“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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Striking new snake species discovered in Paraguay

Only known from three individuals, Phalotris shawnella is endemic to the Cerrado forests of the department of San Pedro in east Paraguay.

Distribution map.

A beautiful non-venomous snake, previously unknown to science, was discovered in Paraguay and described by researchers of the Paraguayan NGO Para La Tierra with the collaboration of Guyra Paraguay and the Instituto de Investigación Biológica del Paraguay. It belongs to the genus Phalotris, which features 15 semi-subterranean species distributed in central South America. This group of snakes is noted for its striking colouration with red, black, and yellow patterns.

Jean-Paul Brouard, one of the involved researchers, came across an individual of the new species by chance while digging a hole at Rancho Laguna Blanca in 2014. Together with his colleagues Paul Smith and Pier Cacciali, he described the discovery in the open-access scientific journal Zoosystematics and Evolution. The authors named it Phalotris shawnella, in honour of two children – Shawn Ariel Smith Fernández and Ella Bethany Atkinson – who were born in the same year as the Fundación Para La Tierra (2008). They inspired the founders of the NGO to work for the conservation of Paraguayan wildlife, in the hope that their children can inherit a better world.

Phalotris shawnella. Photo by Jean-Paul Brouard

The new Phalotris snake is particularly attractive and can be distinguished from other related species in its genus by its red head in combination with a yellow collar, a black lateral band and orange ventral scales with irregular black spots. Only known from three individuals, it is endemic to the Cerrado forests of the department of San Pedro in east Paraguay. Its known distribution consists of two spots with sandy soils in that department – Colonia Volendam and Laguna Blanca – which are 90 km apart. 

Phalotris shawnella. Photo by Jean-Paul Brouard

The extreme rarity of this species led the authors to consider it as “Endangered”, according to the conservation categories of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means it is in imminent danger of extinction in the absence of measures for its protection.

Phalotris shawnella. Photo by Jean-Paul Brouard

This species can only be found in the famous tourist destination of Laguna Blanca, an area declared as an Important Area for the Conservation of Amphibians and Reptiles. 

Phalotris shawnella. Photo by Jean-Paul Brouard

“This demonstrates once again the need to protect the natural environment in this region of Paraguay,” the authors comment. “Laguna Blanca was designated as a Nature Reserve for a period of 5 years, but currently has no protection at all. The preservation of this site should be considered a national priority for conservation.”

Research article:

Smith P, Brouard J-P, Cacciali P (2022) A new species of Phalotris (Serpentes, Colubridae, Elapomorphini) from Paraguay. Zoosystematics and Evolution 98(1): 77-85. https://doi.org/10.3897/zse.98.61064

Major highway in India threatens reptiles and amphibians

“Is it the road that crosses the habitat, or does the habitat cross the road?” ask scientists before agreeing that the wrong road at the wrong place is bound to cause various perils for the local wildlife, habitats and ecosystems.

Is it the road that crosses the habitat, or does the habitat cross the road?” ask scientists at Gauhati University (Assam, India) before agreeing that the wrong road at the wrong place is bound to cause various perils for the local wildlife, habitats and ecosystems. Furthermore, some of those effects may take longer than others to identify and confirm.

This is how the research team of doctoral research fellow Somoyita Sur, Dr Prasanta Kumar Saikia and Dr Malabika Kakati Saikia decided to study roadkill along a 64-kilometre-long stretch of one of the major highways in India: the National Highway 715. 

What makes the location a particularly intriguing choice is that it is where the highway passess between the Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Assam and the North Karbi Anglong Wildlife Sanctuary, thus tempting animals to move to and from the floodplains of Kaziranga and the hilly terrain of the Sanctuary to escape the annual floods or – on a daily basis – in search for food and mating partners.

In the beginning, they looked into various groups, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, before realising that the death toll amongst frogs, toads, snakes and lizards was indeed tremendous, yet overlooked. Their findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal Nature Conservation.

“To our surprise, the death toll within that 64-kilometre stretch of the highway was indeed dramatic. We estimated that it has been over 6000 animals that have fallen under the wheels of motor vehicles within a single year. Prior to our study, similar research had focused on big charismatic species like the tiger, elephant and rhino, so when we took into account also the smaller animals: frogs, toads, snakes and lizards, the count went through the roof. Thus, we decided to make smaller species the focus of our work,”

comments Sur.

In conclusion, the scientists agree that roads and highways cannot be abandoned or prevented from construction and expansion, as they are crucial in connecting people and transporting goods and necessities. 

“Yet, we can definitely put some effort into designing and constructing them in a scientifically sound, eco-friendly and sustainable manner, so that they don’t become the bane for our ecosystems,”

the team concludes.

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Research article:

Sur S, Saikia PK, Saikia MK (2022) Speed thrills but kills: A case study on seasonal variation in roadkill mortality on National highway 715 (new) in Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Landscape, Assam, India. In: Santos S, Grilo C, Shilling F, Bhardwaj M, Papp CR (Eds) Linear Infrastructure Networks with Ecological Solutions. Nature Conservation 47: 87-104. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.47.73036

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Citizen science data crucial to understand wildlife roadkill

In a first for science, researchers set out to analyze over 10 years of roadkill records in Flanders, Belgium, using data provided by citizen scientists.

The road is a dangerous place for animals: they can easily get run over, which can seriously affect wildlife diversity and populations in the long term. There is also a human economic cost and possible injury or even death in these accidents, while crashing into heavier animals or trying to avoid them on the road.

Making roads safer for both animals and people starts with a simple first step: understanding when, where, and how many animals get run over. This knowledge can help protect specific species, for example by using warning signs, preventing access to the roads for animals, creating overpasses and underpasses, or closing roads. Wildlife roadkill data can also help monitor other trends, such as population dynamics, species distribution, and animal behavior.

Thanks to citizen science platforms, obtaining this kind of data is no longer a task reserved for scientists. There are now dozens of free, easy-to-use online systems, where anyone can record wildlife collision accidents or roadkill, contributing to a fuller picture that might later be used to inform policy measures.

One such project is the Flemish Animals under wheels, where users can register the roadkill they saw, adding date, time and geolocation online or by using the apps. The data is stored in the online biodiversity database Waarnemingen.be, the Flemish version of the international platform Observation.org

Between 2008 and 2020, the project collected almost 90,000 roadkill records from Flanders, Belgium, registered by over 4,000 citizen scientists. Roadkill recording is just a small part of their nature recording activities – the multi-purpose platform which also allows the registration of living organisms. This is probably why the volunteers have remained engaged with the project for over 6 years now.

In a first for science, researchers from Natuurpunt Studie, the scientific institute linked to the largest Nature NGO in Flanders, with support from the Department of Environmental and Spatial Development, set out to analyze over 10 years of roadkill records in the region, using data provided by citizen scientists. In their study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Conservation, they focused on 17 key species of mammals and their fate on the roads of Flanders. 

The researchers analyzed data on 145,000 km of transects monitored, which resulted in records of 1,726 mammal and 2,041 bird victims. However, the majority of the data – over 60,000 bird and mammal roadkill records – were collected opportunistically, where opportunistic data sampling favors larger or more “enigmatic” species. Hedgehogs, red foxes and red squirrels were the most frequently registered mammal roadkill victims.  

In the last decade, roadkill incidents in Flanders have diminished, the study found, even though search effort increased. This might be the result of effective road collision mitigation, such as fencing, crossing structures, or animal detection systems. On the other hand, it could be a sign of declining populations among those animals that are most prone to being killed by vehicles. More research is needed to understand the exact reason. Over the last 11 years, roadkill records of the European polecat showed a significant relative decrease, while seven species, including the roe deer and wild boar, show a relative increase in recorded incidents.

There seems to be a clear influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on roadkill patterns for some species. Restrictions in movement that followed likely led simultaneously to fewer casualties and a decrease in the search effort. 

The number of new observations submitted to Waarnemingen.be continues to increase year after year, with data for 2021 pointing to about 9 million. Even so, the scientists warn that those recorded observations “are only the tip of the iceberg.”

 “Citizen scientists are a very valuable asset in investigating wildlife roadkill. Without your contributions, roadkill in Flanders would be a black box,”

the researchers conclude.

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Research paper:

Swinnen KRR, Jacobs A, Claus K, Ruyts S, Vercayie D, Lambrechts J, Herremans M (2022) ‘Animals under wheels’: Wildlife roadkill data collection by citizen scientists as a part of their nature recording activities. In: Santos S, Grilo C, Shilling F, Bhardwaj M, Papp CR (Eds) Linear Infrastructure Networks with Ecological Solutions. Nature Conservation 47: 121-153. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.47.72970

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The research article is part of the Special Issue: “Linear Infrastructure Networks with Ecological Solutions“, which collates 15 research papers reporting on studies presented at the IENE2020 conference.

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Nature Conservation opens “Restoration of Wetlands” collection

The permanent topical article collection aims to bring together key insights into restoration of wetlands and coastal marine systems, thereby facilitating exchange among different disciplines.

The “Restoration of Wetlands” permanent topical article collection in the open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal Nature Conservation is now open for submissions, with the aim to bring together a wide spectrum of knowledge necessary to inform scientists, policy-makers and practitioners about key insights into restoration of wetlands and coastal marine systems, thereby facilitating exchange among different disciplines.

Being a permanent collection means that it is to welcome contributions indefinitely, whereas papers will progress to publication as soon as they are accepted by the editors. While they will be accessible from a central point: the collection, which is also assigned with its own DOI, the articles themselves will feature in different journal volumes, depending on their publication date.

Find more about the specificity of Special issues and Topical collections on the journal’s website.

The issue is managed by an international team of scientists:

“Worldwide, the loss of biodiversity in wetlands, like rivers and their floodplains and peatland but also in deltas and estuaries is dramatic,”

the guest editors explain.
Photo by Mathias Scholz.

Due to intensive land-use, including farming, urbanisation, drainage, construction of levees or bank stabilisation or straightening of river courses and coastlines, wetlands are losing their typical functions, such as carbon storage and habitat provision. As a result, the ecosystem services they provide are declining and so is the coastal biodiversity as a whole.

However, various restoration measures have been carried out to revitalise wetlands over the last decades, on a global scale. Some of those have already proved successful, while others are still on their way to improve wetland biodiversity and related ecosystem functions and services. For all these efforts, the end goal is to implement international biodiversity actions and policies for adaptation and mitigation of climate change.

Among others, the “Restoration of Wetlands” article collection in the Nature Conservation journal seeks to attract contributions addressing issues, such as the roles of society and planning, as well as biology in restoration; indicators to monitor and measure restoration success; the synergies between wetland restoration and climate change adaptation; and hands-on expertise in restoration.

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Find more about the “Restoration of Wetlands” collection on the Nature Conservation’s journal website. 

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Rare, protected orchid thrives in a military base in Corsica

Counting over 155,000 individuals, the population is a world precedent. Globally, this orchid can only be found in the south of France, Italy, and along the east coast of the Adriatic.

In Corsica, away from the eyes of locals and tourists, hides a population of unprecedented proportions of a rare and protected orchid: the neglected Serapias (Serapiasneglecta). In a closed military base in the east of the island, researchers discovered 155,000 individuals of the plant.

Globally, this orchid can only be found in the south of France (including Corsica), Italy, and along the east coast of the Adriatic, but none of its known populations has been as abundant as the one documented in Solenzara.

High density of Serapias neglecta on the air base. Photo by Margaux Julien (Ecotonia)

Margaux Julien, Dr Bertrand Schatz, Simon Contant, and Gérard Filippi, researchers from the Center of Functional Ecology and Evolution (CEFE) and Ecotonia consultancy,came across this population while studying plant diversity in the Solenzara air base. Their research, published in Biodiversity Data Journal, documented impressive plant richness, including 12 other orchid species.

The maintenance of the closed military area turned out to be really favourable to the development of orchids. The flower was abundant around the edges of runways and on lawns near military buildings.

Serapias neglecta. Photo by Margaux Julien (Ecotonia)

“Мilitary bases are important areas for biodiversity because they are closed to the public, are not heavily impacted and these areas have soils that are often poorly fertilised and untreated due to old installations, so they often have high biodiversity,” the researchers say in their study.

The meadows around the airport are regularly mowed for security reasons, which allows orchids to thrive in a low vegetation environment with little competition. In addition, the history of the land with its position on the old Travo river bed favours low vegetation, providing rocky ground just a few centimetres beneath the soil.

“The case of S. neglecta is particularly remarkable, because this species benefits from a national protection status and it is a sub-endemic species with a very localised distribution worldwide,” the research team writes. Moreover, the species is classified as near threatened in the World and European Red Lists of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Ecotonia consultancy also did several inventories on the air base, finding biodiversity of rare richness: 552 species of plants, including 19 with protected status in France. Within only 550 ha, they found 23% of the plant species distributed in Corsica. Among these are some very rare plants, as well as endangered species such as the gratiole (Gratiola officinalis) and Anthemis arvensis subsp. incrassate, a subspecies of the corn chamomile.

Serapias neglecta. Photo by Bertrand Schatz

The Solenzara military base hides rich floristic diversity thanks to its history, management, and the lack of public access. While the Corsican coastline is suffering from urbanisation, this sector is a testament to the local flora, featuring several species with conservation status.

The protection of this richness is crucial. “If logistical developments are carried out on this base, they will have to favour the conservation of this exceptional floristic biodiversity, and, in particular of this particularly abundant orchid. Military bases are a great opportunity for the conservation of species and would benefit from enhancing their natural heritage,” the researchers conclude.

Research article:

Julien M, Schatz B, Contant S, Filippi G (2022) Flora richness of a military area: discovery of a remarkable station of Serapias neglecta in Corsica. Biodiversity Data Journal 10: e76375. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.10.e76375

Simplified method to survey amphibians will aid conservation

Researchers developed a method to determine which amphibians inhabit a specific area. The new technique will resolve some of the issues with conventional methods, such as capture and observational surveys.

Ryukyu Sword Tailed Newt, or Firebellied Newt. Photo by Neil Dalphin via Creative Commons CC0.

An international collaborative research group of members from seven institutions has developed a method to determine which amphibians (frogs, newts and salamanders) inhabit a specific area. Their work was published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Metabarcoding and Metagenomics (MBMG).

To do so, the scientists amplified and analysed extra-organismal DNA (also known as environmental DNA or eDNA) found in the water. This DNA ends up in the water after being expelled from the amphibian’s body along with mucus and excrement. 

The research group included Postdoctoral Researcher Sakata K. Masayuki and Professor Minamoto Toshifumi (Kobe University), Associate Professor Kurabayashi Atsushi (Nagahama Institute of Bio-Science and Technology), Nakamura Masatoshi (IDEA Consultants, Inc.) and Associate Professor Nishikawa Kanto (Kyoto University). 

The newly developed technique will resolve some of the issues with conventional methods, such as capture and observational surveys, which require a specialist surveyor who can visually identify species. Conventional surveys are also prone to discrepancies due to environmental factors, such as climate and season.

The researchers hope that the new method will revolutionise species monitoring, as it will enable anyone to easily monitor the amphibians that inhabit an area by collecting water samples.  

While monitoring in general is crucial to conserve the natural ecosystems, the importance of surveying amphibians is even more pressing, given the pace of their populations’ decline.

Amongst major obstacles to amphibian monitoring, however, are the facts that they are nocturnal; their young (e.g. tadpoles) and adults live in different habitats; and that specialist knowledge is required to capture individuals and identify their species. These issues make it particularly difficult to accurately survey amphibians in a standardised way, and results of individual efforts often contradict each other.

On the other hand, eDNA analysis techniques have already been established in programmes targeted at monitoring fish species, where they are already commonplace. So, the researchers behind the present study joined forces to contribute towards the development of a similar standardised analysis method for amphibians.

First of all, the researchers designed multiple methods for analysing the eDNA of amphibians and evaluated their performance to identify the most effective method. Next, they conducted parallel monitoring of 122 sites in 10 farmlands across Japan using the developed eDNA analysis along with the conventional methods (i.e. capture surveys using a net and observation surveys). 

As a result, the newly developed method was able to detect all three orders of amphibians: Caudata (the newts and salamanders), Anura (the frogs), and Gymnophiona (the caecilians). 

Furthermore, this novel eDNA analysis method was able to detect more species across all field study sites than the conventional method-based surveys, indicating its effectiveness.

Research Background

Amphibian biodiversity is continuing to decline worldwide and collecting basic information about their habitats and other aspects via monitoring is vital for conservation efforts. Traditional methods of monitoring amphibians include visual and auditory observations, and capture surveys.

However, amphibians tend to be small in size and many are nocturnal. The success of surveys varies greatly depending on the climate and season, and specialist knowledge is required to identify species. Consequently, it is difficult to monitor a wide area and assess habitats. The last decade has seen the significant development of environmental DNA analysis techniques, which can be used to investigate the distribution of a species by analysing external DNA (environmental DNA) that is released into the environment along with an organism’s excrement, mucus and other bodily fluids. 

The fundamentals of this technique involve collecting water from the survey site and analysing the eDNA contained in it to find out which species inhabit the area. In recent years, the technique has gained attention as a supplement for conventional monitoring methods. Standardised methods of analysis have already been established for other species, especially fishes, and diversity monitoring using eDNA is becoming commonplace. 

However, eDNA monitoring of amphibians is still at the development stage. One reason for this is that the proposed eDNA analysis method must be suitable for the target species or taxonomic group, and there are still issues with developing and implementing a comprehensive method for detecting amphibians. If such a method could be developed, this would make it possible for monitoring to be conducted even by people who do not have the specialised knowledge to identify species nor surveying experience.

Hopefully, this would be established as a unified standard for large-scale monitoring surveys, such as those on a national scale. This research group’s efforts to develop and evaluate analysis methods will hopefully lay the foundations for eDNA analysis to become a common tool for monitoring amphibians, as well as fish. 

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Research article: 

Sakata MK, Kawata MU, Kurabayashi A, Kurita T, Nakamura M, Shirako T, Kakehashi R, Nishikawa K, Hossman MY, Nishijima T, Kabamoto J, Miya M, Minamoto T (2022) Development and evaluation of PCR primers for environmental DNA (eDNA) metabarcoding of Amphibia. Metabarcoding and Metagenomics 6: e76534. https://doi.org/10.3897/mbmg.6.76534