Today, Thursday 3rd March, is World Wildlife Day 2016. This is a day focussed on raising awareness of the wild animals and plants of the world, in particular, endangered species. In order celebrate World Wildlife day 2016, we spoke to a few academics and a student in the Faculty of Life Sciences, to recognise the work being done by them which can help to conserve species.
Amphibians are the most endangered animals on the planet. The reason for this is due to a number of factors including over-exploitation, land conversion and disease. However the biggest contributor to amphibian decline is climate change. Amphibians are very sensitive to climate change because they are ectotherms, and they need constant access to water due to the fact that they have permeable skin, meaning that they breathe through their skin, and are therefore very susceptible to pollutants.
We spoke to Professor Richard Preziosi, head of the Environmental Research Group at The University of Manchester Faculty of Life Sciences, about his work on saving endangered frogs.
What is your area of research focus?
My work on frogs focuses on how to keep them in the best conditions when we need to bring them into captivity so that they don’t go extinct.
Has your research helped to conserve frog species?
I hope so! We have established captive breeding populations of a couple of species now and they are doing very well. The methods we have developed are now in use at several zoos and aquariums.
What do you think is the best way we can help to conserve amphibian species?
While I work on active populations the best thing we could do is to maintain habitat for the frogs in the wild. As soon as things get bad enough that we need to bring them into captivity the population of frogs is really at risk.
What is your favourite amphibian species and why?
Morelets tree frog is the very first species I worked on and I still find them fascinating. They are found in a very few places in Central America and why their distribution is so limited is a bit of a mystery.
How do you/we decide which species to invest the most conservation efforts towards?
This is an incredibly hard question. I give entire lectures on this topic alone but, at the end of the day, I believe it has to be the species that we have the best chances of being able to save. What contributes to that ‘best chance’ gets very complicated.
Why is it important to help endangered frogs?
Apart from the fact that frogs are fascinating creatures, they provide important benefits to humans and to ecosystems. Frogs have been the source of important chemicals used in medicine and some consume disease carrying pests like mosquitos. Frogs are also very important in ecosystems because of the central role they play in food chains as both a predator and as prey. Plus, they are one of the few animals that work against the flow of nutrients constantly being washed into rivers and ponds. Tadpoles develop on those nutrients in ponds and then come out to live on the land.
For a list of Prof. Preziosi’s publications: http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/people/profile/?alias=preziosir&view=publications
We also spoke to FLS researcher Dr Susanne Shultz, about her work on black rhino conservation. Black rhino populations are endangered mainly due to over hunting, which was legal in the first part of the 20th century. However the high monetary value of horn ivory meant that even when poaching became illegal in the second half, illegal poaching still took place, and was very easy to do so due to corrupt governmental systems. Although there was a slow recovery of black rhino populations in the past 30 years or so due to anti-poaching efforts, sadly poaching levels have increased again to unsustainable levels in recent years.
What is your area of research focus?
My two areas of research focus is understanding how species respond to environmental change or challenge and the evolution of social behaviour.
Why do you want to help to save them?
Not only are black rhinos amazing animals, they are symbolic of the negative impact humans have had on their environment. I think it is my duty as someone interested in wildlife to try to make a difference, even if small.
Why is your research important for saving endangered rhino species?
Together with Chester Zoo, we have investigated the causes of poor reproductive performance in captive black rhinos.
How has your research helped conservation efforts?
This has helped us identify ‘red flags’ that reduce reproduction. In captive population, this has led to change in how they are managed. We plan to expand this work to wild populations to help make recommendations to improve their breeding performance. Our research approach will be useful for the management of many other species, both in captivity and in the wild. Jess Lea, a PhD student in FLS is using a similar approach to help guide management recommendations for a zebra species in South Africa.
For a list of Dr Shultz’s publications: http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/people/profile/?alias=shultzs&view=publications
Then finally, we spoke to Ciara Stafford about her PhD focused on primates and people in the Equadorian Amazon.
What was the aim of your research?
I’m interested in the challenges that face conservation when species share their habitats with indigenous communities whose livelihoods still depend on tropical rainforests. We know that the way which different communities manage their territories can be bad for some primate species, but that other species might actually benefit from living close to humans. Part of my PhD aimed to work out which primates were the winners and losers in a Kichwa community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and to look at how people thought of the monkeys they live alongside. Are they valued? Are they hunted? Are they considered to be pests? The answers to these questions are really important if you want to understand what’s driving current species distributions.
What did you find?
Unlike other communities, our study group did not rate primate meat very highly. This was encouraging news, as in many parts of the Amazon large species of monkey are heavily hunted. However, we found that small primates were often taken as pets, and that knowledge of the important role primate’s play in the ecology of forests did not appear to be widespread. This is important, as it allows us to identify what might be the conservation challenges in this area in the future.
Why was your research important for saving primates?
We know that conservation works better when you work with people rather than against them. Understanding the perceptions of primates in the area allows us to identify knowledge gaps that, if filled, might encourage the community to place more value on having a thriving primate population.
Why should we save these species?
In ecological terms, primates are key seed dispersers in tropical forests. One study estimated that a single spider monkey in lowland Ecuador was capable of dispersing a minimum of 195,000 seeds per year as far as 1,250m away from their parent trees. Forests where large primates have been hunted out have different species compositions; something that is likely to have a wide variety of cascading effects on other species. Conserve the primates, conserve the whole forest. However, I also feel that we have a duty to conserve species for their own sake, regardless of how useful we think they may be. Monkeys are so charismatic. Would I be as keen to save them if they looked and behaved like dung beetles? I’d like to think so.
Watch Ciara’s minute lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHmBOuPwyQc&list=PL9uTU-SI30pTlVyigGcnvDgHpDAFo4AEP&index=5
We have been posting photos on the life sciences Instagram all day to recognise World Wildlife Day 2016! Make sure you are following us to have a look at them! https://www.instagram.com/lifesciences_uom/