Creature Feature: World Wildlife Day

With countless, cool critters on Earth, how can you pick just one creature to feature? Well, if it happens to be World Wildlife Day, you don’t have to choose! While some skeptics may be rolling their eyes, thinking, “good grief, there is a day for literally everything nowadays” (to be fair, they have a point), it’s important that we take a moment to reflect on the multitude of plants and animals that contribute to the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the environments we explore [1].

World Wildlife Day 2020’s mantra is “Sustaining all life.” [Source]

In 2013, the United Nations proclaimed March 3rd as World Wildlife Day in honor of the March 3, 1973 signing of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES is integral to the international conservation effort, which is led by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and it remains one of the largest conservation agreements with 183 parties. Governments across the world have pledged to protect plants and animals from international trade to ensure these species’ survival and in doing so, preserve the Earth’s biodiversity. Each year on World Wildlife Day, people around the world gather to celebrate wildlife great and small and promote the importance of biodiversity.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published a report on the state of the world’s biodiversity for food and agriculture. As you can see from these figures, biodiversity is important for human food consumption. [Source: UN FAO]

Biodiversity: Sustaining all life on Earth

Biodiversity encompasses all life on Earth: from the adorable birds in your backyard to the terrific trees that provide shade each summer, the fresh fish in your tacos to the sneaky squirrel that tries to snag your snack, the fascinatingly weird worms in the deep ocean to the microscopic, creepy critters that do their part in breaking down dead things to help new things grow. Biodiversity is more than just all individual life forms going about their own earthly business; it encompasses how species organize into communities and play distinct roles within these communities. Biodiversity is essential to healthy ecosystems, which are vital yet often overlooked aspects of our everyday lives, from the products we use to the regulation of climate patterns [2]. Unfortunately, humans have disturbed ecosystems in every corner of the globe through unsustainable use of natural resources and by making large-scale alterations to the environment [2]. Since life on our planet is so interlinked, disturbing one part of the ecosystem can throw off a whole community and cause a particular species to dwindle, or worse, completely disappear (i.e., go extinct).

The IUCN Red List Categories, from left to right: the IUCN rates species on a scale from least concern to critically endangered to extinct (See link below) based on surveys of population size and other scientific data. These ratings are important for conservation organizations and government agencies in determining which species require protection, monitoring, or other conservation action. [Source]

The IUCN collaborates with experts around the world to set criteria that indicate when there are too few of one species. The IUCN Red List classifies all species into nine groups (pictured above) using data about how many individuals of the species are left (population size), how large the area where they live is (geographic distribution), and how quickly they are disappearing (rate of decline). By classifying species into these groups, governments, organizations, communities, and scientists can work together to create action plans to conserve each species and protect biodiversity.


A few California creatures that could use a little nurture

In the United States, both federal and state agencies use the IUCN Red List to develop their own policies, such as the Endangered Species Act, that promote the study, conservation, and protection of threatened species. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) monitors and protects local biodiversity in this state. In honor of World Wildlife Day, here are just a few of the many wonderful California species affected by unsustainable human activities and that require conservation assistance (for the full reports: 2019 CDFW Endangered Animals & 2020 CDFW Endangered Plants).


Amargosa vole (Microtus californicus scirpensis)

Who are they? A desert subspecies of the California vole (a hamster-like mammal), the Amargosa vole makes its home in isolated wetlands of the harsh Mojave desert. They require standing water and three‐square bulrush (Schoenoplectus americanus) for food and shelter [3].

Where in CA? Researchers estimate that all remaining Amargosa voles inhabit one square kilometer of scattered habitat in the Amargosa River basin of the Mojave Desert

Why are they endangered? Fewer than 500 Amargosa voles remain in the wild due to extreme habitat loss. Increasing drought linked to climate change and diversion of water for human development have severely reduced their habitat and availability of food and shelter [3,4]. Increasing development has also exposed these little desert-swimming plant-eaters to Toxoplasma gondii, a widespread parasite commonly transmitted by cats and other small mammals. Amargosa voles (and other animals) with toxoplasmosis suffer from breathing issues, reduced ability to have healthy babies, and locomotor issues [5].

Conservation efforts: The US Fish and Wildlife Service, CDFW, UC Davis, and Amargosa Conservancy are working together to restore critical habitat for the Amargosa voles and relocate individuals to areas more suitable for their survival [3]. In addition, a conservation breeding program at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine has bred voles in captivity and released them into the wild to increase their population!

California least tern. Photo by Mark Pavelka/USFWS [Source]

California least tern (Sternula antillarum browni)

Who are they? Recognizable by its black cap and eyemask, the California least tern is a migratory bird that breeds and feeds in coastal environments, eating small ocean fishes, shrimp, and other marine invertebrates (little ocean critters with no backbones). Males court females with aerial displays that show off their incredible flight skills, followed by an offering of fresh fish to the lucky lady tern [6]. If the female accepts, the pair will scrape out a nest in the open sand, lay eggs, and jointly care for the chicks.

Where in CA? Along the coast of California from San Francisco to Baja, California least terns nest on open beaches in colonies of up to 25 pairs.

Why are they endangered? California’s beaches are awesome and humans love hanging out there; unfortunately, we don’t always share well, so California least terns have lost undisturbed nesting habitat. They may be chased by dogs, become a meal for domestic cats, or just be scared away by a person walking too close to their nest.

Conservation efforts: Local communities and state agencies are protecting prime tern nesting habitat from becoming developed and enacting programs to prevent predation. In 1970, only 225 nesting pairs were recorded, but by 2004 the California least terns had steadily increased to 6,561 pairs [7]. While these fancy-flying birds are still considered threatened and require conservation assistance, their increase in numbers shows how effective careful conservation programs can be.

White abalone raised at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Photo by Heather Kramp/California Sea Grant [Source]

White abalone (Haliotis sorenseni)

Who are they? A marine snail that combines beauty (their shell) and strength (their muscular foot) into one marine invertebrate. White abalone act as kelp forest architects by munching on ocean plants (i.e., kelp and algae). While eating their own habitat may sound counterintuitive, the abalones’ underwater grazing actually has positive cascading effects on their community. Clearing some areas promotes kelp diversity by allowing more species to come join the underwater forest party!

Where in CA? White abalone are found 50–180 feet underwater off the coast of southern California and Baja California.

Why are they endangered? Once found in the millions, commercial fisheries decimated the population until the fishery closed in 1997, yet the high price of their meat keeps them at risk of poaching [8]. Their low population numbers make it difficult for white abalone to recover because they are broadcast spawners. Broadcast spawning is when a male and female release their gametes (sperm and eggs) in close proximity into the water, where fertilization occurs [8]. Since there are so few abalone, it can be difficult for males and females to come close enough for their gametes to fertilize and create offspring. Additionally, white abalone don’t start reproducing until they are between 4 and 6 years old.

Conservation efforts: The white abalone was the first marine invertebrate to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service set up a recovery plan that includes captive breeding to help enhance the population. UC Davis researchers at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, along with UC Santa Barbara and several California aquariums, have been maintaining the captive breeding program, monitoring abalone health, and identifying the best habitats for white abalone to be successful in the wild [9].


Not all heroes wear capes: you can support biodiversity every day!

Conservation is a team sport, and collaboration is key to protecting our planet’s biodiversity. The collection and distribution of knowledge by international institutions, country and state agencies, research institutions, non-profits, and outreach organizations are essential, but we can’t leave it up to these large entities to solve the problem of biodiversity loss—success starts with each of us.

Conserving biodiversity means sustaining all life, from the oceans to the sky [Source]

According to a UN report, nearly 1 million of the 8 million species on Earth are presently at risk of extinction. These statistics and reports are disheartening, and the issues threatening biodiversity remain large and complex. But don’t feel helpless! Small changes in behavior lead to actions that amount to larger solutions. If everyone can #DoOneThingToday to make a difference in their local community, then the collective cascading effects will help protect our wildlife and maintain biodiversity.

If you are wondering where to start, in addition to the United Nations suggestions, here are some personal author tips on how to become involved with wildlife conservation actions every day:

  • First and foremost, think local. Learn about the biodiversity in your own backyard and the species within your community that may need some assistance. Plant pollinator flowers, set up bird feeders for migratory birds, and consume local products to reduce the impact of possible exploitation of wildlife in other places.
  • Set one actionable goal at a time. Whether we admit it or not, humans are creatures of habit; when we attempt to change too much of our routine, it’s unsustainable and overwhelming. Aim for one behavioral change at a time that will reduce your negative impact on the environment: say no to single-use plastics, shop in the bulk section of the grocery store, start composting, or repair appliances instead of buying new ones. Choose just one and practice it; before you know it, the action will become habit and you can move on to your next goal!
  • Learn more about plants, animals, and conservation to stay informed on issues that threaten wildlife and ways your community can protect it.
  • Use your voice to spread scientific knowledge and encourage your friends, family, schools, government, and businesses to set actionable conservation goals.
  • Support biodiversity by researching and visiting places with conservation goals such as state and national parks, nature reserves, or aquariums with strong ties to wildlife conservation.
  • Volunteer with wildlife organizations, beach clean-ups, wildlife rehabilitation centers, or environmental outreach programs.
Conservation is a team sport! [Source]

Whether you are new to the conservation game but want to do your part, or are a seasoned conservationist in need of some inspiration, World Wildlife Day is here to remind us of the glorious planet we live on. Today we celebrate Earth’s biodiversity and raise awareness of how we all have the ability and responsibility to protect wildlife on our shared planet. So, go plant a tree, take a hike, find an actionable goal, and spread the word about World Wildlife Day 2020!


References

  1. Bélanger, J., & Pilling, D. (Eds.). (2019). The state of the world’s biodiversity for food and agriculture. FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Assessments.
  2. International Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019). IPBES 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
  3. Allan, N., Pesapane, R., Foley, J., & Clifford, D. (2018). Successful care and propagation of the endangered amargosa vole (Microtus californicus scirpensis) in captivity. Zoo biology37(1), 59–63.
  4. California Department of Fish & Wildlife (2019). State and federally listed endangered and threatened animals of California.
  5. Poulsen, A., Fritz, H., Clifford, D. L., Conrad, P., Roy, A., Glueckert, E., & Foley, J. (2017). Prevalence and potential impact of toxoplasma gondii on the endangered amargosa vole (Microtus californicus scirpensis), California, USA. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 53(1), 62–72.
  6. Atwood, J., & Kelly, P. (1984). Fish Dropped on Breeding Colonies as Indicators of Least Tern Food Habits. The Wilson Bulletin, 96(1), 34–47.
  7. US Fish and Wildlife Service. (2006). California least tern (Sternula antillarum browni). 5-year Review: Summary and Evaluation. California least tern (Sternula antillarum browni). 5-year Review: Summary and Evaluation.
  8. National Marine Fisheries Service (2016). Species in the spotlight: priority actions 2016–2020, white abalone, Haliotis sorenseni.
  9. Rogers-Bennett, L., Aquilino, K. M., Catton, C. A., Kawana, S. K., Walker, B. J., Ashlock, L. W., … & Cherr, G. N. (2016). Implementing a restoration program for the endangered white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni) in California. Journal of Shellfish Research, 35(3), 611–618.

Karli Chudeau is a PhD candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group and a part of the UC Davis Center for Animal Welfare. She is interested in conservation management and assessing animal welfare in wildlife rehabilitation settings. Her current research examines how we can use behavioral management interventions, such as environmental enrichment, to improve reintroduction success with pinnipeds. She is also an avid ocean nerd.

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