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Ecology

Even Antarctica Has Invasive Species

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Adult Eretmoptera murphyi. (Credit: Roger Key)

Antarctica, a continent isolated by vast oceans and brutal weather, has weathered the impacts of human activities better than most places. It’s clearly not immune, of course — it’s melting — but the South Pole has been spared most other human-caused degradations.

Unfortunately, we can add another to the list. An invasive insect species is spreading across Signy Island in Antarctica, endangering the local ecosystem. It’s a species of flightless midge, Eretmoptera murphyi, and a lack of natural predators paired with a plentiful food supply is helping the insects to thrive.

Insect Invasion

Their assault on Signy actually began in the 1960s, says a team of researchers from the University of Birmingham in the UK and the British Antarctica Survey. The small, grey midges traveled to Signy from the South Georgia islands located to the northeast as unintended hitchhikers in a plant transplantation experiment. The plants are gone, but the midges remain.

E. murphyi, it turns out, landed in an ideal environment. The midges are detritivores, a fancy way of saying they eat dead organic matter, and Signy Island is literally covered in the stuff. Much of the island’s ice-free surface is blanketed by peat, partly decomposed vegetable matter, and it’s a feast for the midges. As the insects eat, they transform the peat into soil, producing nitrogen and other waste products.

What’s good for the midges is bad for the rest of the island. Signy is home to a few other species adapted to the harsh conditions, but unused to intruders, like mosses, hair grass and pearlwort. As they turn peat into soil at record rates, the midges can be considered ecosystem engineers — altering the fundamental ecology of the entire island. For delicate species attuned to a specific environment this could prove fatal.

“Signy island is characteristic of polar environments in having a nutrient limited ecology, and we find that the midge can increase levels by 3 to 5 times, bringing the moss banks in line with deposition that would be more like that seen in and around seal colonies,” says Jesamine Bartlett, a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham who’s presenting the team’s research at the annual meeting of the British Ecological Society, via email. “In particular, that nitrogen is in the form of nitrates and nitrites, which is most favored by plants as a fertilizer. So this may have consequences for the vegetation of Signy Island.”

Studying the Spread

Bartlett and her team are currently assessing the impacts the midges have had on the environment to better understand how to protect Antarctic ecosystems from future intrusions. She’s sampling areas of the island with midge populations and comparing them to areas without any to see what kind of changes are occurring. It will hopefully help build a better understanding of what happens when rapid environmental shifts occur.

It appears that the midges are contained for the moment to Signy Island, and the small outcrop is located some distance from the continent itself. Still, says study co-author Scott Hayward, a professor at Birmingham, E. murphyi appears to share many characteristics with another species of midge native to the Antarctic Peninsula, and could probably survive there if introduced. The insects, and their larvae, are small and easily overlooked, meaning it’s possible for them to travel unnoticed on shoes or equipment.

That could be a danger in the near future as warming conditions make it easier for invasive species to push southward and increased human traffic helps invasive species to spread. Two other invasive species, a type of fly, and a type of grass, are currently establishing themselves in different locations on the continent, and Bartlett says each appears to be doing quite well. Scientists have yet to study either in detail, so their impact on native ecosystems is unknown.

It’s clear that Antarctica is far from an unspoiled land. Images of desolate snowfields and barren peaks belie the truth: There are invaders right under visitors’ feet.

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Ecology

Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming

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Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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Ecology

‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change

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As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Ecology

Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

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Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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