Earth ChangesS


US: Plague spurs prairie dog die-off in grasslands

Colorado Springs - An outbreak of the plague is killing off the black-tailed prairie dogs on the Comanche National Grassland in southeast Colorado, in a dramatic die-off that has raised concerns for the future of the species in one of its richest habitats.

The U.S. Forest Service, which runs the 443,750-acre grassland, said Monday that prairie dog colonies decreased from 16,000 acres in 2005 to just 3,607 this year. The plague occurs regularly among prairie dogs throughout their range, spreads quickly through colonies, and can infect pets and humans that come into contact with them, the agency said.

The news comes at a time of scrutiny on the small, plains rodent. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to determine, possibly as soon as today, whether the prairie dog should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.


New hope of curing amphibian plague

© iStockphoto
Amphibians worldwide are in trouble. One of the most endangered animal groups, amphibians are increasingly threatened by habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. However the largest threat is chytridiomycosis, a devastating disease caused by a parasitic chytrid fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, otherwise known as Bd.

Some hope for frogs and toads has been found at the Institute of Zoology in London. Scientists have discovered that tadpoles infected with Bd are cured by the fatal disease when submerged in an antifungal drug, itraconazole, for five minutes everyday day for a week.

Cloud Lightning

Venice 'under water' after worst floods for 20 years

Venice has been hit by the worst flooding in more than 20 years, as high winds and days of heavy rain pushed the level of the city's lagoon to more than five feet above its average height.


UK: Hundreds of schools closed as forecasters warn of more snow

Thousands of children in north west England and north east Scotland had to be sent home from school after their teachers failed to make it in.

But despite a temporary respite tomorrow forecasters are warning of more snow overnight with up to eight inches possible on higher ground across wide swathes of northern England and Scotland by Thursday.

The Met office has issued a severe weather warning stretching from the Peak District of Derbyshire to the north of Scotland as a band of low pressure moves in from the Atlantic.


Hundreds of schools closed and chaos on roads as snow and Arctic winds sweep across Britain

Icy winds and heavy snow storms swept across Britain today, causing chaos for drivers and closing hundreds of schools.

Thousands of children got a day off school as sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow forced around 200 schools in the North-West to close.

Many youngsters took advantage of the unexpected day off to wrap up warm, get their sledges out and enjoy the snow-covered fields.

Hazardous driving conditions caused a number of accidents with cars skidding on the icy roads as yesterday's rain turned to ice as temperatures plunged as low as minus 4C in places.

Elsewhere, huge tailbacks formed as commuters struggled to get into work in the freezing weather.


The hard truth about animal research

An hour at the zoo is enough to convince most people that apes and monkeys are close kin to humankind. Some say that an hour watching proceedings in any parliament is enough to show that humans are close kin to monkeys. Either way, we know that the primate family is an intimate one, with the great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orang-utans and humans - particularly closely related.
© Wikimedia CommonsChimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) could soon be granted rights.

It did not take genetics to tell us this, however, nor comparative anatomy. We now know that we share many of our genes with insects too, and the anatomies of all mammals are just resized and repositioned versions of one another. The key to understanding the true closeness of apes, ourselves included, is ethology. When Jane Goodall first sat in the Gombe rainforest, giving with fortuitous naivety anthropomorphic interpretations of the chimpanzee behaviour she witnessed, she was initiating a rethink: about apes, about humanity's relationship with them, and ultimately about humanity itself.

Red Flag

Acorns Gone; Nature Does What GOP Fails to Do

An article in today's Washington Post, Acorn Watchers Wonder What Happened to Crop reports that in many parts of America, the acorns are gone and squirrells are acting as though they are starving. The article starts,
The idea seemed too crazy to Rod Simmons, a measured, careful field botanist. Naturalists in Arlington County couldn't find any acorns. None. No hickory nuts, either. Then he went out to look for himself. He came up with nothing. Nothing crunched underfoot. Nothing hit him on the head.

Then calls started coming in about crazy squirrels. Starving, skinny squirrels eating garbage, inhaling bird feed, greedily demolishing pumpkins. Squirrels boldly scampering into the road. And a lot more calls about squirrel roadkill.

Bizarro Earth

Curaçao's crude legacy

CSM Curacao
© Colin WoodwardFriends of the Earth activists Lloyd Narain and Yvette Raveneau have campaigned against World War I-era oil refinery's pollution for 20 years.

A lake of asphalt and toxic fumes bedevil Curaçao. But who will pay to clean it up?


Antarctic islands surpass Galapagos for biodiversity

A group of isolated Antarctic islands have proved to be unexpectedly rich in life. The first comprehensive biodiversity survey of the South Orkney Islands, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, has revealed that they are home to more species of sea and land animals than the Galapagos.
Emperor penguins
© UnknownEmperor penguins like these are the tallest and heaviest penguins alive today

The findings raise the issue of what sort of impact climate change - already hitting the Antarctic hard - will have on this rich biodiversity.

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Hamburg, Germany, carried out the survey using a combination of trawl nets, sampling as deep as 1500m, and scuba divers. The team found over 1200 species, a third of which were not thought to live in the region. They also identified five new species. The majority of animals were found in the sea, with most living on the seabed.


How landslides can be the key to ignition of wildfires

Can a landslide spontaneously combust? It can, if it contains the right kind of rock.

In August 2004, fire crews attending a wildfire near Santa Barbara, California, traced the source of the blaze to a recent landslide, but they had no idea how the fire got started.

A few weeks later, Robert Mariner of the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, and his colleagues visited the site. They found that the temperature of the rocks in the landslide must have reached just over 300 °C - hot enough to start a fire.