Are there Drought Effects on Carbon Cycling?

September 3, 2015

Forests store nearly half of the carbon found in land-based ecosystems. But what are the fate of forests under increasingly extreme climate changes? The answer to this question is important to better understand and predict carbon cycle feedbacks to climate change. Anderegg et al. examined the recovery of stem growth in trees after severe drought at 1338 forest sites across the globe. They found that forests exhibit a drought legacy effect of reduced growth and incomplete recovery for 1 to 4 years after severe drought. The study found that forests will be less able to act as a sink for carbon during this period of delayed growth. These new insights can be used to make more accurate predictions of the effects of drought on the global carbon cycle. Source: Anderegg et al. (2015). Pervasive drought legacies in forest ecosystems and their implications for carbon cycle models. SCIENCE. Volume 349, Issue 6247, p. 528.

Tree of the Year 2015

September 1, 2015
 Species spotlight

South Africa celebrates Arbor week annually during the first week of September. This year the Tree of the Year is Combretum kraussi, the Forest Bushwillow or Bosvaderlandswilg (Afrikaans). The rare or uncommon Tree of the Year is Heteromorpha arborescens, the Parsley Tree or Wildepietersieliebos (Afrikaans). Remember to share your images of these and other trees on

World Pangolin Day

February 19, 2015
 Species spotlight

World Pangolin Day will be celebrated on 21 February and we are using this as an opportunity to raise awareness about these fascinating animals and make you aware of their plight. Pangolins are rarely seen and most people have never even heard of them. What do you know about them? In this post we share information snippets to help you get your facts straight about the most trafficked, and most threatened animal on Earth. Before we get started though, watch this short video for an introduction to … the pangolin! 1. Only mammal with scales The Pangolin, or scaly anteater, is a mammal with plate-like scales covering its skin – the only known mammal with this type of adaptation.  The scales are made of keratin, the same protein that makes up our own hair and nails. Numerous scientific studies1. have proven that keratinous body parts of other animals such as pangolin …

Dragonflies: calculating predators

January 20, 2015


Dragonflies do not merely react to the movements of their prey when hunting. New research published in the science journal Nature (doi:10.1038/nature14078), shows that dragonflies carefully predict and plan their hunts. Internal calculations about its own movements and the movements of its target enable the dragonfly to anticipate where to strike. The research by Mischiati et al. 1.  shows that these internal calculations performed by hunting dragonflies are just as complex as the internal calculations made by a ballet dancer preparing to catch his partner dancing towards him. This type of complex control had been demonstrated in vertebrates, but the dragonfly is the first example of such predictions in invertebrates. References: 1. Mischiati, M. et al. Nature 517, 333-338 (2015). Image credits: Featured image: Red-veined Dropwing (Trithemis arteriosa) © Lappies Labuschagne Image 1: Orthetrum cancellatum, female with prey © fabiosa_93 Image 2: Dragonfly Devouring an Insect © rck

Salamanders facing a new threat

January 9, 2015

fire salamander

In the late 1980’s more than 200 species of amphibians came under tremendous threat from a deadly fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Many species suffered, but frogs in Australia and Central American rainforests were particularly hard hit with the disease wiping out over 40% of species in some regions. Bd has been described as the greatest disease threat to biodiversity. Now researchers have discovered a related fungus that migrated from Asia to Europe where it has brought the Fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) in the Netherlands to the brink of extinction. The disease caused by Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bs) is lethal to salamanders and newts and highly transmissible. The screening of samaples of more than 5000 individual amphibians from 4 continents have shown that in Europe the disease have thus far spread to the Netherlands and Belgium,  while 4% of salamanders from Thailand, Vietnam and Japan tested positive for Bs.  The samples from the Americas were clean. …

Biodiversity: Our Living World in 2015

January 5, 2015

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children.” – Unknown During a recent visit to the South African Museum in Cape Town, one display in particular left me feeling both sad and anxious. It was the display of a foal of the extinct Quagga (Equus quagga quagga), also called the Cape Quagga. The Quagga, a subspecies of the Plains Quagga, lived in South Africa and went extinct in the wild in 1878. The last captive specimen died in Amsterdam in 1883. The museum and books were the only places I have ever seen a Quagga. This made me feel sad. The next display left me with a feeling of disbelief and despair. I realised that, if current trends were to continue, within a couple of years books and museums would be the only places where our children and grandchildren would be able to see majestic animals …

What is Biodiversity? (4)

September 19, 2014

Biodiversity series

This past week we had our first discussion in the WhatSpecies “Living World” series. Our theme for the week was: “What is Biodiversity?” The following video provides a short summary of the topic and touches on other issues of biodiversity that we will talk about in the weeks to come. Enjoy the video.   WhatSpecies’ Our Living World series is published in support of The United Nations Decade on Biodiversity.

What is Biodiversity? (2)

September 16, 2014

Biodiversity series

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth or in a particular habitat or ecosystem. Biodiversity is complex and comprises three different building blocks: genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity. 1. Genes Genes are the units of heredity found in all cells that are transferred from parent to offspring, determining some characteristic of the offspring by means of a unique genetic code. Genes are what instruct, for example, the vertebra of a giraffe to grow up to 25 cm in length while the genes in a human instruct their vertebra to grow to less than 2 cm. Genetic diversity refers to the differences that occur within the same species. A simple example can be found looking at the human race. People’s hair colour differ from black to brown to blonde to red with a number of shades in between. The differing hair colour within the human race is an …

What is Biodiversity? (1)

September 15, 2014

Biodiversity series

Have you heard of the term “Biodiversity”? Do you know what it means, not only in academic terms, but in terms of your everyday life? Why is it important? How does it affect you? What can you do to help preserve biodiversity? These and other important questions about biodiversity will be answered in a series of short blog posts. The goal is to inform and empower you to take action beyond “liking” a Facebook page or sharing someone else’s message. It is time to roll up our sleeves and to start working together to turn the tide. To make sure we are all on the same page, let us start at the beginning. What is Biodiversity?     Biological diversity, better known as biodiversity, refers to the variety of life on Earth. The number of species of plants, animals and micro-organisms, the diversity of genes in these species, and the …

Whale of a Time: whale-watching infographic!

September 5, 2014
 Species spotlight

Every year, when it is winter in the southern hemisphere, whales migrate from Antarctica to the warmer waters to give birth to their young. South Africa offers some of the best whale watching opportunities in the world and we have designed an infographic to better equip you for your next whale watching expedition. Enjoy, let us know what you think of the whale infographic and remember to share your sightings on WhatSpecies!

Pangolins threatened with extinction

July 30, 2014
 Species spotlight

The very distinctive pangolin, or scaly anteater, is at risk of being eaten out of existence. The latest update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species shows that all eight species are now threatened with extinction. The pangolin is the only mammal with scales, which act as an armour against its natural predators. Unfortunately the scales offer no defence against poachers. It is believed that over the past decade more than one million pangolins have been poached – more than elephants or rhinoceros – making it the most illegally traded mammal in the world. In Asia, and more specifically China and Vietnam, pangolin meat is considered a luxury food, while pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. “All eight pangolin species are now listed as threatened with extinction, largely because they are being illegally traded to China and Vietnam,” says Professor Jonathan Baillie, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC …

New species of river dolphin identified in Brazil

January 24, 2014
 Species spotlight

A new species of river dolphin has been discovered in the Araguaia River basin of Brazil, the first new river dolphin to be described since 1918. The new species is called Inia araguaiaensis and the proposed common name is  “Araguaian boto” and “Boto-do-Araguaia”. Boto is the common regional and international name of species of Inia, and Araguaia refers to the geographic distribution of this species. Through DNA analysis, Tomas Hrbek of the Federal University of Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil, and colleagues found that Inia araguaiaensis differ from all other species in Brazil. The new species is also different in that it generally has a wider skull and fewer teeth. At a mitochondrial DNA level there is no evidence of the new species sharing lineages with other Inia species such as Inia boliviensis or Inia geoffrensis humboldtiana. It is speculated that the new species formed 2.08 million years ago, when the Araguaia-Tocantins basin was cut off from the rest of the Amazon …

Elusive elephant photographed in Knysna Forest

January 10, 2014
 Species spotlight

On 6 November 2013 an elephant triggered a camera trap in the Knysna Forest set-up for Leopard research by the Landmark Foundation. On the photographs the elephant’s tusks, trunk and legs are visible. Unfortunately no parts suitable for identification purposes, e.g. forehead shape, sex organs or ear-notch patterns, are visible in the photographs. Having recently visited Knysna I was wondering why camera traps are not deployed in researching the elephant population of the Knysna Forest. Very little is known about them – it is extremely difficult to study an animal that you cannot find. Some people even doubt their existence. The latest evidence should get rid of all doubt once and for all. The Knysna Forest elephants were hunted almost to extinction by the early 20th century. In 1970 the population was estimated to be a mere 11. Instinct lead the last remaining members of the once massive herds that roamed the …

Biggest animal discovery of century: New species of Tapir

December 24, 2013
 Species spotlight

In the open grasslands and forests of the western Amazon, a new species of tapir has been discovered. The mammal is one of the biggest animals on the South American continent, but remains one of the smallest living tapirs. Although new to scientists, the tapir is regularly hunted by the Karitiana tribe and has been known to them for a long time as the “little black tapir”.

“Asian Unicorn” Saola rediscovered

December 4, 2013
 Species spotlight

One of the rarest and most threatened mammals on earth, the Saola, has been photographed in the wild in Vietnam for the first time since 1999. This unusual species was photographed on 7 September in the Central Annamite mountains by a camera trap set by the WWF in co-operation with the Vietnamese Forest Protection Department. The Saola was only discovered in 1992, making it the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years. Due to the animal’s elusive nature, scientists have been unable to make a precise population estimate. WWF estimates that at best, no more than a few hundred, and maybe only a few tens, survive in the remote, dense forests along the Vietnam-Laos border. The Saola is similar in appearance to an antelope, but are in fact family of cattle. It is called the Asian Unicorn because it is so rarely seen. It is recognized …

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