Photo: NASA

It’s Earth Day and these 3 Unique (but Endangered) Species are Giving Me LIFE!

, Research scientist | April 22, 2019, 1:54 pm EST
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Update 4/23/2019: Corrected a sentence about the population of Southern Bluefin Tuna

It’s Earth Day, and this year’s focus is to protect our species. That focus makes me incredibly happy because of three reasons: 1) I get to return to my roots as an ecologist and tell you about some super cool species, 2) there are lots of endangered species that don’t’ receive a ton of attention BUT need attention, 3) this post is not about the Trump administration doing terrible stuff to science (although they haven’t exactly been great to endangered species, you can read about that here, here, and here).

Species #1 – The Ohlone Tiger Beetle

The ohlone tiger beetle, probably waiting to chase some prey.

Some people don’t like insects, but they tap into my awesome nerdy side. As an undergraduate student, I took an entomology class and most of our labs were spent outside catching insects, which was so much fun! But about this cool beetle…

The Ohlone tiger beetle only emerges on land for about 2 months, and it spends that little time mostly hunting. It lurks in the shadows of trails that have been created by cattle and hikers until an unsuspecting passerby comes along and then, BOOM! Dinnertime. The beetle also has been observed chasing its prey in flight. And the larvae of these beetles are no different – the grubs will literally flip backwards to catch prey. Maybe it’s the little kid that is still inside of me, but I really want to see this beetle in action. I imagine if I did, I’d be all like “Wow, bro. That’s sooo cool.” Also, can we just take a minute to appreciate how gorgeous this beetle is?

Unfortunately, the beetle’s population is critically endangered due to loss of habitat to urban development and the impacts of toxic insecticides that come from urban runoff. The species is endemic to California.

Species #2 – The Mississippi Gopher Frog

The Dusky Gopher Frog, once known as the Mississippi Gopher Frog, has an average length of about three inches and a stocky body with colors on its back that range from black to brown or gray and is covered with dark spots and warts.

Who doesn’t love a little frog that’s covered in spots? Or one whose mating call reminds you of the snoring of your significant other (how endearing)? Quite the opposite of the tiger beetle, this critter is not ferocious – this gopher frog places its hands over its little eyes when threatened. I can vouch that this mode of defense is effective, especially when watching horror films.

While this frog used to hop around the Gulf Coastal Plain in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, a small population of about 200 frogs is all that is left in Mississippi. The species owes its most recent population bump to conservation efforts by US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) scientists. These scientists would like to expand their conservation efforts to Louisiana where the frog once lived, but setting aside critical habitat for the species in that state has proved difficult. The decision on whether or not FWS will be able to expand conservation efforts to Louisiana is currently tied up in the courts.

Species #3 – The Southern Bluefin Tuna

If there were a Guinness Book of World Records for fish, the southern bluefin tuna would be highlighted a lot. The bluefin are the largest tuna species and can live up to 40 years. They also can swim to depths of 2,500 meters (that’s about the length of 27.5 football fields). In fact, they can swim to 1,000 meter depth (the length of 11 football fields) in about 3 minutes. “But, Jacob, that’s crazy – the change in temperature from the surface of the water to 1,000 meter depth would be deadly!” You’d be correct for many species, but bluefish tuna are capable of elevating their body temperature up to 20°C above that of surrounding water. Researchers also have found that adrenaline produced from a bluefin tuna’s quick and deep dive helps regulate the beating of its heart. Human hearts could not withstand such a temperature drop – our hearts would fail.

This tuna species is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records once – for being the most expensive single fish sold at a fish market at $3.1 million. Bluefin tuna are prized for their taste and used as sushi and sashimi. These species have been overfished to the point that 85% of the spawning population of this species was lost from 1973-2009. Recent evidence shows that the population of this once critically endangered species is on the rise.

Protect our species

I must admit that I’ve never seen any of these species in the wild, but I’d like to someday. Can you imagine seeing a little green beetle so ferocious that it tries to attack your giant foot along a trail, mistaking a frog’s mating call for the snoring of your tent mate, or seeing a school of bluefin tuna dive thousands of meters below the water surface in a matter of minutes?

While all these species are unique in some way, they all have another commonality: they are critically endangered because of humans. And once a species is gone, we cannot bring it back – we cannot bring back the benefits they bring to our ecosystems, the resources they provide to us, or the joyful experiences they may bring to our lives. Thankfully, scientists and conservationists are working around the clock to help these species populations bounce back. Take a minute on this Earth Day to learn about what you can do to protect our species, and maybe learn a fact or two about an endangered species in your very own backyard.

In the meantime, I’ll be listening to more audio clips of gopher frogs.

Photo: USFWS
(Western Carolina University photo/ John A. Tupy)

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  • Robert Kennedy

    I wish to comment on the author’s statement in relation to southern bluefin tuna that: “The population is still currently decreasing.”. This statement is in contradiction with the evidence from the latest report of the Extended Scientific Committee (ESC) of the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT), which, at the second dot point of paragraph 139 states that:
    “The stock remains at a low state estimated to be 13% (11-17 80% P.I.) of
    the initial SSB, and below the level to produce maximum sustainable yield
    (MSY). There has been improvement since previous stock assessments
    which indicated the stock was at 5% (3-8%) of original biomass in 2011
    and 9% (7- 12%) in 2014. There are positive indicators on fishing
    mortality in that fishing mortality rate is below the level associated with
    MSY. The current TAC was set in 2016 following the recommendation
    from the management procedure adopted in 2011.”
    The ESC report is available from the CCSBT web site at: https://www.ccsbt.org/sites/default/files/userfiles/file/docs_english/meetings/meeting_reports/ccsbt_25/report_of_SC23.pdf

    • Jacob Carter

      Robert,

      Thanks for providing this information – that’s great news that the stock is improving, and it’s great that this commission exist.

      Jacob