Arxiu d'etiquetes: pesticides

How would it be a world without bees?

In recent years, the idea of a world without bees has transcended numerous social and political spheres. The scientific community has been warning about the disappearance of bees during years without any consequence. But now, it has become an issue of major concern, acquiring a media relevance like never before. At the end of 2017, the EU decided to take matters into its own hands to prevent this tragic ending for bees.

Why would it be a problem that bees disappear from Earth? And which measures has the UE take in order to address this problem?

The DDT and Rachel Carson

The use of pesticides has been a common agricultural practice from the very beginning of agriculture. At the beginning, the use of organic chemicals derived from naturals sources, as well as inorganic substances such as sulphur, mercury and arsenical compounds, was very common. However, they eventually stopped being used due to their toxicity (especially, phytotoxicity). The growth in synthetic pesticides accelerated in the mid-twentieth century, especially with the discovery of the effects of DDT, which became one of the most widely used pesticides of all time. DDT became famous due to its generalist insecticidal effects and low toxicity to mammals and plants, being used to eradicate household pests, fumigate gardens and control agricultural pests.

Picture above: cover of a March 1947 brochure on DDT from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (source). Picture below: kids being showered with DDT during a campaing against poliomyelitis, which was believed to be transmitted by a mosquito (source).

DDT resulted to be very effective against insect vectors of deadly diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and typhus, thus becoming even more popular.

However, the overuse of this and other pesticides eventually began to cause severe human and environmental health problems, because some of these products started to contaminate soils, plants and their seeds, and to bioaccumulate within the trophic nets, finally affecting mammals, birds and fishes, among others. The indiscriminate use of pesticides and their effects were denounced by Rachel Carson through her most famous publication, “Silent Spring”, which was distributed in 1962.

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson (source).

From Carson to the neonicotinoids

Since Carson denounced the abusive use of pesticides, the world has witnessed the birth of many new substances to fight crop pests. Since then, researches have focused on finding less toxic and more selective products in order to minimize their impact on both human and environmental health. Could we say it has been a success?

Yes… and no. Although their use stopped being so indiscriminate and famers started betting on the use of more selective products, there were still some open fronts. Fronts that would remain open until today.

Between 1980 and 1990, Shell and Bayer companies started working on the synthesis of a new assortment of pesticides to face the resistances that some insects have acquired to some of the most widely used substances those days: the neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine; they effect the insect nervous system with a high specificity, while having a very low toxicity to mammals and birds compared to their most famous predecessors (organochlorides, such as the DDT, and carbamates). The most widely used neonicotinoid nowadays (and also one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) is the imidacloprid.

However, far from getting famous for their effectiveness, the use of neonicotinoids began to get controversial for their supposed relationship with the disappearance of bees.

How do these pesticides affect bees?

For some years now (2006 onwards) the neonicotinoids are in scientists’ spotlight as one of the main suspects of the disappearance of bees. However, it has not been until now that something that scientists had been denouncing for years has finally been assumed: that neonicotinoids cause a greater impact than it was thought.

Dead bees in front of a hive. Public domain.

Unlike other pesticides that remain on plant surfaces, some studies state that neonicotinoids are taken up throughout their tissues, thus being accumulated in their roots, leaves, flowers, pollen and nectar. Also, that nearby fields are polluted with the dust created when treated seeds are planted and that plants derived from these seeds will accumulate a major amount of pesticide than sprayed plants (as it is explained in this publication of Nature). This causes bees (as well as other pollinating insects) to be exposed to high levels of pesticides, both in the crops themselves and in the surrounding foraging areas. These same studies have revealed with less support that these products may persist and accumulate in soils, which may affect future generations of crops.

Some of the negative effects on bees that have been related to neonicotinoids are:

In addition to the effects of neonicotinoids, other important causes must be taken into account: climate change, less food sources and changes in soil uses.

What would happen if bees disappear?

Colonial bees (like honeybees) are the most famous among bees. However, they only represent a mere portion within the great diversity of known bees, most of which have solitary life habits and build their nests inside small cavities. The ecological importance of solitary bees is equal to or greater than that of honey bees, but effects that neonicotinoids have on them are still poorly studied. Together, bees are among the most efficient pollinating organisms.

Solitary bee entering in its nest. Public domain.

According to this study carried out in German territory and published in POLS One at the end of 2017, a large part of flying insect diversity (including numerous pollinators) and up to 75% of their biomass have decreased in the last three decades due to the interaction of several factors. And if that was not enough, the authors say that these numbers can probably be extrapolated to other parts of the world.

What would happen if both colonial and solitary bees disappear?

  • Disappearance of crops. The production of many crops, such as fruit trees, nuts, spices and some oils, depends entirely on pollinators, especially on bees.
  • Decrease in the diversity and biomass of wild plants. Up to 80% of wild plants depend on insect pollination to reproduce, as it happens with many aromatic plants. A decrease in the vegetal surface would lead to serious problems of erosion and desertification.
  • Less recycling of soil nutrients. With the disappearance of the plants, the washing and deposition of soil nutrients would go down.
  • Less biological pest control. Some solitary bees are parasitoids of other solitary bees and other groups of insects (natural enemies); their absence could trigger the recurrence of certain pests.
  • Negative effects on higher trophic levels. The disappearance of bees could cause a decrease in the diversity and biomass of some birds that feed on pollinators.
  • Disappearance of bee-derived products, such as honey or wax.

The UE bans the use of neonicotinoids

Facing this reality, several governments have tried to limit the use of pesticides as a part of the measures to stop the decline of bee populations and the resulting economic losses. To give some examples, since 2006 the biomass of honey bees has decreased by 40% in the US, 25% in Europe since 1985 and 45% in the United Kingdom since 2010, according to data published by Greenpeace.

To date, the more restrictive measures limited the use of neonicotinoids in certain situations or seasons. But at the beginning of 2018, the EU, after preparing a detailed report based on more than 1,500 scientific studies carried out by the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), decided to definitively ban the use of the three most used neonicotinoids in a maximum period of 6 months in all its member states after demonstrating that they are harmful for bees: imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

Will the objectives of this report be accomplished? We will have to wait …

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Although slowly, the fight against the abusive use of pesticides is paying off. However, we will have to see if the gap left by some products is filled with other substances or if governments commit to adopt more environment friendly agricultural models.

Main picture obtained from [link].

Què passaria en un món sense abelles?

En els darrers anys, la idea d’un món sense abelles ha transcendit nombroses esferes socials; així, el que abans preocupava únicament els científics ha passat a ocupar un lloc de rellevància entre els temes d’actualitat. Tant és així, que a finals del 2017 la Unió Europea va decidir intervenir per tal d’evitar aquest tràgic desenllaç.

Per què seria problemàtic que desapareguessin les abelles? I quines mesures ha pres la Unió Europea envers aquesta problemàtica?

Sobre el DDT i Rachel Carson

L’ús de pesticides ha format part de les pràctiques agrícoles des de fa milers d’anys. Inicialment, era comú l’ús de substàncies orgàniques i inorgàniques sense adulterar, com els compostos de sulfurs, mercuri o arsènic. Tanmateix, la seva elevada toxicitat els va dur al desús. A mitjans del segle XX, concretament en la dècada de 1950, es disparà l’aplicació de pesticides sintètics, essent el DDT la màxima expressió de l’ús indiscriminat d’un insecticida fins a dia d’avui. Donada la seva acció generalista i la seva suposada baixa toxicitat directa en plantes i mamífers, es feia servir en tot tipus d’àmbits: per eliminar els insectes a la llar, fumigar jardins o controlar plagues agrícoles.

Adalt, portada d’un tríptic sobre el DDT publicat l’any 1947 pel Departament d’Agricultura dels EUA (font). A sota, nens en una piscina ruixats amb DDT com a estratègia per combatre la pòlio, la qual es creia que era trasmessa per un mosquit (font).

El DDT resultava molt efectiu envers insectes vectors de malalties mortals com la malària, la febre groga o el tifus, fet que el va convertir en un membre més de la família.

L’ús indiscriminat d’aquest i d’altres pesticides, però, va començar a generar problemes greus de salut en humans i en el medi ambient, ja que molts d’ells es bioacumulaven i contaminaven el sòl, les plantes i les seves llavors, i impactaven finalment a nivells superiors de les xarxes tròfiques (mamífers, aus, peixos, etc.). L’ús indiscriminat de pesticides i les seves terribles conseqüències van ser denunciats per Rachel Carson en la seva publicació “Silent Spring” (Primavera Silenciosa), distribuïda l’any 1962.

Silent Spring, de Rachel Carson (font).

Des de Carson als neonicotinoides

Des què Rachel Carson denunciés l’ús abusiu de pesticides, el món ha presenciat el naixement de noves substàncies per combatre les plagues agrícoles. Des d’aleshores, el rumb de les investigacions ha estat obtenir productes menys tòxics i més selectius per tal de minimitzar els impactes sobre la salut humana i ambiental. Podríem dir que ha estat un èxit?

Sí … i no. Si bé el seu ús va deixar de ser tan indiscriminat i s’apostava per l’ús de productes més selectius, encara hi havia alguns fronts oberts. Fronts que seguirien presents fins a l’actualitat.

Entre 1980 i 1990, les empreses Shell i Bayer van començar a treballar en la síntesi d’un nou assortit de pesticides per donar solució a les resistències que els insectes havien generat a certes substàncies emprades fins al moment: els neonicotinoides. Els neonicotinoides són una família d’insecticides amb una estructura molecular similar a la nicotina que actuen directament sobre el sistema nerviós central dels insectes, revolucionaris per la seva elevada especificitat sobre aquests organismes i la seva baixa toxicitat en mamífers i aus en comparació als seus predecessors més famosos (organoclorats, com el DDT, i carbamats). El neonicotinoide més usat a nivell mundial és l’imidacloprid, sent a més a més un dels pesticides més emprats actualment.

Tanmateix, més enllà de fer-se famosos per la seva efectivitat, els neonicotinoides van començar a aixecar polseguera per la seva suposada relació amb la desaparició de les abelles.

Com afecten aquests pesticides a les abelles?

Des de fa ja alguns anys (aprox. 2006 fins a l’actualitat) que els neonicotinoides es troben en el punt de mira dels científics en tractar-se d’uns dels principals sospitosos de la desaparició de les abelles. No obstant això, no ha estat fins a l’actualitat que s’ha  reconegut un fet que la comunitat científica portava denunciant des de fa anys: que els neonicotinoides causen un impacte major del que es creia.

Abelles mortes davant d’un rusc. Imatge de domini públic.

A diferència d’altres pesticides que romanen en la superfície de les plantes, diversos estudis afirmen que els neonicotinoides són assimilats pels seus teixits, acumulant-se en arrels, fulles, flors, pol·len i nèctar; d’altra banda, les llavors tractades amb aquests productes alliberen residus en forma de pols que es dispersen per l’aire i les plantes que deriven d’aquestes acumulen una major quantitat de pesticida (tal com comenta Nature en aquesta publicació). Això fa que les abelles (entre d’altres insectes pol·linitzadors) estiguin exposades a elevats nivells de residus, tant en els propis camps com en les zones circumdants on s’alimenten. Aquests mateixos estudis han revelat, encara que amb menys suport, que aquests productes poden arribar a persistir i acumular-se en el sòl, podent afectar futures generacions de cultius.

Els efectes negatius sobre les abelles que s’han associat als neonicotinoides són, entre altres:

  • Alteració del sistema immune, menor capacitat per sobreviure a l’hivern i menor capacitat reproductiva (tant individual como colonial), afectant especialment l’èxit reproductiu en abelles solitàries (segons aquest estudi recent publicat a Science).
  • Possible alteració sobre els hàbits i les rutes de cerca d’aliment (desorientació) tant en abelles solitàries com colonials, així com sobre la comunicació entre membres d’abelles colonials.
  • Efectes negatius potenciats per interacció amb altres pesticides.
  • Contribució al CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). Aquest fenònem es caracteritza por la desaparició massiva de les abelles obreres d’una colònia, les quals deixen enrere la reina juntament amb aliment, les seves larves i algunes abelles que cuiden d’elles. Aquest fenòmen ha estat registrat nombrosos cops al llarg de la història, l’últim dels quals als EUA l’any 2006, quan una gran quantitat de colònies d’abelles de la mel (Apis mellifera) van començar a col·lapsar (fins el 2013, s’estima la pèrdua de fins a 10 milions de ruscs, quasi 2 cops més del que és considerat normal). El CCD és un fenòmen multifactorial, en el que l’acció dels pesticides només seria un de tants.

Als efectes negatius dels pesticides se li uneixen el canvi climàtic (canvis en els règims hídrics i de temperatura), menor quantitat d’aliment i els canvis en l’ús del sòl.

Què passaria si desapareguessin les abelles?

Les abelles colonials són les més famoses entre les abelles; tanmateix, només suposen un modest percentatge dins de la gran diversitat d’abelles conegudes, moltes de les quals són formes solitàries que construeixen nius en petites cavitats. La importància ecològica de les abelles solitàries és igual o més gran que la de les abelles de la mel i, no obstant això, l’efecte dels neonicotinoides sobre elles està molt poc estudiat. En conjunt, les abelles es troben entre els organismes pol·linitzadors més eficients.

Abella solitària entrant al seu seu niu. Imatge de domini público.

Segons aquest estudi realitzat en territori alemany i publicat en PLOS One a la fi del 2017, gran part de la diversitat i fins a un 75% de la biomassa d’insectes voladors (incloent nombrosos pol·linitzadors) hauria disminuït en les últimes tres dècades a causa de la interacció de nombrosos factors, valors que podrien extrapolar-se a nivell mundial.

Què passaria si les abelles, tant colonials com solitàries, desapareguessin?

  • Desaparició de cultius. La producció de molts cultius, como la d’arbres fruiters, fruits secs, espècies i alguns olis, depèn completament dels pol·linitzadors. Dins d’aquests, les abelles en serien els més importants.
  • Disminució de la diversitat i biomassa de plantes salvatges. Fins a un 80% de plantes salvatges depenen de la pol·linització per insectes per reproduir-se, com és el cas de moltes aromàtiques. La disminució de la superfície vegetal conduiria a greus problemes d’erosió i desertització.
  • Menor reciclatge de nutrients del sòl. Amb la desaparició de les plantes, el rentat i deposició de nutrients del sòl aniria a la baixa.
  • Menor control biològic de plagues. Algunes abelles solitàries són parasitoids d’altres abelles solitàries i d’altres grups d’insectes (enemics naturals); la seva absència podria disparar la recurrència de certes plagues.
  • Efectes negatius sobre nivells tròfics superiors. Possiblement, la desaparició de les abelles es traduiria en una disminució de la diversitat i biomassa d’algunes aus que inclouen les abelles dins la seva dieta. Això sense comptar amb el consegüents efectes en cadena dins les xarxes tròfiques.
  • Desaparició de productes derivats, com la mel o la cera.

La UE prohibeix l’ús de neonicotinoides

Donada aquesta situació, diferents governs han intentat limitar des de fa alguns anys l’ús de pesticides com a part de les accions per frenar el declivi de les poblacions d’abelles i les consegüents pèrdues econòmiques. Per posar alguns exemples, des de l’any 2006 la biomassa d’abelles de la mel ha disminuït un 40% als EUA, un 25% a Europa des de l’any 1985 i un 45% al ​​Regne Unit des de l’any 2010, segons dades publicades per Greenpeace.

Fins a l’actualitat, les mesures més restrictives simplement limitaven l’ús dels neonicotinoides en certes situacions o èpoques de l’any. Però a principis de 2018, la UE, després de l’elaboració d’un minuciós informe basat en més de 1.500 estudis científics realitzat per l’EFSA (Autoritat Europea de Seguretat Alimentària), va decidir prohibir definitivament l’ús dels tres neonicotinoides més usats en un període màxim de 6 mesos en tots els seus estats membres després de demostrar que afectaven a les abelles: imidacloprid, clotianidina i tiametoxam.

S’assoliran els objectius d’aquest informe? Caldrà esperar…

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Tot i que lentament, la lluita contra l’ús abusiu dels pesticides va donant els seus fruits. Tanmateix, caldrà veure si el buit deixat per alguns productes és omplert per d’altres o si s’aposta per adoptar models agrícoles més amistosos amb el medi ambient.

Imatge de portada obtinguda de [link].

The humans have done it again: the Anthropocene, another shameful achievement for mankind

Science books have to be modified again. Joining other famous geological epochs of the Cambrian, Jurassic or Pleistocene another one must be added from now: the Anthropocene. On August 2016 a group of experts confirmed what everyone suspected: mankind have been so interventionist in terrestrial processes that the natural cycle have changed irretrievably. We have already suffering the consequences, and the human footprint on our planet will be present until after our demise

INTRODUCTION

The history of the modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, was not easy in the beginning. It is believed that we appeared on the Middle Paleolithic, about 200,000 years ago in Africa. In those days humans were already good hunters, but also good preys, and although the species was thriving and spreading across the planet, this was done slowly and always influenced by severe climate changes. It took 100,000 years to leave Africa and anothers 80,000 to reach America. During all that time and until almost the present day, humans being was at the mercy of the Earth and its whims, which decided at will the fate of our ancestors. However, the Ice Age ended, the Holocene began and thereby unprecedented technological advancement. The industrial revolution definitely transformed humans and the way they interact with the world, which suffered the devastating consequences of an ambitious and unaware species about their enormous global influence.

mamut
Humans have been nomadic most of their existence, with a strong dependence on environmental conditions that conditioned their prey. With the agriculture and lifestock the first villages were created, leading to the modern style. Source: Return of Kings.

WHAT IS A GEOLOGICAL TIME AND HOW IT IS POSSIBLE TO ENTER AND LEAVE IT?

At first glance, it may seem a mere syntactical question or a whim of geologists. However, designate a geological time is important when defining long periods of time sharing similar environmental conditions. Normally, a geological period usually lasts no less than 2 million years, and the fossil record is used to find out a major discontinuity in the typical pattern of the biota of that actual period. Therefore, an epoch tend to finish when an abrupt climate change occur (the Pleistocene ends with the last of the great glaciations), leading to changes in the biota (the meteorite that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs caused the end of the Cretaceous period). However, these abrupt changes must be occur globally and in a short space of time to really be considered as a different geological epoch.

geological-time-scale
Earth is divided into periods whichare divided into geological epochs. These periods are marked by relatively stable and / or with a characteristic biota. These epochs are usually finished by events that involve drastic changes for living organisms on a global scale. Source: philipmarshall.net.

THE ANTHROPOCENE

The term is not new (it was used for the first time in the mid XIX century during the industrial revolution) but regained importance in early 2000, thanks to Paul Crutzen. This chemist, together with other colleagues, discovered the compounds that were destroying the ozone layer, which makes him to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In his speech, he had special interest in stressing that the Holocene “was over forever” to make way for the Anthropocene, the age of humans. His article in Nature about the Anthropocene was a reference for many scientists working on projects about environmental problems in the Anthropocene epoche. On August 29, 2016, the expert group of the Anthropocene voted at the International Geological Congress (IGC) to formally establish the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch.

Grinding Shop
The industrial revolution changed the course of Earth forever. Vast amounts of fossil fuels were burned and their products emitted into the atmosphere. The production system took a turn, giving priority to production and thereby to make unprecedented use of the planet’s resources. In the photo, British workers in a factory of agricultural products in 1928. Source: Daily mail.

BUT, WHY ARE WE IN THE ANTHROPOCENE?

As we mentioned before, to change the geological epoch it has to be evident that environmental conditions are changing on a global scale. And that is what is happening since the early 50s of the last century, date in which researchers have officially marked the beginning of the Anthropocene. In this Science article, researchers from around the world gathered geological evidence showing with certainty that mankind has changed the planet severely and it should already talk about another geological era. The researchers also pointed to the products of the many atomic tests of the 50s as the starting point of the Anthropocene.

mushroom-cloud-of-first-hydrogen-bomb-test
The nuclear tests of the 50s, like this one in which the first hydrogen bomb (Ivy Mike) was tested, caused the release of large amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. These particles were settled and that has allowed researchers to have evidence in order to demonstrate the impact of human actions on a global scale. Source: CBC.

EVIDENCE OF THE ANTHROPOCENE

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, more than two centuries ago, numerous anthropogenic deposits have been accumulated in the earth’s crust, from new minerals and rocks to aluminum, cement and petroleum products such as plastics. Just after these lines, we show the main evidence put forward by researchers to justify the change of epoch:

High levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), plastics, fertilizers and pesticides in sediments. The burning of oil, coal and other wood products are the source of large amounts of PAHs in the atmosphere, that they just finally end settling in the earth’s crust and living things.Referring to fertilizers, little abundant nutrients in the soil such as nitrogen and phosphorous have doubled in the last century due to the increasing number of crops, many of which following the intensive model to maximize production. Moreover, plastics are already present worldwide. Its high resistance to degradation prevents natural recycling, which causes large quantities to deposit and, especially, to end in the sea, where there are authentic plastic islands, as the Great Pacific garbage patch .

plastics
Plastic is the most widely-product made from oil on Earth. Its impact on the environment is one of the most serious at present, and  global sedimentation leaves traces of our presence until thousands of years after our disappearance. Source: The Guardian.

Radioactive elements of nuclear tests. The detonation of the atomic bomb called Trinity in 1945 in New Mexico (USA), was followed by a long list of other nuclear tests during the Cold War. As a result, large amounts of carbon-14 and plutonium-239, among other molecules, were released into the atmosphere and sedimented years later in many parts of the globe, constituting a proof of the great human impact on Earth.

sediment
This core, extracted by the geologists that have determined that we are in a new era, shows the accumulation of human origin material in the sediments of a lake in Greenland. In it was found pesticides, radioactive nitrogen, heavy metals, increases in the concentration of greenhouse gases and plastics. Source: Science.

High concentrations of CO2 and CH4 in the atmosphere. From 1850 and especially in the following decades, the levels of these gases in the atmosphere broke with the typical pattern of the Holocene, getting itself to achieve, in our century, 400 ppm (parts per million) of CO2, an increase of more of 150 points from the pre-industrial situation. This increase in atmospheric CO2 has a direct impact on the temperature of the Earth. It is believed that the global temperature has increased by around 1 ° C since 1900, and will increase between 1.5 and 3.5 ° C by the year 2100.

aumento-co2
This chart shows the unprecedented increase in CO2, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. Although CO2 is the best known gas and which has the greatest impact on a large scale, the other two gases have greater power to limit heat dissipation into space. The increase of these gases is closely related to the increase of global temperature. Source: CSIRO.

The increase of the ratio of extinction of living organisms in all parts of the world as a result of human activities. Since 1500 the extinction of species by humans has increased, but is from the XIX century onwards when the extinctions are present in the entire planet. The distribution of species has been disrupted due to human activities such as agriculture and deforestation and the introduction of invasive species, causing changes in the habits of native species and often come to displace and even to extinguish. This unprecedented high extinction ratio is considered by many people as an unmistakable symbol that we are in front of the sixth mass extinction on Earth.

ratio-extincion
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the rate of extinction of vertebrates is 100 times greater than in the past. At this rate, it is estimated that in the following centuries the number of extinct species will reach 75% of the existing ones. The dotted black line in this graph shows the rate of pre-industrialization extinction, while others refer to the cumulative percentage of extinct species since 1500. Source: Science.

FUTURE

Whatever the fate of humanity and future actions undertaken to mitigate climate change, what is clear is that the human footprint will remain indelible in the earth’s surface for millions of years, similar to what occurred after the Permian or Cretaceous mass extincion. The strata will show the follies and excesses carried out by us, perhaps as a warning for the following species that dares to relieve humanity of its status as the dominant species.

REFERENCES

Ricard-anglès

 

Els humans ho hem tornat a fer: l’Antropocè, una nova fita (vergonyosa) de la humanitat

Els llibres de ciència hauran de modificar-se de nou. A les ja conegudes èpoques geològiques del càmbric, juràssic o pleistocè caldrà afegir-ne, des d’ara, una altra més: l’Antropocè. A finals d’agost d’aquest any es va confirmar el que ja es temia: els humans hem intervingut tant en els processos terrestres que hem arribat a canviar fins i tot el propi cicle natural del planeta. Les conseqüències ja les estem patint, i l’empremta humana quedarà present en el nostre planeta fins després de la nostra desaparició.

INTRODUCCIÓ

La història de l’home actual, l’Homo sapiens sapiens, no va ser senzilla en els seus inicis. Es creu que vam aparèixer en el Paleolític mitjà, fa uns 200.000 anys, a l’Àfrica. En aquells temps l’ésser humà ja era un bon caçador, però també era una bona presa, i encara que l’espècie era pròspera i s’expandia pel planeta, ho feia a marxes forçades i sempre a remolc de canvis climàtics severs. Va trigar 100.000 anys a sortir d’Àfrica i 80.000 fins a arribar a Amèrica. Durant tot aquest temps i fins pràcticament els nostres dies, l’ésser humà estava a mercè de la Terra i els seus capricis, la qual decidia al seu antull el destí dels nostres avantpassats. No obstant això, les glaciacions van acabar, l’Holocè va començar i, amb això, un avanç tecnològic sense precedents. La revolució industrial va transformar definitivament a l’ésser humà i la seva forma d’interactuar amb el món, i aquest va sofrir les devastadores conseqüències d’una espècie ambiciosa i inconscient de la seva enorme influència global.

mamut
L’ésser humà ha estat, la major part de la seva existència, una espècie nòmada, amb una forta dependència de les condicions ambientals que condicionaven les seves preses. Amb l’agricultura i la ramaderia es formen els primers pobles, que conduiran a l’estil modern d’avui en dia. Font: Return of Kings.

¿QUÈ ÉS UNA ÈPOCA GEOLÒGICA Y COM S’ENTRA O ES SURT D’ELLA?

En un primer moment pot semblar una simple qüestió sintàctica, o un caprici de geòlegs. No obstant això, designar una època geològica és important a l’hora de delimitar grans períodes de temps que han gaudit de condicions ambientals similars. Per regla general, una època geològica sol durar no menys de 2 milions d’anys, i s’usa el registre fòssil per buscar discontinuïtats en el patró típic de la biota de l’època. Per tant, una època geològica sol acabar-se amb un canvi brusc en el clima (el Plistocè acaba amb l’última de les grans glaciacions) que comporta, de retruc, canvis en la biota (el meteorit que va extingir els dinosaures no avians va acabar amb el període Cretaci). No obstant això, aquests canvis bruscs s’han de donar de forma global i en un curt espai de temps perquè realment pugui considerar-se que s’ha canviat d’època geològica.

geological-time-scale
La Terra es divideix en períodes que, al seu torn, es divideixen en èpoques geològiques. Aquestes estan marcades per períodes de temps relativament estables i / o amb una biota característica. Solen acabar-se per esdeveniments que comporten canvis dràstics per als éssers vius a escala planetària. Font: philipmarshall.net.

L’ANTROPOCÈ

El terme no és nou (va començar a utilitzar-se a mitjans del segle XIX, en plena revolució industrial) però va recobrar importància a principis de l’any 2000, de la mà de Paul Crutzen. Aquest químic, juntament amb altres col·legues, va descobrir els compostos que estaven acabant amb la capa d’ozó, el que li va permetre guanyar el Premi Nobel de Química. En el seu discurs, va tenir especial interès en recalcar que l’Holocè “havia acabat per sempre” per donar pas a l’Antropocè, l’època dels humans. El seu article a Nature sobre l’Antropocè va sentar càtedra, i des de llavors multitud de científics han fet servir sense cap tipus d’inconvenient aquest terme per referir-se a l’època en què vivim. El 29 d’agost de 2016, la comissió d’experts de l’Antropocè va votar, al Congrés Geològic Internacional (IGC, per les seves sigles en anglès) per formalment establir l’Antropocè com a nova època geològica.

Grinding Shop
La revolució industrial va canviar el curs de la Terra per sempre. Ingents quantitats de combustibles fòssils van ser cremats i els seus productes emesos a l’atmosfera. El sistema productiu va donar un gir, prioritzant la producció i, amb això, a fer un ús sense precedents dels recursos del planeta. A la foto, treballadors britànics en una fàbrica de productes agraris al 1928. Font: Daily mail.

PERÒ, PER QUÈ ESTEM A L’ANTROPOCÈ?

Com comentàvem abans, per canviar d’època s’ha d’evidenciar un canvi en les condicions ambientals a escala global. I això és el que està passant des de la dècada dels anys 50 del segle passat, data en què oficialment s’ha marcat l’inici del Antropocè. En aquest article de Science, investigadors de tot el món van recopilar proves geològiques que demostraven amb total certesa que l’ésser humà ha canviat tant el planeta que ja s’ha de parlar d’una altra època geològica. Els investigadors també van assenyalar als productes de les nombroses proves atòmiques dels anys 50 com el punt de partida de l’Antropocè.

mushroom-cloud-of-first-hydrogen-bomb-test
Les proves nuclears dels anys 50, com aquesta en la qual es va testar la primera bomba d’hidrogen (Ivy Mike) va provocar l’emissió de grans quantitats de materials radioactius a l’atmosfera. Aquestes partícules van anar assentant-se i això ha permès als investigadors disposar de proves per demostrar l’impacte de les accions humanes a escala global. Font: CBC.

EVIDÈNCIES DE L’ANTROPOCÈ

Des de l’inici de la revolució industrial, fa més de dos segles, nombrosos dipòsits antropogènics han anat sedimentant en l’escorça terrestre, des de nous minerals i roques fins alumini, ciment i derivats del petroli com els plàstics. Just després d’aquestes línies, les principals evidències esgrimides pels investigadors per justificar el canvi d’època:

Els alts nivells d’hidrocarburs aromàtics policíclics (PAHs), bifenils policlorats (PCB), plàstics, fertilitzants i plaguicides en sediments. La combustió de petroli, carbó i altres productes derivats de la fusta són l’origen de grans quantitats de PAHs en l’atmosfera, que acaben assentant-se en l’escorça terrestre i als éssers vius. Pel que fa als fertilitzants, nutrients tan poc abundants al sòl com són el nitrogen i el fòsfor s’han duplicat en l’últim segle degut al creixent nombre de correus, molts dels quals intensius, per tal de maximitzar la producció. D’altra banda, els plàstics ja són presents a tot el món. La seva alta resistència a la degradació impedeix el seu reciclatge natural, el que provoca que grans quantitats passin als sediments i, sobretot, al mar, on forma autèntiques illes de plàstic, com la coneguda Gran Illa de Plàstic del Pacífic.

plastics
El plàstic és el producte derivat del petroli més estès a la Terra. El seu impacte sobre el medi ambient és un dels més greus en l’actualitat, i la seva sedimentació a escala global deixarà restes de la nostra presència fins a milers d’anys després de la nostra desaparició. Font: The Guardian.

Els elements radiactius de les proves nuclears. A la detonació de la bomba atòmica de la Trinitat el 1945 a Nou Mèxic (EUA), la va seguir, en plena Guerra Freda, una gran llista d’altres proves nuclears. Com a resultat, grans quantitats de carboni-14 i plutoni-239, entre d’altres molècules, van ser llançades a l’atmosfera i sedimentades anys després en moltes parts del planeta, constituint una prova inqüestionable del gran impacte humà sobre la Terra.

sediment
Aquest core, extret pels geòlegs que han determinat que estem en una nova època, mostra l’acumulació de material d’origen humà en els sediments d’un llac de Groenlàndia. En ell es van trobar pesticides, nitrogen radioactiu, metalls pesants, increments de la concentració de gasos d’efecte hivernacle i plàstics. Font: Science.

Les altes concentracions de CO2 i CH4 a l’atmosfera. A partir de 1850 i sobretot en les dècades següents, els nivells d’aquests gasos a l’atmosfera van trencar amb el patró típic de l’Holocè, arribant-se a aconseguir, en el nostre segle, les 400 ppm (parts per milió) de CO2, un augment de més de 150 punts respecte a la situació preindustrial. Aquest augment de CO2 atmosfèric té un impacte directe sobre la temperatura de la Terra. Es creu que la temperatura global s’ha incrementat al voltant d’1ºC des de l’any 1900, i que augmentarà entre 1,5 i 3,5 ° C per a l’any 2100.

aumento-co2
En aquest gràfic es mostra l’augment sense precedents del CO2, el metà i l’òxid de nitrogen a l’atmosfera. Si bé és cert que el més conegut i el que té més impacte a gran escala és el CO2, els altres dos gasos tenen un major poder de limitació de la dissipació del calor cap a l’espai. L’augment d’aquests gasos està estretament relacionat amb l’augment de la temperatura mundial. Font: CSIRO.

L’augment de la ràtio d’extinció d’éssers vius en totes les parts del món com a conseqüència de les activitats humanes. Des de l’any 1500 l’extinció d’espècies per part dels éssers humans ha augmentat, però és a partir del segle XIX en endavant quan les extincions es fan presents en la totalitat del planeta. La distribució de les espècies s’ha vist alterada a causa d’activitats humanes com l’agricultura o la desforestació i per la introducció d’espècies invasores, que provoquen canvis en els costums de les espècies autòctones i solen arribar a desplaçar-les o fins i tot extingir-les. Aquest elevat ràtio d’extinció sense precedents és considerat per molts com un símbol inequívoc de que estem davant de la sisena extinció massiva de la Terra.

ratio-extincion
Des de l’inici de la revolució industrial, el ritme d’extinció dels vertebrats és 100 vegades més gran que en el passat. A aquest ritme, s’estima que pels següents segles el nombre d’espècies que s’extingiran arribarà al 75% de les existents. La línia negra puntejada d’aquest gràfic mostra el ritme d’extinció pre-industrialització, mentre que les altres fan referència al percentatge acumulat d’espècies extintes des de l’any 1500. Font: Science.

FUTUR

Sigui quin suigui el destí de la humanitat i de les accions futures dutes a terme per pal·liar el canvi climàtic, el que està clar és que l’empremta humana quedarà indeleble en la superfície terrestre durant milions d’anys, de manera semblant a la que van deixar les extincions en massa del Pèrmic o del Cretaci. Els estrats mostraran les insensateses i els excessos duts a terme per nosaltres, potser com advertència per a la següent espècie que s’atreveixi a rellevar a la humanitat de la seva condició com a espècie dominant.

Bearded vulture: conservation of a unique bird

Last month a bearded vulture was born for the first time in Spain of parents bred in captivity and reintroduced into the wild. The bearded vulture is the only bird in the world that feeds almost exclusively on bones. Like the Iberian lynx, it is one of the emblematic animals of the Iberian Peninsula and it is endangered, so it is subject to various conservation and reintroduction programs. In this article, we encourage you to find out more about the bearded vulture and the spanish conservation projects.

DESCRIPTION

The bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is a diurnal bird of prey popularly included in what is called vultures, scavenger and ghoul birds (they feed on dead animals). However, the bearded vulture is quite different from other vultures:

Quebrantahuesos (Gypaetus barbatus) adulto. )Foto de Jose Luis Ojeda)
Adult bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). (Photo by Jose Luis Ojeda)

 

  • It is so highly specialized that 85% of their diet are bones (osteophague) of dead mammals such as wild ungulates (chamois) and domestic cattle (goats, sheep). It can swallow bones up to 25 cm, and if they are too large catches them, rises them to 20-40 m and crashes bones against the rocks into smaller pieces that can swallowIt also uses the same technique to break tortoise shells.
  • It is very large, with a wingspan up to 2.8 meters and a weitgh up to 7 kg.
  • In general it isn’t noisy: it just whistles if it is excited or during the mating season.
  • It hasn’t the typical plucked vulture head. Vultures have a few or no feathers on their heads to maintain an optimum hygiene after putting their head in dead animals. Due to its peculiar diet, the bearded vulture has more feathers on head and neck, with its characteristic beard” below the peak.
  • The plumage is the same for both sexes but changes with age. The typical reddish and yellowish adults plumage is due to their habit of bathing in mud rich in iron oxides, otherwise they will had a white breast.

Fases del plomatge del trencalòs, segons Adam i Llopis (2003). (Imatge de © X. Parellada.)
Plumage phases of the bearded vulture, Adam and Llopis (2003). (Image by © X. Parellada.)

In this video (5 minutes, catalan) you can see bearded vultures in flight, breaking bones, engulfing them, raising a chick in the nest and bathing in mud.

REPRODUCTION

Bearded vultures nests on ledges and natural rock caves in the mountainous and rugged areas where they live. They have stable partner for life from age 7 and the reproductive cycle has different stages:

  • Pre-laying (September to November): nest building (covering it with branches, wool, feathers, bones ), defense of territory and sexual activity.
  • Incubation (December-February): they lay one or two eggs with a time difference of 6 days. Both sexes participate in the incubation for 53 days.
  • Nurturing (March-August): the largest chick kills his brother (fraticidal violence) to ensure survival. Parents provide food and when the chick leaves the nest (June-July), learn from them to find and prepare food until their emancipation.
  • Emancipation (January): displacement (thousands of kilometers) and dating back to the land where it was born to breed (philopatric instinct).

Seguimiento de nidos naturales mediante cámaras. (Foto: FCQ)
Tracking of natural nests with cameras. (Photo: Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture)

DISTRIBUTION

Subspecies Gypaetus barbatus meridonalis is distributed by the South and East Africa, while Gypaetus barbatus barbatus by North Africa and parts of Eurasia (see map).

In the Iberian Peninsula is found naturally only in the Pyrenees (Catalonia, Aragon and Navarra). Spain is the European country with more breeding couples registered (about 130, 2014 data).

gypaetus barbatus, quebrantahuesos, trencalòs, berded vulture distribution, distribución
Bearded vulture distribution. In red, areas in which has been reintroduced . (Image by Mario, Wikimedia).

THREATS

Bearded vulture populations are declining. It is ranked globally asnear threatened” in the IUCN Red List and “endangered” in the Spanish Catalogue of Endangered Species. Current threats they face are:

  • Death by poisoning (illegal baits, poisoned animal consumption, consumption of remains of lead hunting ammunition plumbism).
  • Death by electrocution or collisions with power lines and wind turbines of wind farms.
  • Poaching
  • Habitat loss and decreasing of reproductive efficiency because of the humanization of the medium (urbanisation, adventure sports )
  • Reduction of food (cattle in stables, obligation to bury the corpses )

Quebrantahuesos muerto por envenenamiento. (Foto: DARPAMN)
Bearded vulture dead by poisoning. (Photo: DARPAMN)

CONSERVATION IN SPAIN

Due to the limited distribution of populations, their low number and difficulty to colonize new territories, in 2014 thirteen autonomous communities signed a protocol for the recovery of vultures in Spain. The most prominent action of this protocol is to strengthen the National Strategy for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture in Spain (started in 2000) and the Programme Captive Breeding (2001), with actions such as the revaluation of rural areas, supplementary feeding and support for traditional farming practices. This strategy also involves the reintroduction in historic areas where the bearded vulture has been extinguished:

WHAT IS HACKING?

Hacking or rural upbringing is a technique that involves the release of captive-bred animals in an area that the bird assimilates as its birthplace. If successful, the bearded vulture returns to settle and breed. This technique did not has a conservationist origin, since it was developed by falconers in the Medieval Age. Falconry (hunting with birds of prey) are also currently used for wildlife control at airports or cities.

In falconry hacking consists in lefting in an elevated cage chicks that can feed by themselves. Falconer feeds them without being seen. After a few days they open the cage, using it as a basis for learning to fly. They are still feeding them until they learn to hunt by themselves and leave the cage. The young ones connect the cage as its birthplace so it will always return.

Alimentación de un pollo con un señuelo para evitar el contacto humano. Foto: Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos
Feeding a chick with a decoy to avoid human contact and make its life possible in the wild. (Photo: Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture)

The center managed by the Gypaetus Foundation is based on the natural breeding, with minimal human intervention. Parents raise and feed their young from the second week of hatching. To monitor the nests a video surveillance system is used.

Since 2006, 31 bearded vultures have been released from captive breeding and each one is tracked by GPS transmitters. Currently 15 individuals are still sending signals (9 were killed and 7 stopped working). As said in the introduction, the good news is that last month was born the first chick result of released individuals (Tono and Blimunda) by hacking technique.

For more information, check out this documentary (in spanish) about the bearded vulture and its conservation (El bosque protector. Fauna amenazada, El Quebrantahuesos, 29 minutes).

REFERENCES

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY

Nocturnal birds of prey: the barn owl, legends and myths

Nocturnal birds of prey have suffered since a long time ago an unfair bad reputation that has led them in some cases to be persecuted and hated. What are these superstitions? Which is their conservation state? What can you do for them? In this article you will discover owls and the barn owl, Tyto albaand the legends associated with them.

GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF NOCTURNAL BIRDS OF PREY

As its name suggests, most nocturnal birds of prey (owls, owls, tawny owls) have nocturnal or crepuscular habits. They are carnivorous, with beaks and claws (two toes forward and two backward) adapted to tear flesh from their prey (small mammals, birds, reptiles, large insects ).

HEARING

Owls usually have a rounded shape and apparent large head, with the face feathers forming the so-called facial disk. The facial disc serves as a dish heading sounds towards the ears. The opening of the ear is large, with a fold of skin (preaural halda), which functions as a pinna and is movable as in some mammals.

Oído de lechuza norteña (Aegolius acadicus). (Foto tomada de Jim McCormac).
Norther saw whet owl ear (Aegolius acadicus). (Photo by Jim McCormac).

The position of each ear is asymmetric in some species (one is higher than the other), so some of them -like the barn owl- can locate prey in complete darkness: an ear perceives sound before the other, so their  brain can calculate the exact place where prey is (directional hearing).

Boreal owl skull, cráneo de mochuelo boreal
Boreal owl skull (Aegolius funereus) where can be seen the asymmetric hearing openings and sclerotic eye rings. (Photo taken of Jim Williams)

EYESIGHT

Owl’s vision is highly developed. Eyes, unlike most birds, are in front position, which allows a perfect estimation of depth and three-dimensional vision. On the other hand, eyes are tubular (not spherical like ours) due to the large size of the cornea and lens, which prevents owls from moving them within their sockets. Also they have a protective bone plate around the eyes (sclerotic rings) that also impede movement. To solve this problem, they are able to turn his head 270 degrees. It can be considered that they see in black and white (they best perceive changes in light rather than colors), the pupil dilates a lot in bad light conditions (iris is hidden by dilated pupil) and they are the only birds in which the eyelid closes up to below. They also have a transparent lid” that moistens and protects the eye, called the nictitating membrane.

Visión lechuza, binocular, vista, búho, razces nocturnas
Binocular vison of a nocturnal bird of prey. Humans have a field vision of 180 degrees, 140 of them binocular). (Image by The Owl Pages)

PLUMAGE

Owls, unlike diurnal birds of prey, have a special flight feathers structure, fringed at the top surface and contours. The friction between them and the air is damped, achieving a spectacular silent flight undetectable by preys.

Pluma de lechuza común y autillo, donde se observan las barbicelas. (Foto tomada de Pedro Montoya).
Barn owl feather (Tyto alba) and european scops owl (Otus scops), (Image taken of Pedro Montoya).

THE BARN OWL

The barn owl (Tyto alba), is unmistakable: it has a very well defined and heart-shaped facial disk. The back is gray with golden spots and fine black and white dots.

DISTRIBUTION AND BEHAVIOUR

The barn owl lives all over the world (except Antarctica, north Europe and most Asia) and don’t build a nest, but lays eggs in tree holes, holes in the rock or human buildings (barns, attics, farmhouses, castles, churches ).

Why the barn owl has this negative reputation that caused their persecution in many parts of the world and in Spain? Causes are diverse, all fed by human fear:

  • They can nest in abandoned or sacred locations as churches (some with their own cemetery).
  • Nocturnal habits
  • They are sendentary, they can stay in the same hunting ground for years until food is scarce.
  • Ghostly appearance due to their colors and smooth and silent flight.
  • By their vocalizations (they have 17 different ones) like human screams and peculiar snorts. Listen to some owls making a defense vocalization in the following video:

THE BARN OWL IN THE POPULAR CULTURE. BELIEFS, SUPERSTITIONS, MYTHS AND LEGENDS

In the Iberian Peninsula was believed that owls drank the oil of the lamps in churches, leaving the Saints in the dark (when the real thieves were sacristans). By landing on lamps or touching them and pouring the oil, it was believed that owls hated light, like evil spirits. In spanish and catalan there are sayings that refer to this myth. They were hunted, killed and hanged above the doors of churches and barns to ward off fire and lightning.

The vocalizations of barn owls are also interpreted as announcements of death, and there is a belief (without basis) that if someone hear an owl for several nights (something not difficult given their sedentary habits) a person suddenly will lose life.

Tyto alba, lechuza común, lechuza de campanario
Barn owl (Tyto Alba). (Photo by Kerkuil André).

In other cultures there are also negative legends about owls: in Africa that are sent by sorcerers to kill people or evil demons announcing disasters, in the Argentine pampas that they are sisters of the devil; in Sicily, death or illness for all these reasons they have been killed and tortured.

However, they can also be a good sign (such as guardians of women who die in Australia), but the best known case is the representation of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom. Currently still appears as a symbol of many institutions and in Greek euro coins.

Euro grecia, euro griego
Greek euro. (Resource: RTVE)

CURRENT STATUS AND THREATS

Nowadays the barn owl is in a state of decline and with an uncertain future due to changes introduced by humans in rural areas, such as changes in cultivation or use of pesticides and rodenticides, which kill their prey (mice) or indirectly birds themselves. The works and renovations of buildings where they used to nest also interfere with reproduction. They also suffer accidents due to the towers and power lines and are often hit by cars. Canary subspecies (Tyto alba gracilirostris) is disappearing due its habitat fragmentation and the low number of individuals in their populations.

Lechuza muerta
Barn owl in a barbed wire. (Photo by PacoT).

It is listed as Endangered in the Red Book of Birds of Spain and included in the National Catalogue of Endangered Species in the category “Special interest“.

WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR OWLS?

Try to find out about these magnificent birds and make them known to your immediate surrounding, banishing misconceptions, especially if you live near their nesting and feeding areas. If you own crops, try to minimize the use of pesticides: a pair of barn owls hunt in average about 2,000 mice a year, being therefore even beneficial to humans.

If you find an owl or wounded bird, you have to pick it carefully (using a towel or a jacket) to avoid hurt it or being hurt, and leave it in a dark, quiet place inside a box pierced so it can breathe. Do not feed it. Then contact a wildlife recovery centre.

REFERENCES

If you enjoyed this article, please share it on social networks to spread it. The aim of the blog, after all, is to spread science and reach as many people as possible. Feel free to share your experience with birds of prey in the comments below. ¿Do you know someone who still believe in this owl legends?

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