Climate change is poised to transform life on Earth as we know it. The higher temperatures, the rising seas, the more frequent floods and droughts, among the countless other consequences associated with climate change, threaten to do irreversible damage to the world in the coming decades.
Amphibians are one of the most threatened groups of animals on the planet. Since the late 1980s, scientists have measured dramatic population declines from locations all over the world. The plummeting amphibian populations are perceived to be one of the most critical threats to global biodiversity. According to the IUCN, about 1 of every 3 amphibian species is facing extinction. Some of the greatest threats facing amphibians include climate change, disease, and habitat destruction.
According to the FDA, approximately three-quarters of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are fed to livestock for non-therapeutic purposes. This routine administration of antibiotics promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can spread to animals and humans. And as antibiotic-resistant bacteria spreads, medicines used to treat human diseases can become less effective. Antibiotic resistant infections kill 90,000 Americans each year.
California’s trees are dying. According to the U.S. Forest Service, more than five years of drought in California has left 102 million dead trees across 7.7 million acres of forest. In fact, 62 million trees have died this year alone – a 100% increase from 2015.
The conventional aquaculture industry has often been associated with many of the same problems that beset land-based agriculture: creating sterile monocultures, fouling the environment with pesticides, antibiotics and organic pollutants, and spreading diseases.
Bananas are the world’s most popular fruit crop, with 130 countries producing over 100 million tons annually. Forty-seven percent of all the bananas grown in the world and ninety-nine percent of all the bananas sold commercially are of one subspecies known as the Cavendish.
There has been lots of discussion about the decline in bee populations and its dire consequences for agriculture. We have also talked about the efforts to save the monarch butterfly, whose numbers have been dropping dramatically over the years. But the rest of the insect world does not get much attention. For the most part, we think of insects as a nuisance or as potential pests.
Ebola. Hantavirus. Lyme disease. What do they have in common? Like most emerging infectious diseases, they originated in mammals. So many debilitating pathogens make the jump from wildlife and livestock to humans, yet at the global scale little is known about where people are most at risk of outbreaks.
Scientists are calling for the creation of a global early warning system for infectious diseases. Such a system would use computer models to tap into environmental, epidemiological, and molecular data – gathering the intelligence needed to forecast where disease risk is high and what actions could prevent outbreaks or contain epidemics.
When we think of vultures, we picture big, ugly birds circling over a carcass in the desert. They are a stereotypical harbinger of death. But in many parts of the world, vultures are in danger of disappearing. Our knee-jerk reaction might well be “good riddance”, but as is the case for pretty much all participants in ecosystems, vultures have an important role to play. And when they aren’t around to play that role, bad things can happen.
For the past 17 years, the American Lung Association has analyzed data from official air quality monitors to compile the State of the Air report. The State of the Air 2016, which was released late last month, revealed some troubling statistics about the health of the air here in the United States.
When it comes to addressing infectious disease, we have a short attention span. Forces are mobilized when we’ve crossed a tipping point, and demobilized when the immediate threat has passed. In the case of Zika, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency based on a strong association between Zika infection and microcephaly in newborns and a spike in Guillain-Barré syndrome.
There are approximately 3,500 mosquito species in the world. Of those, only a few hundred are known to bite humans. And just two have adapted to breed almost exclusively in urban environments where they are in close proximity to people.
For about a decade now, insect pollinator populations have been in decline. Their decline poses a significant threat to biodiversity, food production, and human health. In fact, at least 80% of the world’s crop species require pollination, and approximately one out of every three bites of food is a direct result of the work of these pollinators. In the United States alone, insect pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, certain wasps and flies (among many others), account for an estimated $15 billion in profits annually.
Since the late 1990s, there has been an unprecedented global wave of virulent fungal infections that has been decimating whole groups of animals from salamanders and frogs, to snakes and bats.
The sugar maple, one of the most economically and ecologically important trees in the eastern United States and Canada, is showing signs of being in decline, according to scientists at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Harvard Forest.
In New York’s Hudson Valley, it’s hard to go outside without stepping on an acorn. Oaks have ‘boom and bust’ acorn production cycles. In lean years, trees produce a handful of nuts. In boom years, acorns seem to rain down from the sky. We are currently experiencing an acorn bumper-crop, or what ecologists call a ‘mast’ year.
In some forests, there can be more than 100 acorns per square meter. This is welcome news to animals like mice, chipmunks, and squirrels. They can gorge on the bounty and stock their larders. Acorn caches help wildlife avoid predators and survive the lean months of winter. They even give well-fed rodents a jump-start on the breeding season.
For this reason, acorn “mast” years are also harbingers of future Lyme disease risk. In the summer following acorn booms, white-footed mouse numbers explode. In New York’s Hudson Valley, these mice play a major role in infecting blacklegged ticks with the agents that cause Lyme disease, Babesiosis, and Anaplasmosis.
Cary Institute disease ecologist Rick Ostfeld explains.
“The ticks that are emerging as larvae in August – just as the mice and chipmunks are reaching their population peaks – they have tons of excellent hosts to feed from. They survive well and they get infected with tick-borne pathogens. And that means that two years following a good acorn crop we see high abundance of infected ticks, which represents a risk of human exposure to tick borne disease.”
Predictions are based on 20 years of field studies that have confirmed the relationship among acorn mast years, mouse outbreaks, and the prevalence of infected ticks. Mark your calendars – 2017 will likely be a bad year for Lyme disease.
Full interview with Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Photo, posted August 16, 2012, courtesy of Rabiem22 via Flickr.