Photographs by Marilyn Chung and Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun
How climate change is intensifying threats to nature — and what can be done...
In the middle of the Mojave Desert, springs flow into marshes teeming with birds, bees and dragonflies. These marshes are home to one of North America’s most endangered mammals: the Amargosa vole.
The heart of the Amargosa voles' desert habitat lies in Tecopa Marsh, where some of the plants have turned brown and died in recent years as the water level has declined.(Photo: Marilyn Chung/The Desert Sun)
A mouse-like rodent with cinnamon brown fur and a short tail, the Amargosa vole exists nowhere else on Earth — only in patches of wetlands scattered like islands across the desert east of Death Valley National Park. The wetlands depend on water from the springs, and years of drought have shrunk some of the marshes.
Climate change is projected to bring longer and more severe droughts in the future, threatening the springs and increasing the chances that more of the surviving voles could disappear.
“As climate continues to change, those isolated habitats become more and more precious,” said Patrick Donnelly, executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, a local environmental group. “And should something happen to even one of those isolated habitats, you may lose an important component of that population.”
The world is losing creatures at an accelerating rate: Species of frogs, lizards, fish and birds have all gone extinct as their habitats have been fragmented, degraded and destroyed by humans. Now, as the Earth grows warmer due to the burning of fossil fuels, the rapid disruption of the climate is placing even bigger stresses on species that are already struggling to survive.
Scientists have warned that unless humans act quickly to protect the natural world from habitat losses and the ravages of climate change, more than a third of all plant and animal species on the planet could disappear by the end of the century.
In every corner of the United States, animals are threatened by climate change, from chinook salmon in California to the Illinois chorus frog and endangered birds in the rainforests of Hawaii. So many plants and animals are at risk that scientists and conservationists are increasingly calling for new, more ambitious approaches to saving species and habitats.
Those strategies include aggressive interventions to protect species that are on the verge of dying out, and efforts to conserve larger wilderness areas and “corridors” that connect patches of fragmented habitat. There is also a growing push for better data to help prioritize the areas and species that are most vulnerable.
One of the biggest ways people can help protect species and habitats is to reduce the amounts of planet-warming greenhouse gases we emit. But even if the world stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, some global warming is guaranteed due to the long-lasting carbon dioxide and other gases that humans have already spewed into the atmosphere.
As habitats shift northward and to higher elevations with global warming, scientists say preventing extinctions will require anticipating the altered conditions and stepping in to protect ecosystems before they unravel.
The many species that face growing threats due to climate change range from mammals to lizards, fish and birds. As people look to save them, the task of heading off extinctions presents a monumental challenge that will play out over generations and is only just beginning.
An Amargosa vole in captivity at the University of California, Davis. By breeding voles in captivity, researchers hope to improve the endangered animals' chances of survival.(Photo: courtesy UC Davis)
Amargosa voles were once much more plentiful in about 50 marsh patches between the towns of Shoshone and Tecopa. But over the past century, people diverted water and dried up some of the marshes to farm and control biting flies. In 1984, the Amargosa vole was listed by the federal government as an endangered species.
Nearly three decades later, in 2012, researchers surveyed the marshes near Tecopa and estimated the total remaining population at between 75 and 225 animals. They calculated the odds of extinction at 82 percent over the next five years.
Trying to improve those chances, California wildlife officials trapped 20 juvenile Amargosa voles in 2014 from and took them to the University of California, Davis, to breed in captivity. The captive population has since grown to about 100 voles.
Researchers at the UC Davis facility call it “the colony” or “Tecopa North.” The voles nest in cages filled with straw, and they dig in the dirt outdoors in large plastic tubs, protected from predators behind fences.
“We’re able to breed them very effectively,” said Janet Foley, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at Davis who leads the breeding program. Last summer, 12 captive-bred voles were released near Tecopa Hot Springs.
In order to survive, Amargosa voles need to be surrounded by three-square bulrush. They eat the plant, nest in it and tunnel through it. The plants need to have their roots in water to survive.
In the Mojave Desert, residents, scientists and government officials are working to save the marsh habitats that are critical for desert pupfish and the endangered Amargosa vole. Marilyn Chung/The Desert Sun
In the heart of the animals’ habitat in Tecopa Marsh, some of the plants have turned brown and died in recent years as the water level has declined, first as a result of maintenance work on culverts in 2006, and then, starting in 2012, as severe drought ravaged the area.
That created a sort of “one-two punch” that left dead bulrush all around the marsh and led to a decline in the vole population, said Chris Otahal, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Because the dead plants are hindering the regrowth of the marsh, he and other biologists decided to take another major step to intervene.
In March, they began trapping voles in Tecopa Marsh and relocating them to other marshes. It’s the first step in a project that involves removing the dead bulrush and raising the water level in the marsh. Once the bulrush is replanted and grows back, voles will be released back into the area.
“Ultimately what that’s going to do is create much better habitat,” Otahal said.
Tecopa Marsh spreads out around Borehole Spring, a popular hot spring where bathers bob in natural pools. On a recent afternoon, several bathers soaked in the ponds while Noel Ludwig, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Land Management, walked into the marsh to download data from instruments that measure the water level and temperature.
Desert pupfish swim in a pool near Shoshone Spring.(Photo: Marilyn Chung/The Desert Sun)
“The water is the first big critical thing. If there’s no water, there’s no voles,” Ludwig said. “Most climate models predict that the Southwest overall is going to get drier over the next half century. And given how dry it already is, that is a concern for anything that depends on water.”
One of the marshes with a relatively ample water supply is Shoshone Spring. Amargosa voles used to live in the marsh, but they disappeared over the years as people diverted water and allowed invasive plants to replace the native bulrush.
In order to restore the marsh in Shoshone, researchers recently cleared away the overgrown vegetation, preparing to recreate the natural habitat. As soon as native bulrush grows back in about a year and a half, state and federal officials plan to reintroduce a group of captive-bred Amargosa voles from UC Davis.
Susan Sorrells, a landowner and environmentalist whose great-grandfather founded Shoshone more than a century ago, said she’s delighted to have the habitat restoration project occurring on her property.
“We’re really looking forward to returning it to that natural state,” Sorrells said, standing beside the newly cleared land, where a brown stubble remained from the plants that were chopped down and removed.
Sorrells is the founder of the Amargosa Conservancy, and she previously helped lead an effort that brought the tiny Shoshone pupfish back from the brink of extinction. In a pool downstream from the spring, tourists can now see male pupfish, bright blue and less than two inches long, darting about among the brown female fish.
“I’m hoping that the vole will be like the pupfish. It’ll go from being endangered to not even being threatened,” Sorrells said. “That’s the hope we all have.”
Allan Muth and Mark Fisher know their lizards. For 31 years, they’ve been conducting research together in the desert near Palm Springs, methodically counting Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizards and collecting a wealth of data.
Mark Fisher, left, and Allan Muth take notes while conducting research on Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizards. The two herpetologists have captured and marked 1,777 fringe-toed lizards over the past 31 years. They have also recaptured the same individual lizards many times while tracking a species that is listed as threatened by the federal government.(Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)
They’ve taken DNA samples, examined the sand dunes where the lizards live and produced studies that have helped guide plans to protect habitat for the species.
The Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard is classified as threatened by the federal government and listed as endangered by the state of California. The lizards have lost portions of their habitat to development, and global warming is likely to render more of the remaining habitat unlivable for the lizards.
The reptiles can burrow into the sand to escape the heat of the day, but they only burrow down to a maximum of 4 inches, Muth said. As temperatures climb, fringe-toed lizards could be pushed beyond their limits, especially in the hotter and drier lower-elevation areas of the eastern Coachella Valley, which is already one of the hottest places in the country.
Muth and Fisher hope the lizards will fare somewhat better at slightly higher elevations in the western portion of the valley, where they expect enough plants will remain for the animals to have the food and cover they need to survive.
“All we can do is try to decrease the threats to the animal and to its habitat. You’ll never have all the information you need, and what you have to do is act on the best science that’s available, with the data that you have, and make a guess,” Muth said. He’s optimistic that efforts to set aside habitat will help the species survive.
Visiting one of their research sites last month, Muth and Fisher walked across the desert looking for Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizards among boulders and windblown creosote bushes. Each of them carried a “lizard noose,” a tool made from a fishing pole with the guides cut off and a piece of braided fishing line tied to the end. The line — sometimes they use a piece of silk suture thread — dangles down to a loop that they use to catch lizards.
Scientists have been collecting data on Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizards and their habitat. Rising temperatures are projected to render some of the lizards’ habitat unlivable. The research helps guide conservation efforts. Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun
Holding their poles, the two scientists tapped on the bushes as they walked past, trying to spur lizards out into the open. In front of them, lizards darted across the sand taking cover. Most of them were another species, the desert iguana.
Then they spotted a Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard: a juvenile male. Slipping the noose over the lizard, Fisher held it in his hand and announced: “Got him.”
“He’s probably last year’s hatchling,” Muth said.
Allan Muth, left, and Mark Fisher capture a Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard as part of their research in the desert near Palm Springs.(Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)
Fisher held out the scaly fringes on the lizard’s toes. Then he used clippers to snip off the tip of a toe. He said it doesn’t injure the lizard, but the mark helps identify the animal and the piece of toe can be used to extract DNA. Fisher slipped the piece he had cut into a vial.
Using a marker, he wrote a number on the lizard’s back: 1,777. That’s how many fringe-toed lizards they’ve counted in their research. When Fisher set down the lizard, it raced into a bush and disappeared.
The information the two herpetologists have jotted down in notebooks will provide a baseline for scientists to spot changes in the future as the climate grows hotter. Muth said they’ve also collected data about the genetic makeup of separate lizard populations in three natural reserves. The genetic data could help inform decisions about moving some of the lizards from one location to another, if that sort of intervention is eventually deemed necessary.
The fringe-toed lizard is one of 27 species, along with the desert tortoise and Peninsular bighorn sheep, that are targeted for protection under the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan. The plan, which permits development in some areas while setting aside other areas as open space, has established a system in which development impact fees are used to pay for the acquisition of additional lands for conservation areas.
“Species have an intrinsic right to exist, irrespective of their economic value to man. And we have an obligation to do our part to conserve these things.”Allan Muth, Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center
Muth said one of his worries is that some key wildlife “corridors,” which could have allowed animals to move to more suitable habitats as the climate warms up, have already been lost. Muth is the director of the Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center near Indian Wells. The research site is one of 39 natural reserves operated by the University of California. Covering more than 6,000 acres, the Deep Canyon reserve stretches from the alluvial fan at the base of the canyon up the steep, rugged mountainsides to an elevation of about 4,000 feet.
For visiting scientists, Deep Canyon is a prime spot for research on how climate change is altering desert ecosystems.
Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center near Indian Wells is used by researchers to study how climate change is altering desert ecosystems. The research site is one of 39 natural reserves operated by the University of California.
(Photo: Marilyn Chung/The Desert Sun)
On a recent morning, Rafael Lara, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of California, Santa Cruz, inserted instruments into finger-sized sections of PVC pipe. The pieces of pipe, with corks on both ends, are roughly the same size as lizards. These faux lizards are used to measure temperatures in specific locations, such as on top of rocks or in the shade of bushes. With data from dozens of these model lizards, Lara said his team will gain insights into how global warming is affecting lizards in Deep Canyon.
“The idea is to have a very specific map with all the temperatures,” Lara said. He said the research will also help indicate which species of lizards are most vulnerable to warming.
Other species of lizards that Lara has studied have already gone extinct in Mexico.
In a 2010 study, Lara and a research team led by UC Santa Cruz professor Barry Sinervo examined extinctions of lizards resulting from climate change. They assessed 48 species of Mexican lizards and found that 12 percent of local populations had gone extinct since 1975. They also estimated that based on current trends, 20 percent of the world’s lizard species could disappear by 2080.
Researcher Rafael Lara of the University of California, Santa Cruz, inserts instruments into sections of PVC pipe that he uses as "model lizards" to measure the temperatures in different locations in the desert. He has installed dozens of them at the Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center.(Photo: Marilyn Chung/The Desert Sun)
The warming at Deep Canyon during the past half-century illustrates how rapidly the changes are occurring. Weather records from 1962 to 1971 show an average high temperature of 80.6 degrees. During the 10 years ending in 2015, the average high was 87.8 degrees, more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter.
“We’re in a new ballgame because it’s changing so fast now,” said Laurel Fox, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. She was working alongside Lara setting up instruments to measure the temperature and moisture at the soil level and up to three meters off the ground.
“In order to protect species, we have to know a lot about them,” said Fox, who is co-director of the Institute for the Study of Ecological and Evolutionary Climate Impacts. She said research across the UC system of natural reserves will help provide a great deal more information. Still, she said, trying to protect species imperiled by climate change presents immense challenges.
“I think almost everything is going to be threatened by climate change one way or another, unless they can adapt,” Fox said. “We know that lizards are affected, mammals are affected, butterflies are affected, a whole host of animals and plants."
Because the changes in climate will play out over decades, she said, those shifts will make the work of conservation extremely difficult. “I think what we need to do as scientists is to work with social scientists and policymakers to try to come up with long-term plans for how to deal with these issues.”
Scientists have estimated that the current rate of extinction is about 1,000 times the rate of extinction before the development of human civilization. That points to what many now describe as the looming “Sixth Extinction,” a term that has been increasingly used since Richard E. Leakey and Roger Lewin published their 1995 book The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind.
The fifth mass extinction occurred 65 million years ago and is thought to have been caused by an asteroid that slammed into the Earth, wiping out the last of the dinosaurs.
This time, scientists say humans have become the main destructive force. And unless people take bigger steps to counteract that trend, the losses of species are projected to accelerate as temperatures climb.
In an era of climate change, conservationists might turn to Wayne Gretzky for advice.
So says Clint Muhlfeld, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey based in Glacier National Park, in Montana’s Rocky Mountains. Global warming is melting the glaciers that give the park its name — many of which could disappear within a few decades — but Muhlfeld is working on a slightly different problem: how rising temperatures are impacting fish, including the bull trout.
U.S. Geological Survey biologist Andrew Lamont navigates a boat up Logging Lake in Glacier National Park, so that researchers can collect juvenile bull trout for relocation upstream to Grace Lake, above a waterfall.
(Photo: Chris Downs/National Park Service)
Like many animals harmed by climate change, bull trout already face several threats, including habitat degradation caused by logging, agriculture and other human activities. In 1998, the federal government listed the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Bull trout are found in five Western states. But the danger is especially great in Glacier National Park, where an explosion of invasive, non-native lake trout has decimated bull trout populations.
“The bull trout had been there for millennia, surviving cataclysmic occurrences like wildfires, flooding, extreme temperature events, glaciation,” Muhlfeld said. “But these invasive lake trout have been moving in, and have invaded several lakes. Bull trout populations have tanked. They’ve declined to the point of functionally extinct, in several lakes.”
Rising temperatures are making matters worse. Partly due to global warming, there’s less snow in the mountains than there was in the past, and the snowpack is melting earlier than usual, Muhlfeld said. The results are warmer water in the spring and summer, increased flooding in the fall and winter, and potentially much less water at times. All of those changes are expected to harm the bull trout, which has evolved to live in cold water.
Front to back: Biologist Jon McCubbins, ecologist Clint Muhlfeld and biologist Andrew Lamont collect juvenile bull trout using a backpack electrofisher at Logging Creek in Glacier National Park, so that the fish to be relocated upstream to Grace Lake.
(Photo: Chris Downs/National Park Service)
So Muhlfeld has been working on a solution: physically moving the bull trout to new locations.
Species relocations are as controversial as they are rare. Scientists worry that moving species in some cases could accidentally disrupt delicate ecosystems. Some critics question the morality of human beings taking animals out of their natural habitats and deciding where to put them.
Muhlfeld said traditional conservation — including habitat protection — is more important than ever. But as human-caused climate change takes its toll, he believes people will increasingly need to think about picking up threatened animals and taking them somewhere safer.
“This is just one tool in the toolbox that managers can use in extreme cases, to save a species or population from decline. And it’s not one size fits all,” he said. But in the case of bull trout, he added, “Now is a time to go out on a limb and take a chance in some of these locations, or we’ll have nothing left.”
Scientists have been moving bull trout in Glacier National Park to improve their odds of survival as the climate changes.
(Photo: Jonny Armstrong/U.S. Geological Survey)
A few years ago, Muhlfeld’s team moved 111 young bull trout to a new home, saving that particular population from likely extinction at the hands of the invasive lake trout. Researchers went back to the fishes’ old home a year later and found just one juvenile bull trout, leading them to believe they had moved the population just in time.
The key to the relocation project, Muhlfeld said, is finding safe new locations. In part, that means places where the new residents won’t disrupt existing ecosystems. Just as importantly, it means places that are expected to provide stable habitat even as the climate changes. Muhlfeld’s team has identified areas high in the mountains as the best choices, because that’s where the snowpack and cooler water temperatures are likely to persist longer.
“From a climate context, those are the key ingredients that these species need,” Muhlfeld said.
Hence the nod to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
Conservationists need to take a similar approach to climate change, Muhlfeld said, by anticipating how ecosystems will look decades from now.
“Managers need to think bigger picture over larger timeframes, and not be in this reactionary mode,” he said. “They need to think about where the system’s going, not where it’s been.”
You might think birds could deal with climate change pretty easily. If their habitats are threatened, they can just fly somewhere new, right?
It’s not so simple.
The Audubon Society considers the piping plover “climate endangered,” projecting that it could lose 62 percent of its current summer range by 2080.(Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
In a 2014 report, Audubon Society scientists found that 314 North American bird species — more than half of the 588 they studied — could lose at least half of their current ranges by 2080. The environmental group described 126 of those species as “climate endangered,” meaning they’re likely to lose at least half of their ranges by 2050 if global warming continues unabated.
For many of those birds, picking up and relocating might not be an option.
Gary Langham, the Audubon Society’s chief scientist, cited the bobolink — a small blackbird that spends its summers across the northern United States, and its winters in South America — as an example. Audubon scientists say the bobolink could lose 80 percent of its current range by 2080, as rising temperatures push its desired climate conditions northward into Canada.
The bobolink’s ideal climate zone could actually grow by more than 50 percent, even as the zone shifts northward. The problem, Langham said, is that much of that northern land is covered by boreal forest, rather than the grassland habitat the bobolink needs. It’s possible the bird will start migrating further north only to find the habitat conditions unfamiliar and unhelpful, he said.
“Even though the bird can move easily — it can fly to Argentina and back, after all — it still has to be able to make a nest, to feed its young, to do everything it can do now,” Langham said. “It’s supposed to be doing that in an open country habitat, and the boreal forest is not going to be able to shift very quickly, if at all.”
Many birds could face similar dilemmas, making it difficult to know how many of the 314 at-risk bird species identified by the Audubon Society will be able to adapt to climate change. Like many animals, Langham said, birds have spent centuries, if not millennia, adapting to specific environmental conditions.
“Plants and animals that are in Palm Springs right now, for example, couldn’t just live in the Arctic,” he said. “The natural environment is a very competitive place, and that leads to plants and animals being tightly connected to and adapted to the temperatures and precipitation and water levels that are in their environment. They get to be very, very good at doing what they do where they live.”
The best thing people can do to help birds cope with climate change, Langham said, is to limit the carbon emissions that are causing temperatures to rise. But there are also steps human beings can take to help birds adapt to the changes, including doubling down on traditional habitat conservation.
Hawaii forest managers are working to protect the akiapōlā‘au, an endangered bird.
(Photo: Courtesy of Steve Kendall/Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge)
In Hawaii, for instance, the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge is working on a reforesting project that could help endangered birds cope with the impacts of climate change.
For decades, refuge officials have been planting trees at high elevations on the dormant Mauna Kea volcano, trying to restore forests that were logged and grazed. The planting creates more habitat for forest birds like the Hawaii creeper, the Hawaii ‘akepa and the akiapōlā‘au, all of which are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“They’re forest birds. They need a forest. They need the shelter, they need the trees to nest in. They also need the food,” said Steve Kendall, a wildlife biologist at the Hakalau refuge.
In recent years, global warming has given new urgency to reforestation: As temperatures have risen, non-native mosquitoes have moved further and further up Hawaii’s mountains, spreading avian malaria that has devastated bird populations. Some birds might be able to escape the mosquitoes by moving upslope into cooler areas. But in the Hakalau refuge, they can only go so far before trees give ways to open pasture. So the further upslope refuge officials can plant trees, the more likely it is that endangered forest birds will be able to escape the deadly mosquitoes.
The Audubon Society, meanwhile, is working to identify “climate strongholds” for particular bird species: places where scientists expect climate conditions to remain relatively stable. The group hopes to find the most stable spots for each climate-threatened species, and to work with land managers to ensure those places are protected.
“We want to focus on places that are less likely to change in the face of all this shifting around,” Langham said. “If you bet on places that are more stable than others, it’s more likely to have a good return on investment.”
Many environmentalists say people have a moral obligation to take action to save species, simply because each one of them is a precious piece of the whole and has an intrinsic right to exist. But there are also implications for human beings as more species are lost and ecosystems are degraded.
For example, a growing number of bees and other pollinators are being pushed toward extinction, putting food supplies at risk. Shellfish are threatened by the rising acidification of the oceans, and coral reefs have also been dying in places from Australia to the Caribbean. In national forests and parks across the western United States, millions of pine trees have died as rising temperatures and years of drought have allowed bark beetles to flourish.
In many ways, humans are deeply intertwined with the natural ecosystems that are now under assault.
“The diversity of life is what helps to make our life rich. Even if someone might not encounter an endangered species or have an opportunity to take a picture of it for Instagram, the human species is part of nature, and we depend on nature for our survival,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, the country’s largest environmental group. “So we need to make sure our natural environment is preserved simply for our own personal self-interest. But beyond that, I think it’s important to keep wonder in our lives, and to recognize that there are things that are bigger than us — whether it’s gazing up at the stars on a camping trip, or encountering uncommon species on a hike.”
Between 1908 and the 1930s, biologist Joseph Grinnell led hundreds of research expeditions into the wilds of California. He was the director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, and in the wilderness he and his students and colleagues collected animals as specimens for the museum. They also methodically took notes about the wildlife they saw.
Philip Unitt, curator of birds and mammals at the San Diego Natural History Museum, looks for birds at the Whitewater Preserve in 2014. Unitt is one of the researchers who has participated in the Grinnell Resurvey Project.
(Photo: Richard Lui/The Desert Sun)
More than a decade ago, scientists began a project to retrace Grinnell’s steps and revisit the locations he studied in order to describe the changes that have occurred since. What they’ve found in the Sierra Nevada mountains points to the impacts of warming: Some types of chipmunks and ground squirrels, for instance, have shifted upslope and are now found at higher elevations.
“Species are moving around quite a bit,” said Steve Beissinger, a professor of conservation biology at UC Berkeley who leads the Grinnell Resurvey Project.
Some species have shifted uphill in the mountains, which allows them to remain in a similar temperature zone as the climate gets warmer. Alpine chipmunks, for instance, have moved upslope and their range has shrunk significantly since Grinnell’s time, Beissinger said. On the other hand, he said, the lodgepole chipmunk has stayed in the same areas where it was found a century ago.
“When we look across all species, we see that they are responding with a lot of variation,” Beissinger said. “The vast majority will probably wind up moving in some way.”
The species that aren’t able to move or adapt quickly enough will probably be the ones that go extinct. And as animals disappear from the food web as predators or prey, entire ecosystems can be thrown out of balance.
Trained scientists aren’t the only ones who can help spot those changes in the environment. Now anyone can be a citizen scientist and contribute by pulling out a phone, snapping a photo of a plant or animal, and sharing the sighting online. One venue is iNaturalist, a social network run by a team at the California Academy of Sciences that allows users to post photos and crowdsources data on when and where species are spotted.
“It’s bringing the natural world into focus like we haven’t seen, but it’s doing it through this giant connected community of naturalists teaching one another,” said Scott Loarie, co-director of the social media site. “What’s cool is that you can think from a scientific perspective, ‘Wow, it’s creating all this data that we really need,’ but you also think it’s actually just connecting people and getting them engaged with nature, which is valuable in its own right as well.”
To date, more than 178,000 people have signed up for iNaturalist. They have made more than 2.3 million observations, logging more than 90,100 species.
“If we can keep things growing at the rate that things are growing, by 2020 we’ll have a system where every month we’ll have 75 percent of all vertebrates in the world sort of check in, so you could say month to month, ‘What’s the real status?’” Loarie said. “Like a real-time census of the health of plants and animals around the world, which is really exciting.”
The data can point to problems if sightings of certain species drop off. Users also can pick up on changes that are “going under the radar,” Loarie said. For instance, last year a 10-year-old girl spotted a bird on a power line in Los Angeles and snapped a photo. It turned out to be a social flycatcher, which normally is found between northern Argentina and Mexico. The sighting was recognized as the first ever recorded in California.
“If we can just unlock the ability for everyday people to collect this kind of data, we can collect it at a much bigger scale,” Loarie said. With global warming progressing rapidly, he said, time is of the essence.
“We need to come up with a system to very quickly tackle the scale of this,” he said. “We really need to know where plants and animals are, how their distributions are changing, and which ones are going extinct, where and why. And we need to kind of do this in the next decade or so.”
When the renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson recently presented his vision for confronting the extinction crisis, he set a bold, ambitious goal: to set aside half of the Earth for nature.
“Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global biodiversity and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on Earth,” Wilson wrote in his book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. “I am convinced that only by setting aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilization required for our own survival.”
In his appeal, Wilson called for people to strive against the odds toward that simple goal in order reduce the number of extinctions.
“The biosphere does not belong to us; we belong to it,” Wilson wrote.
Loarie said he thinks Wilson’s goal raises important questions: If nature needs half the planet, which half should it be? And how can those areas be targeted? Better data on species and where they are found can help answer those questions.
Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University, has examined the question of just how attainable Wilson’s goal might be, and he sees reasons to be hopeful. In an article about Wilson’s proposal in the journal Nature, Pimm pointed out that large tracts of desert lands, the Amazon rainforest and boreal forests are already effectively protected due to their remoteness. He said the challenge will be to safeguard areas around cities, or areas such as grasslands that can easily be turned into grazing lands for livestock.
He also cited stats that he said show the world’s progress: In the mid-1970s, about 1.9 million square miles of lands were protected in parks and other wilderness areas. Now, that has grown to about 6.5 million square miles.
That’s about 13 percent of the planet’s roughly 50 million square miles of land area that isn’t covered by ice.
“My sense is that we probably can get to pretty close to half. The challenge is to get the half that we want,” Pimm said in an interview. “And that’s going to be difficult.”
Still, he said he thinks there is a reasonable chance that in the decades to come Wilson’s vision can be achieved.
Pimm said he wouldn’t argue with some of the scientific projections that more than a third of all species could be lost by the end of this century. But he said he prefers to focus on solutions.
“There’s really an awful lot we can do,” he said. “The end of the century is 85 years from now, and I hope we smarten up.”
Story by Ian James and Sammy Roth April 18, 2016
Joshua Tree National Park.(Photo: Marilyn Chung/The Desert Sun)
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