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“Hundreds of thousands, if not millions” of migratory birds drop dead across New Mexico

Wildlife experts are looking at the smoke from wildfires across western states as one of the main culprits.

Elias Marat

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(TMU) – Wildlife researchers in New Mexico and Colorado are aghast as a growing number of birds across the region are being discovered to have mysteriously died off in massive numbers.

In recent days, residents across the region have been finding the corpses of various migratory birds along hiking trails, missile ranges, and other locations.

Experts remain unclear about why exactly the huge die-off is occurring, although some believe that it could possibly be tied to a recent cold front, ongoing droughts, or even the tremendous amount of smoke being pumped out of the wildfires across western states.

“It is terribly frightening,” Prof. Martha Desmond of New Mexico State University’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology told Las Cruces Sun-News. “We’ve never seen anything like this. … We’re losing probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of migratory birds.”

Desmond and a team of wildlife experts at the Bureau of Land Management, NMSU, and White Sands Missile Range have been trying to ascertain the drastic and unexpected rise in bird deaths.

The impacted bird species include blackbirds, warblers, sparrows, swallows, flycatchers, and the western wood pewee.

“A number of these species are already in trouble,” Desmond said. “They are already experiencing huge population declines and then to have a traumatic event like this is – it’s devastating.” 

“People have been reporting that the birds look sleepy … they’re just really lethargic,” said Trish Cutler, a biologist at White Sands Missile Range.. “One thing we’re not seeing is our resident birds mixed in with these dead birds. We have resident birds that live here, some of them migrate and some of them don’t, but we’re not getting birds like roadrunners or quail or doves.” 

The cold snap that passed through the state is being looked at as one potential reason for the deaths.

However, Desmond told KOB that “What is odd is the fact that we’re seeing this occur beforehand and we’re seeing it occur since then.”

The ongoing dry spell in the state may have also played a role in the die-off, as could the toxic conditions created by the rampant wildfires plaguing the region.

“It can be related to some of the drought conditions,” Desmond said. “It could also be related to the fires in the west.”

 “There may have been some damage to these birds in their lungs [due to the fires],” Desmond added.

“They may have been pushed out before they were ready to migrate,” she explained. “They have to put on a certain amount of fat for them to be able to survive the migration. These birds migrate at night and they get up in the jet stream, and they might migrate for three nights in succession, they’ll come down and they’ll feed like crazy, put on more fat and go again.”

In video footage captured on Sept. 13 by journalist Austin Fisher while he was hiking in northern Rio Arriba County, large clusters of dead birds can be seen strewn across the trail.

“I have no idea,” Fisher can be heard saying while he panned the camera to reveal dozens of dead birds lying across the ground.

And as western states have been plunged into an unprecedented deluge of fires across multiple states, reports have emerged of birds disappearing from skies or worse, turning up dead.

Much still remains unknown about how wildfire smoke impacts bird populations, but researchers have noted that birds perpetually live on the edge.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recently wrote on Twitter that “not much is known about the impacts of smoke and wildfires on birds.”

However, veterinarians and bird scientists have found that smoke can leave a damaging impact on the lung tissue of captive birds, leaving them susceptible to deadly respiratory infections, reports the Audubon Society. Research has also found that exposure to air pollution causes respiratory distress in birds and increases their susceptibility to respiratory infections.

“We do know that exposure to particulate matter, which of course is of great concern for human health, can affect birds as well,” said Olivia Sanderfoot, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Washington Seattle who studies the impact of air pollution on birds.

Since 1970, bird populations in North America have plummeted by 29 percent, or three billion birds. According to a 2019 study, rampant high temperatures resulting from climate change are drastically altering the migration patterns of bird species. With pastures and grasslands being converted to crops, nesting places have dwindled along with the mass die-offs of insects eliminated by pesticides.

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7 Arrested In Florida For Trafficking Flying Squirrels

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At least seven people are facing numerous criminal charges after they were caught trafficking flying squirrels. According to investigators, their operation was worth an estimated $1 million.

In a statement on Monday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) said that the suspects have been charged with racketeering, money laundering, scheming to defraud, and other organized criminal laws involving “an elaborate organized enterprise to smuggle Florida’s wildlife to interstate and international buyers.”

The agency says that in January of 2019, they received a complaint from a concerned citizen about flying squirrels being illegally trapped in a rural part of Marion County. Flying squirrels are considered a protected wild animal in Florida, but they are illegally sold internationally because their rarity fetches such high prices.

After receiving the initial complaints, the FWC began a 19-month investigation where they tracked the hunters and monitored their international operation. The investigators found that once the poachers captured the squirrels, they sold the animals to a wildlife dealer in Bushnell and were laundered through the licensed business of the dealer, who claimed they were captive-bred, which would have made them legal to sell.

The poachers set out an estimated 10,000 squirrel traps throughout central Florida and investigators tracked as many as 3,600 flying squirrels being captured by the group in less than three years.

It is not clear how the agency estimated the operation to be worth $1 million, because the dealer involved in the scheme only received an estimated $213,800 in gross sales in the three years that he was being monitored.

The wildlife dealer was selling the animals to buyers from South Korea who traveled to the United States specifically for the squirrels. The buyers would then take the animals to Chicago, where they were sent to Asia by a wildlife exporter who was unaware of the plot. The investigation into the flying squirrels revealed that the same group was trafficking a variety of other poached animals, including protected freshwater turtles and alligators. There were also dealers and traffickers in Florida and Georgia dealing with the group. However, the operation was meticulous and careful, and many of the people involved with the scheme did not even know each other.

Maj. Grant Burton, FWC Investigation’s section leader, said that the poachers were a danger to the state’s wildlife.

“Wildlife conservation laws protect Florida’s precious natural resources from abuse. The concerned citizen who initially reported this activity started an investigation that uncovered a major smuggling operation. These poachers could have severely damaged Florida’s wildlife populations,” said Maj. Burton.

The life expectancy of flying squirrels in the wild is about six years, but flying squirrels can live up to fifteen years in zoos. The mortality rate in young flying squirrels is high because of predators and diseases. Predators of flying squirrels include tree snakes, raccoons, owls, martens, fishers, coyotes, bobcats, and feral cats. In the Pacific Northwest of North America, the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) is a common predator of flying squirrels. Obviously, poachers also represent a serious threat to the species.

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More than 5,000 baby seals wash up on Namibia beach in unprecedented die-off

Elias Marat

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Thousands of dead seal pups have washed ashore on the coast of Namibia, raising grave concerns from conservationist groups.

Locals were in shock after an estimated 5,000 premature cape fur seal pups washed up along the coast of Pelican Point peninsula, turning the popular tourist destination known for its thriving schools of dolphins and seal colonies into a pup graveyard.

Cape fur seals are often referred to as the “dogs of the ocean,” owing to their playful nature and abundant energy. However, the seals are known to desert their young or suffer miscarriages when food supplies are scarce.

The unprecedented die-off of the 5,000 Cape fur seals is now being probed by the country’s fisheries ministry, reports Bloomberg.

Nearly all were born prematurely before quickly dying, according to marine biologist Naude Dreyer of  Ocean Conservation Namibia.

“When the pregnant female feels she does not have enough reserves, she can abort,” he explained. “A few premature deaths is a natural event, but thousands of premature dead pups is extremely rare.”

Dreyer noticed the masses of dead seal pups while flying his drone over the Pelican Point seal colony on Oct. 5.

“This is the situation at Pelican Point, Namibia,” his non-profit group wrote in a Facebook post. “All the little red circles mark dead seal pups. A rough estimate brings the numbers to more than 5,000 at our seal colony alone. This is tragic, as it makes up a large portion of the new pup arrivals expected in late November.”

This is the situation at Pelican Point. All the little red circles mark dead seal pups. A rough estimate brings the…

Posted by Ocean Conservation Namibia on Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The seals are commonly found across the southern Atlantic coastlines of the African continent, spanning Namibia and South Africa to the southern tip of Angola.

“Normally cape fur seals would give birth from mid-November until early December,” Dr. Tess Gridley told Africa News.  “That’s the height of pupping that we would normally expect but what has been happening this year is there has been an increase in abortions that was first seen starting in August and really sort of peaked just last week in October.”

However, female cape fur seals are increasingly appearing emaciated and starving, raising alarm among conservationists about the long-term health of the typically thriving seal population.

 “There are about 1.7 million cape fur seals in total and about a million of those are actually in Namibia so in terms of the overall number of animals, they are quite resilient to these effects,” Gridley explained.

“But one issue that we do think might happen in the future is you will see a dip in reproduction potentially going forward particularly now for those animals that have unfortunately died,” she continued. “They are not going to be recruited into the population, so you might see a localized effect at the Pelican Point colony and also we are trying to monitor to see whether there is a wider scale impact that might affect other colonies as well.”

An absence of fish in the region and the spread of disease and toxins in the water are among the possible reasons behind the die-off. 

“The seals look a bit thin and it could likely be caused by a lack of food,” Dreyer said. “Other seal colonies at other beaches look much better and they do not record the same amount of premature pups.”

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Hyper-realistic robot dolphins may soon end captivity at theme parks and aquariums for good

Elias Marat

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A life-sized robotic dolphin could help finally put an end to animal captivity in marine parks and aquariums for good by replacing real-life animals.

U.S.-based animatronics company Edge Innovations has designed a revolutionary mechanical mammal that appears nearly as playful as the real thing, and the company hopes that the robot will soon be used in aquatic theme parks and Hollywood films in place of actual living animals.

So far, the robot can nod, swim in aquariums, and interact closely with humans. Developers claim that the mechanical creature is nearly identical to the cetacean, and could even coexist with robotic versions of predators like great white sharks or even the massive reptiles that Jurassic-era seas teemed with millions of years ago.

However, the huge difference here is that despite the large price tag of $26 million, this robotic dolphin is a truly cruelty-free alternative to the capture and confinement of live animals for the sake of entertainment at amusement parks and aquatic zoos – and it will likely prove cheaper than the real thing, too.

The robot dolphin weighs in at 550 pounds and has medical-grade silicone skin, and offers a viable alternative to the once-profitable industry of capturing, breeding, and training live animals.

“It’s surprising there are 3,000 dolphins currently in captivity to generate several billion dollars just for dolphin experiences,” Edge Industry CEO and founder Walt Conti told Reuters.

“There’s obviously an appetite to love and learn about dolphins and so we want to use that appetite and offer different ways to fall in love with the dolphin.”

In recent decades, animal rights activists and casual animal lovers alike have turned their back on marine parks that are seen as subjecting dolphins and other intelligent, self-aware creatures to inhumane acts just for the sake of human amusement.

Feature films like Free Willy (1993) and the documentary Blackfish (2013) have helped educate viewers about the miserable living conditions faced by orcas and other cetaceans that have been deprived of their nature life and thrust into small enclosures at amusement parks like SeaWorld.

Increased outrage over the plight of cetaceans, or aquatic mammals, have led to countries like Canada and around 20 European countries to effectively placing a ban on whales, dolphins, and porpoises being bred, imported and exported, captured or or held in captivity for entertainment purposes.

Edge Industry hopes that with its extensive experience developing animatronics for major Hollywood features – including Free Willy, Deep Blue Sea, The Abyss, and other films – the robotic replacement can soon win over those who prefer a humane alternative to viewing creatures who naturally belong in the wild.

The company has worked closely with marine biologists to replicate the physiology of dolphins and nail their natural movements.

“Everyone wants to know if using an animatronic dolphin is different to using a real dolphin. The truth is in many ways they’re the same,” Holzberg said.

“If you want to design a show that uses real dolphins you have to capture real dolphins, train them and get them to do that show,” he continued. “With creating robots you have to do exactly the same thing. The difference is you don’t have to have breeding programs, worry about safety with human beings.”

Edge Industry has seen demand for its creations decrease as major film studios opted for computer-generated images rather than practical effects and animatronics. However, the company is now focusing on developing attractions for theme parks, and its robot dolphins will soon roll out at marine parks being built in China.

“The idea of this pilot is really to create a Sesame Street under water,” Holzberg said. “Those characters taught a generation how to feel about different kinds of aspects of humankind in ways that hadn’t been imagined before. And that’s what we dream of with this project.”

Animal rights activists have greeted this new development that could spell an end to animal captivity at marine theme parks.

“There is an end in sight to cruel ‘swim with dolphins’ programs, for which young dolphins are traumatically abducted from their ocean homes and frantic mothers, sometimes illegally,” said Katherine Sullivan of PETA.

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