New science: saving life on land, record-breaking rays, freshwater action plan

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on April 16, 2020.

Protecting nature starts with science. Here’s a roundup of recent scientific research published by Conservation International experts. 

1. Reforesting the tropics is essential for protecting life on land 

Reforesting the tropics could be an effective strategy for conserving threatened wildlife while slowing climate change, according to a new study.

2019 UN report revealed that more than 1 million terrestrial species across the globe are at risk of extinction, driven largely by habitat loss and climate change. In this new study, Conservation International scientists Pamela Collins and David Hole in partnership with Arizona State University explored how reforestation could minimize this species loss. 

To do this, the scientists compared global maps of degraded forests that have restoration potential to maps of the geographic ranges of threatened species.

The results were promising. 

Nearly half of the area on these maps overlapped, meaning that reforestation could help conserve an array of wildlife that is at risk of extinction. Together, the more than 3.69 million square km (more than 1.424 million square miles) — strewn across South America, Africa and Asia — are the size of India and Vietnam combined. 

“This overlap represents around 15 percent of the total land area that harbors threatened vertebrate species worldwide,” Collins explained. “While reforestation is not a substitute for conserving existing forests, this study shows that, in the right places, forest restoration can be a crucial part of the strategy for protecting Earth’s biodiversity.”

In addition to protecting animal species, reforestation across this area of tropical land could absorb nearly half the amount of greenhouse gas emissions currently being released by human activities such as logging, agriculture, mining and urban development. 

“Deforestation skyrocketed across the globe in 2019. We need 2020 to be the year that we protect and restore tropical forests,” said Hole, Conservation International’s vice president of global solutions. 

2. Reef manta rays break deep-diving record  

recent study documented the deepest dive by a reef manta ray ever recorded, shattering the previous world record by more than 200 meters (656 feet). During the historic dive, the reef manta ray — which is smaller than the giant oceanic manta ray —  reached a maximum depth of 672 meters (2,204 feet).

An elusive and highly mobile species, the reef manta ray’s behavior has never been recorded in the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia — until now. 

Using satellite tags attached to the backs of the manta rays, a team of researchers, including Conservation International scientist Mark Erdmann, was able to track nine of these aquatic giants in the waters of New Caledonia. This information gives valuable insight into the behavior of reef manta rays — vital for protecting them. 

“Reef manta ray populations are declining worldwide, largely due to fisheries that target the species for their gills, which are used in traditional Asian medicines,” Erdmann says. “Not only is this bad for the manta rays, this impacts local economies across Indonesia, Australia and the rest of the South Pacific that rely on these charismatic creatures for their ecotourism value.”

Although manta rays in New Caledonia are not yet threatened by fishing, the authors of this study hypothesized that the reef manta rays are likely diving deeper due to insufficient food supplies on the water’s surface. 

The deep-diving behavior of the manta rays reaffirms that countries must ensure that deep waters adjacent to coral reefs are protected to conserve this iconic species, according to François Tron, country director of Conservation International’s New Caledonia program.

“Marine protected areas designed to protect manta rays typically focus on coastal and reef areas, and rarely extend into deeper offshore waters,” explained Tron in a recent statement. “This research shows that reef mantas regularly utilize these deeper waters, where we already know other ocean voyaging species such as whales, sharks and turtles are also present. To ensure we do not lose these emblematic species, this broader habitat needs to be included in ocean conservation efforts.”

3. A new plan to protect rapidly vanishing freshwater ecosystems 

recent study offers the first global framework to protect Earth’s freshwater ecosystems, some of which are vanishing three times faster than forests.

Although they cover less than 1 percent of Earth’s surface, freshwater ecosystems — such as rivers, lakes and wetlands — are home to around 10 percent of the planet’s species. However, populations of freshwater vertebrate species such as turtles and sturgeons have fallen by more than 80 percent, and nearly one-third of wetland ecosystems have been lost since 1970 due to human activities that destroy habitats and decrease water quality.

Informed by global data and successful conservation examples from around the world, Conservation International scientists Robin Abell and Ian Harrison worked with other freshwater experts to provide a plan for reversing the rapid decline of freshwater species and habitats — and the services they provide.

“Freshwater ecosystems underpin human society, providing water security, offering flood protection and ensuring food security to vulnerable communities around the world,” said Abell, who leads Conservation International’s freshwater work. “With competing demands for land and water use, we know that freshwater biodiversity conservation isn’t easy — if it were, we wouldn’t be facing such extreme imperilment of fish, invertebrates and other species.”

The paper proposes six strategies to protect freshwater biodiversity, including improving water quality by reducing pollution, preventing and controlling invasive species and managing overfishing. 

“It would be easy to interpret this work as a further message of freshwater doom, but it is in fact the opposite,” said Harrison, Conservation International’s director of freshwater science and policy. “It is a forward-looking plan, with specific areas of action, for how to address the 21st century challenges that our freshwater ecosystems face. It presents an opportunity for us to change the trajectory of biodiversity decline in turn supporting the health of the planet and the livelihoods of people.”

For Indigenous peoples, pandemic poses unique risks

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on April 14, 2020.

For the Kankanaey-Igorot indigenous people of the Philippines, closing off their community to the outside world is an annual tradition known as ubaya — a time of rest before or after the fields are prepared for planting and harvesting.

Now, this traditional ritual could be crucial to ensuring the community’s survival, according to Minnie Degawan, a member of the Kankanaey-Igorot Indigenous peoples and the director of the Indigenous and Traditional People Program at Conservation International. 

Excluded from most national COVID-19 response measures and government relief packages, many Indigenous groups worldwide are forced to enact their own form of quarantine through practices such as ubaya, Degawan writes in a recent article for Cultural Survival, a U.S.-based indigenous non-profit. She emphasized that these communities face “particularly challenging times,” sharing dwindling food sources and receiving only limited access to information. 

Although many Indigenous peoples “did not find the idea of quarantine a strange one,” Degawan explains, outside activities on Indigenous lands are making self-isolation extremely difficult for these communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The conversion of forests to mono-crop plantations or to logging and mining concessions means less agricultural lands for communities,” Degawan writes. Compounding the problem: Climate change has decreased crop yields, leaving indigenous peoples vulnerable to food scarcity if the quarantine continues for too long, she added.

As illegal miners and loggers encroach on Indigenous territories, they could also be exposing remote Indigenous communities to the virus. This could leave isolated Indigenous peoples particularly vulnerable to the symptoms of COVID-19 due to their lower immunity — the result of limited contact with diseases from external sources, research shows

Indigenous peoples are “no strangers to disease and disasters,” Degawan notes, and many communities have survived disease outbreaks such as Ebola by enacting health measures grounded in traditional knowledge. 

One of the best things that governments can do, she writes, is to make it easier for these communities to help themselves. 

“If only Indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands and resources were respected, they would be better able to fend for themselves in times of crisis and would not have to look to outside for help. The communities know best what they will need and how such support should be delivered.” 

Read more here.

Study: Protect these places — or face climate doom

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on March 31, 2020.

To stop climate catastrophe, there are certain places on Earth that we simply cannot afford to destroy, according to new research by Conservation International scientists.

Compiling carbon data from forests, grasslands and wetlands, the scientists determined how much carbon is stored in ecosystems across the globe and measured how long it would take to get it back if it is lost — and what that loss would mean for humanity. 

The result: A blueprint for where — and how — to focus efforts to protect Earth’s living carbon reserves.

‘A generation’s worth of carbon’ 

The scientists identified pockets of “irrecoverable carbon” — vast stores of carbon that are potentially vulnerable to release from human activity and, if lost, could not be restored by 2050. (Why 2050? It’s the year by which humans need to reach net-zero emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe.)

Irrecoverable carbon spans six of the seven continents, including vast stores in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, Indonesia, Northwestern North America, Southern Chile, Southeastern Australia and New Zealand. These ecosystems contain more than 260 billion tons of irrecoverable carbon, most of which is stored in mangroves, peatlands, old-growth forests and marshes. This amount of carbon is equivalent to 26 years of fossil fuel emissions at current rates.

“We are talking about a generation’s worth of carbon contained in these critical ecosystems,” explained Allie Goldstein, a climate scientist at Conservation International and the paper’s lead author. “The good news is that we now know where this irrecoverable carbon can be found — and it is largely within our control to protect it.”

Carbon is constantly flowing in and out of ecosystems, added Conservation International scientist Will Turner, also an author on the paper. 

But as humans destroy city-size swaths of forests at an increasing rate, the scale is tipping heavily toward “out.” 

“We already know that fossil fuels release massive amounts of emissions and that we need to keep them in the ground,” Turner said. “We now know that when particular ecosystems are destroyed or degraded, they release massive amounts of carbon that we simply can’t get back in time to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change. We have to make protecting these places a top priority of this decade.”

Defining ‘irrecoverable’ 

In the paper, scientists analyzed the carbon stocks stored across the world’s major ecosystems through three dimensions: whether humans can influence that stock of carbon, the amount of carbon likely to be released if the ecosystem was disturbed or converted, and how quickly the stock could be recovered if lost. 

With these criteria, the researchers were able to pinpoint which ecosystems are most crucial to prioritize for climate action — and where humans can actually have an impact.

“There are some carbon stocks in ecosystems such as tundra, where permafrost will release carbon as it thaws due to global warming itself,” Turner said. “Unfortunately, at this point there is little we can do directly in those places to keep the carbon from releasing. But other carbon stocks that we studied are being released due to human activities such as clearing forests — which means that humans can also make a difference by protecting them.” 

Driven by agriculture and logging, tropical deforestation rates have soared across the globe. In the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, forest destruction has surged a staggering 85 percent since 2018. Mangroves continue to be destroyed, with more than 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) lost from 2000 to 2012. Peatlands are suffering a similar fate, drained and cleared, mostly to make room for oil palm plantations. 

We’ve still got time  

According to Goldstein, however, there is still time to protect these critical ecosystems.

“We are right in the sweet spot of where the carbon stocks in most of these ecosystems are still manageable,” Goldstein said. “Our land-use decisions still matter right now. If temperatures increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius, then there will be more ecosystems that are going to shift into that unmanageable category.”

Although not every ecosystem that stores irrecoverable carbon is under threat at the moment, past does not always equal future when it comes to risk, Turner says. 

Take Borneo: A few decades ago, the island was filled with peatlands and forests teeming with wildlife, he explained. Now, Borneo has a staggeringly high rate of deforestation, with more than a quarter million hectares of old-growth forests and peat destroyed every year, much of it converted to oil palm plantations.

As agricultural production and development intensify across the globe, countries must act both reactively and proactively to protect these crucial ecosystems, Turner advised. 

“Preventing deforestation only in places where it is happening right now is like having a health-care system made up only of emergency rooms. We need to be proactive about protecting these living carbon reserves while we still can.” 

Protect nature, protect carbon

The bad news: If we lose a third of this irrecoverable carbon, that alone would put us over our carbon budget to stay within a 1.5-degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature rise —the limit that scientists say is necessary to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. 

The good news: There are a number of activities that humans can do to protect it, says Bronson Griscom, who leads Conservation International’s work on natural climate solutions and was also a co-author of the new study. 

To stop climate breakdown, he explained, we need to do two things: emit less carbon and remove excess carbon from the atmosphere.

“Irrecoverable carbon stocks are an essential piece of the natural climate solutions story,” Griscom said.“We need to start designing the next generation of protected area networks that span across a number of these critical ecosystems with high irrecoverable carbon stocks, and prioritize protection for the ones that are most at risk. These ecosystems are not only critical for our climate, they are also hotspots for other essential ecosystem services like flood control, water filtration and biodiversity.” 

Next step: a ‘treasure map’

Now that these scientists know which ecosystems hold the most irrecoverable carbon, they are determining where exactly they can be found.

“By locating irrecoverable carbon stocks at a global scale, we can provide countries with a treasure map of the places we can least afford to lose and the places where we have to halt deforestation the fastest,” explained Goldstein. 

“This will help us actually plan irrecoverable carbon protection and where to allocate funding at the local, national and global scale.”

What sets this map apart: It will show how much irrecoverable carbon is in existing protected areas and under indigenous management, and where — as well as the pockets that are currently unprotected.  

Conservation International is also using this research to undertake an ambitious initiative to protect tens of millions of hectares of ecosystems high in irrecoverable carbon. 

But to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, protecting irrecoverable carbon must be a priority across industries and stakeholders — from the private sector to governments. 

“We have growing evidence that the final battle ground whether we fail or succeed in delivering the Paris Climate Agreement of holding the 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming line, is not only whether we are able to get off fossil fuels, it is also whether we are able to safeguard the carbon sinks in nature,” said Johan Rockström, Conservation International’s chief scientist. “Here, we provide the first global assessment of the ecosystems that hold our future in their hands.” 

Expert: To prevent pandemics like COVID-19, ‘take care of nature’

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on March 27, 2020.

Likely sourced to a live animal and fish market in China, COVID-19 has spread around the world at lightning speed, infecting more than 4.2 million people and killing nearly 300,000 people to date.

Many countries are taking severe measures to stem the virus’s spread, from locking down cities to temporarily shuttering local businesses.

But how will countries prevent future outbreaks? 

The first step: Protect nature, says Lee Hannah, Conservation International senior climate change scientist and a world-renowned expert in ecology, the study of how humans interact with nature. 

Conservation News spoke to Hannah about how giving nature space could help curb future disease outbreaks. 

Question: What does nature have to do with the spread of disease?

Answer: Humans have traded diseases with wildlife for as long as people have domesticated animals from nature (which is a very long time). In fact, many of humanity’s existing diseases originated from animals: the flu comes from pigs and birds, tuberculosis originated in cattle, Ebola comes from chimpanzees or bats

Ecosystems in nature function similarly to the human body: When they are robust and healthy — which means they have diverse species and space for healthy animal populations — they are more resistant to disease. Thriving ecosystems also provide a variety of benefits to surrounding humanity, from fresh water to food to fertile soil. However, when human activities such as logging and mining disrupt and degrade these ecosystems, animals are forced closer together and are more likely to be stressed or sick, as well as more likely to come into contact with people. In these conditions, diseases bounce back and forth between wildlife populations and humans. 

Disturbingly, research projects that animal-borne illnesses are going to become more frequent due to the rapid destruction of nature.

Q: How does humanity’s relationship with nature impact pandemics? 

A: The most wide-reaching and straightforward issue is the global wildlife trade. This trade puts species in contact with other species — and other diseases — that they likely would have never encountered naturally in the wild. 

For example, the COVID-19 strain likely passed from a bat or a pangolin and may have jumped to another species before it was able to infect a human, which is why wild animal markets that sell an array of exotic species in one place are the perfect breeding ground for rare zoonotic diseases. Tropical diseases tend to have animal reservoirs more often than temperate diseases, so taking tropical species and putting them in close contact with people at wild animal markets is flirting with disaster. This exchange of wildlife and wildlife parts is also devastating to nature because it decimates species populations such as elephants and rhinos, which are critical to the health of their respective ecosystems. 

On top of this, deforestation rates have soared across the globe, driven largely by agriculture and logging. Not only does this put stress on wildlife habitats, it could accelerate climate change — which could also impact the spread of disease. 

Q: What kind of impact? 

A: From shifting bird migrations to your morning cup of coffee, climate change complicates just about everything. From a public health perspective, the climate crisis is increasing the spread of certain diseases and complicating efforts to combat others. Seasonality and weather are two of the major factors that control the rate at which viruses such as the flu infect humans. Although scientists are currently uncertain how climate breakdown will impact the spread of COVID-19research predicts that rising global temperatures will alter the timing, distribution and severity of disease outbreaks. 

For example, my research shows that animal species are moving toward the north and south poles and up mountains to escape the heat as the climate warms. Just as we don’t want people going into natural habitats and becoming exposed to animal viruses, we don’t want animal habitats moving into closer contact with humans and development projects. To prevent this, we must work to stop climate breakdown and give nature the space it needs to adapt naturally to the impacts that we can no longer prevent. 

Q: So countries can help curb future disease outbreaks by protecting nature?

A: That’s right. Later in 2020, world leaders will convene at the UN Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity to develop a roadmap that will guide nature conservation efforts for the next 10 years — the period in which we must slow global warming, protect our ecosystems and save species under threat. Under current conditions, more than 1 million species are at risk of extinction due to human activities, so ambitious but fair targets to conserve the planet’s wildlife by protecting nature are critical to preventing a mass extinction. 

Q: What are some of these targets? 

A: Our research shows that protecting 30 percent of tropical lands could help cut species extinction risk in half, while slowing climate breakdown. There is a whole suite of possible conservation tools that governments can implement to protect biodiversity while benefiting from the land, including protected areas, national parks, community conservancies and indigenous-managed conservation areas. We must take care of nature to take care of ourselves 

However, establishing these areas is just the beginning, keeping them intact and supporting them is crucial to conserving nature and preventing human-wildlife contact. Another measure that countries must take to protect nature and stem zoonotic disease outbreaks is permanently ending the global wildlife trade. Due to its cultural implications in parts of the world, this will not be easy — but it is absolutely necessary. 

Fundamentally, we need to reimagine our relationship with nature. For a long time, nature was robust and resilient, so humans often assumed we could do anything we wanted to it and it would bounce back. Due to population growth and overexploitation, we’ve reached a point where what we do to nature can permanently impact it.

Nature does a lot to support us and one of the things we must do in exchange for the benefits it provides is to make sure we protect it.

Meet a scientist: a species-discovering savant

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on March 25, 2020.

Editor’s note: A 2017 survey found that 81 percent of Americans could not name a living scientist. No, not a single one. At Conservation International, we have lots of scientists you should know. Here’s one.

Mark Erdmann is the vice president of Asia-Pacific marine programs at Conservation International, where he spends almost as much time underwater discovering new species as he does helping communities above ground conserve them.

Conservation News spoke to Erdmann about his run-ins with reef fish and manta rays — and how his love for the ocean was inspired by a television show.

Question: When did your fascination with the deep sea start?

Answer: I grew up watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” — a documentary television series that followed the famous explorer as he traversed the ocean. For a boy living in the rural foothills of South Carolina, in the American South, the incredible scenes of coral reefs bursting with color and life were an absolute siren call to me. Of course, Cousteau himself was an inspiring and adventurous explorer figure — I was hooked!

Q: So you’re a world-renowned marine biologist because of a TV show?

A: It sounds a little crazy, but after spending so much time watching Jacques Cousteau’s aquatic adventures, I decided to study marine biology at school. While pursuing my doctorate on the subject, I lived in a small fishing island in eastern Indonesia called Barang Lompo and studied the surrounding coral reefs. Unfortunately, as I was studying these coral reefs, many of my neighbors were destroying them through unsustainable fishing practices, such as blast fishing — when fishers use dynamite to increase their yield of fish. To prevent further destruction of these reefs, I engaged with these fishers to help transition to more sustainable techniques, such as fishing by a handline. The fishers were open to using these techniques because they knew that it would help to ensure their children and grandchildren still had healthy reefs to fish in the future.

This was my first foray into ocean conservation, and the moment that I decided to dedicate the rest of my career to protecting ocean critters.

Today, as the vice president of Asia-Pacific marine programs at Conservation International, I am largely focused on overseeing our ocean conservation projects in this region, as well as training our staff and partners to conduct ecological monitoring and conservation assessments of reef fish and larger fish species, such as sharks and manta rays.

Q: How much time do you spend underwater?

A: If I had unlimited air in my scuba tank while diving, I would spend 100 percent of my time underwater, but the reality is probably more like 30 percent of daylight hours whenever I am in the field.

I am a self-described “fish geek,” and I have been on more than 12,000 scuba dives over my lifetime so far – on all seven continents! One of my main jobs at Conservation International has been to lead “marine biodiversity assessments” — expeditions to count the number of species in a given area and share this data with government partners to help prioritize investments in new protected areas.

During my first survey to West Papua, Indonesia, in 2006, our team discovered more than 50 new species of fish and coral, including two new species of walking sharks. Since then, I have discovered more than 200 species of fish, coral and mantis shrimp across the Asia-Pacific region. Through these discoveries, we have worked to foster local pride and inspire conservation action to help communities protect the amazing reefs of this region — and the marine species they support.

Q: Can you tell immediately that you’re seeing a new species?

A: Most of the time, yes.

Q: Wow. How?

A: In the areas where I work in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, there are upwards of 3,500 different reef fish species, and many of them look incredibly similar. To know that one fish is a new species, you need to memorize the appearance of all of the fish species in the area, noting the minor differences in size, color and more. If we see a fish that we don’t recognize, we snap detailed pictures and carefully compare them to identification guides and the published descriptions of the species that it most closely resembles. If it doesn’t match anything in the guide, that is how we know it is new.

It’s typically easier with people that have a visual memory when it comes to colors and patterns — and luckily, I am one of those people. Along with this natural aptitude, it really just takes a lot of time underwater and a willingness to explore new places.

Another surefire way to find new species is by conducting surveys in areas that people have not explored before, from deep-water reefs to muddy mangroves — but you always have to keep an eye out for crocodiles in these swamps!

Q: Crocodiles — that sounds dangerous. What dangers threaten the marine species you study?

A: Overfishing is a big one: Three out of seven people worldwide rely on seafood as their primary source of protein — and overfishing and destructive fishing practices have skyrocketed in recent years to meet this demand. Additionally, a number of iconic marine species — such as whale sharks and manta rays — in the waters throughout Asia are targeted for their fins and dried gills, which are exported as delicacies and traditional medicines. And we can’t forget the warming seas and ocean acidification caused by climate change. All of these threats are decimating fish populations around the globe.

To combat this, Conservation International and partners have worked with governments in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years to illustrate that manta rays are actually worth more money alive than dead for their tourism potential — 2,000 times more to be exact. However, manta rays and whale sharks can be difficult to protect because they are highly migratory species, meaning that they travel long distances to feed or mate. Since 2014 and 2015, we have initiated manta ray and whale shark satellite tagging programs throughout the region to learn more about their migratory patterns and how best to conserve these highly mobile species. Informed by the data from these programs, governments such as Indonesia, Timor-Leste and several Pacific Island nations have recently granted full legal protection status to both of these iconic species, which means that it is an offense to catch or harm them.

Q: So now that these species are protected by law, they are no longer in danger?

A: Even though a species is protected by law, it doesn’t always mean their habitat is, which is why marine protected areas (MPAs) are so important. MPAs — areas of the ocean where human activity is restricted — are the cornerstone of ocean conservation, supporting both marine habitats and the species that depend on them. On average, fully protected marine areas can increase fish populations by more than 400 percent.

Unfortunately, establishing an MPA takes time and money. In a perfect world, we would have unlimited financing to establish MPAs across the entire ocean, but this is not the case, so we have to choose wisely. Our marine biodiversity assessments help us effectively decide where to establish MPAs through two major criteria: the overall biodiversity (the number of fish and coral species) in a given area, as well as the rarity or uniqueness of the species found there. For example, the Bird’s Head Seascape is one of the most biodiverse marine areas on Earth — which is why we have worked closely with the Indonesian government and more than 30 partners since 2004 to create a network of 21 MPAs covering more than 4.7 million hectares (11.61 million acres) of ocean in this area. Since the network’s inception, fish populations have rebounded; sharks, whales and rays have returned; poaching by outside fishers is down 90 percent; coral is recovering; and ecotourism has flourished.

At a time when marine species face an array of threats, networks of large MPAs such as the Bird’s Head Seascape are crucial to conserving the ocean’s biodiversity.

In Hawai‘i, there is not as wide of a variety of reef fish or coral species, but many of the species are rare and only found around these unique islands — which means that if we don’t protect these waters, these species are highly vulnerable to extinction. Even if an area is abundant with unique species, however, we must also consider the surrounding community’s willingness to support an MPA in their region to ensure its success.

Q: Other than digging into old Cousteau episodes, what advice would you give an aspiring marine biologist?

A: You have to follow your passion for the ocean and push through the roadblocks that will inevitably try to get in your way. People will tell you that you won’t get paid a lot or that there aren’t enough jobs, but if you are truly determined, you can always make a living out of something you love. As a mentor to several young Indonesian marine scientists, I have witnessed firsthand how their passion can evolve into thriving careers.

It is also crucial to explore new and underrepresented fields of marine biology — focus on a species or habitat about which there is nothing written, and you’re almost guaranteed to find amazing things. We know less about the ocean than we do about the surface of the moon, and humanity needs people to help us learn more.

Find something you love about the ocean and dive deeper into it.

To stop climate catastrophe, look to soil: study

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on March 18, 2020.

In 2019, a UN report laid out a bitter truth: The current food system is fueling the destruction of Earth’s forests — and humanity must overhaul how we grow and ship food to stop climate breakdown.

But countries are struggling to keep farming sustainable while meeting the mounting demand for production — which must increase by between 25 percent and 70 percent by 2050 to feed growing populations.  

A groundbreaking new study reports that the secret to making this possible lies in the soil — or more specifically, in the carbon stored in the soil. 

Conservation News spoke with Conservation International scientist Bronson Griscom, a co-author on the study, about the vast potential of soil to help halt climate change and why protecting soil carbon is a “win-win for farmers and the planet.”

Question: Let’s start at the beginning. How exactly does soil store carbon?

Answer: Trees and plants suck up carbon from the air and use it to store energy and build their stems, leaves and roots. It’s prehistoric magic: Plants eat our carbon pollution and turn it in to all sorts of useful things, including food, wood and soil carbon. Plants add carbon to the soil both by leaking it in gradually while they live, or all at once when they die. As a result, soils hold three times more carbon globally than the atmosphere. This is not only good for our climate, but also good for the health and productivity of our soils.

These processes have been known about for a long time, but what we discovered is just how much more carbon we can store in the soil if we follow a specific set of practices, especially sustainable farming practices. 

According to our analysis, protecting or restoring carbon in soil can provide 3 billion tons of cost-effective climate mitigation per year.

Q: What do you mean “cost-effective climate mitigation”? 

A: Economists tell us that climate change is likely to cost us more than US$ 100 for every ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to compensate for the scope of devastating impacts that the climate crisis will have on humanity. This means that anything we can do to avoid emitting massive amounts of carbon dioxide, or to remove massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere — that also costs less than US$ 100 — is a “cost-effective” climate change solution. The good news is that many of the actions we take to increase soil carbon also make economic sense for other reasons, such as improving fertility in agricultural soils. 

Q: So should we just leave soil alone?

A: It depends. For example, it makes sense for wetland ecosystems, which store huge amounts of carbon for every acre. In wetland ecosystems, such as cypress swamps and mangroves, the carbon stored in the trees is just the tip of the iceberg. Mangrove trees can store 10 times more carbon per unit area than a terrestrial forest. Every acre of these wetland ecosystems is extremely valuable carbon storage, as well as flood control, water filtration and wildlife protection. In most cases, these ecosystems are the most valuable to society if they are left alone.

In agricultural systems, such as crop or livestock farms, carbon can actually increase the fertility of the soil, which can improve crop growth, increase water storage and enhance the health of the entire farm. This research does not suggest that agricultural systems should be abandoned, but rather that they are better managed to improve carbon storage, soil health and sustainable food production. 

Q: Sounds like keeping and increasing carbon in the soil is a win-win. 

A: Absolutely — it’s the perfect example of a win-win for farmers and for the planet. Sustainable farming practices that protect and restore carbon in the soil can enhance agricultural production and help reduce soil erosion.

Q: So what’s stealing all the carbon from soils?

A: To keep up with consumer demand, many farmers and businesses have taken measures to ensure higher crop yields by applying more fertilizers and pesticides to the soil, and relying less on the inherent fertility of the soil. As soil health and soil carbon declines, farmers are forced to use more fertilizers that increasingly run off into streams and rivers, harming humans and wildlife. One example is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico — a 22,729-square km (8,776-square mile) of ocean that can no longer support marine life because it has little to no oxygen due to excess nutrient run-off from human activities.

Many farms reach the point where the soil becomes so degraded that it can no longer support plant growth without huge fertilizer inputs. Degraded soil not only stores less carbon, contributing to climate change, but it also is less drought tolerant — therefore it is more vulnerable to climate change. 

Fortunately, there are many ways to break this downward spiral by restoring and increasing soil carbon, which improves soil’s inherent fertility and absorption of water to get crops through droughts. 

In developing countries, where many farmers cannot afford more fertilizers to offset soil degradation, they are too often forced to clear forests to access their more fertile soils. Agriculture, both large- and small-scale farming, is responsible for the majority of tropical deforestation.  

However, it is not just agriculture that is driving deforestation and releasing soil carbon across these critical ecosystems. Mangrove forests, for example, are often destroyed during coastal development projects or converted into shrimp farms, releasing massive amounts of carbon from both the trees and the soil. 

Q: How do we keep carbon in the soil?

A: Protecting and restoring soil carbon is an example of a natural climate solution — any action that protects ecosystems or restores them to more natural conditions while increasing carbon storage or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions. Cost-effective natural climate solutions across forests, agricultural systems and wetlands can deliver about 30 percent of the climate mitigation needed by 2030 to prevent climate catastrophe — and soil carbon projects could represent a quarter of that climate mitigation opportunity.  

One example of a soil carbon project in agriculture is planting cover crops. When a farmer plants their crop, the standard practice is to harvest the plant, then wait until the next spring to plant new seeds. Between these harvests, farmers could actually increase productivity by planting a “cover crop” such as clover, which helps restore nutrients in the soil. At the end of the season, these cover crops can be plowed and mixed into the soil — increasing both fertility and carbon storage, while reducing the loss of topsoil through erosion.

A crucial method for helping to keep carbon in soil is the protection and restoration of mangroves and peatlands. Because these ecosystems hold such a high density of carbon, we should not be converting them for farming or development at all.  

Q: Why aren’t more people taking these steps already?

A: Although projects to help protect and restore soil carbon are cost-effective in the long-term, they do require upfront investments and funding. It’s similar to investing in your retirement fund to improve your quality of life in the future. For farmers, it’s smart to invest in the quality and health of their soil because it improves the long-term productivity of their farms — and could lead to higher profits later on. 

From increasing food security to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the benefits of these projects go well beyond any one farm or any one year, so we need to invest as a society to help farmers make these changes. 

With only a decade left to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we can no longer afford to wait. One way to incentivize farmers to protect soil carbon right away is by putting a price on it. By including soil carbon projects into established carbon markets — like California’s cap-and-trade system — governments can give farmers an immediate investment to do something that will increase food production and help cut carbon emissions. 

There is also an incredible need to drive financing toward peatland and mangrove restoration and protection. Through the Restoration Insurance Service Company (RISCO) for Coastal Risk Reduction, for example, Conservation International will work with insurance companies to incorporate the value of mangroves into insurance products through fees and carbon credits that support community-based wetland restoration and conservation efforts. 

Q: How else can countries help protect soil carbon?

A: This is one of the first studies to link a wide variety of specific actions with positive soil carbon outcomes. Agriculture is one of the highest-emitting industries across the globe — and protecting soil carbon could help change that without sacrificing profits. Other ways to protect soil carbon include reducing deforestation, making coastal development projects more sustainable and creating conservation areas around mangroves and peatlands. 

2020 must be the beginning of a decade of climate action and this research shows the cost-effective — and mutually beneficial — steps that we can take right away. 

Study: Protecting tropics could save half of species on brink

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on February 26, 2020.

In 2019, a landmark UN report revealed that nearly 1 million species face extinction due to human activities and climate change. 

A groundbreaking new study offers a solution to save more than half of these doomed species, while slowing climate breakdown: Conserve just 30 percent of tropical lands. 

The study, published today in the journal Ecography, is the first to offer a comprehensive map of the most important natural areas to protect to reduce extinction risk, highlighting the immense value of tropical regions in Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia. 

Conservation News spoke with the study’s lead author and senior climate change scientist at Conservation International, Lee Hannah, about the political and economic implications of this research — and what it could mean for the future of the planet’s wild animals.

Question: Why is climate change making species disappear? 

Answer: Every species has its own unique climatic tolerances and environments — which is why we can’t grow palm trees in New York City, for example. These tolerances were formed over hundreds of thousands or millions of years, so it is unlikely that they are going to change overnight. Therefore, when human activities accelerate climate change, species are going to try to follow those climates that are suitable for them rather than adapting to new ones. For many species, this requires moving upslope — but at a certain point, there will be nowhere left to go, which is what we call the “escalator to extinction.” 

Q: Where does your new research fit in?

A: In this new study, we were looking to understand how species movements in response to climate change might affect our ability to conserve them. To do this, we modeled the potential movements of hundreds of thousands of species under different climate scenarios. Then, we combined those models with the known locations of several hundreds of thousands more species. This combination allowed us to determine the best regions to protect species both where they are now and where they might be in the future. 

Our results showed us that if we limit temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius while conserving just 30 percent of tropical land area, then we can cut species extinction risk in half. 

Q: Thirty percent doesn’t seem that high.

A: Exactly! This study is the first to analyze extinction rates in the context of conservation and climate change, so we were shocked to find out that we could get such high levels of extinction reduction in such a small area, even as the climate changes. Part of the reason for that is because many of the world’s species are packed into tropical mountains — from the Amazon to East African montane forests. As these species move upslope in response to climate change, we will be able to conserve them in relatively compact areas by expanding or creating new conservation areas. 

Through these findings, we created a map of the most important tropical areas to protect across Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia to conserve biodiversity. Moving forward, countries can now use the tool we developed to zoom in on individual conservation areas or mountains to do a more detailed analysis and get an idea of the best conservation plan for different species that are on the move. 

Q: Why is it so important to protect all of these species? 

A: One reason is that the wealth of species living in these tropical areas — what we call biological diversity, or biodiversity for short — holds critical genetic information, which could help us cure diseases, create new drugs, design climate-resilient crops and more. Every time we lose one of these species, we also lose some of that crucial information. Additionally, all of these species help to build thriving ecosystems, which provide a host of benefits to humans — from fresh water to food to fertile soil. Ecosystems weakened by the loss of biodiversity are less likely to deliver those services, especially given the ever-growing human population.

Biodiversity is also an essential part of tackling the climate crisis. Tropical forests around the world store about 25 percent of the world’s carbon but are vulnerable to deforestation if countries do not protect them. This research illustrates that part of the equation of protecting biodiversity is also part of the equation for getting climate change under control.

Q: So how do countries protect these critical places? 

A: It’s really important to note that “conserving 30 percent of tropical land” isn’t just about creating national parks or protected areas (although that’s a good start for many places). There is a whole suite of possible conservation tools that a government can implement to protect biodiversity while benefiting from the land, including community conservancies, indigenous-managed conservation areas and land-use zoning. 

For example, in western Angola in Southern Africa, some of the priority areas for avoiding extinctions due to climate change fall into areas used by local farmers.  In those areas, we need to figure out how to keep rare birds and plants in landscapes used by small-scale farmers.  That’s a great conservation idea, but it’s not a national park.

The most important thing to do is figure out which conservation system is the best option for a local setting based on social environments, land uses, development needs, the species you are trying to protect and more. 

Q: Why aren’t governments already doing this? 

A: Up until our results, we haven’t known the places most important to conserve to avoid extinctions due to climate change.  But now we know, so we can act.  Governments can build their own plans on our results, we’ve built online tools and are doing trainings to facilitate this.  

Throughout many parts of the world, the pace of development is intensifying, and unsustainable agricultural plantations are on the uptick. As species move in response to climate change, they may run into these areas, which is why it is so important to expand protected areas and prevent development from spreading into the critical tropical lands highlighted in our map. I don’t see this as a roadblock, but rather an opportunity to get conservation in the right places for a changing climate — and fast.

Q: What happens next?

A: Many scientists are referring to 2020 as the “Super Year for Nature” and existing research shows we are on the verge of a sixth mass extinction if we do not commit to increased conservation efforts. 

These findings come at a critical time as world leaders convene in Rome, Italy this week to continue negotiations to protect plant and wildlife species ahead of the UN Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity coming up in October in Kunming, China. The goals and targets to be set ahead of the COP will serve as an important road map guiding conservation efforts for the next 10 years – the period in which we must slow global warming, protect our ecosystems and put biodiversity first.  

The good news is that we now have science to guide actionable solutions to this crisis. If we collectively prioritize key areas for conservation, we can preserve biodiversity hotspots and slow global warming at the same time. Although it will take careful land planning, reaching this goal is extremely achievable — and crucial for the future of all life on Earth.

The oceans are on the brink. Here are 3 ways to save them

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on February 20, 2020.

Last year, a major United Nations climate report underscored a grim reality: Humanity is pushing the world’s oceans to the brink. 

By the end of the century, the report’s authors wrote, more of the world’s seas could be hot, acidic and lifeless — with catastrophic implications for marine life, the climate and for the food security of billions of people. 

But as grave as the report’s findings were, experts say, there is reason for hope.  

Through ambitious alliances and innovative engineering, conservationists are working tirelessly in 2020 to prevent the UN’s stark warning from becoming reality. Here are three approaches that Conservation International scientists are pioneering to conserve the oceans on a global scale. 

Mixing “green” with “gray” to protect coastal communities 

Limb for limb, the mangrove is perhaps the most important tree species on Earth

Around the globe, mangroves provide an estimated US$ 82 billion in flood risk prevention annually for coastal communities and store up to 10 times more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests — yet nearly half of the world’s mangrove forests have been lost in the past 50 years.

To conserve these carbon powerhouses and the communities they protect from the imminent threats of climate change, Conservation International experts are working to combine mangrove restoration efforts with conventional engineering approaches through a technique called “green-gray” infrastructure. 

“As climate change accelerates, nature-based activities must work in tandem with more conventional man-made infrastructure,” explained Jennifer Howard, marine climate change director at Conservation International. “Green-gray infrastructure can help strengthen a community’s protection against extreme floods, storms and rapid sea-level rise; provide crucial benefits such as fresh water and fisheries; and remove carbon from the atmosphere — it’s a win-win-win.”

In 2020, Conservation International will work closely with local governments and communities in the central Philippines — a region still recovering from a devastating typhoon in 2013 — to expand on initial pilot projects to increase their resilience to the impacts of climate change through green-gray initiatives. Examples of these projects include the construction of breakwaters — barriers to protect a coast from storms and flooding — along with extensive mangrove forest restoration. 

To drive funding to these projects, Conservation International is now tapping into an unlikely resource: the insurance market. 

“Mangroves can help protect people, their homes and their assets from storm surges and flooding,” Howard said. “Insurance companies are starting to realize that protecting coastal wetlands is a profitable investment.” 

By creating the Restoration Insurance Service Company (RISCO) for Coastal Risk Reduction, Conservation International will work with insurance companies to incorporate the value of mangroves into insurance products through fees and carbon credits that support community-based wetland restoration and conservation efforts. 

A planned RISCO pilot in 2020 in the Philippines will conserve and restore 4,000 hectares (9,884 acres) of mangroves. Over the next decade, this project could protect highly vulnerable communities, critical infrastructure and provide a climate benefit of more than 600,000 tons of avoided and sequestered emissions — equivalent to taking more than 127,000 cars off the road for a year. 

“We need to test out new ideas and partnerships to scale up the protection of coastal ecosystems,” Howard said. “This project will show that these initiatives can be replicated all over the world to have an even larger impact.” 

Making fish farming more sustainable 

Three out of seven people worldwide rely on seafood as their primary source of protein — and more than half of all seafood comes from aquaculture (also known as fish farming).

Yet aquaculture can have massive environmental impacts if practiced unsustainably. In such cases, coastal forests are typically the first casualty, cut down for fish farms to expand. The second casualty: the fish themselves, wiped out by disease made worse by pollution of the water.

“Shrimp is one of the most produced commodities in aquaculture, and it is also one of the most unsustainable,” said Dane Klinger, Conservation International’s aquaculture innovation fellow. “We must work toward developing new ways to intensify shrimp production through aquaculture while shrinking its environmental footprint.” 

In 2018, Conservation International worked with a range of NGOs and scientists to help develop a series of guidelines for farmers and regulators to limit the impact of shrimp aquaculture through improved water management, farmer communication and governance.

With these guidelines in place, Conservation International is piloting a new approach in 2020 in East Java, Indonesia, convening all the players in that region’s shrimp-farming sector — governments, companies, seafood traders and the farmers themselves — in an audacious effort to revolutionize the entire process and avoid the ruinous boom-and-bust cycle of disease that drives harmful environmental impacts such as deforestation.

Through this approach, farmers are gaining access to improved technology and training, enabling them to better manage water quality and shrimp health in their ponds. Groups of farmers, companies and regulators have begun working together to coordinate disease management across the entire region, acknowledging that disease on one farm presents a risk to all of the farms in the area.

With fish farming projected to double by 2050, these efforts could be the first step toward transforming aquaculture across the globe, Klinger explained. 

“Improving management practices can help make fish farming sustainable, but enacting those practices farm-by-farm at an individual level is impractical,” Klinger said. 

“For this approach to work, we have to engage every stakeholder across the aquaculture industry at a massive scale. Humanity needs to get aquaculture right.”

Strengthening ocean conservation with “climate-smart” MPAs

As climate breakdown accelerates, warming waters and ocean acidification are causing marine species to move toward different regions of the ocean.  

To protect these species, scientists are working to adapt one of the most effective tools in ocean conservation: marine protected areas (MPAs) — regions of the ocean where human activities such as commercial fishing are limited to support conservation.

Published in 2019, a report by Conservation International scientists outlines eight guidelines for countries to create a global network of MPAs that can actively respond to the impacts of the climate crisis. 

“The report emphasizes the need for new tools that are constantly updating fishers as marine species move,” said Lee Hannah, senior scientist for climate change biology at Conservation International and co-author of the study. “It’s not just Nemo and Dory that are riding shifting currents,” he said, referring to the popular Disney characters, “it’s the entire marine food chain.” 

Additional guidelines listed in the report range from creating a global database of new ocean management techniques to ensuring that all MPAs are climate-resilient through adequate staffing and funding.  

“We have a foundation of research supporting the development of climate-smart MPAs,” said Dr. Emily Pidgeon, vice president of ocean science and innovation at Conservation International. “Now it is time to implement this science at a planetary scale.”

Along with adapting to the unavoidable impacts of the changing climate, adapting and expanding MPAs could also be critical to ending the climate crisis, Pidgeon explained. 

“The changing climate is tied directly to how humans are managing and treating the ocean,” Pidgeon said. “Both the fires that recently burned through Australia and the floods in East Africa can be connected to the ocean because oceans control climate. The world’s oceans are the engine of climate change — and consequently protecting the oceans must be central to any climate solution.”

3 reasons for climate hope, from the cutting edge of tech and finance

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on February 3, 2020.

From an animal “selfie”-sharing platform to an investment fund for climate-smart businesses, 2019 saw more than its share of innovations in conservation.

But as climate breakdown accelerates — putting communities and, increasingly, the global economy at risk — can technology and finance keep up? 

Experts say yes — and are offering up some promising tech and finance innovations in 2020 to help protect nature and tackle the climate crisis. Here are some that Conservation International is working on. 

1. Charting nature’s protection 

From water supply to biodiversity to climate stability, the benefits that nature provides are often taken for granted. But identifying the sources of economic, ecological and social services that nature provides — referred to as “natural capital” — is vital for making the case to businesses, communities and countries to protect nature.   

“Decisions by governments or businesses or people to deplete natural resources could end up hurting a nation’s people and economy in the long run,” said Mike Mascia, the head of Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science. “Our goal at Conservation International is to help countries map their stores of natural capital to create the best policies to protect it.” 

In 2020, Conservation International’s scientists and partners, including the Natural Capital Project, will finalize a global map of places where natural capital is most crucial to conserve. At the UN Conference of Parties (COP) in China this October, world leaders, scientists and conservation experts will use this map to help chart a course for protecting global biodiversity and reaching sustainable development targets by 2050.

“We will use our findings to make recommendations to world leaders on how much — and where — to focus efforts to conserve critical natural capital globally,” Mascia explained. 

“This work will direct the next generation of conservation investment and, crucially, will ensure a more comprehensive assessment of the value of nature in helping countries develop sustainably.”

2. A new alliance could help connect tech with conservation 

In a recent scientific paper, a range of technology experts interested in conservation urged a decidedly low-tech approach to promoting it.

Their proposal: Create an international organization overseeing conservation technology. 

“With innovative tools ranging from space-based satellites to advanced monitoring systems, we can help fill in the blanks for research about our planet and climate,” explained Eric Fegraus, senior director of conservation technology at Conservation International and a co-author of the paper.

One of the biggest roadblocks to advancing these tools, Fegraus explained, is that many organizations are struggling to apply new technologies at the speed and scale necessary to keep up with the world’s most pressing environmental issues — but a new alliance between technologists, NGOs, the private sector, policymakers and investors could help change that.

“In 2020, we need to unite conservation technology under a more organized structure across all different industries to have the greatest possible impact,” said Fegraus. “This could be accomplished by expanding an existing technology network — such as wildlabs.net — or by creating a new entity altogether.”

This type of collaborative technology network has already proven hugely effective for wildlife conservation — through a ground-breaking web-based platform called Wildlife Insights. The platform enables researchers — and literally anyone else — to view, share and analyze animal photos taken by motion-detector cameras, known as camera traps. These photos can help researchers determine where endangered species congregate and how they behave in the wild, information that is critical to crafting smart policies and business practices for wildlife conservation that can protect animals from poaching and habitat destruction. 

Fegraus contends that all conservation technologies could have a similarly outsize impact if they were brought together under one global entity.

“There are more and more impactful conservation technologies coming online every year — however, they all face similar challenges related to scaling, implementation and financial support,” Fegraus said. 

“A broad alliance could help connect developers and conservationists with sustainable finance, business planning and advisory services, and access to technological support. In 2020, we must pool together our scientific skills, funds and engineering minds to better utilize existing technologies and to develop new technologies that create a cleaner, healthier planet.” 

3. Seed money for small businesses saving the planet 

The latest Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum lists environmental risks as the top five threats to the global economy — a first in the survey’s history. 

Increasingly, scientists and economists are proposing a new strategy: investing in businesses that support nature.

“Entrepreneurs all over the world are creating solutions that have the potential to tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental challenges,” said Agustin Silvani, senior vice president of conservation finance at Conservation International. “We must work toward channeling more private capital to these businesses and projects that are restoring critical natural resources and tangibly improving hundreds of millions of lives.”

A new investment fund, Conservation International (CI) Ventures, is helping the private sector achieve this by supporting small- to medium-sized enterprises that have built their businesses around conservation — and connecting them with larger-scale funding they would not otherwise have access to.

“A crucial part of conservation is investing in businesses and helping people build their economies,” Silvani said. “Our new investment fund will continue to demonstrate to investors that underwriting conservation isn’t risky — it’s actually one of the best things that companies can do to protect their supply chains as climate change accelerates.”

Established in August 2019, CI Ventures already supports five conservation-minded enterprises, ranging from coffee farms to family-owned food companies. The fund currently provides more than US$ 1.55 million in loans and US$ 8.9 million co-financing from partners to businesses that operate in the forests, oceans and grasslands where Conservation International works. 

CI Ventures aims to deploy an additional US$ 3 million in low-interest loans in 2020 to businesses that are striving to create sustainable jobs for their communities, while simultaneously protecting the nature they rely on. By 2028, Conservation International and partners will invest a total of US$ 200 million in loans, supporting more than 60,000 livelihoods around the world. 

A portion of the profit generated by the enterprises supported by CI Ventures will go into paying off their loans, and the returned capital will then be reinvested into more businesses that are trying to make a difference for their communities — and conservation. 

While this fund will help grow smaller companies that contribute to healthy ecosystems, Silvani emphasized the need to expand conservation across all of finance. 

“This is the year science tells us we need to bend the emissions curve downward and the same applies to finance. ‘Green’ finance — which supports low-carbon, sustainable development — needs to overtake ‘brown’ — which supports high-carbon development — if we are to meet our climate commitments,” Silvani explained. 

“We have reached a tipping point in terms of making commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; 2020 should be the year we reach a tipping point in turning those promises into action.”

Discovery afoot: New study cracks mystery of how ‘walking’ sharks split

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on January 22, 2020.

A type of shark that has long captivated scientists and divers for its preferred mode of underwater travel — walking — just got even more interesting.

Researchers have found that walking sharks are collectively the “youngest” — as in, the most recently evolved — sharks to ever walk (or swim) the planet.

Conservation News spoke with one of the authors of a new study on walking sharks, Conservation International’s Mark Erdmann, to find out how he and his team uncovered the evolutionary origin of walking sharks — and how this information could help us adapt to climate change.

Question: Why are they called walking sharks?

Answer: Instead of swimming around, these little bottom-dwelling sharks actually “walk” using their pectoral and pelvic fins, which makes it easier for them to poke their heads under coral and rocks as they look for small fish, snails and crustaceans to eat.

In 2006, we discovered two new species of walking sharks in the Bird’s Head Seascape of West Papua, Indonesia. Since then, we have done loads of research to learn more about these mysterious creatures: why do they walk? How did they evolve? What can their unique traits teach us?

Q: So what did you do?

A: Working with the world’s foremost shark geneticists from the University of Queensland, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the University of Florida, we set out to determine when these curious little critters evolved from their shark ancestors by using a technique called “dated molecular clock methodology.” This uses genetic samples from shark fin clippings — just like nail clippings for humans — to compare the mutations in each shark species to estimate the date when each branched off into a new species. Sharks as a group have actually been around for about 400 million years, predating the dinosaurs by 200 million years.

Amazingly, we discovered that walking sharks evolved just 9 million years ago, making them the “youngest” sharks on our planet.

Q: What else did this “molecular clock” show you?

A: Back in 2016, we reported that the nine known species of walking shark are found exclusively in a ring around Northern Australia, New Guinea and the satellite islands of Raja Ampat, Aru and Halmahera in Indonesia.

Using this clock, we set out to learn how the walking sharks separated into so many distinct species — a process known as speciation. Speciation typically happens when individuals of a given species get separated from their main population — sometimes by walking or swimming or being carried away on a current to an isolated place. If they are lucky enough to survive and breed, eventually evolution will take this new population in a different direction and often leads to a new species.

For a shark that isn’t able to swim far and doesn’t move much, we wondered how that separation could possibly be the case.

The name of the paper — “Walking, swimming or hitching a ride” — actually reveals our three main hypotheses to answer this puzzling mystery. For most of the walking shark species, our findings support the idea that speciation occurred because the populations slowly expanded their range by walking or swimming, then some individuals eventually became isolated by environmental factors such as sea level rise or the formation of large river systems that broke up their habitats.

For the four walking shark species found at the Bird’s Head Seascape, we suspect that they actually hitched a ride — on a drifting island.

Q: They hitched a ride on an island?

A: Indeed. We’ve found that most walking sharks spend their entire lives on the same reef they where they hatched — never really moving more than a mile out of this radius. The only way they can get across deep water or move a significant distance would be if they are on a reef that is moving due to tectonic plates shifting.

By analyzing sea-level rise and tectonic shifts over the past 50 million years, we know that island fragments around Australia and Southeast Asia have been constantly spinning, splitting apart and smashing against each other — it’s basically an island disco.

We also know that beginning around 10 million years ago, one particular set of island fragments moved northwest from southeastern New Guinea along the coast of the island, until it eventually joined together to form the modern-day Halmahera Island. These islands potentially transported walking sharks from southeastern New Guinea all the way to the Bird’s Head Seascape in Indonesia, where they likely radiated into the four species we can now find in West Papua.

Although these walking sharks may have used an “island ferry” to move around 1,600 km (1,000 miles), the home range of where each species lives on the reef remains small. The downside to this is that species with smaller habitats are inherently at a higher risk of extinction — a tsunami or volcanic explosion could wipe out half the population in one fell swoop.

Q: How secure are these sharks, then?

A: Walking sharks are actually very robust and can survive in extremely hot environments with little oxygen — they can even walk on land for a bit!

But as climate change accelerates, the real concern is for their habitats. Hotter ocean temperatures are killing the coral and seagrass that many marine species and crustaceans rely on — including walking sharks’ primary sources of food. On top of this, sediment from unsustainable coastal development projects is leaking into these reefs, creating an environment that is unsuitable for walking sharks and other fish.

Another potential issue facing these charismatic creatures is the ornamental fish trade. Walking sharks have now become major targets for capture and display by both large public aquariums and private collectors, and we are concerned that this unregulated trade may be unsustainable.

Q: Can walking sharks be protected from these threats?

A: Fortunately, many of the walking sharks are already at least partly protected by regional marine protected areas (MPAs) — areas of the ocean where human activity is restricted, preventing overfishing and keeping the waters healthy. The Bird’s Head Seascape marine protected area network, for instance, covers habitat occupied by three of the walking shark species, with one of these (Hemiscyllium freycineti) completely protected by the Raja Ampat Shark and Ray Sanctuary. The massive scale of these MPAs are critical for protecting this species — and the rest of the marine life and coral living within the ecosystem.

Our goal, however, is to make sure all walking shark species are protected. The best way to do this is for the Indonesian government to grant full legal protection status to walking sharks across the entire country. Similar to whale sharks and manta rays — which both now have full protected species status in Indonesia— walking sharks are clearly more valuable to the national economy alive rather than dead due to their strong appeal in the ecotourism industry.

Q: Is there another mystery about walking sharks you hope to solve?

A: From a scientific perspective, there is still so much to learn from walking sharks. We know that the world’s species that exist today are basically the existing “genetic reservoir” (raw genetic material) we have to adapt to global changes. We also know that walking sharks are very resilient to warm water and that they have a tolerance for oxygen deprivation. Any time you have an animal or plant that can survive in these extreme conditions, there is typically something unique about their genes — a “special sauce”. Exploring the genetic basis behind these unique traits in walking sharks could give us invaluable knowledge as we try to adapt to the impacts of climate change.