Fragments 1

by Ray Grigg

The media is speckled with interesting pieces of environmental information. While no single piece constitutes enough data to expand into a considered theme, each piece has an intrinsic value that is worth noting. The following are some of these examples.

• The old Russian tradition of keeping a bucket of milk from going sour by putting a frog in it inspired scientific research that discovered the skin of the Russian Brown frog contains potent antibiotics that counteract salmonella and staphylococcus bacteria. This discovery offers the promise of new medicines for human treatment of infections, a discovery that would not have been made if the Russian Brown frog had become one of the casualties of the unprecedented extinction of species presently underway (Michael Kesterton, Social Studies, Globe and Mail, Dec. 14/12).

• The largest and oldest trees in the world are inexplicably dying, according to three of the world’s leading ecologists. The death rate of trees 100 to 300 years old in forests, woodlands, savannahs and farmland has increased alarmingly in recent years. The deaths are a mystery and represent the loss of the “biggest living organisms on the planet” (Michael Kesterton, Social Studies, Globe and Mail, Dec. 14/12).

• One of the most empirical measures of global climate change is the rise in insurance rates to cover the increasing risk of property damage caused by extreme weather. Water has now replaced fire as the largest single payout by insurance companies. Some home owners are now being denied coverage if they live in newly identified flood-prone areas. In the United States, Hurricane Sandy has forced some property owners in New York and New Jersey to confront the options of moving away, elevating their homes or paying flood insurance premiums of as much as $31,000 a year (Associated Press, January 29/13).

• LiveScience (Feb. 2/13) reports that the 84 million domestic cats owned in the United States each kill from 4 to 18 birds and from 8 to 21 small mammals per year. This calculates to as many 1.5 billion birds and 1.7 billion mice, voles, chipmunks and squirrels annually. An August 2012 study by the University of Georgia found that cats not confined to a house spend about one-third of their time hunting small creatures. Even more damage is done by the estimated 30 to 80 million feral cats loose in the US. Each of these animals kills from 23 to 46 birds and from 129 to 338 small mammals per year. The numbers are so staggeringly high that cats are deemed to be the world’s largest single threat to small wildlife. Such a huge loss also impairs the ability of natural predators such as hawks and owls to find prey. As one conservationist ruefully concluded, “Cats are the psychopaths of the animal kingdom.”

• When Fijian staghorn coral is being smothered by mats of turtle weed, it sends out a chemical distress signal that attracts gobies. These fish then eat the seaweed and save the coral from suffocation. In exchange, the gobies’ skin secretions become more toxic as a result eating the seaweed, thereby saving them from being eaten. This is part of the complex biological interactions that scientists are just beginning to discover about reef life (NewScientist, Nov. 17/12).

• “Colony collapse disorder”, first identified in 2005, has “expanded dramatically” in the US last year since 2012, killing about 50 percent of the country’s beehives. Scientists have not conclusively identified the cause. A class of insecticides, neonicotinoids, is the latest suspect. About 25 percent of the Canadian and American diet is dependent on crops pollinated by bees.

• In the 1990s, Indian veterinarians began administering diclofenac to reduce joint pain in work animals to enable them to labour longer. Unfortunately, the drug was toxic to the 40 million vultures that removed the 12 million tonnes per year of rotting flesh that litters India’s landscape. The Indians not only lost the free sanitary service provided by the vultures, but incurred other complications beyond the cost of disposing of the animal carcasses. Feral dog populations soared, causing 40 million more dog bites and 47,000 additional deaths from rabies. The total cost of losing the vulture’s free sanitary service has been estimated at $34 billion. “What is good for nature turns out to be what is best for us,” concludes The Guardian Weekly article (Feb. 8/13).

• After 20 years of effort, and after worldwide investments of $2 trillion in wind and solar, the International Energy Agency reports that no progress has been made in cutting the carbon content in global energy supplies (Maclean’s, May 6/13). An increase in the consumption of coal — 46 percent between 2000 to 2010 — has undone any benefits gained by using renewable energy sources.

• Frigate birds are returning to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean 150 years after the colony was destroyed by cats left behind by early explorers. The United Kingdom spent $800,000 to eradicate the hundreds of feral animals that had reduced the nesting population of this extremely rare seabird to zero. In 2012, ornithologists recorded two nests with eggs, marking the first time since Charles Darwin’s visit there in the 19th century that frigate birds had reproduced on the island (Guardian Weekly, Dec. 21/12).

• The savannah habitat that sustains African lions has shrunk by 75 percent in the last 50 years. The animal’s population has declined from about 100,000 to 32,000 as a result of human encroachment and land-use policies (Guardian Weekly, Dec. 21/12).