity in Hong Kong using a citizen science approach. Biodiversity Data Journal 10: e82518. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.10.e82518

***

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“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 3

“This is why Mikolji’s Oscar is a highly appreciated species in the aquarium hobby. It is more than just a fish in an aquarium when it is considered a true pet.”

In this last part, we talked with ichthyologist Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá about what makes Astronotus mikoljii – a new to science cichlid species that he recently described in ZooKeys – so special.

Find Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview.

What makes this species so charismatic and loved by aquarists and ichthyologists?

I already spoke about my experience as an aquarist from an early age, where the qualities of the species of the Astronotus genus, known as Oscars are highlighted.

Different varieties and color patterns have been obtained from them through selective breeding, or genetic manipulation, which are called living modified organisms (LMOs) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

However, the true lovers of nature, the aquarians of the “Biotope Aquarium” movement  and the like, prefer pure specimens to manipulated or artificially modified ones. This is why Mikolji’s Oscar is a highly appreciated species in the aquarium hobby. It is more than just a fish in an aquarium since it is considered a true pet.

For ichthyologists, it is remarkably interesting and at the same time very challenging to study a genus like Astronotus, which already has only three described species (Astronotus ocellatus, A. cassiprinnis and A. mikoljii).

This is an unusual situation, which, as we have reported, requires an integrative approach and the work and experience of different specialists for its study. With all certainty, as in the case of Mikolji’s Oscar, other species of the genus Astronotus remain to be studied and described, and we hope that we will have the fortune to participate with our experience in these new works.

Local people have long known this species. What role does it have in their lives?

It is important to clarify that Astronotus mikoljii is a new species for science, but it is not a “new species” for people who already knew it locally under the name of Pavona, Vieja, or Cupaneca in Venezuela or Pavo Real, Carabazú, Mojarra and Mojarra Negra in Colombia. Nor for the aquarium trade, where it was known by the common name of Oscar and scientific name of Astronotus ocellatus, or, to a lesser degree, as Astronotus cassiprinnis.

This species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups.

Much less is it a new species for the nine thousand-year-old indigenous ethnic groups that share their world with the habitat of this fish, who baptized it with some 14 different names, known in their languages as mijsho (Kariña), boisikuajaba (Warao), hácho (Pumé = Yaruro), phadeewa, jadaewa (Ye’Kuana = Makiritare), perewa, parawa (Eñepá = Panare), yawirra (Kúrrim = Kurripako), kohukohurimï, kohokohorimï, owënawë kohoromï” (Yanomami = Yanomamï), eba (Puinave), Itapukunda (Kurripako), uan (Tucano).

Hence, the importance of scientific names, since the same species can have multiple common names, in the same language or in multiple languages.

It is important to note that very few studies that describe new species for science include the common names of the species, as given by the indigenous ethnic groups or natives of the regions, where the species live.

This species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups, and for more than 500 years to the hundreds of human communities of locals who inhabit the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia. In our studies, in the plains of Orinoco from 30 years ago, we were able to verify its consumption, as well as high gastronomic value, due to its pleasant taste and enhanced texture.

However, due to my imprint as an aquarist, I have not wanted to consume it on the different occasions that it was offered to me, because it is very difficult to eat the beloved pets that we had in our childhood.

Why is this fish important to people and to ecosystems?

It is especially important to highlight that the Astronotus mikoljii species plays a very important role in the ecosystem, due to its biological and ecological background.

Although it can feed from different sources, it is a fundamentally carnivorous species, and therefore, it “controls” other species in the ecosystem.

Without Mikolji’s Oscar, the aquatic ecosystem would lose one of its fundamental links and the delicate balance of its functioning, because the species it feeds on could increase their populations uncontrollably, becoming veritable pests. This would put in great danger the entire future of the aquatic ecosystem of the Orinoco River basin and the permanence of other species of ecological importance.

In addition, it would surely affect other species used by man, both those of commercial importance (sold as food or as ornamental species), and for the subsistence fishing of native and indigenous inhabitants.

Mikolji’s Oscar, although a carnivorous species, also has its natural predators, for example piranhas and other predatory fish. For this reason, it evolved with an ocellus, or false eye, at the base of the caudal fin, to confuse its predators and guarantee its survival. Obviously, this species will be compromised if we don’t learn about it, use its populations wisely and preserve it in the long term.

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Photos by Ivan Mikolji.

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You can find Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview with Oscar.

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Scientists identify gaps in the protection of Vietnam’s amphibians

A new study assessing the status of amphibians in Vietnam found a high level of species richness and local endemism.

As was highlighted in the foreword to the renowned WWF Greater Mekong Report 2021, written by Prof. Dr. Thomas Ziegler, Curator for Herpetology, Ichthyology, and Invertebrates, at Cologne Zoo (Köln, Germany), there is an urgent need for more studies that identify the gaps in species conservation. 

In a new scientific article, published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal Nature Conservation, Ziegler and his team present precisely such an analysis, focusing on the world’s most threatened vertebrate class: the amphibians. The share of amphibian taxa classified as threatened with extinction – 41% – is a clear indicator for the decline in global biodiversity and a warning sign for significant environmental degradation. 

Ingerophrynus galeatus. Photo by Anna Rauhaus

The scientists examined the threat status of the Vietnamese amphibians, building on the bachelor thesis of Marie Krzikowski of the University of Cologne, Germany.

One of the amphibian breeding facilities at the Cologne Zoo’s Terrarium section with offspring (larvae, eggs, terrestrial subadults) of the threatened Vietnamese Crocodile Newt (Tylototriton vietnamensis), which is successfully bred at the Zoo.

They identified 275 amphibian species known from Vietnam, noting that the number is likely to go up. The country is classified as a biodiversity hotspot, and the rate of discovering new amphibian species remains relatively high. Of these 275 species, 95 (35%) species are endemic to the country, with more than half of them reported exclusively from a single locality, which makes them especially vulnerable to extinction. Vietnam’s Central Highlands were revealed as the region with the highest species diversity (130 species), the most regionally endemic species (26 of total 67 regionally endemic species), and the most species classified as threatened by the IUCN Red List (11 species), which highlights it as a site of particular amphibian conservation concern.

Tylototriton vietnamensis. Photo by Anna Rauhaus

In terms of threat status, 50 of the 275 species recorded so far from Vietnam (18%) are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as threatened with extinction. These include 27 endemic species. Most of them are frogs, followed by salamanders, where 60% of the listed species are classified as threatened with extinction.

Alarmingly, 13 endemic species, including two threatened species, have been recorded exclusively from unprotected areas. For two-thirds of Vietnam’s endemic amphibians, there is no conservation data available, as their IUCN Red List status is either missing or outdated.

Tylototriton ziegleri. Photo by Thomas Ziegler

According to data from the Zoological Information Management System, 29 (11%) of the total 275 species reported to occur in Vietnam are represented in global zoos, including five threatened species, with the highest diversity concentrated in zoos in Europe and North America. 

These facts, now compiled in the overview paper by Marie Krzikowski, Truong Q. Nguyen, Cuong T. Pham, Dennis Rödder, Anna Rauhaus, Minh D. Le and Thomas Ziegler, reveal for the first time some obvious gaps in conservation. Importantly, they will provide a directory to authorities, conservationists, rescue centers, and zoos, so that they can follow up with appropriate actions.

Paramesotriton deloustali. Photo by Thomas Ziegler

In particular, the conservation of microendemic species can only be addressed by organizations, NGOs or partner institutes on site, for example in the form of field work, regulatory support or protected area establishment. 

Where species are at risk of disappearing rapidly, for example, species with a very limited distribution range, the establishment of ex-situ programs by local partners in cooperation with international zoos could help, in addition to in-situ conservation measures as part of the IUCN’s One Plan Approach, which combines in-situ and ex-situ efforts and various expertises for the optimum protection of a species.

Research article:

Krzikowski M, Nguyen TQ, Pham CT, Rödder D, Rauhaus A, Le MD, Ziegler T (2022) Assessment of the threat status of the amphibians in Vietnam – Implementation of the One Plan Approach. Nature Conservation 49: 77-116. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.49.82145

Scientists conceptualize a species ‘stock market’ to put a price tag on actions posing risks to biodiversity

“…the most realistic and tangible way out of the looming biodiversity crisis is to put a price tag on species and thereby a cost to actions that compromise them.”

So far, science has described more than 2 million species, and millions more await discovery. While species have value in themselves, many also deliver important ecosystem services to humanity, such as insects that pollinate our crops. 

Meanwhile, as we lack a standardized system to quantify the value of different species, it is too easy to jump to the conclusion that they are practically worthless. As a result, humanity has been quick to justify actions that diminish populations and even imperil biodiversity at large.

In a study, published in the scholarly open-science journal Research Ideas and Outcomes, a team of Estonian and Swedish scientists propose to formalize the value of all species through a conceptual species ‘stock market’ (SSM). Much like the regular stock market, the SSM is to act as a unified basis for instantaneous valuation of all items in its holdings.

However, other aspects of the SSM would be starkly different from the regular stock market. Ownership, transactions, and trading will take new forms. Indeed, species have no owners, and ‘trade’ would not be about transfer of ownership rights among shareholders. Instead, the concept of ‘selling’ would comprise processes that erase species from some specific area – such as war, deforestation, or pollution.

“The SSM would be able to put a price tag on such transactions, and the price could be thought of as an invoice that the seller needs to settle in some way that benefits global biodiversity,”

explains the study’s lead author Prof. Urmas Kõljalg (University of Tartu, Estonia).

Conversely, taking some action that benefits biodiversity – as estimated through individuals of species – would be akin to buying on the species stock market. Buying, too, has a price tag on it, but this price should probably be thought of in goodwill terms. Here, ‘money’ represents an investment towards increased biodiversity. 

“By rooting such actions in a unified valuation system it is hoped that goodwill actions will become increasingly difficult to dodge and dismiss,”

adds Kõljalg.

Interestingly, the SSM revolves around the notion of digital species. These are representations of described and undescribed species concluded to exist based on DNA sequences and elaborated by including all we know about their habitat, ecology, distribution, interactions with other species, and functional traits. 

For the SSM to function as described, those DNA sequences and metadata need to be sourced from global scientific and societal resources, including natural history collections, sequence databases, and life science data portals. Digital species might be managed further by incorporating data records of non-sequenced individuals, notably observations, older material in collections, and data from publications.

The study proposes that the SSM is orchestrated by the international associations of taxonomists and economists. 

“Non-trivial complications are foreseen when implementing the SSM in practice, but we argue that the most realistic and tangible way out of the looming biodiversity crisis is to put a price tag on species and thereby a cost to actions that compromise them,”

says Kõljalg.

“No human being will make direct monetary profit out of the SSM, and yet it’s all Earth’s inhabitants – including humans – that could benefit from its pointers.”

Original source

Kõljalg U, Nilsson RH, Jansson AT, Zirk A, Abarenkov K (2022) A price tag on species. Research Ideas and Outcomes 8: e86741. https://doi.org/10.3897/rio.8.e86741

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The first cave-bound mollusc species from the Americas

Against the odds, a study by Brazilian researchers describes a new to science species of evidently cave-bound – or troglobitic – clam from northern Brazil.

Exclusively subterranean bivalves – the group of molluscs comprising clams, oysters, mussels, scallops – are considered a rarity. Prior to the present study, there had only been three such species confirmed in the world: all belonging to a small-sized mussel genus known from southeastern Europe. Furthermore, bivalves are not your typical ‘underworld’ dweller, since they are almost immobile and do not tolerate environments low in oxygen. 

Against the odds, a recent study by Dr. Luiz Ricardo L. Simone (Museum of Zoology of the University of São Paulo) and Dr Rodrigo Lopes Ferreira (Federal University of Lavras), published in the open-access scholarly journal Subterranean Biology, describes a new to science species of evidently cave-bound – or troglobitic – clam from northern Brazil. 

Small individuals of the newly described clam species Eupera troglobia sp. n. exposed to the air, next to a harvestman (Eusarcus sp.). Photo by Rodrigo Lopes Ferreira.

Named Eupera troglobia, the mollusk demonstrates features characteristic for organisms not meant to see the daylight, including lack of pigmentation, reduced size, delicate shell and fewer, yet larger eggs.

Curiously, it was back in 2006 when a report presenting a faunal survey of a cave in northern Brazil featured photographs of what was to be described as Eupera troglobia. However, the evidence was quickly dismissed: the clam must have been carried into the cave by water. 

A submerged specimen of the newly described cave-bound clam species Eupera troglobia sp. n.

In 2010, Dr Rodrigo Lopes Ferreira accessed the report and noticed the depigmentation of the clams. Wondering whether it was indeed possible that he was looking at a troglobite, he searched amongst the collected specimens from that study, but could not find any of the discoloured bivalve.

Ten years later, his team visited the cave to specifically search for depigmented shells. Although the cave was partially flooded, the researchers were able to spot the specimens they needed attached to the walls of the cave.

In conclusion, the scientists highlight that their discovery is the latest reminder about how important the conservation of the fragile subterranean habitats is, given the treasure troves in their holdings. 

Meanwhile, recently amended laws in Brazil put caves at considerably higher risk.

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Research paper: 

Simone LRL, Ferreira RL (2022) Eupera troglobia sp. nov.: the first troglobitic bivalve from the Americas (Mollusca, Bivalvia, Sphaeriidae). Subterranean Biology 42: 165-184. https://doi.org/10.3897/subtbiol.42.78074

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