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    Global map of wildlife trade reveals true cost to the planet

    Helmeted hornbills (Rhinoplax vigil) eat fruit and so are key to seed dispersal. Over-trading in this species is likely to damage its native ecosystem.Credit: Tim Plowden/Alamy

    Every year, more than 100 million plants and animals are traded legally and illegally around the world. But whether this is sustainable remains hotly debated by researchers. A study published on 26 July in Nature1 sheds some light on the issue by creating a global map of ecosystems’ resilience to current levels of wildlife trade.The findings could help to show conservation scientists and policymakers where to focus resources, by identifying the hotspots where wildlife trade could cause the most damage.
    Major wildlife report struggles to tally humanity’s exploitation of species
    “It’s one thing to say, ‘we know that trade is unsustainable’,” says study co-author Oscar Morton, a conservation biologist at the University of Sheffield, UK. “It’s another thing to say, ‘we know what happens to ecosystem X when we take out species A’.”For example, he says more than one million tokay geckos (Gekko gecko) — small, colourful lizards common in southeast Asia — are traded every year as pets. But whether that volume of trade is sustainable is unknown.Whole-ecosystem effectsWhen measuring the overall sustainability of the wildlife trade, individual species cannot be considered in isolation, says Morton. Yet it’s so complex to analyse the impact of the industry on ecosystems as a whole that few attempt it.Morton and his colleagues addressed this gap by collating data on the legal trade in birds and mammals collected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and legal and illegal trade from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The researchers overlaid this information on maps of the distribution of various species across the world.

    Source: Ref 1.

    They added data on the phylogeny of species — their evolutionary histories — to indicate whether each has unique traits (See ‘Hotspots of uniqueness’). They also included information about the species’ functional role in the ecosystem — for example, whether it is a large predator or a tiny grazer. “In a healthy ecosystem, you want a wide range of traits, because then they do all of your ecosystem services — so seed dispersal, carbon stocking, pest control,” says Morton.The resulting maps allow the team to visualize the potential impact of removing a species from an ecosystem.For example, hornbill birds are heavily traded for their casques, the bony protrusions on their upper beaks. But as large fruit-eaters, the birds have a key role in seed dispersal in their ecosystems. If hornbills were to be depleted from an area, the vegetation would change radically, with knock-on effects for the birds, insects and other animals that inhabit the ecosystem, says Morton.Damaging tradeThe map revealed global hotspots where trade has the most potential to damage, that is, ecosystems where functional and evolutionary diversity was high. “It’s an impressive piece of research that brings together a huge amount of data,” says Vincent Nijman, a specialist in wildlife trade at Oxford Brookes University, UK. He says the map clearly shows that in relatively small areas of the world, the industry could put ecosystems at risk. He points to parts of Africa and southeast Asia as being important hotspots.
    Ivory hunting drives evolution of tuskless elephants
    “If we were to be able to pay more attention” to regulating trade in those regions, says Nijman, “then we’re going to get a much better return on our investment”.International and domestic policies should require assessments of the impact of the wildlife trade on entire ecosystems, says Morton. “We should be looking at ecosystem sustainability as well as species sustainability, when we talk about trade sustainability,” he says.As well as playing a part in their ecosystems, many species have intrinsic scientific value, says data scientist Mike Massam at the University of Sheffield, a co-author of the study. “We don’t want to lose millions and millions of years of evolutionary history.” More

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    I’ve witnessed the wonders of the deep sea. Mining could destroy them

    Last month, I led a team in the thrilling discovery of a deep-sea octopus nursery on underwater mountains, only the fourth such location known in the world. It was incredible to witness octopuses being born, their tiny pink tentacles springing to life. Worryingly, any day now, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) could green-light mining for metals and rare-earth elements in habitats such as these.Between 10 and 21 July, ISA’s council met in Kingston, Jamaica, to hash out a code of rules for deep-sea mining in international waters. Interest in exploiting the deep sea is exploding thanks to its deposits of cobalt, nickel, rare-earth elements and other metals that are used in key green-energy technologies such as electric-vehicle batteries, solar panels and wind-turbine magnets. ISA, an intergovernmental body tasked by the United Nations with regulating deep-sea mining while ensuring the protection of the marine environment, missed a 9 July deadline to finish the code. Now, commercial mining applications could be submitted to ISA even though the code is not complete, which raises many legal issues that its council is rushing to try to resolve.
    Deep-sea mining could soon be approved — how bad is it?
    The code would be a legally binding document defining: how environmental-impact assessments must be done; the thresholds for harm to the marine environment; how inspection, monitoring and enforcement would occur; and how the benefits of mining would be shared equally between countries.In my view, it is impossible to effectively protect, monitor for harm or restore these ecosystems without a basic understanding of their biology. Some of the sought-after minerals are found in lumps called nodules that form on the sea floor over millions of years. Mining them currently requires scraping large tracts of sea bed, which is destructive and indiscriminate.For the two weeks of the ISA meeting, I fielded hundreds of daily messages while providing expert scientific guidance to delegations in my capacity as a contributor to the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative.I told the delegations that the world knows too little about deep-sea ecosystems to judge what rules would ensure their protection. It is difficult to even convey the immense scale of our knowledge gaps. Deep-sea corals — like trees on land — are keystone species in their habitats, providing crucial structure for other forms of life. Scientists don’t really know how these corals reproduce: spawning has never been documented. How can we restore a baseline that we have never observed? We need research covering at least ten years for each habitat to be able to make evidence-based decisions.Mining will affect animals, such as corals, that are attached to the sea bed and microorganisms that provide crucial ecosystem services, such as carbon fixation and nutrient recycling. It will affect the entire water column above the sea floor, generating plumes of debris as well as noise and light pollution that could affect migratory species, including commercially important animals such as tuna. The deep sea is a repository for immense genetic diversity that could yield new scientific insights.There is irreplaceable scientific value in some deep-sea ecosystems, such as the Lost City field of hydrothermal vents near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with its towering ‘cathedrals’ of carbonates. Its unique chemistry and microbiology yield clues about how life evolved on Earth and whether it might exist on other planets.
    The global fight for critical minerals is costly and damaging
    Restoration is commonly used in land-based mining to make up for harm caused. But the deep sea operates on a profoundly slower timescale than ecosystems on land, and there is no evidence that restoration would work as a mitigation strategy. Forests can be replanted, but there is no current evidence that deep-sea habitats could be repaired on human timescales after extensive damage. In fact, studies suggest that natural restoration of deep-sea ecosystems and their services will probably take thousands to millions of years.Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that it causes less environmental damage and has fewer human impacts than does mining on land, but it is not yet possible to know the effects on the deep sea, let alone compare them with those of land-based mining. Besides, this argument seems a false dichotomy to me. Deep-sea mining will not replace mining on land — both types will probably continue.I think that the urgent need for critical minerals should further spur innovation instead of leading to irreplaceable deep-sea ecosystems being wiped out. Nations should boost investment in battery chemistry research, which shows promise for reducing the need for these materials, and in reuse and reclamation programmes for the metals already extracted that are currently destined to sit in landfill.It’s not just hundreds of scientists around the world — including me — who are calling to pause mining in the deep sea because of the lack of understanding of these ecosystems. Twenty countries support a pause or moratorium, including Brazil, Canada, Germany and New Zealand, and France supports a ban. Major companies including Google, Microsoft, BMW and Volkswagen have pledged not to buy or finance deep-sea minerals until the supply chain meets environmental, social and governance standards.When I was an undergraduate student two decades ago, deep-sea mining was discussed as if it were science fiction, not likely to happen in my lifetime. I hope it stays in the realm of fiction. We have much better options for the future of our society and our planet. More

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    I sample Antarctica’s seaweed to improve human health

    Research suggests that some seaweed might have health benefits for people, including helping to protect against cancer, diabetes and other diseases. Extreme temperatures, light and water salinity can boost the levels of compounds behind these effects.As a fisheries engineer at the Sheep Breeding Research Institute in Bandırma, Turkey, I research the chemistry of marine organisms, including seaweeds and molluscs, and their potential for farming. In this picture, taken this year, I’m collecting seaweed samples near Horseshoe Island in Antarctica on an expedition funded by the Turkish government. With our collaborators at the Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University in Turkey, we aim to identify species, analyse their chemical compositions and determine their chemical processes that are associated with health benefits.The only other study of seaweed diversity near the island was in 1976, which identified six species (R. L. Moe & T. E. DeLaca Antarct. J. 11, 20–24; 1976). We think we have found more than 15, including some that had been recorded only in other parts of Antarctica. Diversity near the island could have changed because climate change and glacier melt have altered light levels, brought in more fresh water and provided new nutrients.We are analysing these samples for antioxidants, chlorophyll and other compounds — as well as proteins, lipids and amino and fatty acids — because they affect the extent of protection against disease.Last year, we increased antioxidant compounds in Gongolaria barbata, a common brown seaweed, by changing how much light it received and the salinity of the water in which we grew it (I. Ak et al. Phycologia 61, 584–594; 2022). Seaweed extracts are already used in the production of food supplements, such as omega-3.It might one day be possible to farm Antarctic seaweed species containing a lot of compounds that improve human wellness, just by altering growing conditions. More

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    Sexual harassment in science: tackling abusers, protecting targets, changing cultures

    Sarah Batterman talks frankly about her experience of sexual harrassment at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Its director Josh Tewkesbury describes steps taken to protect staff.

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    In late 2021 a BuzzFeed investigation revealed a catalogue of sexual misconduct incidents at the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). Ecologist Sarah Batterman, one of more than a dozen women to speak out about their experiences, describes what happened to her and the impact it has had on her career.Batterman, who filed a formal complaint to the institute in 2020 after being contacted by other women with similar experiences of harassment and abuse at STRI, tells Adam Levy: “It was almost 10 years of a lot of pain after what happened, which made a lot of my research really difficult. I estimate that I lost three of the 10 years in productivity.”Josh Tewkesbury joined STRI as its director in July 2021, five months before the BuzzFeed story broke. He describes the measures taken to safeguard scientists from sexual harassment and assault since its investigation concluded.“We have been working with the people that came forward for the BuzzFeed article, engaging them in the process of how we make STRI a more safe place. ” he says. “We’ve been just overwhelmed and really thankful with the degree to which those individuals have, have been willing to engage.”This episode is part of a Working Scientist podcast series about freedom and safety in science. More

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    Rings of fire: centuries of tree growth show wildfires increasing in Vietnam

    Increasing human presence in and around Bidoup Nui Ba National Park has resulted in more frequent wildfires.Credit: Evgeniya Pavlova/Getty

    The first centuries-long analysis of wildfires in southeast Asia has been compiled using tree rings from a region in central Vietnam. There has been a drastic increase in the frequency of wildfires in the area over the past 100 years, but climate change is not the primary culprit. Instead, humans lighting fires for agriculture are behind the rising number of forest burns, according to the study1 published in Geophysical Research Letters.“Fire has a big impact on the forest structure,” says Thiet Nguyen, a forest ecologist and PhD student at the University of Melbourne in Australia. “There’s a very high level of biodiversity in that forest.”Many people think of tropical Vietnam as lush with jungle, but in the central highlands, misty montane forests are home to around 100,000 hectares of conifers mixed with broadleaf trees. Whereas tropical trees don’t tend to put on annual growth rings because they grow consistently year-round, the conifers have annual cycles of growth. Nguyen and his colleagues took cross-sections from recently fallen trees of two species, Pinus kesiya and Keteleeria evelyniana, at 12 locations in Bidoup Nui Ba National Park and counted the tree rings back over almost 400 years.When trees are exposed to non-lethal fires, their bark chars, leaving behind a burn scar within the tree rings. The team dated the earliest definite fire scar to 1772. Between then and 1905, only 17% of years contained clear fire scars, although Nguyen admits that the farther they went back in time, the smaller was the available number of samples, reducing their confidence in the findings. After 1905, they had good clear tree rings to work with. From then until 1963, 71% of years showed scars from fires, however the fires often affected only a small number of sites. But from 1964 to the present day, fire has occurred almost every year, often affecting a larger number of sites.‘A big problem’Until the advent of this study, “we had no idea how the fire regime has been changed”, says Nguyen. “If the fires are increasing rapidly, that can reduce biodiversity and forest density,” he adds. “It’s a big problem.”Using statistical analysis, the authors looked for relationships between fires, climate and the human population. They discovered that historically, fire patterns were associated with climate; data from Pacific sea surface temperatures (see ‘Forests on Fire’) showed that weather patterns such as El Niño and La Niña, which determine dry or wet years, could have influenced how much combustible plant material was available and how dry and flammable it was, for example.But after 1963, according to population estimates for the nearby city, Da Lat, an increasing number of people came to live in the area. Humans use fire to clear land for agriculture, Nguyen says, and fire probably spreads to the national park — established in 2004 — from nearby areas. People also start fires in the park. From 1964, the authors found that the signal from humans overwhelmed climate as the driving force behind the fires.

    The fires’ increasing frequency, coupled with heightened fire conditions brought on by climate change, will be a problem in the future, says Brendan Buckley, a dendrochronologist at Columbia University in New York, who was a master’s programme adviser to Nguyen but was not involved in this study. “There might very well be some burning that gets out of control in these areas that are protected rainforest.”Understanding historical and modern fire occurrence is crucial because it gives researchers a baseline to work from, helping forest managers to prepare for climate change, Buckley says. Although fire can be beneficial to a coniferous forest, the rainforest is a totally different ecosystem and can be destroyed by fire, he says.Nguyen says that the species used in this study are common across other parts of southeast Asia, such as Thailand and the Philippines, meaning that the same technique could be used to explore fire history and climate change in other countries.“If we had this kind of study in other countries in southeast Asia, a big historical fire reconstruction for the region, that would be cool.” More

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    Expeditions in post-war Colombia have found hundreds of new species. But rich ecosystems are now under threat

    When the peace deal opened Colombia up, scientists were not the only groups to take advantage. People returned to tend their land and now, in some places, there are tensions between conservation and farming. In the Sumapaz paramo, government attempts to demarcate a conservation zone have led to disputes.
    More-industrialized farming — of oil palm and livestock for example — is spreading. It laps at the edges of the Guásimos forest where Toro lives. Meanwhile, people are making the most of their new-found access to Colombia’s rich supplies of tropical wood, coal, oil and gold. Colombia lost 128,000 hectares of primary forest in 2022. Furthermore, illegal coca plantations are appearing in record numbers.
    Meanwhile, violence persists, involving groups such as gangs of ex-combatants, drug traffickers, paramilitaries and those guerrilla groups that have not made peace deals with the government.
    “Pretty much every single crisis that you can think about in the world, you have it in Colombia right now,” says Diazgranados.
    As a result, research trips can be stressful and require elaborate safeguards. When Diazgranados went to explore a region of El Cocuy National Park in the northeast where, as far as he knows, no scientists had ever been, the government insisted on sending in elite armed forces to the study area two weeks beforehand to prepare the way; then, with two days to go before the trip, another military cordon formed inside the first one.
    He and his team of 40 Colombian and international scientists snatched 4 days of collecting before their protection ended, and they had to leave. They found 14 new plant species that Diazgranados thinks are new to science, but he left with a heavy heart: the landscape was not the untouched wilderness he had hoped to find. “The local farmers have been trashing the ecosystem,” he says.
    Despite these experiences, scientists do find that their work in the past seven years has seeded a sense of wonder among local people about the plants and animals they live alongside, especially when people discover that they are living in the only place in the world to host some of these species. Some residents have learned scientific skills. When Torres’s phone rings these days, it is often a villager asking for help in identifying a species, or advice on how best to deal in an ecologically sensitive way with problems such as an animal attacking their crops. Sometimes they even want contacts in a government ministry to help to solve some environmental problem, or they have new range information to report for a species studied during Santander Bio.
    “They developed an identity,” says Torres of the communities he has met. “And once you have that identity, people are not going to just destroy their habitat — because they have connected with it.”

    Author: Aisling IrwinPhoto editor: Jessica HallettArt editor: Jasiek KrzysztofiakSubeditor: Richard LimEditor: Kerri Smith

    Map credits:
    Protected areas: IGACElevation: GEBCO.Species data: Adapted from Fig. 1 of Ref. 2Caecilia pulchraserrana photo: Felipe Villegas/SantanderBIO/Humboldt InstituteTrichomycterus rosablanca photo: Felipe Villegas/ColombiaBIO – Minsciencias/Humboldt InstituteAtlapetes blancae photo: Gabbro/Alamy

    Zhang, C. et al. ISPRS J. Photogramm. Remote Sens. 169, 280–291 (2020).Gori, B., Ulian, T., Bernal, H. Y. & Diazgranados, M. Sci. Rep. 12, 7835 (2022).Mesa, L. M., Lasso, C. A., Ochoa, L. E. & Donascimiento, C. Biota Colombiana 19 (Suppl. 1), 95–116 (2018).Florez, J. S., Cadena, C. D., Donascimiento, C. & Torres, M. Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 193, 772–788 (2021).

    Springer Nature More

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    Oil from the Amazon? Proposal to drill at river’s mouth worries researchers

    A Brazilian petrochemical company wants to drill exploratory oil wells in the ocean near the mouth of the Amazon, one of the world’s biggest rivers. Although Brazil’s environmental-protection agency has so far rejected the state-run firm’s request, researchers worry that the plan might one day be approved, encouraging further offshore drilling in the area. In particular, they are concerned about the effects of the drilling — and inevitable oil leaks — on a vast reef system nearby.
    Saving the Amazon: how science is helping Indigenous people protect their homelands
    “There’s a palpable risk of an oil spill if activities proceed — the fact it is an exploratory well for studying the region’s potential for deep-sea oil doesn’t exempt it from accidents,” says Carlos Rezende, a marine biologist at the State University of Northern Rio de Janeiro in Campos dos Goytacazes, Brazil.In May, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) turned down oil firm Petrobras’s application to drill in what’s known as the FZA-M-59 block, a parcel of sea floor about 175 kilometres from the coast of northern Brazil, near the border with French Guiana, and about 540 kilometres from the mouth of the Amazon River (see ‘Oil prospecting’). The agency said that the company’s assessment of environmental impacts and its emergency plan in the event of a leak are insufficient. Petrobras, which is based in Rio de Janeiro, has since appealed and filed a new request.The company defended itself to Nature, saying that in the planned drilling location, “there is no record of any nearby conservation units, nor is it located near rivers, lakes, floodplains or reef systems”. But Rezende argues that the Great Amazon Reef System is only about 50 kilometres from the site, and that oil in the water could travel that distance.

    Source: Adapted from L. S. Araujo et al. Mar. Pol. 128, 104465 (2021)

    Threats to the reef system, which lies 70–220 metres below the ocean surface, are of great concern to some scientists. It has been difficult to explore the area because of turbulent waters, but studies estimate that the reef spans between 9,500 and 56,000 square kilometres across the mouth of the Amazon12. When it was first described by scientists in the 1970s, researchers did not observe rich biodiversity. But studies in 20162 and 20193 found a thriving ecosystem that’s home to corals, sponges and fish communities.“It is huge, and it is sensitive,” says Ronaldo Francini-Filho, a marine ecosystems researcher at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. “And we don’t know even 5% of what’s down there.”Rodrigo de Moura, a marine ecologist at the Federal University of Rio De Janeiro who has mapped reefs off the Amazon’s mouth, agrees. “There are a lot of known unknowns there,” he says. Because researchers don’t know a lot about the reef’s habitats and water circulation, “a comprehensive evaluation of the risks from oil and gas exploitation is currently impossible”, he adds.A promising blockIf the project is approved, it could set a precedent to allow drilling at 15 other deep-sea sites nearby that are flagged for exploration, says Suely Araújo, a senior policy specialist at the Climate Observatory, a Rio de Janeiro-based civil-society coalition focused on climate-change policy.So far, 95 exploratory wells have been drilled in the region without striking much oil; some natural-gas deposits have been found, but none big enough for commercial purposes. These wells were all in shallow waters, but FZA-M-59 is at a depth of 2,800 metres, in a part of the ocean that some researchers think is more promising. Egberto Pereira, an organic geochemist at Rio de Janeiro State University, says it’s possible that oil lies beneath FZA-M-59, because the area’s landscape and rock composition are similar to those of an oil-rich region off Guyana, where oil company ExxonMobil has operated since 2015.

    The Great Amazon Reef System is home to sea sponges and other organisms.Credit: Greenpeace

    Offshore drilling has been beneficial to Brazil in the past: in particular, drilling off the southeast coast in basins near São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro brought a windfall. In 2010, Petrobras raised more than US$25 billion for exploratory drilling in the region. Aloizio Mercadante, president of the Brazilian Development Bank in Rio de Janeiro, has estimated that the Equatorial Margin — a region that stretches over 2,200 kilometres along Brazil’s north coast and includes FZA-M-59 — could yield between 10 billion and 30 billion barrels of oil.But researchers think it’s premature to make such estimates when oil hasn’t been found yet. And they aren’t convinced that Petrobras has properly assessed the impact of the drilling. The company says its oil-spill modelling fulfils Ibama’s requisites. “The results indicate that there is no likelihood of [oil] touching the Brazilian coast” in the event of a leak, Petrobras says.But the modelling did show that oil could reach French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname and the Caribbean, Rezende points out. He also says that the models used by Petrobras “do not consider wind-generated waves, which are quite intense in the region and would certainly pull oil to the coast”. Petrobras stands by its modelling, saying that it used the “most modern techniques and systems”.Researchers worry that if oil were to reach the coast, it could damage mangroves at the mouth of the Amazon. “The region houses the second-largest continuous mangrove area in the world,” Francini-Filho says. “As it is highly sensitive, oil contamination would be catastrophic.”A greener future?Petrobras tells Nature it has drilled almost 3,000 wells at deep-sea sites without any complications, and that these, “added to the technical expertise and experience accumulated over 70 years, allow the company to open new frontiers with total security towards the Equatorial Margin’s environmental sensitivity”.
    Illegal mining in the Amazon hits record high amid Indigenous protests
    But even if the drilling can be done safely, researchers still question the idea of tapping into new oil reserves — which would create carbon emissions — while the world is battling climate change. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva campaigned as an environmental crusader who would protect the country’s biodiversity and health. Allowing drilling in FZA-M-59 could cast doubt on his sincerity.“Is this what we want as a country?” asks Araújo. If approved, the project wouldn’t begin producing oil until 2030. “How much will a barrel be worth by then, when nations are supposed to be converting to renewable energy?” she asks. “We should be thinking of a development plan for the twenty-first century.”Ibama says it is analysing Petrobras’s latest request, but has set no date for a decision. More

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    Brazil: threat to Indigenous peoples persists

    World leaders have backed commitments by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to defend Indigenous peoples’ rights and the environment (see, for example, But insufficient support for the new president’s government in the National Congress means that his predecessor’s opposing policies on the issues still stand.
    Competing Interests
    The author declares no competing interests. More